Living Colour: A Lively Conversation

By: Dennis Cook

Living Colour by Bill Bernstein
Who says a jazz band can't play dance music?
Who says a rock band can't play funky?
Who says a funk band can't play rock?
Oh yeah!
We're gonna play some funk so loud
We're gonna rock and roll around
Watch them dance, Watch them dance

Rock music is a strange sausage. Originally stuffed with blues structures, jazz energy and country compositional sensibilities, the casing continues to stretch in the wake of electric fusion, hip hop, glam and countless other ingredients. And while some revel in trying to simplify rock's flavors there are those that savor its capacity for complexities and contradictions. Since their explosive emergence in 1988 up through their potent new album, The Chair in the Doorway (released September 15 on Megaforce), Living Colour has been a poster child for rock's expansive nature. Their latest release presents their intrinsic diversity with an overhanging cohesiveness that suggests the band makes more sense today than ever. As continents and cultures creep ever closer, Living Colour's disregard for borders and healthy engagement with the world as it is seems right on time.

Their first single, "Cult of Personality," was so striking, so unique and so forceful that it knocked one on their heels. It seemed a defining sound that a band could milk for ages but not long afterward they offered something as playful and humorous as "Love Rears Its Ugly Head" as a single. The sense that Living Colour - Vernon Reid (guitar), Corey Glover (vocals), Doug Wimbish (bass) and Will Calhoun - could do anything lies at their core. This is a band that has truly freed their minds enough to embrace music outside of expectations or posted restrictions. For those of us in the late '80s who loved Bad Brains, Chic, Ornette Coleman, Pere Ubu and The Talking Heads with equal vigor, Living Colour's arrival seemed a beacon for heavy duty diversity. And absolutely nothing has changed since the group reformed in 2003 after an eight year hiatus.

Corey Glover by Greg Styer
"We don't live in a monolithic kind of world. We never did. We supposedly – at least they sold us the idea – live in a melting pot with all kinds of different people and things in it. Particularly for African-American and people of color, you've been told you're living in somebody else's world and you have to adapt. So, we've always tried to adapt our world into the world that exists, into the everyday world. So, we took from everything," says Corey Glover. "I will listen to an Eric Dolphy record right before I listen to some Creedence. It's all the same shit to me!"

This potentially sloppy, utterly enthusiastic embrace of wide ranging musics is what rock is all about. At its best, the genre welcomes all comers and sorts out the collisions as they occur.

"Absolutely! Some people will often look at [Living Colour] and say we're a funk-metal band. Well, that's very limiting in its scope. We're more than people who just play funk and metal. If you listen to the work you'll know that to be true. It's not the rote idea of what rock 'n' roll was," Glover observes. "Vernon and I are from Brooklyn, Crown Heights in particular, where there's a big African-American population, a big Caribbean and Latino community, as well as Hasidic Jews. So, who's NOT going to listen to ALL kinds of stuff coming out of people's car radios?"

However, not everyone has their big ears and after having spent close to a decade on the sidelines, Living Colour, a band whose debut, Vivid, was a Top 10 album with four high charting singles, found that much of their audience had dissipated.

"We came back in 2003 and nobody paid attention," says Vernon Reid, while acknowledging that the time out of the spotlight helped the revived group grow stronger creatively. "This is the point bands of our vintage make desperate attempts to regain their youth. They try to come back to what they did before or, God help us, try to become hip. I believe we sidestepped those pitfalls."

The Chair In The Doorway is certainly their most striking outing since Vivid, and perhaps their most cohesive, together album to date, working together from end-to-end in overlapping sonics and themes. It's the kind of record one can come back to in six months or a year and keep discovering new things as they unravel different passages.

Vernon Reid by Greg Styer
"I'm amazed at the way it turned out. Each record we've made has had its own circumstances, their own difficulties. I think I had the most fun making Vivid because we were riding a rush of adrenalin for even having come that far. To have gotten that far was pure gravy," says Reid. "Now, with The Chair In The Doorway, we're a band with history. We've been through a breakup. We've had an original member leave the group [bassist Muzz Skillings left in 1992]. We've had children; we're all fathers – it's a beautiful burden and you are dad forever whatever happens! We've gone through all the various emotional things…well, I don't want to get too grand. Nobody shot anybody or anything! Nobody slept with anybody else's wife! There's certain places we haven't gone but we've had a pretty intense band experience, and to make this record was real work to realize it."

"We had a plan. The name of the record came before everything else, so each piece had to fit into that idea. That was the rubric we needed to figure out if a song worked or not for the record," says Glover, touching on the album's subtle interconnectedness. "That's what the title is supposed to be. Some of my conversations with Vernon going into this had a surreal or super-real quality to them. My idea with The Chair in the Doorway was really talking about the four of us [in Living Colour], and talking about how some things are obvious to some people and not obvious to others, on the inside and the outside."

"The Chair In The Doorway is unique amongst our catalog because it's the first record where we had the title of the album before we had any songs. During the initial recordings for Collideøscope (2003) we were putting ourselves through so much pressure, ill at ease having just come back together. In a way, 9/11 gave us something to make that record kind of about. The song 'Flying' is a direct result of 9/11. 'A Question of When' was written before 9/11 but became about 9/11," continues Reid. "So, we had a break during recording Collideøscope and Corey and I went to see Spiderman 2. And there's the usual bellyaching afterwards and Corey says, 'You know, the chair is in the doorway.' That's one of the typical Yogi Berric type of things Corey will say. Then, later on we were in Paris doing press for Collideøscope, waiting for a photographer in this lovely courtyard, and I turned to Corey and said, 'You know that thing you say about the chair being in the doorway? That's the title of our next album.'"

Doug Wimbish by Greg Styer
"What I love about it is it’s the rarest of things, completely concrete – the chair is a physical thing – AND completely abstract. That's what's beautiful and terrible about language. That's why political language is never to be trusted. George Orwell knew very well that language has many layers and levels. With music it's often about who can come up with the phrase that pays," laughs Reid. "The Chair In The Doorway spoke to me. There's an obstruction. It's an obvious obstruction. Who placed it there and who's gonna get up and displace the obstruction? The chair is not supposed to be in the doorway. The chair's supposed to be at a table or desk. The Chair In The Door is an unintended concept album. The title exerted this weird energy on the whole project. It's so much about how we get in our own way and how something is so obviously in our way."

A big part of the new release's flavor is bassist Doug Wimbish, a veteran of industrial groove pioneers Tackhead, the revered On-U Sound label and former member of the Sugarhill Gang house band. His style is stealthy and lethal, a snake charmer with significant bite.

"Doug is really the catalyst for this new record. Without Doug Wimbish we wouldn't have made the CD we did in Prague. It was Doug that codified all this music. He took all the grooves we did at sound checks and gigs and put them on a list for us to listen to and figure out what we were gonna do. Doug was the man in terms of how this record came to be what it is," enthuses Glover. "There's these gypsy bands that come out of the Czech Republic that takes bits of funk and rock and really mix stuff together. That's how Doug really got involved in this scene and they introduced him to [Sono Studio in Prague, where The Chair in the Doorway was recorded]. These are people who appreciate music on all levels because this is a just-opening-up Eastern Bloc country that's taking in everything. The guys who run the studio were a major catalyst for cool things on the new album."

Continue reading for more on Living Colour...

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