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Vernon Reid’s ability to wring an astounding range of sounds out of his guitar is one reason he’s considered more than just another outstanding guitar player with jaw-dropping chops. He’s also one of those fortunate individuals who realized the dream of playing with some of those who were his heroes growing up, living saints of the guitar like Carlos Santana and B.B. King.
An interest in tearing down musical and cultural walls is another defining characteristic of Vernon. He is a founding member of the Black Rock Coalition, an organization of artists and producers dedicated to furthering the cause of black alternative music.
Early on he was a member of (Ornette Coleman drummer) Roland Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society. Since then he has performed and/or recorded with a wide range of artists and acts including Defunkt, John Zorn, Bill Frisell, David Torn, the Ambitious Lovers, Jack DeJohnette, Public Enemy, The Ramones, Mariah Carey, Mick Jagger, Tracy Chapman, Salif Keita, and Family Stand, among others.
Vernon Reid is also a driving force behind Living Colour, probably best known for their mega-hit "Cult of Personality." The Grammy-winning progressive funk rock group broke down both musical and cultural barriers throughout the ’80s and early ’90s. Living Colour recently re-united, releasing the album Collidescope in 2003. Some other Vernon Reid projects of late include his funk-and-fusion-infused group Masque, who’ve released the critically acclaimed albums Mistaken Identity, Known Unknown, and Other True Self. Another ongoing collaboration finds Vernon exploring electronica, hip-hop, and dub with DJ Logic as the Yohimbe Brothers, releasing the albums Front End Lifter and The Tao of Yo.
Vernon has also composed scores for film, video, and dance projects including the Marlis Yearby Dance Company, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, and Robert Longo’s Johnny Mnemonic. We sat down with Vernon recently during a rare moment of his spare time to discuss his ongoing musical projects and those in the works, his influences, and his recently completed soundtrack for a zombie women’s prison movie.
MF: John Zorn is one of the strangest and most progressive guys on the map. How’d you get hooked up with him and what was it like learning those phonetic weird-ass changes?
VR: It’s funny because John and I met in a very interesting way. He was working at a record shop in SoHo. This was many years ago, I mean we’re talking like the very early ’80s...
MF: He owned the record shop?
VR: No, he was a clerk at the shop, a store called the SoHo Music Gallery. And we just hit it off. I was buying a record and he started talking and he’s like "Oh yeah, you know I’m a sax player and I’m doing this and that." And it’s very interesting because he went on to do great, great things with all of his various projects and his kind of dada-esque things like Cobra and the game theory groups, and then he did The Big Gundown and he invited me to play on that, so I have a lot of affection for him. He’s a good guy.
MF: Is it hard learning all those weird changes? He’s so amazing in terms of just his composition.
VR: He does a lot of different things. Yeah, the main thing is finding a way into the music and if you can find a way in then you’ll be okay. That’s the main thing about any music. Music is craft as well as an art and that is just executing whatever has to be done. But for it to have a feel, the musician has to have a feeling for it, or it’s just played and not interpreted.
MF: Who were your idols when you started playing guitar?
VR: When I started playing guitar Carlos Santana was like ... goodbye! Santana, Hendrix, and just really odd players. I loved Jan Ackerman from Focus. T-Bone Walker was someone I loved, B. B. King, Albert King, Freddie King, and then Bill Conners, who was the first guitarist from Return To Forever. And John McLaughlin.
I have to mention Freddie Stone from Sly and the Family Stone, Jimmy Nolan who played with James Brown, and Eddie Hazel who played with Funkadelic. Let’s see, Ernie Isley who played with the Isley Brothers. Robert Fripp is definitely another one who I would consider an influence.
And then there are many people that just came on down through the years, like Allan Holdsworth. Then there’s a kind of a funny bouncing back and forth between, from the blues people and the rock people and the various incarnations in between, various mixings and matchings. I think one of the great losses was Tommy Bolin, who was a wonderful guitarist, played with James Gang, he played with Deep Purple for a short time and actually played on one of the greatest jazz/rock records, Billy Cobham’s Spectrum.
MF: Yeah, that’s a great record.
VR: Just the first track, "Quadrant 4," I mean, that was it! That was totally it! It was rockin’, man. Really great.
MF: You started off playing more jazzy stuff. How did you cover the distance from jazz to more hard rock later on?
VR: I could go on and on and on and on with different people (who were influential to me) like from Sonny Sharrock and James Blood Ulmer. I am not a person who had turned around and stopped liking funk. Some people outgrow it—they go "Oh yeah, you know, yeah, I used to be into that." Well, I still like what I like. The only thing is I found other things and heard other things and that just added to it. It’s funny because the things that I like go from very, very conventional pop type of things to the most extremely avant-garde, like Derek Bailey and Hans Reichel. We just lost Derek Bailey recently.
MF: Hans ...
VR: Reichel. He’s a German guitarist who played a guitar with like this weird movable bridge ... very, very out there, very good. Great, great player. And then, people like Egberto Gismonti, a great Brazilian guitarist/pianist. Hound Dog Taylor is one of my favorites. He used this raw dog blues, you know. And Lightning Hopkins. So, it goes, it runs a pretty far gamut. To me, there’s something that runs through these different styles.
MF: So you’re thinking music doesn’t have to be complicated or complex in order to...
VR: No, complicated is wonderful, because we have these clever brains and we work out puzzles and secret passages and pathways, vexation pathways, and that’s great, but I’m attracted to simple melodies, funky rhythms, groovy things. In a way the first thing that got me into jazz was when a teacher played Coltrane’s version of "My Favorite Things" and I just was just like "wow." I was blown away by that.
MF: Your teacher played that, you said?
VR: Yeah, a teacher from high school played "My Favorite Things" and I mean it just was "Wow."
MF: Do you remember that teacher’s name?
VR: Oh yes, it was Professor Gene Ghee. I believe that’s how he spelled his last name. He actually is a sax player. I ran into him many years after he taught at my school and he was playing with Sam Rivers, the great Sam Rivers. I haven’t talked to him in many, many years but it was kind of an amazing thing to be at a festival and to see (him), one of the things really responsible for me getting into music.
MF: Since it’s universally acknowledged that Jimi Hendrix is one of the most prominent figures in the creation of modern rock, why do you think you had to work so hard with the Black Rock Coalition to increase recognition of black rock artists?
VR: I think that there are a couple of reasons. People maybe think that blacks and rock really ended with the death of Hendrix when that’s not true at all. And I see that there’s a kind of parallel alternative history of rock in which a band like War or a band like Funkadelic, or a band like the Isley Brothers would be acknowledged at the same level. Yeah, Isley Brothers should be acknowledged at the same level as the Rolling Stones or MC5 or what have you.
There was a certain thing that Funkadelic was doing ... One of the genius things that George Clinton was having two entities that were on two different tracks. (Parliament) had very much an R&B and funk thing and Funkadelic was basically a psychedelic rock band and it took many years before Funkadelic was even acknowledged as a rock-and-roll band. And that’s part of what the Black Rock Coalition conversation was about: this whole other entity did not really include Funkadelic as a rock band, it did not include War as a rock band, it didn’t include the Skull Snaps or Mother Night, or, I could just go on and on and on, you know, Automatic Man, and name band after band after band that had everything from just very, very rootsy kind of stuff to prog stuff. Like David Sancious, who was the original keyboard player in E Street Band ... he was acknowledged by Elton John as being a great progressive musician but the official history didn’t really include that stuff.
MF: I’ve always been a big fan of jazz rock fusion guitarists and in terms of really big name guys on your level, there’s just not that many out there that you hear about. I’m sure they’re there, it’s just you don’t hear about them.
VR: It’s interesting, different players from Stevie Ray Vaughan to Frank Moreno to Robin Trower, all GREAT players, right? They all seized on a small fragment of what Jimi did and developed an entire thing from that. If you listen to Robert Trower, the whole thing is like Jimi’s Band of Gypsies.
MF: Right, totally obvious.
VR: I guess part of the black rock thing is it’s essentially a community, a sense of commonality and community and I’m much more interested in where we’re all going to take the music now as well as the business because the whole thing is shifting radically now with the Internet and downloading. Micro labels and niche labels are making a go of it and it’s been very confusing for a while now.
MF: What unique challenges do you face working with DJ Logic in the Yohimbe Brothers versus a more traditional instrumentalist?
VR: The DJs DJ-ing and Turntablism is a relatively new form and it already has produced great instrumentalists, and I believe that DJ Logic is one of the foremost. And part of his thing is that he scratches the fastest but his feel for beats and his feel for elements is really pretty much unmatched. That’s why he’s worked with everyone from me to Charlie Hunter to you know, I mean, he’s done stuff with Medeski, Martin & Wood, because he has a feel, just like any other musician has a feel. Once you get over the "Oh my God, that’s an appliance!"
I mean it’s the ultimate expression of Marcel Duchamp, you know the French artist conceptualist. You know, the whole idea of ready-made art and the fact that the turntable has been "repurposed" to be an instrument. It’s pretty revolutionary and it was the kind of revolution that really happened as an unintended consequence.
The real profound things, many of them are accidental and the difference is recognizing that this is something different; this is something special.
MF: Technically, when you’re playing along with (DJ Logic), the timing’s easy ’cause the guy has great time, but it seems like you’d have issues all the time with keeping in pitch.
VR: Usually no. It depends on the part, I mean, that’s something that you discuss. If you were playing with someone who was playing an instrument whose pitch was sort of indeterminate or had a sliding kind of pitch, that’s really the key to it. And you work it out just like any other thing. You know,"How did that sound?" "I think it’s a little sharp or it’s a little flat."
Another thing about hip-hop music is that you use your dissonance in a way that has certain people running from the room. Many people complain about hip-hop but it’s very interesting because the people that make pop music aren’t listening to them; they don’t care about it. Anything can be evaluated as working or not working or being good or not good.
I think that’s the same thing with DJ-ing too. You have qualitative differences you know, when you hear a Kid Capri or Jazzy Jeff or DJ Logic or Rob Swift—you’re listening to a quality musician; you’re listening to people that know that they’re about their business.
MF: Right. What’s your relationship with Steve Vai been like? How did you hook up with him?
VR: He’s a good guy, man. We met when they gave Hendrix his little spot on the Walk of Fame.
MF: Was he an influence on your playing before you hooked up with him?
VR: It was crazy. The thing with Steve is that a lot of what Steve does is just so incredibly, ah, particular and difficult, (laughter) like very, very extremely difficult.
VR: He’s done things that are just so moving to me, like he played uncredited on the Public Image Ltd. record called Album, which is a record produced by Bill Laswell. His playing on this record is
completely amazing to me. I love that record. You know, it’s so goofy and crazy and he plays. He was insanely good years ago, and he’s just gotten better and better and better.
MF: I hear a similarity in your styles in that you’re both very expressive beyond the traditional tonic range of the instrument in using whistles and just being willing to use the strings, the physical part of the instrument to make all kinds of sounds other than just traditional notes.
VR: Well, he’s a trip, him and Joe Satriani are like some of the guys I think are really nuts. What I really like is individuals. And there’s a kind of ... guitar industrial complex, you know, which is sort of like everyone gets taken over by these giants, they just get taken over by Alan Holdsworth or Steve Vai or you know, and then they work really hard to play just like them and do all that stuff. And I can understand, but the lesson is that all the great players, from Joseph Stokes to Steve Vai to Robert Fripp all of these people are themselves, you know.
Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page ... I mean ultimately you have to be yourself. And that can be a very tough road to walk, you know. But there is no other road to walk and whatever that means, whether you’re going to be the flavor of the month, the week, the year, whatever. I think that that’s the key and that’s what I love about Steve and Joe. There’s a guy who’s coming up, this kid Ron Thal, "Bumblefoot," who’s out, out of his mind. Absolutely out of his mind. Like he does this whole thing where he takes a thimble on his finger and he taps on the neck and slides it. He does this whole thing with tapping and sliding, it’s complete, unmitigated insanity. (laughter).
Like the first time I heard Allan Holdsworth ... to me, he’s a great poet on the instrument. He’s a great lyrical poet. I mean, he’s also got ball-busting technique and I think people get caught up in that, but really, he’s a great poet. Like when I hear the Edge, I hear someone who really has a sound and at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that matters. If you make a sound in the music and however that is manifested, whether it’s manifested with blistering technique or if it’s just this thing that you do that no one else is really doing, that’s the bottom line.
MF: Well, you certainly choose it in your own music. Your style is incredibly unique and fresh and powerful and also, you don’t just do the same thing in every context. You get in a different context and you just sort of grow a whole new voice and that’s really cool.
VR: Well, thank you, yeah, many of the things that I’ve really enjoyed doing totally from Masque. One of the things you know I have to do is mention the band. I’ve had just a wonderful time working with Don McKenzie, who’s the drummer on this record; and Marlon Browden, who’s the drummer on the second album; and Hank Schroy, who plays bass; and our keyboard player, Leon Gruenbaum. (Leon’s) a nut, he’s sort of like Zawinul on amphetamines (laughter), he’s like out of his mind. And he’s invented this keyboard that he calls a Samchillian Tip Tip Tip CheeePeeeee, which is great because he has perfect pitch, so he developed a MIDI keyboard that’s really based on relative pitches, and it’s pretty astounding. Leon, he’s an astounding player, he plays everything from Bebop to barrelhouse and then plays this kind of sci-fi crap too. And what I like about him is that he basically invented this whole other way of improvising as a keyboard player that’s pretty astounding. Keyboard Magazine has gotten in touch with him and only now that people are really starting to even get a sense of what he’s laying down. So it’s been my great pleasure to work with him, really, on a lot of my different projects. He’s phenomenal to me. And Leon does a lot of cool stuff on Other True Self, I mean, he plays glockenspiel and toy piano on one song called "Mind of my Mind," which is influenced by the great sci-fi writer who just passed away, Octavia Butler. On it he’s playing a toy that was in the studio and he played and we did not sample it. He played the actual toy piano. (laughter)
VR: There was a kind of whacky overtone that you can’t (get with a sampler), I mean, you could do it with a sampler if you had a really, really great sampler, spent a whole bunch of time to do that or you could just mic up a toy piano and play it. You know, the same thing with ah, you know, "Flatbush and Church Revisited," you know, there was a glockenspiel just sitting there and he said "Let’s get a mic and let’s do it." So, I’m not a Luddite in any sense, you know, I do a lot of things with computers and music but it’s like, it was just great to play in a context where we just really played in real time. I don’t like to be stuck in a methodology. I don’t like this whole thing that guitar players do where they beat up on the keyboard players or the synth guys or the sequence people and I don’t do that.
Like the first time I heard Kraftwerk, it moved me. I don’t know why it did. There’s something very cold and German about it but there’s also something else that’s in there, pulsing in the music. "The Trans-Europe Express" is one of the huge DJ pieces, DJs used to play "Trans-Europe" all the time, and Africa Bambaataa used that music for some stuff. That’s the beauty of what music is, it transcends race and all these other things. It’s like a certain beat, a certain groove, a certain something. You don’t have to explain why. People spend so much time explaining why they love a groove or why they love this or that, but it doesn’t fit into the rest of their life. You know, like there are many people that try to grapple with "Oh, I like Fifty Cent but I don’t like him, but I like that thing..." That’s the thing about music, it transcends all of the should of, would of, could of, blah blah blah.
MF: You recorded with Lenine and Arto Lindsay. What do you like about Brazilian music?
VR: Well, Brazilian music is awesome. It’s a whole world of music unto itself.
MF: How’d you get into it?
VR: I guess you could say it started with a guitarist like Baden Powell. Like I remember feeling that, you know, his playing as being, you know, just falling in love with it. I mentioned Egberto Gismonti. Arto (Lindsay) is a perfect example of someone who doesn’t sit in a box because he’s like a totally insanely avantgarde guitarist but he’s also a beautiful singer—a melodic, romantic singer. And I love the Ambitious Lovers. I mean, in a better world the Ambitious Lovers would have been as big as Tears For Fears.
VR: But the thing I like, aside from all of the obvious things about Brazilian music, the Carnival and blah blah blah, this, that, and the other, and smiling faces, I mean, there’s a darkness that’s there in the music, there’s a sadness, there’s a triste as they say, you know. There’s something else that’s going on there.
MF: The pathos.
VR: Yeah, the pathos, there’s pathos there. That’s there at the heart of carnival. There’s an undercurrent behind the smile of the Brazilian, there’s a whole other thing going on.
MF: Tell us about your stage rig.
VR: The (Crate) Blue Voodoo, the B.V. 300 whole tour in Europe with basically a pair of V50s, and it was great.
MF: What do you like about them?
VR: I think they’re chunky. There’s a lot of presence to them. And it went well with the kind of gear that I’ve been working with. You know, I’ve been working with these VG-88s and things like that. I’m really into the modeling thing, programming my sounds and mixing up the magnetic pickups with the Hex pickup. It’s very important to have a tube thing in the mix, you know, and they do the job pretty well.
MF: What do you run through on the floor? You mentioned your VG-88s...
VR: Right, I’ve gotten really way into programming that. I like working with the Roland guitar synth stuff and what have you for a while and I had a GR-20.
MF: That’s the old rack unit?
VR: No, that’s a GR-50. The GR-50 is pretty out. I love that piece because it falls in-between the beginnings of the end of analog and the beginnings of FM in digital. And it actually is a very powerful unit, you can do some really outrageous things with it. But no, I didn’t take that, I just had the GR-20. And actually I had a GI20 to control sounds on the laptop as well.
MF: Those are supposed to work really, really well.
VR: Yeah, they actually do. I like doing a kind of layering thing. I have an old Digitech Space Station that I swear by. The Space Station is like maybe one of the greatest pedals and one of the best-kept secrets like ever. I have three of them and I’m always trying to find them on eBay.
They’re great because they allow me to do things like backwards tape-type stuff and whammy pedal-like stuff with it ... it’s more like if you put your hand on a tape machine and stopped it dead. The kind of pitch thing that happens when you put your hand on a reel of tape and stop it slowly.
You can do stuff like that with this pedal, like ring modulation. Oh man, I love it! I also use Moogerfooger stuff. The only problem with the Moogerfooger thing is to travel with all those pedals, you know, but I love them in the studio. They’re amazing pieces. I think that Bob Moog was such a tremendous innovator and to think that, he’d done all this stuff for keyboards and then his last great act, was to do these kind of great pedals for guitar which are outrageous. The way you can connect them together and use control voltages, using patch cables. It’s very, very old school but I liked it a great deal.
MF: What guitars do you play?
VR: On the album I used some of my old Hamers and I used Brian Moore guitars. Brian Moore, they’re on to some stuff that’s taking it to a total other place. They have a guitar now that has a USB out, which is (laughter), which is kind of crazy if you think about it but ... yeah, but those guitars are pretty well crafted.
MF: So what do you have in the cooker? What projects are you working on or what tours you got coming up?
VR: You just caught me at when I’ve just finished a bunch of things. I was in Europe for a month promoting Other True Self and it went really, really well. And then I came home and I went right back out with James "Blood" Ulmer and Memphis Blood. Which is a pretty amazing project. Ulmer is sort of an icon of the Ornette (Coleman)-inspired avant-garde. And I approached him some years back and said that basically he was a blues singer and that he should make a blues record. Eventually he went down to Memphis and that was the beginning of this whole Memphis Blood Project, which is a seven-piece band with electric violin and a harmonica and it’s pretty great.
MF: How did the tour go?
VR: Oh, the tour went awesome! Both these tours went really well and we’re about to play in New York at the Jazz Standard on the 31st and the 1st.
And I just got a review, I’ve been doing some music for movies and I’m going to California on Friday with a director named Brad Lipinstein to try to raise money for a film, a documentary about the public commons. It’s a film about open source software, about the public domain and about public land use. I’m kind of a co-conceptualizer with the director on this thing and we’re going to go out to meet people to talk about that so that’s going to be interesting.
MF: That’s all very exciting.
VR: Yeah, and I composed music for a "B" movie called Shadow Dead Riot and just today it got a really good review in the New York Times.
VR: Yeah, well you know it’s a total "B" movie; it’s a zombie women’s prison movie (laughter), so you know...
MF: It must have been fun to write.
VR: Yeah, it’s crazy. Well, you know it’s high culture/low culture; it’s pretty wild. But I’m looking forward to doing some dates in the states with the Masque and ah, nudge, nudge, wink, wink, hint, hint, I would love to, it’s funny I was talking to some people on like about the G3 so maybe it should be G4, G5 (laughter), some other people too, I don’t know.
MF: Yeah, well, you’d be fantastic with G3, it would be a perfect choice.
VR: Yeah, I just for the first time met Eric Johnson because another thing that happened in-between being in Europe with Masque and going to Europe with James "Blood" Ulmer. I went to Texas for a memorial tribute to Chris Whitley. I got to play with his brother Dan, who’s actually a very, very fine guitarist and singer, and Doug Pinnock and we wound up playing the Hendrix tune "If Six Was Nine" and I got a chance to meet Eric Johnson.
MF: Eric is really in top form right now, I think.
VR: Oh yeah, Eric is playing great. Yeah man, he’s a good guy. I mean, what are you going to do, man, the guy’s outrageous.
MF: Have you played with Satriani?
VR: I did play with Satriani one time. It was completely nuts. He was playing at Town Hall and man, he was on fire and I remember I was backstage going, "What the hell am I going to do?" I just found my center and we went out and had a great time. It was really a lot of fun.
MF: I have one really nerdy sort of question for guitar players...
MF: When you’re soloing, are you thinking primarily like in chord shapes or scale patterns or different scales for each chord or, how are you thinking?
VR: It’s very interesting about that, because basically you’re going to things and you’re going from things. We have a cover of a Depeche Mode song, "Enjoy The Silence," and it goes through these different changes and instead of thinking about what scale to play or a particular chord, I think about going to and going from. What’s leading up to that tonal center and what’s leading away to the next chord. So I really don’t think so much about, "Oh, I play this scale on this chord so much," as much as I’m thinking about I’m going towards or going away from.
MF: You’re always anticipating what’s happening.
VR: Yeah, anticipating, and you’re either consonant or you’re working with dissonance. There are a lot of different ways of thinking about a solo. One way of thinking about it is not to think about scales
at all and really try to hear melodies, or alternative melodies. We hear that a lot in discussions about jazz and mainly what we do is play as though we think about what kind of scales and what kind of this and that. But really, if you think about another melody that would work on top of this thing, it’s a completely different way of organizing yourself because maybe you don’t play as fast, because you’re thinking about it as a melody.
Or if you are thinking about it as a melody, you know, your phrasing will change. One thing that Mick Goodrick, a great, great guitarist and educator, one thing that he said in his phenomenal book, The Advanced Guitarist, is to think about the guitar as one long string, that for convenience sake, has to be cut into sections. And that completely opened up my fingering and my whole way of thinking about the instrument. Instead of thinking of it in the positional way, you start thinking of the guitar vertically as well as horizontally.
MF: More of a linear thought ...
VR: Yeah, but also how chords move and how different things connect together. I mean that’s the thing about the guitar; the guitar is basically a grid of possibilities, the strings against the frets are a grid of possibilities. And we can get so caught up in one way of thinking about it and there are literally, thousands of ways (laughter) of thinking about, of getting around the instrument. One thing is that the small gestures combined become complex ... hammer on and pull off, whole step, half step, step and one-half, and that sort of thing.
MF: Thanks for being so open with us and sharing your time. It’s really been an honor to talk with you today.
VR: Hey man, it’s good talking to you guys.