Living Colour: Controlled Chaos In The Shade

Photo by Travis Shinn

It’s been 29 years since Living Colour burst on to the music scene with their breakout hit single “Cult of Personality” from their 1988 debut album ‘Vivid.’ For better or worse, the band has become known for that “one hit wonder.” But here’s the thing, Corey Glover (vocals), Vernon Reid (guitars), Doug Wimbish (bass), and Will Calhoun (drums) have been making solid and innovative rock & roll records for over two decades now.

“It was a blessing really. That song put us in some very interesting places as a young band. It got us a lot of exposure not a lot of bands get with their first record,” Corey Glover said from his home in New York. “Think about it. It’s almost 30 years old now and that song still resonates with people today. It is a blessing as it stands the test of time, which you can’t deny. But in a way, there is a bit of a curse to it as well. The other material we wrote, kind of fell by the wayside, they get looked over in favor of “Cult of Personality.” I understand that. People take comfort in what they know and because we never kept making another song like “Cult of Personality” we were kind of looked over. But that’s ok. We aren’t a band that wants to keep making the same record or song over and over. We want to move forward and keep exploring the vast influences in our lives.”

Like some of their brethren, namely King’s X, Living Colour is one of the most underrated and hard to define bands of the last 30 years. Through the course of six studio albums, the Brooklyn-based band has incorporated jazz, R&B, soul, funk, rap, and more recently the blues into their rock & roll-based songs. They’ve also had a stunning guest list of performers on their albums including — Mick Jagger, Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Little Richard, Maceo Parker, Queen Latifah, and more.

“When we started this band, we wanted to tap into the wealth of information we had at our disposal. We had a lot of material to draw from, whether it was our personal lives, or what’s going on in the world, we knew we didn’t want to be a straight forward rock band. I mean, we could have stayed in one lane and followed that path, but we knew not much else would come of it.

“We tried to make a statement and I think we didn’t fit a narrative. Hell, when we started out a lot of people thought we were from England just because we spelled Colour with a U. People also thought we were a fluke or a gimmick – four black guys in a hard rock band – People would look at us and see us from one perspective, there’s got to be something about this band that doesn’t make it work.”

When Living Colour first emerged they were known at “that black rock band” and sadly, that still happens today. Truth be told, they weren’t the first black people playing rock & roll. There was Sound Barrier, 24-7 Spyz, Follow for Now, and of Course Jimi Hendrix. You could even go further back in the history of music and say Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Richard, and countless others were playing some form of rock & roll.

“I don’t discount the power of peoples’ understanding of race,” Glover said. I get it and I understand that. But when we came out it was primarily a white boys club in rock & roll. There was a uniform that we didn’t fit in. There was a disposability of that. Look at Carlos Santana and what he did with African and Spanish rhythms in his music. Hell, you could even say Led Zeppelin brought in a form of African sounds to their music. When we started, and this remains true to this day, we wanted to get a message through that you don’t have to pigeonhole anything in music because it’s all relative.”

With their just released sixth studio album, ‘Shade’ (Megaforce Records) Living Colour continues the bands growth and diversity. ‘Shade’ is the quartets first album in eight years and the band is as strong, if not stronger as they were back in 1988.

The seed for ‘Shade’ was planted while playing a show at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem. The band broke into an emotional version of blues pioneer Robert Johnson’s “Preachin’ Blues.” The song not only brought down the house, but stunned the band themselves. They wanted to capture that moment and went into the studio to record “Preachin’ Blues” and the birth of a new album began.

“Playing that song that night was our realization that we didn’t tackle the blues in our own way and that was something we had to do. We never took a real overview and made the blues a part of what we did. The difficult thing was doing it right and doing it our way. It’s a difficult balancing act and we are particular about the sound we want. We could have gone in the studio and cut 10 songs that sound like, and pay homage to the blues, but that’s not our style. ‘Shade,’ in its outcome, is more of a deconstruction of the blues than an interpretation. It was the idiom that gave us our voice.”

The blues is the basis for ‘Shade,’ but it is not a blues album. The songs aren’t ones you would hear down at the juke joints in the Delta or the back alleys of Chicago. The songs on ‘Shade’ are like blues on steroids. The band continues to invest in many categories for their sound and pulls no punches when it comes to topics of politics, race, and the struggles of the inner city.

“We still have struggles regardless of what’s going on the world and in the current administration. We, as people, have events that effect people every day regardless of who is in office. It is always going to be something, which can affect you and it makes for interesting stuff to talk about. We aren’t a band who has love songs on our album, we’ve done it a few times, but our vision for albums aren’t about sunshine and roses. But we can appreciate that side of things.”

Produced by Andre Betts, who first worked with Living Colour on their album ‘Stain’ in 1993, ‘Shade’ took five years to complete, giving the band plenty of material to use as their muse for writing new songs. But it is a cover song which stands out and is likely to push some buttons. Living Colour makes a big statement about racial profiling and cops shooting blacks with a bombastic cover of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Who Shot Ya?” in protest of ongoing gun violence.

“I am a big big fan of Biggie,” Glover said. “I’d go around singing the lyrics to this song since the day it came out. We’ve been thinking about this song for years, but it was never the right time. The first idea was to do it in a spoken word form, but that didn’t go over so well. Then we fleshed it out Living Colour style and it’s what you hear on the record.”

A common thread between the aforementioned covers of Robert Johnson’s “Preachin’ Blues” and Biggie’s “Who Shot Ya?,” and a powerful spoken word piece of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” is the three songs come from three idiosyncratic eras and all cover the same topic.
“All three of them are old blues artists who talked and sang about their lives. They made a statement about their lives as black men living in the inner city and seeing peoples’ lives that normally don’t get seen. There’s an element to this that is distinct. And here’s something else about all three of those artists – they all died from gun violence.”

Five years is a long time to make an album, but the attention to detail the band puts on ‘Shade’ is well worth the wait. Up and down the 13-song track list is an adventure in a sonic tornado while delivering emotional and timely messages. While some of Living Colour’s peers are content with doing the greatest hits tours for the quick cash grab, these four friends still have that hunger to make new music.

“It did take us a long time to get this record done, but we have never been a band to go into the studio to make a record just to make a record. We never did the routine of make a record, tour, and repeat. And I think that helped us as a band, even though we did break up once.”

“We need to be inspired. We are making music for who we are at this time in our lives. It takes some time to do that. We could do those ‘remember us’ tours and to be honest, we did that a couple of times, but that’s not who Living Colour is. We want to move forward.”

Tour Dates

Aug 16 – New York, NY An Intimate Evening at the Cutting Room NYC
Aug 19 – Hamtpon, VA – Downtown Hampton Block Party
September 2 – New Lenox, IL – Triple Play Concert Series
September 3 – Chicago, IL – City Winery 6pm + 9pm show
September 8 – Eindhoven, NL – City Rock Festival
September 9 – Leeuwarden, NL – City Rock Festival
September 10 – Manheim, DE – MS Connexion Complex
September 12 – Munich, DE – Backstage Halle
September 14 – Vienna, AT – Porgy & Bess
September 15 – Bologna, IT – Zona Roveri
September 16 – Rome, IT – Orion
September 17 – Bellusco, IT – Bloom
September 19 – Solothurn, CH – Kofmehl
September 20 – Bochum, DE – Matrix
September 21 – Vaureal, FR – Le Forum
September 26 – Glasgow, UK – The Garage
September 27 – Wolverhampton, UK – Robin2
September 28 – Leeds, UK – Brudenell Social Club
September 29 – Nottingham, UK – Rescue Rooms
September 30 – Manchester, UK – Club Academy
October 1 – London, UK – ULU
October 4 – Norwich, UK – Waterfront
October 6 – Liverpool, UK – Hangar34
October 7 – Newcastle, UK – Riverside