It’s a shame that Living Colour haven’t been seen as current since the 90’s because they are immensely talented. But the eight year gap between albums has removed them from the limelight.
Hopefully their new album Shade will do something to redeem this because Living Colour deserve more attention. The quartet is composed of some of the best players I’ve seen. They take the best of rock, blues, hip-hop, metal, soul, jazz and funk, and combine it into brilliant music with a conscience.
Corey Glover. Photo by Will Not Fade
We already had a taste of the album earlier in the year with two covers featured on Shade. One is a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Preachin’ Blues”. This is the song that really laid the tone for the record, giving the band inspiration to take a bluesy direction. “What better way to talk to the world than through the blues?” vocalist Corey Glover asks. “We recorded ‘Preachin’ Blues’ several times to jump start the project and that got everybody fired up. After that, we were ready. Shade, in its final outcome, is more of a deconstruction of the blues than an interpretation. It was the idiom that gave us our voice.” The guitars are especially grunty on this track, and singer Cory Glover’s voice packs a punch.
The other cover is a rendition of Notorious BIG’s “Who Shot Ya?”, which the band put a hard rock spin on. They selected the song partly because Glover is a massive Biggie fan, but also because it raises questions about how prevalent gun violence is in America.
Rounding off the cover hat-trick is Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues”. The verses sound similar to the original with softly cooed vocals and light funky groove, but the rest is hard rocking. Gaye’s original was a commentary on the way of life for Americans at the time. Things appeared bleak, accentuated by the then-current war in Vietnam. Listening to the lyrics made me reflect on how the issues could be construed as just as relevant more than 30 years on.
Including so many covers is an interesting move. Almost a quarter of the songs on the album were written by other people – not something I would expect from such accomplished musicians. But it works, with the band placing their own mark squarely on each cover.
Vernon Reid has long been regarded as a guitar legend. His work on this album is punchy and dangerous. He’s a force to be reckoned with. And Corey Glover’s powerful voice matches him every step of the way. The two of them often pretend to bicker on stage, but their partnership is what gives the music that X factor.
Vernon Reid and Corey Glover. Photo taken by Will Not Fade at Living Colour’s Auckland show earlier this year
“Come On” is brilliant. The softer verses played on guitar by messing with the pickup contrast against the grunty choruses. We also hear glitches in a deconstructed beat, verging on dubstep territory. I attribute this inclusion to drummer Will Calhoun. Earlier in the year Calhoun told me about growing up during the birth of hip-hop, when drum machines were at their height of prominence. He had played around with drum machines and effects, trying to elicit alien sounds out of drums, much in the same way that Hendrix drew otherworldly sounds out of his guitar.
To continue the Hendrix inspiration, the track “Invisible” pays homage to drummer Buddy Miles, who played in Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys. Miles was a friend of the band, who attended all of their Chicago shows when Living Colour started out.
“Always Wrong” is a more tender moment on the album, showing Corey’s diversity as a singer. By contrast, “Pattern In Time” reminds me of 1990’s “Time’s Up”, with a direct, thrashy feel.
Doug Wimbish lays down beautifully funky bass lines in “Blak Out”. The groove steps up for “Who’s That”, which includes trumpet and organ, taking me back to the Trombone Shorty show I went to a few weeks ago. Then, just to top things off, George Clinton lends his touch to album closer “Two Sides”.
Image: Will Not Fade
As always, Living Colour continue with the political content. Some obvious example include the hip-hop inspired “Program”, which explores how reliable the media are these days, in an age of click bait and fake news; or Biggie’s “Who Shot Ya?” which looks at gun violence, especially the way it is framed visually in the music video. And it’s great to see that the band stands by their values regardless of the current political climate. Shade has taken a long time to write, starting back when Barack Obama was in office. So sure, some songs may be in reaction to an orange man living in a white house, but Living Colour will always campaign for human rights despite who is in power.
When I interviewed Calhoun earlier in the year I raised that Living Colour often include social commentary in their work. He proudly agreed, sharing that “some of our songs deal with gender, discrimination, chauvinism, bullying, and those kinds of things. We write songs based upon what we experience in life. That’s what’s most fun about being a member of Living Colour… Our music and lyrics are very present and relevant. And we hope that the music reaches people and might be. As an artist you always want to have present impact upon your audience.”
Image: Travis Shinn
Shade is heavy. No doubt about it. When you think back to the band’s iconic track, the searing “Cult of Personality”, it makes a lot of sense. When I saw the band live in Auckland earlier in the year many of the songs felt like full-on thrash metal tunes. Of course the myriad of other genres work their way into the music, but Living Colour
The track “Program” commences with a sample of an interview with rapper Scarface. He’s humming the riff to “Cult of Personality”, trying to remember the name of the band who plays it. “Living fucking Colour!” he remarks when the interviewer tells him, “find me another rock band, seriously!”, implying that Living Colour are the only band that truly rock out.
There was never any doubt in my mind that Shade would deliver. The four musicians in the band are such talented veterans of rock. I’ve had the privilege of seeing both Living Colour and another band featuring guitarist Vernon Reid and singer Corey Glover this year, making my anticipation all the more real. And just like I expected, they nail it. The music is powerful in many ways, musically and thematically. I hope that Shade reinstates Living Colour back in place as rock legends.
Will Calhoun laughs when I tell him how old I am. I was only three years old when his band Living Colour split back in 1995. I explain to him that because of this, Living Colour isn’t a known name within my peer group. However many of my friends do recognise their hit song “Cult of Personality” because of its inclusion in the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. He’s delighted by this.
“It feels great,” he tells me, “I have to say that I’m quite thrilled that it has transcended the rock and roll arena and has branched off into other arenas. It’s nice that the song transcended the music industry – which has come into an interesting phase – and is getting into the gaming industry and into television shows.”
Living Colour formed in New York in 1984, offering a unique fusion of politically charged rock, funk, jazz and metal. The band rose to fame, touring with rock heavyweights like Rolling Stones and Guns n Roses. They parted ways in 1995 with three records under their belt, but thankfully in 2000 the band regrouped. They are visiting Australia and New Zealand on tour in May and have a new record, Shade due out later in the year.
Despite the amount of time passed since Living Colour were at the height of prominence, the themes of their music remain as current as ever. Calhoun shares how the band wrote their biggest hit, ‘Cult of Personality’.
“We wrote that song in 1988. The fact that people still love it [is great]. I think it still sounds relevant today.
“The four of us have very strong ideals about the world and we talk about them. ‘Cult of Personality’ was written while we were setting up for a rehearsal. The topic of discussion was: what makes people follow people? What makes people follow Hitler, or Ghandi, or Dr King? Or Medgar Evers or John F. Kennedy? What is it about what someone is saying, or their charisma – that personality – that makes people want to follow them? And that was the conversation. And we were wondering: is it the same thing? Is it the same thing that made people follow Ghandi that made people follow Hitler? What are those intrinsic values? What are those definitions? How do you, as a person, identify with that person’s dialogue?
“And that was how the song was written. Vernon played a riff. I played a beat. And next we knew we had a song. All while we were setting up for sound check.”
Living Colour’s most recent release is an EP that centres around a cover of Notorious BIG’s song ‘Who Shot Ya?’. This track, along with another cover of Robert Johnsons ‘Preachin’ Blues’, are due to appear on Shade. I ask if there is a process that Living Colour go through to select songs to cover. Calhoun stops to think.
“We just covered ‘We Are Afraid Of Americans’ by David Bowie and I’ve been a fan of that song for so many years and it just felt so great to play it. We just cover songs we like as a band. We choose songs based on relevance to us, but often it is just playing homage to the person. It’s about paying respect to a person who, in our opinion, has done a creative amount of great work.
“As for Biggie Smalls… Corey Glover, our singer, is a massive fan of Biggie. Most of his hit songs he can rap to by heart. But it’s the impact. When you think of Robert Johnson verses Biggie… I just love that Living Colour has this wide open variety of songs to choose from. There’s no formula. We just pick what we like and we fool around with it and change the arrangement while still paying respect to the artist.”
So we already know two songs – both covers – appearing on Shade. Calhoun says that the rest of the record is the same Living Colour we know and love, but updated for 2017. He also adds that he loves the social commentary on the album.
He corrects me when I ask if the issues that the Black community faced 20-30 years ago are still the same today. He’s not rude, but informative. Clearly he is passionate about the themes that his band explore.
“These songs go beyond the Black community. They deal with the Māori community – down there where you live. The Aboriginal community in Australia. The Native American communities and indigenous communities around the world. They’re not relegated to black and white issues. Some of our songs deal with gender, discrimination, chauvinism, bullying, and those kinds of things. We write songs based upon what we experience in life. That’s what’s most fun about being a member of Living Colour.”
Again he corrects me when I try to rephrase my question, asking if the songs are for people of minority and those facing oppression.
“I think people of colour are not minorities. I think that they are a majority of people on the planet if you look at it in academic senses. I don’t like people using the term minority but I read that and I hear that all the time. In fact if you were to do the numbers or any real census of all the people on the planet, the people of colour are by far the majority. That’s neither here nor there, but when you use a term like minority, what you’re doing is you’re homogenizing a concept of people. You’re diminishing their value and painting a kind of a picture. That’s something that we want to break down in Living Colour – this homogenizing of culture. Even for black music.”
Image: Karsten Staiger
“When Living Colour first came on the scene in ’88 many people were surprised that we were black. And for us, we were shocked! Especially in our own country, to see that. Because black people invented rock and roll.
“The music’s for everyone – no doubt about it – but we are very careful with terminology and expressing ourselves in a way that’s all inclusive.
“We have a great song called ‘Wall’ that goes: ‘The wall between us all must fall.’ These walls that separate us by gender or by race, by skin colour, by financial interests. Ironically, that song was written mid-eighties. And here we are now in North America, with an administration that is discussing the possibility of building a wall.”
“Our music and lyrics are very present and relevant. And we hope that the music reaches people and might be . As an artist you always want to have present impact upon your audience.”
Calhoun is a nice guy. He comes across as friendly, and genuinely interested about me. I tell him that I’ve been up since before dawn for an ANZAC service, and that I play drums. When I mention that work as an early childhood teacher he showers me with encouragement.
Plus he’s patient. My calls kept cutting out annoyingly, but he remained accommodating the entire time. He tell’s me that this is the most interesting interview he’s ever had. This is possibly because I tried to come up with great questions, but it’s more likely because I keep having phone troubles.
As a drummer myself, I love Calhoun’s style. I’ve spent a lot of time watching Youtube videos with him playing, and explaining his approaches to drumming and the equipment he uses in his set up.
His interest in using electronics with drums started at a young age. Growing up in the Bronx, with his older brother’s generation responsible for pioneering hip-hop, meant that drum machines were commonly accessible. Seeing friends using the drum machines to programme beats and later hearing those beats on the radio prompted Calhoun’s desire to experiment with them himself.
“I didn’t want the drums to sound like drums,” he explains, “so I thought I could plug the drum machines into effect pedals and rack modules and delays and reverbs. And I thought about how I could manipulate that drum sound to get out of that idiom of being a drum? What would a drum sound like if it fed back? If it was looped? If it was sampled, or re-sampled?
“The same way a guitar player thinks about his or her guitar sound. Jimi Hendrix had a huge influence on me as an artist. Jimi was disconnected in a lot of ways. He was like an alien being. He took sounds and fed them into the guitar in ways that, as far as we were concerned, no-one had come up with before. And that’s the process I wanted to have with drums. So the influence came from both the increase in technology, and knowledge, experience and exposure with drum machines in my childhood and it just transcended.
“The experimentation with the technology forces you to create and change your sound. And that’s why I got into smaller drums. With my Nomad snare I wanted a bright sound, with a smaller drum for a smaller frequency response. I went to Sabian because I wanted cymbals that could work with electronic and acoustic music.”
This interest in combining electronic and acoustic sounds stepped up when he enrolled to study at Berkley, where he was a recording and engineering major. He had to choose a principle instrument – drums – but he chose to focus more on the stuff he didn’t know: learning about how microphones work and how to build consoles and create sound.
“I was a freak about sound. I wanted to know how Led Zepplin records sounded so amazing. What were they doing with the drum sound, the reverbs? The Old Columbia recordings… Why do James Browns recordings sound so great – so clean – today? We know they were great musicians, but how is it that they were able to make those great recordings with little 8-track recording studios?”
Later on in life he traveled around the world, living in places like Mali and Senegal where he learnt more about traditional drumming. Berkley was great as an institutional setting, but studying in various African nations gave Calhoun insight into thousands of years of teaching. Like his drum set uses electronic and acoustic elements, his style draws from both scientific and spiritual approaches.
It was fascinating hearing about the concept of ancestral beats. I asked him if he includes said beats in his playing, which launched him into an engrossing explanation. At first it sounded like something I’d dismiss, but Calhoun explained it in a way that made it sound plausible.
“I absolutely include them at all times. More so live because when playing drum solos I can introduce them to the audience in their traditional form. But at all times I include those beats. Sometimes it’s just pieces of the beats – a hit hat pattern, or a snare pattern or a kick pattern – but I’ll play them in their entirety in a drum solo because I can control what the beat means. Those beats have meanings and definitions. Those beats are like sentences. It has a subject, it has a verb… this kind of thing. So the beats are like a language, in a way.
“Those beats are part of rock and funk and James Brown style drumming. They are already borrowed bits and pieces. That’s the nature of music, with things able to be borrowed and transferred. I use them as much as possible, but they’ve been used by many great drummers before my time. If you listen to James Brown, a lot of the grooves on his records are Nigerian festive beats. And that’s why, in my opinion, James Brown’s music is loved by everyone – because historically it’s a celebratory rhythm being played.”
He explained how the body reacts to vibrations and tone. Certain sounds will make you feel happy, or relaxed, or upset. Think of fingernails on a chalkboard. Now think of waves lapping up on the shore at a beach. Our bodies have innate reactions to certain frequencies, so by extension it makes sense that specific alncestral drum beats can have particular effects on us.
He even takes the vibration concept another step, using a machine.attached to the drum throne he sits atop. The machine, called a BC2, sends vibrations up Calhoun’s body as an alternative to having a monitor. Calhoun dislikes monitors, comparing the act of a speaker blasting your own music back at you to riding a Harley Davidson and having the exhaust pumped back into your helmet.
Some Living Colour tracks are almost 30 years old. I ask Calhoun if he plays the songs differently now that has access to new equipment and technology. His answer revolves around a brilliant analogy of a hamburger.
There are formulas to the songs that he likes to keep, but he has changed as a parson over his career, living in different countries and using different technologies.
“A hamburger is a hamburger. You can put ketchup on it, or mustard or relish. You can make it well done, you can make it medium rare. But it’s still a hamburger. I look at my songs with Living Colour – my previous beats as a hamburger. I don’t want to eat it the way I used to eat it twenty years ago. I want to change it up and add different feels. A pocket or a groove or a feel is just a beat. But what are you adding to it? What spice or twist are you adding to it? Not pissing off the listener, but making it feel like it’s 2017.”
To conclude our chat I ask Calhoun one last question to make him laugh: does the British spelling of the name Living Colour ever lead to confusion? I can picture his grin down the end of the phone line as he answers. The band founder Vernon Reid is English, so made a deliberate choice to spell “colour” with the “U” included. But most Americans spell it incorrectly out of habit. It’s not much of an issue.
Before we finish Calhoun tells me how he’s looking forward to returning to New Zealand and getting another taste of our unique scenery, food and culture. I’m just as excited to see Living Colour play live for the first time.
Living Colour are playing the Powerstation in Auckland on Thursday 11 May.