Kate Pierson talks to Adam May

The lead singer of the iconic B-52s discusses being a part of America’s No. 1 party band and going solo

Adam May: I think most people look at you and [think] beehives, crazy dancing, "Love Shack." What more is there to Kate Pierson?

Kate Pierson: Ooh, well, it's all that. It's all that. No beehive. Beehives — we sort of put them, well, we revive them sometimes. Sometimes it seems like so many people have outbeehived us that Cindy [Wilson] and I are like, "Oh, just we're over it."

You are now a solo artist. Your first solo album coming up, I heard it took you a long time to put this together. Why?

It didn't take so long to put it together, it just took me a long time to start it because it's a lifelong thing. I've always wanted to do a solo project. I've always known I wanted to be a musician. I've always wanted to be a musician. I love music, like I probably sang when I was born … and I used to stick my head out the window when I was a kid and sing at the top of my lungs and make up songs, and I didn't think my parents could hear me. My father played this beautiful Gretsch guitar. He was in a big band, and then when he got married, he stopped. He played all the time at night, but he stopped being in the band.

So you grew up around music.

I played piano. I was in chorus and choir and stuff in school, and so [when] the B-52s started, I had written a bunch of songs. I always was songwriting in high school, writing songs while I was supposed to be listening to the teacher. And then when the B-52s started, it was a collective writing experience, so I didn't really write much on my own, and I just always thought, I have stuff I want to express, and it just seemed so all-encompassing, and we toured relentlessly, and we did even though we didn't put out that many albums … It was a long writing process because of the collective nature of the writing. 

Do you feel a little sense of freedom doing a solo project?

I do, I mean I have compared it to having wings. I just feel like I can express myself in a different way than with the B-52s. And yet, there's an anchor there that the B-52s are the mother ship, but, you know, I can satellite off and do my thing.

The B-52s have been around since 1976?

Yes, that was our first show, it was at a house party in 1977, Valentine's Day.

What was that like?

Amazing. We … brought the house down. It was in this little house that's still there in Athens [Georgia], opposite the Taco Stand, and we had borrowed this equipment, and we had some little speakers and stuff, and I remember they were on bookshelves, and they were shaking, and people had to hold them against the walls, and Cindy and I had these fake fur pocketbooks that I found at the Diana shop. And they were white, and so we turned them upside down and teased them out a little bit, and so they were like white 'fros. And we hung a couple of Barbie dolls, and we made it look all punky and funny, but the house shook. And our friends danced like crazy. So we had no idea how people would react, but that first house party, our friends went wild, so we knew something was good.

Why do you think they reacted like that?

Well, everyone loved to dance. Our group of friends in Athens loved to dance.

Did you have any idea at the time that years later Rolling Stone magazine would call the B-52s America's favorite party band?

Well we're [a] self-proclaimed, tacky little dance band from Athens, Georgia. And sometimes America's greatest party band.

Is there a tacky element to the B-52s?

Oh, yes, and at first it seemed to overshadow the band. It seemed to be like the wigs, the outfits and the hairdos and our lyrics, we felt ,were misunderstood. And we felt like everyone just calling us whacky, whacky, whacky and they didn't understand the incredible seriousness of the band.

There is a seriousness to some B-52's songs you're saying.

Yes, but I think the greatest legacy of the band, I realized later, is that people are allowed to have fun, to let their freak flag fly. People can bust loose. It gives people joy, and it actually helped a lot of people get through life, which is something I never — you said, "Did I expect this to happen?" No, never did I expect people to say, "You helped me through high school," "You got me through this hard time," you know, "I was a young gay boy or a girl," whatever, or just having hard times or being bullied, and it was OK to be different. I think the B-52s message is definitely just by example. It's OK to be different.

‘I think the greatest legacy of the band, I realized later, is that people are allowed to have fun, to let their freak flag fly. People can bust loose. It gives people joy, and it actually helped a lot of people get through life.’

Kate Pierson

Let's talk about "Rock Lobster." That's really the song that put you guys on the map in the underground music scene at first. What is it about that song? Why did people gravitate to that song?

Keith Strickland always tells this story that he went into our study in the Morton Building in Athens, and Ricky [Wilson] was sitting there, and he said, "I've just written the stupidest guitar line ever," and I think it's just the guitar hooks that, incredibly, you can't help but dance. And then Fred [Schneider] had this whole, like, crazy lyrics about crustaceans, and he had been to this disco and seen these, like, crustaceans that were projected onto the walls. So had, he had this idea for "Rock Lobster."

What is your favorite B-52 song to sing and perform?

I can't say that. They are like many children. You can't really pick. But I have to say that "Rock Lobster" is always fun, it's always sort of new because the beat — and "Love Shack" too — there's something about the beat that can always get you going. And seeing the audience reaction, and they're having so much fun — it's like electricity that gets transferred back to us, so it's like this whole party fun with the audience. 

Let's go back to the earlier days, when you started touring. What was that culture like back in the late '70s and the early '80s?

It was really exciting to come up from Athens, 'cause there wasn't any place to play in Athens. The fans from Atlanta suggested that we go to New York and bring a tape, so they went up and brought a tape to CBGB's and Max's Kansas City, and so we got some gigs there. We started just blazing a trail from New York up to Athens, Athens to New York. Each time we went to Athens, we'd write a few more songs, practice, go to New York.

And that early club scene — we opened the Mud Club, we played CBGB's, Max's Kansas City, Hoorah's — it was so exciting 'cause other bands — Blondie, Devo, Talking Heads — they came to see us, and it started this buzz, and they were, like, Patty Smith and all those that were punk, the Ramones, were our icons. And when we started, we weren't that aware. I mean, we were in our own Athens bubble, so we started writing, I think that's why we were so different. We didn't really have a prototype exactly to follow, which is like our crazy blend of everyone's personalities into a genie-in-the-bottle brew. So when we went to New York, that was very friendly. Debbie Harry and Chris Stein invited us to their apartment, and we saw their gold records on the floor, sort of leaning against the wall, and we're like, "Whoa," so it was very exciting to meet all those other bands and have them be supportive. It wasn't a rivalry, and also people started dancing. And that wasn't typical. A lot of people were leaning against the wall in their leather jackets, but people started peeling themselves off the walls and dancing.

Was it exhausting ever? Energizing these crowds all the time? 

Well in the beginning, I remember, I think it was CBGB's where we did a set, I think it was like at midnight and then another one at 2 a.m., so I think even when you're young, it's a tiring thing. And we drove up to Max's Kansas City, we had six songs, and they asked us to cut our set short. Because there were a bunch of other bands playing, and OK, we drove all the way from Athens, and we did the songs. I think we made $14. 

And years later you release "Love Shack," which goes on to become one of the most popular songs in America. Everybody can sing the lyrics to that for the most part, right? Why do people love that song so much?

I think it creates — it's very cinematic. It conjures this place that is sort of idyllic, a place that everyone's accepted. Everyone can go there, everyone can dance, everyone's free, and it's got a sexy element to it. There's glitter on the mattress. And the beat — it's the beat, really. And I think people, everyone can relate to the chorus, can sing the chorus.

Kate Pierson

I love your new album. It's really great. I know that a video just came out for "Guitars and Microphones." It's a little nostalgic. Why are you taking this nostalgic look back at your life? The new title track?

The album's not — I still like to call it an album — it's not all nostalgic, but that one particular song is very autobiographical. So that's why I wanted to title the album "Guitars and Microphones," 'cause I'm not only playing guitar again, but also it's very personal. I have all these old photographs, which I thought, "This will be great." It's about childhood and leaving childhood and leaving your friends and loves in childhood. And so I thought this would be a great opportunity to kind of show people, kind of more personal look at my past.

You're 66 years old. Is your age relevant?

I mean, I feel like I'm still a 10-year-old girl at heart, 'cause I love glitter clothes and that kind of crazy plastic earrings and stuff. 

Is there a difference for a woman in rock 'n' roll versus a man as they age?

There's tons of ageism. There's a lot of nasty comments sometimes online that can be directed at women. And there's definitely a different standard.

A lot of your songs seem earthy to me. Are you concerned about the health of our planet?

I read a book called "Silent Spring" when I was in junior high school. So that was like a clarion call to environmentalism, like the world is ending, basically, and there'll be no more birds singing. And I've been an environmental activist ever since then. I always think that taking care of our planet is the most important thing as, for all politics, I think we are all guardians of the planet and the animals, and so animal rights and environmental activism is very important to me.

You mentioned you were arrested once for a PETA protest.

I was arrested in my fabulous Todd Oldham. All the women went up to the Vogue offices and chanted something — I can't remember — like anti-fur. And we even stormed Anna Wintour's office. We pounded on the wall. I knew she was in there, and Ingrid Newkirk [the head of PETA] said, "Come on, Kate, let's see if she's in there."

You're pretty big into reclamation recycling, right?

Our motel, Lazy Meadow, we did reclamation recycling. We used everything we could. It's a 1952 roadside motel that we transformed back to its former glory. And we retrofit some '50s, midcentury turquoise cabinets and pink cabinets and old refrigerators and old stoves, but we kept everything we could, the knotty pine, all the kind of wood on the outside. We kept everything we could and tried to keep it all recycled.

I know another issue that is dear to your heart is HIV and AIDS. A member of the B-52s, Ricky Wilson, passed away in 1985. How did that affect you?

When Ricky passed away in 1985, a decision was made by Ricky and Cindy's family — her uncle wanted to protect their father, and so he said, "Let's not mention that Ricky had AIDS." And AIDS was like a new disease then. Some people were calling it a gay virus. And we weren't even sure that — we didn't know Ricky was sick until a certain point, then we realized. But we didn't know he had AIDS until he passed away. So we were told to be silent, and that was very, very difficult. People thought we were ashamed, which we weren't, and it was a very, very difficult time.

Was it scary?

It was just heartbreaking. I didn't think we could go on. None of the band members felt like we could continue the band. So we took a long break, and then we realized, gosh, life is so precious, we're precious to each other, and what we have together actually brings Ricky's spirit back in, doing new music actually conjures his spirit. It's still with us. And we also did "Cosmic Thing" as a healing process, to be together, and a lot of the songs we wrote were about back in the day in Athens, like "Dead Beat Club." So, you know, then we became, once we were able to say he had AIDS and it turns out Ricky's father totally knew and was totally accepting, and so I think our involvement with AIDS activism was very important at that point.

One of the songs on your new album, "Mister Sister," caused a stir in the trans community. They said it was stereotypical. Were you surprised by that reaction?

I was very surprised. I was very taken aback because I thought it was very positive, sort of gender positive towards anyone. I said that it was about anyone who was making a transition, anyone who felt betrayed by the mirror. So I meant it to be all-inclusive. 

And that's an issue dear to your heart.

Well, I'm bisexual, and I was always with men, and now I'm with Monica for 11 years, going on 12, and so this is an issue that I care a lot about. I care a lot about gay marriage and equality, and I've always been very supportive of trans people, so I was surprised, but it's really not about a trans woman. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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