By Martin Popoff
Touring with THE STONES, the latter mattering big-time with their massive Steel Wheels contraption, LIVING COLOUR were blowing up all over America, with their debut album from 1988, Vivid soon to go double Platinum, its follow-up, Time's Up, catching draft and going Gold.
Now the guys are back - although they've not really been away: 2009's The Chair In The Doorway is a fine, artsy record of typical noise annoys Living Colour--playing Vivid live in its entirety.
"Well, you know, it kind of snuck up on us, the 25th anniversary," mused vocalist COREY GLOVER, "and so many things have happened to us in that process, and all because of this one particular record. Plus we hadn't played a lot of this stuff in a very long time, or at all, live. And we thought maybe we should give this album a chance to get noticed."
"I think it was our take on the world," answers Glover, asked what the magic was of that album. "The thoughts that we tried to convey on the record were not particularly ones that you heard from that genre of music. You didn't really hear such aggression other than in punk music, with themes that we sort of decided to tackle, social themes. I think it was the combination of where it was coming from and how it was being delivered and what was being said, that gave us somewhat of an advantage, I think. It perked up people's ears and people gave it a listen and gave it more chance to be heard, than any record like that at the time."
It's come time to address the band's sound, their frustrating and noisy sound. But I figured I'd see what Corey had to say about it, before putting words in his mouth. Frankly, he didn't bite!
"I think it was a combination of a number of things. This subgenre of rock music has, had, for many years, a very specific theme about it. It felt a certain way, it looked a certain way, you talked about certain things, and we took those things to task, on several different levels. We decided that we were going to use the things that we had, things that we were accustomed to, the music we were accustomed to, the music we frequented, if you will. In areas of Caribbean music, jazz, of R&B and gospel, of certain African rhythms. Certain, as I say, places that we were familiar with, but not familiar with in a rock genre."
So what about the noise?
"Oh yeah, we like it loud, for sure. How can you be heard if you're not loud?"
But was there a certain VAN HALEN-esque joie de vivre, a love of pollution, something even akin to Zeppelin on a tear...?
"Well, I would compare it more to the blues than anything else," counters Glover. "Because the blues sort of was what it was. The band, on much of those recordings were as is--it was one take. And we were not trying to be a multi-piece band. There's four of us. We want to take up as much space as we possibly can, with the four of us in the room."
"Obviously, checking the trajectory of our career, you would notice that that we didn't concern ourselves very much with hit singles," laughs Glover, asked if folks at their label, Epic, were frustrated at the band's raw approach. "Although we did try (laughs). We did try. And we did pretty well. I mean, Time's Up has 'Type' on it, and that did pretty well for us. 'Elvis Is Dead'. And then Stain, we had 'Leave It Alone', and 'Bi', and those are our attempts at writing, making singles. I mean, they might've suggested, but I don't think we would've taken heed to it too much. I think they were very confident in what we had accomplished and what we could accomplish."
Attempting to get a few actual rock influences out of Corey... dead end! The question starts with, you guys are a total rock band, close to heavy metal even--were you all big hard rock fans?
"Oh absolutely, absolutely. And there was a point at which, for, you know, even in the jazz world, there was this thing called fusion, sort of a combination of jazz and R&B and rock music, that we were fans of then. You know, MILES DAVIS, Bitches Brew, TONY WILLIAMS, CARLOS SANTANA... we were major fans of that kind of thing. So there wasn't really such pressures; it was already there. And it was already there ethnically as well. Now RETURN TO FOREVER or the MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA or even the DOOBIE BROTHERS (laughs)... again, in terms of the history, it's all blues. And if that wasn't live music, I don't know what is. And it's all based on that mode of thinking. So we took those elements that I just spoke of and added to it. What could be considered at the time hip-hop, or of going with the no wave sort of idea, we fell right into that."
Concerning producer of Vivid, Ed Stasium, Glover figures, "Ed's career, he ranges from doing stuff with Jagger, and then he did things back in the day with THE CHAMBERS BROTHERS, an old funk rock band. So he has a wealth of knowledge of sound, and that's one of the things he was called for, that particular sound. He was great with that. His ears are still amazing, as a guitar player, and he, like the rest of us, felt like this has to be about the four of you, not the four of you with backing tracks. Not the four of you and a rhythm track. You know, there's a point when people were suggesting, what if you put in a rhythm track? Well, because there's only the four of us and there's not another guitar player in the band."
And of course playing live... I saw the band in a sun-dappled enormo-stadium in Toronto (that no longer exists), backing up an ant-sized Stones, and as best they could half a mile away, they indeed had a clear shot at reproducing the record exactly.
"Yeah, and it worked. And we worked at that. And that's what he wanted. He wanted to capture what we were doing, out in the clubs in New York. And as he saw us in CBGBs or other places, he said this is what I want this record to sound like; it's like you got on stage and you played--that's what I want this record to be. People, if they could hear that, they will be convinced."
You can indeed hear, in Living Colour (the least on the first album; increasingly through the five record catalogue, actually) the no wave thing Corey checked, or as they called it in the UK, post-punk...
"Exactly. You can hear the pre-punk stuff in there as well, with 'Time's Up'. So we didn't close the door to anything. And that's the point. We don't close the door to anything, any ideas. We don't close the door to any place that could be gotten to, that we could go to. You know, even in 'Time's Up', there's sort of a time signature that reckons to klezmer music in a way. So again, we like the idea that you can go anywhere and everywhere, musically."
And they're coming to my town, Toronto, and everywhere else, bringing those hits from the genre-breaking debut, Vernon Reid skronking over the jagged rhythms of drummer Will Calhoun and bassist Doug Wimbish, Glover holding it together with a croon o'er top.
Addressing the contours of the upcoming shows, Corey figures, "Well, like I said, there are certain songs we have never played live. We've never played 'I Want To Know' live, after we made the record. We played 'I Want To Know' before we had a deal--a lot. And it was very... 'I Want To Know' played live was different than 'I Want To Know' that we made in the studio. And we're playing 'I Want To Know' as the studio version, for the first time ever, really. And that's very interesting. And we play some newer stuff, not really newer stuff; we do a cover, sort of in the beginning of the show, and then go straight in and do Vivid. We never played Vivid in its entirety, first song to last, ever. And so that's very interesting. But in order to do this, we play 'Cult Of Personality' first. We never play 'Cult Of Personality' in the beginning of the show, ever. So we have to deal with that, and wrap our minds around it. It's almost like playing the record backwards. It's also the 20th anniversary of Stain, so we're playing songs from Stain as well. And some of those songs we haven't played in years. You know, 'Leave It Alone', you're talking about songs, melodic songs, 'Leave It Alone', very melodic song; 'Mind Your Own Business' is a song we haven't played since the record was out, and that's 20 years ago. So we're doing stuff like that. So that's been very much a part of this process. And it's a challenge for us. Were trying to challenge ourselves, to what we know and what we can do--and what we remember (laughs). It's been so long..."