In the mid ’80s, London-born musical renaissance man Vernon Reid put together the pioneering band Living Colour, which mixed and matched jazz, funk, metal, thrash, punk, blues, and hip-hop into the living, breathing definition of fusion rock. Improbably, the band became a mainstream sensation, landing an MTV hit with its first single, “Cult of Personality,” performing on Saturday Night Live, opening for the Rolling Stones, winning a Grammy for its 1990 album Time’s Up.
Founding bassist Muzz Skillings left the band in 1992, while his replacement, Doug Wimbish, guitarist Reid, singer Corey Glover, and drummer Will Calhoun all parted ways in 1995. Each band member pursued eclectic side projects—Glover as Judas Iscariot in a touring version of Jesus Christ Superstar, Reid as a prolific producer, composer, collaborator, and solo artist, and Calhoun and Wimbish in drum and bass project Head Fake, among others—but eventually reunited, first in 2000 and again sporadically over the years. But last month’s new studio album Shade and current tour Living Colour represent a new opportunity for this seminal band to deliver its mix of punk energy, jazz precision, and political passion to the masses.
Last week, Living Colour played a benefit concert in Charlottesville, Virginia. How important was that to the band?
Very important. As artists, you have a platform to speak your mind and create what you want, whether people like it or not. In this country right now, that’s under close watch—rights are being taken away, some in the shadows and some right in front of our faces. Whether you’re a poet, a playwright, an actor, a singer, or a musician, we’re all storytellers. And in my 30+ years of traveling around the world, the only language I’ve been able to communicate equally with is art. When people express themselves, it creates a vibration that makes them fell good and allows them to think clearly. We’re honored to participate in these types of events, where maybe a 15 or 16-year-old can learn about these things.
Shade came out in September. How is its spirit different from Living Colour’s albums in the ’80s and ’90s?
It’s a different medium now. There is no MTV as it was; the radio isn’t what it was. The internet has taken over, so Shade is reaching a different range of audiences. Some people experienced Living Colour for the first time playing Guitar Hero; some hear our songs without knowing who we are. But this record was produced by Andre Betts, a longtime friend of the band, who’s known for producing Madonna, Lenny Kravitz, and other R&B and hip-hop artists. His approach was different: we cut a lot of tracks then we’d come back and assemble the stems into tunes. That was 60 percent of the process. But I pushed for the original method of cutting records in the studio, where we plug in and play. Living Colour is a very live band and I didn’t want to make Shade without that experience. We’re all nerds when it comes to gear, so there’s that nerdy section of recording combined with our really street section of playing beats, chords, and riffs together.
You’ve got cover versions of songs by Robert Johnson, Notorious B.I.G., and Marvin Gaye on there as well, which is cool.
Absolutely. That was a fun and artistically challenging part. Corey has rapped the B.I.G. song during mic checks for six or seven years, so it was a naturally brilliant idea to put that with rock music. That’s the greatest part of touring—all four of us are always on the search for new musical ideas.
Was that the original impetus for starting Living Colour?
I can’t take credit for that since Vernon had different incarnations of Living Colour before I joined. But when I met him, he was still in the search mode. When he did approach me, I specifically told him I’d love to be a part of Living Colour, but I said I wasn’t going to approach this as a rock ‘n’ roll drummer. I wanted to let him know that with me, you’re gonna hear the Bronx, Mali, Senegal, a little Max Roach…. I felt that rhythmically the music could use all sorts of flavor. We wanted to make the music fearless—we didn’t want to assign it a label.
In that sense, it seems like Living Colour fits in better in 2017 than it may have in 1988.
Fitting in is something that we’re not interested in doing. That’s a dangerous term since it implies that we would have to sacrifice something. We’re interested in being Living Colour. Now, we’ve maybe programmed ourselves to be ourselves in new mediums. We don’t have to wear the uniform anymore. Yes, we like to remind people of what we did in ’88 and ’89. Opening for the Stones. Getting “Cult of Personality” on MTV. Those things make up the Living Colour we are now. They represent the connecting road to Shade. The first time we drove down to Florida in 1988 in a rented church van, we crossed the state line and heard our record on the radio for the first time. But when you see us live in 2017, you’re getting a real experience. Some aspects of this band are like a jazz ensemble. We can improvise at the drop of a hat, react to the audience, and change how we play a song so it has a different impact in one space compared to another. But what’s important to us is that we remain true to ourselves.
LIVING COLOR with DEREK DAY, 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28, Ponte Vedra Concert Hall, 1050 A1A N., $30-$33.50, 209-0399, pvconcerthall.com.