LIVING COLOUR The X-Press Interview

Living Colour changed the landscape of music and have been hailed as legends in the rock/metal community. The band rose to fame with their debut album Vivid in 1988, one of the finest hard rock albums of the 80s, and have announced their return to Australia for a 2018 headline tour celebrating that record’s 30th anniversary. Ahead of their show at Astor Theatre in Perth this Saturday, December 15, ALEXIA LARCHER caught up with virtuoso guitarist Vernon Reid to discuss the Jimi Hendrix comparisons, live shows and Vivid.

Your music has been described as a creative fusion influenced by free jazz, funk, hard rock, Hendrix-tinged classic rock and heavy metal. What artists and style of music were influencing the you and the rest of the group to create this sound during the formative years?

Well we went through a lot of different artists and styles I guess. Led Zeppelin and Sly Stone are two artists that come to mind. The diversity of the Beatles later records was inspiring. They really transformed themselves. What they did on The White Album in particular, including Revolution 9. This was a band that started out with I Want to Hold Your Hold and by the time The White Album came out they were doing nine minuet tape experiments and became very avant-garde. The first time I heard Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, that blew my mind. Jimi Hendrix and the Jimi Hendrik Experience was an influential band to us as well. I was a little boy when I heard a lot of that music. There was music that was influencing me all the way up to making the first record that the band made. I also absorbed music like James Brown and Frank Zappa. It’s a real mixed bag of music that affected me. Anything that moves me emotionally, just a lot of different things. I didn’t really separate music from one from the other. I just responded to music that made me feel something.

Your guitar style and sound has been compared to Jimi Hendrix. What does his music mean to you and how has his style influenced yours?

His whole story is incredibly inspiring. He started out playing in R&B bands. He played with artists from the South and associated with the South and Mid-West, but he was from the complete other side of the country. He had all these different things. He got fired a lot from these jobs because he was too flashy and too intense. Eventually he took this risk and accepted an offer to play in London. This whole thing of how he became himself is an incredible story. And then he kind of set the world on fire. A lot of the time when the technology was changing, he was also part of the change. He was very influenced by Bob Dylan’s song writing. He created this incredible, powerful complex for him to play the guitar the way he did. It was mainly his guitar playing. His songs are just amazing. I remember hearing The Wind Cries Mary and thought the song was incredibly beautiful and very moving.

When you were picking up guitar were you trying to imitate his style? Was he your main inspiration?

I always felt that Jimi Hendrix, like all the great musicians, taught the main lesson that you have to be yourself. That’s what the whole thing is about. Everyone that I think is interesting has to be themselves. That’s what a like about Sly Stone – he doesn’t sound like everyone else. The first time I heard him I was like, “what the hell is this?” And Miles Davis or Prince as well; they don’t sound like anyone else. People who are really unusual or different and produce different music really appeal to me. Like Brian Wilson and people who hear something in their heads that no-one else really hears. Influences are unavoidable. We are human beings and we learn by imitation. You see someone wearing something that looks good on them and then we buy the same jacket. The fashion industry is built on people fooling themselves. Musicians should take these things and make them what you want. You have to find your style. A lot of people are afraid to find this out about themselves. The people who I think are amazing in my opinion, do what they do despite what anybody says about them. That’s the magic.

Throughout your career you have used a variety of different guitars: ESP guitars, Hamer guitars, Parker guitars and PRS guitars. Do you have a favourite brand and model that you prefer to use and which suits your playing style the best?

Well its funny you mention it, because I today took a picture of 4 guitars from each of those companies together that I was going to put on Instagram. Haven’t put it up yet though. I still have each of the first guitars I got from each company, and each of them is my favourite instrument. My ESP guitar or the black and white Hamer or the Dragonfly prototype and the PRS custom that I developed with them – each of these guitars felt like me at the time. They have a certain feeling. I made the riff for Cult of Personality on that green ESP guitar from so long ago. And then when I started working and touring after the first album my relationship had changed with ESP, and Hamer was such a great company that built these fabulous guitars. Things change because the relationship between companies is interesting. Companies are made out of people and people make decisions and change and have relationships. Sometimes you just have to move forward. When I look back, each of these companies are great instrument making companies and they each made instruments that I love and helped me do what I wanted to do.

When you were first picking up guitar was there one particular guitar that you wanted to play?

The best guitars are expensive. I kind of avoided the Stratocaster at first because that was so associated with Jimi Hendrix, so I thought I wanted to do something else. I played a Steinberger guitar but then I got a gold top Les Paul, which was great. I went through a whole bunch of different guitars and I had to work my way up to getting that. My gold top was really, really great.

Lets talk about Vivid. Its been 30 years since you released Vivid in 1988. What made the band decide to tour and bring this album back to popularity?

Well we already did a 25th anniversary tour, so we did the album as a concert thing already. What we are doing now is that we are playing a lot of the songs off that album along with music from the latest album and other songs. It’s going to be a little bit of a retrospective, but mainly the material from Vivid.

What is it about the album that made it so successful do you think?

We came up with a song Cult of Personality, our biggest song, that was really interesting because it opened people up to listening to a bunch of things we were talking about. It’s a song about a phenomenon. A question on why that person is popular. It’s about politics on a level but it also asks the question of what is it about someone like Gandhi or Mussolini that’s the same. They are very different but there’s something about them that’s the same. And it turns out that the question is a question that comes up in popular music. In a way David Bowie’s Fame is like a precedent for Cult of Personality because it talks about a phenomenon. Cult of Personality is saying a similar thing but through a political scope. I wasn’t thinking that at the time. It’s a song about the way society functions and asks that question. Our first album is very biographical. It’s about what life was like in New York city at that particular time. Every song speaks with identification. It shows what it was like to come from a neighbourhood, growing up in Brooklyn at the time. Our band at that time was from three different parts of the city: our bassist was from Queens, our drummer The Bronx even though he was born in Brooklyn and Corey and myself are from Brooklyn. It was really this African-American diary on a level, on what it was like to be in New York in that era. Funny Vibe is about something that happened to me in a department store in New York. Glamour Boys is about shopping in downtown Manhattan and being snubbed by the people who work there. Even Memories Can’t Wait. I was a huge Talking Heads fan and we started playing at clubs where Talking Heads became famous. It was really a reflection of different aspects of what it was like to be who we were in New York. Mick Jagger was part of how we got to where we went. It was through him becoming involved that Rolling Stone Magazine and others started to pay attention to us. We were already a local band and just developing our following. There were a lot of things that had to happen.

Living Colour has been critically acclaimed as ‘one of the best live bands on the planet’. What is it about your live performance that makes it so special? Did you spend years trying to perfect your live performance?

Well we are very much a live band. A lot of the music that I produced is transformational music. The essential idea of a performance is that it’s going to be an experience and transform what the evening is. That’s something that unites James Brown to Jimi Hendrix to Miles Davis. The music was very much about creating an experience emotionally and musically. Sound is not static, and that’s the thing. We are a combination of different things. Corey is a great rock and roll singer but he also comes from an R&B background or level. Rock and Roll and R&B are very closely tied. It’s these different things that move or separate us. They are all part of what we do. The idea is that we kind of get out of the way and make what happened happen. That’s the weird trick. It’s kind of like everyone can be pretending. The band can be pretending and the audience can be pretending to have a good time. And a lot of times we don’t want to reveal who we really are. We want to have a few drinks and laughs and hide all of our secrets. And that’s the thing about music. Music can totally tear the mask you’re wearing away. And the audience can fold their arms and just stand there or they can let the music come into them and that’s when something happens. The band could be working their tail off and if the audience decides “we’ve seen it all before” then nothing will change. And that happens a lot, that happened to Jimi Hendrix a lot. People didn’t know what the hell he was doing. But occasionally there’s a potential, no guarantee, for something electrifying and magic to happen. Like when everybody becomes unmasked and when that happens, that’s when the ritual of rock and roll, the hoodoo, the voodoo of rock and roll, really manifests. I can guarantee that the band is going to show up and play. But the potential of something really magical to happen is on everybody in the room: the band on stage, the techs that are working the show, and the people in the audience. And if the music comes in and moves us, then something unexpected can happen and that’s the whole point.

Who have been your favourite musicians who you have got a chance to play alongside of throughout your career?

We just did a show with Fishbone in Brooklyn. Fishbone put out their first record in ’86 so it was two years before Living Colour put out our record. We did a show with them in Brooklyn on election night in America and they were outstanding. They were really great. We used to tour with King’s X. they are from Texas and they are just ridiculous and great. And we actually did a tour with the Bad Brains. They are hugely influential to us and they are an incredible group. We actually used to do shows for the band Prong, a super heavy band, and we knew them around the time they we doing their record Beg To Differ. They are incredible. We’ve had a chance to play with The Rolling Stones which was incredible. We did a tour with Aerosmith. They are hugely influential to us. We’ve had opportunities to be on the same stage with people that we really admire.

The band will be touring Perth on December 15 – what can we expect in terms of a set list?

Well that would be telling (laughs). One song that we are going to play that we don’t perform that often will be Broken Hearts from the first album. We’ve played that song sporadically over the years. It’s a lovely song and I’m exciting to play it in upcoming live shows.

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