Cindy Wilson talks about the early days of the B-52’s and playing with her late brother Ricky Wilson, the band’s 40th Anniversary tour, and her new album Change.
Forty years have passed since the B-52’s declared themselves a band at a Chinese restaurant in their hometown of Athens, Georgia. The event is often described by the group as “the night of the flaming volcano” as that was the only drink they could afford that night. “It’s literally a ceramic volcano,” the band’s front man Fred Schneider recalled. “You put a Sterno in the hole up top, light it, then all around it’s a tropical drink and you share it with a bunch of straws.”
Not a surprising beverage choice for a band that is infamous for their eclectic retro style. Even their band name ‘B-52’ refers to a slang term used to describe the fifties bouffant hairstyles that Wilson and bandmate Kate Pierson sported, as the hairstyle is reminiscent of the nose of a Boeing B-52 aircraft.
The original band lineup consisted of Cindy Wilson (singer, songwriter, bongo player), her older brother Ricky Wilson (lead guitarist), Kate Pierson (singer / songwriter / multi-instrumentalist), Keith Strickland (drummer), and Fred Schneider (lead singer / songwriter).
In 1978, their first single “Rock Lobster” (DB Records) sold more than 2,000 copies, which eventually led to frequent performances at CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City, and Hurrah’s in New York City. The band rose to stardom with their self-titled album The B-52’s which featured hit tracks “Planet Claire” and “Rock Lobster”.
In 1985, Ricky Wilson passed away from AIDS, and Keith Strickland switched from drums to lead guitar, which he described as a “period of mourning”. In order to complete the rhythm section, the band enlisted session musicians for recordings and live performances. Although they had lost a beloved member of the band (and for Cindy, her brother), the band carried on with their recordings. Throughout 1989 and 1990, the B-52’s released “Love Shack” and “Roam” which became chart-toppers. They performed at the 1990 Earth Day Concert in Central Park to a crowd of 750,000 people.Wilson took a sabbatical from the band in the early 1990s to concentrate on raising her family, but returned to the group in 1994. She has co-written most of the band’s catalog, including the single “Private Idaho” (contained on the Wild Planet album) and the Cosmic Thing album, as well as hit singles “Love Shack” and “Roam”. Her solo vocal performances can be heard on “Girl From Ipanema Goes to Greenland”, “Ain’t It a Shame” and “Loveland” to name a few.
In recent years, Cindy has recorded several EPs, including Sunrise, released in 2016, and Supernatural, released in February of this year.
This has been a busy year for Wilson, who is currently performing with the B-52’s for their 40th Anniversary tour. In addition, she is also touring with her own band and performing the latest songs from her new album Change. The album is an eclectic mix of synthesizers and harmonies, and while the album gives off a psychedelic vibe, producer Suny Lyons introduces some modern bass beats and distorted vocals to give the album a distinct contemporary sound.
On her way to one of her own shows in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Cindy took some time out of her busy touring schedule to discuss the 40th Anniversary tour, the early days of the B-52’s, and her new album Change, released on December 1.
PKM: Hi Cindy, how is the tour going?
Cindy: Going great. We’re rollin’ down the road. We’re going to Chattanooga where we’re playing tonight.
PKM: Congrats on the release of your new album Change.
Cindy: Yeah, we’re so excited about it. We’ve got boxes of the album in the back now. I can’t wait to get to Chattanooga and open them to see how they turned out!
PKM: I’ve listened to “Mystic” and “Brother” online, and I love how the synthesizer blends in with the harmonies.
Cindy: Oh yeah, It’s amazing how the engineering and the production came together. It’s beautifully done.
PKM: Who collaborated on this album with you, and who helped produce it?
Cindy: In the band we have Lemuel Hayes, Ryan Monahan, Suny Lyons, who produced, engineered, wrote, played and sang on it, and Marie (Davon). Marie is in the touring band, but she plays the violin and vocals at the live shows. We called in a list of other musicians to help us out and experiment with the sound. We put on the flute, horns, and all sorts of things. In some places you can really feel the orchestration. It’s beautiful.
PKM: How long had you been working on this album?
Cindy: About three and a half, four years. We would work on it once a month, and later on when we had the amount of songs we’d like to record, we were kind of picking out and tweaking things, and we decided we had to have a touring band to make the songs come alive, and so that’s what we did. The show is amazing.
PKM: I can imagine! So you’re performing tonight?
Cindy: Yep. We’re on tour for a few weeks, we’re gonna wind up in Vancouver at the end, then out on the West Coast, which will be kind of hip. But we’ll be up around your way in Fairfield, Connecticut at the Fairfield Theatre, and the Brooklyn Bell House on the sixth of December, so come and check it out!PKM: Are there a few cover songs recorded on the album as well?
Cindy: Yeah, do you remember Junior Senior? We’re doing a cover of a Junior Senior song, and also Oh-OK’s ‘Brother’. Which is a band from Athens, Georgia that emerged in the early 80’s. They were important, so it’s a tribute to them, and we love the song.
PKM: And it’s a different take on the song, which is pretty cool.
Cindy: Yeah absolutely. We kind of made it a little bit crazier! (laughs) and a little bit more demented.
PKM: Good! What are a few of your favorite tracks on the album?
Cindy: Well I love so many of them. I enjoy listening to the album, the way it flows and everything. Right now I’m starting to appreciate “Things I’d Like To Say”, and of course “Corporeal”, I’m loving. And I’m also enjoying a few of the songs on EPs that we put into the set. It switches around, I have my favorites at different times.
PKM: What is it like touring as a solo artist, when you’ve been touring all these years with the B-52’s?
Cindy: Well I feel like we’re a group too. It’s really not so much a solo as it an actual functioning band, so ‘solo’ is a bit of a misnomer. And so we have the support of a band, which to me is really crucial. You’re hurtling through space and time, making music every night. It’s crazy, but I love it.
PKM: This year you’re also on the road for the B-52’s 40th Anniversary tour.
Cindy: Yeah, that’s happening as well. It’s going to be a busy time. 2018 should be very busy for the B-52’s as well, and we’ll be touring all over the place. It’s going to be a celebration, and so we’re very excited about that.
PKM: Well it’s an important celebration. Forty years! You probably look back and think “What? That was yesterday!”
Cindy: I know! “What the-?!” I can’t believe it.
PKM: I heard the B-52’s performed at the Atlanta Symphony Hall. That must have been different from the usual venues you’re accustomed to playing.
Cindy: It’s been on our repertoire to play with symphonies. And you know, we play with the Boston Pops. We play with some of the best, baby, and in L.A., the Hollywood Bowl. We perform with different symphonies around the country. Sometimes it depends on the orchestra, but when it’s really happening, it’s magic. The audience gets a real kick out of it. We do too! And I’ll tell you, I was just so excited, a bongo player playing with the Boston Pops! That’s going into my career diary ‘Dear Career Diary, Boston Pops bongo player, yay!’
“Athens was a lot cooler than smaller towns in Georgia. We got more access to cultural things like the library. You could go to the library and they had this periodical section that had old Vogue magazines from the sixties, which was amazing to see.”
PKM: I read that Keith Strickland hasn’t been touring in recent years.
Cindy: He’s still in the band, he’s just not touring. He just…he just got tired of it. And you know what? He’s got the good life in Key West, and that’s great!
PKM: So the current lineup consists of you, Kate and Fred?
Cindy: Yes it’s been like that for a few years now. We hired Greg Suran to play guitar, like what Keith Strickland was doing, and he’s done an amazing job with taking up stylings of Keith Strickland and Ricky’s style! He’s started his own style now. I’ve been hearing him stepping out and experimenting, which is kind of cool. I’m all for it! Make it fresh for our audience. So that’s exciting. I love it. Greg’s a great guy. He’s a nice person too.
PKM: That’s great. Speaking of your brother Ricky, he was a bit of a guitar virtuoso, wasn’t he?
Cindy: Well he had his own style, definitely. Yeah, I would call him a virtuoso. I mean, he didn’t go to school for it, but he was self-taught and developed his own style. And he did it with a sense of humor. He would make himself laugh with some of his stylings, so he got a lot of joy out of it, definitely. I’m so proud of him.
PKM: Do you feel he kind of relieved the anxiety that you had when you were on stage?
Cindy: Oh yes, absolutely! Having my brother around, of course! Especially since I was the youngest one when we started. I was nineteen. So yeah, I stuck close to Ricky and Keith.
PKM: So you, Ricky and Keith were together in high school, having jam sessions?
Cindy: Oh yeah! There was a four-year age difference between Ricky and I, and Ricky was way beyond me. Self-taught…he got a summer job, just to make money to get a reel-to-reel. You don’t know what that is, but back then that was what you wanted to record music. You could have a few tracks on it. It was a big deal, you know? We would layer tracks, vocal tracks on it and have the best time. So I got to start singing with Ricky, and our voices blended really well together, and it was great fun. I am thankful that I had that time with Ricky.
PKM: You met Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider in 1975. How did you meet them, and when did you decide it was time to form a band?
Cindy: Well, it was actually quite easy. The planets aligned, everybody had free time, and just got together and started jamming. It was really special. So we decided to, just for fun, play a show at a friend’s…I think it was a Valentine’s party. It was just to entertain our friends and ourselves, not to become rich and famous or anything like that. Just to be creative. So it came about organically. We kept going to the next step, which would be to play New York. We all thought that was the be all end all if we played New York, like “Hey, we’ve played CBGB’s!” When we came up there, it was a major big deal. We borrowed my dad’s station wagon and loaded it up with our equipment and tied it on top of the car, too! It was like the Beverley Hillbillies going up to New York. It was my first time ever going to New York, and it was just awesome. And then we got to play Max’s Kansas City, and CBGB’s and then Hurrah’s – That’s been gone for a while too, but that was a real important gig. That’s when we knew something was happening because we looked out the window after sound check and there was a line around the block of people waiting on line to come see us. We knew then that something was starting to happen, and it was amazing.
PKM: So you play Max’s, you play CBGB’s. It’s the late 1970s and you’ve got these punk groups that are still going strong, and then your band comes onto the stage- some of you sporting 1950s’ hairstyles and go-go boots, what was the audience’s reaction to seeing you play for the first time?
Cindy: I think we came out of such left field that it was intoxicating. And we brought a few friends, they were dancing in the audience, so it was a real happening. I thought it was amazing. John Cale was sitting at the bar. I almost fainted when I met him. I said “Oh my God!” I mean, can you imagine?
PKM: It must have been surreal, to be able to sit down and chat with artists you’ve idolized!
Cindy: I know! He’s sitting there. In real life, they actually sit there at CBGB’s, and it’s so amazing. And then I got to meet a lot of other cool people. The Ramones and, of course, Talking Heads and Blondie, and on and on. It was amazing to be in New York at that time, and New York embracing us, which was really great.
PKM: Speaking of the Talking Heads, you opened for them in Boston about six weeks after your first record was released. With the two bands paired together, I’d say that was a contrast in sound! What was that like for you and the group?
Cindy: The Talking Heads had their own style. They were like nobody else. Back in those days they (the venues) paired groups, and we loved going out with them because they were friends and buddies and a really fun group.
PKM: You had mentioned that you left Athens, Georgia to perform at music clubs like CBGB’s. Athens is considered to be a music mecca these days, but what was your hometown like in the mid-1970s?
Cindy: I was born in Athens, Georgia, and Ricky was too. Keith Strickland was a local kid. Athens was a lot cooler than smaller towns in Georgia. We got more access to cultural things like the library. You could go to the library and they had this periodical section that had old Vogue magazines from the sixties, which was amazing to see. So you had a good concept of the world through that. Also they brought in foreign films which was great, and strange art films. It wasn’t like it is today. Nowadays there are so many bars in Athens and the university has grown. It’s changed somewhat, but it still retains an artsy feel. Music is still big there, and I love that. It’s an easier place to live, so I’m having fun being there now.
PKM: So it’s always been an artistic community?
Cindy: Absolutely. The thing is, back in the 1970s you had to meet people and see what’s going on, see what other people were doing. It was intoxicating in the 1970s. When all that was going on with the B’s first starting, we were going out every night, meeting the coolest people- just having a great time and being creative. And I loved that. You had to make your own fun, which was great. You weren’t just sitting in front of the TV. If you wanted to pursue something and be creative, you had to go out and do it.
PKM: What were you doing before the band was formed? Was there another career you had wanted to pursue?
Cindy: I was nineteen, I mean, I was a waitress. (Laughs)
PKM: Not exactly a life aspiration.
Cindy: It was a real rock ‘n’ roll kinda thing in the music business. I think that happened to Chrissie Hynde.
PKM: That’s why she plays a waitress in the ‘Brass in Pocket’ video.
Cindy: That’s right!
PKM: The B52’s are a genre-defiant band to say the least. What is your opinion on people who label the band as ‘dance rock’?
Cindy: I don’t care, you know? It’s none of my business what people say. They can say anything they want. They’ve got a mouth, go ahead and voice your opinion. We do what we do, and that’s great. But I know the B-52’s also came from a very artistic and original start. I mean, people kind of roll their eyes maybe if they’ve heard “Love Shack” too many times, but that came from a very creative way of writing, so it really is a cool song.
PKM: And a bit impromptu as well. I had heard you didn’t know the song (“Love Shack”) was over because it ended kind of abruptly, so that’s why you were shouting at the end “Tin Roof! Rusted.”
Cindy: Yeah. What we did a lot in the band is Keith or Ricky would bring in the music, and we would jam over the music over and over. It’s kind of a laborious technique of writing but really amazing things come out of it like cool harmonies and strange fantasies and stories that are kind of put together like a puzzle. All of a sudden the tape stopped and I’m still jamming, you know? And they recorded it ‘cause we had to record all the jams so we could go back and listen to it. And so we just laughed. It was a great ending.
PKM: The great thing about the B52’s songs is that they don’t sound overproduced, and the structure differs from other albums of that era. Was there a certain structure you followed for each song?
Cindy: There is a structure. It’s a B-52’s structure. It took a lot of rehearsal to get down the songs like we did. We’d come in at a certain beat sometimes, and you had to learn it more precisely that way, than in a regular predictably structured song. So you would have to learn it. But you have to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, that’s so important. There are some songs that we do get to improvise every night, like the lobster sounds or the fish sounds in ‘Rock Lobster’, and that’s great ‘cause you’re able to do something a little bit original every night, which is good for you.
PKM: How long will you be touring the states?
Cindy: With this, we’re touring for about two and a half more weeks. Afterwards we’ve got a few shows scattered, and then we’re going to Europe in February.
PKM: Where in Europe are you touring?
Cindy: We’ll end up in Spain, Paris, London, a few shows in Germany and Amsterdam, and Brussels. The B-52’s are planning on going to Europe too, probably later on in the year. I’m really psyched, I love it. It usually happens all at once at one point of your life and that’s what’s going on now.
PKM: The last B-52’s album Funplex was released in 2008. Are there any plans in the works to record a new album?
Cindy: Not an album, but we’ve been tossing around the idea of recording a song. But it keeps getting pushed, so we’ll see if it comes about or not.
PKM: Before I let you go, what is a favorite memory that you have of being in the B-52’s?
Cindy: One of my favorite moments was when we played at the Mudd Club. We were performing ‘Rock Lobster’ onstage when a giant eight-foot lobster (prop) got thrown onstage. It made a giant hole in the stage, and the stage collapsed! The band, the drums, and the eight-foot lobster fell in, and we were performing ‘Rock Lobster’ all the while. I also loved performing at the Earth Day Concert in Central Park in 1990.
“I was at a dance club one night in Bermuda” in June 1980. “Upstairs, they were playing disco, and downstairs, I suddenly heard ‘Rock Lobster’ by the B-52’s for the first time. Do you know it? It sounds just like Yoko’s music, so I said to meself, ‘It’s time to get out the old axe and wake the wife up!’ We wrote about twenty-five songs during those three weeks, and we’ve recorded enough for another album.”
– John Lennon (as described by Brian Scott MacKenzie, 2017)