Ever since the release of the award winning song Cult of Personality, funk-metal band Living Colour has been a beacon of light in uncertain times. The song was released on July 14, 1988 and contains several audio samples of 20th century political leaders. It is one of the best known songs from that era. Much of their music has always had an undertone of finding direction in an unjust world. The band’s latest offering, Shade (Megaforce Records), which will be released on September 8th, is no different. The album is timely considering the current racial and cultural tension in America.
The band formed in New York City in 1984 and has since risen to international fame. Screamer Magazine sat down with drummer Will Calhoun to talk about the new album as well as the band’s history and what exactly makes them tick.
Calhoun began his drum career at the age of 16 and his biggest influence was his brother, also a drummer. He grew up in the northeast section of the Bronx in New York City and was surrounded by many talented musicians. His community was a big influence for him. “Hip hop was starting around that time. We used to play music in the parks near the Bronx and there were a lot of band competitions,” he reminisced.
Since Calhoun and the rest of the band are influenced by many different genres of music, it made sense for them to create a blues inspired album. The idea behind the album came from a special show they played celebrating the music of Robert Johnson, one of the most recognized blues musicians of all time. “We had an experience of playing the 100th anniversary of Robert Johnson at The Apollo. The four of us were in different parts of the world and flew in for the show,” said Calhoun. The band didn’t have any time to rehearse because of time constraints, so they spent a few minutes in the dressing room before the show to go over the song. Needless to say, the performance was very well received by the audience. In fact, the band received the only standing ovation of the night. This was the moment when the idea for the album was born.
Shade is the band’s sixth studio release and it has been a long time coming. In fact, it has been eight years since their last release. When recording the album, the band took a different approach from their last recordings. “Andre Betts (the producer) had a concept of coming in and just playing riffs, just making up grooves without any melodies, without any parts,” Calhoun explained. From there, the band put together about thirty grooves and then Betts took them and listened to each one. He then started to piece them together. “I would say only two or three songs came out of that process,” said Calhoun. The singles Come On and Program evolved out of the process. All of the other songs were written in the normal, collaborative way.
Socially charged anthem Program is the second single off the album. When asked about the inspiration behind the song, Calhoun responded with a question: “How can you not be inspired living with the administration we have now?” When talking about television and the news that people are bombarded with twenty-four hours a day, he said, “It’s interesting because television programs are called television programs…is it a program for you to watch or are you being programmed?” He went on to explain that over the years, about forty percent of the band’s songs were written due to different conversations they had with one another. “Cult of Personality was written from a conversation we had during rehearsal. We were talking about what makes people want to follow other people,” he said.
The album includes many covers including Who Shot Ya by The Notorious B.I.G. The idea to record this particular song came from singer Corey Glover rapping it backstage in a microphone for years at sound checks. Artistically the song came from them being Biggie fans. However, the state of gun violence wasn’t far from their minds. When making the video for Who Shot Ya, the band included the many sides of gun violence. “We’re a black band so it was difficult to make that video because we wanted to make sure that it wasn’t one-sided”, Calhoun said. When speaking about the state of gun violence, he said, “To talk about gun culture and gun violence, you have to think about it in a full spectrum and not just a cop pulling a gun on somebody. When you can just walk into a store and buy diapers, milk and a gun in the same store, what’s going on in that society? What’s going on in that environment?” Calhoun said, “In the video, we show it with families, we show it with police brutality, we show famous people who spoke out about policies. We wanted to keep it well rounded. I don’t want people to think that since we are fans of Biggie that this is about just cops shooting black people. It’s way deeper than that.”
The band also recorded Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues. “Who’s not a fan of Marvin Gaye? Look at the lyrics of that song. It’s relevant today, and it’s a shame that it is,” Calhoun said of the song. In addition to the band’s original songs, they also recorded their own version of Robert Johnson’s Preachin’ Blues, which is the song they performed at The Apollo Theater.
Living Colour has undoubtedly made its mark in music history. All bands evolve over the years, but each in different ways. “In some ways we haven’t and in some ways we have,” Calhoun said, “We’re family men, so that’s a change from when we were 25 years old running around and touring on a bus.” The band broke up for a couple of years and during that time Calhoun had his own personal experiences while living in different places around the world such as Africa, Chile and Brazil. “We took a break from each other and came back to the table with our own personal experiences which I think made the band more intelligent, more powerful. I think we’re better musicians than we were ten to fifteen years ago. I think we’re better at what we do. We’ve evolved in a way that is beneficial to the statement and the sound and the music of Living Colour,” he said.
Shade will be released on September 8th and it’s a creation that the band is very proud of. The album has been worth the wait, and the band does not disappoint. Calhoun has a message to their fans, new and old: “It’s Living Colour 2017/2018 and we did the best we could with the time that we had to come up with Shade. We’re very excited about it and we’re looking forward to touring. We’re coming to a city near you soon. We want to hear from people to see what you like and don’t like, so reach out in social media.”
The video for Who Shot Ya can be seen HERE.
See the band perform Preachin’ Blues at The Apollo Theater HERE.