Exclusive: Kate Pierson on Breaking Away from the B-52's
Finding out that Kate Pierson dressed the exact same way in person as she has in the plethora of colorfully zany music videos and live performances throughout her career as a lead singer of The B-52’s was an immense relief for me. At the age of 67 she still exudes the same aesthetic of a John Waters/Federico Fellini double feature about space vixens is comforting to say the least. This reaffirms that little has changed for the members of the new wave outfit often referred to as ‘America’s favorite party band.’
But aesthetics aside, much has changed for Pierson. For the first time in her storied career, she has released a solo album without any collaboration with her fellow 52’s. The result is a record of pitch-perfect pop-rock titled Guitars & Microphones, an album co-written with the enigmatic Sia. The subject matter is vastly different from the tongue-in-cheek dance of her previous band, but it showcases what has always been her most valuable asset—her colossal voice. In this sense she reminds me of Stevie Nicks, a woman whose magnanimous vocal power has only grown in strength and clarity over the years, a comparison that causes her to blush when I mention it.
As we sit in the corner of a bar in her hotel’s basement peering over our cocktail menus, I try to deconstruct a seemingly simple question with her—‘why now?’ In a career that has seen highs, lows, and everything in between, what is left unsaid? “With The B-52’s I’m compelled to dance, it’s what we’ve always done,” she tells me, “But this record…it’s about being less in motion and focusing more. I have so many emotions that I need to convey that it ends up being a very autobiographical experience.” Milk Made’s Jake Boyer chatted with Pierson about some of the stories that emerge in her debut, her legacy within the queer community, and who she’s rooting for on this season of Game of Thrones.
I’m sure you’ve been asked this in just about every interview this year but—
Why did it take so long? (laughs)
I had to answer that question a few times in a real roundabout way before I really discovered myself why it took so long and it’s really…the real reason is that I gave myself permission to do it. Because The B-52’s are so connected and well-balanced and everyone has this equal part in it, you might say co-dependent on each other in some ways, so stepping out and actually putting something out was a big deal! It always took back burner. I had tried to put it out around 2007, but the band revved back up with the Funplex record, so this time I felt like I had to get it out there. And the band had stopped touring so much so it was an opportunity to go for it. It seemed like everyone was relaxing, and hence it was the right time for it.
Because everyone had been so close and together throughout your history, you never felt like you could’ve made this earlier?
I had the time, but I never let it take precedence. I wrote stuff, and I did shows with a group called The Chanteuse Club where we performed at Joe’s Pub just singing with an acoustic arrangement. Each time we did that I would write new songs, and I had so many songs that I wanted to get out there. I don’t know–I had the time, I had the songs, I just couldn’t get it out into the world. And I think that’s hard. That’s what stops most creative people, when they make something and they can’t launch it. And when I first tried to put it out it was a time when the record companies were all shifting and systems were collapsing. Things were really in flux. And now there’s all these other opportunities of how one can release their work.
You and fellow 52 girl Cindy are usually credited with inventing thrift-store chic…is that an accurate accolade to bestow on you?
I would be very proud to own that, but I think it was happening in every little town. It was brewing, you could say. But I think we popularized it for sure. Looking back on it, we did two sets at CBGB’s and the people in New York didn’t really know what to do with us. We all knew we were weird, and we often wondered whether anyone would like us. But everybody went crazy and danced, and that was the way it was. When we played Saturday Night Live people thought we were from outer space, or that all of us were drag queens. No one could believe that we were from little old Athens, GA.
Your manager is also your life partner, which I find so interesting. Is that ever a difficult working relationship?
Sometimes. We also run our motel together, called the Lazy Meadow. I had initially bought the property, and Monica was my friend at the time, and I had asked her to help me with the renovations. I didn’t know how to get it up and running as a business. We got together as lovers but I had first hired her to help me, then we became equal partners, in every sense of the word. It works great, but the managing part is difficult. But of course, no one cares as much as Monica. It’s good we have a common goal like that. And I think we’re able to separate our evenings watching Game of Thrones from our days organizing band rehearsals pretty well.
Who are you rooting for on ‘Game of Thrones’?
Well I’m with everyone else, I want to see Daenerys Targaryen kick ass with those freaking dragons. Just slay them all! I want her to breathe fire on every character and have done with it. That’s where it seems to be leading at least. I’d like to keep my future open to be a TV critic actually.
Which reminds me, how did you cross paths with Fred Armisen for the ‘Mister Sister’ video?
Well Fred called me up, he’s a musician and a big B-52’s fan, and he asked me to be on Portlandia, which is a show that I love. I was dying to be on it. It was the night before the Emmy’s and they asked…can you be in Portland tomorrow? Unfortunately it just didn’t work out at the time but we countered his offer by asking, do you want to be in our video? And he came on up and did it! But if all works out I hope to be on the next season of Portlandia.
The B-52’s have always had such a strong fanbase within the LGBT community, and much has been written about your queer legacy. Were you all aware of this factor throughout the band’s history?
Being in Athens, it wasn’t queer to be queer. We were a raggle-taggle group of outsiders for sure, but being gay wasn’t a big deal. There was the hippie mentality that had filtered down to the South a little late, so it was cool to smoke pot and be gay amongst a certain crowd. And Fred (Schneider) used to work at a health food restaurant and wear gowns sometimes, or run down the street wearing white lipstick. Not even doing drag, just general craziness. There was a lot of freedom in Athens, and we had an awareness of our ‘camp sensibility.’ We were never too self-critical or self-aware about it. We were more into channeling a spirit of extra-terrestrial love. So we never thought about ourselves as a gay band, but we had those sensibilities for sure.
I’m curious, what are some more examples of this ‘general craziness’ you mentioned?
Well back in the day we had some wild, wild nights. One summer the band rented this lake house in a town called Mahopac in upstate New York. And one night we threw a party for my birthday, but I spent the whole night saving my friends. There was a fire that broke out and I had to move people who were passed out on the floor next to it, and there were some kids who went out on a boat in the lake and couldn’t make it back in, and someone had passed out in my room that I had to go take care of. And all of this after having four shots of tequila! We were always doing crazy stuff. When the band first started playing together we would run out naked during rainstorms wrapped in bed sheets and frolic. You name it, we did it.
So you’re still touring with The B-52’s, but you have all these solo shows coming up, your first ones ever. How different is that dynamic for you?
It’s funny because in The B-52’s…we never have a leader. It’s very egalitarian in that way. Is it called a quorum when everyone has to agree? We have to have a quorum on everything. If one person votes ‘no’ than we don’t do it. So it stalls things. It can be slow, but it’s the reason we stay together. This sort of balance that we have…if anyone steps out than it creates a real dynamic of tension. Playing with the B-52’s is and has always been a fun time, but playing my solo live…it’s thrilling. Musically with the B-52’s we have our drummer/guitarist Keith Strickland as our musical director, so to all of the sudden be in charge of it all…it’s thrilling but also a little daunting.
The B-52’s have always made it clear that their mission was to get people to ‘dance their asses off,’ but what do you, as Kate Pierson, hope to convey to your audience? What is your artistic mission?
When I saw Sia live, and this is before we started writing together, she just stood there. I found out later it was because of her shoes, but watching her just stand there in her fabulous outfit of a dress made of knit vaginas, it was so powerful. You could feel her voice emanating out of her, you could almost see it. And that really inspired me! I wanted to be less in motion and focus more, and I’m playing guitar too, which is just a whole different thing. People are still dancing when I play the new material but mostly they’re being attentive. It’s more focused and autobiographical, and it’s about conveying this emotion out of me which people really seem to feel.
Kate Pierson photographed exclusively for Milk Made by Andrew Boyle
Download ‘Guitars & Microphones’ here