|Was (Not Was)
Born Don Fagenson on September 13, 1952 in Detroit, Michigan Don Was grew up listening to Detroit blues and jazz icons like John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and hanging out with his childhood buddy David Weiss (a.k.a. David Was), prompting a lifelong friendship which, as he tells TM-O's Andy Basire, would ultimately see them form Was (Not Was) with vocalists Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens, carving out a particularly singular career path built around unconventional lyrics, funk-driven R&B beats, disco, rock and anything alse they fancied lobbing in the pot.
Total Music: Can you recall what prompted you and David to begin making music together, and how the original ZE Records deal came about?
Don Was: “As adolescents, David and I would drive aimlessly around Detroit trying to pick-up girls but to be honest, we rarely scored and would vent our frustration by going back to David's basement, smoking a lot of pot, grabbing some instruments and turning the tape recorder on. Jump ahead fifteen years, living a couple thousand miles apart [we] would still get together to record. During one session in 1980, we stumbled on ‘Wheel Me Out’ and knew instantly that we’d landed on something radical. I'd been listening to a lot of stuff coming out on the ZE Records label - James White & The Blacks, Kid Creole – and it seemed like a good home for us. David was working as a jazz critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner so we hatched a devious plan whereby he would call up Michael Zilkha (head of ZE) under the pretence of interviewing him for the paper. At some point in the conversation, David digressed and said ‘there's this great band from Detroit that you've gotta hear'. So we basically scammed our way into our first record deal.”
Total Music: How did Sir Harry Bowens and Sweet Pea Atkinson, become involved? And were they ever concerned about the strange roads you were taking them down?
Don Was : “Sweet Pea was working on the assembly line at the Chrysler-Jefferson plant in Detroit [and] led a Dells-style vocal group on the weekends. His band would rehearse next to the studio I worked in and one night I came out of the dark control room and saw this guy dressed to the nines in an orange fedora with matching shirt, jacket, pants, socks and handkerchief, I was kinda stoned and thought he was made of fire! we became friends and a few years later, we asked him to sing on the first Was (Not Was) album and David and I put the lyrics of ‘Out Come The Freaks’ in front of him, Sweet Pea was not impressed and he walked out. So we called another old friend, Sir Harry, to come down and sing - Harry had a gig touring with the O'Jays – and he came to the studio at 3am, his first vocal pass is the one on the record, it took about seven minutes. Neither singer has subsequently refused to sing a David Was lyric but it's not unusual to see them silently shaking their heads in the studio as they read over the lyric sheet. In addition to being two of the finest singers in the world, they also serve as our surrealism barometers.”
Total Music: Was (Not Was) lyrics have often had a distinct ‘socio-political’ edge to them, you often drape quite biting lyrical comments in an upbeat danceable cloak, is this a deliberate attempt to sugar-coat the message – or slip it through without people noticing immediately?
Don Was: “We were raised in a time when lyrics transcended fashion and became important sociological markers. You didn't just listen to ‘Street Fighting Man’, ‘It’s Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)’ or ‘Kick Out The Jams’, you tried to live those songs! As such, David and I were always kinda squeamish about writing mere exhortations to ‘get up and boogie’. It was not only trite, it was socially irresponsible. I had an English professor in 1970 who instilled the notion that, by definition, art was political. So we came up with a very deliberate plan to ‘Trojan horse' a subversive message by cloaking it in an irresistible dance groove. Of course we veered from the plan almost immediately but there are palpable artefacts of revolutionary zeal that still permeate the funk......”
Total Music: Equally there is a strong seam of absurd humour running through your work, but very few people (yourselves, Frank Zappa and Tom Waits spring to mind), handle humour in music well, why is it so hard to get that balance right do you feel?
Don Was: “Music performs a very primal function in the human psyche. It helps us identify who we are in ways that transcend the limits of conversational language. We have a song called ‘Earth To Doris’ on the What Up Dog? album, [and] there are many lines that might make you laugh but, as goofy as it is, I don't think anyone doubts that we lived that song. David's vocal rings true. I think we have been very consistent in our sensibilities over a 30 year span, hopefully our world view has expanded but, at any given moment, you knew exactly who we were. Same with Zappa and Tom. We're not joking around. We’re not comedians. The guys who recorded ‘Disco Duck’ or ‘They're Coming to Take Me Away’ are comedians. They may land a few punches but they will not be standing at the end of the 15th round.”
Total Music: Was (Not Was) have always been impossible to classify musically, do you think this affected your sales in a business obsessed by slotting music into genres to facilitate sales?
Don Was: “That stuff's only important to guys who have to organize record stores or lists on EBay. People either like a song or they don't. I've always been very pleased by our record sales, I still can't believe that so many people have gone out of their way to hear our music. Being impossible to classify has been one of our greatest accomplishments!”
Total Music: It’s been a long time since the last Was (Not Was) album, but you have obviously been very busy (and very successful), so what was the impetus for you and David to go back into the studio and record again?
Don Was: “There was a six year period where we didn't really hang out but, aside from that, we've always had something cooking. The difference this year has been that we're signed to a record company again and they gave us a deadline. We were adding new tracks right up until the album was mastered. In fact, we wrote and recorded ‘Your Luck Won't Last’ after the album was mastered! We had to go back, drop a song from the sequence and re-master. Finally the folks at Rykodisc said ‘it's being released April 8th, you're done January 8th!’. without that, we'd be messing with it for another sixteen years.”
Total Music: Kris Kristofferson sounds like he had a lot of fun on ‘Green Pills In The Dresser’, care to tell us what the hell it’s about?
Don Was: “Well, as you seem to have discerned, we weren't necessarily in our right minds that evening. Kris recorded his vocal to a sparse track of acoustic guitar and stampede sound effects - David wrote the lyrics in about twenty minutes - the title is based around a post-it note that his mother had stuck on a kitchen cabinet decades earlier: ‘green pills (are) in the dresser... I'll be back at 5’, or something along those lines. We forgot about the song for a number of years and then stumbled upon it about six months ago, when we played the finished version for Kris, he had absolutely no recollection of the session or the song. It's pretty cool though, isn't it?”
Boo! the new album is released by Rykodisc and is available now
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