Will Calhoun Breaks Down the Learning Process with Living Colour

Written By: David Carr
Photo Credit: Bill Bernstein

Will Calhoun is a hard rock drummer. He is also an esteemed graduate of the Berklee School of Music. He has recorded indigenous music, Moroccan music, he leads his own jazz combo, and he is also a photographer and an accomplished songwriter. In short, Will Calhoun is not your average, ordinary heavy rock drummer, but you see in the long run this makes sense. Calhoun is the driving force behind the rock band Living Colour, and Living Colour have never been your average, ordinary heavy rock group.

Living Colour burst onto the music scene in the late 80’s with a signature hit “Cult of Personality,” a unique sound (hard rock turned inside out with funk, soul, blues, punk, metal and hip-hop) and a knack for lyrics that took a hard critical look at the world around us. The band rose to success quickly only to flame out in 1995. After reuniting in 2000 and releasing a disjointed reunion disc, “Collideoscope,” Living Colour is back this September with a new, more cohesive offering: “The Chair in the Doorway,” and a fall US tour which will include one gig with Fishbone and another with The Roots.

When asked how he feels about Living Colour’s forthcoming release, Calhoun casually states, “Well I feel great about it. I not only like the disc, but I like the effort that was put into making the disc happen. We had a lot of assistance from some really great people… We got a lot of help on this record and the songs had total democratic input from all four of us and the people helping us.”

The band’s latest effort was recorded in Prague. When asked to comment on why the group chose to record outside of the US Calhoun explains, “We were playing a lot of gigs overseas and in Europe. Once we got some time off, we just decided that we would send the crew home and we would stay. We recorded most of the tracks at Sono Studios… The place is amazing and we really got a chance to get in touch with a very international vibe on this record. It’s easy to get caught up in being an American band and having an American sound, but we do have an international fan base, so it was good to get some more exposure to what was happening internationally with regards to the different music scenes.”

Calhoun is no stranger to international music scenes. After Living Colour’s break up Calhoun embarked on a journey that took him around the world in search of indigenous music being done in Australia, Brazil and Morocco. Although his travels began in 1995, Will is quick to point out that his interest in other cultures started very early on, before his tours with the Stones and Jane’s Addiction.

Calhoun explains, “This thing really started when I was a kid. My favorite magazine was “National Geographic!” We had things all around my house from all over the world thanks to my dad. By the time I was in Living Colour, I was planting the seeds of my travel plans when we toured overseas. I would keep in touch with the people that I met and send post cards and letters to these individuals. After the break up of the band, I figured this was my chance to travel, take pictures and learn about these different types of cultures and peoples, so I went to Africa, I went to Brazil, I went to Morocco and South America. I did a ton of recording and got incredible insights into these places.”

Calhoun’s insights have not only found their way onto his solo CD/DVD, “Native Lands,” but he will also be publishing a book of photographs from his travels around the world. He has been on many panels on university campuses, discussing his travels and studies pertaining to world music, rhythms and rhythmic patterns. Many of these rhythms have also been integrated into Living Colour’s brand of “heady” hard rock.
Calhoun is also helping to integrate the art of communication into the band’s repertoire, in an effort to ensure the miss-steps that broke the band up in ’95 are not repeated in 2009.

“Communication in the band is a thousand times better,” Calhoun states, “Thanks to age and experience we are much better at dealing with each other. Most successful bands that are able to stay together for the long haul learn how to deal with each other… We are trying to be open to each other’s musical opinions. Good bands know when its time to take a 3-4 year break, away from each other, and they know when its time to come together again to make the doughnuts!”

Doughnut making aside, one would think that this type of revelation would have shown itself in 2003 when Living Colour got back together to record and release “Collideoscope.” When asked to explain what happened during the initial reuniting of LC, Will takes a deep breathe and exclaims, “That was a really bad time period for us! It was like, everything we had was bad. We wanted to be back together again but we were not dealing with what broke us up, meanwhile things that were supposed to happen just didn’t. A lot of people who said they were going to help us, really let us down… At that time everything was bad – Bad management, bad relationship with the label, bad relations in the band, bad shows at some tour stops and then with all that going on, we tried to record ‘Collideoscope.’ I think we all knew that there was no way we were going to be able to record a focused record but we had to go through the process… We had to suss out all of these things in order to be this band… ‘Collideoscope’ became a psychological process for the band. In order to have a full cohesive album like ‘Chair in the Doorway,’ we had to go through the psychology of making a disc like “Collideoscope.” It wasn’t easy at all, it was a learning process for all of us. Most bands get a therapist, we recorded “Collideoscope.” That record was our therapist. We dealt with what we needed to on that record in order to record this one.”

This isn’t the first time Living Colour’s stickman has used music as therapy. Calhoun wrote the haunting ballad “Nothingness” on the band’s third studio disc “Stain.” The tune was about a relative of Calhoun’s who had slipped into heavy drug abuse. Calhoun relates that a song on their latest disc, “Not Tomorrow” also has special meaning to him and the band.

“I came up with the lyrics/lyrical idea for that song… It just came from my travels and meeting people from various cultures, countries and backgrounds and seeing how they dealt with stuff within the here and now, it’s the idea of not waiting and just getting to what you have to deal with. The song has a syncopation that is similar to Gnau music with hand claps and such. I showed the lyrics to Corey, and Vernon put some bluesy guitar on it and we decided to record it. The night we recorded that tune, Corey had finished his vocal tracks and had just found out that his mother had passed away that evening. He knew she was sick, and we knew it was coming, but still… Corey was going to re-record some parts, but we told him he could go. We said he could finish later. He was adamant about finishing the tracks that night, not tomorrow… Not tomorrow… We were up till 3 AM when we finally finished that song, and that was the last song we recorded for the disc. It was his way of dealing with the loss of his mother, he wanted to deal with his loss and finish the song, and he didn’t want to wait to do both.”

As Living Colour prepares to hit the road, Calhoun is anxious to perform some of their new material on stage. The band has always felt they could only stay together if they had something relevant to say. When asked what does “The Chair in the Doorway” have to say or mean, Mr. Calhoun explains, “The title really says it all…the concept is a visual one.”

“The idea of this chair, this thing in your way. It’s a real thing and you have to do something about it. It’s a real obstacle in your way. You can’t pretend it’s not there. You have to deal with it if you want to move forward. We had to deal with it as a band if we wanted to move forward musically… You have to figure out how to deal with obstacles and not ignore them, whether it’s in politics or in your personal life. All around the world folks are dealing with these obstacles whether its racism, sexism, homophobia, terrorism. Whether you sit in the chair or move it in or outside of the room, you are gonna have to deal with it…for me that’s what this record is all about.”

As Will Calhoun gears up for the band’s fall tour, one can’t help but hear the anticipation in his voice. Calhoun says the band is ready to show what they can do not only on their own tour, but also at any and all festivals.

“We like to keep it challenging!” Calhoun claims, enthusiastically, “I’m looking forward to playing out at metal festivals, funk festivals, jazz festivals and rock festivals… We can hold are own on these bills and keep it interesting while we challenge ourselves and the audience.”

Will Calhoun and his bandmates seem poised and ready to challenge the rock world once again. Hard Rock fans should take heed, Living Colour is back and they have positioned themselves right in the middle of the rock music doorway. They will not go quietly nor will they be ignored, so you the music fan will just have to deal with them.

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