An Exclusive Interview
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
As one of the founding members of The B-52s, Kate Pierson’s career has been an exciting and influential one to say the least. Forming in 1976, the quirky Athens, GA-based quintet released their debut album three years later and ignited a retro-fied New Wave movement with the single “Rock Lobster.” Though many critics thought the single and the band would be quickly forgotten, both have become synonymous with good times and great music. Nearly four decades later, no club party is complete without spinning “Rock Lobster” and watching the dancefloor go wild – it is an exhilarating sight to see. However, “Rock Lobster” does not define who The B-52s are. Yes, they are one of the greatest ‘party’ bands ever, but they also wrote some other great tunes along the way including “Planet Claire,” “Private Idaho,” “Party Out Of Bounds,” “Roam,” “Deadbeat Club,” “Give Me Back My Man,” and “Summer Of Love.” And let’s not forget the enormously successful “Love Shack,” a massive hit that reintroduced the band to a new generation a decade after “Rock Lobster”! Thankfully, The B-52s – Pierson, Fred Schneider, Cindy Wilson and Keith Strickland – are still touring and raising the roof everywhere they go. They don’t record quite as often as fans would prefer, but when they do release new music, they never disappoint.
While her day job with The B-52s has kept Kate Pierson pretty busy over the years, she has been able to branch out and work with other artists including Iggy Pop (“Candy”) and R.E.M. (“Shiny Happy People”). And while Fred Schneider was able to squeeze in some solo releases, Kate has never released a project under her own name – until now, that is. Guitars And Microphones is the long awaited debut solo album from Pierson, and it was well worth the wait. Alongside executive producer (and co-songwriter Sia), producer/musician Tim Anderson, and musicians Chris Braide (who is also a well-known producer), Nick Valensi (The Strokes) and others, Pierson has created a masterful album that contains ten slices of glorious modern Pop that solidifies her as one of the most unique voices in music today. When you hear her distinct and familiar voice, it reminds you of those joyful moments she has provided over the years with The B-52s, yet Guitars And Microphones is not a retread of her past successes – it is an extension. Tracks like “Bring Your Arms,” “Time Wave Zero,” “Crush Me With Your Love,” and the controversial “Mister Sister” are, to be honest, instant classics. On Guitars And Microphones, Kate has delivered everything you could hope for…and more.
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to chat with Kate about the album, The B-52s and more…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Your first solo album, Guitars And Microphones, has just been released. How are you feeling about the album and the reaction that you’ve received so far?
KATE PIERSON: So far, I’ve just heard really good things. Every interview I’ve done, everyone’s said they’ve loved the album. There have been a couple of reviews that just are really positive so far. You know, I had really total confidence in the album. I’m really, really happy with it and I’m proud of it. I know that it’s good. My main concern is that it be able to get out there into the world and be heard.
SPAZ: I know that a lot of people are going to wonder why it took so long for you to make a solo album…
KATE: I tried to get a solo album together and I had it all written. I’ve been writing songs since high school. I wrote a lot of songs for my Folk protest band, the Sun Donuts. I was a pretty prolific songwriter as there were three girls. We all wrote songs. Then I kept writing. When I got into the B-52’s it was a collective writing experience; it didn’t seem like I could write without the band, or I didn’t feel I could. It is like a family organization in a way, and we wrote by jamming together. It was also all-consuming. We were touring our butts off. From the very moment we signed with Warner Brothers and Island Records, we were off to the Bahamas recording and on a year-long tour opening with Talking Heads and on to Europe. It’s been a whirlwind. There was a time when the band kind of stopped, after Good Stuff actually. When Cindy (Wilson) left the band, there was sort of a lull and we were still doing touring. We toured for a year after Good Stuff. I did a project with this Japanese band called NiNa, which went to number one in Japan, and we toured all over Japan. After that, it just sort of opened up my creative experience, and I realized I could jam and write with anybody, by myself or just with a track. Because I had this time constraint and I said I would do it, they sent me some tracks and said like three weeks before I was to go to Japan, they said, you know – will you write some songs? And I did it. I collaborated with Yuki, who only speaks Japanese, and I don’t speak Japanese so it was like, “Wow, I can do this.” So I wrote a bunch of songs. I even toured with them. I had this whole collection of songs and then the B-52’s started doing Funplex, and then that just became all consuming. Then we started touring relentlessly, every month. Even in the winter we would have tours and every summer we’d do a big tour. I continued to write, but I didn’t seem to be able to get the time to really promote it and put it out there and get it together. So, this time the band’s really taking a break, less touring, and my partner, Monica, mentioned to Sia, our friend – before she started writing for Beyoncé and everybody – “Can you help Kate? Give her a jumpstart on getting this solo record?” So, that’s how this came about.
SPAZ: Now, when you started recording the album, did you have a set idea of the direction of the album – what you wanted it to sound like – or did it just manifest itself over time?
KATE: I feel that, with my voice, that it would be the sort of signature sound of my voice. One thing I knew, I didn’t want it to sound like a mimic of a B-52’s record. But I didn’t try not to do that, you know? I just sort of let my own creative impulses lead me in the direction I wanted to do for a solo record. There was no overarching theme or intention to have it sound a certain way. I think the fact that Sia and I wrote together –we have very similar sensibility in that – it worked out. It was hilarious, and we had a great time writing. The different people we wrote with usually did the instrumental part so we were doing the lyrics and the melodies. That worked out really well. So, there was a consistency there and we wrote more songs and I went on to write some songs on my own without Sia during these writing sessions because she got super busy writing superstar hits. She was also starting her own record.
SPAZ: Tim Anderson did a great job in producing the album. How did you choose him and was there a particular moment when you thought, “Okay, yeah, I definitely got the right guy to do this?”
KATE: Yeah. I co-wrote two songs with him and one with him and Sia called “Time Wave Zero.” I knew he was the right one. I knew he was a multi-instrumentalist. I liked his sensibility. I liked the way he played. The only sort of reservation I had was that his place, his little studio, was a little bit of a man cave and Sia said, “I’m gonna call him and make him clean it up.” (Laughs) So, she made him do a cleaning. But, I felt so comfortable there. I think we have the same sensibility as far as musical taste. I really knew that this is the right choice right from the start cause we kind of really had a mind meld as far as the direction, as far as the sound.
SPAZ: Were any of these ideas like seeds that were planted in your mind years ago or were they just all new and fresh for this project?
SPAZ: Were any of these ideas like seeds that were planted in your mind years ago or were they just all new and fresh for this project?
KATE: Well, most of the lyrics were seeds that I planted that were growing in my mind. There was a garden in my mind. (Laughs) I had all these lyrics and it was sort of terrifying in a way to think, “Okay, we’re gonna go to somebody’s studio that I’ve never met…” I know Sia, I felt comfortable with her, but I didn’t know what her process of songwriting was like. She really taught me a lot. Even though the B-52’s write collectively, we sometimes jam for hours or even days on something and then we sort of take the best parts in a very long process of listening and then collage those pieces together. In Sia’s case, she’s not really interested in production very much. We went to Nick Valensi’s studio and he didn’t have anything prepared. He just started playing a base line and we started jamming and kind of recording it on Garage Band and going, “Oh, this is a good verse melody.” What she taught me was don’t concentrate on trying to fit the lyrics. I had ideas for the songs. Because she knew it was my record, she wanted me to take the lead in that, so I had an idea. Like “Mister Sister,” I already had written down lyrics and instead of trying to fit my lyrics to the melody, you just get the melody then retrofit the lyrics to that. So, she really helped me. She changed some of the lyrics, put her own lyrics in, and kind of helped me retrofit that to the melody.
SPAZ: The album is a departure from B-52’s, but not a complete departure. Was it difficult to try to make an album that was very modern and not retro, but still keep it within the framework of what you’re best known for?
KATE: I didn’t even think about that. I mean, I just knew that the subject matter I had was a little more introspective in some cases. You know, like “Guitars and Microphones” was more autobiographical, and the B-52’s don’t really trademark in songs that are too introspective or too personal. I didn’t have to think about it being not like a B-52’s record because I knew that the ideas I had were not going to lead me in that direction, you know? I would be glad to have ‘party, party’ songs on there, but it just didn’t turn out that way. It was really just kind of ‘let it flow.’ When you collaborate, you just have to let the song take you where it goes. So, I guess one of the reasons for doing a solo record was to do something to express the stuff I haven’t expressed with the B-52’s. I think it was going to naturally take a turn. There was no intention like, “Ohhh, gotta make sure this doesn’t sound like the B-52’s” or, “It should sound a little bit like it,” you know?
SPAZ: I feel there’s a lot of heart and a lot of joy in this record, but not necessarily fun and games like a B-52’s record. What do you hope the listener walks away with after hearing it?
KATE: Well, I think the melodies are very hooky and so I hope people get the same kind of joy in listening that they get out of the B-52’s – for the melodies and the hooks and the positive kind of energy that’s in it. But also, I’m really happy about the lyrics on this. I think they’re particularly good. Sia is a genius with lyrics, too, so she’s added a lot collaborating with my lyrics. Then there were three songs she wrote without my help before we started the writing process together. I think the lyrics for those songs are really amazing – “Bring Your Arms,” “Matrix,” and “Crush Me With Your Love.” “Crush Me With Your Love” is my partner Monica’s idea for the title. “Bring Your Arms” was based on a trip that the three of us took to Tulum and witnessed this sea turtle rescue. Then “Matrix,” she just called me and said, “Well, I’m in the studio writing and what are you feeling right now?” I had this quote from Keith Strickland (The B-52’s) from a Tibetan Lama about “we’re all falling, we’re free floating….” The good news is there’s no bottom. There’s no sort of floor that we’re gonna hit. So, that’s what I said because I was feeling that. I felt like I was just sort of going in some other direction. Anyway, she took that and made “Matrix,” which I think is an extraordinary song, lyrically. I’m just really happy with those. I think that’s an extra icing on the cake kind of bonus when you get great lyrics. The melody is the main hook, what brings you in. I think there’s a lot of real uplifting kind of melodies on this record that’ll make people feel good.
SPAZ: Even something like “Pulls You Under,” which may not be upbeat, but it’s still one of these songs with such warmth.
KATE: Thank you. Well, that particular song I had written the lyrics for years ago for a friend, a dear friend who was feeling very depressed. So, that was really something that meant a lot to me personally, and it was very heartfelt. So yeah, I think there’s just sort of a lot of love in that song. That’s not something that’s usual in The B-52’s. When we sing “Lava,” I sing it like my life depends on it! Or do the fish sounds in “Rock Lobster.” We put emotion into it, but this is very personal.
SPAZ: Working with Sia and all the other people on this record – did it challenge you or was it liberating to work outside of the B-52’s framework?
KATE: Well, it was extremely liberating; it was just so much fun. The experience of writing with all these different people, who are also experienced songwriters – they’re not going to dilly-dally. We got a great song and a demo in one day in most cases. In a couple of cases, we went back for a second just to finish up, add harmonies and everything, but it was amazingly fast to me. I just could not believe how fast the process was. It was very liberating to just kind of think we’re all in the service of the song. That’s all we want to do is just make a great song, and there’s not a lot of baggage. Because the B-52’s have been together so many years. I mean, it’s like a magical brew, but there’s also a lot of history. It’s liberating to just be with a new chemistry, that’s all.
SPAZ: Does it surprise you that a song as positive as “Mister Sister” can be construed in such a negative way. When I go through and read the comments on YouTube, I laugh because people are misinterpreting the message and some are taking things so literally.
KATE: I was completely surprised by that reaction. You have to know that it’s really just a small group of people that were posting over and over. It all started really with a kind of a misquote. I was asked by Huffington Post what inspired the song. Why did you want to write a song about a transgender girl? So, first of all, it’s not about a transgender girl. My original quote was, “It was inspired by all who are transgender and LGB, multidimensional, and still transcending.” I said, “I hope it becomes a trans anthem, but it really is meant to empower anyone who feels betrayed by the mirror.” So, I took ‘trans,’ which some trans people and many LGBT people take trans as meaning the whole gender spectrum, but I learned that trans people are very specific about not wanting to be lumped in with drag queens – they don’t want to be called tranny, of course. They don’t want to use “trans” as an umbrella term referring to people within the gender identity exploration spectrum. I was bowled over. What happened was Monica, my partner, started a dialogue with one of the more vocal critics, a trans woman, a mixed martial artist. She sort of schooled us. The younger trans women – we didn’t hear anything from trans men – but the trans women were very particular about what agenda they had. I agree that they need to be respected and not called “tranny.” They are a singular group that needs to be understood better. I just really learned a lot. There were a lot of terms I didn’t know like ‘turf’ and ‘cisgender,’ and I asked everyone around me, gay/straight/whatever, and nobody knew what cisgender was and had to look it up. Everyone that was reading this was like, what the hell is this gender? So, a lot of people learned a lot from this, and there were many, many, many more positive comments. I sort of took it just as a learning experience. At first I was just sort of crushed because I thought, “oh man, this is just… how could it be – like you said – interpreted as negative?” All I can say is I would try to be supportive of the trans community and get out that they want to be heard.
SPAZ: Lyrics are often misconstrued… people do tend to take them too literally. Would these people look at the song title “Rock Lobster” and imagine a crustacean carved out of stone?
KATE: (Laughing) The literal kind of interpretation. Like, “Well wait a minute – the mirror, why are they looking in the mirror?” And the mirror is just this sort of metaphor for transformation. You can pass through the mirror. It’s sort of a magic transformation vehicle or something. You’re beautiful because you feel beautiful, not because you’re literally beautiful. But yeah, I think there were a lot of interpretations, and when you write lyrics, you don’t write them literally at all. A lot of them are almost like a dream or something that you write. So very few people look at Rock lyrics and take them literally. But, this was totally deconstructed (laughs).
SPAZ: What is next for Kate Pierson?
KATE: One reason why I wanted the song “Guitars and Microphones” to be the title track is that I have been practicing guitar so the next phase is actually live performance, and I’m playing guitar. I’m not the greatest guitar player by any means, but I used to play with the B-52’s. I used to play guitar on “52 Girls,” “Hero Worship.” I played all the keyboard parts and the bass parts up until Cosmic Thing. I wanted to get my instrumental chops back, and I feel like playing guitar. I have a band that I’m working with up here in Woodstock. Monica and I started out saying we want an all-woman band, and then it turns out we have like a 20-year-old boy band (laughs). I started rehearsing with them, and it’s just working out great. With me playing guitar, I just feel like it leads me back into the music more, and being part of the song, instead of the singer who is always fighting with the instrumentalists in some ways. Sometimes they’re too loud and it’s kind of hard to describe what you want, but when you have a guitar it’s like you’re wielding this kind of powerful thing that you can sort of be part of the song in more ways than when you’re just singing.
SPAZ: What are you currently spinning on your CD, LP, DVD, or Blu-Ray players?
KATE: Watching? First of all I got all the SAG Award movies because I’m a member of SAG so I watched every single movie and voted in the SAG Awards. That was really fun to watch everything. I watch a lot of Downton Abbey. We’re really just anglophiles I guess, cause we watch all this British BBC stuff and even Inspector Lewis where there’s a murder in Oxford. There’s always three murders before they can solve the mystery. They’re having a beer after the second murder and then they make a chart. Then they kind of discover it, and at the end you can’t even figure out what happened. There’s just something about these British series. I’m listening to Sleater-Kinney – the new one. It’s just incredible. I love Bettye Lavette who I just saw live this past summer. And of course, Sia’s new record, which is incredible. It’s Pop, but it has amazing depths and real meaning, and real emotion.
Thanks to Kate Pierson