Fame & Fortune: The B-52s’ Keith Strickland

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The sound of the B-52s — quirky, cutting, dance-a-riffic — was not just perky and fun, but always very much of its time. It’s hard to hear “Rock Lobster” or “Dance This Mess Around” without being transported to the days of bizarre new-wave hair and ’80s fashions; by the same token, “Roam” and “Love Shack” are equally transporting to their own era.

So it wasn’t that surprising to learn that the band — Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson and Keith Strickland — had gone 16 years without recording. When news emerged, then, that the band was finally going to release a new record, the curiosity factor was high.

But just as the B-52s music seemed of a period, so did it always come off as quintessentially personal. So it made perfect sense that the new record turned out to be titled “Funplex,” and that the band’s coordinated black-and-white-striped outfits, complete with skin-tight shirts and skirts, demonstrated a sense of showmanship that hadn’t skipped a beat since their debut release. Seeing the band’s irreverence in fine form, the question then became: What took so long?

Bankrate spoke to Strickland, the band’s guitarist and songwriter, about how they returned after their long absence.

Bankrate: What prompted this new recording?

Keith Strickland: We’ve been performing regularly since ’96, ’97; Cindy returned to the band around that time. I think having performed so much, we felt more than ever that we needed new material. So that was the primary incentive — we needed new songs for our show.

Bankrate: This is your first new album in 16 years. When you got together to write, was it difficult to shake off the cobwebs?

Strickland: Not really. I write the music here at home in Key West, (Fla.), but before I could commit to it, I needed a strong idea; a sense of direction. I had been listening to a lot of electronic dance music and rock ‘n’ roll, and I just thought I should try putting these two sounds together with our sound.

That was the pivotal moment for me. It’s a simple idea, really, but that was the jumping-off point for all these ideas. So I was having a lot of fun with the music. Then after I wrote it, I had everything on a hard drive, and I flew up to Atlanta and met Fred, Kate and Cindy, and they wrote their lyrics and melodies, and it just clicked. It’s kind of like instant recall for us, because we’ve always written the same way.

Bankrate: The music world has changed so much since the band’s last record. Was there thought given to how to make your new music fit in with the times?

Strickland: Not really, because it really was about what I was listening to, just the two sounds that I thought that would be really interesting. The one thing about dance music and club music I often miss is, why aren’t there guitars in there? Guitars sound so great. So I just had this desire to put these two sounds together. I did think in terms of, where would our audience be, but it wasn’t so much about updating the sound or trying to sound more contemporary. It really was about where I was at as far as the music was concerned.

As far as lyrically and musically and the melodies, Fred, Kate and Cindy continue to do what they’ve always done, and they did it very well. Perhaps because we haven’t done anything in 16 years, it just felt very fresh when we were working on it, and we all felt very excited about it. But there’s no conscious thing to try to fit in. You really can’t. If you go into it with that attitude, you’re doomed to failure, because it becomes too self-conscious. You really have to connect to some sort of deeper desire or a direction you really want to explore. At least that’s how I felt.

Bankrate: Given that you write most of the music, and write it before the lyrics or melodies, does knowing the three very distinct voices that are waiting for you affect how you approach the writing?

Strickland: Yes, it does. I write specifically for them. I quite often hear melodies when I’m coming up with the chord changes and bass lines and beats and all, but I just have to suspend that and let it go, and allow them the space to step in and do their thing. But I do have each one in mind. I know Fred’s taste, what Kate likes, what turns Cindy on, and we have, of course, similar sensibilities in music, anyway.

So I think of my instrumentals, chord changes, bass lines and harmonic structures as landscapes, and they just kind of step into them, and I hope they’ll be inspired by them and expand their lyrics and melodies in a direction that the music inspires them to go.

Bankrate: You started as the band’s drummer. When Ricky (Wilson, the band co-founder and guitarist who died of AIDS in 1985) was around, were you involved in the writing then as well?

Strickland: He and I wrote together. Funny enough, at my very first jam session, before we started to take this more seriously, I was playing guitar and he was playing the congas. Then when we decided to get more serious about writing, I said, “you should play guitar,” because Ricky was a phenomenal guitarist. But he and I would write together. Sometimes I’d play guitar and he would play bass, and a lot of times I would play the bass line and some chords on keyboard. So we wrote the music together.

Bankrate: So on the classic songs like “Rock Lobster,” your writing was prominent?

Strickland: Yes. We wrote together. Then around “Bouncing off the Satellites,” I was writing more music on my own, and by “Cosmic Thing” I did the music the same way I did for this one.

Bankrate: Given how much people change between their 30s, which most of you were in during the last record, and their 50s, where you all are now, do you find the personal dynamic between the band members has changed?

Strickland: Yeah. We live in different parts of the nation, so we’re a bit more rooted in our own personal lives — certainly more than when we started out. So those dynamics are a bit different. Cindy has two children and a husband; Fred, Kate and I have partners; we’re all very strongly connected to our personal lives. But we’re like a family, and when we write, we return to this timeless place that’s outside of these other things.

Bankrate: Is it hard to sing about partying at this age with so much enthusiasm?

Strickland: I don’t think so. Once we start writing, we go back to this place that’s timeless, and age is not a factor.

Bankrate: How long have you lived in Key West?

Strickland: Five years. I used to live in Woodstock, N.Y., and my partner and I were like, why are we up here? The weather’s horrible. So we moved down here.

Bankrate: How do you enjoy the lifestyle there?

Strickland: I love it. I ride my bike almost every day. It’s beautiful and sunny, and the people are very interesting. It’s a very eccentric town, but I love it. I fit right in.

Bankrate: Are there still chickens roaming the streets down there?

Strickland: In certain parts of the town, there are roosters and chickens and lots of cats.

Bankrate: The B-52s are one of these bands that virtually everyone knows. Has that translated into all of you having the kind of money where you could coast, or do you face the same pressure to have to work as everyone else?

Strickland: We continue to work. There’s a certain impetus to continue working, as with any job. It’s a job. We do it. It pays the bills. But we love doing it, too. Personally, I think I would do it regardless. Other than making money at it, I would still be doing it. I did it before the band. It’s just something I love doing, and I think the same could be said for each of us.

Bankrate: A lot of people assume that if they know the name of the band and one classic song, like “Rock Lobster,” the band is automatically set for life, financially. Do you find that people think that about you?

Strickland: Yeah, people sometimes do have that perception. But no, we have to keep working. It depends on what kind of lifestyle you want to have, but I keep working because I would be bored, otherwise. What would I do?

Bankrate: So has your B-52s success bought you an awesome Key West house on the water?

Strickland: I have a house in Old Town, which is an old historical area. It’s really nice down here. But I live very simply. I just ride my bike everywhere. My partner has a Prius. Very status-y. We’re very green. It’s a great lifestyle because it’s so relaxing. You have the weather, and it’s just wonderful. It’s hard to put a price tag on the weather.

Bankrate: Given that you’ve taken on the simple, Key West, bike-riding lifestyle, what is the biggest extravagance you allow yourself?

Strickland: Sixteen years without putting out an album. That was pretty extravagant. When I think back on it now … we did continue to work and perform, but it’s pretty extravagant. I kind of look back and go, wow, I just spent 16 years not really writing anything.

Bankrate: During that time, were you working on the road a lot, or just playing a few gigs here and there and relaxing at home?

Strickland: We performed a lot. It was fairly consistent. A lot of one-offs, where you do one or two shows a month and then you come back home. Not a tour, per se. But then we did several tours almost every summer, short tours.

Bankrate: Given the band’s image, one might think you’re into flashy things. In general, are you and your band mates flashy people?

Strickland: Not really. I’m certainly not. But I’ve never been one of the flamboyant ones. In our personal lives, we’re not that outrageous, really.

Bankrate: And Kate owns an inn in Woodstock. That also seems about as down-to-earth as it gets.

Strickland: Yeah. It’s cute. It’s really fun. It’s kind of like an art project.

Bankrate: I would guess that if any of you were flamboyant or flashy, it would be Fred.

Strickland: You’d be surprised. He really isn’t. And he’s really shy. We all are, actually. Kate’s probably the least shy. She would be the most outgoing. Cindy and I would be the most shy, and Fred would be next. But he can turn it on when he needs to.

Bankrate: And he’s also living more of a down-home life?

Strickland: Yeah. He loves to collect records, vinyl albums, and (he) has quite an impressive collection — a lot of R&B stuff. It’s pretty eclectic.

Bankrate: What’s the most positive aspect of growing older?

Strickland: I don’t know what I thought 50 was, even in my 30s, but it really is not that different. Maybe I’m really lucky, in good health and all, but I feel great, and we’re all doing really, really well. It really is a nonissue. You read about it in the press, they make reference to it, but you go, “well, what choice do we have?”

To be a bit more serious about it: The thing about it is, I lost so many friends in the ’80s who died of AIDS. Ever since then, I’ve never had a problem with my age. I’ve always been like, “I’m one of the lucky ones.” And so I just never had that hang-up, or been uptight about my age at all. I feel blessed, and I think we all are.

Photo courtesy Pieter M. van Hattem