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Interview - Will Calhoun, drummer for Living Colour

Drummer William Calhoun
Drummer William Calhoun
Bill Bernstein

William Calhoun is the longtime drummer for Living Colour, having joined the band before their first album Vivid was released in 1988. Over the years, he has garnered attention and accolades for his percussionistic acumen, having come out of a jazz fusion background, and even playing with bass guitar great Jaco Pastorius. Living Colour broke up in 1995, only to reform in 2001.

The band has been together more or less since then, touring and releasing two more full-length album and another one in the works to add to the first three from their initial run. Calhoun has been expanding his medium from the sonic to the visual, having started to exhibit his own photography and a form of artwork he calls Rhythmic Art. Living Colour has been in the studio recording a new album, due to be released this fall.

You guys are working on a new album - what can you tell me about it?

All I can tell you at this point is that it’s almost done and that we’ll be touring behind it in the fall. You can check on for information. After doing the 25th anniversary tour... It’s nice to get back to that first record and that vibe, go back to old music and then go right to new music.

So was that your intent, to go back to where you started from?

No, it wasn’t our intent. We had a 25th anniversary tour and we played Vivid top to bottom with the rest of the stuff and it was just a good exercise for half a year to go out and play Vivid, same tempo, same order. I think it put us.. It was a nice reminder before going in and starting recording.

And now when you’re writing and recording, you guys have been around, you’re veterans, what stones are left unturned for you, what do you have left to explore, what continues to drive you?

Life. What’s not to explore? Children being stolen from a store in Nigeria. The weather. Obama’s candidacy. Take your pick. The NBA situation with this owner who makes these kind of comments. But in the end, there’s plenty of stones. It’s never ending. And I think as an artist, you continue to search and push and deliver. That’s what Hendrix did, that’s what Miles Davis did, all my heroes... John Coltrane. These guys were always pushing the envelope and always searching and turning stones over. Absolutely.

You mentioned a couple of political topics. Do you consider yourselves to be a political band?

No. I think not to be political is not to be alive. So we all are. We’re not a political band, but we are who we are. And part of it, like “Cult of Personality” was a song that was written out of... we were setting up for rehearsal and we started talking about Gandhi and Malcolm X, Dr. King and Mussolini, all these people. What lead to the conversation was followers. People who follow people. Why? What makes people follow Gandhi or Dr. King or Mussolini or any leader. What makes an audience or group or culture, why are they getting behind this person. It’s interesting. That’s how that song was written.

Were you surprised at how popular that song got? It’s a little more substantive than what typically gets played on, say, pop radio.

Absolutely. The answer to that is yes, but I am glad because it was the one song everyone was not feeling... The label and them were not feeling that song so much. So it was nice that that song was... It’s an example to me that we don’t know what’s going to make people react. We could say, “Ok, Bruce Springsteen put out this kind of song. That’s the new flavor.” Or the Stones or Guns N’ Roses are doing that or Rage Against the Machine are doing this. You don’t know. In a country like England a football song can become a top ten hit for a few weeks, because ‘tis the season. It’s football season. So who knows. That’s why it’s always important, as an artist, to create. And be true to your creations. If that does happen, you can support it. Rather than us writing a song or creating a style that we don’t like, because we know it’s a formula, and everyone buys it and it sells... now you have to go out for the next year, and smile...

And that’s not you, not your identity.

Yeah. So, it was, for me, I can’t speak for other artists or other bands, but we’re always true to our belief in music, in life. And we want to represent what we believed in, how we were feeling about it. Yeah, we take the p— out of some songs, you know. There are some songs like “Vibe,” you have fun with it. But there’s some truth in it, but it’s also kind of fun. So we take both sides of the coin.

Now, with “Funny Vibe” and songs like that, you were one of the first rock groups to incorporate hip-hop elements. What would you say your relationship is to hip-hop musically?

I grew up in the Bronx. I watched it happen. OK? I watched it happen... My personal relationship in the band is, I grew up watching it being created. From live, killer bands, killer singers that rapped, in the park.

Who was your favorite, do you remember any particular artists?

Raheem was my favorite. The original Raheem. Because Raheem could sing like Marvin Gaye, and have all the girls passing out in the park, but he could also rap. But also, I was a young guy just into music. So I saw heavy musicianship. I saw guys that could play Kool and the Gang, and they could play Miles Davis, or he could play John Coltrane. He could play Yes, he could play the Who. He could play, these are the guys that could play all kinds of music. That’s how it started. And I watched it forming into one turntable and a rapper, then into two turntables and no band. So my relationship to hip-hop is very personal. I’m very opinionated about rappers and rock and people who play rock and rap and rappers who rap. In my own opinion... [Living Colour bassist] Doug Wimbish was the house bass player for Sugarhill Records. So he watched a lot of people go through that building. Rappers, R&B artists, or whatever. But of course you know, some of the biggest records in the world... [like] “Rapper’s Delight,” he’s playing on that.

A lot of [rock fans] would view hip-hop and rap as “the enemy,” that it's what’s keeping rock off the airwaves. What is your reaction to that kind of viewpoint?

Rap is a form of rock. Like it or not. Like it or not. It’s... you can’t leave out the politics of music. Hendrix happened out of certain types of experiences in America. You know, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, happened out of a certain experience in America. It’s art and it’s genius put into this very interesting situation. So rap happened politically, academically around the 80s, when this country was being run by Ronald Reagan and in our communities all the music and art programs were being taken out. He was closing that stuff off. My generation, when I grew up, I could play in church, I could play at the local pub, I could play in my friend’s garage, I could play in small little venues in my community, before I ventured into Manhattan and played at a bigger venue. I could pick an instrument at school... all these things were available to me. Two generations after me, it was gone. By the time I got into high school, the programs were shut down.

So you had many brilliant minds... middle class, low income neighborhoods with no way to express themselves. For guys who didn’t play basketball or also liked to play guitar, bass, and sing. Rap was just music. Number one, it didn’t exclude anyone. Number two, they had to put the energy out. So in a sense, it was almost an inner-city form of punk. Because initially it talked about political things. It wasn’t b—hes and hos and yo motherf—er. That wasn’t how rap started out. Or who’s better than you. It was talking about politics, this is happening, or have a little bit of fun, or hanging out. Or being the best rapper in the neighborhood... but that came out of an experience.

So it’s not rock or anything but had there been more options, I think, in America, especially in the inner cities in America, Chcago, New York, Detroit and so on, L.A., I think if those institutions would have existed, rock would have grown even wider than it already was with some of those young musicians, because when I started to tour, I met Run DMC, Public Enemy, Rakim... all of those guys were into rock and roll. If you go to their house they all had Led Zeppelin records, they had Emerson Lake and Palmer records, they all had Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Kansas, believe it or not, they owned all of those same records. So the idiom would have grown larger had they had the opportunity to. But politically a lot of these got shut down. So, yes, they owned the turntable and they owned the microphone. And they made that their new guitar and their new bass and their new drum set and their new trombone and their new saxophone. And the irony of it is, it became exponentially, insanely popular. And no one included that into the mix. Everybody thought it was going to be local neighborhood music, but it changed the world. And I’m proud that it’s from my neighborhood.

For you coming from the Bronx, when you did start touring and leaving the city, did you experience any culture shock, encounter anything you weren’t expecting?

Well, I’m gonna say this. The Bronx, I call it God’s country. It prepared me for the world. Beautiful neighborhood, beautiful neighbors.. I’ve traveled all over the world, been touring for 30 years, and there’s not any experience that I’ve come across that I couldn’t make a connection to home. I’ve studied in Morocco... I’ve been in the desert in Mali. I’ve lived in Australia. I’ve lived in China. And I’ve been some places where the Bronx has always come through to help me, like it’s a calling card to either navigate, maneouver, or overcome something while on the road. So I would have to say that that experience was invaluable.

The only shock for me, the main and only shock, traveling around this country, is when people were not aware that African Americans created rock and roll. That was a shock for me. Because I grew up in a neighborhood where information was available to me. White, black, I have friends who were Italian, Jews, whatever. But we, all of our parents made sure we were thorough. So, more than the people, I was more shocked at journalists. That was more shocking to me, rather than going to another town. That journalists would ask me about rock and when you would mention who invented rock and they would ask “Where did you get that from?” and you’d go “Excuse me?!”... Just go look at the history of the music. So that was more of a shock.

But then you go to Germany, and France, and Switzerland and Belgium, and nobody asks you those questions, they just want to talk about the record. So that tells you a little bit about climate. So that was the only shock. I mean, you know, we’ve played in front of all kinds of audiences.. All white, mixed, hardcore, punk, jazzers, blues cats, old, young, so I wasn’t shocked ever by people’s attitudes whether they were good bad or indifferent. The only shocking thing for Will Calhoun was journalists.. And some that I had respected and knew and read their books, read their articles for years. And for what I liked about them I was just surprised.

Now, I know that Vernon [Reid, guitarist] is involved with the Black Rock Coalition. Is that something that you’re involved in?

Honestly you know... I am involved in it. But I’ve never liked the name of it. And I’ll tell you why. I understand why the Black Rock Coalition was started, and I commend Vernon and Greg Tate and Will Tolles and those guys for starting it. The media was ignoring the fact that it is created by African Americans. And they were not giving any bands of color any commercial light. So I understand why it was started, and in a sense it was necessary. I didn’t like the title because it gave the press an opportunity to separate us from other rock musicians. And I, my quote when I joined Living Colour, was if you’re not going to call Van Halen and all the other rock musicians white rock musicians then don’t call us black rock musicians. That’s my own stance on it. And I shared that stance with the guys in King’s X and a few other bands. I didn’t like that title because it was more separation. In my humble opinion. But on the other hand I understand Vernon and Greg and Bill’s need for wanting to start that and bring attention to it, because it was necessary. I would have preferred to call it a Rock Coalition. And let people figure out the rest. If it was up to me. But I understand it, so I supported it because I got behind the message. But I didn’t agree with the title.

So would you say that minorities in rock now still experience a lot of barriers that other people might not?


Can you give any examples?

Well I mean, it’s just typical. Most people are arguing about the history of this music. And when you have the ignorance in there you have the blocking there, it’s very simple. We have people who are interested and want to see African Americans or Native Americans or Latinos play their music. And Hendrix probably scared the world. In my opinion. That’s the last one... some people would ever want to see hold a guitar. I’m just being honest with you. Not everybody, but....

And he was a guitar hero.

Well yeah. That’s the last one they want to see... That’s basically Jesus Christ on guitar, for me. But yeah, there’s still many barriers because there’s a lot of ignorance out there... And also, when you market the music in a certain way, you know, if you market it with the torn jeans and a white kid with blonde hair and Converse, you’re already excluding someone. Now, black children, they’re going to get into the music anyway because they’re smart enough to know, they’re not being excluded, they love it.

Do you think maybe some who would aren’t because of how it’s marketed?

Well, they’re going to get to it in their own way. If you identify with something people think you should be identified with, you may do it more openly. Now, you might like country and western music, and all your friends might say it sucks so you might say “I’ll listen to that when I’m at home.”... You might not go to the record shop or whatever but you love it. On your own time. I think now, when you have this issue, it creates barriers. When it’s marketed incorrectly, when it’s listed... I mean, I have a 12-year-old son. And he’s well-informed, but he loves classic rock radio. But he recognized that at the age of 8, they’re only playing certain artists from a certain period of time. “How come I don’t hear any of the records we have at home?” You know, he barely hears me on there... there’s the same cats in the same period, ‘69 to ‘81 or whatever it is, and it’s those same records. So what do you do? You’re re-educating people over and over again to tell you that Led Zeppelin and the Eagles and all these other guys are classic rockers. What about some of the blues cats? Leadbelly or Howlin’ Wolf, Mother’s Finest, King’s X, Living Colour, Bad Brains, Fishbone, you know, also there’s a lot of other white rock bands that should be on those stations that are not on those stations. So to me, that’s my point. When you ask me that question, it gets marketed incorrectly, a 9 or 10 or 12 year old may think, “Oh, rock is only those 20 bands.” Classic rock is only those 20 bands. There’s where the problem lies.

Is the situation the same now as it was in the 70s and 80s? Has it changed at all?

It’s changed. The media’s changed so you’re able to go online and have facebook and websites and garnish your own audiences. So those barriers have actually come down. But the heavyweight majority of what happens in the media is still one and the same. When I turn on the radio in almost every state in this country that says “classic rock”... Massive exclusion. Massive. White and black. Some white bands will never get on classic rock, and they are classic rockers! So with the media, it’s not just race. It’s art that suffers. And that’s why when you talk about rap taking over rock, the art was suffering. And rap was born out of the frustration from the politics that was happening in America and putting a limit on music. And rock is their music. They just busted out. I love that Run DMC, Aerosmith video track. But what a lot of white kids didn’t know is that when we were growing up, everybody scratched that track. Like, if you were a DJ proving yourself, you had to scratch “Walk This Way.” You had to scratch that. It was already in our community. No, that track came before Run DMC in the community.

So it was already commonplace.

Oh, it was a classic scratch track. In 1979, you had to scratch that track. That was part of the love. People didn’t know that. People thought, “Oh, Run DMC got lucky,” or.. No, no, no... They were paying homage to a classic song that we scratched. Now, some of us were musicians so we knew it was Aerosmith and we also went to the gigs. But many of the kids in the hood would just go like, “That’s a nice groove.” So, you have to understand, there were barriers but some were already broken because like I said there was already access to certain things. And, trust me, “Walk This Way,” if you ask any DJ over 45 years old, what were the... if you didn’t play a track in the first half hour of scratching, and you didn’t want to get kicked off the stage, what tracks did you have to get the crowd with? Especially a new DJ, one out of five would be “Walk This Way.”

Now, Living Colour was broken up for awhile and you got together around 2001. And you’re working on your third album since you got back together - that’s 3 albums in 13 years... Is there a reason for the long lapse between albums?

It takes too damn long for Living Colour to make a record. That’s my answer. You know, circumstances, like industry changes, I would say lend itself to about 20-40% of that. The other 60 is on us.

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