Living Colour are one of music’s most diverse and influential bands. A thirty plus year career has seen the band hit the heights, split up, then reform and play sold out shows around the world. Their music is lazily described as hard rock however the flavours placed into melting pot are as far reaching as jazz, funk, blues with a little added punk thrown in. Drummer Will Calhoun has been there since the beginning, riding the highs and lows and ahead of their upcoming Australian tour, supporting new album Shade, Will greets me with ‘life is beautiful man’.
First port of call is discussing the new album and how well its being received.
Very well, we are in a new stage of technology, not having record stores and CD’s almost being faded out, so it’s a different approach but all the critical acclaim from the press, the music trades, radio has been very positive!
How are the changes in the industry affecting you?
You have to be clever. Going from cassette to CD, Beta to VHS, one more format may be academically better than another but the fan bases are using a particular type. I’m not happy that there is all this downloaded free music, YouTube and all these things. Artists aren’t getting paid for their work, their movies, their acting, musicians for their composing. You can download art from galleries now, so that’s a tough place to be however you have to adjust, you wonder how I’m doing, I’m adjusting. We in Living Colour are adjusting, we are using the new media, the new technology to best suit our scenario.
Fortunately for us, we came out at a time when vinyl, radio, record shops still existed and we have a fan base that likes to be treated in that format. We have newer fans that download music, fans that met Living Colour via guitar hero. Fans that have met Living Colour by someone sampling something. There’s angles to it, the best I can tell you is we’re adjusting based on what Living Colour means to our audience while maintaining our level of respect and creativity. We also are stepping into a new arena of technology. Yeah we put stuff online, videos, some free music, at the same time we sell music at shows, we do special concerts, any other way we can be creative and get our music out there. We give it a go.
You have brought new technology into your drumming repertoire though?
I have lots of love for electronics, I’m going to bring some new toys down to Australia that I have had designed for me from some very brilliant guys at MIT, with some other guys over here on the east coast. I love technology and having new ways to present my instrument in different facets, so I don’t feel it’s a deterrent but yes I like to bring new technology to the table.
I’m also a frequent visitor to western North Africa, to research my instrument and drumming, rhythms, patterns and grooves, so I’m going in two directions at once!. Yes I love new technology but I also want to learn that 20,000 year old ‘rain beat’, the 10,000 year old ‘wedding beat’. I want to learn the beat for healthy pregnancies, the beat for a good harvest and the welcoming beat for when the elders come back into the community. These things are as important to me as all the new digital Yamaha and electronic companies tools available in the shops. I like to take both of those directions and put them together.
In regards to the upcoming tour, what can we expect from the show?
We are going to play a good part – not the whole album – of Vivid. It is the thirtieth anniversary of the band and Vivid is the record that put Living Colour on the map, so we will be playing maybe fifty to sixty percent of what’s on Vivid. We do want to play a few things from Times Up and Stain with obviously four or five things from Shade. We do want to put out a couple of nice covers too however they can expect to hear what I’ve mentioned.
Right now we’re discussing the set list and it’s sounding along those lines but Living Colour is one of those bands that once were in the saddle, anything can change in a moment! One night we’re going to play more Times Up you know. But it’s the thirtieth anniversary of Living Colour and we would like to tell the Living Colour story, not just the first or second record. We like to play all the other things that brought attention to the band. That could be covering Zeppelin, Bowie, Bad Brains, The Cars. There’s different bands we’ve covered who we like who we’ve covered. It will be a combination of things.
We’re very excited to come down, Australia has been wonderful to Living Colour our entire career. I don’t think we’re down there enough in my opinion so we’re certainly looking forward to coming down and performing in December.
Back in the 80’s no one was mixing genres and styles like Living Colour, what was the reaction like when you started?
The reaction was very positive, I’m not comparing us to Hendrix or Coltrane or any other brilliant artists who came out of music that was unprecedented and shocked the nation. Some people assumed we went into a lab and figured it all out but we’re all New Yorkers and New York is CBGB’s, it’s Madison Square Garden. It is the clubs in Harlem and hip hop was blowing up. The scenes were mixing, Spike Lee had just started making movies – hip hop was becoming an industry – so you had a lot of people hanging out with different folks and Living Colour was an example of New York at that time. Some of us would go to Bad Brains show then go and see Michael Jackson or Van Halen at Madison Square Garden!
We always felt there was no walls, yeah rock n roll was like the restaurant we went into which had no style food, not Italian or Chinese. It’s a restaurant and we are just stirring up food for music. That’s how Miles, Jimi and Bob Marley did it, they combined what they were saying. For Living Colour we just felt it was a normal thing.
When we left New York and started touring around we started to notice people were shocked by it or resisted it . But when your an artist and creating something, you don’t have time to think what people don’t like about you or your work. Directly, we were well received not just by fans but people like The Rolling Stones, Tine Turner, Aerosmith, Run D-M-C and Carlos Santana.
I was playing with Harry Belafonte before Living Colour and I played Harry one of our tapes of CBGB’s and when he told me it was amazing and how important it sounded, I knew nothing was going to stop the band. Harry had seen almost everything in that 60’s and 70’s period of his career and when he said this was new, we had to do this.
Living Colour have six albums, you’ve done six solo albums, you have performed with many different artists such as Public Enemy, Tarja and Ronnie Wood, with the constant touring as well, how do you keep sane and relaxed?
The other projects keep me sane and relaxed!!! It’s important to play other projects, to play Tarja’s music or Ronnie Wood’s. Ronnie house has so much music in it. He has James Brown at the Apollo, he’s name checking Sly Stone, I’m recording with Ronnie but I’m also around Ronnie the artist, this incredible painter of all this music he has seen! He can talk to you about Muddy Waters, early B.B. King.
It’s not just about cutting music, when your around someone like Ronnie, there is so much you can learn from the instrument. No matter how much I think my career is growing or how many pot holes I’ve run into, I’m around someone who has already done quite a bit of that. The best thing for me is to take heed and if I can get the opportunity, it’s to ask the questions I do, so that’s the sane part of it.
If you only stay in your world that’s how you become crazy, in my opinion. It’s important to step out of your world, your comfort zone, get some new information and get a little uncomfortable. Not know everything, not know how to play the patterns, not know how to do the recording, sometimes learn. The instrument always wins, if you approach it that way, you’ll become a great musician and you’ll play for the rest of your life. You’ll never overcome the instrument, you’ll be learning for life taking that journey.
Finally, what’s next for Living Colour and Will Calhoun?
For Living Colour, we’ve got Europe in the summer and probably look at going back into the studio to do a new recording. We also reached the documentation stage of our lives and I think it’s time to project some sort of documentary of the band, the Living Colour story. We should start looking at our journeys, our uniqueness , put something together. There’s a lot of people who don’t know where we come from and the history of this band.
For Will Calhoun, I’m recording with some musicians abroad, looking at an international production with music and culture. I’m not sure what arena that will be in, but I’m looking at similarities and differences of how we can all grow as human beings.
All through the interview, you can sense how Will is loving the journey, growing as a musician and a human being. As he says, life is beautiful man.
Interview by Iain McCallum
Catch Living Colour on the following tour dates, tickets from Metropolis Touring…