We’ve Got A File On You: The B-52s’ Kate Pierson
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
At 75, Kate Pierson already has a vast and vibrant career to look back on, but she shows little intention of slowing down. While the B-52s may have wrapped their farewell tour and settled into a Las Vegas residency, Pierson has too many projects cooking to talk about in the course of our conversation. She previews a new solo album due next year, arriving on the heels of her recent Sia collab “Every Day Is Halloween,” and hints at collaborations with the Pylon Reenactment Society (the current iteration of the B-52s’ Athens comrades Pylon) and Jane Wiedlin. She also hasn’t lost her hunger for new music. One of the first things she tells me after I sit down at the Los Angeles hotel Sunset Marquis — a place with an old wild rock history long before its tamer mood today — is about seeing a punk show near her home in Woodstock recently. (Jason Momoa was also in the audience, apparently.)
While there are plenty of things on the horizon, the occasion of our meeting is a more reflective one. Over the course of an hour, Pierson and I discuss odds and ends from across the decades, from her memories of the band’s very first shows in New York City to appearing in the Flintstones movie and singing with R.E.M. and beyond.
The Ramones’ “Chop Suey” (1983)
You have all these wild collaborations. One of the first was singing on the Ramones’ “Chop Suey” with Cindy [Wilson] and Debbie Harry.
KATE PIERSON: We were very insular. We stayed in Athens and had our own little group of people. There was a melting pot of creative “happenings.” Fred [Schneider] did this event called the Final Debut, and it was just cacophonous and spontaneous, people getting up onstage. I got up onstage too, and that was almost the first iteration of the B-52s, just a big crazy jam session. The first song we ever wrote was over a jam, and this idea was floated: You could bring this tape to New York City.
We came in, we brought a tape to CBGB and they rejected it, so we went to Max’s Kansas City. Deerfrance, the booker there, offered us a gig. We drove the first time, played at Max’s, and got back in this station wagon Cindy and Ricky’s parents had loaned us. We were terrified, but Deerfrance said come back. That became this pattern: We’d drive up from Athens, play, go back and write a song and practice, go back up to New York. We were aware of the beginnings. Patti Smith. Sex Pistols. The idea of punk influenced us, the idea we could do anything. Nobody ever said “Let’s start a band.” It happened by spontaneous combustion.
When we got to this scene in New York, first they said Cindy and I were drag queens, then they said “They’re probably English,” and then they thought “They’re from Mars.” It was a shock, but we got people dancing. We were a bridge, almost, between disco [and the punk scene] — even during “I hate disco,” we loved disco. We wanted to be a dance band. In Athens, everyone loved to dance. Even up there [in New York], the leather-clad lean-against-the-wall thing, we got people dancing.
We were so welcomed. Tina [Weymouth] and Chris [Frantz] from Talking Heads. Debbie and Chris [Stein] from Blondie had us over their apartment. They had all these gold records leaning against the wall. Our then-manager Maureen [McLaughlin] brought a blender and made daiquiris. There was a buzz if a new band was around. They would try to promote it, “Let’s go see it.” It wasn’t a rivalry. We wouldn’t stay too long, but I got to see the Ramones, and Patti Smith, and Suicide, and Television. I would pogo to the Ramones, the whole set.
Iggy Pop’s “Candy” (1990)
You also had a song with Iggy Pop, which ended up being a Top 40 hit. The Ramones predated you a bit, but Iggy Pop is the godfather of all these things. Do you remember what it was like working with him?
PIERSON: Don Was was the producer, so I’m sure he was the one that recommended me as the collaborator. This was a time when Iggy was sober. I’m not aware how long it was. He was so warm and funny and regular and down to earth. He said: “Just sing whatever you want.” He didn’t give me any direction. I could change a lyric, put a harmony wherever. It came out so spontaneously. It was an easy collaboration.
David Byrne Producing The Mesopotamia EP (1982)
This was a collaboration that supposedly wasn’t as easy. The story goes that David was going to produce a B-52s album and it didn’t quite pan out, instead yielding the Mesopotamia EP.
PIERSON: That’s a fallacy. There’s some people that say we didn’t like working with David Byrne, but there’s a weird disconnect. First of all, our manager was pushing us, pushing us, to get the next record out. This happened to be the Talking Heads’ manager, Gary Kurfist. Tina and Chris introduced us to him. We felt rushed. We talk about it now, and we wish we could go back and finish. Some of the songs, like “Cake,” weren’t quite finished. He made this decision: “Let’s put out an EP and let’s get David.”
I just read Chris Frantz’s autobiography, and there’s a passage there where Gary picks up the phone and says, “They don’t want Chris Blackwell to produce, they want David!” I think Tina and Chris were always a little miffed we didn’t ask them, but this was always Gary’s idea. No one said, “Chris Blackwell is going to produce again.” It was all Gary’s manipulation.
But working with David was great. The only problem is he was also working on The Catherine Wheel, and that divided his attention. He was working all night and then coming in [to work with us] during the day. But I think he helped us open up some of our ideas. The song “Deep Sleep,” I had these lyrics [our collaborator] Robert Waldrop had written and Keith [Strickland] made an instrumental. I went in the studio and did one take. It was completely experimental. David said “That’s it, that’s good.” He was very open, funny, attentive, and creative. I don’t think anyone thought they didn’t like working with him. I don’t know how that rumor got started that it was acrimonious. It was a delight to me.
Echo & The Bunnymen Trying To Hire Kate Pierson And Cindy Wilson (Late ’80s), Forming NiNA in Japan (Late ’90s)
So tell me if this one’s a fallacy as well. There’s this story that after Ian McCulloch left Echo & The Bunnymen, the rest of the band attempted to carry on with you and Cindy as new vocalists.
PIERSON: Well, that would’ve been interesting, but no one ever mentioned it to me, as far as I can remember. I was actually offered to play with one of the Plastics, Masahide Sakama. He became a huge producer in Japan. There’s a big Japanese band, Judy And Mary, they were on hiatus. [Their vocalist] Yuki Isoya was brought in and Sakama asked me to come to Japan and collaborate, to create a supergroup.
Right, your band NiNa, in the late ’90s.
PIERSON: I loved the Plastics, they were almost like a Japanese counterpart to the B-52s — they were fun, quirky, colorful. When he asked me to come to Japan, it was like magic. Great collaboration. He sent some tracks I had to write really fast. [Takemi] Shima from the Plastics was also part of this. We did a whole album, it went to #1, we toured. We ate fantastic food.
How long were you in Japan?
PIERSON: I went over there five times. The whole span of it was maybe a year.
You kind of lived this other life outside the band for a moment.
PIERSON: It was so much fun. It was all about the food, really. [Laughs] The performances were so early. The makeup artist would strip all our hair and makeup off and we’d go to the best little noodle place wherever we were. It was a really creative time. Our manager was like, “I’m going to make you famous in America,” but it never got released in America.
Did you feel rejuvenated by having had this other experience in Japan?
PIERSON: I felt like I had found my power. I realized I could collaborate, and then I felt like I could write with anyone. I had always written songs — I had a band in high school called the Sun Donuts, kind of a folk protest band. When the B-52s got together, everything was very collaborative. For a while I felt like I couldn’t write anything without the band. During Bouncing Off The Satellites, Ricky and Keith proposed that Fred and I write a couple songs on our own. This floored me. I wrote the song “Housework,” and Fred wrote “Juicy Jungle.” That was a dark moment. We felt like, “Why is this happening? Why are we being marginalized out of the band?” Of course, in hindsight, Ricky was ill. I don’t think he knew he had AIDS, but I think it was too much for him to think about writing all of this. It’s wonderful to write together but it’s a painstaking process. It was easier for him to write with Keith and have Cindy sing. I realized a long time later that that’s why that happened.
“Summer Of Love” (1986)
One of my favorite B-52s songs is actually on that album, “Summer Of Love.” I know it’s a conflicted era. It’s the end of one thing and Cosmic Thing was something else.
PIERSON: “Summer Of Love” was when we came back together after we wrote separately. Everything was fine again. We wrote “Summer Of Love” and the rest of the album. Ricky recorded it and we thought we had this great record. Warner Bros. said “This is great, but can you go back and write a hit.” They had never tried to intervene because they were like “We don’t know what they are, but it’s working, so let’s leave them alone.” This really threw us for a loop.
By this time Ricky was feeling very ill. So we were jamming and trying to write a hit, which was ridiculous because we never tried to write anything radio-friendly. We believed what we wrote from our hearts, and what made us laugh and dance and was poignant to us, was the best way to write. We finished it up, anyway, and I thought “Summer Of Love” was one of our best songs. It was racing up the dance charts, and Steve Baker, who signed us, was running up and down the halls saying, “This is a hit!” But the record company figured, “We’re done.” After Ricky died, they figured we wouldn’t tour, so let’s just drop this whole album. Fred and I did some press to promote it, but we pretty much folded in grief.
Appearing As The BC-52’s In The Flintstones Movie (1994)
After Cosmic Thing, you had all these pop culture crossovers in the ’90s. A lot of Nickelodeon and children’s stuff: You acted in The Adventures Of Pete And Pete, you and Fred did the Rocko’s Modern Life theme. My favorite of these is that you appeared as the “BC-52’s” in the Flintstones movie.
PIERSON: That was amazing. Cindy had quit the band by then. We didn’t know if it was a break or what. After Cosmic Thing she felt like she wanted to end on a high point, start a family. So she wasn’t in it, but Fred and I had a blast. We got to ride in one of those little Flintstones cars where you move it with your feet. The set was in some quarry outside of LA. You don’t even realize it in the movie. The details and all the little names on everything. I remember being in the dressing room with Rosie O’Donnell, she was just cracking me up. All the cast were nice to us, and we had these great outfits. We did “The Bedrock Twitch” and the Flintstones theme. I wish we could do that live. That’s one song where some part of our audience only knows that song, even more than “Love Shack.”
I did a similar interview with Mark Mothersbaugh last year, and we talked a lot about the music he did for Rugrats. I thought it was funny these arty ’70s bands I love now were responsible for a lot of the sounds I heard as a child in the ’90s. Like Devo and the B-52s have some twisted things to them, but then I guess so did Nickelodeon at the time.
PIERSON: Yeah, there were some stoners in there for sure. I think there’s this perception of us and Devo probably as “cartoonish” bands. We tried to counteract that, but I guess we didn’t so much by being in The Flintstones. [Laughs] I think the appeal to children of the B-52s is amazing. So many parents told me their kids demanded to hear “Planet Claire” or “Rock Lobster,” that they’d have to play it over and over until they lost their minds. Kids know what’s good.
Working With Sia For Guitars And Microphones (2015)
You mentioned finding your “power” in collaboration. Some years later, you made your solo debut and co-wrote music with Sia.
PIERSON: When I started writing solo stuff, the collaborations came easy. I met Sia through our friends, this band Betty. They introduced my wife Monica and I to Sia. We just hit it off. Monica always knew it was my dream to do a solo album, and I was always talking about it, but it always seemed like the B-52s were doing something. It was hard to find a space. I almost felt like I couldn’t until I had some kind of release from the B-52s. Almost like you can’t leave your family until they allow you. There was a break. Maybe Fred was doing a solo album. We would see each other, but as far as going to write another album, the stars have to align. We didn’t all live in the same place and everyone had to be into it. This was a time we weren’t. Monica asked Sia if she could work with me. We flew to LA with our dogs. I started doing these writing sessions with Sia. She started blowing up, and I started doing some of these sessions on my own. It seemed like it almost always worked.
Are there other young artists you’d like to work with now?
PIERSON: I was just thinking about Dolly Parton and her rock album. Obviously she reached out to the big guns. I love Brandi Carlisle.
REM’s “Me In Honey” (1991)
You sing on several songs from the Out Of Time era. This is one of my favorite R.E.M. songs, but it’s just occurring to me now that the same way you singing with the Ramones was like joining up with slightly older siblings, I guess you could’ve been that for R.E.M.
PIERSON: I can’t remember whether we were playing Radio City or they were. All I remember is Michael Stipe and I crossed paths, and he said, “Do you want to sing on our next album?” and I said “Yes!” as I was going down this amazing staircase at Radio City. We recorded at Prince’s studio in Minnesota. Just like the thing with Iggy, they gave me complete freedom. Whatever I did, they said, “Yeah, that’s great.” They didn’t restrict me. They trusted my harmony, what I did. They wanted me to be on it because of how I sing, rather than trying to manipulate it.
It was deep snow, and Michael and I had a snowball fight. It was a very joyful experience, and we kept thinking we’d meet Prince. It was rumored that Apollonia and Prince were in the building, but we never did meet them. I love R.E.M. so much, and I’ve always said if I had a male voice, it would be Michael Stipe’s voice.
Cosmic Thing (1989)
That era for R.E.M. is akin to what had been happening for the B-52s after Cosmic Thing, that whole moment when the alternative broke into the mainstream. Many of those groups were ’80s underground artists, but you guys went all the way back to the punk era. Do you remember what was going through your head when, suddenly, “Roam” and “Love Shack” were climbing up the charts?
PIERSON: R.E.M. came into the studio when we were recording “Love Shack.” It was one of those songs we weren’t even sure was going to make the album. Once we finished it, they said, “That’s a hit, that’s a hit!” It didn’t happen all at once. It was an escalating shot at fame. A slow process of going from the bus to the plane to the rocket ship. I remember getting back together and Keith playing the music for the band and us agreeing we wanted to do it. Part of the motivation for it was healing. We realized after Ricky’s death, we had so much power and love and needed to be together to heal. Writing music together I felt, in a lot of ways, conjured Ricky’s presence back into the band. I almost felt like he was there guiding us in some way, because a lot of the songs referred back to the time we were back in Athens — like “Dry County” and “Deadbeat Club.”
At this point, Keith was doing all the instrumentation and he was living full-time in Woodstock. We lived across from each other on this pond, and I’d row my canoe over to his house and one day he played me some music. I also had a place in the city, and for some reason we decided to work in this studio way down in the Financial District in Manhattan. We made a promise: This was not going to be anything where we tried to make a hit. This would be from our hearts, we’d pour our souls into this. We did a lot of talking in these sessions.
[After Cosmic Thing came out] we started playing in clubs, doing our usual thing. Now we’re getting theaters, and we’re on a bus tour. And by the end we were in these big outdoor sheds. The most interesting and satisfying thing to get out of it was having people hear our music. It wasn’t like “Oh, we’re famous now.” It was having a wide audience. I remember hearing U2 say, “That’s what we want, people to hear it.” It started with college radio. It was still weird, “Love Shack” was still a weird song. The songs were not the usual pop format. We didn’t hobnob with record executives much, but one time we went to Mo Ostin’s house and he told me “I know we kind of blew it with Bouncing Off The Satellites.” I think the label really got behind this. Those songs caught on like wildfire.