When The B-52s go on tour, they don’t go their separate ways after each night’s gig. Members of the group actually hang out together after the show, even after all these years.
“We still raise a glass to each other,” singer/keyboardist Kate Pierson told HuffPost.
The longtime act, often considered one of the best “party bands,” will get a chance for plenty more post-show toasts while on the road this summer. The current touring lineup features three of the band’s five founding members: Pierson, Fred Schneider and Cindy Wilson. Fellow founding member Keith Strickland, though still in the group, retired from touring in 2012, and Wilson’s brother, guitarist Ricky Wilson, died from complications related to AIDS in 1985.
Despite those challenges and changes, Pierson is impressed that The B-52s have managed to stay together without ever officially breaking up. Next year will mark 40 years since the release of the band’s debut album, and 43 years since forming in Athens, Georgia.
“Chrissie Hynde [from The Pretenders] once said to us that her band and our band never quit. We never quit and reformed. And she said we ought to get a medal for that,” Pierson said. ’It’s pretty great that we stayed together and we still love each other and we still have fun.”
We caught up with Pierson about life on the road, what made “Love Shack” a hit nearly 30 years ago, and how it feels to turn 70.
What has been the biggest change, touring today versus 30-some-odd years ago?
Before, we’d tour behind whatever record. We’d just go out and do most of that record. ... Now we add a few songs, and our set list has certain songs we have to do. If we didn’t do “Rock Lobster,” there’d be a mini-revolution.
There’s some sort of expectation, I’m sure, from the audience to play certain songs at this point of your career.
Yes, we love doing those songs. Many people say, “I can’t bear to sing that again,” but there’s something about the beat and the fun in the music and the guitar part and the rhythm that propels us. And seeing the audience reaction gives us energy because we could see that they are dancing, and when we play “Rock Lobster” they just go a little bit nuts. No matter where we play it. And if we play in Europe people form a mosh pit on that song. It propels people to let their inner-freak fly. Something about that song gives people a license to let loose and do the craziest dances, and it’s very entertaining to us.
Many groups break up. Was there ever a time when you guys were like, “It’s time, we’re going to throw in the towel”?
Well, definitely after [guitarist] Ricky [Wilson] died in 1985. There was a big question mark. None of us said, “This is it,” but we certainly all thought that this might be it. We could not even dream of starting up and also we were expected, the record company thought we would tour and get another new guitar player and we were like no, that’s not going to happen. We are all in really deep grief. And Ricky is Cindy’s brother. Anyway it couldn’t happen ... We just didn’t have the energy, we were grieving. But then after a few years we realized like wow, we have something great here. ... Being together conjured up, “Ricky’s here,” really in a lot of ways, and a lot of [the 1989 album] “Cosmic Thing” was a tribute to him because there’s a lot of, I don’t want to say nostalgia, but there was a lot of looking back, that kind of thing. “Deadbeat Club” really just came out of a jam. That’s usually how we write ― by jamming, and then it just popped out ― “Deadbeat Club.” That’s something we used to call ourselves when we used to hang out. Didn’t have any money and we would just drink iced tea and get free refills and hang out at some place for three hours. We’d make plans, make big plans.
“Cosmic Thing,” of course, featured the hit song “Love Shack.” What did it take to pull that song together?
I remember when we were writing there was a point where Keith Strickland said, “This can’t go on the album, it’s not ready and it’s not going to make it.” He was right, it wasn’t ready. The chorus part, “The Love Shack is a little old place,” that was only happening once. I was lobbying to have it happen more. [Producer] Don Was said, “Well that’s the chorus. We have to have that.” He really made it come together and then once we put the chorus in, we had it. A lot of our old songs don’t have a typical song structure. They don’t have a verse-chorus, verse-chorus-bridge. With “Love Shack,” once we put that chorus in, it did have more of a song structure. Even though the verses are all kind of different, the chorus was there along with “The Love Shack” ― I think that really made it a hit. Once we heard it in the studio, we played it for R.E.M. and they were like, “Yes this is a hit.” We had something there. That kind of went through an evolution. It wasn’t immediate, like some songs we just pretty much wrote it and that was it. “Love Shack” went through several [iterations] and I’m curious to hear the first evolution of it, which I don’t really know where that is. Probably Keith Strickland has a version of it.
I’m sure you’re really glad that one made it on the album because it still gets played today on radio, which I think that says a lot about the longevity of that song.
Yes, it’s great for a band. We have longevity here. It’s great to have a song that’s a classic, really. It’s lasted and taken its place in front of the iconography of whatever you want to call it, it’s on the list.
It is and the video, I feel like is on the list in pop culture too. With a pre-fame RuPaul in it as well.
We won an MTV Video Award for that.
What do you remember most about that video shoot in upstate New York?
Our friends Phil Mayberry and Scott Walker had this house [in Highland, New York]. We didn’t know them yet, but our other friend Tom Rubin said, “You have to film this video there, it is the Love Shack.” I went to look at it, I was like, “This is a Love Shack.” It has a checkerboard roof and it had goats named Kate and Cindy, and they had a garden, and it just had everything. Inside it was just a riot of color ... We convinced the director, he didn’t want to leave, he wanted to film it in New York City in a soundstage, but once he saw this he was convinced. We dragged everybody up on a bus to the country and I remember really distinctly RuPaul getting this dance line going and just sort of directing in his most wonderful commanding way. He’s RuPaul. He was a total beauty drag and just had everybody do a line dance It really became a party. You could almost forget that it was a video shoot because it really was a party. We were dancing. We were outside, the goats were jumping around.
Personally, for you, you just turned 70. How does it feel?
It’s kind of weird. Before, any number below that ― even 69, it seemed like you’re climbing the top of the mountain. You’re looking down now. I don’t like that feeling [laughs]. ... I certainly don’t feel it. I just had a birthday party. We had a dance party. I found myself just dancing. I wanted a dance party. I was just jumping up and down. I have a lot of energy. I hope to maintain that. It’s definitely a different feeling. Even I have friends that are in their 20s. I keep thinking, “Oh, yeah. They’re my age.” I’ll make some reference, and they’re like, “What?” Age is just a number. Until you hit 70. Then it’s more than a number [laughs].
You released a solo album a couple years ago. Do you think you will do another solo album? Are you working on any music?
Yes, absolutely. I have the second one almost done. ... I’ve continued to write some songs with Chris Braide. I have three or four new songs. I just wrote a song with Aleks Syntek. He’s a really famous Mexican artist since. It’s about the wall. It’s the metaphor about [Donald Trump’s proposed] wall, and it’s political. He sang a part of it in Spanish. I want to release that as a benefit ― going toward the benefit of immigrants. I haven’t chosen what organization yet. ... I want to release the single in October, and get the solo album going as soon as we finish this tour. I have most of it written.
I know with your last solo album, there was a lot of confusion over the song “Mister Sister,” and a lot of the transgender community was upset about it. Is that something that you regret?
Well, it was, actually interestingly enough ― The Huffington Post. I had said that I hoped it would be a trans anthem. At the time, trans was used ― I even had looked it up, trans was used as a general term for anyone who was LGBTQ. Huffington Post, when they quoted me, it said, trans and they put in parentheses “gender,” and I never said that. That’s what really sparked this huge controversy because I never said that I hope it will become a transgender anthem. The song is about ― it was inspired by a friend of mine who was gay. When he was growing up, he used to wear his sister’s clothes and it’s just about that or anyone who feels betrayed by the mirror kind of thing. It’s meant to be empowering. I learned a lot though. I really got schooled. It’s also the height right then of transgender people fighting for recognition. … Anyway, there was a lot of misunderstanding. I think that through it, my wife Monica [Coleman] and I, we had some dialogues with different transgender people. I feel like we became more enlightened. I hope we came to some understanding, but I certainly meant no harm. It was really a misunderstanding. In the end of it, I felt good. It came out to be something that I grew ― in my understanding. …Things get really ugly on the internet. That’s the first time that ever happened to me.
You’ve been married a couple of years now, congratulations. How’s married life treating you?
Fantastic. Actually, our anniversary is Aug. 3. We were together since 2004. We were together a long time before we got married. It was really beautiful, we were married in Hawaii. We keep wanting to go back there. ... Actually, the first time The B-52s played in Hawaii on our very first tour, we played in this little club in Honolulu. We got there. The promoter met us, and put leis around us, and when we left, they had pulled guns on us. We played some little tiny club, and the microphones weren’t grounded. We got, as Cindy would say, the “electric kiss.” I was playing guitar and all of a sudden I was like, “Aaahhhh!” People thought it was part of the song but I was getting a shock. We all got shocked. We had to cut the set short but they continued to sell tickets through the night. So, people were really angry. Cindy and I literally took our wigs off, and we ran. They pulled a gun on the crew and said they were going to keep our equipment. Anyway, we had interesting experiences. … But Hawaii’s always been a place to me that’s magical. So, the wedding was beautiful. I think it really changes things when you’re able to get married. I mean the Marriage Equality Act was super important. I think you cannot believe it happened as fast as it did. For a lot of gay people ― it’s very surprising. You thought that this is going to be a struggle forever. I think that people really accept this. I think younger people accept it. Even when Ricky had AIDS, it was so much negativity, so much ignorance surrounding LGBT, the whole thing. There was a lot of negativity and laws still in place. Just fear. Things have come a long way ― that’s one positive thing in this crazy political world. Hopefully it won’t be rolled back.
I hope our legacy will be of enduring, and that people think of us as an important band. Kate Pierson
The B-52s’ legacy ― what do you want it to be?
I feel like we want to be taken seriously. I know being a band that’s mostly gay and has women in it, I just think that there are the male icon bands, they are always, and they deserve it, but they are always touted as: “These guys are heavy-duty.” I think bands, because we have a sense of humor, we are not always taken as seriously. Not that I want people to be serious, but to be serious about us as a legitimate band. We were one of a kind. I think for that reason also, it’s kind of hard to understand us. We can’t really be put in a category. I hope our legacy will be enduring and that people think of us as an important band. But I think Ricky’s guitar playing, our style of writing, the fact that we had men and women in the band and gay and straight. I think it’s an important band and the way we wrote by jamming, we really had a different approach. And I think we really made a difference in the way, certainly Athens music, went and we were the first kind of band to come out of Athens, of that kind of era.
The B-52s kick off a tour on June 1 in Philadelphia.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Editor’s Note: HuffPost stands behind its reporting surrounding “Mister Sister” and disagrees with Pierson’s recollection of events.