Interview: Keith Strickland, of The B-52s: Putting It All Together

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Interview: Keith Strickland, of The B-52s: Putting It All Together

The B-52’s have been sending out a siren call of unconventionality to kindred spirits for over four decades, selling millions of albums in the process. We spoke with Keith Strickland, guitarist for the iconic Georgia-born band, from his home in Key West.

Weeping Elvis: You guys recently played the 10th TV Land awards. What was that like?

Keith Strickland: At this point I’d put it like this: It’s kinda like if I woke in the morning and said, “I had this dream last night and we were the house band at this show and Kelly Ripa came down from a rope from the ceiling down to the stage, while wearing a catsuit, and Pee Wee Herman was there and Aretha Franklin.” It was just kind of surreal in a way, it was like a dream when I look back at it, but it all seemed to work really well. I was a bit surprised they asked us to be the house band. It was an interesting challenge because we had to make minute versions of our songs. We did about seven songs. It was a bit of a challenge to do that but it was fun. It was an odd sort of eclectic, pop American party.

WE: Anyone there that surprised you? (In a good way?)

KS: We had met Paul Reubens before and we haven’t seen him in years, so it was good to see him. We were on stage so we didn’t have too much time to meet people or have a conversation. We did have one break when Aretha played and we got to meet members of the cast of In Living Color. Tommy Davidson from In Living Color came up to us and told us how much he likes “Give Me Back My Man” and Cindy and all of us were blown away because we’re big fans of In Living Color too. Jim Carey was there as well. That show was brilliant. We’ve actually been watching it on the tour bus.

WE: How has your guitar playing changed over time?

KS: My guitar playing has evolved in a way that I’m more comfortable with it. It’s more fluid now. I had always played guitar, but it took me a long time to get comfortable on stage where it’s second nature to me. I don’t think of myself as a guitarist. I would say I’m a drummer first. I play the guitar like a drummer. I’m often asked, “Do you miss playing drums?” and I’d have to say, “Not really.” I don’t know how to explain this but whatever it was that I was doing when I played drums it feels the same to me. Of course there’s a bit more finesse with the guitar, but overall it’s very rhythmic. I’m a rhythm guitar player.

I still listen to the rest of the band the way I did when I was a drummer.  Often when I’m on stage I’ll loosely place my attention to Tracy Wormworth, who plays bass with us, and I’ll move around to Fred or Kate or Cindy. I just sort of let my attention move around to the other players. I try not to listen to closely to what I’m doing, because if I focus too much on what I’m doing I get self-conscious.

WE: How do you tend to write songs? Are you disciplined about sitting down and writing or do melodies tend to come to you when you don’t expect it?

KS: It’s a little bit of everything. Sometimes I’ll be walking down the street and I’ll get an idea or I’ll hear a piece of music and I’ll be inspired. It’s a jumping off point. You never know where inspiration will come from, but to go back to my earlier point I don’t really see myself as a guitar player. I think what it is that I do, and find most interesting, is putting it all together.

Sometimes I’ll just start with a chord progression and then add the bass line and I like to see how those things play off each other. I never know where I’m going to go. I may have an intention when I start but inevitably it goes somewhere I don’t expect.  I guess I think of myself more as a composer. I just like putting it all together.

WE: At what point in your life did you develop an interest in space and extraterrestrial life, and spirituality?

KS: A lot of it was probably from growing up in the 60s and being aware of the space program.  I found that really interesting. I grew up in the country on a farm outside of Athens; there was a huge night sky. I remember when I was in my early teens there was a wave of UFO sightings in Georgia. My brother and I have both seen things. To get into the more spiritual aspects of all of that, I have a vivid memory of being at a playground when I was about five or six and questioning, “What is the point of all of this?”

When I was a child I also had a really active dream life. My dreams, when I was a kid, were so vivid I’d wake up in the morning and run to my brothers and sisters and my mother and father to tell them my dreams. They didn’t seem that interested.  I was mystified by that. I’d tell them: “Don’t you have these dreams too? What is this place we go to when we sleep?” To me they were just so real and amazing.

WE: Are you still an active dreamer?

KS: At times yeah I am, but it’s difficult when you are on tour and have to get up and get going.

WE: You recently posted an article on your Facebook page from The Guardian profiling nurses in Britain who compiled the five most common regrets of people who are dying. Do you have any regrets?

KS: I don’t have a lot of regrets, although I’m not in that position they are reporting from (laughs) but you never know. I’ve actually done that as an awareness practice where sometimes I’ll stop and think, “What if this is your last moment?”  It’s a good practice and something you don’t have to be on your deathbed to do.  Everything is impermanent. We have a habit in our culture of living as if we’re never going to die.  I say die in the physical sense. Our bodies won’t last forever. What happens beyond that I don’t know.  I think it can be an interesting practice to be aware of the limitations of this body.

WE: What artists are you liking these days?

KS: I like Gotye a lot. I found him quite a while ago. This was before he became the big hit he is now and I’m really happy to see that.  I also like Foster the People a lot. I really like “Helena Beat” from them. I just love everything about that song. Not a new artist, but I’ve recently been listening to Francoise Hardy. She’s a French singer that came out in the 60s and she’s still making music. Her last release came out in 2010. She’s amazing. I love her stuff.

WE: What are the pluses and minuses you’ve seen in the changes in the music industry since the B-52’s started out? 

KS: It’s a matter of acknowledging the way things are now. You can’t get to bent out of shape about why things can’t be the way they were. (Laughs) The tools are amazing. Really one of the biggest ways I’ve evolved as a musician is that the tools I have available to me now have really changed. It’s quite interesting and the opportunities are almost infinite in terms of getting your music out and how you want to get it out there. At the same time it can make it all very disposable because there’s so much and it can become overwhelming.

Back when I was a kid bands would put out an album like every six months, something like that and it just seemed like you’d hang on to an album and listen to it over and over and immerse yourself in the artwork and the artist. I’m not sure kids do that anymore. I don’t even do that anymore. (Laughs) Well that’s not true, I’ve immersed myself into Francoise Hardy lately. I do find that I’m easily distracted if I’m listening to music online and say you get suggestions like “people who like this like that.” It’s almost like being a kid in a candy store you can easily get distracted.  You have to take the time to with artists you really like.

WE: What’s next for the Bs?

KS: We’re going to tour and after that I don’t know. (Laughs) We kind have always worked that way.

WE: The B-52s have influenced a lot of artists and also inspired a lot of non-music playing fans.  When I was a teenager my friends and I bought instruments, which we couldn’t really play, and lip-synched to your first two albums.

KS: I did the very same thing when I was a kid, but with The Beatles.  In my teen years I would do that with The Stooges.  My parents had this huge stereo that looked a giant piece of furniture, it had great speakers. They were huge. When my parents were gone I would put on The Stooges Fun House and turn it up loud and roll around on the floor and pretend I was Iggy. It was great fun. (Laughs) That’s an awesome thing to do. You’re not the only one.

 

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Pat Ferrise grew up loving ”the punk rock” and “new wave.” His years at one of the nation’s top college radio stations ultimately led him to a 15-year run as music director of alternative music icon WHFS Washington/Baltimore. Rolling Stone magazine named him of the most influential programmers of the 90s. He’s recorded two albums under the moniker Trampoline for the now defunct SpinArt label. He lives in Baltimore and takes no credit for writing this bio.