We recently christened the new 80s feature on Russ' Retro Rock! Even though some of these questions have been asked before, we discover something new about ourselves every time we answer them...and we hope you do too! Enjoy.
Swerve Magazine: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Incidentally, you are the first artists to be interviewed by us for our new monthly 80s feature.
John Smith: What was the question? Just kidding. We’re honored that our 80s work has become a permanent part of the culture, and in a way, a sort of brand name. The 80s were a great time to be young and alive and to have a band. We actually made a living with a nine-piece band for seven years before Atlantic signed us. Not so sure we could do that now.
SM: I caught a clip somewhere online of a show from the 80s that described you and your husband as hippies when you first met. Were/are you guys really hippies?
JS: We met at a hippie commune called ‘The First Cosmic Bank of Divine Economy’ or ‘cosmic bank’ for short. It wasn’t a cult or anything, but we were all teenagers, reading Yogananda, and Castaneda, Herman Hesse and B.F. Skinner. Valerie was the responsible one. She knew how to balance a checkbook. We called her the ‘hippie with a checkbook.’ I always embraced hippie values musically. We came up in the era where Coltrane could fill up four sides of an LP with one song! It was sort of the precursor to the extended dance remix! I wanted to mix the angry psychedelia of Hendrix with the magic paisley harmonic carpet-bombing of ‘Trane and Charlie Parker. Of course in the end, Nu Shooz didn’t come out anything like that.
SM: When did you guys form Nu Shooz? How did the name of the band come about?
JS: You know, when I was young I used to practice being interviewed. I thought I’d be all evanescent and mystical like Hendrix. ‘Yeah, dig brother…no buttons to push…didn’t even rain.’ Or maybe I’d play with people’s heads like Bob Dylan. (“I think of myself as a song-and-dance man.”) When we finally got somewhere in show business, we got asked the same three questions over and over:
A.) How did you get the name of the Band?
B.) What’s it like to be married and in a band.
C.) [...Something something....] ‘I Can’t Wait.’
So you see, the parameters of Modern Show Business don’t allow for any of the shenanigans Dylan and Hendrix used to get away with. No beat poetry,just the facts. I guess we’re living in a non-poetic age.
But to answer the question…
Valerie and I played in Latin and African bands in the late 70s. This was before they called it ‘World Music.’ I arranged and played piano for a salsa band called Felicidades. Valerie played congas and African drums with Ghanaian master drummer Obo Addy. By 78 Felicidades was breaking up. I took a trip to New York and had an artistic epiphany there. I’m not from Cuba or Puerto Rico. I’m an American. I want to do ‘American Music.’ There was this mystic happening, a God thing. I found an abandoned Motown songbook on top of a battered upright piano, sat down and started playing through it.
So, by the time I got back to Portland I knew I wanted to do a soul band.
Nu Shooz was started by me and Larry Haggin, the front man for Felicidades. We had an upcoming gig at a park, and needed a name for the group. This was in the spring of 1979. Larry and I were in the kitchen of the house where we practiced. There was this contact paper on the walls printed like an 1890s newspaper. We looked over at the same time and saw some shoes…those buttonhole shoes.
“Hey, we could be the Shoes!”
The rest is…um…History.
For years afterward I walked around thinking, I wish we’d spent like, five more minutes on it and come up with something cooler, something like…Megadeth. Now, after thirty-three years I have to admit it’s grown on me. Oh yeah, and the spelling evolved over time. I give credit for the spelling to Jim Hogan, our original bass player.
I recall him saying, ‘Spell it with a ‘Z,’ it looks more rock.’
SM: How did your sound and style come about? Was it basically doing what was the sign of the time?
JS: Sign of the time? Hah! We were the Counter-Reformation! Let me back up. I knew I wanted to do a soul band with horns. After Felicidades, I always had to have horns. But the first Nu Shooz band was just two guitars, bass, and drums. And it was a democracy. One guy wanted to do Eric Clapton. Someone (who shall now be named) brought in ‘Silly Love Songs’ by Paul McCartney. It was a mess. It taught me the value of Benevolent Dictatorship. There has to be one hand on the tiller. The Shoo-Horns came on in 1980, four horns: trumpet, tenor, ‘bone, and ‘Bari, a big fat sound. Valerie joined in '81 after a year in music school. By then we were one of the happening bands in Portland, Oregon.
Now back to the Counter-Reformation thing. When I was in New York in 78, I saw the early punk movement happening and I hated it. Punk just sounded stupid to my ears, stupid and irritating. I loved the heavy Philly-soul production of Gamble & Huff, with the horns and strings and congas. To me that sound had dignity. I liked disco, but disco was devolving into all those bad Casablanca records, ‘Disco Beethoven’s Fifth’ and all that crap. So then came another epiphany. If I hated punk and loved disco and Philly soul and Tower of Power and Earth Wind and Fire, maybe there were other people out there like me.
The answer was yes.
So, Nu Shooz in a big way was me shooting back at the Punk Invasion. But beside that, I just dug arranging…those big sheets of music paper, the math and art and science of it. In the mid-70s, I started listening to arrangers like Toshiko Akiyoshi and Papo Luca. So, another side of the story was that I wanted a band like Miles Davis had on ‘Birth of the Cool,’ nine horns, a jazz laboratory. ‘We’ll play pop music on the side, then write these beautiful charts…’ It didn’t turn out that way.
SM: ‘I Can’t Wait’ (ICW) received regional airplay in your native Oregon. At the time, how cool was it that your song was on the airwaves? Did you ever fathom that it would blow up into a worldwide hit and one of the defining songs of the decade?
JS: Ask anyone and they’ll tell you it’s impossible to know whether a song is a hit or not. All I know is, of all the songs we were recording in the winter of ’84 that one sounded the most real, the most like an actual record. Then it took six months to make it work in the studio.
Valerie Day: I’ll never forget the first time I heard it on the radio. It was April and the sun was out - a miraculous sunny spring day in Portland, OR. I was in my little 79’ Toyota Corolla station wagon driving up Weidler Street. My radio was dialed to Z100 – the station that had first played the song and recently put it into regular rotation (a miracle for an unsigned band – but that’s another story!). And then there it was. I cranked the volume up and started singing along. Then it hit me - I was actually singing with myself on the radio! I rolled down the window and wanted to shout it to the world – hey – that’s my voice! That’s our band! That’s our song! It was an incredible feeling. But I never dreamed that I would become - as you put it – one of the defining songs of the decade. Miraculous.
SM: How did the remix of the song, the version that the world knows, come about?
VD: We had a regional hit with the song first, but couldn’t get arrested when it came to getting a label to sign us. Even though we were getting all kinds of airplay on radio throughout the Pacific NW, they thought it was a fluke that the songs success wouldn’t translate to other markets. Warner gave us a demo deal but then turned us down saying “We already have Madonna.”
While we were busy being turned down by all the majors, a DJ label called Hot Trax approached us about putting ‘ICW’ on a 12” going out to club DJ’s. We said sure. Long story short, that record was found in an import bin in Holland by a remix artist named Peter Slaghuis. His version (with the infamous emulator chirpy sound on the front) came back to the U.S. as a Dutch import and was found in a NYC dance club by a young guy named Bruce Carbon who had just started working in the Dance department at Atlantic Records. (Thanks Bruce!)
SM: You guys were up for a Grammy the year ‘ I Can’t Wait’ came out (in 1987, for Best New Artist). How cool was that? Were you present at the awards show and, if so, did you take a look around at all the artists there that night and think, “Wow.”
VD: That was an amazing moment. Sitting in that auditorium in L.A. with Whitney Houston, Bonnie Raitt, Janet Jackson…it was too much. We had a feeling Bruce Hornsby was going to win the award, (which he did) but there was still that pregnant pause when the envelope was being opened that I wondered if my antiperspirant would hold up to the strain!
SM: Did everything hit you too fast…in terms of popularity, promos, touring etc. after the releases of ‘I Can’t Wait’ and ‘Point of No Return?” How did you guys deal with sudden fame?
JS: Um…We played for seven years before we ever got near a record label, so when the fame thing happened, we could definitely get up and play. Then we were too busy for it to really sink in. We took the band on the road and played seventy cities in seventy-three days. On our three days off we did laundry.
SM: Who did you guys tour with in the 80s? Any interesting stories?
VD: We toured with Morris Day and the Time, The Jets, Billy Ocean, The Fat Boys, Tina Turner, The Pointer Sisters…speaking of which, have you ever seen “This Is Spinal Tap”? I think pretty much everything that happened in to the band in that movie happened to ours except for the getting stuck in the egg bit.
When we opened for the Pointer Sisters the whole band got lost in the bowels of the auditorium we were playing in just as we were about to go on. The voice of the announcer “And now ladies and gentlemen…” was bouncing off the pipes as we raced around trying to find our way to the stage. We made it, but the pause was VERY pregnant between the announcement and our rather rushed entrance.
SM: What was the cause of Nu Shooz falling back into relative obscurity as the 80s wound down, even though you put out several more albums? Was it because of the changing industry, record labels, or some other driving force?
JS: It was a combination of things. First of all, to make it in the record business as it was at that time was a miracle, something like putting a camel through the eye of a needle. The people at labels change all the time, so by the time our third Atlantic record was done, the people who signed us were long gone. And let’s be honest, they’re not in the business of trying to understand you as an artiste. They have their cookie-cutter ways of doing things and -- God bless ‘em, sometimes it works. But I’m not here to complain about the label.
The other factor was, I was moving on musically. I didn’t want to make the same record over and over. And I sure as hell didn’t want to go out on the road and play the same record over and over. By 1988 I was studying Bach and Charlie Parker and learning to write film scores. On the pop side, I was getting bored with R&B and electronica and listening to '60s psychedelia, ‘Incense and Peppermints’ and all that. Making another ‘I Can’t Wait’ was the last thing on my mind. So it’s no surprise that the label lost interest in us.
Success in pop music is a blessing and a curse. The public embraces a band, then expects them to stay the same. Only a few groups in history were allowed to grow. The Beatles are the best example, but then radio wasn’t so tightly formatted back then. Would the Beatles be allowed to go from “She Loves You,” to “I Am The Walrus” today?
I was determined to stay true to my interests. That’s what got us as far as we got. And what I saw of show business turned out to be…not very interesting.
SM: Looking back at what you accomplished in the '80s, do you guys hide from it or embrace it? Do you get sick, or at least become weary of “I Can’t Wait” and/or “Point of No Return?”
JS: Well, I never liked “Point of No Return” that much, especially the remix. After ‘I Can’t Wait’ all the remix guys tried to do the same quirky sampler thing on our stuff, except for Mantronix who did a brilliant job with “Should I Say Yes.” Incidentally, we get e-mails all the time from Zimbabwe and Uganda saying how much they love that song. I can totally picture it playing in some African club on a hot night. The version of ‘Point of No Return’ on ‘Pandora’s Box’ is closer to how I wanted the song to sound. ‘I Can’t Wait’ I’m still very proud of. It’s twenty-seven years later and it still sounds fat and funky. Thinking back to when I wrote it, it was probably the moment when I felt the most sincere and engaged by funk music. The '80s were an exciting time, when drum machines were new and fresh sounding. That said, I can’t imagine doing that kind of music now.
SM: What have you guys been up to? I know you released several albums over the years. Without the burden of a large record label, do you guys make the music you want to, so to speak?
JS: Actually we only released one album since 1992, a jazzy orchestral record called ‘Pandora’s Box.’ It was probably too esoteric for the average Nu Shooz fan, but it was definitely what we wanted to do at the time. We also re-issued ‘That’s Right,” which used to be available only on cassette! Are we making the music we want to? Absolutely. As artists we have a responsibility to follow the path wherever it might lead. For me that path led into the world of Classical film scores, and the French Impressionist composers of the Fin de Siecle, Debussy and Ravel. After I discovered Debussy it sort of wrecked everything else. A lot of fans ofour old stuff had trouble following us into this strange new world. That’s cool, they can listen to the old records and I guess, dream of simpler times. The label never really told us what to do. They just gave us enough rope to hang ourselves, and we did!
VD: There are a couple of other albums that made their way out there in the last decade though…I recorded a Big Band CD as a fundraiser for the arts in schools that John did transcriptions for, then a jazz duet CD with smooth jazz pioneer Tom Grant. John also did the orchestrations for a multi-media cabaret/concert/science lecture that I wrote and produced with jazz pianist Darrell Grant and filmmaker Jim Blashfield (who directed the video for ‘ICW’ back in the '80s) about the neuroscience of romantic love – “Brain Chemistry For Lovers”.
SM: It’s pretty amazing and rare that you guys are still married after being together for a long time and working together for a long time. What is the secret to your success?
JS: My secret? I’m still excited to be in a relationship with this woman. Also, we had it easier than some of our band members. At the end of the day, we knew what we’d been through. After the Shooz, we both went off and did our own thing. Valerie was an in-demand session player. She played congas and Latin percussion on every jazz record coming out of Portland for a few years. And she taught voice lessons. I worked in advertising, doing infomercials for exercise machines and boat motors, and also scored a bunch of indie films. When we came back together to record ‘Pandora,’ we both had more to bring to the table.
VD: John is one of the smartest, funniest, most creative people I know. Give us a cup of coffee or a martini (or both!) and we can talk for hours and never get bored. It helps that even though we’re very different, our preferences in music and art are similar. He’s a bit more of a traditionalist and I’m a bit more of a modernist, but that makes it all the more interesting, you know?
SM: Any plans for touring? If so, would it be part of one of the ‘80s artists lineup, or do you guys prefer to go alone and perform music from throughout your career, not just the 80s?
JS: If you ever see me on the ‘oldies circuit’ you have my permission to shoot me. I’ve always thought of the nostalgia thing as The Elephant Graveyard. I have no interest in going out with a bunch of hired guns and pretending to be Nu Shooz. That was a certain time and place that’s gone forever. Right now I’m applying for a grant to write a new score for the 1928 silent movie ‘Nosferatu,’ for the Portland Chamber Orchestra. And I’m working on a graphic novel called ‘Evolution.’ Those are the kinds of things that interest me now. Fans of our ‘80’s stuff will always have those records to listen to. There’s a lot of love out there for what we did back then. For that we’re extremely grateful.
VD: Touring would be great, but playing the 80s material is just not something I feel compelled to do right now. Plus, there’s no time! We’re working on a NU SHOOZ CD of material from our '80’s “vaults” that no one has ever heard. “Kung Pao Kitchen” will be out in early 2012. I’m also teaching at Portland State University, performing with a jazz quartet, and looking forward to recording some more NU SHOOZ Orchestra records. John and I are parents too. Our son Malcolm is 16 and only has a couple more years of high school to go. He’s an amazing visual artist and a wonderful person. We want to make sure we don’t miss a minute of the years he’s still with us.
SM: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Hopefully we’ll see you guys, or ‘yinz guys’ as they say here in Pittsburg, one day.
JS: My mom was from Pennsylvania…Slippery Rock to be exact. Never been there myself. I’m from the Middle East too... Cleveland, Ohio. Anyway, thanks for listening.
VD: Thanks for asking us…and yes! If we’re out in Pittsburgh someday, we’ll be sure to let you know.
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