80s Music Rules ~ Criminally Underrated Artists/Bands ~ SLAVE to the SQUAREwave (interview with Colin Troy McPhail)

About 10 years ago, I was a novice listener of David Marsden’s live broadcast over the internet from a station out of Oshawa, ON Canada. His style and selection of music (mostly alternative 80s and current off-the-beaten-track tunes) had grabbed me from the first show I tuned into (thanks to a recommendation from fellow music blogger RalphD). One night, I distinctly remember being stopped dead in my tracks when a song came up that I had never heard before. I quickly shot off an email to Ralph asking, “WHO is that?” Ralph’s answer came back with an oddly-named group—SLAVE to the SQUAREwave—and a brief history of who, what, when…

The song at the time was “Sinners of Saint Avenue,” and from that moment on, I became a die-hard “Squarehead.” The melody, the lyrics, the singing…up until that point I had firmly believed that there wasn’t a singer out there that even came close to my longtime idol David Bowie. Well, holy cow, was I wrong! Here was Colin Troy McPhail, backed by the incredible musical talent of Rob Stuart, delivering the range, the pitch, the drop-dead gorgeous passion of Bowie, but with his own distinctive and personal flair. Thank goodness for me that RalphD was himself a huge “Squarehead” and happily pointed me in the direction of finding out more about S2TSW.

Since then, I’ve had the pleasure and good fortune to feature SLAVE to the SQUAREwave (Colin and Rob Stuart) several times here on Rave and Roll blog. Rob even interviewed me last March for his “The Mixtape Show” DJ slot on NYTheSpirit.com. This, however, is my first opportunity to interview Colin, the angelic and passionate vocal genius of S2TSW. If you’ve never had the privilege of listening to SLAVE, please give yourself that treat. They release their new album Jigsaw on November 10, 2017. It will be available worldwide on all streaming and music websites with an album release party in the works.

Maybe, just maybe, you’ll fall under their indomitable spell and become a Squarehead, too.

(NOTE: At the end of this interview, Colin and Rob have provided a free download of the ambient remix of “Starrs,” a beautiful and moving track. This particular mix is not available on the album Jigsaw that releases on November 10, 2017).

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Missparker: SLAVE to the SQUAREwave’s core musicians are you and Rob Stuart. How did you guys meet up and how long have you been making music together?

Colin: Rob and I met nearly 20 years ago at a rave in Oakville Ontario. He was playing his EDF (Electronic Dream Factory) music, and I was performing a project called Smokin Jehovah. We got talking and discovered that we lived close by to one another. We met up and jammed out some of our own music ideas and began a lifelong friendship through music.

Missparker: As someone who can’t hold a tune in a bucket (me), but is blessed with good ears, I am in awe of your tremendous gift of singing. I’ve mentioned to anyone who’ll listen that you remind me so much of David Bowie in style, range, and expression. Do you consider him an influence? Is there anyone else who has inspired you vocally?

Colin: Of course, Bowie is God (laughs). He is by far the greatest artist that has lived. But musically I’ve been influenced by what I call the Davids—Bowie, Byrne, Gahan, Sylvian, and Lee Roth—all my Davids have been musical influences lyrically, musically, and of course, showmanship.

Missparker: I have to say, after viewing a number of SLAVE videos on YouTube, I feel like I’ve missed out big time on your live performances. You seem to morph into all kinds of different and interesting personas. Are they inner characters that you allow to escape onstage? Do they have names?

Colin: (laughs) HAHA, good question…hmmm…The Characters are mostly influenced by the songs themselves. So performing live, the characters just add to the ability to make the songs visual, as well as lyrical. Live, it’s so much fun—hmmm…I’ve never thought of names—maybe I should (laughs)!

Missparker: I have to say I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my preview of Jigsaw. I’m full of questions, but I’ll try to contain myself and keep it to a bearable number! First, where did the name Jigsaw come from? And the delightfully fun intro “Debauchery”—does it have a particular significance?

Colin: This past year and a half has been a personal nightmare—from losing a job and getting transferred to a different job, which has been frustrating—to having my car stolen—to losing a great relationship (at least I thought was)—to losing my dear sister to cancer this past summer. Jigsaw is about the pieces I’ve lost and trying to put some kind of puzzle back in order.

Debauchery is an ode to musical theatre like Cabaret or Chicago. Just a fun sexy, sassy little number to introduce your ears with.

Missparker: No pun intended, but “The Coldest Night of the Year,” along with “Starrs,” absolutely give me chills. They are gorgeous: instrumentally, lyrically, and stylistically thanks in large part to your poignant delivery. What can you share about the source of the emotion behind the lyrics?

Colin: “The Coldest Night” was written around New Year’s Eve of this past year.  I was in a long distance relationship and because of the lack of physical intimacy, I just was overwhelmed with feelings of loneliness. Eventually we ended it a few months later.

“Starrs” is about my dear sister who died of cancer in August. Her middle name was Starr. We knew she was beginning to fade and her time was coming soon. Rob came up with this beautiful track—I was floored by its musicality—probably the toughest song lyrics to write. We finished the song before she passed away. It’s about seeing her again beyond death’s door. I never played it to her. She never got to hear that song. It was too painful for me to have her hear what I wrote—because it was about the inevitable.

Missparker: I’m so sorry for your loss. The pain that you went through is so evident in the music and lyrics. David Marsden has been playing “Starrs” as a teaser of sorts over the past few weeks. I remember thinking, “If the rest of the album is half as good as this, it’s going to be brilliant.” Well…it’s MUCH more than half as good, so “brilliant” is an understatement. Do you have a favorite track, and what makes it that?

Colin:  “Here Comes My Man.” It’s a hilarious true story of a grindr hookup gone bad.

Missparker: “Honest” has an earnest rhythm driving it from behind, almost reminiscent of island music. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this influence in S2TSW’s music. Is there a specific source that it comes from?

Colin: I love drop beats. Both Rob and I love ska music. Rob had a much more musical influence on that track. I had the acoustic melodies and rhythm, but he brought in the drop beats. It’s his genius not mine (laughs).

Missparker:  My ears perked up at the opening seconds of “Something That I Said.” Did I catch a sample of the sample (twice removed) from Eno and Byrne’s “Mea Culpa?” What’s the story behind this song?

Colin: I think you did. My God, good set of ears, my dear! The song is about offending and being offended by people’s stupidity (laughs). It’s such a simple Talking Heads-like rhythm. Gonna be so much fun to perform live!

Missparker:  And speaking of funk, “Something I Said” is one of several funk-laden songs on this (“Fink Fank Fonk,” “White Kids on Funkk,” etc.) that sound like you and Rob had a blast composing. Are there any musicians/bands that you can point to as funk-influential?

Colin: To me FUNK is the best music. It always lifts me up, and great to dance to. I think Nile Rogers is an absolute genius.  It’s about James Brown, George Clinton, Prince…I don’t know where to start. Funk is the biggest musical influence of my life.

Missparker: “Ascension” is a powerful song. It hints at a deep hurt and a request for a prayer that is both haunting and scary…almost as if you’re asking for help to avoid doing something you’ll regret. It’s well-known that music is a creative way to tame the demons plaguing one’s inner self. Personally, writing and photography are my avenues of sorting out what I can’t adequately express. David Bowie once said that his music was his way of avoiding madness. Do you find a similar comfort writing and singing lyrics—a catharsis of sorts?

Colin: Oh wow. You hit the nail on the head. It’s about knowing you’re about to do something wrong, but do it anyway—kind of masochistic.  If you listen specifically to one lyric it’s very, very masochistic. Music has been and always will be my therapist. I think every writer has demons and the best way to deal with is through writing about it.

Missparker: “Get Out Of My House” is a fun, beat-driven, chair-dancing tune. It’s another teaser that David Marsden has been sticking in our ears over the past few months. I love the whimsical video Rob put together for it. The story goes that you guys created this song from opposite ends of Canada, which is phenomenal. How important a part does technology play in music-making these days, and how has it changed the landscape of creating and producing music over the years?

Colin: Actually, 3 or 4 songs were written while I was in Vancouver with a now ex-partner. Rob and I bounced a whack of musical ideas from Toronto to Vancouver at the time. We share the same software, so I would record and send him the track. He would make his adjustments and inputs and return them to me. Back and forth.

Technology is amazing these days. It allows a lot of freedom, if you use it properly (laughs). It has totally changed music production, both in a good way and a bad way. Good in the sense that it doesn’t have to cost a mortgage to record anymore. Bad in the sense that today’s music sounds thin to me, at times. There is a lack of warmth in today’s sound because of over compression. But, that may be because my ears are getting old!

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As a special gift to all listeners, Rob and Colin have provided a free download of the full ambient mix version of “Starrs.” This version is not available on the album that will release on November 10. Press the graphic below to download your copy. 

Many thanks to Colin for his candid and heartfelt answers. To learn more about SLAVE to the SQUAREwave and listen to the fabulous music described here, be sure to check out the following sites:

Get Out Of My House (Video edit)–SLAVE to the SQUAREwave

David Marsden/NYTheSpirit.com Interview with Colin and Rob

Big Change (extended mix 2017)–SLAVE to the SQUAREwave

Sinners of Saint Avenue–SLAVE to the SQUAREwave

Hopeless Believers–SLAVE to the SQUAREwave

London Baby–SLAVE to the SQUAREwave

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80s Music Rules ~ Criminally Underrated Artists/Bands ~ Nu Shooz

I’m so excited to share this interview from 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.

Source: 80s Music Rules ~ Criminally Underrated Artists/Bands ~ Nu Shooz

80s Music Rules ~ Criminally Underrated Artists/Bands ~ Nu Shooz

(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.)

nushooz+80s

Valerie and John circa 1980s
Photo Credit: Nancy Bundt

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.

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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?

Nu Shooz 2015 Photo Credit: Mike Hipple

Nu Shooz 2015 ~ Photo Credit: Mike Hipple

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!

VALERIE: Right!

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,

Original cover artwok by Malcolm Smith

Original album cover artwork by Malcolm Smith

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.

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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:

Website:  www.NuShoozMusic.com
Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/nushoozmusic/
Twitter:  https://twitter.com/NuShoozMusic
Instagram:  https://www.instagram.com/nushoozmusic/

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: