In 1976 Kate Pierson founded the famed Athens, Georgia band The B-52s along with her pals Fred Schneider, Cindy Wilson, Ricky Wilson and Keith Strickland. It was the era of punk and new wave, but the B-52s were almost a wholenew genre unto themselves. The B-52 changed everything with their fantastic fusion of Surrealism, lurid sci-fi, kitsch-spitting Americana realism and forbidden dance party music. Kate’s part in the B’s was musically prominent,making her one of most distinctive and soulful female voices defining the point break of the new wave. Over the years Kate Pierson has explored many collaborations outside the B-52s, working with such artists as The Ramones,Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, R.E.M, Matthew Sweet, David Byrne and FatboySlim. She became a Rockprunuer with the creation of her LazyMeadow / Lazy Desert ventures and appeared on interesting moving image episodes of GuidingLight, Flight of the Conchords, The Simpsons, Portlandia, RuPaul's Drag Race, Difficult PeopleandPhineasand Ferb. She released her debut solo album ‘Guitars and Microphones’ in 2015 which was produced by Tim Anderson (Ima Robot) and featured Nick Valensi of The Strokes on several tracks. Kate also collaborated on songwriting with Sia who executive produced the album which includes manifestos you can dance to. It offers wisdom on transcending cosmically dark days, on being who you are and loving it: a crowd surfer, an artist, a show stopper. Boy Scout talked to Pierson about pyramids, pick axes, and pygmies.
Boy Scout: If you arrived in New York City in 2019 filled with great ambition, how might you ascend to your artistic summit?
Kate Pierson: If I arrived in New York City now, filled with ambition, I would bring a pick axe and a rope. I wouldn't go to New York City. I would go to a small town, or in the country, that has a strong creative community and try to push my creative endeavors up Mount Cyber. I think only way to do it nowadays is to try to create a base. Try to get sort of a local following and move up from there. It seems very hard to break into kind of a major record label kind of deal unless you maybe start from the bottom or at least with some social media savvy.
Boy Scout: The late Harry Dean Stanton believed “Everything is predestined. Nothing is important. Life is an illusion. It’s all a movie. Nobody’s in charge” which is lovingly referred to as his Appreciation of Nothing. Do you have a guiding life philosophy that keeps you on the path?
Kate Pierson: I do believe in staying on the “path of hearts," as Joseph Campbell sort of to rephrase, “Follow your bliss,” "Stay on your path of hearts." I don't really have a philosophy but what this is what makes me happy. I believe in nature. I try to live in the moment. Practice non-judgement (which is just very hard to do). I do some Yin Yoga, I lift weights, try to eat healthy, have fun being creative, and do what I love, which is music. Also having a community of artists, and keeping in touch with friends, especially old friends. Having a loving companion, my wife Monica…. and I love dogs! Super important having the dogs. Work, play and be happy.
Boy Scout: From the outset you have lived hand to heart creating some of the most interesting sights and sounds in modern music. Can you describe the act of creating such powerful outsider artistry?
Kate Pierson: I believe the creative force comes from what Carl Jung called the "Collective Unconscious." The band is very unusual, the B-52s, and also in my solo work there's a jamming process where you kind of get in the moment and really practice just not thinking about it letting some kind of subconscious take over. We try when we jam together, which is mostly how we write, we sort of let that force take over, and we don't even sometimes hear what the other person is saying or singing, and we just kind of piece it together at the end. It's like automatic writing or, you know, just letting things flow. Then you have to hone what comes from that with some conscious editing and organizing. But mostly, what is good comes from: "Where did that come from?!"
Boy Scout: Weehawken. Athens. NYC. Mt Tremper. Joshua Tree. What feelings do these places elicit in you?
Kate Pierson: I grew up in Weehawken, New Jersey. Later Rutherford New Jersey. Then I moved to Athens, Georgia. Now, I live in the Catskills and we have Lazy Meadow in Mount Tremper. But I loved growing up in Weehawken because as a child it was like Our Gang. We lived in a house, but there were a lot of apartments and kids of all ages. We all hung out in the street there wasn't much traffic. We all went to the reservoir or the park where Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr had their famous duel. It had the best view of New York City ever! And my grandmother took me to see the harbor and the boats that came in. We lived next to Gerard Schwartz, and the little boy next door is now a famous conductor. Our other neighbors were Irish, and German, and Jewish and it was very diverse in a lot of ways.
Athens is still my hometown away from home. I have friends there that I love. Although, it's bittersweet with the loss of our good friend Jeremy Ayers. The atmosphere is still teeming with creative juices. It's still a magical place to me. The Catskills! Up here in the Woodstock area. It’s rural, it's creative, its liberal, it's a music community, it's just a fantastic place to live. it's very creative. I'm looking out at a reservoir right now in the mountains... even though, it's really cold today... it's really a great, creative place to live. And it’s near New York City!
Boy Scout: Punk, which crystalized in New York, was angry, hilarious, incisive and immediate. Much like your incredible sense of fashion. What does personal style constitute for you?
Kate Pierson: I don't know where my sense of style comes from because my mother really did not have one. She wasn't concerned with style at all. I never learned how to put make-up on from her. Then I was a hippie and I didn't wear make-up. I just wore bell-bottoms and a work shirt. I was one of those, like, protesting kind of hippies. So, I didn't wear make-up, or a bra, or didn’t have to think about clothes. I had long, long hair parted in the middle, straight.
When I moved to Athens, I learned about thrift shopping! Then I kind of became a little bit of a clothes whore. We would go to the Potter's House. We would get wigs. We sort of forged our amazing, I think, pretty crazy stage outfits from thrifting. Also, looking at Vogue magazine's from the 60s when Diana Vreeland was Queen of Fashion.. the Empress of Fashion, actually. So we were very influenced by that 60s fashion, but also what we found that the Potter's House, which was pretty amazing.
We would put all sorts of outfits together... and the wigs, it was really not to be glamorous. It was just to create, a sort of, mask and a sense of fun. A way to not be afraid onstage. Sort of like a costume. All of us kind of had wigs, and hats, and things that we wore in the beginning. But it turned into... it evolved as we went. It was fun and hilarious, buying wigs and sixties fashion. Then we lived in New York City and I discovered designer sample sales. I bought things that were too big and too small. Just because they we're on sale, and fabulous... I still have some of those things.
And around the time of Whammy, Cindy and I had some friends make stage outfits that we designed ourselves. We were always drawing space age or mod creations. Some were really bizarre. I had a red metallic circle dress that I wore on the cover of Whammy. Then, I was honored to have Todd Oldham design my clothes for the Good Stuff tour. It was amazing. Amazing outfits. During Cosmic Thing, my friend Federico Maquahe designed my cosmic stage outfits. He was from Venezuela, so his sensibility was very South American. Shows-stopping, blazing sequins, skin showing, sort of, bust-busting-glam. Since then I've had different people create those outfits that I've designed with them. There's a local designer named Judah Leah. I've worked with her on making stage outfits for the tour we just did with Culture Club and Thompson Twins. I also bought some clothes from Alice and Olivia, which is just off the rack, but fabulous sequins. Norma Kamali is my Goddess of Fashion right now because she create clothes that are great for women. She has stagey, dramatic clothes and also comfortable day-to-day clothes. So, I just hope she keeps pumping out that fashion because it's so amazing for stage. Well, thats about it for fashion….I have too many clothes.
Boy Scout: From the Bowery Boys to Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Johnny Rotten, there is something innately important about troublemakers who aspire. In finding your way with little in your pockets, was desperation ever a great motivator for you?
Kate Pierson: You're asking was desperation ever a great motivator? My simple answer is “No. Just aspiration."
Boy Scout: Debbie Harry once said that she could work a single gig a week, pay her rent, and have a life in New York. Something that no longer seems possible anywhere in the world. Was this your experience?
Kate Pierson: I think living in a big city right now, it's very, very... especially a creative city... it's very hard to pay your rent. We basically stayed in Georgia and drove up to New York City to play when we started. Then the band moved to Lake Mahopac in one big house where we all lived together. I wouldn't recommend the band living together but it was fun while it lasted.
We didn't really move into New York City until we could afford it. We actually wrote Cosmic Thing in a studio in New York City and this was after Ricky had passed away. We really kind of didn't know what the future would hold. So, Keith moved up to Woodstock and I followed, but I still had a place in the city. So, we wrote Cosmic Thing and Keith actually commuted from Woodstock to New York City, every day, like four days a week. So, he really wanted out of there and so did I. We eventually all moved away from the city. I don't think any young artists can afford to live there and there are a lot of people from Brooklyn are now moving up to this area because it's more affordable.
Boy Scout: It has been almost 40 years since the release of The B-52’s debut album and 43 years since forming in Athens, Georgia. This has resulted in the creation of beloved hits including numerous Top Five singles and gold and platinum plaques. In 2015 you released your first solo album, Guitars and Microphones. What is it like to work solo after such a long association with pop art partners?
Kate Pierson: My question to myself is: “How did it possibly take so long?" Because it was my intention to do a solo record since the beginning. I did have a folk protest group in high school called the Sun Donuts, sort of from junior high into high school. We wrote our own protest songs, had three guitars, and three women, and we wrote together. I thought that was going to be my path to write songs and, keep-on-keeping-on. I wound up going to college, hitchhiking through Europe, meeting my future ex-husband Brian Cocayne, moving to Athens, finding my path with the band... with the B-52s... which is the mothership. It's wonderful to be part of that. But it was long delayed when I finally did my solo record. It was really a powered by the help of my wife Monica, and also the pop star Sia, who is incredibly creative. She collaborated with me and helped me write. We wrote a lot of songs together... it was just an incredible experience. I still worked with other people, but it was my project. It was my ideas. Sia wrote a couple of songs just for me too. But it was just so freeing to do that. I still love working with the B-52s, obviously, but I felt like the songs were more personal, and more about me, and I was able to sing more about personal experience. Now I'm working on my second solo record which I've pretty much written but I want to just keep writing…. because writing songs... it's just so satisfying. It's just incredible. When you finish a song you just wonder “How did that happen?" How did I write that?
It just comes from some sort of magic within. I do believe there is sort of a "collective unconscious." Things swirl around in the atmosphere and then they come out. If you just let your body and your mind just sort of merge and bring out those creative juices and let it flow without thinking too hard.
Obviously, there's a point we have to think about it and come up with the second verse. Maybe the first verse is like “Whoo! That just came out. What's that about?" I just wrote a song about our friend Jeremy Ayers who passed away…. and that I don't know where that came from. I mean, I know where it came from, but I didn't expect to be writing about that subject.
I've collaborated with a bunch of different people and written some songs just on my own. I think everyone in the band, really…. Fred has solo stuff, and Cindy did a solo record, and Keith's always writing music. I think it's important that came about for all of us. To be able to have that outlet. Then when we come together, it's different. We might try... we are going to try to write a couple of B52s new songs for a box set so we'll see if those stars align again.
Boy Scout: “Jellyfish", “narwhal", "sea robins" and "bikini whales". Campy Sci-fi soundtracks with bracing back beat, heaven-reaching harmonies, and Appalachian-like intervals. These seemingly spontaneous, collective unconscious, trance-induced song paintings remain a timeless standout in labor intensive music creation. As a group, is it difficult to maintain the creation of new off-kilter anthems?
When we come together to write it's always without the expectation of writing a “hit" or trying to be in the groove with the current standards of writing. We just do our thing. I think we have a unique sound that's very recognizable. Being “off-kilter" comes easily. For sure. When we all get together there's an “off-kilterness" that just can't be stabilized, and that's really good. But we also say "the stars have to align." We have to all really want to do this, together, because it's such a collective creative process. So, we'll have to see what happens when we come together. If we can't write another song then we're going to fall back and go into our old set tapes when we jammed … and this would be so interesting... because the evolution of the songs, the way we jam, some of it’s hilarious….. we might be able to put out some of those crazy tapes.
Boy Scout: In 1979 "Planet Claire", "52 Girls", "Dance This Mess Around”, and “Rock Lobster” appeared on The B-52’s debut album. These artistic endeavors particularly, which rank as some of my favorite songs ever recorded, are fantastically fueled by dance craze, skewed fusion, pop, surf, avant-garde, punk and white funk. In those early years, did the flame of youth fuel the confidence of unabashed kitsch and beehives? Especially at a time when most bands were with either completely vulgar or absolutely stylish?
Kate Pierson: We were influenced because the punk scene had just started. So Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Blondie, Television, of course in the Sex Pistols. I mean, all these bands had an influence … but we started, like, right after. We hardly heard them. We heard Patti Smith. She was a big influence. But we were also influenced a lot by Joni Mitchell. Ricky was influenced a lot by her guitar tuning. We had such an eclectic influence from soul and reggae and Perez Prado, and world music, and African music. We borrowed these records from the University of Georgia library. So we would listen to this pygmy music and go out on a picnic with the boombox and play Aku pygmy.
We would just listen to all types of music and dance around the table of John Taylor's kitchen when he made cornbread. We would put on Shotgun and dance in the afternoon. We were very unselfconscious, even though, we were very self-conscious on stage. Scared to death when we first got on stage. We came from this sort of microcosm in Athens where there was no reference point. There were no other bands, really, except The Fans was an early punk band in Atlanta. But there was nothing, really. No clubs to play in. We were kind of the first new wave-ish, even punk band, to start in Athens. We had no reference point so we just did whatever our thing was. And we were even like “Wow, that's weird! Rock Lobster?" but we didn't even have a really predictable song structure. A lot of songs didn't have verse, pre-chorus, chorus. We just sort of flowed along. Even Love Shack has some…. even though it has a chorus... there are some things that don't repeat. Some things that are different.
Most of our songs kind of have an unusual song structure. I guess that comes from just jamming. I think that's really the first Jam we did which was fueled by a flaming volcano drink. We went to jam at a friend's house and that sort of set the template for what we did. How we always created, which is collectively.
Boy Scout: You are a vocalist, lyricist and multi-instrumentalist playing guitar, bass and various keyboard instruments. How does it feel to bring the spirit of music alive through pop performance and wig wonderment?
Kate Pierson: I really consider myself primarily a vocalist. When we did Cosmic Thing, we decided to expand the band, because I play the bass part, chords of the bass or various bass instruments, we really wanted to have an expanded sound. I made the choice not to play. So we have a bass player, and a drummer, and a keyboard player who also doubles the second guitar… and I miss, I really miss and I wish I'd kept playing guitar. I mean, I do play guitar in my solo career but I'm not a great guitar player. I'm starting to come to terms with the fact that I will maybe never be a guitar player. But I still strive. I love playing the guitar.
I think as a vocalist, and upfront performer, one of the three lead singers….. and we way got over our shyness and reticence…. I mean, we are pretty outgoing on stage. I think Fred and I, especially, are extroverted and we bring our unique personalities. Each of us has a unique personality, onstage, as we relate to the audience.
What I really find wonderful about live performance is contact with the audience. That kind of feeling that you're helping them. You know, you're connecting with them. They're having fun, and you see them having fun, and so you're having fun watching them. Sometimes it’s just so entertaining seeing people dance. And lately, we've had a lot of young people, so that's enlivening. It's also encouraging. But it's also great to see whatever age, whatever turns them on, people let their freak flag fly.
And also the feedback! Which is something that we've heard a lot, and it never gets old, to hear people say; “You helped me. Your music helped me get through hard times, through high school. Your music made/makes me feel like I'm not alone." "There are others like you out there,” which is one of Fred's lyrics. It's just heartwarming, great, and encouraging to hear that because, who knew? That wasn’t an intention when we started a band, to make other people feel good, we were trying to amuse ourselves, basically. That's really the most important thing now to me. Is that it's healing and helping other people. It's just incredible and we're having a great time doing it.
It's hard work and I think that can't be under emphasized. It's great, and we have the greatest careers in the world, but it's also very hard work. Travel, getting ready, and on stage... you've got to be on. You can't just switch off. You can't be like “Nah, not feeling it tonight." Whether you're sick…. you've got to be on. Fred actually walked off the stage, accidentally, during a performance in Los Angeles during Planet Claire. There was not a line at the edge of the stage, and it was high stage, and he just was singing Planet Claire and just stepped, and he fell right off the stage! Cindy and I ran to the edge of the stage, and looked down, and we're like “ Oh my God!" and he looked up at me and just kept singing “She came from Planet Claire…” he just kept going, he had the mic still in his hand, he didn't even hurt himself, and so, you know, the show must go on.
Boy Scout: Anthony Bourdain’s wrenching “Parts Unknown” finale takes place in New York’s lower East Side where a good deal of your history resides. In that episode, Lydia Lunch says: “People were beautiful, doing things because they had to do it—not because of any other grand idea. Happiness was not the goal; satisfaction was the goal, as it still is. . . . We had to do something because we were burning; our blood was on fire.” Lunch made very clear that in the present day, she wastes no time pining for that bygone time—but Bourdain seemed a little more wistful. As a cultural significant, are you ever wistful for an older, grittier New York?
Kate Pierson: I am wistful for an affordable New York where you could be creative. But in reality, a lot of creativity is, and has always been, from small towns. Now we can access creativity from around the globe through the wonders of the Internet which is so much aligned…. maligned, I mean! We're aligning ourselves with this wonderful ability to just tap into all this global music and that I find very exciting. So many people complain about the dominance of whatever kind of music but you can get any kind of music now and it's very exciting. I think this comes from all over the globe from Africa, from South America. It's everywhere…. Everyone complains about New York. Now everyone's like New York's over. New York's not affordable. People moved to Brooklyn. Now people are moving up here from Brooklyn. It really feels like New York City, is kind, of not a creative place to be anymore, so move on. It's sad because it was a great scene there, but you know, you can't look back. You just have to move forward.
Boy Scout: In a time of faltering news platforms, transient facts and generations who opt for digital currency over great literature, how will the stories of those that came before us survive?
Kate Pierson: As far as the longevity of digital anything. "How can this survive?" I think, you better get a chisel and a stone tablet because really I don't know. I wonder that sometimes. I had a couple of hard drives with photos, and I don't know where some of those hard drives are? A lot of future generations…. if this world survives... and they dig, and dig underneath, and they find a bunch of hard drive…. what's that going to mean? Is there any way to access that? Really, it's amazing to see Mayan artifacts, and pictograms, and the pyramids... all that has survived. I saw the jewelry exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and all the stuff that survived, you know, Tutankhamun's tomb. It's incredible how this stuff has survived and yet, digital material, it just seems very ephemeral. So like I said, get the stone tablet and a chisel.
I'm reading an amazing, nerdy book called I Claudius from the autobiography of Tiberius Claudius by Robert Graves. It's written around 10BC up through BC. You know, now it’s like 2AD or whatever. This guy... Roman Emperor…. he wrote this autobiography to be read in the future! It was unearthed and now I'm reading it. It's just sort of mind-blowing that this exists. He wrote it, sealed it in wax, put it in a box, and it was discovered! He's talking about Cleopatra and Caesar Augustus. It's just pretty mind-blowing that he wrote this and we can read it now. So, that's something that lasts. I don't think digital materials can there last like that.
Boy Scout: Your work has taken you all around the world. Do cities still have a thriving alternative culture? Where in the world can you find rough, raw, and revolutionary today? Who are some of the modern artists that move you?
Kate Pierson: Some of the modern artists that move me (and they're way too many to mention) but I have to say Sia has been big influence because of her incredible creativity, and her lyrics, and music is amazing. She's a friend but also I'm just sort of in awe of her creativity and working with her, unlocked a lot of my inner creativity and songwriting. Cindy Sherman, I love, I know her and I followed her work at the beginning. Patti Smith, the same she's like a shaman and her books are amazing. Yoko Ono. Michelle Obama. Oprah…. I love Oprah. If Oprah ran for president, I would so vote for her. I don't care that she has no political experience. I would so vote for Oprah. Then there's a list of millions you know the people who are and who have influenced me but let's just leave it at that.
Boy Scout: The last couple of years has seen a country divided. Has the current political climate inhibited or infused your sensibility?
Kate Pierson: I can only make sense of the current political climate by thinking you know “This too shall pass." Trying to work to improve things locally, speaking out when we can, and doing whatever is possible to do. We did, on our tour this summer, we kept giving a shout out to Beta O’Rouke. Well, we spoke out wherever we could. Most of the time the audience cheered. A couple of times we heard a couple of boos, or disgruntlement from the audience. We don't want to tell people, at all, or be, you know, in our songs... we have some political references but we try to, as the B-52s anyway, we really try to not hit people over the head with songs that are political. But we do have some political songs. I just think it's best to work locally that's the only way you can kind of feel like you're doing something. Monica and I have worked to help animal rights and local animal shelters. I did a sale of some my stage clothes to benefit a local animal shelter. It's just the only way you can get a grip I think is to do like Pete Seeger said you know “Do local work, locally" and he worked on the Hudson River and the Riverkeeper. So, I think that gives you a sense of empowerment. To be able to make change locally. I think we're seeing that politicians are getting into the House of Representatives from local districts are making a difference. So I think that's important. But I think musicians have to speak out. Have to do what they can.
Boy Scout: Does a world of hyper social media intrude on your ability to be your artistic self?
Kate Pierson: Social media, it's helped a lot of creative people to get their work out. And it helped a lot of creative dogs and cats for sure. I definitely don't spend enough time on social media. I really need to up my profile. But I think it's a good tool as long as it's not overworked.
Boy Scout: Has your bravery grown through the ages?
Kate Pierson: I feel braver now, for sure. I have more confidence and I don't care so much what people think. Creatively, I realize I could do anything, anything I want. I'm less brave now about jumping over rock faces, and jumping through streams, and mountain biking over trails, and walking in the woods alone like I used to do. But I'm much braver, I think artistically, because I really can do whatever I want. And that's very freeing. I think as you get older and you realize, well, maybe your songs not going to be on the Top 10 charts, but that does not matter. I find that so many artists are creating locally. That maybe don't have a big audiences but they built their audience. Whatever you can do to be artistic and creative. It's just wonderful. I think that enriches everybody and it enriches the people around you.
Boy Scout: What is your most marked characteristic?
Kate Pierson: I think my most marked characteristic is optimism and a sense of humor. The words I live by are "Wowie-Zowie!"
Boy Scout: What is your greatest fear?
Kate Pierson: My greatest fears are, Number One: "Losing my memory" and Number Two: "Rats."
Boy Scout: How would you like to be remembered?
Kate Pierson: How would I like to be remembered? With a gigantic pyramid.