A cosmic thing keeps the B-52’s going

dmenconi@newsobserver.comMay 11, 2012 

  • More information What: Band Together benefit for Urban Ministries of Wake County with B-52’s, Southern Culture on the Skids and Big Something When: 7 p.m. Saturday Where: Booth Amphitheatre, Cary Cost: $29.50-$150 Detalis: bandtogethernc.org or boothamphitheatre.com

The B-52’s have been around for an incredible 35 years, which equates to at least 200 years in terms of band lifetimes. Over the last three-and-a-half decades, they’ve weathered the rise and fall of punk, disco, hair-metal, grunge, indie, outie, electronic, wooden and scores of others styles and trends, occupying their own kitschy little corner of the galaxy.

The size of their corner has ebbed and flowed over the years. After their late-’70s breakthrough with “Rock Lobster” and “Planet Claire,” the B-52’s hit a fallow stretch in the mid-’80s that bottomed out with guitarist Ricky Wilson’s death from AIDS in 1985. The group disappeared after that, seemingly for good.

Improbably, however, the surviving quartet of Keith Strickland, Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson and Fred Schneider regrouped for a triumphant return with 1989’s “Cosmic Thing,” their biggest album ever. “Love Shack” and “Roam” topped the charts worldwide, carrying the B-52’s into the ’90s and beyond in style.

Nowadays, the B-52’s serve as wise elders for a generation that got old but still wants to get out and shake a tail feather. They’ve not recorded since 2008’s “Funplex,” but they’re still one of the most endearing, reliably fun live acts on the road. In advance of their headline performance at Saturday’s Band Together show in Cary, we talked by phone with guitarist Strickland from his home in Key West, Fla.

Q: After nearly three-dozen years at this, do you ever wonder what else you might have done if not for playing in the B-52’s?

A: It’s hard to imagine doing anything else. Maybe something in the visual arts – painting, photography, film. But music was the medium I felt most comfortable in. I’m from Athens, Ga., but I never went to UGA [University of Georgia], although I did go to the library a lot. I was a townie and playing music before finishing high school. It’s all I wanted to do, so that’s what set me on this path. Still, the B-52’s were not necessarily the band I imagined myself being a part of. It was something that just happened.

Q: Are there songs from the old days that you get tired of playing live?

A: I only get tired of songs I feel aren’t working live. We’ve written some that worked in the studio but are really hard to pull off live. So we’ll give those a try – several tries, in fact – before giving up. “You know, this one just isn’t working, so let’s drop it.” Now there about six songs we absolutely must put in, because the audience just gets so into them. Those I don’t get tired of because they’re good songs, and they’ve taken on a life of their own. Playing them live is like getting on a ride. You’re in this moment and the audience is as much a part of it as we are. So it’s a collective thing that happens.

Q: It’s kind of surprising the B-52’s are still around in 2012, given how close you came to breaking up after Ricky Wilson died.

A: We just couldn’t imagine continuing without him. Cindy [Wilson] lost her brother and they were very close, so she was just devastated. We all were. A couple of years went by. I’d moved from New York to Woodstock and I was alone in the mountains, so I started writing more music because it’s what I do. Kate and Cindy heard some of it and really liked it, so the four of us talked about trying to do something, see how it goes. About a year later, we had written “Cosmic Thing.”

Q: Did you have any idea how big that album was going to be?

A: It was a big surprise to us. At the time we were writing, we weren’t thinking about hit records or even records at all, really. It was mostly just for ourselves. We found a lot of comfort in each other’s company and valued our friendships even more after losing Ricky. That gave us a strong sense of impermanence and how quickly things can change. Those songs came from that place, and all those feelings are in that record. I still enjoy listening to that one because I can hear how heartfelt it was. I would say it’s our most heartfelt album, in fact. We had grown up a lot, and losing someone can really put a light on what’s important in your life.

Q: When the group reformed, you switched from drums to guitar and had to learn how to play in Wilson’s very unusual style. Was that difficult?

A: It wasn’t really too hard. Even though I play his parts, I do play a little differently than Ricky. I have a different touch with the way I approach the songs, so I had to make them my own while trying to stay as true to the original parts as possible. Ricky and I wrote music together and sometimes I’d play guitar, or he’d play bass. So I always felt I understood intuitively what he was doing. Having said that, taking the role of guitarist in the band wasn’t easy. It took me quite a while to get comfortable as a live guitarist.

Ricky did have an amazing style. When we first met in high school, he had all these songs he’d written and recorded on a little tape recorder. They were quite amazing; very folky, almost Donovan-esque, very original. Most people think of Ricky as a guitarist, but he was also a great songwriter with quite an interesting approach to phrasing. The melody he wrote for “52 Girls” is a good example. Listen to that and it’s structured quite unconventionally, but it really works. That’s distinctly Ricky. He was so original in everything he did.

Q: Do you ever miss playing drums?

A: Not so much. I play guitar so rhythmically, it feels the same. The place I came from as a drummer, I come from the same place as a guitarist. More detail and finesse is involved with guitar. After 25 years, I still feel like I’m trying to get there although I do enjoy it a lot more now. I’m more fluid, can improvise a bit. I used to have to just stick very rigidly to the parts and not do anything else. But now I can play around with it a bit, dance around and have more fun.

Q: You’re pushing 60. How long do you think you’ll keep doing this? The Rolling Stones are still going at this late date.

A: Well, I will say that I won’t be doing what the Stones are, still touring into their 70s. I’m just not that ambitious, to be honest, and there are other things I enjoy doing. So I’m not quite sure how long we’ll continue. But I guess you can never say never.

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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