Interview: Living Colour's Doug Wimbish talks inspiration, "Inkcarceration"
Travis Shinn

Living Colour stunned the rock world with the release of Vivid in 1988.

Featuring the iconic “Cult of Personality,” menacing “Middle Man,” earnest “Open Letter to a Landlord,” and glitzy “Glamour Boys,” the Mick Jagger-mentored album was an awesome eye-opener for suburban white teenagers too young to know that rock ‘n’ roll was born black, and too out-of-touch to appreciate the Afro-punk of Bad Brains or soulful grooves of Parliament / Funkadelic.

An all-black, spandex-clad, guitar-powered hard rock group? In the age of Phil Collins and Rick Astley? Not even Guns ‘n’ Roses’ searing, serrated 1987 masterpiece Appetite for Destruction could adequately brace the public for Vernon Reid’s ferocious guitar pyrotechnics and Corey Glover’s multi-octave vocal assault. American youth had grown accustomed to having their guitar licks and protest lyrics served by emaciated, long-haired white boys. Living Colour was a muscular music machine—a high-decibel, head-turning proposition for a generation whose first real exposure to African-American pop was Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down.  

Vivid garnered a Grammy in 1990 for Best Hard Rock Performance. But Living Colour was always so much more than just “Cult of Personality.”

The quartet continued melding metal with hip-hop, jazz, and funk on Time’s Up (“Type,” “Information Overload”). In 1993, bassist Doug Wimbish stepped in to replace the departing Muzz Skillings on Stain (“Go Away,” “Bi,” “Leave It Alone”). After a well-deserved hiatus, the gang (still featuring Reid, Glover, and drummer Will Calhoun) regrouped for Collideoscope in 2003 and The Chair in the Doorway in 2009.

The NYC-based band rebounded last year with Shade, its sixth full-length studio effort. Comprised of more socially-aware, politically-relevant rock (“Freedom of Expression,” “Who Shot Ya?” “Program”), the defiant disc couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

The guys recently wrapped anniversary tours for Vivid (30th) and Stain (25th), but they’ll bounce through the Buckeye State this weekend for the first annual Inkcarceration Festival in Mansfield. Living Colour is set to play day two (Saturday) of the weekend-long (July 13-15) at the Ohio State Reformatory—site of the historic prison seen in the 1994 drama The Shawshank Redemption. The festival will feature over 30 bands (Rise Against, Bush, Sevendust, Clutch, Hatebreed, etc.) on two stages, and will host over 70 tattoo artists and vendors. Tickets (three-day or single) are available now at the festival website, as are VIP options and camping packages.

We spoke with bassist Doug Wimbish last week about the event, and about his band’s enduring legacy (and continued relevance in divisive, chaotic times).

AXS: Hello, Doug! How are you? Is Living Colour still on tour? Or is the Inkcarceration appearance a special date?

DOUG WIMBISH: Hello! I’m mellow as a cello! My voice is a little funky because I’m just coming from Summer NAMM in Nashville. Unfortunately, I left my voice there, so I have to get some tea down my neck! But yes, with Mansfield, we’re just flying in to do it as a one-off. We have a couple like that throughout the summer. This will be the first of the summer one-offs!

AXS: You recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of Vivid. It’s a great album whose music is timeless. But unfortunately, a lot of the social problems addressed in Corey’s lyrics haven’t changed—at least not for the better. Can you speak to the importance of that album and those songs for today’s climes?

DW: Well, you hit the nail on the head. Vivid came out at a critical time in U.S. history. Here you had an African-American band playing rock and roll, and people equated rock and roll to white artists, like Elvis Presley. Living Colour and Vivid changed the reality of what rock was about as far as origins. It was a history lesson for those who weren’t aware of the roots of rock, which came from many African-American participants who engaged in the arts…whether you traced it back to blues or chain-gangs and stuff like that back in the early days. Living Colour weren’t the architects of that: There were many prior artists. But it was just a good time for it to be recognized because you had a statesman like Mick Jagger, who able to usher it in on his frequency. That’s how I saw it. Fast-forward to what’s happening now, and “Cult of Personality” plays right into the landscape of our politics where we are today. The statement that the song had then is even more relevant now. And it plays out…it’s a song that gives people awareness, hope, and strength. You get somebody like C.M. Punk using the song as his entrance song for WWE. The song was also part of Guitar Hero, which was a good way to introduce it—and Vernon’s guitar solos—to a younger generation that had no idea who Living Colour is. The band always managed to just speak about the environment we live in. It doesn’t play it safe or wave a flag or look for this-or-that, but it’s truthful about what’s going on in the sociopolitical environment.

AXS: Shade is another terrific addition to the catalog, and the new songs are as topical as ever—for better or worse. You’d think people would’ve learned after 30, 40 years. But it’s good that Living Colour still addresses the problems out there.

DW: Well, when you’re driving you’re looking through the glass. You tend to look in the rearview mirror, but you focus on what’s in front and what’s on the sides. You continue to look and see what’s going on when you’re moving. That’s how the world is. If we continue to wake up every day and keep trying to remake “Cult of Personality” again and again, it becomes a bit shallow. So with the freshness of Living Colour, we just don’t do that. In my opinion, Vivid, Time’s Up, Stain, and Shade all have resonance in regards to where the stories are. Not that the other records don’t, but I think people probably relate to those four in their themes and storylines. We’re honest and real. And I think we were able to get back to the center of what we’re trying to say now as elder statesmen with Shade. It’s a great record, and I’m really proud of everything we’ve done, but I’m especially proud of what we’ve done recently, and being able to get the nod from critics and fans. They’ve given us some good love for that record.

AXS: And it carries over to younger fans, too. Inkcarceration is showcasing a lot of bands that came along in the ‘90s and ‘00s. But Living Colour are true veterans, the old guard.

DW: Thank you! This is where we are now. My generation—I’m 61 years old—we were living in the times that were fresh and current. We didn’t have cell phones or iPads or access to YouTube or computers and all this information. Now with all this out there, the kids being able to access it all, whatever happens on Monday morning is probably already out of your mind by Tuesday. You’re lucky if it’s even part of any conversation by Friday. But “Cult of Personality” is a gift that keeps giving, and you see it in a political landscape. You start seeing it being used in association with certain parties and, without getting too deep into it, it confirms that what this band is about…without getting in someone’s face. Thank God we live in America, where we have freedom of speech. But the reality is that sometimes things must be exposed in order for others to see what’s happening. So something that might be a negative could become a positive. Something that might be pissing someone off…at least it’s been exposed.

AXS: It’s a credit to the band that you still use music to turn negatives into positives, turn problems into opportunities for change.

DW: Hopefully now the next generation will be seen as more proactive in what’s going on in the world that they’re a part of. They’re inheriting a lot of stuff. Some people think everyone else will sort the situation out, but you can’t really expect that to happen and complain at the same time! When you sit down at the dinner table, the food is already there…but you realize someone has already created the table, and that hunters and gathers prepared the food. So we get our wake-up calls in many different ways, and we try to find our voices and participate in the world we live in to try and make things better!

AXS: Inkcarceration is a huge, three-day festival. What’s it like going from small clubs and intimate shows to big stadium shows like this—or the one at the Football Hall of Fame?

DW: Before most bands do a stadium, they’ll do that intimate show. You build the connection. Later, it takes you back to your roots. Your first “big” gig is always playing a club or a high school or gym. You’d play the pep rallies when you were too young to get into the clubs! You play the things that are sponsored by your church or the community. You can really look at people and see that they’re your friends. You reconnect. Then when you go to the real big gigs, it takes a minute to get into what’s going on. It’s like being on a private plane versus flying on a Boeing 777 Dreamliner! The lights, the crowd, the madness, the oohs and the boos! Everything is increased times pi! So it’s up to the individual to determine how you process both. If you’re at a major rock gig, it’s like Showtime at the Apollo! It’s the Olympics! You have lots of other acts that are on before and after you that take the wind out of the crowd. Or maybe the crowd isn’t even there to see you. They’re there for the next band. So you have to figure out how to perform and play spiritually and still connect. The bigger the headache, the bigger the pill, as George Clinton would say! It’s not 1993 right now, so we’re the elders! So you have the elders playing with the kids that are coming out of the box, and lots of people are there to see them! So hopefully things are timed out where you’re in a good slot and you have good support. And if you don’t have good support, well then it’s time to make new fans!