WAR has often been regarded as a voice for social change. How does the band continue that mission in the 21st century?
First of all, we were never involved in political … anything. All we did was, as troubadours, we educated our fans about what was going on around them. When we said “The world is a ghetto” … and all that stuff, we weren’t trying to change anything and we weren’t trying to do anything but make [fans] aware of what was going on. It was up to you to make changes, all of us together, if that’s what you want to do. … Just to the three elements of the music – rhythm, melodies and, most of all, harmonies – bringing people together. Once we come together, then and now, only then can we come up with the solution to do something about your frustrations about the world. But ever one has different frustrations so we can’t cure everyone. We are doctors of music, but again the only way we can cure you is by chillin’ out and listening to some music. And if you have any chaos in your heart, any killing instincts or self-afflicting instincts, whatever it is, stop, listen to the music, first. Listen to your heartbeat. Music is a healing power. At the same time your inner self is a definitely a healing power. It comes from you. Charity starts at home. And that’s your home and your heart.
Now you have a new album, Evolutionary, featuring the first collection of new material since 1994.
It’s been awhile. … We’ve always been a jam band. We’ve been the best at playing live. The music that we recorded back in the early ’70s, even with Eric Burdon – everything has always been a jam. We pushed that red [record] button and if you didn’t catch what we were doing at the moment, then you lost it.
The fun part of it was when we were trying to duplicate what we recorded. We had to start over again. Once we started jamming the songs on stage, we ended up writing even newer songs for the next album. That’s what we’re doing now.
Our inspiration back then … was our fans and still is our fans. We’re a reflection of our fans. They give us something to write about. We just pick up the pen and write about our experiences. Like Jimi Hendrix said, “Are you experienced?”
About Hendrix. He jammed with you onstage in London the night before his death.
Eric Burdon [was] a great friend of Hendrix’s. A lot of people don’t know that Chas Chandler from Eric’s band The Animals produced Hendrix’s first album [Are You Experienced]. Chandler was the one who introduced Hendrix to the music industry. Hendrix supported anything that Eric did, like Eric did him, and he came out to hear us play at Ronnie Scott’s and jammed with us.
He came down the first night, Tuesday, without his guitar. Then he came down the second night with his guitar and a small little amplifier, no effects. We did “Mother Earth” by Memphis Slim. And we must have played that song for … close to an hour. Everyone did a solo. It was just ironic that after we played that song everyone went their separate ways. Then the next thing I know, when we got that fatal call, I looked at it [as] “We played ‘Mother Earth’ and he went back to Mother Earth.” That’s how I saw it, spiritually.
It was pretty scary for me. Back then, Eric introduced me to everyone – Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison … [and] come to find out they were all the same age when they died. That scared me into being a little more self-preservative. To not do anything stupid, to think I need to go off of the edge or the cliff in order to be known. In their situations they couldn’t help it, but they were self-indulging in things that were pretty dangerous at the time. I guess I was a little too young to go that route. Especially coming from a town like Compton. All we did was smoke weed and drink whiskey. And the worst thing we did was drink rotgut wine, like Silver Satin, Boone’s Farm and all that stuff, and get a headache. That’s how close we came to dying, getting the worst headache in the world.
WAR reunited with Eric Burdon for a one-night-only show at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2008. Do you get asked a lot to do more shows with Burdon?
All the time. People always ask us, “Where is Eric?” and “Are you guys finally getting back together?” And I always tell them the same answer – “That really depends on Eric.” He has to make that move. Like he did when he first met us. Eric knows that I am always open to him. … He taught me so much.
I didn’t know too many American rockers back when I was young. When I was listening to the radio all I heard was Elvis Presley, The Righteous Brothers, The Isley Brothers. … If you asked me about David Bowie, The Beatles, The Stones – yeah, the British Invasion, but I didn’t know anything about the American ones. Eric thought it was funny.
Janis saw me and I said, “Oh, shit. She is very aggressive.” I was young, dumb … and didn’t know how to accept that because I thought I was supposed to be the aggressive one because of where I came from. But it definitely gave me a rude awakening about what was going on out there, outside of Compton. That’s how we wrote “The World Is A Ghetto.” [That song was] for ourselves, not knowing what was going on around us. Me meeting people outside of Compton was another form of art. They gave us another form of life to write about.
Do you still launch into songs not knowing where the moment will take you?
I do that with the new band today. When they first got with me I told them, “There will be no thinking, no reading of music, no nothing. The only thing I want you to read and acknowledge is the fans. … If I decide to start something, some type of jam, or if someone in the band starts a groove, let’s run with it. And watch the fans because they’ll give you something to give back to them to sing along.” Because they wrote all our songs. All we did was pick up the pen and write what they gave us. Like the new album, one of the songs I wrote, “Inspiration.” [It’s] for the fans.
You’ve been doing dates with Cheech & Chong. How do you mix music with comedy?
It’s easy because we all pretty much have the same concept. … Our music is pretty much universal street music. Their comedy is universal street comedy. … Their comedy and “Low Rider,” “Cisco Kid” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” – all that humor and laughter is one big ball. They come onstage and jam with us on “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” and “L.A. Sunshine” and then we jam with them on their songs. We surprise people on what is going to happen next. You don’t have to read about it. Just wait and be surprised. We’re both acts that improvise with the crowd. … Our song, “Low Rider” was [in] their first movie, “Up In Smoke.”
Of all the band’s hits, was there any song that surprised you, that you didn’t think would go anywhere but ended up getting massive airplay and selling millions of copies?
Are you kidding me? When we first started … we never thought any of our music would be played on the radio. … Even the record labels that we tried to get with, all said the same thing. “We need you to sound like so-and-so who’s already on our roster. In order to sell records you should sound like this, you sound like that.” That’s how we decided to go ahead and … start promoting our records without a label. And then the label jumped on the bandwagon. They didn’t believe in “Spill The Wine.” “How can you have this British white guy rapping?” Of course, they didn’t know anything about rapping back then, but they said, “Latin? Latin Funk?”
So we decided to put it out anyway even though there was controversy surrounding it, Eric being with MGM Records and the fact they thought they had Eric Burdon & WAR and the song – but they didn’t. What they realized later is that WAR wrote it, not Eric. Their lease was on Eric, not us. We took the song and everything and went to United Artists. That’s when Eric had problems with them and wanted to get out. He gave us his blessing and said, “You guys continue on because I’m going to have to fight this.”
A lot of people were confused with Eric Burdon & The Animals and Eric Burdon & WAR. We did two albums with him – Eric Burdon Declares WAR and Black-Man’s Burden – before he had his issues with MGM.
A lot of people did confuse us with The Animals. They said, “The Animals got a new song called “Spill The Wine” until the DJs said “Eric Burdon & WAR.” But it still got confusing because there was a song called “WAR (What Is It Good For)” with Edwin Starr on the charts.
Who did you listen to while growing up?
James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Everly Brothers, Righteous Brothers. I was listening to Hank Snow, Patsy Cline, Ray Price, Ray Charles, Erroll Garner, Mahalia Jackson, Tony Bennett, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, the list goes on.
Did the other kids on the block think of you as that big music fan? The guy who knew everything about music?
No. I never shared it with them. I was ditching my classes and going into the music room just so I could play that little piano that was in the room. I would get busted and kicked out of school. I ended up playing with … The Creators, which was the older guys who became WAR later on. We played clubs and I had to put mascara on my lip to look like I had a mustache, sideburns and stuff. When they found out we were underage in some of those hole-in-the-wall clubs in L.A., we had to get papers signed by our parents allowing us to play in those clubs all night. [But we couldn’t] hang out in the clubs during our breaks. We had to hang out in the kitchen. They didn’t know we had people buying our booze back in the kitchen. We were drinking anyways.
Were you completely self-taught?
I did go to a music school for about three weeks. I tried to learn but I was a bad learner about everything. … I taught myself how to read through the numbers system. I was impatient with the teacher trying to teach me and hitting my hands with rulers and stuff because I ended up playing arpeggios just like her. She didn’t understand I was an emulator of classical music. I could hear a song by Debussy or Bach and emulate it and then learn it later. That’s how I taught myself. She wasn’t going for it. She wanted me to go strictly by the book. I said the heck with that. I would listen to some jazz, Erroll Garner, Jimmie Smith … then emulate those songs, then learn them, and create my own style. Eventually I ended up playing a style that was totally unique to even what I thought I had in me. I based that on the fact that I also played drums and percussion.
I play keyboards pretty much like percussion. I may play melodies and notes but basically it’s a percussive piano style. I played timbales on all the records back in the days, and today, too. Papa Dee [Thomas “Papa Dee” Allen] played on two or three cuts, something like that. He basically wanted me to play because I had my own style. I played swing timbales. Everybody else played the ones and the threes, they stay on top of the beat mostly like Latin grooves. But I’ll take a Latin groove and I’ll still swing the timbales. Give me a swing moment and I’ll take it.
WAR has gone through several personnel changes over the years. What do you think today’s members bring to the band’s sound that wasn’t there before?
When they first came in they wanted to assure me they were bringing in the old WAR sound but I had to give them a rude awakening. I let them know there is no WAR sound. There is a WAR movement. … The sound you heard on the records was just not the band but that was also Chris Huston the engineer who had been with us from the beginning. He was also with Led Zeppelin … All that raw sound was Chris Huston.
I just told the guys, “As far as playing, what you need not do is think. Make your mistakes. Don’t look at no one when making mistakes. Either make the same mistake again or just look down and keep playing.”
The whole point of WAR was that the mistakes created newer songs. … I just gave them some elements to think about. Too many people are worried about playing in tune, playing perfectly or looking sharp, shiny and glittery. I said, “Don’t even worry about it. Do what you feel [and] the people will feel you. I know people love to see shiny stars on TV but they also want to feel comfortable. What lasts longer in society are people who make [you] feel they are playing in your living room. Lawrence Welk was a good example of that. But if you want to be a shiny, perfect glittery type of act, most of those type of groups don’t last as long. Or, they may last longer but they’re stuck in one category.
With us, we can play forever – large or small venues … venues in all parts of the world because we are a multi-cultural group. We can play a gig with Latin groups. We can play reggae festivals. … They’ve all covered our music. We can play a jazz festival … or we can be featured on a hip hop concert because our music has been sampled by so many of them. There is no category for our music and that’s why it’s been hard for us to be accepted for any type of award.
You’re working with your long-time collaborator Jerry Goldstein. Is the experience something like riding a bicycle in that you can pick up right where you left off?
It is. It was always he and I in the studio back in the day. We lived in the studio. It was him, me and Chris Huston, the engineer. Anytime I would create something on the piano, he would push the [record] button. If you didn’t push the button then you lost it. Because I never would be able to create it again unless I heard it again. Chris knew that. They always kept the tape rolling.
When you look back at WAR’s legacy, is there any single moment, record or song that you consider to be the band’s biggest accomplishment?
Anytime I play in front of an audience … I won’t call them the new generation. I’ll call them the Googlers. Every time I see these younger crowds filling up the venues, they’re smiling, they’re happy, they know the songs. And when I talk to them they say, “Oh, man. You guys are such a jam band.” We’ve always been a jam band. We never stopped. We just go out there, keep playing and jam. That’s my biggest WAR moment – my fans.
Upcoming WAR shows:
June 21 – Waukegan, Ill., Genesee Theatre
July 4 – Philadelphia, Pa., SugarHouse Casino
July 5 – Primm, Nev., Star Of The Desert Arena
July 18 – Garden City, Idaho, Revolution Concert House & Event Center (with Cheech & Chong)
July 19 – Redmond, Wash., King County’s Marymoor Park (with Cheech & Chong)
July 20 – Victoria, British Columbia, Royal Theatre (with Cheech & Chong)
July 26 – Akron, Ohio, Lock 3 Live Amphitheatre
Aug. 2 – Big Flats, N.Y., Tags Outdoor Amphitheater (with Cheech & Chong)
Aug. 7 – Maumee, Ohio, Lucas County Fairgrounds (Northwest Ohio Rib Off)
Aug. 9 – Atlanta, Ga., Aaron’s Amphitheatre At Lakewood (KISS 104FM Flashback Festival)
Aug. 16 – Milwaukee, Wis., Milwaukee Zoo
Aug. 17 – Fort Collins, Colo., Downtown Fort Collins (Bohemian Nights At New West Fest)
Aug. 23 – Rogers, Ark., The Walmart AMP (with Cheech & Chong)
Aug. 28 – Jackson, Calif., Jackson Rancheria Casino & Hotel (with Cheech & Chong)
Aug. 29 – Monterey, Calif., Monterey Co. Fairgrounds (Monterey County Fair)
Sept. 4 – Madera, Calif., Madera District Fair (Madera District Fair)
Sept. 5 – Pomona, Calif., Fairplex Grandstand (Madera District Fair)
Sept. 13 – Charlotte, N.C., Metrolina Fairgrounds
Sept. 22 – Kissimmee, Fla., Osceola Heritage Park
Oct. 18-23 – Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Carnival Cruise Line – Carnival Freedom (Capital Jazz Supercruise)
Oct. 24 – Hanover, Md., Maryland Live! Casino
Oct. 25 – Mesa, Ariz., Mesa Amphitheatre
Oct. 31 – Lincoln, R.I., Twin River Events Center
Nov. 21 – Miami, Fla., Magic City Casino
Feb. 19-23 – Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Royal Caribbean Cruise Line – Liberty Of The Seas (Rock Legends Cruise)
Please visit WAR.com for more information.