Kate Pierson, the fun-loving redhead from the B-52s, is a delightful woman who has a lot to say about her songs. Then again, I had a lot of songs to ask her about when I approached her to do our Set List interview for the Onion AV Club…so many, in fact, that we talked for about 45 minutes, broke for a few hours, then reconvened and talked again for almost another 45 minutes.
In the end, I was able to ask her about at least one song from each of the B-52s’ albums, as well as a couple of things she recorded outside of the band. Unfortunately, the end result was a piece that, when I submitted it to my editors at the site, resulted in the request that I cut it almost in half. I gave it my best shot, and they accepted the revised version…well, except for the very last song, possibly because it wasn’t one by the B-52s. But if you’re a fan of Ms. Pierson and her band, then the AV Club’s loss is still your gain, because I’ve compiled the “deleted scenes,” if you will, and have them here for your reading pleasure.
The B-52s, “Dance This Mess Around” (from 1979’s The B-52’s)
KP: Fred thought of the title, like he often did. And he also suggested the limburger line to Cindy. In fact, that first part of the song – “Why don’t you dance with me? / I’m not no limburger!” – was something we expanded on. It was originally a smaller part, but we kind of expanded the intro that Cindy does. And then when Fred goes, “Dance this mess around,” we start the list. We go, “Everybody goes to parties / They dance this mess around,” and then we start trading off all the different dances that we made up. And, um, that’s pretty much it. [Laughs.] As with everything, it started out as a jam. Keith and Ricky came up with the instrumentation, the music for it, and…a lot of times we would just all jam together, and sometimes they would have a certain structure that we’d jam to. Not necessarily a real set-up structure, but at least a riff or something. And we’d go from there. Sometimes things were a little more formal, but that one was definitely a jam. We used to make up our own dances during the jams.
The B-52s, “Lava” (from 1979’s The B-52’s)
KP: I think Fred actually came up with the title, but we looked at an encyclopedia for the lyrics. That’s another one of those that we just jammed on, but I think we might done that one at my old house, which was kind of a “Love Shack” house in the middle of a field…which is where that line comes from about the “funky old shack” in the song. But, anyway, we actually referenced the encyclopedia, and when we sang, “Krakatoa, east of Java,” we found out later that, even though we had referenced the encyclopedia, Krakatoa is west of Java. [Laughs.] We just cover our tracks by saying that we like to put unscientific facts in our songs. A little misinformation never hurt anybody. But, anyway, Fred came up with the first couple of lines, and then we just rolled with it and…pretty much the lines that we sing are the ones we wrote, although sometimes we’d cross-collaborate. I mean, when we’d jam, we’d just do the jamming thing. We used to have a double cassette player, and we would record everything. At first we recorded everything on a reel-to-reel that Ricky had, and then we got into just cassettes. But we’d take just the best bits and put them on a cassette, we’d look at the numbers on the player, write them down, and try to record just that part.
It was kind of an unorganic approach in a way, because…it wasn’t any kind of normal song structure. That’s why our songs have an almost linear quality. With some of them, the chorus wasn’t the same each time. Some of them didn’t really have choruses. [Laughs.] But it followed this kind of pattern where each part was a surprise. And “Lava” is kind of like that, too, where each chorus is a little bit different. Cindy and I would come up with these harmonies, and it was just natural. We’d just hit on these harmonies. They weren’t thought out, like, “Oh, here’s a lead line, let’s make a harmony to that.” They actually occurred while we were jamming. So we’d listen back to the tape and go, “Oh, that’s a great harmony, we might have to expand on that.” And that’s how the songs came out. “Lava” was the first of our disaster songs, I guess, being as it’s about a volcano. We have a lot of disaster songs. But, of course, there’s always the double sexual meaning, which has been a major, major theme throughout our songs. [Laughs.] There’s always a double meaning.
The B-52s, “Downtown” (from 1979’s The B-52’s)
KP: We came up with that song when we were in our studio. I started playing that keyboard riff on my Farfisa, and then Cindy just came up with the idea of doing “Downtown” and started singing it. I had this little background part where I was yelling out, “Downtown!” I don’t remember who decided to put it on the B-side of “Planet Claire,” but it would’ve been a collective decision. Just like everything else. [Laughs.]
AVC: Maybe on a related note, then, how did you guys come to record The B-52s and Wild Planet at Compass Point Studios, in the Bahamas?
KP: Well, we had a manager, Maureen McLaughlin, who was our friend…and as most bands find, I guess, their first manager / friend doesn’t work out. [Laughs.] We were just in Athens, writing some songs, and she was a friend and…a jury consultant, actually. But she took on the task of setting up some gigs and little tours for us, and we started doing some gigs outside of Athens. At one point, the record companies started coming to Athens, and she had three contact offers…which were pretty bad, but she had them in her hand, and she said [Affects a deep Southern drawl) “Ya’ll, I don’t know what to do!” So when we went up to New York to play one of the times, we had become friends with Talking Heads, and Blondie was really wonderful to us and invited us to their apartment. Debbie Harry was the Patsy Cline to our…Loretta Lynn? [Laughs.] So we were befriended, and Tina (Weymouth) and Chris (Frantz) suggested that we get a manager. We said, “We have a manager.” And they said, “Well, you need a real manager. Our manager’s Gary Kurfirst.” So he met with us, he said, “I’d like to manage you guys, let’s do a trial.” And we said again, “We have a manager.” And he said, “I’ll share the management with her.” And Maureen did not want to have anything to do with that, ‘cause I guess she probably foresaw that she would probably not be co-managing. [Laughs.] But that was our idea, that that would work out and that she would learn. But at that point, she said, “That wouldn’t work,” so we made the choice to go with Gary.
So, anyway, we signed with Warner Brothers and Island Records. We had sort of a bidding war going on at this point, ‘cause…we didn’t mean to, but we had worked pretty hard and had built this huge word-of-mouth thing that was going on and actually created a big buzz in New York. All these other bands were coming to see us, and it was, like, “Where are they? They’re from Mars!” [Laughs.] We might as well have been, because Athens, Georgia, was just not even on people’s radar. They thought, “Are these girls drag queens? Are they from England?” It was just this kind of mystery. And we were so unique that nobody could really categorize us. We were just this tacky little dance band from Athens, Georgia, as we called ourselves. So when Warner Brothers and other record companies were sort of bidding, he struck a deal with Warner Brothers and at the same time with Island Records for Europe…and part of that deal was, my God, Chris Blackwell’s gonna produce us. Which was incredible. And Chris Blackwell owned Compass Point Studios, so we were off to the Bahamas.
It was just such a fast thing. Once we signed and we went with Gary, we were all of a sudden off there recording. I remember the plane landed, and this woman from the studio met us at the plane, and she said, “Follow me!” And she took off like a bat out of hell…and here we are in total darkness in this rental car. So we just found our way into town and had cocktails. [Laughs.] And yet we were just, like, “This is so great!” We just couldn’t believe it. We stayed there and…we actually recorded the first three albums there. It was a beautiful and really comfortable studio, and Chris Blackwell just kind of let us do our thing.
The B-52’s, “Strobe Light” (from 1980’s Wild Planet)
KP: That’s sort of a Fred special. [Laughs.] The chorus, we basically just go, “Strobe strobe strobe strobe light…” I think “gonna make love to you under the strobe light” kind of says it all. I think it’s one of those early songs that we did that were kind of a play on a romantic rhapsody. Fred really plays the romantic. [Laughs.] And, of course, we have a strobe light pumping when we play that, so it adds an extra bit of psychedelic love to the mix. But that’s one of those early songs that’s very straightforward…but with many sexual overtones, of course.
The B-52s, “Roam” (from 1989’s Cosmic Thing)
KP: We did that with Nile Rodgers. In fact, we’re getting ready to do this “We Are Family” benefit, and we’re going to sing that. But the lyrics were written by our friend Robert Waldrop, who also wrote the lyrics to “Hero Worship” and…oh, what else? Anyway, several of our songs. “Dirty Back Road,” that’s another one. So Robert wrote those lyrics, and…okay, we had a psychic. [Laughs.] My friend’s mother, up in Maine, was a psychic, and once a year, when I went up there for Christmas, I would consult with her, because we’d stop in there. I remember I called her – this was one of the few times I consulted her outside of Christmas – and said, “Look, we have this list of producers, and I was just wondering if I could run it by you.” She had no idea who they were, she’s not into rock music or anything, but I gave her the list…and she started laughing. She said, “Oh, the spirit guides, they love this Nile. They just love him. They love Don Was, but they really love Nile. But you have two more songs that you should write before you record…and one of them is ‘Topaz.’ I just see the word ‘topaz.’” Now, we had started writing the song that would become “Topaz,” but we didn’t have a chorus. It was just “new cities by the sea” and all that, but we didn’t have a chorus. But after she said that, we were, like, “Oh, my God: Topaz is the perfect name for this new city by the sea!” And after we named it that, Keith saw this billboard while he was driving, and it was a car ad that said, “Topaz: The Right Choice.” [Laughs.] And the other thing she said was, “I don’t know what this means, but…footprints. That’s the thing I see: footprints.” So it’s not like we said, “Footprints? Roam! We’ve got to do this.” But in retrospect, it seemed so auspicious that that should happen. So we started jamming with those lyrics, and it just came together beautifully. The lyrics just make me tingle. It’s very meaningful. No matter how many times we sing it, it just feels very heartfelt. And it’s one of those songs that everyone knows, so when we play it, everybody gets up and starts shaking it a little bit. [Laughs.]
The B-52’s, “Good Stuff” (from 1989’s Good Stuff)
AVC: So were you feeling the pressure to follow up the success of Cosmic Thing, or…
KP: Oh, yeah. [Laughs.] That’s when we were feeling the pressure. I mean, Cosmic Thing, as I said, was done with this totally blank slate, like, “We’re just gonna heal ourselves, and we don’t care.” Well, you know, it wasn’t like [Snarls] “We don’t care!” But, you know, it was just a creative endeavor.
AVC: And a cathartic one, too, I’d guess.
KP: Yes. But having no expectations of commercial success was, I guess, the secret to success, because you just kind of let it come from your heart, and it all flows out without this kind of self-conscious “there’d better be something on the radio” thing or anything like that. And at first radio did think, “‘Love Shack,’ what a weird song,” but college radio and independent radio picked it up, and it snowballed like crazy and caught on. With Good Stuff, though, Cindy had left the band, and she left very amicably, but we were very disappointed because we were at the high point and having to follow up Cosmic Thing, which was always going to be hard. It’s, like, the second album, Wild Planet, we’d already written most of that, so before we recorded the first album, we had two albums worth of stuff already in the bag. So this was the first time we had to follow up a really big hit album with nothing on the slate. So there was a lot of pressure. We were also exhausted. We had toured for something like a year and three-quarters for Cosmic Thing, I think, so we were kind of exhausted. But we wanted to follow up right away, so we started writing Good Stuff up here (in New York), and we rented a studio. Jerry Marotta, he’s a pretty well-known drummer, and we rented his studio up here, which was out in this kind of woodsy area, and we started writing all the songs for Good Stuff.
Fred again came up with the “Good Stuff” title. [Laughs.] And it was really fun writing that, because it was just a really funky song. And we had fun with the video, too. There was a video where…we had a German director, and we had a lot of suds. In clubs, they were doing that stuff with soap suds, where everyone was swimming in soap suds. And he had this whistle, and he kept blowing this disco whistle. It was pretty hilarious. And we had a lot of friends in it. But I really love the song, because the beat was, I think, a little more funky. I also really like the lyrics: “Take me down where the love honey flows / Kiss you nice, nibble your toes / Take me down where the good stuff grows.” It was just a fun song, and I think the lyrics are very playful. That, and it was just an extra-funky song. [Laughs.]
It was hard, though, on Good Stuff to do the harmonies. It was all on me to do them, and I felt “damned if I do, damned if I don’t,” because people were going to miss Cindy, and yet we wanted to keep a certain sound. But I felt like it was really fun doing that album. It was fun writing it. In a way, it went pretty easily, because it’s just two singers, and Fred and I just kind of divvied it up. [Laughs.] And Keith wrote all the instrumentation, and in this case a lot of the instrumentation was already set. Like on Cosmic Thing, it wasn’t Ricky and Keith playing, it was just Keith writing the songs, but a lot of the form of the songs on Good Thing was already set up before we started jamming, so it made it a lot easier.
The B-52s, “Is That You Mo-Dean?” (from 1989’s Good Stuff)
KP: Oh, I love “Is That You Mo-Dean?” We did a great video for that. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, but we did it in Phoenicia, this town up here (in New York), and we had these silver space suits…sort of. [Laughs.] We all had silver on, anyway. We did it in my friend Dean’s garden, so we were walking through this little town, wearing silver-sequined suits, walking in a sort of robotic way through Phoenicia. It was really, really fun doing that. We had done this chant for years, whenever a string broke or something happened, Fred would start this chant, “Is that you, Mo-Dean?” And he’d get the audience to say, “It’s me, Mo-Dean!” So it was based on that, and we kind of went from there, continuing our regular outer-space theme.
The B-52s, “Debbie” (from 1998’s Time Capsule: Songs for a Future Generation)
KP: We hadn’t written anything together for awhile, and we were really inspired by Debbie Harry. She was the subject of it. Cindy’s got a great line, “Debbie’s coming in for a landing, put your head between your knees. “ [Laughs.] But Debbie was sort of the iconic for this “shell-shocked supersonic blonde.” All of us – Fred, Cindy, and I – worked on the lyrics of that. We got the line “queen of the underground” because, in Athens, we had a friend who called herself “Queen of the Underground.” Although I have to say that I’ve known several Queens of the Underground in my time [Laughs.] And with the line “she’s walking down the block, she’s coming my way,” we kind of made a twist on it. Since the girls were singing it, it kind of made it a little lesbianic. [Laughs.] A little twist in there. A little bi-curious Debbie.
AVC: What did Debbie Harry think when she heard the song? Or did you ever heard back from her about it?
KP: I think she liked it. I think she felt she’d been properly oded. [Laughs.]
AVC: You two clearly have an ongoing friendship, since you turned up in the video for Blondie’s “Mother” earlier this year.
KP: Yes! Yeah, they did that up here. Chris Stein and his family live up here, and there’s a really great soundstage in Kingston, New York. It was also directed by Laurent Rejto, who’s one of the founders of the Woodstock Film Festival. That’s one of the reasons they did it up here, and then they called me to do that little spot, which was fun. It was pouring that day, too, and I had to be in my vampiress / zombie outfit. [Laughs.]
NiNa, “Happy Together” (from 1999’s NiNa)
KP: The Plastics were a band that was kind of our counterpart in Japan. They were like the Japanese B-52’s, basically, and they were really big Blondie and B-52s fans. They toured with us, actually. They opened for us on either our first or second go-round, playing all these places with the Plastics, and it was really fun. It must’ve been the first tour, because we went to Japan in 1979, I think, and it was the only time we went as the B-52s. We did two gigs – one in Tokyo, one in Kyoto – and the Plastics showed us around, and we had a great time with them. Later, they came to New York, and we did that collaboration. I think it was just part of the Plastics. In fact, I don’t think they called themselves the Plastics. Now you’re really mining the memory fields! (Ed. When the Plastics split in 1981, members Chica Sato and Toshio Nakanishi worked together under the name Melon.) But later, two members of the Plastics (Takemi Shima and Masahide Sakum), one of them had become a really big producer in Japan, and he asked me to join this project in 1999 called NiNa. So I did an album with them in Japan that went to #1. And I ended up touring Japan, too, so that turned out to be a really fun little detour.
The B-52s, “Juliet of the Spirits” (from 2008’s Funplex)
KP: Well, we always have girl-heavy songs, usually a couple per album, and then we have stuff like “Quiche Lorraine” and others that are Fred songs. But “Juliet of the Spirits” was actually inspired by Giulietta Masina and the movie Juliet of the Spirits, and Fellini and Nina Rota and everyone surrounding the whole Fellini thing. At one point, we reconsidered our band name, because we thought, “We’re going to Japan, we don’t want this name that could be misconstrued as militaristic.” It’s a hair-do, we try to emphasize that, but…there were various times that we considered renaming the band, and one of the names was Fellini’s Children. [Laughs.] We actually sent a letter to ask Fellini to do a video for “Cosmic Thing,” and he sent a really great letter back, declining. I don’t know if it was actually written by him, but it was a hand-written letter, so just the fact that it was acknowledged, you know? But we’ve always worshipped Fellini, and Fellini was an inspiration in the early days of our dressing up. Also, the video for “Deadbeat Club,” that was very Fellini-inspired.
AVC: And, as you said, the “Planet Claire” riff came out of that as well.
KP: Exactly. So having been inspired for so long, we finally did an ode to Fellini. Actually, it was Keith who suggested it. We usually come up with the lyrics, but we look to him to guide us in a lot of ways, because when you’re all jamming together, you can lose perspective. So it’s kind of, like, sorting everything out of this college. Keith suggested, “Well, let’s make this ode to Juliet.” And after we did that, the three of us worked on the lyrics – Fred contributed equally, too – and it just flowed. I love that song. I think the record company thought it could be a big hit single, but we ended up never even doing a video for it.
AVC: On a related note, the music industry had changed dramatically between Cosmic Thing and Funplex. You guys obviously did as much promotions for the album as you could stand, but were you happy with the ultimate reception of Funplex?
KP: We were really happy. I mean, the one reason we did that album was because the fans wanted something new. Once again, I don’t think we had a whole lot of expectations of commercial success. We just wanted something that we could play that was new and that the fans could have something new. And it also gave us something new to tour with. When we went to Europe to tour, as soon as we released this record…and Astralwerks did a great job in the States…but EMI had basically laid off the entire radio staff. [Laughs.] So people would say, “I’m here from EMI radio…I think, ‘cause I may not have a job tomorrow.” Someone actually said that to me. So that, uh, kind of didn’t help promotion.
AVC: Or your confidence, either, I wouldn’t think.
KP: Well, we were really happy with its reception. As soon as we released it, fans were singing the lyrics, so that made us happy. We still play about four or five songs in the set, though we kind of rotate them in and out.
David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, “The Whole Man” (from 2010’s Here Lies Love)
KP: David Byrne asked me to sing on that, and…that was very unusual, because it was a very artsy kind of thing. That particular song, the lyrics are actually taken from an Imelda Marcos speech. So that was pretty interesting, lyrically, and fun to do. David is so creative.
AVC: So was that an ongoing friendship between you and David? Had you kept in touch over the years since the recording of Mesopotamia?
KP: Oh, yeah. I see him…actually, he and Cindy Sherman stayed at our motel – Lazy Meadow – and we had them over for dinner. So, yeah, we’ve kept in touch. But, you know, it’s hard to catch up with other musicians. They’re always flying around, and you keep passing them. You hear, “Oh, they were just here last week!” It’s, like, if you hear that someone’s going to coming to a venue you’re playing, you feel like you should write them a note and leave it on the wall for them. [Laughs.]
AVC: I know the B-52s have the new live album, With the Wild Crowd, but from a studio standpoint, was “The Whole Man” the most recent occasion when you’ve seen the inside of the studio?
KP: Actually, the B-52s collaborated with Aleks Syntek on a song, which was really fun. I’m not sure when that’s coming out, but it was a smoking track that he did. [Laughs.] And we sung in Spanish, too, on part of it. So it was really fun. But I don’t think we’re going to do another album, per se. I think we’re going to step into the modern world, and if we do something, we might just put something out online. Maybe some one-off things, maybe some collaborations. But who knows? We actually just met Jack White, who does these really amazing…we went to his studio in Nashville – our keyboard player Paul Gordon is a friend of his – and his studio is incredible. He does these live takes there and puts them out on vinyl, and that would be a cool thing. So, you know, things like that. I’m not saying we’re going to do that for sure, but I think maybe we’ll do a cover or some collaborations. The song we did with Aleks Syntek was really a blast. And we’ve got the DVD coming out, which is going to be supported by PBS. So we’ll see what happens. It’s going to be interesting.