From the very beginning,Living Colour broke boundaries and erased stereotypes. If known only for their breakthrough single, “Cult of Personality,” Living Colour’s place in rock ‘n’ roll history would be secure, but the band’s career is much deeper than that. From a tour stop in Raleigh, North Carolina, and in anticipation of Saturday night’s show at the Kessler Theater, drummer Will Calhoun talked with DC9 about the band’s 25-year anniversary.
This is the 25th anniversary of the band. How has the music business changed since you first got together?
It has changed a lot. We don’t have CD shops. We used to go out and look at albums, at sleeves. Now, you download songs for 99 cents. You can download songs for free. It can be a nightmare with all this technology. Luckily, with Living Colour, we have a very unique live show. It can be improvised in order to create a unique vibe. Music is very immediate now. You can record a show and then get back to your hotel room and the whole show is edited and up online. The people make comments and they judge you. Technology has made it easier to get information out to people and for an artist that is a beautiful thing.
Why do you think vinyl is making a comeback?
It’s the same reason why people might want to drive a standard car over an automatic. Technology doesn’t change the nation. It’s a new way to do things, but not everybody chooses to cross the street. Some people don’t like cell phones or laptops. There are people who don’t use computers and still have answering machine. I have to say that we physiologically are pretty germane to the sound of vinyl. We both give off very similar vibrations. People react to the sound of vinyl. It’s a whole different sound. It’s a combination of things. My generation really enjoyed vinyl, purchasing it, taking a look at the covers. I am from the Bronx and from the whole generation of scratching. When I see people now scratching on a laptop, I know that is not the same art. I think there is an academic response to the vinyl and how it sounds.
You went to the Berklee College of Music. Is it better to be a trained musician or come at it organically like punk bands do?
My way is to be as skilled as possible. I love classical music. I love jazz. I like to read music. Punk was about feeling. They made a commotion. The music is created out of how you feel. To me, there is nothing wrong with that. It comes down to how you want to express yourself. I feel like you do whatever is best to do your job. I think a punk could be just as good of a musician as someone who is trained. Expression is the important thing.
You have played with an amazing array of artists. What was your impression of B.B. King?
I was honored to be in that session. B.B. is a genius. He was always very respectful. I was trying to make everything fit and B.B. said, “Young man, when I turn around and tell you it’s not happening, then it’s not happening.” It was an amazing session and B.B. took it really easy with me.
What about Herb Albert?
Herb was fantastic. He allowed me to produce and write songs for him. I learned many things from Herb. He has a very interesting background. Herb really surprised me with all the techniques that he could play. There are a million things I learned from him. It was an absolute education to be around him.
What about Public Enemy?
That’s one of my favorite bands in the world. They were friends of ours. I loved their music and their message. The production and sampling were amazing. They did some amazing things with sounds and samples. They are like the John Coltrane of rap to me.
There aren’t a lot of African American rock bands. Do you think the rock industry suffers from an inherent racism?
Yes, it’s because of the musicians and it’s because of the market. Not enough folks are aware of the history of music, unaware of the influence of the blues. It’s a simple yes. There are plenty of black musicians out there who play rock music. We’ve met them over the years. The marketing and signing and presentation of it are still segregated in a lot of ways. A band like the Bad Brains should be larger than they are. There are people still writing about the Bad Brains. It was shocking for me, going on the road in America in 1988 and meeting all these black kids who gave us tapes and CDs of their music. It’s been 20 years and we’ve been to France and Germany and there are still people who can’t accept the fact that black musicians play rock ‘n’ roll. It is a fact. Look it up. There are two sides to that, though. Some African Americans had a hard time identifying with rock ‘n’ roll. I had a conversation with B.B. King about that.
Living Colour’s big break was going on tour with the Rolling Stones and Guns ‘N Roses in 1990. Did you have interactions with Jagger and Axl Rose?
The crowds were amazing and the Stones were complete gentlemen. You’ve probably heard and most folks know about the interactions with Axl. Personally, it was very colorful, but the rest of the band was cool. Axl has come out and apologized about how he was at that time. Charlie Watts still calls me and I’ve played on a couple of tracks with him. I’ve played on Ronnie Wood’s solo album.
It’s been several years since a new Living Colour album came out. Are you working on a new effort?
Right as we speak, we are five or six songs into a new album. The stuff is coming out great. I think something is going to come out next year, hopefully by Christmas time. We have a very busy schedule at the moment. But I think the new album is going to sound awesome.
Vernon Reid was listed as No. 66 on Rolling Stone magazine’s top guitarist of all time. Should he have been higher?
Yes, I think he deserves higher. If you are asking me straight up, I would have to say yes. But 66 is a nice number. People recognize Vernon as a very unique player who came from a harmolodic school of playing. He has remarkable abilities. He does deserve higher, but it’s nice to recognized at any number.
Are there rock drummers you admire?
John Bonham. Buddy Miles was one of my favorites. Charlie Watts certainly. Terry Bozzio is also amazing.