Five years have passed since funk-metal icons Living Colour released a studio album. Apparently, the band has decided that’s long enough. The New York rockers are currently hard at work at a New Jersey studio, where they’re writing and recording a whole slew of new tunes.
And as lead guitarist Vernon Reid explains, the origins of the new project, due next fall, are quite interesting. It all started when the band was invited to play the centenary of the birth of Robert Johnson, in 2011.
“We played the song ‘Preachin’ Blues,’ ” Reid says, “and it got me to thinking about the blues, hard rock and metal and how they’re all connected. It started this conversation about, ‘What does it mean to have that in the mix?’ Because, we were like, ‘We’re not gonna do a blues-rock record,’ but the blues is very integral and important. So that conversation has been the underpinning of what we’ve been doing.”
While Living Colour would never be mistaken for a blues group, Reid clearly feels a level of kinship with the genre. Searching for a way to apply it to Living Colour’s new music, he borrowed from the playbook of one of rock’s biggest entities: Led Zeppelin.
“One of the things that I love about Led Zeppelin is that they reverse-engineered the blues,” Reid said. “They took it, spun it sideways and turned it on its head. That’s sort of a model in my mind—not to sound at all like them but taking things and turning them sideways.”
Part of what Reid finds exciting about the blues is the lyrics. While they are superficially about life’s hardships, he hears in them deep stories about the darkness and complexity of human existence.
“The cliché is, the old black man complaining about his life,” he says. “That’s not what it is. That’s like saying the blues is about playing the pentatonic scale. You reduce it to component parts and then you can’t see what is actually happening, and what’s happening is really a very interesting story about the human condition.
"When you’re talking about, ‘The devil took my woman,’ are you talking about a rival? Are you talking about the bottle? Are you talking about other addictions? What are you talking about?”
Reid’s own fine form of expression demands no such explanations, but it did require something of a tune-up. For the new album, he’s busting out a wide array of interesting toys, including one of his old Pro Co Rat distortion pedals that’s been modded by Keeley Electronics. Reid has also incorporated a number of pedals made by Pigtronix, including the Echolution and the Philosopher King sustainer into his signal chain. “I think [Pigtronix president] David Koltai is a brilliant pedal designer,” Reid said. “When it comes to the whole boutique thing in the modern era, he’s one of the leaders.”
While Living Colour’s new record remains a work in progress, Reid let slip a couple of interesting covers that the band already has in the can. “We just recorded ‘Preachin’ Blues’ and ‘Kick Out the Jams’ by the MC5,” he says. “The crazy thing is, we recorded ‘Preachin’ Blues’ on Robert Johnson’s 103rd birthday. So we played that song for the first time on the 100th anniversary of Robert Johnson and only got around to recording it on the 103rd birthday.”
He doesn’t what the group’s new album will ultimately look or sound like, but Reid remains hopeful that it will speak to people in ways that he may never have intended. “What I hope happens is that it’s going to tell a kind of narrative,” he says. “That story may be different to whoever listens, but a story is definitely going to be there.”
Guitar: Parker Vernon Reid Signature MaxxFly DF824VR
Amps: Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier, Mesa/Boogie Lonestar, Kemper Profiling Amplifier
Effects: Keeley-modded Pro Cro Rat Distortion, Eventide H-9 Harmonizer, Pigtronix Echolution, Pigtronix Philosopher King Sustainer, Roland VG-99, Roland FC-300, Roland GR-20, Zoom G3, Line 6 M9
Photo: Jamel Toppin