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Interviews : “The fans have been loyal” – An Interview with Will Calhoun (Living Colour)

By on May 8, 2017

Living Colour – Will Calhoun

The opportunity to chat to Will Calhoun, the drummer and percussionist in Living Colour is a very special event as far as I am concerned. Living Colour are a legendary rock, funk and metal quartet from New York City. The band have been active since ‘84 and can lay claim to being a hugely influential outfit ever since the release of their outstanding debut, Vivid, in ‘88.

Every rock and metal fan can namecheck the bands that got them into the genre. Often the roll call of artists that act as the gateway for a burgeoning listener are a far from where a fans tastes evolve. For seasoned fans, that usually means a smirk and a recollection of a well-worn compact disc, cassette tape or even vinyl album by an artist or group whose relevance has long since diminished- relegated to the imaginary mantelpiece we all furnish that contains treasured memories and sentiments.

For me, Living Colour are an altogether different proposition as they are not just a gateway band. Due in no small part to the prominence of the bass guitar in the band’s sound, I selected the instrument way back in ’92 as my primary creative musical medium and am still influenced and inspired by the bands sonic architecture. Indeed, over 100 gigs into my career as a working musician the band’s live sound is coveted for its balance and rhythm-section heavy mix.

So it would be, that the years between ‘88 and ‘93 saw the release of some of the most vital, fresh, yet criminally underrated music under the rock and metal banner.

24-7 Spyz, King’s X and Fishbone, to name just a few, join Living Colour as bands who occupy a special place among dedicated fans and musicians, especially for myself. Talking to Calhoun, I ask if he believes Living Colour and the mentioned bands receive enough credit from the critics, given their ongoing contribution to metal and rock.

“My answer is a resounding no”

Calhoun’s response isn’t surprising.

My own take on the matter is that the so called Seattle scene and grunge ‘movement’ which birthed at around the time of Living Colour’s commercial peak in the early 90’s, led to a prevalence of self-conscious and brooding bands plying a boring yet unfathomably popular soft verse/ loud chorus song structure. Grunge seemed to suck the life and energy out of rock for a time. For those too young to remember, as soon as grunge died around ‘96 mainstream media types jumped on the ‘electronica’ bandwagon proclaiming that rock was dead. I could hardly blame them if grunge was the reference point but I recall thinking that they had forgotten the enterprise of the ‘funk metal’ collective.

I’ll hand it over for Calhoun to offer his own worthy assessment of the critic’s lack of awareness.

“We don’t create for credit, we create music and art for expression and to be whom we are. Sometimes the critics get that and sometimes they don’t. I’m sure Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Parker and many of my other heroes also have made those same claims. However they are the artists that stand out and we- the bands you’ve mentioned, we’ve all toured together, we’ve all played together, we’re in and out of each other’s recording sessions. Our ideas at that time were for us to be unique and be ourselves. Stand in unity approaching this art form with different sounds, a different lyrical sense and borrow from the bands that inspired us… Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, those kind of artists. When I listen to King’s X I just hear so many things. I hear Beatles harmony and I hear gospel music in their sound. So our recognition may not be as well-known as we feel it needs to be but we’re here and we’re playing and have performed many great live shows.”

Living Colour’s guitarist, Vernon Reid founded the Black Rock Coalition in ’85. The BRC incentive is to encourage a new generation of black musicians to play more than just R&B and hip- hop. When looking at rock and metal in 2017, I ask Calhoun if he feels if African American artists are fairly represented or if we still have some way to go.

“We’ve still got some way to go but it’s just interesting how you read about rock‘n’roll and you hear about rock‘n’roll. You listen to rock stations and black people invented the music, I will boldly say it. It’s created by African Americans. I don’t think a classical music station would ever play music and say that the music is not European. I don’t think a magazine would ever come out and state that Beethoven’s music isn’t European or the concert- the symphony that played last night, their music is from Zimbabwe. I don’t see those kind of things happening so yes, it’s a fact and it’s an avoided one and the truth is there, the facts are there. We’ve been thrilled more recently to be a part of the Smithsonian African American Museum of Art and Culture. I’m proud to be there and my family was able to see everything. Little Richard’s in there as are a lot of people who helped us and being from the Bronx, I saw some of my childhood friends and schoolmates such as KRS-One and Chuck D so it’s really important that those things exist. I just find it so astounding that there is still that avoidance of the roots of the music and it doesn’t seem to happen with reggae, funk or R‘n’B music, it seems to happen with rock n’ roll. So you know, we have to continue what we’re doing and great young bands like Unlocking the Truth (up and coming metal band from Brooklyn, New York) are coming out and still setting that tone. It’s not a racist statement to make, it’s just a real statement to make in my opinion. In its reality it should be represented.”

Calhoun’s comments fairly summarise the lack of awareness afforded to rock music’s founding mothers and fathers. There should be no doubt that rock’n’roll is steeped in the history and traditions of African American culture.

I offer Calhoun a hearty congratulations for recording what I feel is the greatest rock or metal track ever, “Cult of Personality” (from Vivid), a compliment he graciously accepts. Surely the track gets a rapturous reception when it is played.

“Well first of all thank you for saying that and second of all, yes. It is a song that people get the vibrations of that song. Amazingly for us, it has triggered maybe a positive response in people all over the world. When you create something and when you’re honest about your creation, it has that kind of response, it’s really quite amazing. We’re always shocked by the response of “Cult of Personality”, we were shocked by CM Punk (mixed martial artist and retired wrestler) having it as his ongoing music for his wrestling, we were shocked that the song made it onto Guitar Hero. It’s been in a few movies, a few HBO specials, so yes, the answer is very surprised but thrilled.

A song I regularly spin due to its vigorous slap bass line and overt funk metal styling is “Funny Vibe” (from Vivid), I wonder if Australian audiences will hear the track. Calhoun’s response contains echoes of the sentiments alluded to in a previous statement.

“That song is received well and yes we are still doing it live and you will hear it in Australia. But you know, funny vibe still happens to us and still happens to people, all you have to do is turn the television on and walk down the street or listen to almost any politician open his or her mouth. You get a funny vibe, so the song is real and present… unfortunately. Yes, we’re going to perform it, I love playing that song as well too, it’s a fun song with great parts. But Vernon was inspired to write that song by getting in an elevator and having an older white woman clutch her purse as she entered into the elevator. So that’s what inspired that song for him but yes, the vibes are funny and you can see enough things I think on Youtube or on the news too.”

Living Colour are touring Australia in May. Calhoun himself and the band have bonded with Australian audiences over the years.

“When we first came down, it was really fantastic to get the response we received on Stain (’93) . We were turned away from coming to Australia two or three times prior, due to our scheduling… maybe it was the Rolling Stones tour. So we finally had the opportunity to come and play on the Stain tour. It was awesome for the Australian record company to present us with our gold and platinum records that were at that time four years old [laughs]. The fans have thoroughly supported us from day one and I’ve come down on my own for my own projects, for holidays and most recently with my son in Melbourne and it’s always fantastic if I have to come down to Australia and play. The fans have been loyal, they’ve supported us over the years. We’ve received lots of online messages about our music, even when we weren’t present in Australia. So we’re looking so forward to coming back.”

Fans can look forward to a new album later in the year.

“It’s titled Shade, it will be released in September. It’s very blues based, not the whole record but we did venture off a little bit into a bluesier style, maybe more so than the previous records but it’s still Living Colour. It’s funk, its rock, it’s metal, it’s ambient and it’s a little urban. So you can expect it to be a 2017/2018 version of Living Colour.”

Catch Living Colour at the following venues through May. Head to www.zaccariaconcerts.com.au for full details.

Friday 12th May
170 Russell, Melbourne
Tickets available at:
www.170russell.com or www.moshtix.com.au

Saturday 13th May
Metro Theatre, Sydney
Tickets available at:
www.ticketek.com.au

Sunday 14th May
The Triffid, Brisbane
Tickets available at:
www.oztix.com.au

Wednesday 17th May
The Gov, Adelaide
Tickets available at:
www.thegov.com.au | www.oztix.com.au

Friday 19th May
Astor Theatre, Perth
Tickets available at:
www.astortheatreperth.com.au

About

Andrew is a musician who has spent many years performing on the stages of the pubs and clubs of QLD. A devotee of the broad church that is rock, punk, funk, jazz and of course all genres of metal... he now shares his enthusiasm via a burgeoning pursuit of music journalism. Follow him on twitter @i_c_e_man