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Vernon Reid - Throwing Shade

Living Colour in the Shade ...

 

by Alison Richter

 

 

IT’S 1989, and the members of Living Colour are being interviewed backstage before another sold-out show. ‘Cult of Personality,’ the second single from their 1988 debut album, Vivid, has volleyed them into the spotlight, and months later the band is still adjusting to success and all it brings. Somewhere in the conversation, guitarist Vernon Reid takes a long look at rock and roll’s trajectory, from its blues roots into its second generation, while vocalist Corey Glover challenges the music industry and society at large, noting that Living Colour is “here to cut away the bullsh*t!”

 

It’s 2017, and Vernon Reid is being interview by telephone a few weeks before the release of Living Colour’s new album, Shade.  Seeing it to fruition was a long, complicated process that began with a performance of Robert Johnson’s ‘Preachin’ Blues’ during a 2012 tribute concert at the Apollo Theatre, then ebbed and flowed through tour cycles, management changes, and the dynamic of four opinionated musicians. A preview was introduced last year with the band’s cover/interpretation of The Notorious B.I.G’s ‘Who Shot Ya,’ accompanied by a powerful video that takes on gun violence and racial profiling.

 

Almost 30 years have passed since the release of Vivid, and clearly there is weight in the old adage “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Reid, Glover, drummer Will Calhoun, and bassist Doug Wimbish are still cutting away the BS and tackling the hard topics. This time, they’re doing it with a rock-based album entrenched, albeit not always overtly, in its blues roots, while visiting a spectrum of genres.

 

 

 

GEARPHORIA: This album was a long time coming. Was there a sense of relief when it was finally done and you were looking at a definite release date?

 

VERNON:

Yes. The process took longer than we thought it would, and getting everyone to agree on everything — on the takes, on the mastering — it took a while. Music has a life of its own. The process has a life of its own. You can be as disciplined as you want to be, and unexpected things just show themselves.

 

Five years! Who are you, Boston?

 

I know! It’s so weird because, for example, ‘Preachin’ Blues’ is a very simple song, and we recorded it at least three times because it has to have a certain kind of feel. The  performance at the Apollo Theatre in celebration of the centennial of Robert Johnson started the whole process, so it was important to add something that felt right. That’s just one example.

There were fits and starts and points of disagreement along the way, and I thought about it, like, “Are we trying to be Def Leppard or Boston?” But it’s a weird thing. You have four people, strong personalities with definite ideas about what they want to say, and at a certain point you have to go, “This is what this is.” I think it came out OK. I think it came out good.

 

You say the song has to have a certain feel, but when you track it repeatedly and keep coming back to it during a five-year process, how do you hold on to that feel? Is it different each time you come back?

 

Yes. We had enough material for an album. We had a tour coming, and the whole idea of making a record now, because of all the changes and blah blah blah... is it’s context for touring. But at a certain point it felt like, “We’re not done with what this is.”

Interestingly enough, if we had put the record out at that time, a different version of ‘Preachin’ Blues’ would have been included. When it wasn’t saying everything we wanted it to say, that became a bunch of breakdowns in communication.

We changed managers, there were structural things underneath going on, and disagreement about where we should go. In the course of that, we took a crack at it one more time, and the third time was when it had the raw feel that we wanted it to have and the best vocal. That’s how it evolved. It was a process.

 

At any point in the process, did you throw your hands in the air and say, “I’m done, forget it”?

 

I threw up my hands up, oh hell yeah! Each of us had our own throwing, and fortunately there weren’t eight hands in the air at one time, because at that point it’s “Pack it up, pack it in.” I think our producer had his hands up at times as well.

 

That was my next question: At any point did Andre Betts do the same thing?

 

Oh yeah. Ohhh yeah. But that’s just the process. Nobody expected it to become what it became, and then somehow we got one thing that started feeling good to everyone. There was a song I felt should have been on the record, a song that I wrote, but it was a little too poppy and bubble-gum. In retrospect, I don’t know what I was thinking at the time, and I’m so glad that song wasn’t included.

So there were things of that nature. In a process like that, that’s what happens. There was a song that was not on anyone’s list. We had discounted it. But, because our record label president and people in the office really liked it, we listened to it again, and in the process of other things, suddenly the song made sense, so it wound up on the record. It’s a process.

 

 

Were you in the studio the entire time or did you use files?

 

We were mainly in studios. We actually cut things. There were moments of passing files around a little bit, but there wasn’t a lot of that. It was a minor part of what happened.

We went into recording studios, and the first versions of some things wound up being “the version.” The solo to ‘Two Sides’ — the day that we played, that was it. It felt so in the moment at that time of just getting together that there were emotional points and things that felt the best. We also had a few special guests. George Clinton gave us a voiceover on ‘Two Sides,’ which was really lovely of him to do for us, and on ‘Who’s That’ we had Big Sam [Sammie Williams] on trombone and the amazing Roosevelt Collier on slide.

He’s a fantastic lap steep and pedal steel player, and he played that first solo on lap steel.

 

We’ve talked a bit about how the track list changed. What was the se quencing process? Do you think of albums as telling a story, as having a beginning and an end?

 

This is such an old idea that I think still matters because it is a narrative. Now you can shuffle everything and come up with alternate sequences, but the narrative has to have a meaning, at least for yourself.  Everyone presented a version of sequencing, and eventually we came through with what felt like a story we were telling about life and times.

What’s so interesting is this was done way before the election or anything like that, so we were telling the story in parallel about being American, about being in the margins, about how blues and hard rock have this relationship, but we did not want to make a blues-rock record. For example, ‘Who Shot Ya,’ we did that because, at the beginning of the process, I was thinking about things we could record, and whenever we did soundchecks, Corey would do the Biggie Smalls rhyme to test his microphone.

He sounded really good and I thought we should record it. Mercifully, he decided to sing it rather than rap it, and it came out really well!

That’s not a blues tune in any way, but it is a blues story in the sense that the writer and original singer/vocalist was telling one story about the fate of someone else that turned out to be his own fate. That, to me, is the essence of the blues.

 

Did you have any hesitation with the lyrics?

 

No. We decided not to change a word of it. It was important to present it the way Christopher Wallace did. We’re changing it enough being a guitar-based band and the vocals are singing, not rapping. We kept the words because the words in that context are important. Some of the words are difficult. The “N-word” — we never put that on our records, but I thought, this is really what it’s about. That’s the essence, and that’s also part of the blues narrative.

 

I think this is important, because there are interviews where you stated that you are against the use of that word, so I think it’s important that we clarify why you used it

.

Absolutely. Absolutely. And I understand that it’s weird, because I don’t use it in daily life. But I’m a Richard Pryor fan because he’s making a point, and Dick Gregory because he’s making a particular point about the history of the nation and not denying certain aspects of that history.

As an epithet, I’m not with it, but I accept it in a certain context. I do. But part of it is we’re covering someone else’s song and there’s an overarching narrative that the song fits into.

 

We received a partial gear list. How much of it is on the album? Did you re-record parts using different guitars and different amps?

 

I would say so. There were things that were used in one iteration of the songs and not used in another iteration. The Kemper Profiling Amp was a big part of this record. Also my Roland VG-99, the AmpliTube, the Positive Grid Bias FX soft-ware, the Colby amp, the Boogie, some boutique amps. It was crazy. There were a lot of different things at different times.

 

How did you decide what to use on each song?

 

Sitting with the engineer, with theproducer, or listening back andgoing, “Huh. You know, let me trythis,” or “Let me try that.” Someof it was more in the mixing phase,because things were happening in parallel. There were tracks where we were dealing with a distortion pedal going through the Kemper, and some decisions were obvious that “This is better than that,” some tracks were thicker sounding while others were more subtle.

‘Preachin’ Blues’ was much more a raw representation. Other things were a little more layered. ‘Come On’ has a whole bunch of stuff going on. ‘Freedom of Expression’ we revisited a couple of times, and we were adding guitars and taking guitars away. So it changes. It goes through different iterations. Sometimes you go into this rabbit hole and think, I’ve been here long enough. I need fresh air and sunlight and Vitamin D!

 

 

    THE BAND - (L to R) Bassist Doug Wimbish, guitarist Vernon Reid, drummer Will Calhoun and vocalist Corey Glover

 

 

Can you pick one track off of Shade and give us a walk-through on how it was recorded?

 

I’ll go with ‘Who’s That.’ I started out recording in New Jersey with our producer. We recorded live. We put down a basic track and came back to it. I think I had a Randall and a Peavey Joe Satriani when I first recorded it, and I probably was using a Fractal and a VG-99. That was before we had Big Sam and Roosevelt. We had to come back to it after we added the guests. After we put in Roosevelt’s solo, the solo I had didn’t feel like a conversation. It felt like someone was in the middle of making a statement, and another person — me— was in the middle of it. So I recorded a solo in answer to him.

 

What all should the guitar solo do?

 

It needs to be a kind of statement. It needs to extend the scene. With ‘Always Wrong,’ I was very much thinking about Corey’s vocal when I took the solo for that. For other things, it needs to embody a feeling. On ‘Preachin’ Blues,’ I wanted to play a solo that of course had a blues feeling, but not in the most obvious ways, which are pentatonic, a certain kind of lick — there’s an obvious way of playing a blues solo. I wanted to be in that feeling, but I wanted to have my own conversation.

I think the solo for ‘Preachin’ Blues’ is a little more elliptical. Mind you, I’m not thinking that consciously! It’s more like, This is where I’m coming from, and that I’m playing in the moment. I’m much more of an improviser than a constructor of riffs that are laid out end to end. With ‘Pattern in Time,’ I wanted a cool intro and a cool finish. I did a couple of passes at it and then I thought, OK, this is where I want it to go.

 

You liken it to having a conversation. How do you keep the conversation from becoming a monologue?

 

A conversation is having something to do with the topic at hand. Everybody is different in the way they think about this stuff, but for me, if it’s too much about licks, and the flash thing in particular, that feels more artificial than a conversation you enter into. Having a monologue — there is nothing wrong with that. That’s cool. But to me, it has to be a conversation. Again I’ll bring up ‘Who’s That.’ Roosevelt played such a beautiful solo. It was like having a conversation with someone I respect, who said something really interesting, and to have a different aspect of it from my own voice. I hear his interesting voice, and bringing my voice to the table was the key to it. It wasn’t about playing faster notes or doing this other thing.

Sometimes, when you have other players, it can become that, and I didn’t want it to become that at all. In ‘Always Wrong,’ I play phrases that are repeating. It’s like almost like trying to talk to someone that’s not trying to hear you.

Maybe you’re having a fight with a wife or a girlfriend, and you want to say something that’s going to change the dynamic, so you try to say that stupid thing and it destroys everything. I love how Corey approached the lyric. That was very inspiring to me. A solo can be textural and part of the landscape, or it can pop out and be “Here I am, this is what I’m saying.” The guitar solo takes on different roles throughout the record.

 

Do you “see” it? I’m going to reference Hendrix as an example, since he was such an influence for you. When he plays, it’s visual. His playing spoke to the times, the social climate. His attack — you can see and hear the unrest when you listen to him play.

Do you think about your guitar translating the lyrics instrumentally?

 

It’s so great that you bring that up. That era, the whole idea of transformation, of conversation — all the music from that particular time period, all of it, has something unifying. Even the different genres had this under-lying beat of the times that really inform it. The idea, the experience, what’s happening in the groove —it’s such a tangible way of feeling music. That’s part of what I aspire to and want to be. Jazz people like Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane had a similar thing; they were also talking about change in a substantive way. It was music as a transformation, as a witness to life and times. For me, that’s where it’s coming from. There’s a very different mode that’s prevalent now, the perfect thing presented perfectly. It’s very crafted, very on point. But that era of musicians meant a lot to me.

They were transformative. They started out someplace and took us through a crazy trip. They took us to the edge, and that’s always on my mind when I’m playing — what I’m trying to do or say.

We’re in a very different moment now, but I still believe in it. I still believe in the possibility of change and transformation. Those artists were of their time. It will never be imitated and will never come again, so in a weird way it’s like a set of values that Jimi and Miles and Ornette and all of them brought to life. There’s other music that also meant a lot to me. Jan Akkerman from Focus is an incredible, tremendous guitarist who was on one hand very formal and classically trained but also a jazz player and freewheeling and improvisational. Robert Fripp on one end is very, very, very disciplined, but in King Crimson he brought this aspect of the avant- garde that was very unusual. There was this tension between culture and structure and the open-ended feeling of things.

 

We were talking about sequencing and narrative. You go from ‘Preachin’ Blues,’ which is hardcore

blues, to ‘Who Shot Ya,’ which is contemporary, and around those are all the other songs and influences that inform everything else. Listening to ‘Inner City Blues,’ which is a Marvin Gaye song, is it accurate to say there’s some Curtis [Mayfield] in your playing?

 

That song is associated with Marvin, but Curtis is huge for me. Motown is different from Detroit is different from Chicago, but the feeling … ‘Inner City Blues’ was written a long time ago, and when Marvin talks about trigger-happy policemen, look at where we are now. It’s like the song could have been written last week. It’s shocking how it’s still relevant.

Curtis Mayfield was one of the great storytellers of urban reality and how a kind of urban mythology came to be, so it’s interesting that you say that, because Curtis, a feeling of what he had to say, is always in the back of my mind. Living Colour does Curtis does Marvin.

Curtis affected me a great deal. As I said earlier, it’s a set of values about witnessing, truth-telling, and even at the very beginning of the song he’s asking a question: What has become of us? What’s happened to us? That’s the theme. A lot of the questions on Shade are an internal dialogue. They’re very much about “What have we become?” It’s also “What has society done?” But what have we done?

‘Who Shot Ya’ is a very pointed question. Throughout the record we have a dialogue as much with ourselves as with our country.

 

The same questions being asked decades later.

 

And we will ask those questions until we face each other honestly and it’s often repeated. You would say hatred is something that’s obvious. The real problem is the love that we deny each other, the love that we can’t bear to admit to. That’s the actual problem. That’s the most provocative and dangerous … that’s the thing that made

Martin Luther King ultimately incredibly dangerous, because he was talking about love. Love exists, and when it exists, it’s implacable, and you either embrace it or run screaming away. We’re still grappling with that. Love does things— not always great things, but it’s crucial. We can’t live without it.

 

 

Speaking of love, how long did it take you to find the right guitar? You started playing at 15. When didyou find the right instrument to convey your sound?

 

It’s so interesting, finding a guitar that’s right for me, and a guitar that I resonated with that I can actually play. My first electric guitar was a Univox. I got a job as a stock boy at a local supermarket and I got my first guitar. I wish I still had it. I played a lot of guitars throughout the years.

I remember distinctly being on 48th Street and picking up a ’63 Strat with a V-shaped neck. That neck changed the course of what I wanted to feel. There was some- thing about it I really dug. There are two neck shapes I like: the half-moon hollow round necks, like old SGs and Les Pauls, and the V-shaped neck. I never got into the super-flat necks. I get it, but it never resonated well for me. When I got my first endorsement with ESP, I remember talking to Steve Kaufman, who was the head of ESP in America at that time, and he asked if I wanted a V-shaped neck.

When the guitar finally came, it was everything I wanted. Over time I played a Les Paul, a Frankenstrat, an L6, an Aria, but this green ESP, which I still have, was just an incredible instrument, and that changed the course for me. ‘Cult of Personality’ was written on that guitar, so it’s significant that this instrument felt like it worked with me. It was not in the way of my playing.

I genuinely had a feeling that I could sit and play this guitar for hours. It felt and sounded like a guitar I wanted to play.

 

Can you play everything you hear in your head?

 

No. It’s constant work. Different people have different physiologies that allow them to … the guy who says “I never practice” and plays in phenomenal shape — I guess that happens, but for me, with enough time and torture I can get to maybe half!

 

How often do you practice? Do you play every day?

 

There are days when I’m not able to. Having a family, having a life, it’s important to make time. I try to be consistent. It’s like having an exercise program — it’s important, so as much as possible I try to put in a decent amount of time practicing and being comfortable with playing.

There are a lot of things that I want to maintain, and there are things I want to go forward with, so there are periods when I practice a lot. I have periods when I’m not able to practice as much as I’d like, but practice is always in the back of my mind. There’s certain things you can’t do without playing the instrument. You have to. I have to. That’s one of the great things about being on tour — you’re away from a lot of distractions, and that actually is a great time for me to reengage with the instrument.

 

Do you typically practice on electric and acoustic?

 

I do both. I play the electric guitar a lot. I used to never practice on electric. I used to always practice on acoustic. It’s a different action, higher action, so it’s good practice to have. So I go back and forth between playing the electric and playing a guitar that’s a little more difficult to play.

 

Which acoustics do you have?

 

I have a Musser acoustic. Don Musser is a California builder, and I have this guitar from back when we were making Time’s Up. I have an Ovation that’s really cool and an Avalon that’s super-fine.

 

Everyone knows how much you lovetechnology and effects. When you have that much on your board, and you use that much, how do you keep from becoming the technology?

 

I spend a fair enough amount of time away from it, believe it or not. How do you wind up not becoming the technology. Again I go back to the baseline values and a certain kind of feeling. There’s a lot of times when I’m not using it as much. That happens too. Some- times I find myself in situations where things don’t work, and if something doesn’t work, I have perfected the shrug — “It’s not working” — as opposed to getting completely unwound and destroyed that this favorite thing is not working and it takes the air out of everything. Now I go, “OK, bypass that.” You have to let it go. I fell into this weird stuff and loving weird noises.

The first time I heard a Theremin, my life was complete! There’s a thought that you should be a certain way about certain things. I don’t believe any of that. Any belief system can be challenged. If plugging straight into an amp makes you happy, then plug straight into an amp. If using lots of pedals is your thing, then do that. I think the attachment is the thing. If you can’t go on without it, that’s something you need to look at. I’ve had situations where it wasn’t working, and I go “OK,” because the most important thing is the music and the moment and what are you going to do. I’m able to let go.

As somebody that enjoys technology and uses technology, I’m also very aware of the limits of what technology can and cannot do. Technology can’t look into the heart. That’s not what it’s for. It can be a way to express emotions, it can be a tool to express your inner weirdness, and it can be very expressive, the colors and sounds are lovely, but what’s in your heart is not about that, and technology never obscures what that is. I don’t let it obscure what’s in my heart.

 

What is the difference between playing guitar and being a guitarist?

 

One is an activity and one is an identity. There are accomplished surgeons and lawyers who play phenomenal guitar, but they’re not guitarists in that sense. Guitarists— there’s nothing else that theycan do. There are people that are multi-talented and they play guitar.

But they are not Albert Collins. Albert Collins was a guitarist, a bluesguitarist, he was that thing. That’sthe definable difference. You might think that a guitar player wouldn’t play better than a guitarist, but that’s not true. There are surgeons who play brilliant classical guitar and guitarists who don’t play that well. It’s about inhabiting the thing at whatever skill level.

I think playing guitar is “take it or leave it.” A guitarist can’t leave it, and that’s the difference. Neil Young is a guitarist. His entire being is that thing he’s doing. All of his pain, all of his everything, is in it. He’s not a guy on a job. He is the embodiment of the thing.

Robert Fripp is a guitarist. He’s phenomenal. He created an entire worldview from the way he approaches guitar. He is not “take it or leave it.” He helped create the world of guitar. Everything that he did as a producer and as a player— he is one of the most important guitarists of the 20th century,no question in my mind. Being a guitar player might be healthier— if you can take it or leave it, mazel tov, that’s great — because being a guitarist, it will torment you. Playing well is the whole ofyour life and playing badly some-what destroys you, because you’re a guitarist, and that has nothing to do with the licks, or the amount of chops, or whether you have superior technique. -HC-

 

Republished with expressed written permission

 

 

____________________________________________

 About The Author

Alison Richter interviews musicians, producers, engineers, and other industry professionals. She's a regular contributor to Gearphoria.

 

 

 

____________________________________________

Who Are Gearphoria? 

Blake and Holly Wright are Gearphoria. They travel full-time in their 25 foot Airstream while writing about cool guitars and guitar accessories. Gearphoria is a bi-monthly free-to-read online publication. You can visit their website by going to www.gearphoria.com and while you are there, sign up for their free e-zine.

 

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AlamoJoe  |  October 03, 2017 at 10:09 pm
Simply brilliant interview with a simply brilliant man who also happens to be a simply brilliant guitarist!
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