VERNON REID: THE METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
Living Colour performing their new single,”Behind the Sun,” on WYNC’s Soundcheck this past Friday.
Getting to spend nearly an hour on the phone with Vernon Reid was another huge fanboy moment in my life. The band’s debut album, Vivid, was one the first cassettes (!) I ever purchased on my own, making Living Colour one of the first bands I ever listened to that weren’t introduced to me by my parents. Today, more than twenty years later, the band is releasing their fifth studio album, The Chair in the Doorway (Megaforce). The fact that it’s no less powerful or brilliant than Vivid made talking to Reid even more exciting, because my love of the music he and his band make isn’t at all rooted in nostalgia (read my review of the record here).
As you’ll see from the following transcript of our chat, Reid doesn’t exactly think in linear terms. There were definitely moments when I had thoughts such as “Why is he talking about Pokemon?”, for example. But he always comes back around to his original point, leading to many “Oooooohhhhh! I get it now!” moments in the conversation. And given the dude’s music, that makes perfect sense: while Living Colour is ostensibly a traditionalist hard rock band, they’re still constantly and thinking outside the box and trying to navigate unexplored terrain.
After the jump, check out Reid’s thoughts on the writing and recording of The Chair in the Doorway, the meaning of that album’s title, the joys of interacting with fans through the net, and more.
Axl! It’s Vernon Reid.
Hey, Vernon, how are you?
Okay, okay. So are you the Twitter dude?
I’m one of the dudes on Twitter. I do it with Vince, the guy I run MetalSucks with.
Thanks for doing this, man.
Oh, man, well, yeah. Thank you for the cool post on “Behind the Sun,” I really appreciated it.
Oh, well, we love that song…
I thought that was a very cool take on [the song]. And I loved the comments. This one guy said, “I didn’t know they played the theme from Miami Vice.” That was funny [laughs]. There was some delightful snark that came through. But a lot of people giving responses that were really positive.
Yeah, a lot of our readers are smart asses…
Oh, yeah, well, of course. You named it MetalSucks, right? [laughs]
So… new album, The Chair in the Doorway. First thing I gotta ask you, as a fan, is this: it’s been six years since Collideoscope. What took so long?
Y’know, Collideoscope… it’s funny… I don’t want to bad mouth our old label [Sanctuary] too much because we did have good people that worked there and we did have fans that tried to help, but they were essentially a catalog company. And they weren’t set up to really promote bands and put bands out there. I remember Scott Ian was pretty livid [laughs]. We were on the same label [as Anthrax], and he was pretty livid about Sanctuary.
It was really far too long away. Part of it is just the timing. We’ve been coming back, and it’s a real process… you know, everybody [in the band] is a parent now, we all have different things that we do… I have a project with DJ Logic called The Yohimbe Brothers, Will [Calhoun, drummer] has a couple of jazz projects, Doug [Wimbish, bassist] is in , like, ten other bands [laughs], Corey has a solo career, and he started going on stage, doing Jesus Christ Superstar. In fact, his time doing that was really great, I think, because he just sings his ass off on this record. I mean, just really, incredibly consistent. And this album really showcases him. I think he’s a great singer who never really got his due. And I think this record really kind of corrects that.
So once everything with Sanctuary had played itself out and everyone’s schedules worked out…
Basically the root of this album [The Chair in the Doorway] is the title. And it’s the first record where we started with the title. All our other records, we came up with the title afterwards.
Corey [Glover, vocalist]… Corey is like Yogi Berra, he just comes out with these sayings, and you’re just like “What does that mean?” He’s like Yogi Berra-slash-Yoda [laughs]. So he said during the early, kind of contentious recording of Collideoscope, “Well, you know the problem is that the chair is in the doorway.” And a couple of years ago I turned to him and I said “You know that thing that you always say? That’s going to be the title of our next record.” There were no songs written yet.
So what does that mean, “The Chair in the Doorway?” How does Yogi Beara/Yoda mean it?
Well, my interpretation of it is that when we’re having difficulties, when we’re pre-judging things and we’re already like “Well this song is too this or too that” or whatever, Corey’s like “Let’s not get stuck on it, let’s keep moving forward.” And when he says “chair in the doorway,” it’s like the conversation that people are having, it’s like the three hundred pound gorilla in the room. It’s a variation on that. There’s something in the way, it’s there, and nobody’s moving it.
And what resonated for me with [the phrase] “the chair in the doorway” is that it’s a very real, concrete, physical reality. You can get up right now and put your chair in the doorway. It’s not fantastical. But… it’s still completely abstract. Your chair’s not supposed to be in the doorway. It’s supposed to be at your desk. Why is there a chair in the doorway? Who put the chair in the doorway? What is the purpose of the chair in the doorway? Who’s gonna move the chair in the doorway? So it becomes a very abstract thing, like the notion of how we build traps for ourselves. If you put a chair in every doorway, you’ll essentially of trapped yourself in the room. And that’s kind of the idea.
At one point, the title was really contentious, because just like you said, what does “the chair in the doorway” mean? But I sensed a real resonance with it, even if I couldn’t explain it fully. And one of the problems that we have is that everything has to be explained. Like, I didn’t know, what is a “pink floyd?” Who knows what a pink floyd is? It is what it is. Well, because Pink Floyd is a huge rock n’ roll band, we accept that. “Pink Floyd” is just part of the language. We don’t need to know what a pink floyd is. But the notion that everything can be explained and articulated… I don’t think that everything necessarily should be explained and articulated. I think a bit of “Well, I’m not sure what that is,” is healthy.
What I like about The Mars Volta… I like them because I don’t completely get it. There’s something about what they do that is completely, weirdly mysterious, but is still somehow cool. That’s the only thing that really matters at the end of the day. It doesn’t matter if you can explain it chapter and verse.
I sat down… this was years ago and it’s kind of gone out of favor now… but I sat down and decided to look at Pokemon. I had a fascinating experience with Pokemon. Because by the middle of the thing, I was going “Of course it’s that way.” And on certain levels where it’s completely mindless… but it’s completely detailed. It’s a detailed world with rules. And I’m going “I love this.” [The kids] were mad for it. They were mad for it at that time. Because the adult mind can’t fathom… the adult mind rebels against it. Part of my mind was rebelling against it: “This makes no sense, this is stupid!” But that’s perfect. Where [weird stuff] stumbles is when people don’t go all the way. They hedge their bet, and that’s when it fucks-up. That’s when it’s whack. Like, if you’re gonna go all the way with it, I may not even dig it, but I have respect for it. When it’s like “Okay, I can tell that you’re not committed to it”…
All my girlfriends that drove, drove really well. The first girlfriend I had drove a Mustang. And she did this crazy maneuver one time, a super-fast u-turn. I was completely freaking out, and she said “If you’re doing something, you have to do it.” You can’t think “OH MY GOD!” in the middle of the turn.
So following along that line of thinking, I imagine that there isn’t really a concrete explanation to the cover art.
The artwork… I wanted to mention this… the artwork is all from a Flickr group. So the artwork is really all done by fans. I turned to Tim [Emgushov], who helps us run our MySpace, and I said “Listen, I wanna run a contest.” All we gave people was the title of the record, and we got amazing things… in fact, The Chair in the Doorway Flickr group is still up. And we got really wonderful stuff, including all the artwork for the booklet… it was all done by fans.
That’s pretty incredible.
Yeah, it’s trippy. And we would have never found any of it without this emergence of what’s going on right now with the web and this interaction you can have with the fans. What I like about it is that it oscillates… do I completely know what the chair in the doorway is? No. I know it resonates. It resonates just the way I explained it. There are very few things that are concrete and abstract simultaneously.
And having said that, I would say that The Chair in the Doorway is a kind of unintended concept album. Because we had a title first…
So to that end… is there any kind of firm storyline in your mind? Or is it more like what you’re saying, where it’s not a “story line” per se…
Well, it’s kind of like… I guess the storyline is like “How do I get in my own way?” The chair in the doorway is clearly an obstruction. Like the song, “The Chair,” is a great song, because… it wasn’t intended. If we would have started out “Okay, we have a record called The Chair in the Doorway, now we’re gonna write a song called ‘The Chair’,” it would have been completely whack. But the song almost carpentered itself into existence.
The premise of the song is, “Everybody plays the role.” You’re a metal guy, right? So if you’re a metal guy, there’s a certain way you’re supposed to dress. You’re a cop, you have to dress a certain way. You’re a chef, you have to put on a certain thing. If you’re a teacher, there’s a certain thing that you have to do. Right? And what “The Chair” is about is the breakdown. Because the metal guy, the cop, the chef, the teacher, are all real people with lives and real issues. But when they put on uniforms, they’re professionals, they’re like, “I am playing the role.” But you’re also who you are. You can actually pretend to not be you for the eight hours a day that you’re wearing the uniform. But that conflict can be disastrous. The failure to integrate who are with whatever you’re doing… you have to have a little bit of who you are in whatever you do. You have to have some part of the actual you in the mix. If you don’t, there is a real problem coming down the road. When those roles are in a conflict that cannot be resolved, then you have a complete breakdown.
It’s funny to hear you talk about those roles, because sometimes Vince or I meet someone and they seem surprised that we don’t look more metal.
I’m always taken aback by the metal face, the metal thing. The need to look serious and deadly. And I think to myself, y’know, “We smile too little.” And I’m thinking, “Man, you get to sing about death and destruction, your band’s real popular, and yet you look like you’re unhappy.” And I don’t get that.
I remember I walked up to Henry Rollins one time – and Rollins puts on the game face like no one else – and I said “Henry, it’s okay. It’s really not that bad.” He was standing outside of CBGBs with the Black Flag face on, and I was like “Come on. The song ‘Liar’ is a hit, you’re making tons of money, and you’re standing there with that furrowed brow.”
So… sorry to change gears a little bit and talk about the actual making of the album… what’s the songwriting process like for this album? Did you all collaborate, or did people bring in complete ideas?
It’s a mixed bag. Like the song “Not Tomorrow,” Will had pretty much done. He had a lyric and I collaborated with him on literally a one-word lyric change. And he dug it, and it just kind of moved forward.
But we all bounced ideas off of each other. Like the song “Method”… we wrote the words pretty much, but the melody to “Method” came from Milan [Cimfe], who was one of the engineers.
The song “Burnt Bridges”… Y’know, this album is the first album in a long time where Corey and I collaborated like in the old days. Like with “Middle Man” and “Never Satisfied,” the song “Burnt Bridges” is a Corey/Vernon collaboration. And also “Taught Me.”
It’s funny, because Corey and I kind of wrote the words to that song together, and I know for a fact that we both have exes in mind [laughs]. We both have those women. There’s a woman who has a place in your life that… it’s not as simple as “Oh, she’s a bitch, fuck her.” It’s not that simple. And really, we know that’s true. Men lie about that all time. We lie all the time. And this song is really about, well, you know, you taught me everything. I’m the way I am now, for good and ill, because of you.
And there’s a lighter side to that, like the song “Asshole.” It’s just kind of like this completely warped Disney scenario, like “I heard a tree speaking to me it said ‘You are an asshole.’” [laughs] And in my mind it was like – we don’t have the budget for this – but it would be a total Disney tweeting birds kind of thing [laughs], except the world turns on you because you did a stupid thing, you left your true love. And instead of the world putting its hand on your shoulder, it calls you an asshole [laughs].
And what about the production for the album?
We worked mostly with Count, who works with Galactic and DJ Shadow… not a metal guy. But it worked out, I think it worked well. We have such a culture of complete deference or complete agreement… but different points of view, as uncomfortable as they might be, are critical. So it came together.
For example, I had a song that I really wanted on the record, and I was pissed off that the song was not included. And now I genuinely am so happy that it didn’t make it. And everybody had a song like that – “Oh, I think this song is really good.” And it’s like, yeah, it’s a good song – but it doesn’t fit The Chair in the Doorway. Sometimes getting your way is getting in the way. So it worked out really well.
Does having these different people around help creatively? Do you feel that it’s hard for Living Colour, twenty odd years later, to keep challenging yourselves?
It’s a funny thing. I kind of don’t believe in inertia theory of band life – like, the band exists just because it exists. I think it’s about the work. Every record’s not gonna sell huge or hit the mark, some records are a mixed bag… there are things on Collideoscope… there’s a song on that record that I wrote, the song “Great Expectations,” that was very dated, and shouldn’t be on that record. But at the same time, I’m proud of the song “Flying.” That was really kind of the centerpiece of what [Collideoscope] turned out to be. [That record is] really kind of about September 11, and that particular song had a real resonance. But “Great Expectations” shouldn’t be on that record.
So I’m just really proud of the fact that we made this record and didn’t manage to unmake it. Even if along the way there were real questions about what we were making, the fact that we had a challenge, had a mission… challenges and missions are crucial to band health. The fact that the band had not been in the limelight for awhile made the band hungry again. I’m amazed when I hear a record that’s really good from someone who’s established and wealthy. Because we’re in a world of materialism, and people are bought off by trinkets, as another one of my ex-girlfriends would say.
And part of The Chair in the Doorway is about that. It’s not so much complaining about life, it’s not one of those records, but it is an acknowledgement that a lot of our conflicts… it’s like Saw 7: the trap is of our own devising [laughs]. And it’s an acknowledgement of that.
I’m really happy that we didn’t try to re-hash old material. We didn’t have a song like “Funny Vibes,” we didn’t have a song like “Cult of Personality” for this record. The temptation is obviously to go, “Oh, we need another big riff thing like ‘Cult’.” And it’s funny because we have riff-things, but the riffs are very different – like “Behind the Sun.” It’s weird. It’s got elements that kind of shouldn’t fit together, but do. ‘Cause really, the language of this thing, of rock, of metal, whatever you wanna call it, the language has to be extended, it has to be challenged, it has to move forward, or it just becomes a dead thing.
So speaking of expanding and challenging… you’re obviously a very envelope pushing guitar player. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of traditionalist stuff going on with your playing at this point. How do you approach things like solos at this point? How thought out are they in advance of going into the studio, or how off-the-cuff are they?
It’s a combination. Like on “Hard Times,” it’s maybe the most traditionally metal-sounding in a way, ‘cause it’s three-quarter time, and three-quarter time has a rich tradition in metal, like [singing] “Duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh-duh-duh.” And so in a way, with that song, instead of just kind of riffing it at the beginning, I kind of hinted at the harmony and the pinches and the chords a bit, and then in the second half of it, I play a bluesish kind of vibe over the changes. I kept thinking “I’m gonna turn around and do a sweep arpeggio blah blah blah,” and you know what? The more I listened, the more I thought “No, this is exactly what it should be,” as opposed to “Oh, I need to do this, that and the other thing.” It’s very melodic.
It’s weird. A lot of metal is basically classical music. I’m always really surprised – guys really play the same solo all the time, you play it like it’s a classical passage. But I didn’t come from classical music – I came from funk and jazz and crazy stuff, yet I wound up here because I love Led Zeppelin as much as the next dude. So on certain songs, it’s a little more structured. Like there’s a kind of line at the beginning of “Taught Me” – [hums the line]. That really just kind of came to me and it was like, “Wow, that’s really nice,” so it just stayed.
On “Bless Those”… it’s funny, we had taken that song to a whole other place, and then it came back to being kind of a blues thing. And I’m really happy that it did. The other version was faster, and I actually kept some of [the solo from that version] -it was kind of like “Oh, I really like that solo. Can we slow it down, can we take that solo and move it [to the new version of the song]?” And Ron St. Germain [who mixed the album and did some additional production] was like “It’s gonna sound like crap! Why you gotta mess with the sample rates?” and all that [laughs]. But the more I listened to it, the more I liked it.
My impression from briefly hanging out with him is that Ron is a very opinionated dude.
Um, yeah [laughs]. He would deny this, but he’s like our Hunter S. Thompson [laughs]. He’s kinda like Uncle Duke in Doonesbury, except he doesn’t have a cigarette holder [laughs]. Yeah, he’s an intense guy. Y’know, he’s an American American, and that’s what I love about him, that’s what I dig about him.
Dude, one last thing then I gotta go. I am just going on and on, “blah blah blah blah, woof woof woof woof.” [laughs]
No worries, I’m glad to listen…
Okay, so one last thing. I’m playing Parker guitars now. I started out of course with Hamer. But we’re actually gonna do a Vernon Reid model Parker. So through the course of making this record, I’ve been playing prototypes of my new guitar. So I’m really excited about it. It’s the first time that I’m playing with a brand new brand, and certainly one really built for me. I mean, of course the Hamer’s were built for me, but this is the first time that there’s been, literally, a Vernon Reid model.
Awesome. I’m excited to see you guys live again, I haven’t seen you in a few years, but you guys always put on an amazing show.
Thank you so much, man. And it’s been great connecting with you guys on Twitter. I love the Twitter experience. I really dig it.
Awesome. Thanks for giving me so much of your time, I really appreciate it.
Thank you for your support, bro. It means a lot.