Furious times call for furious songs on ‘Shade,’ Living Colour’s righteous return

“We need a punk member of the one percent to help us out.”

Staying topical yet remaining timeless is no easy task for songwriters. Use too many specific names or locales anchored to an exact moment in history, and you risk being immediately dropped into the rearview mirror when today’s instant-grat universe moves on.

But when you’re as connected with the ever-shifting pulse of America as Living Colour is — and have always been, ever since they vividly burst onto the national scene in 1988 — cultural-frontline relevancy is second nature.

“We’re in furious, furious times right now,” Living Colour’s virtuoso guitarist Vernon Reid admitted to Digital Trends. “A lot of what we tackle in our songs is a constant dialogue about what it means to be us — what it means to be an American.”

Living Colour once again raise the flag and up the stakes, in terms of both topics covered and sonics achieved, with the hard-hitting and genre-defiant Shade, out today in various formats via Megaforce. “It’s a crazy-weird thing to say what we’ve written is still relevant,” Reid noted when pointing out how vintage material on albums like 1988’s Vivid and 1990’s Time’s Up resonate track-for-track with Shade. “It’s great for us, but it’s weird for the country.”

Digital Trends called Reid in New York shortly before he and the band headed out on a European tour to discuss how they create the soundtrack to accompany our never-ending information overload, how their songs most resemble a two-way conversation, and why tactile interaction with both music and gear remains important. I know your anger, I know your dreams, I’ve been everything you want to be…

Vernon Reid, guitarist of Living Colour. | Scott Legato/Getty Images
Vernon Reid, guitarist of Living Colour. | Scott Legato/Getty Images

Digital Trends: Living Colour has never been shy about discussing the state of the union. For example, I see Cult of Personality [the pivotal track from 1988’s Vivid] and Program [from Shade] as being a pair of quite interesting, complementary bookends.

Vernon Reid: It’s weird how things we always talked about in songs like Information Overload [from 1990’s Time’s Up] — which was a song written before there was Facebook, before there were tracking devices in our pockets, and before Twitter — come to be. Remember when Twitter was considered an irrelevant trifle? (both chuckle)

We knew blues was going to be in the DNA of Shade, but we didn’t want to make a blues-rock record.

The fact that, in a regular news report, people mention Twitter as in, “The President tweeted today…” Twitter was relegated to the lifestyle section of the news, and now a presidential tweet is the lead story. It’s amazing.

So Information Overload, without naming anything specific, also alluded to the gap between the rich and the poor, right? That song talked about the “ten percent,” but now that ten percent is one percent.

[The original lyric in the song goes: “Don’t you know we’re all on a sinking ship/Only ten percent control all the rest/Only ten percent decide what is best.”]

Sadly, that percentage gap is even wider than ever. And it’s also somewhat sad to say that, in regards to the video you guys did for Who Shot Ya?, you could probably have different names running across the screen in that clip every day.

And that’s the kind of thing that makes it an ongoing tragedy. It’s an ongoing tragedy about the American mind-state. People talk about identity politics — and then the identity of the shooter becomes a central part of the dialogue.

Another example of past and present coming together is in your version of Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues on the back half of the record. It’s a song from 1971’s What’s Going On, but it’s also about what’s going on today. “This ain’t livin’,” to borrow a line…

We were working on this music before the 2012 election over five years ago, and strangely, this presidency has made everything we’re talking about on this record on point. It would have still been on point if Hillary had won, but… (chuckles)

Certain things, regardless of who’s at the top, still need to be handled, or dealt with in a societal fashion. A lot of things don’t seem to be dealt with in a rational way right now.

I’m going to actually plug things into other things physically to find out how they work.

Talking about voters as some kind of “others” — we have to get away from the “othering.” They are not other. There are plenty of people in my Twitter feed that are presidential supporters.

But guitars are inclusive; guitars are about everything. At the same time, I don’t shy away from saying what I’m saying. One thing I don’t do is call people names. Mind you, I disagree with their choice, but calling people “troglodytes”… (chuckles again) “I’m going to mess up the elite, I’m going to tear everything down.” But for me, they’re trading one kind of elitist for another kind of elitist.

Well, to borrow a line from our friend Mr. Pete Townshend [of The Who, in the forever classic 1971 song Won’t Get Fooled Again], “Meet the new boss,” right?

Yes, yes!

Let’s talk about the sound of Shade. Did you guys and Andre [Betts, Shade’s producer] have a sound template you mapped out before you started working together, as to how you wanted the record to sound?

We knew blues was going to be part of the DNA of the record, but we didn’t want to make a blues-rock record. But there was something weaving through it, and songs like Preachin’ Blues and Who’s That are blues in their form, and something like Blak Out and Who Shot Ya? are not blues in form, but blues in feeling, and blues in narrative. Like, Who Shot Ya? is not a blues song in form, but it is a blues story.

I see a lot of this record as call-and-response, in that Corey [Glover, Living Colour’s vocalist] will sing something, and then you play off of it. Was that done live in the studio with you guys standing next to each other? How did you work those things out?

Some of it was worked out where the band would play certain things live. We’d start with a scratch vocal, then we’d try to get a keeper vocal. And then I’d examine the guitars and see, working with Andre, what the best thing is to complement that. It’s all about the way every element complements each other.

The songs Two Sides and Preachin’ Blues are both live. There are a lot of elements that came into Two Sides later, like the parts with George Clinton, but the guitar solo is the one that was put down the day we played it.

We recorded Preachin’ Blues maybe three times, but each time, the versions were live. The version that we chose was the final one we did during those sessions, with everything recorded live.

But a song like Always Wrong is a very, very layered kind of piece, and there was also a lot of post-production that went into Come On.

Vinyl is literally a consumer countercultural movement!

All throughout Shade, you anticipate what Corey’s going to sing and you complement it and incorporate it into it the song, rather than take it over to show off your chops as a guitar hero.

Absolutely. It’s about the entire conversation. It’s not about having a conversation where you have to wait for the other person to stop talking for you to jump in. (both laugh)

Do you want people to listen to Shade on vinyl? Will there be a vinyl?

We are doing a vinyl version of the record, and we’re all pretty excited about that. I’m glad to see how vinyl has this kind of unexpected tenaciousness, a certain tenacity. Some people want to discount it, but you can’t. You’ve got to give it its due.

What do you think it is about vinyl that’s caught hold?

I think it’s a necessity of a connection to the music. It’s also an anti-convenience. The tenacity of vinyl to me is like the rise of the Eurorack modular synth. People are taking the time to say, “No no no — I’m going to actually plug things into other things physically to find out how they work.”

I know there’s [the 2014 modular synth documentary] called I Dream of Wires that I have yet to see, but I am fascinated by this area. How is this even working, when it’s so counter to the way the culture is going? Vinyl is literally a consumer countercultural movement!

It is some form of rebellion, I agree. The other thing is, it’s great for people who grew up listening to compressed files to get to hear something in the analog form they may have missed before.

Right! It’s very much like a music gormandizer.

Yes, you should patent that…

Well, that was CBGB’s thing! (both laugh)

[The logo on the sign outside the legendary punk club CBGB on the Bowery in New York, which was open from 1973-2006, read “CBGB OMFUG,” which stood for “Country, Bluegrass, Blues, and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers.”]

You guys played there back in the day, so I’m sure Hilly [Kristal, the late founder/owner of CBGB] wouldn’t mind you saying it that way. CBGB was such a great place to see the music of its time. It’s a shame it’s not there anymore, because we need that CBGB vibe now more than ever.

Hilly was a lovely, lovely man. And I hate to say it, but we either need a real estate crash, or we need somebody who’s actually a punk member of the one percent help us out.

Hopefully somebody can help us out. And how about how relevant Open Letter to a Landlord [from 1988’s Vivid] — is right here in 2017?

Well, we elected a landlord. (both chuckle)

Do you feel the weight of songs like that whenever you play them now?

It’s an ongoing narrative. It’s kind of crazy we’re still dealing with those issues, because a lot of them have not been resolved, you know? We’re not living in a post-racial anything. We’re living in a time of great stress, and a lot of people being the butt of some very poisonous dialogue.

Can you foster a sense of individuality in music these days?

Well, I just saw King Crimson in July at the Count Basie [Theatre, in Red Bank, NJ] — the version of the band with three drummers. And I was just thinking how phenomenal to me it was that the Count Basie Theatre was pretty packed for a scene that is so fundamentally avant-garde. You know what I mean?

Karsten Steiger
Karsten Steiger

I do. It’s difficult music, and you have to be ready to pay full attention to it, with no distractions.

Absolutely. There’s something phenomenal about hearing an instrumental like Red [from King Crimson’s same-named album of 1974] and just the feel of devotion and affection for a very intellectual group.

And, don’t forget — we live in a very anti-intellectual age. It’s amazing to see so many people supporting, with their money, [KC bandleader Robert] Fripp, who is a maestro of singularity, and also support a form of music he developed and created on many different levels, from the acoustic to the electronic. He’s a phenomenal bandleader and a phenomenal innovator. And it works. It’s just a really, really great thing.

I agree. Here’s another great thing to think about: Shade is an album that’s going to carry some weight with people for a long time.

Yes! We’re still going to be in it — whatever’s being talked about! We’re still good until at least 2018! (both laugh)