living colour1
Living Colour Guitarist Vernon Reid is the kind of easy going, down to Earth person who makes you feel relaxed from the moment he starts talking. He is friendly, engaging and thoughtful.  He is also focused in that way one finds common in all the greatest musicians; self-awareness and confidence with zero attitude.

His list of credits is both long and impressive. He's appeared live and recorded with a veritable who's who of music legends, as diverse as any I can think of. From Tracy Chapman to Rollins Band, Mariah Carey to Mick Jagger, jazz, blues and metal, Reid has consistently challenged himself as a player who cannot be pigeonholed.
Of course, Reid is best known for his seminal eighties band, Living Colour, which dominated MTV at it's peak and gave us a hit song for the ages.
 
"Cult Of Personality" is as relevant today as it was in 1988, when the band released their hugely popular debut album, "Vivid".
 
In fact it may be even more relevant today, a fact that is not lost on Reid.
 
Yes, we touched on politics, as well as everything from gear to his admiration for Pittsburgh rebuilding itself from the ashes of industry to a high tech center.
 
No doubt that scenario resonates for Reid in a personal way as Living Colour is now touring in support of their September release, "Shade", which sees three of the original members--  Reid, vocalist Corey Glover and drummer Will Calhoun reunite to record and tour together once again. Reid is clearly proud of this record, and deservedly so.
 
"Shade" is a thoughtfully written and produced-- and dare I say-- more mature recording, which after talking to Reid, makes perfect sense.
 
This rapidly became less an interview and more a conversation. Those are my favorite interviews.
 
MHS:  One of the things that strikes me about your playing is , you have to be one of the most eclectically diverse guitarists I can think of.  You'll play almost any style with ease, but I'm curious about what got you started. What made you want to play guitar?
 
VR:  I heard "Black Magic Woman on the radio. That would be first... Okay, okay... songs that first come to mind. "Black Magic Woman", "Sunshine of Your Love"... hearing "Purple Haze" as a child... those are the things that stand out in my mind as a child. And of course, hearing all the other stuff, "Jumpin' Jack Flash", and The Beatles records, how they changed... but the thing that really fascinated me, the thing that really made me want to play that sound was "Black Magic Woman". And then I heard Hendrix. I was too young to experience him first hand. I remember seeing him on the the Dick Cavette Show, and that was fascinating. But I developed an interest in playing.
 
MHS: How old were you when you started playing?
 
VR: Well, I was fifteen when I started, then I gave it up, then I started again when I was 16. Ya know, it was really frustrating. I stopped playing for about 6 months and then I picked it back up and became really determined. 
 
MHS:  Fighting with your fingers just to make those chords... And 15 year old boys are not known for their patience!
 
VR:  (Laughs) Absolutely, it gets frustrating, but it's amazing what happens after you get past those initial, really frustrating things.
 
MHS: I was always drawn to Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page. The chord structures he employed just amazed me.
 
VR:  Oh yes, sure, absolutely! Jimmy Page is a master. I mean, all the tunings... Looking at Jimmy Page... just the sheer range of tones... Page and Hendrix and the recordings and the range of sounds... Page the Producer... Hendrix working with Eddie Kramer.
 
MHS: They both achieved a wide variety of different tones within the context of the body of their work, as opposed to say, Eddie Van Halen, who has an unmistakable sound that you know is him.
 
VR:  You know, whatever tools a guitarist chooses to use, pedals, whatever, they're ultimately going to make a guitar sound the way they want it to sound. Carlos (Santana) played a wide variety of guitars over the years, yet it always sounded like him. There's a consistency there, with subtle differences.
 
MHS:  I understand you have been playing PRS guitars lately..?
 
VR:  Yeah, I moved to PRS... I was an ESP guy before that.  I had a Frankenstrat, a Les Paul. I had a Washburn guitar for a while. My first endorsement... ESP built me a really incredible guitar, which I used in the "Cult of Personality" video. Then I went to Hamer, but I felt they kind of abandoned the designs that drew me. I flirted with Ryan Moore guitars for a while. Then Parker, but Chet already left, and they kind of dropped the ball.  Then a mutual friend told me, "Give Paul a call". So I did, and they had been putting a Floyd Rose on their instruments, which is a trem system I really like, so it came together.
 
MHS:  You have worked with a really wide variety of artists. How do you approach working on someone else's music? What is the challenge for you?
 
VR:  Well, the challenge is... there are a couple of different folds to that... one is, if I'm going into the studio with Mariah Carey-- I played on her first album-- or I'm working with a jazz artist like Geri Allen, I was brought in to bring some measure of who I am to the party. Something they heard... but then, what is supreme, is the song itself. I want to bring something that enhances the song the artist is doing. My approach is I want to add and not subtract.
If I have a thing... it could be wholly inappropriate for the song.  In fact, I don't want to impose those things. My H-9... things... whatever. Ultimately, I want them to be happy. The last thing I want is for them to say, "Why the hell did we bring that guy in??? He came in with the attitude, brought every pedal in existence..." (Laughs). Ultimately, the song, the music, that's what matters to me, to myself. I really am guided by the music.  Working with Jeannie Morrison-- great singer, really special session, I really connected with her-- is different from working with Tracy Chapman. Tracy is very quiet.  It's a little bit enigmatic, but when I heard the record, I knew it was okay. I walked away from it thinking I enjoyed it, but it wasn't a free wheeling do whatever freaky thing that comes mind affair. Working with such a wide variety of artists... I  love it. That's one of the great joys of my life.
 
MHS:  The music industry has changed a lot. Bands have to do a lot more on their own.
 
VR:  Absolutely. Our thing... we really have to engage. The Rock Star used to be able to be aloof. That's changed.  It's a topsy turvy system. David Bowie... he released "Space Oddity" like 2 or 3 times before it caught on. Rush... they were originally a conventional hard rock band until they released "2112". And they changed what they were doing and evolved into something incredible. Pink Floyd-- same thing. They had like 4 albums before "Dark Side of the Moon".  I mean, "Umma Gumma" is not mass market entertainment. Bands, especially today, have to become their own cult. Great bands have a slice of the market.  Can a band become a YouTube sensation? Yeah, I think so, but it's a lot harder,  It's a lot trickier.
 
MHS: You have talked about the loss of venues over the years. Here in Pittsburgh, we've lost a lot of those spots.  Living Colour played the Syria Mosque, which is gone now. Do you remember that?
 
VR:  Yes, absolutely. Great venue.  You know, you have to have foot traffic. You have to have affordable rent. I think a lot of venues just got priced out of the business.
 
MHS:  Soundtracks have become a major source of revenue bands in the new order. Movies, video games...
 
VR:  Oh absolutely! One of the things that really helped us was getting added to "Guitar Hero". It was a game, and I remember meeting those guys very early on at a NAMM show and thinking, this is amazing.  And they became a huge thing, and we became a part of that universe. I mean, right now, film, video, gaming... people are desperate to a be a part of that. There are artists who refuse to advertise, like Prince, or Neil Young, who absolutely does not do it. But then there's Led Zeppelin selling Cadillacs, and it worked! It was a great ad. It made me want to buy a Cadillac!
When you hear a Grand Funk Railroad in ad... (Laughs)
 
MHS:  I have a couple of friends in Rusted Root and one of the original members, Jenn Wertz, was telling me about getting a song in the movie, "Ice Age". She laughed and said that and the Enterprise commercial they landed paid for her house. On a side note, one of the other members, Liz Berlin, opened a really nice venue here in Pittsburgh called, Mr. Smalls Funhouse.  They renovated a huge church and it's a really nice venue now.  Of course, now days, bands are competing with a ludicrous amount of entertainment options...
 
VR: Yes! Bands have to do things for themselves these days. It's a brave new world.
 
MHS: You know that movie "Blade Runner" took place basically two years from now, yet we're not there.  We're kind of mired in these social issues...
 
VR: Yes! And we're not even close. Where's my jet pack? Where are the flying cars? (Laughs) Ya know Vinni, we were always a socially conscious band. I mean, look at "Cult of Personality".
 
MHS:  I'm glad you brought that up. You guys never shied away from socially conscious commentary. But, when you look at a song like "Cult", which is maybe even more socially relevant today...  Someone like Trump, for example. There is very definitely a cult of personality surrounding him.
 
VR:  Let's remove whether or not you support the guy. There is no President like Trump in American history.  The things he weighs in on, the way he expresses himself... I mean there are are members of his own party who are like, "Are you high???" (Laughs) I mean, he's like a Chairman of the Board. He's literally Mr. Big! And what amazes me is how many people actually voted for Mr. Big!
 
MHS:  "Cult" was damn near visionary in that regard...
 
VR:  I thank you for that. The point I wanted to make... It's not about whether or not this guy is good or evil.  It's much larger than that. It's literally larger than life. The Cult of Personality.  Whether it's Trump, or Barak Obama, Bill Clinton... Kim Jung Il! I mean, these characters that literally have the fate of nations and millions of lives in their hands... Why is that? I mean, like, "Why him?"  People who went to high school with him are like, "Really? That guy?" That's why I have a problem with Make America Great Again. To me, America produced Jack Nicklaus and Jimi Hendrix.  I mean, what are we talking about? It never stopped being great.  People come here and overcome obstacles.
 
Epilogue
 
Reid and I talked about things like The Granati Brothers and For Those About to Rock Academy, our trip to Woodstock and meeting Michael Shrieve. He was very impressed because as he put it, "Sometimes the hardest thing for the old guard to do is to step back and let the young people step up."
 
At the end of the day, Reid and Living Colour are a celebration of diversity.  As Reid said, "Our strength flows from our differences."

Living Colour will be playing the Le Creme Music Festival Saturday, Oct. 14 in Allentown.  Go to ILoveSupermonkey.com/Lecreme for more info on this all day FREE festival in Allentown business district.

Category: Main Stage