The B-52s Return to the Spotlight

The B-52s Return to the Spotlight

'Funplex' Keeps the Perennial Party Going

“Tiiiiiiiinnnnnnnn roof …rusted!”

Chastain Park, Aug. 1, 2007: The wildly popular—and often misheard—break from “Love Shack,” the B-52s’ biggest hit, reverberates through the packed Atlanta amphitheater, drawing the biggest roar of approval of the evening. As the band nears the end of its sweltering 14-song set, the crowd erupts with euphoric delight as singer Cindy Wilson delivers the now-iconic line with as much, if not more, unbridled enthusiasm and impressive lung power as she did on the original 1989 recording.

A rowdy, sweaty, multicultural mix make up the B-52s demographic and literally every age, gender, orientation and type of fan have joined old friends, family members, even controversial baseball star John Rocker (!), in the popular park’s steaming field to celebrate the evening. Granted, it’s not the ideal venue for the Athens-born crew, but they rise to the occasion, ignoring the minority of chatty patrons and delighting the massive majority.

A full house is nothing new for the internationally loved B-52s. Even though the band’s last full length album was released a generation ago, it’s remained a popular live attraction. Tonight, the evergreen favorites are joined by six brand new songs. It’s a decidedly risky move to bookend wildly popular songs such as “Private Idaho” and “Roam” with material that many in the audience have supposedly never heard. But unlike, say, nearly any other band with 31 years of experience and no official full-length release since 1992, the crowd remains attentive, welcoming each new tune with the same reverence and attention as the original hits. There’s no “new song beer/bathroom run” ennui tonight.

In fact, the new material fits so comfortably next to the perennial staples punctuated by singer Fred Schneider’s gleeful sprechstimme delivery and Kate Pierson’s and Cindy Wilson’s quirky but angelic harmonies, the party-vibe flow of uninhibited silliness and spacey surf hooks isn’t interrupted at all. If anything, propulsive and instantly memorable items such as “Pump” and “Funplex” could very well be from a lost, late ’80s Bs project from the Cosmic Thing period, the last time the four original members released a full album together. But no, they’re brand new songs from the group’s yet-to-be released new album, recorded a mere decade-and-a-half later. Tonight, Schneider, Pierson, Wilson, guitarist Keith Strickland and their three side musicians are definitely on. Rejuvenated by the promise of the brilliant new songs, the challenge is to release them and, as the title of one of the newly minted tunes demands, “Keep This Party Going.”

After an encore of “Planet Claire” and the standard closer “Rock Lobster,” the house lights go on as the tired and toasted throng file out, while a phalanx of diehard fans line the edge of the stage like hungry fish angling for post-show souvenirs. Some are treated to picks and a lucky few nab crumpled and foot-printed set lists. “Oh, ‘Hot Corner,’” squeals one flamboyantly dressed fan as he points to a new title on the coveted piece of paper. “I saw that last night on YouTube!”

‘Follow your bliss’

As the happy admirers exit, a fairly large group of the band’s friends and family head to the side pavilion area for the official post-show after-party. A veritable who’s who of the Athens music world mill about, greeting old acquaintances and making new ones. Singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt, producer/engineer John Keane, photographer Terry Allen, Nickel and Dime Studio’s Kris Sampson and various members of his band Variac, the evening’s opening act, and a host of others, mingle. Effusive Paul Scales, musician and co-founder of Athens’ storied 40 Watt Club, pumped up in the excitement of the moment, greets everyone in sight with a hug, sloppy kiss on the cheek and the undeniable declaration, “The B-52s are back, baby!”

The B-52s. Photo by Joseph Cultice

The B-52s. Photo by Joseph Cultice

Following the after-party, and as festive as ever, if a bit fatigued from the day’s activities, the B-52s gather briefly in one of the dressing rooms in the maze-like backstage area. It’s rare to see them in one spot since the musicians are based in far-flung locales these days. Schneider lives on Long Island, Pierson near Woodstock, N.Y., Wilson in Atlanta and Strickland in Key West. Long gone are their ’70s Athens communal days. Even their prolific rural New York period was two decades ago. But the four artists in one room, even when “off the clock,” create a distinct kinetic energy and they constantly finish each other’s sentences.

Schneider, more low-key and gentle in person than his manic onstage persona suggests, is reminded of Scales’ comment. Chortling, in his unmistakable style, he says, “We’re baaack,” then sighs, “not that we’ve really been gone.”

“But you know,” interjects Wilson, “I really feel like this is the very beginning in a way. This [new album] is a creature that’s really gonna take off and be bigger than we ever thought it was gonna be, so we are back, or still here—but in a bigger way.”

“There was a lot of nervous energy tonight because we haven’t been performing those new songs for long,” adds youthful Keith Strickland, looking remarkably like he did during the Bs’ ’80s MTV heyday. “I find that the true experience is in performance. I even feel that with the old stuff, because it’s always new. I never feel like, ‘Oh here’s that same old song again.’ It never feels that way to me; I’m always wanting to do it better, to prove to myself that I can play this part even better than I have before.”

“There’s just something special about the songs,” says gregarious redhead Kate Pierson, cutting a dynamic presence in her flashy stage clothes. “It has the beat and the fun to sustain it. Like with ‘Rock Lobster,’ even after playing it all these years, I can’t stop dancing. I’m not like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t lift my leg, it’s like lead, or the other foot, to this same old, same old.’ I really feel compelled to move. It’s still fresh to me and still fun.”

“I try to find the joy in each song, old or new,” concludes Wilson. “There’s joy in every B-52s song and I think that’s what keeps us going.”

‘Too Much To Think About’

Fast forward to spring 2008—the Astralwerks label, long known for issuing eclectic rock, electronic and dance music, won the bidding war to release the first B-52s album in 16 years. The band signed with the company, fittingly, on Halloween after a rousing performance at New York’s Roseland Ballroom. The album was finally titled Funplex, new photos were shot, and with new management and PR firms in place, the promo wheels are now spinning in overdrive.

“I’ve been a fan of the B-52s for a very long time,” says Glenn Mendlinger, Astralwerks general manager. “I think the first time I saw them play live was in 1980 at the Beacon Theatre in New York. I had already been a fan for a least a year but for some reason never got to any of the early gigs at CBGB’s or Max’s Kansas City. When they finished the new record, it was clear that they made a relevant and amazing record—classic B-52s and updated at the same time.”

The label is planning a massive campaign with high-profile TV appearances, a club tour and a featured spot on the True Colors tour this summer (June 16-17, Chastain Park Amphitheatre, Atlanta). As for the disc itself, Mendlinger says multiple formats will be available, including a standard CD, a limited edition for Target, a full-length vinyl album that includes a copy of the CD inside, a variety of digital releases and a series of remixes.

And the band members, now busier than ever, seem to love being in the center of the whirlwind. Reached by phone at different times in the middle of grueling interview schedules to chat up the new album, all four seem truly enthralled by the process and steadfastly determined to make the most of the moment.

“It’s the worst time in the world to make a new record,” muses Wilson. “But people are saying this is an amazing album and I’m listening! We didn’t get that in the past. We got put down, you know, ‘Oh, you guys are too strange to be commercial.’ Somehow or another, we managed to get out there anyway. But I think quality finds its way. I’ve never had such a good time working on an album and I really think it shows. For me, that’s saying a lot, because I’ve always hated the process of putting it on the record. I love writing, but the next step was never my favorite. But this record, we had amazing people, a lot of positive vibrations. And recording it in Athens, sitting on the porch at John Keane’s studio, you could just do what needed to be done.”

‘Deadbeat Club’

Half of the album was recorded at Keane’s studio, not far from the spot of the band’s Valentine’s Day debut in 1977. The other half was created at Nickel and Dime Studios, not far from the residence of Danny Beard, the modest Atlanta-based record mogul who released the Bs’ first single “Rock Lobster” three decades ago. And even though “a tacky little dance band from Athens, Ga.” put the Classic City on the map, the band never actually recorded there.

The B-52s in Athens April 1978. (L-R) Fred Schneider, Cindy Wilson, Keith Strickland, Kate Pierson and Ricky Wilson. Photo by Keith Bennett

The B-52s in Athens April 1978. (L-R) Fred Schneider, Cindy Wilson, Keith Strickland, Kate Pierson and Ricky Wilson. Photo by Keith Bennett

“There wasn’t a place to record when we were there; nothing to really record on,” laughs Pierson. “We had to go to Atlanta to do the first single, but we’d wanted to record in Athens forever but we were busy everywhere else.”

“We’d recorded in the Bahamas and New York, but never in Athens,” agrees Wilson. “There’s an Athens vibe, even though it’s changed so much over there. I got to hang out there and just be old Cindy. I’m believing in all the energy in that place. I think it’s the magical kiss we needed.”

And as for the full circle nature of the project, it hearkens back to the band’s original, organic plan of having no plan. “We’ve always had the philosophy that we are doing this just to entertain ourselves, even when we started. We had to amuse ourselves because there wasn’t anything really happening in Athens then,” recalls Pierson. “I remember moving to Athens and there were two feed stores, Farmers Hardware and there weren’t a lot of bars. So we had to do it for ourselves.”

“And that’s how we did [Funplex],” continues Schneider. “We did it ourselves, the way we wanted to. We paid for it. It’s the only album we actually own, so maybe we feel a little closer to it than ever. Keith really wanted it to sound a certain way, and we just had to wait ’til we were all ready.”

“That waiting process took much longer than any of us thought,” says Strickland. “But we couldn’t force it. I was under so much pressure of my own, after Good Stuff, to do another record as successful as Cosmic Thing, but that was stifling to me and to the process. I just had to take some time off.”

“I’d say waiting 16 years isn’t ‘forced,’” laughs Pierson. “But we were all burned out after Good Stuff. When we took a break in ’92 or ’93, we’d toured for Cosmic Thing for a year and three quarters, then we did Good Stuff and toured with that for a year. Cindy left at that point and we finally took some time off. We all did some solo stuff, and that helped us.”

Time away from the stress of a successful band led to the new tunes, says Strickland. “We all kept doing music, all of us did. That time off stretched our creative wings and we each learned something and got some things out of our system and whatnot. It was a very important thing to have that freedom. At one point, I decided to do a solo album, then I had a moment of clarity. I thought, ‘No, if I’m gonna do this, then I’m gonna put all my energy into a new B-52s record.’”

During the break, they all realized that the band is unique, says Pierson. “It’s a precious, great thing. We have each other and it’s something we have to nurture. It takes time and cultivation, like any relationship. We work on listening to each other. Part of the band is like arrested development meets 31 years of life. When we come together, it’s greater than any individual, and we know it. It’s the B-52s, a unique combination. When Cindy and I sing together, it becomes this different voice, and Fred’s voice is so individual and Keith’s playing is unique, it’s just a different animal. Really, when [original guitarist and Cindy’s brother] Ricky [Wilson] died in ’85, we realized what we have is precious and we’ve tried to preserve that ever since.”

‘Dance This Mess Around’

When Cindy Wilson returned to the band 10 years ago, it still had a diehard batch of followers, lucrative gigs but no new record to promote. “We could have coasted on what we had,” says Wilson, “but we all wanted to do new songs, and the fans wanted it too.”

“We’re not an oldies act, never were,” says Schneider. “When we’ve done the package tour thing, we’ve gone out with the Pretenders, Blondie, the Go-Go’s and they always had new albums but we didn’t. So I guess we just stuck around by word of mouth. And we don’t do medleys! God for-bid! ‘OK, let’s get Sister Louanne to come on out and play banjo and sing one of our songs and …’”

“But we were getting dangerously into ‘oldies’ territory,” says Pierson. “Definitely the playing was getting comfortable. We could have played a long time, doing casinos and state fairs. And those are great, but we really needed some new music. We tried mixing up the shows a lot, doing new versions, but it was way overdue.”

“Well, we’re not nostalgic,” says Strickland. “We’ve tried to avoid those ‘Here’s the ‘80s!’ theme nights. We don’t perceive ourselves that way. I don’t see our sound that way. I guess some people would, but I don’t think our sound, over the years, has exemplified any particular period of time. And that might just be my own perception, because, you’ve got to remember, I’ve known these songs from the get-go. But to me, it comes from this whole other place. It’s not the ’80s or ’70s or anything. It’s an internal universe we create from.”

When they were finally ready to commit to a new album project, then the band’s unique creative process kicked in.

“The writing process is in two parts,” explains Strickland. “I’d start at home in Key West, then I’d take it to them when we’d meet. Sometimes I’d try to get it together in time, to send .mp3s to them so they could hear it before we met, but I usually worked until 2 in the morning before I’d fly out later that day. They would hear it and sometimes I was a little nervous, ‘Are they gonna like it?’”

But often the band’s steadfast adherence to their total democracy policy slows things down.

“Yeah,” agrees Strickland, “When they start writing the vocals, then I’ll move the music around a little to go with what’s happening with the vocals and what they’re doing. And rearrange it all together; the final arrangements are always done together. It’s a complete democracy, which takes a lot of patience sometimes. But it’s what works and what makes us.”

‘Song For A Future Generation’

The tough, rock-based feel of the new album is inspired by Strickland’s blend of electronic dance music and classic rock. “It’s good when you have a history as long as ours,” says Strickland. “It’s good to look back and see what works and what doesn’t work. But I wasn’t trying to recreate anything, what I wanted to do was approach it from the present and do some up-tempo stuff.”

“When I started doing the music,” he continues, “I had everything on a hard drive and I’d fly up to Atlanta and meet Fred, Kate and Cindy and we’d work with Kris Sampson on Pro Tools at Nickel and Dime. It was great for arranging vocals. And then it helps to organize the jam sessions.”

“Using Pro Tools made such a big difference,” says Schneider. “Just having a way to keep organized made all the difference, we never wrote so fast, ever—once we got started.”

Regardless of technology, the B-52s still create the way they always have, the same way they first wrote the batch of songs they performed at their first show, 31 years ago: spontaneous, unscripted and uncensored jam sessions.

“I bring in a completely arranged instrumental track,” details Strickland. “With guitar, bass, keyboards, drums. Everything. It’s a full band arrangement. Fred, Kate and Cindy listen to it, sometimes over and over, and they’ll sit there with their laptops, typing lyrics and ideas, just getting a vibe. Then they go into the studio and improvise over the music, singing whatever comes off the top of their head. It’s complete chaos. Everybody’s doing something different.

“What I love about it is that, we have three singers, and each one is coming up with their own ideas and lyrical concepts. When we start putting it together, you have three different perspectives, often very different. At a certain point, we say, ‘OK, what’s the song about?’ We’ll find a direction, because you can feel it slightly forming, so we’ll pick it out. With the three different approaches, you get a sort of panoramic view.”

Strickland notes that the title track “Funplex” personifies the process. “Basically it’s like making three songs into one. I like that because it’s not linear. With us, it’s holographic,” he laughs. “I love when sometimes you’ll have someone singing something very poignant and emotional and the very next line will be something very campy.”

The B-52s. Photo by Joseph Cultice

The B-52s. Photo by Joseph Cultice

‘Keep This Party Going’

One thing Schneider remembers about working at Keane’s studio in Athens last spring was the abundance of pollen. “We were there at the height of the mega-pollen season,” he says. “And I think it rubbed off on the music because it’s pollinating music!”

But a few sassy and sexy songs don’t bother the Bs. “Well, we’re still frisky,” Schneider snorts. “So why not? We decided to not censor ourselves or put any sort of limits on it. I mean, we don’t go out and cuss a blue streak or degrade women. We just try to write good lyrics. We take it seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously.”

Once the songs were ready to record, busy producer Steve Osborne (KT Tunstall, New Order, U2) joined the process. “He’s so focused,” says Strickland. “He’ll work on a piece continuously until he captures the vibe he’s aiming for. He creates an emotional experience of some kind and so he’ll stay on it ’til he gets it. Sometimes in the mixing process, we’d just leave him to it. We’d leave the studio and come back, but he’d still be there! He wouldn’t leave. I’d say, ‘Steve, you’ve got to get out.’ He’d say ,‘No, no, no, it’ll break the spell, I can’t go out.’”

Now that the album is completed and on sale, the Bs are “gonna tour our asses off,” says Schneider, “to get the word out. But we don’t mind. We’re actually having fun being together, because it is like a family. Well, it’s more like Mama’s Family sometimes …”

“I think our level of fame is very comfortable,” concludes Schneider. “To me, making the Georgia Music Hall of Fame is a definite highlight, even more so than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, since that’s basically a business deal. We have a surreal, Southern sense of humor that we’ve always brought to our stuff. People say it’s camp, but ‘camp’ means you don’t know what you’re doing. Believe me, we know what we’re doing.”

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