Nu Shooz: ‘A record label is good at one thing - selling pieces of plastic’

Dimanche 5 Octobre 2014

In 1987 they made dance the whole world with their hit ‘I Can’t Wait’. Now NU SHOOZ is coming back with the 80’s revival. An interview with a pop band that likes to experiment its eclectic taste.

© Hiroshi Iwaya
© Hiroshi Iwaya
When did you feel that music was your vocation?

Valerie: My mom had a world class lyric soprano voice. I grew up listening to her sing opera, musical theater and art songs. I never thought I would become a musician – especially a singer, because she was so incredible. But I knew I would be an artist of some kind. Early on I thought I would become a dancer, but at around age 14 I realized that I could probably make a living as a musician for longer than I could dance – so I switched vocations.

John: I was going to be a doctor. From the age of seven that was my path. Then at age 15 I heard Hendrix in the school library, and my medical career was OVER!

Nu Shooz did not sound like a usual dance music group. It was more sophisticated. What is the story of Nu Shooz?

Valerie: When John and I first met in 1975 we were both into a band called Mahavishnu Orchestra and the guitarist John McLaughlin. It's actually one of the things that brought us together - we liked similar musical was like a SIGN.

John: In the 70's I was in a salsa band and Valerie was in a Ghanaian band. I guess you'd call it World Music now. I went to New York in 1978 and came back and thought 'I'm not Cuban or Puerto Rican. I want to do something American!' But once you're in a band with horns, you can't live without them. So i started a soul band with horns. See, I was lucky to grow up in the 60's and live through the whole Motown era, all those great records- when they were NEW!

“I Can’t Wait” became a hit in 1987 after it was remixed by a Dutch DJ but it was first released in 1985. Could you tell me the story of this song?

John: You never know which song will catch on. 'I Can't Wait' started out as just another song we played in our band. We played it too fast. In the studio we slowed it down to 104 bpm. It was funkier but it just sat there. Took a long time to make it happen in the studio. Then a local radio station got ahold of it, the original version, and it became a local hit. But no label would sign us. Then out of the blue Pieder Slaghuis remixed it in Holland, and the rest is history.

You recorded three albums with Atlantic. How was your experience with a big label?

Valerie: We felt very lucky when we finally got signed to Atlantic Records as we'd been turned down by every major label before then. In retrospect, we wish we'd known more about the music business and how labels worked. We were very naive. 'Isn't the music business about MUSIC?' Ummm, well no!

John: They didn't interfere with us creatively, but I'm not sure they knew what they had. That's not their fault though. A record label is good at one thing - selling pieces of plastic...moving them around the country. The creative part is up to the artist. They would have been happy if we just made 'I Can't Wait' over and over, but of course, we had already moved on.

In 2010, you released the Pandora’s Box album with a jazz version of “I Can’t Wait”. Was it a one-shot experience or is it the new sound of Nu Shooz?

John: About ten years of thought went into Pandora It started out with a Jane Austen movie I was watching, with a little chamber orchestra score. I'd been studying film scoring for a while, and thought, 'Y'know, I'm never gonna get a big Hollywood/John Williams score, and hey a smaller orchestra is cool. You can really hear each instrument. It was a great experience, and we said what we wanted to say. But I think it baffled the people who just like 'I Can't Wait.'

Valerie: In 2006 we recorded an acoustic/jazz interpretation of 'I Can't Wait' as an experiment - and as a way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the song becoming a hit. We had so much fun recording with our jazz player friends that we decided to use the same instrumentation and make a recording of the songs that had been brewing in John's mad scientist/music arranger mind for the last decade. The result was something we called "jazz-pop-cinema." I'm so glad we decided to do it. "Pandora's Box" is still one of my favorite records to listen to.

Is it the new sound of Nu Shooz? We might make another record someday with the NU SHOOZ Orchestra, but for now we're back riding the wave of 80s funk/dance/soul - and it feels good after the more than 25 year break that we've had.

You became a jazz singer. Is it a more fulfilling music style for a singer and a musician? And which of your jazz projects are you particularly proud of?

Valerie: I'm actually still working on becoming a jazz singer. There's always so much more to learn! Before NU SHOOZ I listened to a lot of jazz records. When I watch movies I love it when I think I know where the plot is headed and then it veers off into a direction that surprises me. Music is the same. It doesn't really matter what style I'm listening to – if it has elements of surprise and complexity in it I'm happy. All of the things I've learned through singing jazz add to the singing I'm doing now.

As for a favorite jazz project – that's a tough one. Each one is my favorite while I'm doing it. I think the most enriching experience for me was putting together Brain Chemistry For Lovers. Combining neuroscience and music was a great learning experience – and fun!

Could you tell me more about the “Brain Chemistry for Lovers” show? It seems to be very uncommon and intriguing.

Brain Chemistry came about because of a National Geographic article I read about the different phases of romantic love and the brain chemicals occurring during them. I thought 'What an intriguing idea for a show! SO many songs have been written about these different phases of love. Wouldn't it be cool to re-contextualize them by combining the songs with the neuroscience!' I collaborated with filmmaker Jim Blashfield on the visuals (he also did the video for 'I Can't Wait' back in the 80s), a neuroscientist - Dr. Larry Sherman on the science, and my friend Darrell Grant on the music and script. John arranged everything for a small chamber orchestra and voila - we created a show that is part concert, part cabaret, and part science lecture.

The latest album released by Nu Shooz is Kung Pao Kitchen which contains songs recorded fromm 1988 to 1992. Did you release it as it was or did you worked again on the album?

John: We wanted to keep it very 80's sounding. But a lot of 80's stuff was cluttered with lots of midi percussion. And it was very 'brittle.' Some songs had like four hi-hat parts and three tambourines. So we cleared it out a little bit, and mixed it slightly warmer. Other than that, this is the way it was made back in the day.

Did you ever play in France and is there a chance to see you there someday?

John: Our band never played in France, but the two of us lip-synced on a bunch of TV shows over there. The best one was a variety show called La Vie de Famille. I can still remember the theme song. At the end of the show, all the acts had to come out and sing it, punks, dwarfs, jugglers, Manu Dibango, and me and Valerie!

Valerie: We would love to come to France again one day. Hopefully, somehow, we will be able to make it happen.

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Boris Plantier