Living Colour did what many other bands only dream of, not only achieving success despite deeply entrenched barriers, but also finding a sound that is both entirely their own and hugely influential.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of their debut album, “Vivid,” which they’ll be performing in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, along with many of their new songs. Guitarist Vernon Reid talked with The Tribune about that album’s lasting influence, the band’s place in rock and roll history, and the current challenges and success they face.
This concert is being billed as a 25th anniversary show for your album “Vivid.” Where does that album fit in your life personally and musically? How has it affected you and the rock and roll world?
What we did was something extremely unlikely. ... Music is also about a collective language, so when I hear Santana or I hear Rush, I hear bands that have their own language inside. Like King Crimson. They’re a rock and roll band, but their band has created their own individual language. The Who created their own individual language. Queen created their own individual language inside of the rock genre. My thought about Living Colour is, that’s exactly ... that’s the precedent. Create your own language. Do your own thing. There’s a tension that exists between tradition and rock and all those sorts of things and doing your thing. It’s kind of like the difference between liberty, freedom and democracy, three things that are not the same. We did something highly unlikely, and the fact that we did this thing, with the help of a lot of great people including Mick Jagger, the fact that we did this, that in and of itself is incredibly influential.
When you say “Do your own thing,” and that you found that thing, how would you describe what your band does?
I’d have to go back a little bit to how I heard music. My parents are from the West Indies and I was born in London, but my whole life, I don’t know anything about London or the West Indies. I never went to the West Indies and I never went to London until after I was a musician. I was raised in Brooklyn from when I was like one and a half years old. ... I identified 100 percent as an American. But the thing that was cool about my parents was that they didn’t have that history of hardcore antagonism in the sense that they never said that quote-unquote white music was bad, My parents, like my mom, was a fan of the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five. She was a fan of that and she was a fan of Motown. I never heard, “You should listen to that because that’s music of such-and-such people.” I just heard it as music. I was actually free to just listen to music without the baggage that is attached to music all the time, like that’s noise, that’s bad, you can’t listen to that – fill in the blank. I didn’t get that. I was attracted to sounds and intentions, more than I’d be attracted to style. So if I heard “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” I’m very influenced by science fiction, I’m a geek, so I’m a Star Trek guy, I grew up with “The Day The Earth Stood Still,” Bernard Herrmann’s score, which features the theremin, the first electronic instrument, that was invented by Leon Theremin the Russian inventor. “Switched-On Bach,” By Walter Carlos who’s now Wendy Carlos. Those things, as much as the blues, entered my consciousness. And that’s who I am. So I’m listening to James Brown. The first time I heard, Sly Stone, the first time the lift to “Sunshine of your Love,” these are all mind blowing things and they are all part of what I respond to and what I like in music. The first time I heard Coltrane, that also became part of what it is for me. And that’s really a lot of what it is about Living Colour. I played with the great drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson who recently passed away. I played in his band The Decoding Society. I was trying my hand with Texas Blues as much as it was Hendrix and Carlos Santana and all of those sorts of things. Led Zeppelin and Bad Brains. All of that just got jumbled in my mind, and over the years I found people to play. And also pop music. I’m weird in that I like extremely avant garde music and I love pop music. I like Hank Williams Sr. I don’t have the separation of style. Everyone talks about roots as if it’s supposed to be a limiting thing. it’s supposed to be, “This is your area, this is where you come from.” Everybody does that and I reject that. If I say my roots, on the one hand, are “Black Magic Woman,” my roots are “A Love Supreme.” But my roots are also the music to “Forbidden Planet.” That’s all part of me. And I hooked up with people who were in love with all of that.
It must have been good to explore all those areas without being limited by your roots.
The challenge is, that’s great for me, but for audiences — audiences are fearful creatures. “Don’t disturb this groove.” It’s awesome when people are open and it’s awesome when people are willing to go. A lot of time people are not willing to go. If you do something outside of what they consider to be the thing, you’re a whack. One of my teachers, Bruce Johnson, he told me that everything is commercial to somebody. He said the audience that wants you to play free jazz, they want to hear it a certain way. The people who want to hear swing, want you to hear it a certain way. They’re the same because they reject things that are outside of what they want to hear. When you come across people that are willing to be moved by the experience, that’s fantastic.
You said earlier that music comes with certain baggage sometimes.
Well, people do and then they make music.
True. And one thing that always gets mentioned about you guys is that you’re an all-black band. Is that something that is just a truism, a fact about you, or is it something that comes with your band?
I don’t think of it as baggage. Because that would be baggage I always have to carry. The baggage is not mine, the baggage is other people’s. The problem is not my problem. The problem is what other people have, what they say, what they don’t say. I could look at a band like Soul Asylum. We used to play shows with Soul Asylum. Great band. We played together at CBGBs, We did stuff together. When they made it I was very, very happy. I was happy because they were part of our crew of people. It wasn’t really about them being white, it was like, “Y’all are part of our crew. We know y’all.” So the connections that you make with people, they can transcend all those other things. If you let it. I mean, it’s a question, it’s a choice you make. If you decide to see a guy as a black guy or a white guy, you’ve removed everything else about them. If you don’t like a guy that’s black because you don’t like him, you’re not a racist. If you don’t like a guy simply because of his skin, that’s another thing. In other words, that baggage — I’m fine. It’s not just white people, it’s black people too. It’s like you hear a power chord and they go “Oh, I can’t handle that.” They can’t handle that. They can’t handle that because they believe that the power chord belongs to a certain kind of people. It does not. It’s a sound. It’s a frequency and you can do it. It’s really just about other people’s s---. It’s like how tribal metal is. Metal is super tribal. That’s why I like someone like Alex Skolnick from Testament. Alex Skolnick is my brother. I love him because he turned around, he was a star in metal and he went and studied jazz. I love that. I love that he did that. And he’s somebody who I have a very great deal of affection for. There’s people that can transcend. Whenever I see Lemmy from Motörhead. Lemmy is a good dude. He’s crazy, but in his heart, I love him. He’s a good guy. So it’s really about what’s really happening underneath the skin. Being an African-American, Caribbean, blah, blah, blah, all of those things, I’m also American and I’m loving it. It’s not a problem for me, these things. The problem is other people, what they let in and what they don’t let in.
There’s that universal aspect of music. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, once you learn how to play that thing, now you have that. Now it’s part of you and it’s something that you can do.
It’s part of you if you let it be part of you. The blues is part of your s---, if that’s your thing, or if a composer really lights you up, if you love Bach, it doesn’t matter the color of the fingers at the piano. The color of the fingers at the piano is immaterial. And it’s also immaterial the hands that are doing the fingerpicking. If you’re feeling it, if you really take it on inside of yourself, that’s really what it’s about. There’s all kinds of gradations and people throw s--- on you, people throw their anxieties on you, their fears and their needs. We do it to. We go and judge. That’s what we love to do. We love to judge. We look at what people have and what they don’t have, we look at their personal gross national product, we look at what they’ve done and what they haven’t done, and we’re nasty about it. I’m talking about as a species. When we can be kind, when we can embrace the other as a brother or a sister, when we can be there for people regardless, that’s when we’re better than when we’re being sh----.
You guys have been playing for a long time and making a lot of music, but continuing to play always comes with some challenges. What are some of the challenges at this point in your career?
I tell you what as much guitar as I’ve played, the guitar is not going to play itself. I have to practice. To get out of my own way and to play what I play regardless. To be 100 percent present, that’s a challenge. And I have to say, to anybody that’s out there, they think that they’re gonna get this technique and it’s gonna be over — it’s never over. The challenge of an instrument is really interesting. If you get comfortable with the level that you’re at, you could also fall into a place where it’s not really happening. The muse, the thing that makes music happen is awesome because it doesn’t matter whether you are super, hyper trained or whether you’re just a yahoo who can’t read music and doesn’t know nothing about it. The muse, the thing that makes stuff happen, can light into the heart of someone. That’s why a tune that’s super simple can connect. Or a tune that’s super complicated. Also, things that are super complicated don’t connect and things that are super simple don’t connect. Take a movie for example. Everybody’s told that you’ve got to be a professional, you’ve got to be this and that, there’s an industry, da da da, you’ve got to go to this school and you’ll do all of these things and you have to do blah blah blah. If that was true, then movies wouldn’t suck. How is it possible that people who are Shakespearean trained, who are super great, make movies that suck. Everybody in there’s got credentials up the butt. They’ve got mad credentials. They’ve done incredible things. But it’s not about that. Same thing with records. You can list all the amazing things that [such-and-such] person has done. At the end of the day, if the thing isn’t the thing, it’s not the thing. …
It’s not about what you know. It about what you’re able to bring forth It’s about what you get out of the way of. You see an amazing performance, you see an amazing movie, it’s a miracle, because movies can go wrong a bazillion different ways. There’s so many people involved, and if anybody isn’t on the mission, it doesn’t matter. It happens all the time. People spend all kinds of money to make things happen.
Speaking of where things come from and getting out of the way of yourself, how did that play out on the latest album? What were the things that were coming forth that you were trying to move out of the way of?
“The Chair in the Doorway” is exactly that. That’s exactly what that’s about. It’s actually from a phrase that Corey used to say all the time. He would say, “The chair is in the doorway and everyone is walking around the chair, but nobody moves the chair.” It’s like getting in your own way. It’s like telling myself that I really want to play well. That’s a barrier to me playing well. It’s a complete barrier. My desire to be liked. I want you guys to like me. All it takes is for one person to fold their arms and scowl at me to destroy me. The thing is, human contact is kind of unavoidable. That’s one of the great lessons that we use against each other. The fact that someone wants to be liked and we withhold it. It’s like the seven deadly sins. They’ve got the seven deadly sins, but cruelty is not one of them. Cruelty is not it. Cruelty is totally allowable. A part of that is not to be cruel to one’s self. To accept that, on the one hand, for myself, to really take on preparing myself to get out of my own way. And then the other thing is letting go. The time is always now. I had an ex-girlfriend that said, “The time is always now.” She said that back then.
What’s coming up in the future? Are you working on anything right now or are you focusing on touring?
We have plans, and plans are subject to change. There’s a lot of things I want to do, and hopefully I’ll get to do those things. I want to make another Living Colour record, I want to continue the conversation. Living Colour has been having a conversation with itself, and with the culture for over 25 years. What’s interesting to me is what we’re willing to say, what we’re willing to get out of the way of. For myself, it’s what am I processing as a songwriter, what am I processing as a guitarist, as a composer. And collaboration, what’s going on with that? That’s really what it’s about. At the same time, plans are plans. Politicians make promises and then they get elected and then they can’t do what they promised for whatever reason. Because it’s not as simple and the president’s not a king. These things happen. You think about things as they turn out, coincidences and ironies abound and life is filled with it. The human experience is filled with joy and pain and unfair things and “Why does that happen,” and jealousies and all kinds of crazy stuff. It’s part of the human condition, so for my part, I hope to be true to whatever state of the human condition I find myself in. And I hope to be creative with that. The future is a country we haven’t gone to yet.
Another thing that often gets said about you guys is that there’s a political side to what you do and that there’s always some sort of social commentary in your music. Do you view yourselves as doing that, making commentary, or are you just writing from the heart?
The heart is in your head. Our heart is a muscle, the heart that we talk about as a Valentine, that’s in our brains. Emotions play out in front of a backdrop. Part of that backdrop is a particular economy. Part of that backdrop is the social milieu. Part of that backdrop is the conflict between different groups of people who have different needs. A movie like “Pretty Woman” is a love story, but it’s also about a rich guy and a poor chick. The fact that this guys’s rich and that she’s poor is something that’s happening in society. It’s combination. … You’ve got to fight for your neighborhood with an emotional plea so it’s not divorced from the emotions that are attendant.
Is there anything else that you’d like to say or convey?
I wanted to say that partly these days I’m in a heightened emotional state because I lost my main mentor, someone that made it possible to do all of this, A man named Ronald Shannon Jackson. I played in a band called the Decoding Society. The music was really influenced by the music of Ornette Coleman and I was part of his electric free jazz band. He was a giant. He was a very prolific composer. He was a very original composer. He combined the Texas blues with Eastern mysticism with psychedelic and open-ended improvisation. But his melodies and his tunes were really accessible. They had a memorial for him [Oct. 24] in Texas. He passed away from leukemia. My professional career starts with him, so I really want to mention his name because he is someone who, to me, is a great American. He’s like a hidden icon. If you want to find out more about him, there’s an obituary for him in the New York Times. He was incredibly important to me, and I love him a great deal.
Living Colour with guests Family of the Year
When • Tuesday, Oct. 29. Doors open at 7 p.m.
Where • The Depot, 400 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $17 advance, $22 day of. Available at Smith’s Tix
Read more • For the full interview, check out the story at www.sltrib.com/entertainment.