[Read Andy Healy’s review of Living Colour’s Shade here]
Climbing onto a tour bus that is etching its way across the US, Vernon Reid, acclaimed guitarist of Living Colour, is in a reflective mood. For a band that has toured heavily since they first burst onto the scene in 1988 with their breakthrough debut album Vivid, Living Colour has been able to observe the pace of social change in America over the years as they’ve zigzagged across the nation. This reflection on the current state of the country is a constant theme on their glorious new album Shade that examines cultural divisions, a growing landscape of gun violence, and a need for change and unity.
Generously taking time out of his busy touring schedule with the band, Reid spoke with me about the new album, the legacy of Living Colour and what it takes to remain a vital force in a changing musical landscape. Full of energy and insight, our conversation reinforced that Reid is still the passionate artist that invaded our speakers with the signature guitar riff of “Cult of Personality” nearly 30 years ago. The decades of writing, recording and performing haven’t dimmed his enthusiasm for his art. Creativity and passion course through his veins, through his every being and this comes through in his tone of voice and the rapid-fire trains of thought he follows. He is as much a fan of music as he is a musician, with a jam-packed jukebox knowledge of music history.
On the day of our conversation, the tour bus was headed for Charlottesville, Virginia, a city that has become a flashpoint for both the narrow-minded ideology that divides us as well as—or perhaps more importantly, the hope and acceptance that can unite us. It was with this journey ahead, and the road that is still to be travelled, that Reid shared so much.
Andy Healy: First off, congratulations on the release of Shade. I know it was a long 4-plus year journey to make this album, but for fans it was well worth the wait. Can you give us insight into how the album came to be, and how it developed and progressed during that time?
Vernon Reid: You know, it was a very mixed bag. It was like six steps forward, three steps back. There are things on this record that survived from the initial recordings and then there are things that had come later on. And it took a really long time, but at one point it felt very rushed. We recorded enough tracks to make a record, but the record didn’t feel right. It was missing stuff. I give Will (Calhoun, drummer) a lot of credit for knowing that. He was like, “This is not right.”
Then, in the time it took to make it right we went through a bunch of changes. We went through a management change and stuff. The weird thing is that at the end of the process—it was a really long process, I get tired just thinking about it—I’m amazed with what we produced. The record feels like a coherent conversation. The original principle, the idea of Shade, managed to survive despite all of the setbacks. And that’s something I’m very proud of.
AH: So what made you all want to get back and record another album?
VR: It really started with the title. We had the title before we even knew what it was all about. Shade was there, but what did it mean? It’s another aspect of color, the way Vivid and Stain and Collideøscope are aspects of color, but it didn’t have a theme yet. Like The Chair in the Doorway came out of something Corey (Glover, vocalist) would always say about how something that is meant to be in one place is in the wrong place and how people don’t talk about it. That record is about something, so we had to figure out what Shade was about.
And it turned out we got invited to play the Centenary of Robert Johnson at the Apollo Theatre. We kind of showed up at the Apollo on the day of the thing, and I was listening to the original version of “Preachin’ Blues” and the Derek Trucks version, and then Corey just kind of walked in and said, “Put those words on that riff” and we literally went on stage and did it.
The reaction to it was visceral, we had a standing ovation, and that’s when I thought to myself, this is about blues. We didn’t want to make a blues record, but the blues are going to be a theme and a thread. The first thing we recorded was “Preachin’ Blues” and we had kind of done it, and had it. Then when we started recording with (Shade producer) André Betts, we recorded it again. It wasn’t until the fourth time we recorded it that we actually had it.
It’s one thing to say, “It’s a blues vibe” but it’s “how do we thread the needle?” The reason that Shade works is because we didn’t work with a blues producer, we got a hip-hop producer. So there was an inherent tension between his experience and our intention. And somewhere between the things that worked and the things that we accomplished, somewhere in the negotiation, we created something newer that was a different narrative.
Like with having (Notorious B.I.G. cover) “Who Shot Ya?” on the record one hundred percent fits in. Even though “Who Shot Ya?” is not a blues thing, the meta narrative of Biggie Smalls, that’s like blue’s folklore. The cruel irony of a song like “Who Shot Ya?” and what ultimately happened to Christopher Wallace is the reason why it fits in with the heart of what this record is talking to.
AH: One of the interesting things I noticed, and I’m not sure if this was a deliberate or conscious choice, was in covering Biggie and Marvin Gaye on this record you were linking two artists who were victims of gun violence. Was that something you were conscious of in choosing those two songs?
VR: Not at all. Things like this don’t work if you think about them deliberately. If we were too literal in the interpretation of the idea I think we would have killed it. Again, if we had said “Oh, we have to get together with a really skilled Blues/Rock producer” then it would have become “Oh, well that’s no blues.” It would have become THAT conversation. It would have become “what is, and what should never be.”
The fact is we didn’t have that and we kind of had to stumble a bit and then decide does this specific song feel a part of it. There were songs that I was very, very set about having on the record that in the final analysis I’m really happy, very happy, they didn’t get on the record. There’s nothing on the record that takes away from the conversation that initially inspired what Shade was going to be. That’s kind of a miracle.
AH: And not something that’s easy to stick to, I would assume.
VR: It makes me think that everything—an album, a movie, a play, a painting, a sculpture—everything that we see that’s artistic, that works, is a miracle. Because it’s not a function of skill, it’s not a function of ability, because plenty of people with incredible skill or ability will destroy their own work. The ego destroys it. The need to control the outcome.
One of the things that novelists talk about is how they want to kill a character but the character won’t let them kill them. And that sounds bananas. But now, after this experience, I one hundred percent get it. That’s allowing the power of the narrative to have more power than our ego. That’s one of the things that’s very sobering. If it was easy to make work that you’re proud of, that you can be happy to look at, we would be bombarded with amazing art all over the place. A lot of amazing art comes from people who have no skills at all.
It’s how we deal with all kinds of things—failure, trauma, success—that’s what makes the experience worthwhile. It’s funny, Humphrey Bogart talks about how when he saw the script for Casablanca he thought it was ridiculous. They kind of went and did it, but they were like this is ridiculous, and they made a classic.
That’s how I feel. The process of going through the experience of making Shade and actually being able to listen to it, and really enjoy listening to it, is amazing because a lot of what it took to make Shade was not enjoyable.
AH: One of the great elements of Living Colour is despite, or maybe in spite of, a perceived rigidity in music genre formats by radio and even labels, you’ve always been about going where the music takes you—whether it’s drawing from jazz, blues, rock, metal, funk—and making it your own. Do you think music these days is too safe, too boxed in? Or do you feel, sadly, it’s always been that way? Do you think there’s greater expression these days or is the game still the same.
VR: I think it’s all over the place. One major difference is the line between art and entertainment got crossed at a certain point. You know, at one point you’d have separate worlds that would come together and collaborate. A singer like Dionne Warwick would get together with a lyricist like Hal David and a composer like Burt Bacharach. It was her voice, the words of Hal David and the music of Burt Bacharach that make those records work, that makes them timeless. Dionne is not a singer like Aretha Franklin, but those same songs with Aretha singing would have been amazing but wouldn’t have been the same. Like “Anyone Who Had a Heart” would be a very different song if it had Aretha singing. It’s the timbre of Dionne’s voice that makes it work. A song like “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” I mean, to me—like people talk about whether music is political or not—but to me “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” is one of the most powerful critiques of American capitalism ever put on record, but nobody thinks about that as a protest song. They think it’s a ditty. But in that lyric, the death of the American Dream is baked into those lyrics.
A lot of music that influenced me was experiential music in the sense that the whole idea of the music was to transform the listener’s experience. So Jimi Hendrix, Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, the later period of The Beatles, all of that music was about transformation. Even a particular era of James Brown, all of that music had one thing in common: transformation. You start the track in one state of being and you end the track in a different place in your life, in your mind, in your body. That’s my framework. Those are my values, those are my core values.
Today, we’re kind of going back to a 1950s, pre-rock & roll era model where everything is predetermined. The feeling you’re going to feel, the vibe, it’s all predetermined. There’s no risk. The tracks don’t speed up. If you listen to a track like “Oh Happy Day” by The Edwin Hawkins Singers, it gets faster at the end of the song than it does at the top. So the whole idea of music taking on this ecstatic, transformative function has been consumed by capitalism, it’s been consumed by thinking “it doesn’t fit.”
You still have a lot of musical excellence but it’s in support of a craft. It’s in support of the proper way to do this, the proper way to do that. That’s certainly happening in guitar playing. There’s a lot of amazing guitar playing but a lot of it kind of dovetails into the obsessive-compulsive culture we have. We’ll play a video game for hours, a kid will spend 20 hours figuring out the pattern to play it perfectly, but that’s not transformative. We’ve become a culture that removes risk.
People now jump to the end, all the time. People can’t see a movie without knowing if the hero is going to live. It’s crazy. When people saw Psycho, their minds were blown. Killing off Janet Leigh early in the film, Hitchcock took a huge risk with that but that was part of the idea of transformation. At the end of The Empire Strikes Back, it’s a real cliffhanger. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Like Han Solo is frozen in carbonite, you find out that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s Dad and he cut off his hand. People were freaked out at the time. And that made that film.
It’s hard to make that happen. It’s unsettling. Transformation is unsettling. That’s what [as a country] we’re dealing with right now. The fear that I’m going to be a different person. Or this country is going to be different. This whole thing that “Oh, we’re afraid of the other, the refugee, they may change us.” “Oh, we’re afraid of change.” America’s always been about change. It was built on change.
AH: You’ve always had a socially conscious dimension to your work, and with the formation of the Black Rock Coalition back in 1985 you were at the forefront of tackling discrimination and non-too subtle racism throughout the music industry. When you look at the current state of the music industry, do you see change, see hope, or do you feel the same struggles are being faced?
VR: Well, change is incremental. One of the things we want, we want to be the heroes of our own movies, and “ta-dah,” they’re ripping us off. That’s the way it goes down. Part of the persistence of racism is also, as well as being institutional, it can be a family value. And part of the ask that we have, we’re asking people to repudiate the culture of their family. That’s also with sexism, that’s also with homophobia, that’s also with all kinds of ethnic tension. It’s not just black or white, it’s the Indian and the Pakistani, it’s with the North and South of a region. So if a family or a group is invested in a certain reality then to walk away from that is a big ask. Now, that’s not an excuse, it’s a reality.
You know, there have been people who have been part of right-wing organizations that have disavowed them and said, “You know what, this doesn’t work” because at a certain point they were able to finally talk about the pain that they were going through. They were able to finally say, “Well, actually I couldn’t come out to my Dad so I became this person.” I heard an interview with a guy who was a member of an alt-right group but was in the closet, and he wound up in a situation where he was putting the blame on the other, on the Black, on the Latino, on the refugee, on the outsider, when the problem was within himself. And at a certain point he had the strength to deal with the problem that was within himself. In other words, again, transformation is hard.
The fact that the Black Rock Coalition persists and people are still involved and want to move the stone, that says a lot. And there has been change, but it has been incremental. It hasn’t been enough. There are things that I see that are wonderful. I think that’s great that that’s happened.
Like one of things about Living Colour, we’ve always had to deal with it. We’ve never been fully assimilated into the mainstream. We’ve had some mainstream success, but even when he had that success people were still giving us the Hairy Eyeball. We’ve been getting the Hairy Eyeball the entire time of our existence. We got the Hairy Eyeball at CBGB, we got the Hairy Eyeball when we got the Grammy.
But still, people are having that outsider conversation about rock & roll. That’s why when Scarface talks bout “Find me another black rock band” (on the intro to “Program”) and he sings the riff to “Cult of Personality,” I mean it’s funny, but it’s not funny.
AH: I think that’s very pointed because as a listener, it does open up your eyes and you start questioning, “Why aren’t there more?” You know it's like when Funkadelic sang “Who says a rock band can’t play funk? Who says a funk band can’t play rock?,” it points to the longstanding division in art that shouldn’t be there. It seems everybody is so invested in aligning certain music to certain audiences that people miss out on a whole lot of stuff.
VR: Part of it is who controls the levers of power. Who controls what defines it? You know the history of rock & roll is kind of bogus. When people talk about the history of rock & roll, the “officialdom,” it doesn’t include Parliament-Funkadelic. It doesn’t include the Isley Brothers the way it should. The Isley Brothers have had one of the most important careers in rock music, they crossed over, they crossed the line of R&B, soul and rock & roll. They embodied all of those things. But you don’t hear that, that’s very seldom discussed. I mean, point of fact, the Isley Brothers were incredibly influential to The Stones, incredibly influential to The Who, you know they were an influential band in that way. But that’s about who’s telling the story.
And on the other side of it, within African-American culture it’s very frustrating how we won’t support art forms like jazz and blues. I mean, rock & roll is very obvious. It’s by a bunch of white guys with long hair or whatever, right? That whole thing. But turn around and see what has happened to jazz or what has happened to blues in terms of who actually goes to that? And it’s the same thing that’s going on. And there’s no argument about the blues, or is there? And that’s part of the issue. When people talk about “who stole the soul,” well we had a part to play in it.
Yes, the record companies play a part too, but part of it is that there’s conflict between the urban and the rural ways of thinking about things. There’s conflict between different regions like the East Coast-West Coast problem. Everybody in that problem, most of them were black or brown. And because of that problem we lost some of our greatest poets and artists, including Jam Master Jay and so many others.
AH: So to that point, with many of the great artists passing away in recent years such as Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Prince, Chris Cornell, and Tom Petty, does it give you pause for the influence you have had as a musician? How does it affect you as a fellow artist?
VR: All of those people…it’s shattering to lose that greatness. I have to say the sense of loss goes back very far for me. Years ago there was a musician who influenced me a great deal. An unknown musician to the public, but his name was Arthur Rhames who was from Brooklyn. He was a multi-instrumentalist. I play about a tenth of the guitar he used to play and he played saxophone and piano…ridiculous. And when he passed away due to complications from AIDS, Living Colour had just got put on. Hearing him play changed my life. Hearing what he went through, his experience, transformed my way of feeling about gay rights and gender issues. He set an incredibly high bar in terms of musical excellence, and his life told me that the world is random and crazy and the best people don’t always get a shot. And I don’t care who you are. Whatever skin you’re in. I’m telling you there are ten Shakespeares that we’ve never heard of, twenty Jimi Hendrixes that never left home. That’s the savage reality of human life, the human condition. So you know, we’re privileged.
Whatever else it is, Living Colour exists because of random things. There was a lot of hard work, but there was a lot of luck too. It was multiple layers. And when I think about losing Michael Jackson, and Prince…I mean it’s hard to even say it. And Chris Cornell…it’s just so brutal. But you know the thing is, all of these people—from Janis Joplin to Aaliyah—all of them made a mark. And the fact that we know their names and can hear their music, that is the gift they gave to us. And who knows what the gift will give in time? You know a new child will hear stuff like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and it will change their life.
When somebody comes up and says to the band, “I was five years old when I heard ‘Cult of Personality,’” that’s profound. You know, when we were in the studio, when we wrote that song we weren’t thinking about five-year-olds [laughs]. And as far as what people are going to say after the story is done, you have very little control about that. People are going to be arguing over people’s work forever. People come into vogue, people go out of vogue, and they come back in vogue. We’re here. We’re working. We’re saying what we’re saying. And the rest of it, afterwards is not up to us.
I know that hearing Chris Cornell’s voice is a painful thing, and I would say the same about Raymond Jones, but most people don’t know him. I wouldn’t be a musician if it wasn’t for Raymond Jones. He played on Chic’s “Good Times,” the track that some people say started hip-hop. You know, that’s life.
AH: Vivid, your breakthrough debut album will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year. When you look back on your career, what advice would you give Vivid-era Vernon Reid?
VR: Oh God. I’d say to him, put some money into Microsoft [laughs]. This computer thing is going to be around for a while.
AH: Anniversaries always make people nostalgic and make them wonder where the time has gone. When you look back on Living Colour’s career thus far, what are you most proud of? And is there a song from the canon that remains the “favorite child” for you?
VR: When I think about Time’s Up, I’m amazed at what we got away with. Time’s Up is a like a concept album, and I’m really proud of how that record came out. It was of its time, but also ahead of its time.
If I had to pick one song…it’s funny but I have to split it. One has to be, and it’s obvious, but one has to be “Cult of Personality.” But not because it was a hit. I come back to the day we wrote it. We wrote that song in one session, in one rehearsal. And we played it the very next time at CBGB and it was instantly “wow.” That was very great.
And I think the song “This Is the Life” (from Time’s Up) is a song that is one hundred percent real. That song came out when the band’s fortunes were high, and as the band’s fortunes changed, that song still has a powerful resonance. A more powerful resonance. You know, I think in another life, who knows if I would even be here? A whole other set of circumstances could have happened that would have led to me not being here. You know, be careful what you wish for. So it’s a split decision. “Cult” for the day of creation and “This Is the Life” for its utter reality.
You know, our very next gig is in Charlottesville, Virginia and there’s all this stuff that happened, but I’m looking forward to it. I think about Heather Heyer’s Mom, and she talks about how proud she is that she raised a daughter with an independent mind. And that’s all part of it. My daughter—she’s 14 and a terrific person—is going to become a very powerful person. She got the better part of her gifts from her Mom, but it’s a privilege for me to be a part of her life. I’m going to be part of her life forever, and that’s a gift.
And going back, it’s weird to be around and Prince is not around. It’s crazy. We were born in the same year and it’s so funny, when I would listen to Prince’s music I would hear something and I’d be like, “Oh yeah, he was listening to Sly Stone the same time I was listening to Sly Stone. Except Prince is an actual genius” [laughs]. Or hearing 1999 and I can go “Oh, you were listening to ‘Mysterious Traveller’ era Weather Report the same time I was.” One hundred percent. That’s exactly what you’re hearing, you hear that influence.
I don’t know man, it's a privilege to live on a planet [with these artists]. I wasn’t around to see the great Charlie Parker doing his thing. And I got to meet Prince. So I feel very privileged. You know, a lot of people struggle to make a career of music, so I feel privileged, ‘cause it didn’t have to happen on any level. And I really take that to heart.
AH: Living Colour has toured pretty consistently over the years, even when there have been gaps between studio releases. When it comes down to formulating set lists, with such a strong canon of material to now choose from, has it become easier or harder to decide what you’re going to play?
VR: It’s a challenge. We’re four different individuals and we have a core group of songs that we play, but it’s great to work new songs in. We’re starting to play “Program” (from Shade) and that’s a very cool thing. I think we’re going to play “Inner City Blues” tonight (at Charlottesville) and I’m really looking forward to that. The good thing is we have so many songs that we can give some a rest. We haven’t played “Time’s Up” for quite a few shows and the last time we played it, it felt really fresh, and part of the thing is we can start pulling songs out and sub in.
AH: Your music transcends so many different styles and genres. So what do you listen to? What would surprise people to know that Vernon Reid listens to?
VR: Gosh, you know I’m a weird guy in that I like pop music and I like completely avant-garde music. You know a well-crafted pop song works for me. My consciousness has expanded to include extreme avant-garde like Ornette Coleman, Jon Thorne’s music, music that’s on the outside edge.
One of my all-time favorite pop songs is KC and The Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way (I Like It).” I love that song. And if you listen to it, it’s got one of the best bass lines, a crazy bass line. It’s a song that’s not about anything, but it’s pure. You might think it’s mindless, but it achieves this Zen purity because it’s purely mindless. And it doesn’t pretend to be about anything other than what it is in the moment and that’s an incredible thing.
Even though we’ve had conflict, I love Guns N’ Roses Appetite for Destruction. “Sweet Child o’ Mine” is literally perfection. I’m a weird dude in that I’m a punk fan and I also love Yes. I think Yes is a great band. You know, there was a time if you were a fan of Yes or Rush you had to apologize. I got to see Yes live recently, they were great. Maybe “Hoochie Mane” is my guilty pleasure [roars with laughter].
AH: So as our name suggests, Albumism is all about celebrating the art form that is the album. So what are your five favorite albums of all time?
VR: You know, as soon as I answer this question I’ll regret it. I’m sticking with albums that affected me when I was young. John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things, Ornette Coleman’s Dancing In Your Head, Santana’s Caravanserai, Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys. Wow, as soon as I say it I want to take it all back, because right now it’s a split decision between Weather Report’s Mysterious Traveller and Funkadelic’s Cosmic Slop, as that was the first album I bought with my own money.
Now I’m ignoring Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, Mahavishnu Orchestra’s The Inner Mountain Flame, The Beatles’ The White Album, so it’s brutal. It really should be the top ten. Sun Ra’s Angels and Demons at Play. Earth, Wind & Fire’s Last Days and Time. Man, it’s a gang of records.
AH: So with Shade finally released, is there a sense of relief, like “finally, it’s out there!” Or is there part of you that is like, “Great, done. Now on to the next one?”
VR: Right now, the response from fans has been fantastic. They are really taking it on and spreading the word of mouth and it’s been great. I’m very happy about that. The reviews have been really good. People are getting what we’re talking about.
AH: So will we need to wait another four years for the next album?
VR: [Laughs] Well I don’t know about all that. It’s intriguing to be back in this cycle. We need to get back to the West Coast, a bunch of things we need to do. I’m excited about it.
SEE Living Colour on tour | Dates