"I wanna spend some money too and run coolers in the Bahamas and all that other bulls**t. On the real side of it, I want to play some music and be happy." (Doug Wimbish)
When Living Colour split up in 1994, America was discovering its heart of darkness with a pre-Napster Metallica selling out arenas and Kurt Cobain's lank-haired features adorning every college students' bedroom walls. Against this dark background of pre-Columbine disarray, some serious naval gazing began to gestate, and Living Colour's message and style, it seems, were just too damn 'colourful'. Too gregarious, too talented, too exuberant, and perhaps just a little too black to survive this tidal wave of middle America angst, that has since spawned Marilyn Manson and a glut of screaming, disturbed and dissatisfied white male bands that feel even more disenfranchised than any black or minority group in society. Living Colour's politics made them distinctive but in a kind of fly-in-the-ointment way, their virtuosic playing at odds with the new anti-playing stance of the Nirvana's and Sonic Youth's gritty slabs of feedback, and a radical simplifying that took rock back to a far more punk influenced era, making it more accessible in both its unhappy, sometimes disturbing subject matter and its monumentally blunt riffing, á la 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. Talking about racism just wasn't on people's minds, even Public Enemy went to ground, and Spike Lee stopped making such vicious, politically motivated movies in an attempt to court the mainstream.
Yet in 2001, some eight years after they seemed to have been KO-ed and out for the count, rumours started circulating via the 'Rolling Stone' magazine website that four guys called Vernon, Will, Corey and Doug had reformed and were playing to sold out, ecstatic crowds down America's West Coast and that they seemed to be enjoying every minute of it. As a long time fan of 'The Colour', yours truly was glad, to say the least, that they'd decided to come back to dear old Blighty to perform a one-off show at the Kentish Town Forum, a little venue for a once huge band. To confirm the rumour and set aside any conjecture, I got on the phone to new boy and bass veteran Doug Wimbish to get the full story. Wimbish has, for the record, been part of some of the most influential points in musical history, particularly as a permanent member of the Sugar Hill Gang, and yes, it is he who played that bass line on the now classic 'White Lines' by Grandmaster Flash. Oh yeah, Doug has done his time with a few little names like Madonna, Annie Lennox, Tina Turner, Mick Jagger and Seal, and formed his own bands Tackhead and Jungle Funk, not to mention his whole period in England with Bristol's Gary Clail and his On U Sound System and Adrian Sherwood's African Headcharge. Lest to say, the man's a little bit of a 'leg end', but a legend who has to take his two daughters to summer camp and run pro-tools sessions from his home studio. Despite the early (10am) start to our chat, Doug sounds fired up as ever and couldn't be more overjoyed at being part of one of the greatest American rock bands of the last 10 years. So why did they split? Wimbish is reflective and philosophical, "Really, the band just needed to chill, probably before even I joined the band, they should have sat down and figured out exactly what they wanted to do. They just came out of a spin, and an American spin can be really interesting, you know? Being this type of band, dealing with the kind of issues, being a black band and dealing with that whole label and blah, blah, blah. So a lot of times you just need to say 'Alright, gotta to go on holiday!' But it just didn't happen, man, it's like, 'Oh hell, no! We're gonna work you boys untilÑ' Because you're programmed to do that as a band trying to make it and trying to get over, but when that button gets hit there's no telling when it could stop. It could be anything between 18 months to 2 years, you might realise 'hey, wait a minute, I really like this cat on the other side of the stage!' It's plain and simple man, you need time to get away from something to see what you got. You don't do that, then you blow it."
Having literally only 18 months breathing space between joining the band and looking for his next gig, Wimbish & Co are using the reunion to begin exploring new sounds, both harder metal crunches and softer more dance-influenced sounds, taking some pieces from Doug's Jungle Funk group, with drummer Will Calhoun, and spinning them with a little Living Colour flavour. Yet it seems their working process is as organic as ever, "There are a couple of things that we're doing. 'Lost Halo' is a song that Vernon brought in, another one is 'Trance', a song that I had from Jungle Funk. We're doing 'Power Soul' by Hendrix, and probably 'Sacred Ground' from the 'Pride' compilation. Because 'Pride' was like a 'greatest hits' compilation that the record company put out after we broke up. I convinced the guys to come to London and let Adrian Sherwood and Skip McDonald do some production on them and that was when I think Vernon felt he'd lost his leash on everything else, and then it kind of collapsed. We ended up doing four tracks, three of which ended up being on 'Pride'. We never played that stuff live, we did a couple of drum & bass tunes, after recording that stuff in 1994. When the band broke up, man, everything got deleted from everywhere really quickly! From all the little fanzine magazines, everyone just went 'OK, Living Colour is done, great! Delete!'" That might have been the case in the mid '90s, but now people are remembering just what a killer live band Living Colour were. Wimbish continues, "Now, it's funny because we did seven gigs on the West Coast, a few days' rehearsal, but we basically just slugged it right out! Let's not trip out and go into a whole bunch of stuff, got to get on stage and play. Without a record cats are gonna want to hear stuff they're familiar with, and for those that aren't familiar with Living Colour, we had to do our best percentage of stuff that we thought people are going to want to hear. Then as we went along we introduced some new stuff. We did seven days on the West Coast, three days in South America, which was really good because we started doing larger venues, like, seven thousand seaters and five thousand seaters and three thousand seaters rammed to capacity, so that charged us up totally. Now we're coming to Europe to do these festivals, we're 10 gigs in, and we just decided, 'You know what? Let's have some fun! It ain't about the loot, it ain't this and that, we've had some offers, we could have done some other things, we just want to take it slow, let's have some fun! Period!' From that point everything else will happen."
If caution is the better part of valour here, it's this new-found maturity that will sustain these uniquely gifted musicians to create a new sound, and possibly their best album ever - but money, fame and all its trappings are the last thing on band's mind, priority number one being FUN! Bands, as so many musicians will concur, are very much like relationships, and there have been enough relationships in bands that go way beyond learning the chords to the song! So was it like meeting up with an old girlfriend and getting it back on for Doug and the boys? Wimbish couldn't agree more, "It really was, man! For me, man, I come from a lot of different backgrounds, I've done a lot of music, man, Living Colour was just part of the chest at the time. I was coming off doing Tackhead, doing Mick Jagger's stuff, doing some stuff with Seal, doing some stuff with Bomb The Bass, from that kind of stuff to all the On U Sound System stuff, so I've been very, very fortunate to be in a lot of different scenarios. So when Living Colour came up it was like 'I really didn't want to do a band', but I ended up in it, I was the one who told Jagger about the band, next thing you know I'm in the band! So I'm enjoying it more now after that break because when it happened so much stuff was going on. Next thing you know I'm in the band, next I know we're doing a record - next thing I know the band is over, so it's like, 'what the hell happened there?!'"
Whether there will be a new record before the year is out remains to be seen, but this is the start of a new chapter in the history of Messrs Reid, Glover, Calhoun and Wimbish. What and when the next thing will happen is very much being left to fate, and Wimbish is cautious not to oversell the potential opportunities here. "It's small steps right now, because we just decided to have some fun, to try and do some things. Now in doing that, there are other people that want to make money. We all want to support ourselves and do things but other people have a financial side to it all. I'm not bulls**ting you saying I don't wanna make some loot, I'm not a communist, I wanna spend some money too and run coolers in the Bahamas and all that other bulls**t. On the real side of it, I want to play some music and be happy - it's other elements that always exist of people that have ties, or have had ties, and I don't play a G major seventh note with them! Their vibe is like they are on the business head, and that's when things become complex, it's always going to be like people who want to present you 'opportunities' - that really means opportunities for you and opportunities for them. And if you don't find a way to slow that puppy up a little bit, you're gonna have a problem! If that was the reason a band broke up in the first place it will happen again. So we're trying to avoid that, and we're very, very blessed because people like the band, 'Living Colour has always sold out well here, so I'm booking them!'
Text © Mike Flynn