An interview with: The B-52s

Ben Olson
Reader Staff

If you were alive during the ‘80s or ‘90s, chances are you’ve shaken your money maker to The B-52s. From their early hits “Rock Lobster” and “Private Idaho” to the infectious singles “Love Shack” and “Roam,” The B-52s have left a funky mark on the world of music.

As part of our dedication to bring you closer to the headliners at the Festival at Sandpoint, we were able to have a phone conversation with Cindy Wilson, whose iconic style and vocal prowess helped launch the B-52s into international stardom. Wilson, along with her older brother Ricky (who passed away in 1985), Keith Strickland, Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson, were the original members of The B-52s. 

Below is the full interview, lightly edited for space.

The B-52s, from left to right: Kieth Strickland, Cindy Wilson, Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson. Courtesy photo.

Ben Olson: So nice to talk with you, Cindy.

Cindy Wilson: Nice to talk to you, too. I’m on the road now with my solo act, and we’re doing the second night of this leg of the tour. We’re in Gainsville, Fla. Last night’s show was fantastic. We had such a good time. And then we hook up with The B-52s and we’re looking forward to playing Idaho!

BO: There are a lot of people excited to have you guys up here. Have you ever played up this way before?

CW: We have played Idaho before but I forgot the exact place. It’s always fun to come back to Idaho, especially since we have a song called “Living in Your Own Private Idaho.”

BO: I’ve heard people saying, “Are they gonna play the song, or are they not?”

CW: Hell yeah we’re going to play that song! It’s gonna be fun!

BO: It’s one of my favorites of yours, actually. That one and “Rock Lobster” are the two that get me moving. You know, some early memories of watching MTV when they used to actually show music videos full time, are of rocking out in the living room with my sisters, listening to “Love Shack.” And I know I’m one of so many out there…. how does that feel that you have left this indelible impression on the world of music?

CW: Oh my god, that’s so great coming from you. I do appreciate it. I do realize that we are one of the lucky bands that have been able to stay around for 40 years and have left a mark. Kind of a funny mark, but a mark. But you know, I truly love our music. From time to time I go back and listen to what we’ve done and our back catalog. I like the stranger songs.

BO: Me too.

CW: The ones people don’t necessarily go to. Some of them have the best strange harmonies and melodies, but you know, they’re like your children, you can’t really pick a favorite. I can’t believe that we’ve been doing this for 40 years and celebrating coming up. It’s going to be a busy, busy year.

BO: Did you have any idea in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, when you were just coming up, that this would last 40 years?

CW: No way, are you kidding? I was like 20 when we started, so I’m like OK, after 30 we’ll be old and we won’t do it anymore. No no no, 30 came and went and we keep going. And people relate to us. It’s really fun to look out into the audience and seeing everybody having a good time.

BO: I always thought, especially with your early stuff, that The B-52s were way ahead of their time, as far as style and the weird mix of rockabilly and art house dance.

CW: Yeah, it’s a little bit of everything, right? I think everybody brought their favorite kind of music to the band and it’s kind of rounded up the middle somehow. We had no rules. We were just being creative. I think the longevity is because we tried to be original. If you have a good live act, you’ll stay around.

BO: What were you inspired by when you grew up in Georgia?

CW: Yeah, I’m from Athens, Ga. Ricky, Keith Strickland and I hosted, Ricky was my big brother. He was a Beatlemaniac, and I got to listen to everything he was listening to. But when I got my allowance every week, I went and got my 45s I heard on the radio. I know I’m dating myself. I was just listening to Nancy Sinatra on the ride here and I said, “I had that one on 45.” But it was a little bit of radio and I got to listen to Ricky’s cool music. He was listening to Joni Mitchell, and Captain Beefheart. He was a self-taught guitarist and came up with his own style. And so he had amazing taste, and he was always the cool big brother.

BO: I read somewhere that your husband was actually his guitar tech.

CW: Yeah, my husband and I met the same night the B-52s started. It was a Valentine’s Day night, I’ll never forget it. It was the first show the B-52s had ever played in my career, and I met my future husband that night, too. I mean, the planets had to be aligned that night. It was crazy. So my husband, we had it bad, we were so in love, and I was going to go off, the B-52s meteor started happening and so to be together, my husband and I, Ricky hired my husband to tune his guitars and that was we could stay together. It was an amazing experience for my husband and really helped Ricky out, too.

BO: I heard that Ricky used to change tunings like literally between songs.

CW: Oh my god. I wish he was here to tell you all what he did. He would tune some guitars differently. Some guitars he had to tune just right. Once they were completely right on, he would have to tweak and bend it until it was a little off. It was really amazing. Only Ricky, right?

BO: I feel like he was an innovator in that respect. 

CW: Very much so. If you go back and listen to all the stuff with Ricky on it, he was just so amazing. Like “Throw that Beat in the Garbage Can” and stuff. I’m so proud of him. My kids are real proud that they have a really, really cool uncle. They never met him, but they know he was wonderful.

BO: Well, they have a pretty cool mom, too.

CW: Oh, thank you.

BO: Do you have any wild stories from the road that you could share with us?

CW: We didn’t have a groupies or anything like that. Or a druggie band, per se. But one time, we used to get punked out sometimes. We’d throw food fights in the dressing room. One time, we had some misadventures where it was a German promoter, one of the first times we came to Europe in the early days. Our set was only 45 minutes, and our promoter sold tickets all the way up until the end of the show. And a lot of people came late. So there was a riot, and people came onstage and started throwing equipment around, and Kate and me ran downstairs and pulled off our wigs and put them in a bag and ran out the door.

BO: Wait, they stole your wigs?

CW: No, we took them off because nobody recognized us without them.

BO: That’s hilarious. You had some fantastic wigs, by the way. Do you still have a lot of those?

CW: Yeah, I’ve gotten back to wearing the traditional wig for the B-52s. I’m having a lot of fun with it again, you know, all you have to do is pop that baby on and GO! I love it!

BO: Tell me a little about the side project, Cindy Wilson? How long has that been going on?

CW: We’ve actually have signed with a record label, Kill Rockstars record label. Tomorrow, actually. And it’s a fantastic label to be on. Everybody I’ve talked to about is has nothing but great things to say about them. They’re good to their artists, they’re going to help promote. So we’re thrilled about that. We’re doing tours and starting to build up our place. You have to start all over again, which is really fine by me. I like it that way.

BO: So you like the touring a lot?

CW: Yeah. It’s real, we’ve got everybody in the band, plus our equipment. It’s so easy and involved. I love touring.

BO: In 2008, The B-52s put out another album, “Funplex” which I just listened to last week and was really impressed because it sounded so true to your original sound.

CW: We worked hard on that one. We’re really proud of it. We spent a lot of time writing it.

BO: You love touring and everything, but what are some of your hobbies offstage and outside of music?

CW: My life has been very hectic. I like to drive out in the country with my elderly uncle. It’s very chill, but I love that. I love spending time with him. And my kids. They’re growing up, they’re college aged. So we’ve gotten to spend some time together. I went to see my son’s band play in Athens, and he’s just hit a new high in music, and I love that. Working in the garden when we can. But usually, if I’m not touring, I’m getting ready for a tour. Buying clothes, dry cleaning, getting new wigs. There’s a lot going on with my other project too, so I’m quite busy.

BO: Yeah, you know, prepping for a tour for you probably involves prepping the style, what you’re going to wear…

CW: Yeah, all that. It’s all part of it. There’s nobody else doing it like that.

BO: It’s something I’ve always loved about the band, it’s not just the music, it’s the whole package. The look, the attitude.

CW: Right, it’s so important to have fun. And you’ve gotta have the visuals. Every night we tried to go out there with that in mind. We’re sharing that with our fans, who are in on the joke, and also love the beat and love to dance. But also, they get to remember where they were when they hear songs that they like. It’s really joyous sometimes. You get to really connect with fans like that.

What do you have in store for us at the Festival at Sandpoint? Any idea what you’ll be playing?

Woot woot woot woot (she sings the opening line to “Private Idaho,” laughing). What else have we put in. Oh, “Summer of Love,” which all the fans are just go crazy for. I don’t know if you remember that one, but it’s really pretty. And I love a crowd that wants to hear our old songs. Get ready to dance to “Private Idaho!”

The B-52s play the Festival at Sandpoint on Friday, Aug. 4. The gates open at 6 p.m. and the show starts with opening band Biddidat at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, call (208) 265-4554. Next week, we interview George Thorogood!

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