How some artsy queer kids in Georgia became the World’s Greatest Party Band
Their voices in gorgeous harmony, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson sing over a revved-up rock beat while Fred Schneider barks, “I’m at the mall on a diet pill!” It’s the inimitable sound of The B-52s on the new single and title track of Funplex, their first album in 16 years. Guitarist and composer Keith Strickland disobeyed his record label rep and talked to a starstruck fab for far longer than he was supposed to…
[laughs] Well, when we started, it wasn’t a scene. We moved to New York because there wasn’t really any place for us to play in Athens. It was all happening in New York so, once we signed with Warner Brothers, we went up there. Then, within a year, the whole Athens scene exploded—Pylon…R.E.M…all hell broke loose! Now, when I go back, it’s such a different city in many ways. Any given night, there’s 20 or 30 bands playing and Athens is not a big town. The University of Georgia is there and I think that’s the main factor in having so many young people there. It’s been happening in a lot of cities and college towns, like Austin, Texas.
But there’s also this quirky and queer element to these Athens bands. As a Canadian, I don’t imagine Georgia being very nurturing to that. Am I wrong?
Well, yeah, certainly Athens was a “blue pool” in a very conservative, maybe not-so-open-minded region. Athens was very liberal and I was fortunate to come of age in that environment and in the years that I did. In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, it was just very liberal. Like in high school, Ricky from the band, who passed away in 1985 [at 32, one of the first well-known people to die of AIDS], was my first friend who came out to me. I wasn’t really out—I was at that stage where I just assumed everybody knew [laughs]—but Ricky sat me down on the sofa at a friend’s house and goes, “Ricky Wilson is gay.”
Just like that? In the third person?
[laughs] Yeah. That threw me. I wasn’t really surprised that he was gay but I thought that was great. It took me a little longer to come out…to him, even. I kind of just waited a little bit. We were both very young, like 16 or 17.
I know…you look at those early videos and Ricky looks like this beautiful fey boy.
He had a really interesting personality: he was a Pisces, so he was very sensitive, but he was also very forthright. Like in coming out, he was very out about it in his own way…We had friends who were older and who were out and gay and we’d hang out and go to their house for parties. There was a gay community in Athens but it was fairly closeted It depended on who you knew. But my straight friends—my heterosexual friends, I should say—were also very supportive, even in high school. I was very lucky to grow up in this environment. It was also in a period in which there was still this counterculture philosophy…you know…
Yeah, very much so. People were just cool. They were cool with a lot of things.
Your song “Deadbeat Club” evokes that sense of being young, acting crazy.
That song is reflective of that earlier period, before the band began, when we were just kids running around this college town doing crazy things just for the hell of it, just for the sake of being outrageous and shocking. You just want to declare your difference, you know? But we were part of a much larger circle of friends who were very bohemian—artists, poets, we were the arty crowd.
And I think that’s what people respond to. Your music, your look, your history—it’s all about fun and creativity and silliness.
I used to live in Woodstock, New York, and there was this video store my partner and I would rent videos from. One day, Mark was talking to the woman at the shop and somehow it came up that I was in the B-52s and she goes, “I love them! I never knew if they were gay or not but their music just made me feel good about being gay.” Mark came home and told me and I was so moved by that. The band had never set out to do that.
But I would think you’d hear those stories all the time.
Well…we do, but that one stuck out. It just came out of nowhere. There was a book called Reflections of a Rock Lobster [a 1980 autobiography by B-52s fan Aaron Fricke about how the band inspired him to come out in high school]. We didn’t know this guy had written it. I read it and was, like, “Wow!” This wasn’t something that we built into the band, that we would have this effect on people, it just happened. I guess it’s just that we were being honest about who were are, through our art, and people responded.
What about the song, “There’s a Moon in the Sky?” As a gay boy, I thought it felt pretty definitive. Was that just my interpretation?
No, that was the intent. Fred wrote the lyric, “There are others like you, others like you.” It was that reaffirmation that it’s okay to be different, to celebrate your differences. That has been kind of a subtext to our writing.
I liked the double message that it’s not only okay to be a freak but that, even so, you’ll find other freaks just like you. Communities, even.
And we learned that ourselves, too. When we began playing, we had no idea if anyone would like us. But right off the bat, we played a friend’s Valentine’s Day party and everybody flipped out! Every time we performed, people responded but they responded to us, I think, because they felt they could be themselves. The music was a celebration of their own selves as well. We’ve always been very fortunate to have an audience that brings that sort of inner celebration to the show.
But did you find that in New York as well? You played to punk crowds alongside the Ramones and, well, I can’t quite picture it.
Our first performance in New York was at Max’s Kansas City and we were thrilled because that’s where the Velvet Underground first performed. Patti Smith performed there, the Warhol crowd hung out there. We thought it was the peak of our career to be performing there our first night. They opened the curtain and Fred was standing there in this seersucker suit and Ricky was using this really tiny Sears Silvertone amp and we had it mic’ed very loud over the PA and I was playing this drum kit with just a bass drum, snare and no cymbals. It was all very minimal and stripped down but there were Kate and Cindy with their big bouffant wigs. It was colourful and quirky and no one had really seen that before. I mean, we didn’t think we were all that different—in the Athens scene we came out of, everybody was dressing that way. But when they opened that curtain and we started playing, people’s mouths were literally dropping open, like, “What is this?” Yet despite the image, the music…well, they got it. Between songs, Fred announced, “We’re a tacky little dance band from Athens, Georgia!”
Which, like you said, is funny ‘cause it’s so honest.
Yeah, he was being very self-deprecating in his humour but the scene we were in was, you know, very cool, very noir. And yet the next time we came, all these people were showing up. They were like, “You’ve gotta see this band from, of all places, Georgia.” They looked at us like we were from Mars or something. I know we’re not everyone’s cup of tea. Either you like us or you don’t. There’s no middle ground with us.
Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys once said that “if you have the style of being serious, people assume that you are a serious artist” but the B-52s’ style is the opposite of that. I remember reading one critic who said he was surprised at how good your guitar playing is. Do you find that unfair?
No. I mean, it’s nice to hear. I don’t really think of myself so much as a guitarist.
Is that because you only picked it up after Ricky died?
No, I’d always played. Ricky and I would write the music together. Sometimes I’d play bass and he’d play guitar or we would both play guitar. We were constantly switching instruments. Actually, in our very first jam session, Ricky played congas and I played the guitar but when we decided to do this more seriously, I told Ricky, “Look, you should play the guitar.” He was an incredible guitarist. But yeah, I’ve always seen myself as more of…well, it sounds pretentious but…a composer. I love putting down a bass line, the beat, guitar, keyboards—I love putting all that together and creating this instrumental piece of music, which is what I do now. I really do feel like that’s what I do best and I’ve learned over the years—and certainly after picking up the guitar for performance after Ricky died—that I’m always trying to improve. You’re always in that state of becoming, you know?
Only now do I really feel comfortable performing with a guitar. For years, I always had a lot of insecurities about my ability but also, my playing is very unconventional. I used open tunings as well [Wilson’s signature guitar style on the early B’s records]. There’s a part of me that had it rough because I’d think, “I should be able to do these kind of solos that other people do,” and I just don’t have that kind of interest. But now I don’t worry about that at all—I just do what I do.
But to hear someone who’s been playing the guitar for over thirty years say, “I’m only just now getting comfortable…” [laughs]
Yeah, it is quite odd, quite strange. I think many artists feel that way about whatever it is that they do. You’re always trying to arrive at some place that you never really get to but that’s part of the drive, I think, as well.
So if you’re writing all the music, are the lyrics then totally up to Kate, Fred and Cindy?
Oh yeah. I write the music, which is what I describe as a “sonic landscape” that I create with Kate, Fred and Cindy in mind. Then they come into it with their lyrics and their melodies, which they come up through a jamming process where they improvise. Then we go back through and together, we arrange it. But I come in with a completely formed piece of music so it has a beginning, a chorus section, a verse section, a middle-eight and an ending. It’s easier if there’s some kind of form to start with.
Are you ever surprised by what they come up with? Like you’ve got this rock song and they say, “Oh, this is about going to the mall!”
Yeah, but even they never know what they’re going to sing about until they start jamming. Once it starts taking form, we start piecing lyrics together. It’s a cut-up method. We’ll find a great line or a great melody and we start piecing it all together. Cut and paste. Then the meaning of each song starts to develop. With this new album, I didn’t expect them to be writing so much about sex! [laughs] I’m like, “Where is this coming from?”
I think it was Kate who said that, when you guys finished recording “Love Shack,” not one of you felt that this was the song that would be your biggest hit. True?
Well, there’s a funny part leading up to that. We were playing all these tracks for Don Was, who produced that album, and he said, “Do you have any more?” and I said, “Well, we have this one song but it isn’t really finished.” I wasn’t going to play it and, had he not asked, I probably wouldn’t have. It was “Love Shack” but without a chorus that repeated, which was the problem. Don heard it and said, “No, this is great—just repeat this bit a few more times.” Don found the chorus. It was the bit that goes, [sings] “The love shack is a little old place where we can get together.” That really only happened once in the original song. I mean, it was there but the song wasn’t finished and we knew it. I remember Fred was really adamant that there was a great song there if we finished it.
So anyway, we then recorded the song with Don and we had a great take. It was just going really wonderfully. There was this huge lightning storm going on outside and it knocked out all of the electricity in Woodstock—we were recording up there—so the studio went down. We took a break, went for dinner and, when we got back, we listened to the track and it was really great. We all sighed but Don just said, “Let’s do it! Let’s do it again!” and the next take was really good as well. We just edited the two takes together and, funny enough, the big edit came right in the breakdown of the bass line so it feels seamless though its two tracks.
The song’s always had a great organic feel to it.
Charley Drayton played drums and the feel of his playing is a huge part of that. But to go back to your original question [laughs], we all knew the song was good but we weren’t certain it’d be a hit. But I do have to say that, when the album was completed, before it was released, I’d play it for friends and say, ‘You gotta hear this one song,’ and I did have a very good feeling about it.
And now it’s almost 20 years old—there’s a whole generation that only knows you through “Love Shack.”
We started playing it a lot again in 1997. We’d taken a break after Good Stuff [their last album in 1992] and started playing together again. Cindy had returned [after having children] and I began to notice that we’d started getting huge crowds that really only responded to “Love Shack” and “Roam.” The rest of the songs, they were like, “What’s this?” But in recent years, it seems our audiences are more familiar with the older songs. I guess people have gone back and listened to the early stuff so now there’s more of a balance.
See, I was thinking that you’d all be sick to death of “Love Shack” by now.
[laughs] Actually, you know, we’re not. Or “Rock Lobster.”
Those are the big two.
Yeah, but the response is always so good. And those songs are a lot of fun to play and perform, so no. There have been other songs I get tired of.
Any particular culprit?
Culprit? No, just songs I don’t feel work as well. There are some songs that are just more difficult to pull off live. Some songs from Good Stuff I have trouble performing. They’re a bit more…
They seem a little more free form, I think.
They don’t have that surf-guitar thing driving them.
Right. We’ve moved away from that. But we’re currently doing about seven of the songs from the new album and they’re really working live. They’re going over really well, which is nice [laughs]. Sometimes an artist will have a new album and the audience will tolerate maybe one or two of the new songs until they hear something from an album they know.
I saw David Bowie go through that. He did a tour with a lot from his recent album and you could feel the crowd go “meh,” which hurts to see because, c’mon, it’s Bowie.
Yeah, we’re lucky that the new songs are going over well. Our fans are very generous!
I’ve heard two of the new songs and, as a fan, I’m happy. Who are you listening to? I was curious what you thought of the Scissor Sisters.
Oh, we know them. We’ve done a couple shows with them.
When they appeared a couple years ago with the flamboyant outfits and the retro sound, I loved them but thought, “Oh no, they’re like the new B-52s.”
Well, it’s interesting—for me, it kind of goes back to your Pet Shop Boys quote about artists who put humour in their work not being taken seriously. It’s like with movies—if it’s a comedy, it’s not going to be nominated for an Academy Award. There’s something about that. But I began noticing about five or six years ago…I was struck by Junior Senior’s first album. I heard that and thought, “Wow, that sounds familiar.” Not in the sense of them sounding like us but I understood the sensibility. Now there’s this whole wave of new bands, young bands, who have that sensibility where they don’t take themselves so seriously. Of course, when I first heard the Scissor Sisters, I felt the same thing. There’s other groups like New Pony Club, The Gossip, even Amy Winehouse. It’s interesting to me that it’s just now happening. There was a period in the mid-’90s when music didn’t excite me too much, though I did like Oasis. Their first two albums, I really love, but other than that…
It was a dark time of boy bands.
Yeah, the whole pop thing.
Well, I have a theory about that: the B-52s always seem to come along at the end of each decade to save us from drudgery.
[laughs] Yeah, we kinda do!
Your first album was in 1979, Cosmic Thing went huge in 1989, you released your greatest hits with the song “Debbie” (totally underrated, by the way) in 1999 and now here you are, maybe a year early.
Yeah, I guess we do. It’s like we’re on a cycle, like a lunar tide or something. Someone else told me, “You only have albums out when there’s a Democrat in office.” We don’t know if there’s gonna be one yet, of course, but we’re hoping.
We’ve all got our fingers crossed on that one.
So now the band’s on tour and I’ve got to ask: are you finally coming back to Toronto?
Yes. Well, I’m sure we will. That would be a very important stop. Actually, I don’t know where all the shows are happening but we’re doing the True Colors tour in June.
Oh, so they’re doing another one? Last year, the show was amazing. Had anyone approached the band about doing it then?
Yeah, they did approach us but we were writing the new album and we just wanted to get it done. So we said we’d do the tour later, when our album comes out. We’ll do Toronto either then or when we come back after Europe. Hopefully, we’ll hit the world—we’re eager to go out and do this again.
Back when Cosmic Thing was a big hit, I remember seeing loads of Japanese remix CDs. They loved you over there. Are you still big in Japan?
We haven’t been to Japan since 1980, our very first tour. There’s been talk of going over for this album and some promoters who want to bring us over. Speaking of remixes, we have a Canadian with us: Peaches has done a remix of the song “Funplex” for us. We were in London and DJed at a club called Punk and we invited Peaches and she showed up and hung out with us. She’s really something! I really like her.
Our music columnist here is looking forward to hearing that mix.
And we have a remix Jake Shears and Babydaddy from the Scissor Sisters did for us, which is really nice, and one from CSS. They’re a very interesting group. They’re really fun, I like them a lot.
Like I said, there weren’t a lot of bands I liked in the ‘90s—because of that, I began listening to a lot of electronic music, a lot of club music. When I began writing this album, I asked myself what my interests are now and that club aesthetic played a part.
But hasn’t it always been there? 15 years ago, you were being remixed by Moby.
True, we were always a dance band. We had one of the first remix albums.
Which I still love because it’s got that really cheesy ’80s production. All those sound effects!
[laughs] It does! A lot of delayed vocal…
And actual volcanoes during “Lava!”
We used to do that version of “Give Me Back My Man” live. We did that arrangement.
I love the live version of “Quiche Lorraine”—Fred just sounds so completely unhinged in that.
Yeah, I love doing that song. Fred quite often doesn’t want to do it because he throws himself completely into it. It becomes high drama. [laughs] Sometimes he’s just not up to it; other times, he’ll say, “I wanna do ‘Quiche’ tonight.”
We all love Fred ‘cause he’s just so…Fred, but I have to say: you are widely acknowledged as the sexiest B-52. Is that a heavy responsibility?
[laughs] I can’t even think about that. It’s all just a matter of…I don’t know.
Yeah, I think I’ve seen that too. I didn’t really go for that one. I certainly don’t see myself that way. I think, as far as sex appeal goes, we all have our types or what turns us on, you never know. Let’s just say I don’t feel that way but it is a very nice compliment.
You came out back in 1992 but, even now, it’s like you can count the number of out gay musicians on ten fingers. Even the Scissor Sisters have complained about being pigeonholed as a “gay band.”
I don’t feel that way about it. I think we’ve always just sort of had our own niche anyway. I haven’t had any negative experiences through it, only positive ones. I think once we were more out as being gay, publicly, our audiences have become more gay, which to me is great. There’s nothing negative about that. I haven’t had any problems. I’ve always thought rock ‘n’ roll was so queer anyway! [laughs] Even if you’re not gay. I always thought Prince was gay, I always thought David Bowie was gay. When I was a kid, I thought Mick Jagger’s gotta be gay.
Just last week, a friend of mine said he thought he’d heard that Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin had come out. I said if Robert Plant came out, there’d be a meltdown. I’m sure we would have heard about it.
Like I said, look at people like Marilyn Manson—it’s just so queer anyway. Does it really matter if people come out in rock ‘n’ roll? Do people really care? When Melissa Etheridge came out, her next album went through the roof! I think it’s just a good thing to do for your self. I came out publicly, in the press, for myself. Prior to that, I’d never been asked in the press if I was gay or not but I wanted to put it out there, just for myself.
Well, since then, you and your partner Mark have been together for what? Ten years now?
Twelve years, actually.
Can I ask what he does?
He’s an artist, a visual artist. He’s involved in a lot of creative direction and consulting.
I read that, when you first met, he had no idea who you were.
Yeah, when we first met, I was a little coy about what I did. There was a period there when it was always kind of awkward and sometimes people would get intimidated by it in a weird way. So I wouldn’t say anything, to try and get to know the person, but it never worked! [laughs] So with Mark, I had to tell him and I remember he was very relieved because he said, “I was kind of disturbed that you weren’t very forthcoming about what you did. It was very odd.” I agreed and when I told him, because he didn’t recognize me, he just stared at me and said, “Oh yeah, you are!” It all came together for him and it was funny because he and his friends had listened to Mesopotamia and that was a big album for them when it came out [in 1982]. It all came back to him.
Where did you guys meet?
We met in upstate New York, in a…well…in a Home Depot, actually.
Oh, that’s hilarious. I love that.
I think we were in the paint department. I was just looking at stuff and, you know, I looked over at him ‘cause he was cute and he kind of looked over at me and we said hi and both just started talking. We ended up going for coffee and hanging out. It was really out of the blue, the last thing I expected. I was just there for paint! [laughs]
Last question: in a song from 1983, all five B-52s listed their hobbies and you said, “I like to find the essence from within.” How’s that search coming?
[laughs] I still haven’t found the essence from within. But I’m getting closer!