Previously Unpublished: An Interview with Nu Shooz
I was trying to figure out exactly when I did this interview with Valerie Day and John Smith of Nu Shooz, and I’d guessed from the context of the conversation that it was most likely in the last quarter of 2015, since we started out talking about the Target commercial that featured a cover of “I Can’t Wait” by Icona Pop and ?uestlove, which debuted in October 2015. But then as the conversation progressed, I made a remark that reminded me that I’d hooked up with the band via Twitter, which enabled me to date the interview specifically: it took place on November 16, 2015.
Why didn’t it run? I think it was because the original plan had been to pen a Buzzfeed piece about “I Can’t Wait,” but as we got into the holiday season, I ended up having holiday deadlines that took precedence. By the time I was in a position to transcribe the interview, the Buzzfeed piece wasn’t as timely anymore, so it was just set aside, and it wasn’t long after that when I stopped doing Buzzfeed pieces altogether, so it’s just been sitting untranscribed on my hard drive…until now.
Before you dive headlong into reading, let me just offer a belated apology to Valerie and John, who - as you’ll soon see - were absolutely delightful. But the good news is, they’re still busy making and playing music, so check ‘em out at NuShoozMusic.com and find out what they’ve been up to!
You guys are definitely getting a ton of new exposure thanks to the Target commercials featuring "I Can't Wait."
Valerie Day: I know, right? It's amazing!
John Smith: Yeah, we've got relatives calling up that we haven't seen since the '60s! [Laughs.] That's true! No exaggeration!
As soon as I had the idea to talk to the two of you, I knew I wanted do a piece that explores more than just "I Can't Wait," to kind of educate people a bit more about the band...and that leads us straight into this obligatory question: what's the secret origin of Nu Shooz? You two obviously had a connection, but how did the group come together in the first place?
John: Well, when we started out in the late '70s, Valerie was playing in an African band and I was playing in a salsa band, but then I went back to New York and saw a real salsa band, and I went, "You know what? I'm not Puerto Rican, and I'm not Cuban. I'm gonna go home and start something American." It took a couple of years, but in two years we were one of the top bands in Portland, which was really a thrill, I've got to say. So that's the short version.
My understanding - if you can trust Wikipedia, which you often can't - that the original lineup of Nu Shooz actually had twelve members.
John: Yeah, that's right! We had four horns and three back-up singers...and that'll eat up a lot of the twelve right there! [Laughs.]
Valerie: Actually, though, the first band was a four-piece. The very, very first band.
John: Yeah, and we limped along as a four-piece for a year. But I kind of don't count that, because the real Nu Shooz happened when we added the horns.
Valerie: A lot of people don't know there were two other lead singers before me. Or maybe three, if you're counting that four-piece. Because Larry Haggin sang a lot of tunes, and then... Oh, the drummer's wife.
John: Oh, yeah, that doesn't count.
Valerie: It kind of does!
John: She didn't make more than two gigs before she quit.
Valerie: Right, she had terrible performance anxiety.
John: She had to go throw up before she sang.
Valerie: Oh, it was awful. Poor thing! And then there was a male lead singer for...a couple of years? How long was David Musser in the band?
John: Um... Three years, almost.
Valerie: Yeah, and he looks a little bit like Daryl Hall, and John looked a little bit like John Oates, so they were, like, the Daryl Hall and John Oates of Portland.
John: Yeah, which was... With all due respect, it's hard to get pinned with anything like that. I had a mustache, so people would say, "Oh, you sound like Carlos Santana!" I didn't sound like Carlos Santana. I had a frickin' mustache. Go away! [Laughs.] And the Hall and Oates thing was kind of annoying like that, too. But anyway, from these spotty beginnings... We played a lot of Tower of Power and Earth, Wind and Fire in those days, and we could really play that stuff, too.
I know you had a couple of releases before Poolside. When you first took to the studio to record Can ‘t Turn It Off, was it a duck-to-water situation, or did you kind of have to find your way?
John: Oh, we definitely had to find our way. [Laughs.] On the car in the way to the studio, I was reading this book called Modern Recording Techniques.
Valerie: [Laughs.] I never heard that story!
John: Yeah, this is for real. Somebody gave me this book, and I'm trying to cram this stuff into my head on the way to the studio.
Valerie: That's hilarious, John!
John: Our first album, it was called Can't Turn It Off, and it was really us trying so hard to be Steely Dan and missing by a mile. And then the second record was called Tha's Right, and that had the American version of "I Can't Wait" on it. And by then we were starting to be more comfortable in the studio. But that was, like, three years later.
Valerie: Yeah, I think when we really got comfortable in the studio, though, was when we were making our last record for Atlantic, the one that never got released.
John: Eat and Run.
Valerie: Yeah, and we had a home studio in our manager's home, and we worked up there I think five days a week for almost four years. I mean, we were recording a lot. That's when I got comfortable in the studio...but, actually, that's not even true. I think I'm more comfortable in the studio now, all these years later. It's, like, every record you make is like spinning another degree, and by the time you're done doing it, you're, like, "Oh! Let's make another one, because now I know what I'm doing!" [Laughs.]
John: Yeah, that's true! I don't know, I learned the most about recording from buying a little plastic 4-track machine and actually getting my own hands onto the knob.
Valerie: As a producer, though, John, who do you feel like you learned the most from? [Jeff] Lorber?
John: Yeah, working with Jeff Lorber, that's the first time I ever worked with a real producer, who'd made a bunch of records.
I was going to ask, actually, how that came about. Was that just the Atlantic connection?
John: Well, no, actually. It was because he was from Portland. Or Vancouver, Washington, rather, which is just across the Columbia River. So when "I Can't Wait" became a hit and we got signed to Atlantic, somebody suggested, "Oh, why don't you go work with Jeff Lorber?" Who by that time was one of big triple-scale session guys in L.A. And we went into his studio, and it was like when Dorothy comes out of the house into Oz and everything's in color and the Munchkins are singing from the bushes. [Laughs.] It was like that. It was magic. I was, like, "Whoa! Really?!"
So how did the Atlantic Records deal come about? Did they come looking for you, or did you guys go shopping for a deal at a certain point?
[At this question, Valerie almost chokes on the sharp laugh that emerges from her.]
John: Don't die.
Clearly, that question was from someone who has no first-hand experience with record deals.
Valerie: [Laughs.] Yeah, right? Well, we tried really hard to get a record deal. When "I Can't Wait" was played on Z100 in Portland, which was a total fluke in and of itself... I don't know if you've read that story - it's probably not in the Wikipedia thing - but the whole thing started when we put out that little cassette, That's Great, and the American mix of "I Can't Wait" was on that...although we didn't call it the American mix at the time because there were no other mixes at the time! But a local writer named DeTillio wrote an article that basically said, "This is a great recording, it's too bad that local radio doesn't play local bands." And the Z100 morning show person, Gary Bryan, he read the article over the air and said, "Hey, if Nu Shooz is listening, come on down! Bring that cassette, and we'll play something off of it!"
So our manager happened to be up that morning, which is kind of a miracle in and of itself, because we were always sleeping in until 12 because we got home at 4, and he hopped on his Vespa and went down there. They picked "I Can't Wait" off of the cassette to play, and when they played it, the phones lit up. And it was from there that it became a regional hit...and we went to every major label, and they all turned us down, because they said, "You're from Portland, Oregon? Where is that?"
John: "It's a regional thing."
Valerie: Yeah. "This is just a regional thing. It can't be for real." Then when nothing was happening with a major label, this DJ subscription record label called Hot Tracks got in touch with us and asked if they could put a longer mix on their DJ subscription record and send it out to, like, 200 DJs or whatever. One of those records made it to Holland, where Injection Records asked a Dutch remixer named Peter Slaghuis to remix the record. It turns out - and we just found this out recently - that he didn't really like the song, so he didn't do very much to it. He basically added the bit that we call the barking seal. [Laughs.] And that record made it back to New York as an import and just started going crazy in dance clubs. And that's where Atlantic found us, and that's how we ended up getting a singles deal with them first. And then as the record grew, they finally gave us an album deal in January 1986.
John: Yeah, try duplicating that in the lab! [Laughs.]
Valerie: Right! People say, "How do you make it in the music business?"
John: Okay, here's what you do...
"Follow these instructions precisely."
Valerie: It works every time! [Laughs.]
"Remember: your remixer must be Dutch."
Valerie: Well, when we went back to New York to make the record and play in the clubs back there, people thought we were Dutch. It was hilarious!
So when you entered the studio to record your Atlantic debut, Poolside, did you feel any particular sense of pressure because, oh, now we have to deliver a major label album?
John: No, because we were so clueless about show business in general, and the music business in particular, and we had this sort of naïve, ignorant faith in ourselves and in the Nu Shooz sound, which we had been pounding out in the clubs five nights a week for four hours a night for years.
Valerie: Seven years.
John: Seven years! So because of all that, we were just, like, "Hey, we're Nu Shooz!" And I've got to say that we never got any kind of pressure from the label, because they didn't know what to do with a bunch of hippies from the west that had invaded their Black Music department. They really did not know what to do with us, so they gave us budgets and let us go off back to the west coast and muddle around until we had something to hand in. Really, this is the literal truth!
We were so ignorant of the music business that when we got a Grammy nomination in '87, we didn't really know what a Grammy was. [Laughs.] Our Grammy called us up and said, "Hey, you've been nominated for a Grammy!" And I was, like, "Oh, that's nice. Talk to you later!" But then all the local TV stations started calling up, and we're, like, "Hey, maybe this is a big deal!" For instance, we never tried to make another song like "I Can't Wait." It was, like, "Oh, this record's gonna be jazzy...and this one's gonna be like Lowell George!" We always just followed our impulses and...we weren't oblivious to fashion, but whatever everybody was doing, I would run from that.
So what were your thoughts about the video for "I Can't Wait"? You certainly had a great director in Jim Blashfield, who had a lot of solid street cred from having directed the video for Talking Heads' "And She Was."
John: He did a lot of stuff. A little later he did Michael Jackson's "Leave Me Alone." And he's another guy who lived in Portland, so it was an easy call. But it turned out that... [Hesitates.] You know, Nu Shooz... We never wanted to be literal. I was sort of aghast when they put shoes in the second video, because we never had a shoe on any of our graphics. We were just totally non-literal. So when Jim Blashfield did the first video, he was the perfect guy, because he was as psychedelic as we were, and as non-literal, and he went into a soundstage and just improvised that whole thing.
Valerie: Actually, we found this out years later, because Jim lives in Portland and we've become friends, which is really a wonderful thing, because he's a very iconoclastic guy. [Pauses.] Is that the right word?
John: That'll do!
Valerie: Anyway, we found out that when he went to pick up different objects that he just thought might be cool in the video, and he went to get the doghouse... That was his neighbor's doghouse, and he ended up bringing the dog with him! [Laughs.]
John: And the dog was great in it!
Valerie: I know! He's, like, the star of the video, that dog in sunglasses!
John: And Jim had the sense to just have Valerie in it, which I thought was a great decision. I didn't want to be in any videos anyway, and... You know, leave the rest of the band out, because let's face it: musicians generally look dorky. [Laughs.]
Valerie: My favorite thing about the video is that I think I'm the only '80s pop singer doing small appliance repair in their video, and that just really thrills me still.
John: That's probably true!
I dunno, I feel like Madonna may have done it at some point - she did pretty much everything else - but I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.
Valerie: I'll have to check that out. [Laughs.]
Your second single was "Point of No Return." Was that your pick or the label's pick?
John: God, I couldn't tell you.
Valerie: I don't remember, either!
John: You know, I was listening to this great Chrissie Hynde interview, and she did not like the song "Brass in Pocket," which was a huge hit for her and the Pretenders. I've gotta say: I don't really like "Point of No Return" that much. [Laughs.] And for the same reason! She said that, as a songwriter, you start out with an intention, and either the song you write lives up to it or doesn't. I never felt like "Point of No Return" was finished. But somehow that was put out as the second single, and people love it to this day. It's a huge hit whenever we play it.
Well, you got a Shep Pettibone remix for it. That's a badge of honor for any song of the late '80s and early '90s.
I can't tell if there's any enthusiasm there or not.
John and Valerie [Simultaneously.] Welllllll...
That reaction coupled with the previous responses speaks volumes.
Valerie: We like to be positive.
John: Yeah, so, you know... [Long pause.] Yeah.
I got it.
John: Yeah, I don't know. It's just... We were jazz hippies, you know? So the remix thing was, like, "What? You're doing what?!" [Laughs.] So...I don't know. The video thing and the remix thing - but especially the video thing - I feel like swept over the music business and made it so that the emphasis was more on being a fashion model than being a musician, and... I don't know, I felt it from the bandstand.
I went to a Madonna concert around early 1986, and everybody was just staring at the Jumbotron. And that's sort of a metaphor for what happened to music in the '80s. But it was also a real exciting time because of all the machinery that was suddenly available, all the MIDI synths and computer stuff. It was a great time to be a musician. But it was an even better time to be a fashion model. [Laughs.]
On Poolside, I don't know how much he was on it, but I know Tchad Blake was involved in some capacity.
Valerie: How do you know Tchad Blake?
Mostly because it seems like he was on every other album I bought in the '80s and '90s, either as an engineer or a producer.
Valerie: [Laughs.] Yeah, right?
John: Okay, so now we'll respond enthusiastically! [Laughs.] Tchad Blake was amazing. When Warner Brothers wanted to get rid of somebody, if you got high up the ladder on the A&R chain, they would give you a demo deal so that then they could turn you down. So Warner Brothers gave us $5,000 to go into the studio.
We went into Sunset Sound Factory down in L.A. - which was thrilling because, y'know, a lot of records were made there - and we worked with Shep Pettibone. And the whole time Tchad's experimenting while we're recording. He's doing things like sending the snare drum through a delay, through a noise gate, into the television set. [Laughs.] So that was pretty amazing, hanging out with him. You know, he'll always be 24 years old in my mind, even though that was, what, 30-35 years ago? I still picture young Tchad Blake plugging weird things into other weird things.
And when we walked into that studio, he said, "Where's your sequencer?" And we said, "What's a sequencer?" Because we hadn't gotten into music computers yet, so that was all played. He was definitely ahead of the curve, definitely enthusiastic, and just amazing. It doesn't surprise me that he's had an incredible career. He's kind of like a modern-day Brian Eno.
Valerie: Doesn't he live in, like, a castle in England or Scotland or something?
John: He's got a sort of castle in England, with guest houses and a river. [Laughs.]
Must be nice.
So I know you said your interest in your Grammy nomination was negligible...
John: Well, I wouldn't say our interest was negligible.
Sorry, I guess it was more that your knowledge about the Grammys was negligible.
John: Yeah, it shows how little we knew about the music business, because... Really, you go after the things you care about, and I had a jazz-guy kind of interest in arranging, so I was just all about the horns and the chords and that kind of stuff. And it took years and years to learn what lyrics are supposed to be for and stuff like that.
Valerie: I think a lot of where we came from had to do with me growing up in Portland and putting the band together there. We didn't have the money to buy records, and there weren't radio stations around here that played the kind of music we loved. There was one radio show that we would tape whenever it was on - and when we thought of it! That was J.W. Friday, who had a radio show on a little public radio station called KBOO here. And whenever John would go back to L.A. to visit his mom or whatever, he'd record the radio down there. And that was sort of how we got influenced! The songs that were on those particular radio shows at that moment were the ones that we listened to over and over.
John: Yeah, it's interesting that you point that out. People take it for granted that they have access to every record ever made now. You can just go, "Oh, that one," and type it into YouTube and find it.
Valerie: And not only do you have access to every record ever made, but you have a connection to the people who made those records, because you can go find out who made the record and go see them perform in some way.
Or you can find them on Twitter and send them a message and set up an interview.
Valerie: Exactly! [Laughs.]
John: Right, that's true!
Hey, I have long said that I wouldn't have a career if it wasn't for the internet.
Valerie: But that's cool! That's the good part of the internet, right? And there's all these records where I never had any connection to the band because I never knew who did them, because a lot of times on the radio they would never even announce who the band was. They were supposed to, but they often didn't.
John: You know, I say sometimes that the Nu Shooz sound was based on about six records that we had. Maybe the biggest one of those was The Message, by Grandmaster Flash. Not just the song, but the album. I think every kick and snare part on that record ended up in a Nu Shooz song. [Laughs.]
So did you guys actually attend the Grammy Awards that year?
Valerie: Yeah, by then we figured out that they were kind of important. [Laughs.] But we knew Bruce Hornsby was going to win, because you can just kind of tell these things. When you see all the nominees, you go, "Okay, that's who America's going to pick."
John: That's who the voters, who skew older than the public, are going to pick.
Valerie: Yeah, so we realized that he was probably going to win, so our line to the press was, "Well, you know, we're writing Bruce Hornsby's acceptance speech." But there was that moment right before they read the name of the winner that we both were, like, "Wow, we didn't wear any deodorant, did we?" [Laughs.]
John: And I've gotta tell ya, the Grammy Awards were never as good as that again, because if you're nominated, it just heightens the whole thing and makes the show better.
Did you have any career-high experiences or meet anybody you didn't expect to meet while you were there?
John: At the Grammys? No, that was pretty much a whirlwind, you know? I remember colors. [Laughs.] And some really great classical guitar got up and played. But that's about it. Oh, I remember seeing Full Force there.
Valerie: At the after-parties, though, we were in the same room as Whitney Houston. We didn't get introduced to her, but that was still pretty cool.
John: Oh, I met Micky Dolenz at that party! And I'm a big Monkees fan. Huge Monkees fan . I think those are great records.
So how was the experience of putting together the second album, Told U So, given that you were coming off a hit?
John: Um... There was no pressure. If you listen to that record, there's no attempt to recreate "I Can't Wait" on it. That was really my Lowell George period, because I was really into him.
Valerie: [Sarcastically. ] And I sound so much like him.
John: Yeah, that was sort of wandering in the forest. [Laughs.] But, really, we weren't that into dance music, per se. Like, we didn't come out of the four-on-the-floor club scene.
Valerie: There wasn't a four-on-the-floor club scene in Portland at that point!
John: And we were busy playing! I mean, the last thing you want to do after playing five nights is go out! So Told U So... We made the record twice. Because it just didn't come out right the first time. So we went to L.A. and redid the whole thing in a couple of weeks.
Valerie: With Jeff Lorber.
John: Yeah. So it was not the funnest time... But, yeah, no label pressure. I can't blame them for anything.
Valerie: Would you say that there was any, uh, internal pressure?
John: Uh... [Laughs nervously.] Internal pressure like... Yeah, I don't know, it's like I said before about Chrissie Hynde: you start out writing a song, and either it achieves its potential or doesn't. The one good thing...
We had the single "Should I Say Yes" on that record, and I'm real proud of that. I think that was a great song, and the record did it justice. Because a single... I hate that word "single.” A record of a song is a combination of the song, the singer, the recording of it, and the music business at that time. Like, maybe the Monkees wouldn't get a hit with "I'm a Believer" now because the business is different. But "Should I Say Yes," that came together, all those aspects. It was perfect for the singer, the recording of it was great, the production was good, and it got on the radio because of the business.
I noticed - and Poolside did this as well - that Told U So actually charted higher on the R&B chart than on the Billboard 200, which might surprise some people...although given that you had an R&B background insofar as your sound goes, it really shouldn't be all that surprising.
John: Yeah, you know, I feel like... Well, look, even though I say we weren't clubby people, I feel like we had R&B credibility. Because I grew up in Los Angeles - San Pedro, specifically, the port of Los Angeles - and there was the best Black radio in the world there, so from age 11 to, like, 19, I was really exposed to soul music in a big way. So I feel like that's not very much of a stretch for us to finally make it on the Black charts. Maybe there is some justice in the universe!
How was it working with David Z on Told U So?
John: Um... He's a very funny guy. And we love David Z! We were just... We kind of worked at cross purposes, because we were just getting into the whole computer music thing, because of working with Lorber on the first record, and David Z was all about having a posse of humans that would play everything. In Minneapolis there was, like, this inner circle of people. The Peterson brothers were in The Time, so they worked with Prince and they played on a lot of his records. It was like the Prince cartel out there. So our ways of working didn't really mesh that much. But we love him. He's great. And I learned a lot of studio tricks from him. Because David Z was primarily a genius engineer. And here's a little-known fact about David Z: he was in the band Lipps Inc., that made "Funky Town." I actually used that guitar that goes "bang-a-lang" on "Funky Town."
The thing I didn't know about him until I was prepping for this interview is that he co-wrote a song on Gram Parsons' first album.
Valerie: Oh, wow!
John: I didn't know that. That's amazing! Well, he ended up living in Nashville and doing a lot of country stuff in the '90s.
He certainly had the background for it.
John: Yeah, he's a real character. And a genius engineer.
Earlier you mentioned Eat and Run and how it was never released by Atlantic. What was the story there? Did they just say, "Sorry"?
John: Well, we spent too long making the record, probably. Like, we spent four years making it. It was the same kind of identity crisis / mudpuddle that Told U So had been, but a little worse. But by the time four years goes by, everybody who was there when you were signed is gone, so we were assigned at that point to a couple of people who were, like, "What the hell is this?" [Laughs.] And they were really building their Black Music department into something more adult, something more aimed at 40-year-old Black men and stuff. So they really didn't know what to do with us. So we finished the record, and...they just didn't put it on the schedule.
Valerie: They released a single (“Time Will Tell”), and it didn't do well. It was the only song on the record that we didn't write. So that was a bummer, and...that was kind of it. We were, like, "All right, so they didn't release the record." Our manager came to us and said, "Do you want me to try and find you another record deal?" And we were, like, "No, this is not fun anymore...and it hasn't been fun for awhile. Let's do other music and start a family and just live life. Because life is good!"
John: And luckily that other music came right along. The minute we shut down Nu Shooz, I fell into advertising, Valerie started singing with big bands and small jazz groups and also got a lot of session work as a percussionist. It was the go-go '90s by then, and I was working 70 hours a week doing commercials, which was really great after writing for the same band for years, because the music was different every week, and it had to be finished. You couldn't spend four years making a 30-second spot for aspirin. [Laughs.] It was a different kind of music every day! "Write a string quartet." "Do banjos on the Mississippi!"
Valerie: It gave us a chance to work with different people and in different settings, and I think it was good for our relationship in that way. Our creative relationship, because we'd been working together for a long time before that.
So whatever happened to the rest of Eat and Run? Did any of it end up on later Nu Shooz albums, or is it still just sitting in the Atlantic Records vault?
John: Oh, we took a big handful of the demos that were rejected by Atlantic and put out a record a couple of years ago called Kung Pao Kitchen, which is '80s-sounding but... I don't know, I went in, and some songs have that cluttery '80s sound, you know? Some songs would have, like, four high-hat parts on it and stuff. And '80s stuff is kind of brittle-sounding, so we warmed it up and cleaned it out a little bit but stayed true to the era. So some of that music is available. But Eat and Run is a vastly different record from Kung Pao Kitchen.
Do you think the potential is there for it to ever be issued? Is it still something that Atlantic owns?
John: Yeah, I think Atlantic owns it.
Valerie: As far as it being issued... I don't know. You know, stranger things have happened.
I'm just wondering because, now that we're in the digital era, I've seen occasions where previously-unreleased albums have suddenly gotten a digital-only release, like Rick James' Kickin', for example.
John: Yeah, I think - as one record company guy told me - the labels are circling the drain right now, and I sincerely believe that the CD is going the way of the buffalo, and just as quickly. So they have a lot more on their minds than releasing a Nu Shooz album that nobody ever heard. And frankly... [Takes a deep breath and then laughs.] Frankly, I don't care! I'm just all about the next song. My favorite song is the one I haven't written yet, and it's interesting that, because of the popularity of "I Can't Wait," we're talking about these old sessions and stuff when we're making a record now that's super fun and...it's not being difficult in the way that some of those other records were. It's just coming together real nice. It's called Bagtown, and the whole reason to do it was that we put our live band back together. They were a great bunch of people.
Valerie: And they still are! [Laughs.]
John: They are a great bunch of people! So it was, like, "Well, we have this really cool studio, and we have this great band... It'd be stupid not to make a record!" So we started about a year ago writing for it, and we're just starting to play the tracks for it now. And that's really the most interesting thing. Way more interesting than whether Atlantic or Rhino or the Holy Trinity (WEA) release Eat and Run. Because it wasn't that fun to make. But now we're playing with our band, and Val and I go out on this '80s tour called the Super Freestyle Explosion with about 10 other acts like Lisa Lisa, Expose, and other '80s acts that we listened to back then but now we're all pals. So the combination of all these things... Now we are having a lot of fun!