INTERVIEW: Keith Strickland of The B-52s
There’s only one B-52s. Sure, they’ve had their stylistic changes, and they weathered the tragic death of original guitarist Ricky Wilson, but whether slamming out quirky angular guitar pop (“Rock Lobster,” “My Own Private Idaho,”) radio-friendly chart megahits (“Love Shack,” “Roam”) or danceable, electronica-tinged club-ready tracks (“Funplex,”), there’s no mistaking who you’re listening to. And a large part of that sound is Keith Strickland. Originally the band’s drummer, shifting to guitar after the 1985 passing of Wilson, Strickland is a lifelong multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, and one of the nicest chart-toppers you could ever hope to meet. B-52s have just released With the Wild Crowd: Live in Athens GA, an 18-track live album, with a DVD and Blu-Ray to follow next year.
I understand there’s some special significance attached to the timing of the concert that became With The Wild Crowd?
We did that this past February in Athens, Georgia. A booking agent had booked the show and then we realised it was close to February 14th, the anniversary date of our very first performance. It was a few days later but we thought ‘Let’s make this an anniversary show!’ And it was also a benefit for the Georgia Theatre, which is this venue in Athens, a theatre that had been converted into a performance place. It had burned down, so a portion of the proceeds went to rebuilding that. So it was just coming full circle. We played the Georgia Theatre in our early days before we actually recorded our first album. It was also interesting because we realised, ‘Wow, 34 years and we’re playing Athens again…’ But it really wasn’t set up that way. It was just, well, here it is! We turned it into an event celebrating coming full circle, so to speak.
I saw you live in 2009 and, like the live album, I was pleasantly surprised by just how prominent the guitar is in the mix.
It’s funny, Keith, our set engineer, there are times when I said the guitar was too loud, and he said he had never mixed an album where the guitarist said the guitars were too loud! Because I do play guitar but I really don’t think of myself as a guitarist. I think of myself more as a – not to sound pretentious but more of a composer. I’m most comfortable putting it together. I put the instrumental portion of the music together when we write the songs. I did that with Ricky (Wilson) in the early days of the band: he and I would write the music together. And then after Ricky’s death, once we started back again I just started doing it myself. But I see myself more as a composer, piecing it all together. I write the bass lines and the keyboard lines, the grooves, the chord changes. I just like putting all that together. So I don’t really see myself so much as a guitarist. When I listen to the music during mixing, I’m listening to the whole thing. Then I like for it to have a vibe. We’re very rhythmic and the drums and bass are really important. The guitar is very rhythmic. I don’t play a lot of lead stuff. The guitar is just sort of chunking away at the chords. So I don’t think of it like the guitar should be up front as you would some bands where the guitarist does a lot of leads and stuff like that. We have a few lead breaks in some of our songs, but not a lot of them. So I hear it a little bit differently. It was right up to the limit for me, because in some places I thought ‘Oh my god, the guitar is so loud!’ And there’s a lot going on in our music. We have three singers and you really want to hear each singer and what they’re doing. We really have three lead singers and occasionally we’ll shift so Kate and Cindy will take a little bit of a background to Fred’s vocals, but it’s pretty much always like they’re all right there. So you’ve got three vocalists and you really want to keep it balanced and keep the nuance between the vocalists. But you don’t want it to override either, because then it gets really pop-sounding. You want the band to really rock. Because we are very much a rock and roll band. Over the years, particularly after “Love Shack” and Cosmic Thing, our sound did drift a little bit more towards pop than rock. So I’ve always tried to straddle that balance between being a band sound and a very vocal-dominated sound. It’s a delicate balance. We just have our own sort of unique world when it comes to what it is we’re trying to do.
Funplex is a really colourful album with lots of electronic stuff happening. It’s cool to hear those songs in a more stripped back form on the live album, and they sit really well with the older material.
I was honestly happy to hear that myself, because the original intent was to write these songs for Funplex then rehearse them with a band and then record them. And we were financing the album ourselves, and also we didn’t think we had the time to do that. In retrospect, we did, but as we were recording it we really didn’t think we had time to rehearse and go out on the road, play the songs and then record them. So we pulled it together in the studio and it was much more of a studio album that I wanted it to be – although I was happy with it. It is what it is, and I was really happy to hear it that way [on the live album] because that’s how I’d really envisioned it. And the songs were written with the intention of performing them live. Because we’ve been touring and touring a lot prior to recording Funplex, so we had a real feel for how the songs should feel. The intention was that these would be songs that would be performed, and they worked, particularly the songs on the live album. There are some other songs on Funplex that I really like but which would be a bit more challenging to do live.
Now, I’ve gotta ask: when you guys wrote “Love Shack,” did you just hi-five each other for like an hour?
No! We didn’t know we had really written “Love Shack” after we had written it! Actually we had kinda shelved it. When we started looking for producers, we had lined up Nile Rodgers and Don Was, when we met with Don we played him the demos of our songs and he said ‘These are great but do you have anything else?’ We said we had this one track, but it was not finished. We had several versions on the unfinished demo and he goes ‘Are you kidding me? This is great!’ But we had not really found the chorus to the song. He immediately wanted to start working on that, so he just said ‘Repeat this one part,’ which was “The love shack is a little old place where…” – y’know. We played it only once in the demo but as soon as we repeated it it all fell into place. After we recorded though, I knew, I think we all knew that we had hit upon something. It just had a vibe to it. And you know when there’s a vibe but you can’t really put your finger on what it is? You don’t know why it’s working but it really is, and you just get this feeling about it. And it just that that knowable knowing. Like, ‘My goodness, there’s something here.’
How did you develop your multi-instrumentality, if that’s a word?
My mother played piano by ear. When I was a child she would just sit down and start playing something. And of course I didn’t really know what playing the piano by ear meant. I was really young, like five or six years old, maybe. One day she was playing this really beautiful piece of music and I remember running into the room and saying ‘What’s the name of that song?’ and she said ‘It doesn’t have a name. I just made it up. And I remember that was like this ‘a-ha!’ moment for me. I knew what she meant by that: she was just playing, and it clicked for me that that was how songs were made! You just make them up! I didn’t know where songs came from when I was that young, I just knew there were songs and I liked them, but I didn’t think about the process or how they came to be. So from that moment I started sitting down at the piano myself. Well, I always played around on the piano, and then I got a drum, because I was always banging on things. I always had natural rhythm, and drums came very easily for me. And then I wanted a guitar, so they got me a little acoustic guitar and I started playing the guitar. But really drums, I always think back to the drums. I always felt most comfortable with drums. I didn’t really play the guitar that much until in my late teens, around 16, 17, 18. I started playing the guitar some. But I always had that thing where I could just pick up an instrument and even if I didn’t know how to play it, anything… not that I was necessarily good, but I always knew that you could do something with it, and as long as you enjoy that you can find some way of making it work. So I always had that sense of freedom with instruments. I was never that inhibited with picking up an instrument. I played in bands when I was in high school and we would always jam. They were very much jam bands, although that wasn’t a term in those days. We would have these very long jam sessions. We had this house together and people would come in, bring a guitar and play. I was jamming with lots of different people, and I would pick up the bass or the guitar or some percussion instrument, and just play. And I learned how to listen. We all realised at the same time that there was almost a psychic kind of thing happening, where you would almost know what the other person was going to do. And it was free-form yet there was this flow to it. You could just sense it. I felt like in those days, that’s when I really learned to listen to other players, which allowed me to be comfortable with just picking up an instrument and playing it. Everybody has something unique and individual to offer, and it’s really about being yourself and being comfortable with who that is, and not seeing your limitations as limitations. Just seeing it as ‘it’s just what I do.’ And if it comes natural, just do what’s natural!
So on to the guitar nerd talk! What do you use? I see you with Fender Telecasters a lot.
Yeah, I have Telecasters, and a lot of the older songs are in alternate tunings, so I started to use the Line 6 Variax. You can program the tuning so instead of having 14 guitars I can narrow it down to two guitars. I use those and they work out pretty well. I’m pretty satisfied with the tone. I’d prefer a real pickup but I like the Line 6. I think it’s working out pretty well. So I use that, and then I have two Fender ’57 Deluxe amps that I use. I have a pretty simple setup. Fulltone distortion, a delay pedal and compression, and that’s about it really. People ask if I miss playing drums but not really. It feels the same to me. In a strange way it does! It feels the same. Whatever I was playing on drums, I feel that when I’m playing guitar. I mean, it took a while to get to that place. Even though I had played guitars over the years, it’s a really different thing to get on stage. You’re performing as opposed to sitting in your room and playing along with a tape recorder when you can do it over and over. It’s a whole different thing when you’re on stage, and it took me a while to feel more fluid with it. I don’t play with a lot of detail, I think… although I do in a sense – I think of what I do as rather expressionist. I feel like Jackson Pollock or something. I think of it as real broad strokes of colour going across the page. And what I adore more than anything with songwriting is the chord changes and how the chords make you feel. At the risk of sounding corny, I feel them in my heart, and it’s really this feeling, an atmospheric thing. It’s like, I can be sitting down to write a new piece of music, and what I really focus on is the chord changes. And when I hit this certain point, it’s like one more chord and then, ah! There it is! It just leaps out of my chest and it’s like, ‘okay, now I’ve got something!’ Then you go around finishing it up: how you’re going to start it, how it’s going to end, what the middle eight is. That’s really part of it. Hanging in there until you get those finishing touches. Because it’s really difficult! Once you get the heart of it, this chord progression you’ve come up with, that’s a lot of fun, but it’s always hard to hang in there, because you can’t just keep doing that. You have to have some contrast.