Living Colour’s Doug Wimbish: The 13th Floor Interview Pt1

Doug Wimbish will be in Auckland with Living Colour in Mat when they bring their 30th Anniversary tour to The Powerstation. The much-celebrated bass player has been a major influence on contemporary music for almost 40 years having been a member of the rhythm section for both Sugarhill Records (that’s him on The Message) and Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound.

The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to Doug Wimbish recently and talked extensively about the new music Living Colour has been making. Here now is part one of that interview in which Doug Wimbish explains how Living Colour reconnected with The Blues.

Click here to listen to the interview:

Or, read a transcription of the interview here:

DW: Living Colour are really excited, and looking forward, to coming back down under; down to New Zealand. We’re going to Australia – as you know – Japan, Hawaii on this run; so, we’re excited. New Zealand will be our first stop.

MD: Cool! I think folks are excited to see you guys; it’s been a while. And with the new record coming out, that makes it even more exciting. Is the Auckland gig the first show on an extended tour, or is it just part of a leg that you’ve been working on overall?

DW: It’s a leg. We’re basically ramping up for the release of our new product that’s going to be coming out, called Shade, which is going to be coming out in June. This tour is like a lead up to us putting that out, and then we’re looking to try to drop a single, that’s hopefully going to lead us into coming down there; so, there’s some sort of product that’s happening as we hit the shores. So, that’s the game plan right now: put a single out; and hopefully we can get that out, leading into the release of the record album – fingers crossed on that. To us coming down to New Zealand: hopefully, we can get that all out, so that there is a lead single that happens; and then when we get back to the States, after that run, then the record will be coming out; so, hopefully, we can… come down there, and you guys get to check us out first; we do a run, and then we come back again at some other point as well. We love it down there! We have great memories of playing at The Powerstation. I’ve been there with Tackhead and other bands; so, we enjoy coming there. We always have a great time. We love the indigenous vibe that’s there, with the Maoris, and everything. We just feel like we’ve always been embraced, and always been well received; and we so much are looking forward to coming back down; we really are.

MD: I’m hoping that you can shed a little light on Shade, so to speak, and what to expect, and what was involved in making the record? I guess it’s still somewhat in progress, but mostly done, is what I understand; is that correct?

DW: Where we are right now, the record is, all the pieces are in place. This record has been recorded, mixed, mastered. It’s in the final staged of mastering, almost while I’m speaking to you right now, the guy, Mike Pucci, is mastering the record in Brooklyn; he’s working on that right now; so, album cover: done. We’re going to have all the elements that are needed for the record done this week; so, in the next week or so, we should have everything pretty much lined up, but that’s kind of… but is the record done and coming out this year? Yes! Is it going to be coming out sooner than later? Yes!

And as far as the content and us making the record: well that’s a very interesting story of how that all took place; and here is how that goes down: We were invited to perform at the Apollo Theatre, and the event was to celebrate the one hundredth birthday of Robert Johnson, the blues artist; so, there were a lot of great folks that were a part of this celebration. They actually had one of his descendants come – I think it was a grandson, or somebody that was there – representing the Johnson family. It was Steve Jordan that was the musical director for the evening, and we had Taj Mahal; there were quite a few different entertainers that performed; and Living Colour was asked to do it.

And it was a very interesting day, because what took place was magic; and here’s how that magic went down: basically, Corey was on the road at the time, I was just flying in from England; so, we were both kind of like we had talked about what we wanted to do, but we didn’t have the time to rehearse anything; so, I was like, “Okay, what song are we going to do for this particular show?” So, it was like, “Okay, let’s do Preachin’ Blues,” but when we got to the – because everybody was scattered around – what we did was start to go, “Okay, let me find different versions of this song, so that when we get together, we can at least hear the different versions that people did.”

So, we got together at the Apollo, Corey shows up at sound check, and by the time he came, they’re already rehearsing the other artists that are to perform down stairs. We were scheduled to be it’s the day of the gig, sound check and rehearsal going on at the same time. That particular crew of folks that were doing the show that we were a part of, that had really been involved with the Robert Johnson thing for a while, they had already started rehearsing the day before with the band – so, they had already kind of rehearsed stuff; so, they’re actually doing more of a run through at the actual gig during sound check – we, Living Colour, haven’t played a note. We’re still trying to figure out what the hell we’re going to do.

So, I rolled up with three different references of Preachin’ Blues – different folks that had did it, the original one, and there’s a lot of folks have covered that song – so, we sat down, we go up in the room, we don’t know what we’re going to do, but we know that we have to do something, because we’ve got about half an hour to put something together, to figure out what’s going on; so, I came with the lyrics, and my girlfriend, Diane, helped to get together some of the, okay, let’s find some of these different things to use, so when we get together, we can play some stuff; and okay, cool! We got together, got the source material, got the lyrics, we’re all in the room. Corey’s there – he’s on fire, because he’s just getting off the plane; so, he’s still bubbling from the night before – he’s almost like, “What am I doing here? Why am I here right now? Okay, alright, here’s what we’re going to do!” So, we started looking at “Let’s take this vibe from that, take that vibe from that, and then we put our own vibe, and then we’re going to do that; okay, cool!”

So, we kind of just had an idea of like, “Well, we like the frequency of how this person’s doing.” We like the DNA of what Robert was doing, and then there’s the Living Colour approach of how we naturally do our thing, from our imprint. We kind of quickly put together, because we didn’t have any time. “Okay, let’s start it off like this, put the middle section like that, do the verses like that break it down like that, do our Living Colour thing like that; okay, cool!” Where you know, so, we’re up in the room, just trying stuff out, acoustically, we went on stage and did a sound check, and was like, “Okay, we got something happening; alright, cool!” So, we played it, and it was like magic; and then we did the gig, and it was complete magic. If you go online and Google… ‘Living Colour Robert Johnson live at the Apollo’, you’ll see that performance; and probably, my wife filmed it from the side of the stage.

But it was such a magical moment that took place. It was one of those moments in our career where it was almost like, first of all: we’re playing at the Apollo theatre – it’s our first time ever playing; well, first time I’m playing with the band – so, we’re at the Apollo, it’s packed out, dignitaries, it’s a celebration, a lot of great folks are there; we don’t want to screw it up. And let me tell you: it was like one of the most magical moments of my being with Living Colour, was that moment. Corey sang his ass off! It was just pure magic. We played the son once, and then we played it live in front of the people; and it was one of those magical things. All bands, you have a time frame, where the longer you’re together, the more things can come up to maybe make you want to question, “Why? What are we doing here? Why are we still doing this?” So, we, Living Colour, were at this – we’d already put a record out a few years before – we’re at that crossroads  – we’re at a real Robert Johnson crossroads – but that one performance, and us choosing that song, and us putting that all together: we got a standing ovation; not just from the crowd, but from the band that was there; so, I was like, “Wow!” You might really think you’re on your knees a little bit; have some faith. It was a blinding performance. Corey sang his ass off – it was almost like a spiritual vibe – so, we got back together after that.

We were like, “You know what? This is something special here.” It gave us enough fire to say, “Let’s go back in the studio, and let’s say, what if we start to mess around with the blues a little bit; maybe putting our spin on it?” So, that was where the conversation started. It was borne at the Apollo, at that gig: at Robert Johnson’s hundredth birthday celebration for him. So, it started there, and then from that point, the beginning of Shade – the actual Shade record – started. So a week after that – we did the thing at the Apollo, everybody was so busy – we got a phone call, “Okay, let’s to the studio, and record it;” so, we did. We went to a place, recorded it, and it was cool; so, that’s where it started.

And then, it moved from that sector to like, “Okay, we got something that’s cool. It’s alright, but you know? Mmm, okay, at least we’re starting.” Then, I have a friend of mine that I worked on the Madonna record – I do a lot of records with him – his name is Andre Betts. He’s an old friend. We’ve known each other since before I started working with Living Colour. We became really, really good friends, and then next thing you know, Dre gets a call to produce the Madonna record. I’m in London, he calls, “Doug, I need you to come and play some bass on this.”

So, I go do the Madonna record, and he did a few other things. And the record that he did, did really, really good. He also wrote a song, that Madonna did, called Justify My Love, with Lenny Kravitz… and that was a big song. He’s in there, he’s dialled in, he gets a hit off, he’s doing quite well; pulls me back in. And me and Andre always work together; we did a lot of projects, a lot of projects. I’m like, “You know what? Dre, I wonder if the band would be interested in maybe having Dre come in and maybe continuing our conversation, because – to go back a little bit – we actually did a couple things on Sharing A Doorway. We actually did something at Dre’s house earlier on that; he kind of helped us on one of the song’s I think. I think Dre kind of helped us on the song Behind the Sun. So, Behind the Sun: really behind the sun of us putting that together was Andre Betts.

He helped us out, but it arced over him, and we did production with somebody else. So, when the time came up to do, “Okay, we’re doing some blues stuff. I want to do some re-engineering of a little bit.” I’m saying to myself, “You know what, let me call Dre, and see if he’d be interested in doing it, because he’s got the right personality to deal with our personalities:” he knows everybody, he don’t take no shit; and he’s going to tell you… he’s the kind of guy that’s like, “Look… what did you do last time? Okay, so, you’ve already done that; let’s do something new and different and daring.” Now, it’s hard to get bands to go outside of their comfort zone sometimes. He’s like, “Guys! You’ve already got it. You’ve got your fan base, but let’s try to do something that might be able to introduce… some other folks interested in Living Colour.”

So, we said, “Okay let’s start flipping some of these things.” We had a blues based, kind of like referendum going on. We’re like, “Okay, we’re going to try to re-engineer some blues stuff;” so, that’s kind of like where the base started from. So, we started messing around with some simple chordal stuff; started just, “How are me and Vernon going to start to vibe some of these things up, and how can we take something in that sort of blues idiom?” To a certain degree, because blues is everywhere right now – whether it’s the structure of it, or however you’re dealing with it – so, we started messing around with it. And then we were like, “Okay,” and then we kind of drifted back into some more Living Colour stuff, and then we’d come back and drift; kind of like floating around a little bit. So, then… after a while – after a few… sessions – we started to get a lot of different music, of different things, and then we were like, “Okay, we got the music; we got to put some faces to these things;” so, the journey was a long journey.

It took us a while to kind of get the idea what we wanted to do. A, B: kind of like what do we have to say about the blues – and we kind of got a spark by doing this Robert Johnson celebration, and doing Preaching Blues – let Preaching Blues be the base of where we’re going to go from; so, we kind of had that as a vibe; so, we started messing around with that, and then we were like, “Okay.” Then as you go into the studio and you record more, you start coming up with more ideas. So, then we started finding the other sides of the brain that kind of like went along with the concept, but also took us into another kind of like vibe; and how do we make all these things kind of talk and make sense? So, after a series of recordings, and starting and stopping, and then, “Let’s see. Okay, so now you have one song, and then you have another song that’s kind of like that,” that can fit in the suit of Living Colour, re-engineering some blues.

We have Preachin’ Blues, then we started to cut other songs that kind of fit in that vibe; so, it was a process of using that as a template, but also bear in mind that we have other things that we naturally do, and if we give ourselves the opportunity to be in the studio, and make some recordings, then we can assess things. But you got to be in the ball park to get a hit; you can’t be in the stands, talking about swinging. You have to go to the studio. I have to walk to my bass, for me to have a conversation; it’s not going to walk over to me.

Living Colour perform at Auckland’s Powerstation on Thursday, May 11th. Click here for tickets in info.