(I’m so excited to share my interview with the 80s funk group Nu Shooz. John and Valerie are funny, warm, interesting, and downright amiable–an interviewer’s dream. Sit back and enjoy their journey that began nearly 40 years ago, and promises to continue on for many more rollicking years to come.)
New Wave music of the late 70s and early 80s consisted of many sub-genres. The influences were abundant and varied, and creative experimentation ran high. I firmly believe that’s what made 80s music so unique—the fearless attitude of its trailblazers (David Bowie, Gary Numan, Kraftwerk, OMD, Blondie, and Roxy Music, to name just a few), which ultimately opened up endless opportunities for others to carve a niche in one of the most exciting and downright brilliant music periods.
One such sub-genre is a retro funk sound, brought to light by artists such as Yellow Magic Orchestra (fronted by Ryuichi Sakamoto), Scritti Politti, and P-Funk master George Clinton. New Wave funk was born of a unique marriage of jazz, soul, urban, and synthesizers, and was a successful antidote for those tired of, or (in my case) resistant to the emergence of disco.
In the midst of heady experimentation, a group of 12 creative artists from Portland OR formed a band called Nu Shooz in 1979. They released their first album, Can’t Turn it Off in 1982. Subsequently, they scaled back to a group of 7, and worked hard performing and traveling for several more years before signing with Atlantic Records, finally landing on both the R&B and Billboard Hot 100 charts in 1986. The single that cemented their success is “I Can’t Wait.”
“I Can’t Wait” – Nu Shooz official video:
Jump ahead to 2016. The husband and wife team of Valerie Day and John Smith, founding members of Nu Shooz, are taking their group (consisting of previous, original members) back on tour to promote their latest offering, “Bagtown.” They have graciously agreed to an interview, which unfolds below.
Sandy Missparker (SM): Of course I have to ask the question that you’ve most likely answered about a bazillion times: Where did the moniker “Nu Shooz” come from?
JOHN: “The Beatles” was already taken.
SM: Who first inspired you back in the late 70s?
JOHN: I was lucky to grow up during the Motown era. First became aware of Soul Music around 1965. It was an exciting time in music, with every next record outdoing the last. But it wasn’t until 1970 when I first heard Hendrix that I decided to become a musician. After that, I got a guitar as soon as I could. Hendrix turned out to be the gateway drug that led me to Jazz. After Hendrix came John McLaughlin, and that led to Coltrane, and that led to Charlie Parker.
VALERIE: I was barely out of high school where, in the art room, we listened to a steady stream of ‘Tapestry’ by Carol King and ‘Blue’ by Joni Mitchell – still two of my favorite songwriters. Then it was on to learning how to play latin percussion instruments – which meant I was listening to Puerto Rico Allstars, The Escovidos (which included Sheila before she became Sheila E.) and Celia Cruz. But it really felt like I’d come ‘home’ when I picked up a Sarah Vaughn/Count Basie big band recording. Her voice and the arrangements just knocked me out. Turns out jazz was my gateway drug to Motown and R&B. My love of dance and the amazing voices – Aretha, Gladys Knight, Chaka Kahn – pulled me in and have never let me go.
SM: How did you become interested in a music career?
JOHN: At first you’re just trying to learn to play. It wasn’t till the mid-70s that it started to look like a career. I moved from L.A. to Portland Oregon and fell in with the Latin Jazz community. There was a band called Felicidades, and they had Horns! Got bit by the arranging bug, and that band let me write horn charts before I really even knew how. After that, I was pretty much hooked.
VALERIE: I always knew I wanted to become an artist of some kind. I studied dance for 10 years – from age 5 to 15. But the practical side of my teenage mind told me I’d probably have a longer lasting career in music than in dance. My mother was a world class opera and classical singer, so I NEVER thought I would become a singer too. In 1982, when the lead singer in Nu Shooz started missing gigs, I came out from behind the congas and became the lead singer for the band.
SM: How many people were in the original version of Nu Shooz and where did you find them?
JOHN: In ’79 we started out with four people. I wanted to do Temptations and stuff like that. A year later we added four horns and three backup singers. Then we were on our way. The horn players came from a Sunday night rehearsal band that played at the musicians union hall; the Walter Bridges Big Band.
SM: How did you find your way into the “funk” side of 80s music?
JOHN: Well, before it was 80s music, it was called 70s music. It was a natural progression out of 60s soul, through Latin horn bands to Tower of Power. In the 80s I loved Rick James. That’s what we wanted to sound like, Rick James with horns by the Puerto Rico All Stars!
SM: What transpired throughout all of the years that Nu Shooz went “silent?”
JOHN: We raised a son. His name is Malcolm. Best thing we ever did. Valerie sang jazz with Big Bands and small groups, played sessions as a percussionist, and taught voice lessons for 20 years. I fell into a great gig writing music for commercials. It was all hard work but lovely too. Something different every day. After all those years just writing for the Shooz, I was ready to write some string quartets and do some heavy metal shredding.
SM: What was your motivation to craft a new collection of songs for release?
JOHN: We put the live band back together. By the end of the summer, we were getting real tight. And we needed new songs to play. So,
on October 27th 2014, we went into the studio and started the record that would become Bagtown. We’re gonna spend exactly a year-and-a-half on this. That means we’re gonna be shrink-wrapped on April 25th 2016. AND WE MADE IT! With a deadline like that, you come in focused, decisive. We were determined to have fun too.
SM: Tell us how you came up with the new title for your latest creative effort?
VALERIE: When John went out to our studio to start writing for the record, he began by writing a classical piece. Nope! That’s not quite it! Then out came a couple of psychedelic songs. Hmmmm….that’s not it either! Undeterred, the next time he went out to the studio he found himself making a bag puppet out of a leftover paper sandwich bag. Soon there were more ‘bag people’, and buildings, and cardboard signs and trees. The studio was taken over by a town full of paper bags! I’d say to him, “Hey – how’s the songwriting going?” “Pretty good.” he’d say. “I made a few bag puppets today.” The bags became his buddies in the studio. They were having a party and the party needed some music. So he wrote 33 song sketches. Nine of those ended up being on the record.
“The Making of Bagtown”
SM: What main genre of music can we expect from the new album? Does it deviate much from where you left off?
VALERIE: “Bagtown” goes back to the earlier days of the band before synthesizers and drum machines, emulators and remixes. It’s an homage to the late 70s, early 80s soul, funk, vocal harmony heavy music we were listening to and in love with. Earth, Wind, and Fire meets Steely Dan and have a love child with the Tom Tom Club.
SM: How do you anticipate touring and promotion of your new album to differ from the way it was done “way back when?”
VALERIE: On the one hand, without a label and an army of people to get your music on radio, distributed in record stores, and pitched to magazines, TV and newspapers, it’s tough to get noticed – especially with the tsunami of new music being released every day. On the other hand, we have a stronger connection to the people who love our music the most; it’s a direct relationship that we weren’t able to have with our fans back in the day. We just finished doing a crowdfunding campaign through Pledgemusic that was a blast. Being able to take our audience along for the ride was super fun. As writer/artist Austin Kleon says “Show your work…” as it’s being made. “Way back when” we felt isolated and like we were creating in a vacuum. That is definitely not the case today.
SM: What challenges (if any) do you face transforming what you’ve created in a studio into a live performance?
JOHN: I wish we could afford fifteen people. Then we could make this music as big and as free as it could be.
VALERIE: The good news is that all the musicians who contributed to the recording are in our live band, so they know these tunes inside and out now. It’s so refreshing for all of us to have new material to play. Playing live and studio recording are two COMPLETELY different animals. It’s been really fun for us to bring these songs to life visually for the stage.
SM: I know it’s probably too soon to tell, but do you think there will be future Nu Shooz releases and tours?
VALERIE: John and I continue to tour with 80s shows like The Super Freestyle Explosion, Lost 80’s and more, plus we play with our full 8 piece band whenever it pencils out financially (which at this point means shows close to home in the Pacific NW.) We never imagined that we’d be performing and recording as Nu Shooz again. This feels like it’s one of the best time periods in our creative lives – so who knows? We’ve learned to never say “never.” As long as people are interested and want to hear more, we’ll keep creating and performing.
In closing, I’d like to express my sincere thanks to Valerie and John for candidly sharing their thoughts on originally forming back in the late 70s, taking a “break” from the music world, and making the decision to dive back into the limelight with panache and gusto. Their enthusiasm is highly contagious.
For an informative bio of the band’s history, check out this highly entertaining article. In addition, do yourself a huge favor and explore these additional resources to learn more about this unique and creative band:
Bagtown is a family production. John Smith wrote the music, Valerie Day performed, and their son Malcolm ( www.malcolmsmithartist.com) provided cover artwork for the city of anthropomorphic brown paper sacks.
“Point of No Return” – Nu Shooz official video:
“Should I Say Yes” – Nu Shooz official video: