The B-52s Kate Pierson Talks Sci-Fi, Surf Culture, Groovy Music, Lazy Desert and Thrift Store Chic

THE B-52S KATE PIERSON INTERVIEW AND INTRODUCTION BY STEVE OLSON

It’s confirmed… When you least expect it, it happens. To proceed is the test… To be able to continue success… Following the idea and seeing it through…  Magnificently fabulous and outstanding. One never knows is an understatement. Completion, triumphantly rewarding. Quirky, and originally different… Set them apart, at a time, when change was apparently obvious… Kate, along with her band, marched on to their own ideas and vision… When the dust settles, it’s easy to see, why they are where they are… Never stop dreaming, so they say… This is correct, Kate is living proof. I’m not sure where we’d be without the B-52’s. The Happiness that is achieved, through the power of music, is true… More B-52’s, now and into the future!!!

OLSON: Hey, Kate, how are you?

KATE: Hey, Steve. I’m good. I’m up in the Catskills in New York right now. 

OLSON: Have you ever tried snowboarding?

KATE: No. My wife Monica is a really good snowboarder, but she kinda stopped doing it because I don’t go with her. I like to snowshoe and I’ve tried skiing a little bit. When I tried skiing, I really loved it, but I got scared of jumping off of the ski lifts. I loved going down the kiddie slopes and weaving back and forth though. I took a lesson and the guy said, “You’re good. You can just go.” I feel like I could be good at it, but everyone in our band is like, “I’d love to do this or that, but I don’t want to break my wrist and not be able to go do gigs.” So I’m happy with snowshoeing. 

OLSON: Cool. I’ve never been snowshoeing, but I grew up in Minnesota and I know snow all too well. Where do you come from?

KATE: I grew up in New Jersey. That’s where all of my ancestors immigrated. I was next to New York City in Weehawken, so I could see the city  skyline. My aunt had a farm in New Jersey and I used to go to the farm and that was the part of Jersey that I loved. I did go to the Jersey Shore some, so that part was beautiful. Of course, there are some parts of Jersey that are horrible.

OLSON: Every place has parts that are horrible and parts that are beautiful. Some people have something against Jersey, but I think that Jersey is amazing. Let me ask you this. How did you get into music?

KATE: My father was a professional guitar player when he was young. When he got married, he quit and started working at this plant that x-rayed airplane parts. It’s funny because it’s the same company that made the first trailer, like an Airstream trailer. My father played music all of the time and he had a thousand 78’s and we’d play music together. I would play Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and the Beatles and he liked that. My brother played the cello and I took piano lessons, so we played music together. I was in the school chorus too, so I was exposed to a lot of music. 

OLSON: So you’ve been into music your whole life.

KATE: Yeah. I used to sit on my brother’s lap and I’d strum the guitar and he would play the chords, and then I would play the piano and the guitar. We used to go Lenny Bernstein’s Young People’s concerts with our school and I was fortunate to be exposed to a lot of classical music. My uncle passed away before I was born, but I had a lot of his records, which were classical, so I was exposed to all kinds of music growing up. My father had groovy music, like Yma Sumac and lounge music and jazz music, like Ella Fitzgerald and all that, so I grew listening to that music. Then I had a band in junior high.

“We used to go Lenny Bernstein’s Young People’s concerts with our school and I was fortunate to be exposed to a lot of classical music. My uncle passed away before I was born, but I had a lot of his records, which were classical, so I was exposed to all kinds of music growing up. My father had groovy music, like Yma Sumac and lounge music and jazz music, like Ella Fitzgerald and all that, so I grew listening to that music. Then I had a band in junior high.”

OLSON: Yma Sumac’s timing signature and singing was really out there at the time.

KATE: Yeah. In a way, world music crept into suburban America in the ‘50s. Of course, Latin music was popular. Charo was great. Perez Prado and Kai Winding had a lounge thing going and that was cool.

OLSON: You were exposed to a variety of great music. 

KATE: Yes. It was great music from really great jazz to big band music to R&B to classical. 

OLSON: How did you start playing in bands?

KATE: Well, I had a band in high school called The Sun Doughnuts. It was a protest band and we wrote our own songs. I was influenced by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones because that’s what was happening at the time. Joni Mitchell was a big influence, as were the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan. I was influenced by the folk movement and the protest thing. That got me interested in politics and that was my entree into being an activist. It proved to me that music can really shape you when you’re young and shape the direction of your interests. 

OLSON: What were you protesting?

KATE: We protested the Vietnam War and I got involved with the Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Movement. That’s what was happening then. It was peace and anti-Vietnam. Those were the hot topics, and the draft, as they were drafting people to go to Vietnam. 

OLSON: Were you burning bras back then?

KATE: Well, I didn’t wear one, so I didn’t have one to burn. [Laughs] I didn’t wear make-up. When I went to high school, a lot of the girls had the biggest bouffants that you could imagine. They were teased to the max, but I had long straight hair parted in the middle. I was trying to straighten my hair as much as I could because I have wavy hair, so I would iron it.

OLSON: I love that. 

KATE: It was such a contrast to all the other pictures in the yearbook. Everyone had sky high hairdos and I had this long straight hair. 

OLSON: Well, the bouffant hairdo is an art form that gets overlooked sometimes. 

KATE: Well, it’s ironic that I wound up wearing a bouffant hairdo and that became the symbol of the B-52s. To me, it’s crazy that I bucked the tide so much and then I wound up being that. 

OLSON: How did that come about? Did you choose to go there? The B-52s were there at the start of the punk movement, which seemed like a revitalization of rock n’ roll with a little bit of extra speed. 

KATE: We started when punk rock was just starting and a lot of us in the band had similar influences. Fred and I had the same influences of sci-fi and growing up in the late ’50s and ‘60s. We thought the future was going to be jetpacks and we were going to be flying to the moon and wearing silver outfits all the time and there would be aliens and it would all be really groovy. Science fiction was an early influence. Keith Strickland and Ricky and Cindy had similar influences too, so we all had the same mindset. When we got together in Athens, Georgia, it was spontaneous combustion. We never decided we would have a band. We just all had this common interest and we all hung out together with a larger group of friends. One night we had the famous  Flaming Volcano drink and we went to a friend’s house and started jamming and that was it. Boom! The band was born. Keith Strickland thought of the name, but we had already mined thrift stores to figure out our look because we would wear wigs to go to parties. It was not to be glamorous. The guys would wear wigs too. We would just stick wigs on our heads and crash parties and drink free booze and dance crazy. Then we started the band. We were just barely aware of Patti Smith, as one of the first bands we had heard. After seeing an ad in a magazine, a friend of ours sent away for Patti’s first single “Piss Factory”. We listened to that and that was a big influence. Then the Sex Pistols came around and Talking Heads and Blondie. We were barely aware of them when we started playing and then we went to New York and we heard all these bands at Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs. We saw Suicide and Television and all these bands and it was amazing. We were right on the heels of that. New Wave is sort of a made up term like anything is, but it was a different kind of feeling and it wasn’t as aggressive. We got people dancing.

“We started when punk rock was just starting and a lot of us in the band had similar influences. Fred and I had the same influences of sci-fi and growing up in the late ’50s and ‘60s. We thought the future was going to be jetpacks and we were going to be flying to the moon and wearing silver outfits all the time and there would be aliens and it would all be really groovy.”

OLSON: I saw you guys at the Roxy in LA and it was really fun. Some of the B-52s come from Jersey, right?

KATE: Fred and I are both from New Jersey, but Cindy, Ricky and Keith were from Athens. 

OLSON: Was there any scene going on in Athens at the time when you all started jamming and naturally becoming a band?

KATE: No. After college, I hitchhiked around Europe for a year and a half and then ended up in Athens through a chain of events to do a kind of “back to the land” thing, so I was there raising goats and having a big garden. There was no punk scene, no bars and no place to play. There was a folk club, but they wouldn’t let us play, so we started playing at house parties. The first gig we did was at a house and the house almost shook down to the ground. We just went from party to party and then someone had the bright idea to play in New York, so we went up there with a demo tape. There was one punk band called The Fans, from Atlanta, and they said, “Go to New York.” So we went to New York with our demo tape and we were rejected by CBGBs, so we went to Max’s Kansas City. We drove up and played 20 minutes and they asked us to cut the set short. We did our thing and got right back in the car to drive back home and Danny Beard, who released our first single, “Rock Lobster” and “52 Girls”, ran up to the booker, Deerfrance, and said, “Do you want them back?” She said yes and that led to us going from Georgia to New York every couple of months with new songs each time. 

OLSON: How did you all come across your gear because it seems like gear was important with the Mosrite and the keyboards?

KATE: We searched specifically for the Farfisa. Kate Strickland and I went looking in Atlanta and we went to a bunch of music stores and we finally found a Farfisa. We wanted that sound, partially because The Doors had that keyboard bass. It was only really Keith and Ricky and I that could play an instrument. Keith would play drums and Ricky played guitar and I played bass and keyboard, so the bass had to be a keyboard bass.

OLSON: So your left hand was doing all the bass lines and your right hand was doing all of the accenting and the chorus? 

KATE: Yeah. It’s like the “Planet Claire” line. The bass lines were kind of fast, so my left hand was really going strong and sometimes my right hand was free and I would dance while I played. I don’t know where Ricky first got the idea to have a Mosrite, but I remember going to find one. We saw an ad in the paper and Keith and Ricky and I went way out in the country to see a couple that had this guitar. A woman answered the door and she had a huge classic bouffant. That’s where we got that Mosrite guitar. I’ll never forget buying that guitar. We scraped together what little money we had and bought some equipment and we didn’t have cases. We drove up and just put it in the back. Eventually, Cindy and Ricky’s parents loaned us a van, but they really bought it for us, and we put the equipment in the back. At first, it was a station wagon they loaned us and that was called Croydon.

OLSON: What was the reason for Ricky dropping off the D and the G on the guitar?

KATE: Ricky was influenced by Joni Mitchell and her open tunings and we couldn’t afford guitar strings and sometimes strings would break, so he would just tune it to an open chord. He would play in a very unusual style and maybe the bottom chords would pull down a rhythm and certain accents and parts would be on the top strings. It was like playing two guitars. He had a double neck Mosrite too.

THE B-52S – CINDY, FRED AND KATE. PHOTO © PIETER M. VAN HATTEM

OLSON: I remember seeing you all play when I was 17 and noticing that because we had a guitar with only two strings and we tuned them both the same. We were so influenced by that. How did it snowball once you started playing New York? When did you get record label interest?

KATE: Well, Danny Beard was the one that said, “I’m going to form this label called DB Records and I’ll put out your single.” So we went to Atlanta and recorded “Rock Lobster” and “52 Girls” and made a single. Fred had this image that we put on the cover, and a photographer took the photo for the back cover. Danny was stuffing the record sleeves by hand. Danny Beard stuffed a lot of record sleeves. He still has Wax N Facts Record store in Atlanta and it’s just like that record store in the movie High Fidelity. He’s got the room with all of the records and it’s great. So we sent boxes of records to Bleeker Bob’s in New York City, but Bleeker Bob never paid us because he said he never got the records. Then we went up to New York to play, so we went over to Bleeker Street and he had our records plastered all across one whole window. That helped popularize the record and it started to catch on with college radio. It took off and people were intrigued and then record companies started getting interested. We had a manager who was a friend and she booked tours for us, so we played Cleveland and Toronto and Philadelphia and Boston and did the rounds. The first time we went to New York City we went through New Jersey and Ricky said to Cindy, “Look. This is where Fred and Kate are from.” Cindy had never been out of Georgia. Then record labels started getting interested and Virgin Records came to Georgia. All we could think was, “Free meals! They’re going to take us out to dinner!” We really didn’t know what to do, so we played the waiting game, which was good because we were trying to be signed by Red Star Records and Sire Records and Virgin. Then we were in New York and Tina and Chris from the Talking Heads introduced us to their manager. They were like, “You need a real manager and we want you to meet our manager, Gary Kurfirst.” We met Gary and he offered to co-manage with our manager, but she didn’t want to do that. Eventually, he would have squeezed her out anyway, so we signed with him, and he got us signed to Warner Bros. and Island Records. A month later, we were off to the Bahamas to record with Chris Blackwell as our producer. Then we toured around the world and opened for the Talking Heads. 

OLSON: Wow. That was probably a good gig and good exposure. When the record came out, did you have any idea it was going to do good? It had so many natural hits. 

KATE: Yeah. The first record went gold, which was great. Fred says, “When we opened for the Talking Heads on the second go around, our record was more popular than theirs.” I don’t know if that’s true, but the record was doing really well. That record is now a classic and it really caught on. College radio played the hell out of it. Then mainstream radio had to listen up, so it did really well after that. The  number of people that come up to me now and say how much that record influenced them is just amazing. So many people know that record.

OLSON: I used to be a professional skateboarder in the late ‘70s and we were allowed to pick songs for our routines and I always used “Planet Claire”. No one else was into that new movement of music yet and people flipped out. They were so into it. Then the whole scene went crazy as well.

KATE: That’s the subculture of people that were into it. It was surfers and skateboarders and outsiders and people who were gay and people that were in a category outside of the mainstream. When we first played in Athens, we were walking down to this bar and there were college students and jocks and they threw a brick at us and said, “Queers!” Not even a year later, they were blasting “Planet Claire” out of the fraternity house. I could not have predicted that. People ask me if I ever thought the record would catch on and I always say no. I had no idea that these fraternity guys would end up loving “Planet Claire”. 

OLSON: Exactly. The guys throwing the brick are the same guys now dancing to “Planet Claire”. It’s so crazy. I had the same experience as a skateboarder. As a kid, we dressed loud and obnoxious and guys would come up and yell, “Queers!” 

KATE: You were just different. I think of skateboarders and surfers as adventurous, independent thinkers and that would be outside of the box.

“I think of skateboarders and surfers as adventurous, independent thinkers…”

OLSON: For sure. It was crazy. Six months later, the same cats were wearing boots and leather jackets and punk rock uniforms and dancing to “Planet Claire” too. 

KATE: Yeah. [Laughs]

OLSON: So you toured with the Talking Heads and then started headlining your own gigs?

KATE: Absolutely. We toured and toured and then did the second record a year later. Before we got signed, we’d written a lot of songs, so half of the second record, Wild Planet, was already written. Then we buckled down and wrote the rest of the songs and kept going to New York to play. We started playing bigger venues like the Mudd Club and Hurrah’s and toured extensively for the second record too. 

OLSON: How did you address song writing? Did everyone in the band contribute? 

KATE: Every song, except for a few, we wrote collectively. It was highly unusual and not easy. It was through jamming and collaging the pieces together. We first jammed on tape. Ricky had a tape recorder and then we had a double cassette recorder, so we would jam and record things on cassette. We would listen to it over and over again and pick out parts and then learn parts and piece them together and then take the second takes and put the best bits on the second tape and then we’d learn those and string them together. A lot of the songs didn’t have a traditional verse and three chord chorus. It was a bunch of different ideas strung together because that was the process that we had. 

OLSON: With publishing, everyone was sharing? 

KATE: Yeah. Well, Fred had already written the lyrics and Ricky wrote the lyrics for “Rock Lobster” and then we jammed on top of that and added harmonies and keyboards. Cindy and I worked on that, with the harmonies and keyboards and fish sounds, so that was added. The other songs were all jams. There were a couple of exceptions like “52 Girls”. A friend of ours, Jeremy Ayers, wrote that and Ricky wrote the music. Most of the songs were written by jamming together and we decided right away to split everything equally no matter what. No one wanted to fight over which song they wrote.

OLSON: How did the harmonies come about with you and Cindy?

KATE: It was just jamming and letting our defenses down and letting the collective unconscious flow and it just evolved. It was a bit of a catastrophe because sometimes you wouldn’t hear what anyone else did, but we’d lock into these harmonies naturally. We never sat down and said, “I’ll do the low and you do the high.” It just sort of synced up in a jam. 

“I have to say how much the surf culture influenced us with the early surf movies like Beach Blanket Bingo and shows like Hawaii 5-0 and music from the Ventures and Ricky’s surf guitar sound and the Beach Boys. Ricky’s image was very influenced by surf.”

OLSON: That is totally great. The harmonies were amazingly put together.

KATE: It was really magic.

OLSON: Yes. It seemed like everything just flowed together and you had that chemistry that works in bands from day one. 

KATE: Yeah. Sometimes not everything would work out. Some days we would jam for hours on a song and then go back to it and jam some more and then sometimes things clicked right away. At first, we weren’t even conscious of song structure. We knew chords, but we weren’t conscious of needing a verse, a pre-chorus, a chorus and a bridge. We just let it all flow together in an organic way. It was mostly unusual song structures.

OLSON: Where were you all most popular? What countries took to the B-52s the best?

KATE: We were the most popular in Australia. They were picking us up in limos and we were playing these huge places where they had to drive us to the stage. Australia is still big for us. We did a tour to Australia and New Zealand a few years ago and I just love going there. As far as the United States, it’s California. Whenever we’re in California, Fred always says, “Let’s just tour California.” We can go up the coast and play every town and the audiences seem to be in tune. The further up the coast you go, the weirder the dancing gets. 

KATE PIERSON. PHOTO © PIETER M. VAN HATTEM

OLSON: What did you think of that whole dance scene when the band started out, with the pogoing and stuff before slam dancing?

KATE: I remember watching the Ramones and pogo-ing for an hour. It’s a great dance to do. It’s like doing jumping jacks. Being in a crowd, you can’t flail around, but you can jump up and down. We were described in an interview as “unselfconscious about their dancing.” I don’t know what that meant, but I take it as a compliment. With our dancing, we never choreographed anything. We tried a few choreographed moves, but we could never get in sync. Sometimes it looks like a train wreck. It’s funny because we have a sense of humor. If any other professional band got up there and did what we did, people might be like, “What?” We can get away with it. We even did a Do-si-do on the song “Wig”. We do some crazy dances. 

OLSON: Did you have a set idea of a stage show?

KATE: It was only our look, which we developed before the band started by wearing crazy clothes and wigs and whatever I could find at thrift stores. It was the thrift store chic thing and we were one of the innovators of that. The wig thing and ‘60s outfits were influenced by Diana Vreeland, the empress of fashion and editor of Vogue. We had Vogue and we’d look at those magazines. We weren’t trying to be glamorous, that’s for sure, because we had some pretty ratty wigs, but we had crazy outfits.

OLSON: There was an underlying glamorous thing going on whether you were trying to be or not, I thought. 

KATE: It was an attitude. When you see early pictures of us on stage never smiling, especially at our first Saturday Night Live performance, it was more out of fear or unfamiliarity with being comfortable on stage, especially on live TV. We had a frozen look that was interpreted as being sort of punk. 

“It was only our look, which we developed before the band started by wearing crazy clothes and wigs and whatever I could find at thrift stores. It was the thrift store chic thing and we were one of the innovators of that.”

OLSON: The B-52s had such an inviting sound to enjoy yourself, more so than the whole punk ‘I’m gonna get you’ attitude.

KATE: Punk had more of a sense of humor than people thought. The Ramones had a major sense of humor with “I Wanna Beat on the Brat with a Baseball Bat” and “I Wanna Be Sedated”. People heard that and were appalled, but it’s really funny. There’s a lot of humor in punk, more than aggression, I think. 

OLSON: Absolutely. What about the videos on MTV for the B-52s? Was that instrumental in helping you all expand your audience?

KATE: Absolutely. The “Love Shack” video was huge and the “Song for a Future Generation” video was pretty unique. We were able to capture something in the videos that was really us, so the videos really worked. We could have done more, but our first manager, Gary Kurfirst, used to say, “Videos don’t do any good. What’s the use of doing a video? David Byrne put his money into videos and it didn’t do him any good.” We knew that videos were going to be the way of the future. We could feel it. Videos were super important at that time. People watched MTV. That was their jukebox at the time. “Love Shack” and “Roam” were the biggest hits. That was really great. 

OLSON: “Love Shack” and “Roam” were bigger than “Rock Lobster” and all the songs from the first two records?

KATE: Yes. Those were almost number one hits, but “Rock Lobster” is enduring. When we play it live, people go crazy. It’s a hit in a bigger way. It has presence. In a way, a hit is just a song that’s classic. I think it’s a hit even though it didn’t chart as a hit. 

OLSON: It was also unique and different from what was happening. Now you own some different places that are in a style realm of their own.

KATE: Well, my wife, Monica, and I have Kate’s Lazy Meadow and Kate’s Lazy Desert. Kate’s Lazy Meadow is a vintage roadside hotel built in 1952 brought back to its former glory and then some by all the tchotchkes that I bought on tour with Fred. I was also mining roadside secondhand stores and thrift stores and auctions here in the Catskills. Then I started buying Airstream trailers. One was just by the side of the road and somebody called us and said, “If you can haul our Airstream out of this ditch, you can have it.” So we started building a collection of Airstreams and we put them down beside this creek that Lazy Meadow is on. When Hurricane Irene came through, the Airstreams flooded, so we moved them to the desert. Now we have Lazy Desert six miles from Joshua Tree. It’s all themed and vintage Airstreams. There’s “Tiki” and Kate’s “Hairstream”. You can look on the website www.lazymeadow.com and see all of the Airstreams. It’s in Landers, California, with a great view of Goat Mountain. It’s next to this building called the Integratron, which is a fascinating place.

OLSON: I know the Integraton building. That’s cool. So how do the B-52s continuously move forward from decade to decade?

KATE: Crawling. [Laughs] It was hard after the second record. The first record went platinum and then Wild Planet went gold. It’s also hard when you put out two records when you first start because then you have to start from scratch. The next record we did was Mesopotamia. We weren’t finished writing it, but our management was like, “You have to get the record out now!” We ended up putting out a truncated version of an album. We didn’t always have record company support either and I feel like they didn’t always have our backs. When we did the next record Whammy!, Keith didn’t want to play drums as much and we used a low tech beat box and kinda made a switch in sound. I kinda wished we had kept the drums, but I really loved that record. We were reading reviews when we were on tour with Whammy! and someone wrote a review like, ‘Now we’re in the doldrums period.’ Then we did Bouncing Off the Satellites, which was the most difficult because it was when Ricky died. Ricky completed that album and that was the only time the record company ever said, “We don’t want to interfere, but we don’t hear a hit. We want a hit.” So we went and wrote more and finished it and then we wanted to promote the record, but we couldn’t tour after Ricky died. It was out of the question. The record company was like, “When are you going to tour? When are you going to get a new guitar player?” We were like, “Are you kidding?” “Summer of Love” became a dance hit without any promotion. They didn’t do a thing. It hit the charts without being promoted and then, basically, the record company sunk the record. When we came back with Cosmic Thing, the record company felt like they missed the boat before, so they put some muscle behind it. There were struggles in between there when we felt like we were out there alone and we just had each other. We knew the record was good, but it’s really disappointing when you put it out there and you know it has all these great songs, but no one is hearing them. The record company never picked out the hits.

OLSON: When Ricky passed away, that must have been difficult to deal with as a band.

KATE: Yeah. We didn’t think we were going to continue. We didn’t know. We didn’t say we were ending for sure, but we just went into our own zone. We didn’t even talk about it until later. Then we regrouped and it was like, “We have something so special here and we have each other and this is a way of healing.” Music is so healing. When we started doing Cosmic Thing, a lot of those songs conjured back Ricky’s presence. He was there cosmically. Songs like “Deadbeat Club” were straight out of our early times in Athens and it all just poured out and everything in it was true.

OLSON: It had to be difficult to keep moving once part of you left the planet in the physical sense, but you all pulled it together. It seems like Ricky would not have wanted you to stop playing. 

KATE: Well, I remember we said out loud, “We don’t care if this is a hit. We don’t care if radio plays it. We are doing this for us.” It was a pledge we made. I have to say how much the surf culture influenced us too with the early surf movies like Beach Blanket Bingo and shows like Hawaii 5-0 and music from the Ventures and Ricky’s surf guitar sound and the Beach Boys. Ricky’s image was very influenced by surf. He used to wear surf shorts and he had a surfy kinda haircut. Surfing was a big influence and I still love surf movies and watching surfers. That’s the one sport that, if I could do it, I would. I love water and swimming and I’d love to surf some day.

FOR THE REST OF THE STORY, GET ISSUE #77 AT THE JUICE SHOP HERE.

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