B best with the B-52s' Fred Schneider

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday September 17, 2019
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B-52s lead male vocalist Fred Schneider says he has "a voice that's too weird for radio." Photo: Courtesy the subject
B-52s lead male vocalist Fred Schneider says he has "a voice that's too weird for radio." Photo: Courtesy the subject

What's the first thing you think of when you hear the words "Tin roof, rusted?" If you answered "Love Shack" by the B-52s, pat yourself on the back. That 1989 single, the biggest hit of the B-52s' career, finally earned the group mainstream attention. It was also considered a comeback for the band from Athens, GA, following the devastating loss of co-founding member Ricky Wilson. Fans of the B-52s since the band's self-titled 1979 debut album gloated as their friends and family caught onto what they knew all along: the B-52s were superstars.

To commemorate the 30th anniversary of "Cosmic Thing" (Rhino/Reprise), the album with "Love Shack," there's now an expanded edition featuring five B-sides and remixes and a second 1989 live disc. B-52s lead male vocalist Fred Schneider was kind enough to answer a few questions before the band embarked on a multi-city concert tour.

Gregg Shapiro: The B-52s have a long history of working with fascinating producers like Nile Rodgers and Don Was on "Cosmic Thing," plus Chris Blackwell, Rhett Davies and David Byrne. Yet the band never lost its distinctive personality, style and sound. How were you able to maintain that?

Fred Schneider: Because we don't try to be like anybody else. We all collaborate. We all have a lot of shared likes and dislikes. Everyone brings something unique to it. Keith's [Strickland] an amazing musician. His music's very inspiring. As was Ricky's [Wilson]. We just do our own thing. We don't follow trends, we never have. That's why we have such a diverse audience. You can't really pinpoint a year and say, "Oh, this sounds so 80s, or so 70s, 60s or 90s," or whatever.

Unlike previous B-52s albums with songs credited to individual members, the songs on "Cosmic Thing" are credited to the band. Do you remember the songwriting process for that album?

Keith contacted Cindy [Wilson], and Cindy was ready to work again. They contacted Kate [Pierson] and me, and we were ready. We would basically jam, as we did with all our albums. We'd all sing at the same time, record and listen back. Sometimes we had an idea for a title, sometimes we didn't. That particular album was sort of nostalgic because a lot of the songs had to do with Athens [GA]. It's the way we always worked, jamming and putting the pieces together.

There's a very moving intro in the CD booklet written by T. Cole Rachel, about how meaningful it was to hear the B-52s when he was a young queer kid who felt isolated in a rural town. Are you aware of the band's influence on LGBTQ listeners?

We get letters. To this day, LGBTQ fans tell us how we helped them get through the horrors of high school. I was bullied in high school, so I was reticent at first to talk about it [being gay]. I guess it was probably obvious that we were gay. Keith, Ricky and I didn't have girlfriends! We had friends who were women.

Did you have any idea that "Love Shack" would become a big hit?

I thought it was one of the most accessible things we'd ever done. Radio didn't get it at first, except for college and independent radio. I don't think the record company got it. I have a reputation for having a voice that's too weird for radio. Even though there are a lot of people who really like my voice. Basically, what Don [Was] did with the song was put two pieces together. I don't know why we didn't think of it.

2019 is the 30th anniversary of "Cosmic Thing," also the 40th anniversary of the B-52s' 1979 major-label debut. When you look back on that album all these years later, how do you feel?

Thank God for "Rock Lobster!" It put us on the map. We found out we had a lot of like-minded listeners. Or they thought it was so weird, they loved it. Or they got that it was a surreal trip under the ocean. It really got us going. It made us a huge hit in Australia, of all places. We were playing dumpy little clubs all around the country, then we go to Australia and we're treated like royalty!

Is there any chance there may someday be a B-52s stage musical?

Yes! As a matter of fact, we're pitching ideas and coming up with things. Let's just say there's something in the works.

The B-52s will play Oxbow Riverstage in Napa, CA, on Sat., Oct. 26.