Interview: Living Colour’s Vernon Reid

The New York rocker on his blockbuster band’s beginnings and reformation.

Guitarist Vernon Reid is best known as the founding member of the all-black rock band Living Colour, which exploded upon the scene in 1988, with their double-platinum selling debut, Vivid. Through the unlikely collision of heavy metal with jazz, funk, and hip hop, Living Colour blazed a trail through the mid-’90s on the strength of hits like “Cult of Personality,” which won a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance in 1990. Prior to this breakthrough, Reid had been a fixture on the avant-garde, downtown music scene of the early ’80s in New York, playing in Ronald Shannon Jackson’s band Decoding Society. After the break-up of Living Colour in 1995, he went on to a successful solo career, producing other artists such as Mali’s Salif Keita and James Blood Ulmer, as well as scoring films. Currently, Reid has reformed Living Colour and is getting ready to release an album of new material in 2015.

You were born in London and raised in Brooklyn. What was that cross-cultural childhood like?

I didn’t really live there [London] very long at all. I was there for a year and half and I had my second birthday in New York. I grew up in a Caribbean household, but I think of myself as African American, so I’m actually African-American/Caribbean or whatever the slash thing is. I was raised by Bugs Bunny, Sly Stone, you know what I mean, I was raised by television as much as I was raised by my parents. I grew up a little bit in Bed Stuy, but mainly Crown Heights. That pretty much is the identification.

What kind of music were you listening to growing up?

Well, growing up, I remember stuff like James Brown. James Brown was big. I remember Motown and Dionne Warwick and The Temptations. Two of my clearest memories – I remember the first time I heard “Family Affair” on the radio and it was so strange to me because the way Sly sang with his voice super low like that. I was used to hearing people singing and it was almost like he was talking. I also remember the first time I heard “Sunshine of Your Love” and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s rock music.’ You know, that’s rock as opposed to – it was different than the Beatles. And I heard some of the early rock like Fats Domino all that, but that song was kinda different – different sounds and a different attitude.

How about Soul Train?

Soul Train was a big deal. And you know, I was sent out to get 45 singles, so I would go out a get whatever was kinda hot. And there was another show called “Soul!” But Soul Train was amazing because at first Soul Train were people playing live, and I remember the day they started doing lip-syncing and I remember feeling so crestfallen. Because they had amazing stuff they played on Soul Train – like Eddie Harris, Herbie Hancock, David Bowie was the first white performer on Soul Train, Gino Vanelli. My parents were young. My mom was married at 18 and she had me when she was 19. They also exposed me to Caribbean music, like Lord Kitchener, Lord Melody, The Mighty Sparrow, The Skatalites.

So you had a pretty good exposure to music as a youth.

It was very eclectic. And the best thing about my parents, they never said this is white music, and this is bad music, and we don’t listen to that kind of music. My parents never said that. My mom was actually into British invasion bands like The Dave Clarke Five. She literally had records of the Dave Clarke Five and stuff like that. Even country and western music like “The Green Green Grass of Home.” And also they were big, big into Stax, Joe Tex and Otis Redding.

When and why did you pick up guitar as opposed to any other instrument?

I liked the guitar. I had heard Carlos Santana coming over the radio, and I thought his guitar sounded like singing, like a vocal to me. So what happened was that I had a cousin who visited my pops, and we wound up talking about music. And I think I wore him out by my talking about music – I was telling him how much I dug this and how much I dug that – and he said, man, you’re really into music. I said “I love it, and I really want to learn how to play a tune.” So he had a guitar, and he didn’t play it, it was gathering dust, and he said, “You can have it, I just want to get it out of my room.”

So I brought this guitar home, and that’s when my troubles began [laughs]. And I tried to play and I stopped playing because the strings were really hard. It was super difficult to play this thing. But the thing that changed it around was I went to an after school workshop at Brooklyn Tech – I was already in high school – and there was an after school jazz workshop, and that’s where I met Miles Jay and Raymond Jones and Gene Ghee.

Gene Ghee is a saxophonist, and he brought in records. It was the first time I had heard of John Coltrane. He played James Brown’s version of “Cold Sweat” and then he would play Mongo Santamaria’s version of “Cold Sweat.” He played “My Favorite Things” the cast album, and then he’d play Coltrane’s version, and hearing “My Favorite Things,” it is just so…It had a big impact on me. And so from there, yunno, I started listening to Miles Davis, and my friend Reggie turned me onto all the other music that Jack Bruce was doing. That’s when I heard Band of Gypsies and Machine Gun and [Hendrix’s] “Star Spangled Banner.”

Was Hendrix a big figure for you growing up?

He became that. I mean he was so colorful, and he kinda defined the age in a way. The whole idea of freedom and exploration, and transformation – you know, it’s what united him to Coltrane. Coltrane and Hendrix made very different music, but there’s a point where they almost overlap. ‘Cause this whole idea of a musician on a journey of discovery as opposed to a musician who’s a gifted entertainer, as opposed to a musician who amuses you. Then, all of a sudden, it seemed to me that musicians or artists, that there was something more involved. It was more than entertaining the audience. It was the idea of music as a tool for changing your mind, and transforming your experience.

That’s what I thought when I started listening to Sun Ra and hearing Art Ensemble of Chicago and Ornette Coleman, and that sort of stuff. But the thing that’s weird was I still liked Kool & The Gang. It wasn’t like I started hearing this music and I stopped liking James Brown. To me, it was all new experiences, like music was a place for unique experiences. And so I met people who influenced me a lot, like Raymond Jones, and I actually credit him. I met Raymond in the back of history class. Without him, I would not have become a musician.

Your first big break in music was becoming a member of Decoding Society with Ronald Shannon Jackson? How did that happen?

I have a friend named Melvin Gibbs, a bass player, and he was really into jazz fusion. I had been turned onto Mahavishnu Orchestra and stuff like that, so I started listening to Santana and John McLaughlin, figuring out how I could play fast, you know, and eventually I put together a little fusion band, and we played a couple times. It was cool, it had its moments, and anyway, Melvin was a great bass player even then, and he went and he started playing with this drummer in the city, in Manhattan. He said, “You gotta hear this drummer I’ve been playing with.” And the drummer was Ronald Shannon Jackson.

I went to this gig, and the guy’s music was amazing to me. It was different from any other music I had heard because it reminded me of blues music, but it was crazy and it had this kind of Asian thing. It was just very, very different, and I liked it a lot. And then I went to see him on my own; he was playing with James Blood Ulmer and Rashied Ali and David Murray.

What happened was that Ronald decided he was going to change his band up, and so he says to Melvin, “You know your friend who I met? I want him to come, and I want to hear him play.” So I showed up, and I had my little fuzz tone, and we started playing, and it was funny ‘cause he said, “Can you be here next Tuesday?” So I guess I made the band. And you know, his music was very, very hard, and I was not a great sight-reader at the time, and I’m still not the best, but he wrote all his music out. And his music was very unusual, but I liked it, I liked it a lot.

So the original Decoding Society was myself, Vern Nicks on guitar, Charles Brackeen on saxophone, Byard Lancaster on saxophone, Muneer Abdul Fatah on cello, Yusef Nancy on trumpet, Erasto Vasconcelos on percussion, Melvin on bass, and Shannon Jackson on drums. And we made a record called IOU. That’s the first record I ever played on. We kinda started to make some noise in the downtown scene, and I remember the first time I ever flew on an airplane was going to the North Sea Jazz Festival, playing with Decoding Society. We had various configurations over the years, but that’s the thing with Decoding Society, we were just trying to make a little noise.

What was the downtown music scene of the early ’80s like?

You gotta understand that there was a kind of explosion of clubs out of the disco era of the late ’70s. There’s all these clubs, lounges and after-hours spots; there were a lot of places, uptown, downtown, and midtown to play; and then there were all these crazy experimental things going on like the Peppermint Lounge, all the east side haunts like CBGBs, the Mudd club, which was kinda like in Soho, then Area which is in Tribeca. Then also in the 20s there was Danceteria; I saw Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds there the first time they played in America. I saw Blue Cheer at Danceteria, and they played “Summertime Blues” at ear-shattering volume. Then you had The Palladium, The Cat Club, Tramps, The Lone Star Café, Privates, Tier 3, The Squat Theatre, Trudy Hellers. I mean there was a whole ecosystem of clubs that was going on, and musicians were colliding, sliding into each other, it was all happening. I was doing some session work, and I was actually an alternate guitar player for Joe Bowie’s band Defunkt. I was also working with this poet Jessica Hagedorn and her band the Gangster Choir, and we played in the downtown scene. By then poets also had bands and I was also playing in Seko Sundiata’s project Da Da Do Da Da, so there was a bunch of stuff going on.

What was your whole philosophy behind Living Colour? What was your reason for starting the band?

Well, yunno, I guess the reason was because I wanted to put together all the things that influenced me. So punk was affecting me, the avant-garde was affecting me, pop was affecting me, all these things, and I wanted to find a way to pull it together – pulling all the various weird spaces in my head together.

Who was the very first line-up?

The first line-up was a trio with myself, Greg Carter on drums, and Alex Mosely, a multi-instrumentalist, mainly a guitar player but he was a bass player back then. He went on to play with Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam.

Around the same time, you co-founded the Black Rock Coalition. What was the Black Rock Coalition all about and what was your purpose in starting it?

In the mid-’80s it was so rough in New York to get gigs. The thing that made me start it was actually when Melvin Gibbs had started his band Eye & I with his wife DK Dyson. I went to a gig of theirs and there was nobody there, and that’s when I said, “Maybe I’m losing my mind, right?” So I started calling my friends, I called Greg [Tate], I called a bunch of people. I just got all these people in the room, and I was like, “Is it just me or is there something going on here? Cause I just went to this gig, there was nobody there, nobody knew about it. I just wanted to ask you all, am I bugging?” I wasn’t thinking about an organization. I just need to check. Like help me somebody. That was the idea.

So we did this thing and it was very cathartic, and then by the third time we got together, Greg or someone said, “Well, what are we going to do about it? What are we going to do about it? Well, I’m going to write something.” And so Greg wrote this manifesto, and that’s where the name [Black Rock Coalition] came from. And I was named the first president and then Living Colour takes off, but I didn’t start it for that.

What was Mick Jagger’s role in discovering Living Colour?

Well, Mick Jagger decided that he wanted to work with some New York musicians. He had a successful solo record with She’s The Boss. Bill [Laswell] produced that record and it turned out to be a hit. So I went to this audition – it was crazy. I was very, very nervous. I actually brought Cory [Glover]. That’s when I had my hair kinda in dreadlocks sticking straight up like Eraserhead. And I think my audition was terrible, but he [Mick] said to me, “I’ve heard that your band is very good.” And he heard that from a number of people, you know, like Doug Wimbish, Kurt Loder, and David Fricke. So he came by CBGBs, and Kurt Loder actually brought him with Jeff Beck to see us play. We had faced a lot of disappointment – we got turned down a lot. We were looked at by Elektra, and the president of Elektra said, “I don’t like this band.” We were looked at by Warner Brothers and they passed, you know, and what eventually happened was that we got taken on by Sony.

So what was it like going from a downtown, avant-garde player and then all of a sudden your debut album Vivid goes double platinum and you’re opening up for The Rolling Stones on their 1989 Steel Wheels tour?

It’s like a strange dream my friend, like this weird thing that happened. There was a certain amount of, well, we arrived. You know, it felt almost disembodied, but of course we worked really hard for it to happen. It was cool, it was weird, it was hard, it was awesome, it was strange. There were triumphant moments and great moments, like when we signed our contract at CBGBs. We announced that our record went platinum when we were playing in Chicago. And there were crazy moments, but what can you say? It’s like a great moment in a life. The universe is a weird place. In all honesty, I had mad bad breaks, talking about the various people who were in the band and the various things that happened.

What do you think contributed to the break-up of the band after three albums?

I started to witness this growing sense of entitlement. You know, it’s like, oh, we’re owed this. I remember I went through this looking-glass moment. Times Up went gold, and I was so excited I said, “Damn, it went gold.” And the reaction was like, “Yeah, and?” The reaction wasn’t, “Oh my god that’s great!” It really threw me. It was strange. And Times Up was much more in your face. It was much more confrontational. A lot of different influences, and lot more things goin’ on. Stain was the third album. I don’t think Stain went gold.

After Living Colour broke up in ’95, you launched right into a solo career with Mistaken Identity in ’96, which was produced by Prince Paul and Teo Macero. How did that record with two completely different but accomplished producers come about?

That all came from me chatting up Mike Kaplan, about what I wanted to do, what I was going to be, and how I was going to make it happen. He was the A&R man for Living Colour. I knew Prince Paul because Paul was in Stetsasonic, and I was a Stetsasonic fan from back in the days, and then Three Feet High and Rising was one of my favorite albums of all time. Three Feet High and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back are the two greatest hip hop records to me. My thought about it is those two records, it was like the culmination of what was happening technologically.

I think we just reached out to Teo and we met and we instantly clicked. He was actually really conservative, but, yunno, he’s someone who I instantly dug. Like he’s the first cat who did the whole cut-up thing. Also Glen Kolodkin, who was the engineer, engineered a bunch of the great Santana records, so having Greg Kolodkin in the mix was also pretty great. He was a very positive dude. So it was a combination of Glen Kolodkin, Prince Paul, Teo Macero, and Scotty Hard, so every day was an adventure.

You also got into producing other artists like Salif Keita. How did you get into producing?

Bernie Gillis is a writer, and she’s kinda like an artist representer, and she with her husband Brad, they were in this space called Soundscape. Shannon played a lot at Soundscape and we used to rehearse at Soundscape, so she reached out to me and she said, “You know, I’m managing this artist from Mali, Salif Keita.” I knew Salif Keita because Joe Zawinul from Weather Report had produced a record for Selif Keita. So I was like OK, and I kinda put together the crew, the band, and that record wound up being used a lot in the film Ali.

I heard that Living Colour is back together and working on an album for 2015.

Yeah, we’re working all that out right now. The album is called Shade.

So what can we expect?

We’re working in the language of blues a bit, but we’re in flux.

How did you happen to reform? What was the impetus behind it?

Yunno, everyday, I ask myself that same question. We played a show at CBGBs, and yunno, we hadn’t talked together for a long time, and we just had this warm and fuzzy feeling when we got together, more or less. There was a time, people didn’t want to talk to each other at all, and gradually that changed. So now we’re trying to make it work.

By S.H. Fernando Jr. on December 2, 2014

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