Welcome to the concluding piece of “Can’t Turn It Off ― The Nu Shooz Interview” in which the Oregon pop-jazz / R&B duo Nu Shooz (Valerie Day and John Smith) detail their journey in popular music.
The second part of this interview (read the first part here) details the lasting impact of “I Can’t Wait” and how it inspired their ambitious “jazz-pop cinema” record from 2010. Nu Shooz also dish on their most recent album, 2016’s Bagtown.
“I Can’t Wait” (as remixed by Dutch DJ Peter “Hithouse” Slaghuis) was one of those groundbreaking songs that announced, officially, that black and white listeners had found common ground again after the animosity of the infamous “Disco Demolition Night” that happened on July 12, 1979.
Granted, this rift took time to repair and many black artists such as Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Prince had to establish a “post-disco space” for black music in the early 1980s to exist in a way that was accessible to whites, but didn’t alienate their core black fans.
How do you two feel that “I Can’t Wait” assisted in bridging that racial / cultural gap?
JS: I don’t think you do something like that deliberately. It’s more like a phenomenon that happens. To be perfectly honest, we weren’t that in touch with the dance club scene – we were playing clubs, [and] they were rock clubs. Portland has a great music scene. I attribute any sort of black or white blending [musically] to the fact that I got to grow up in the Motown era. It was the best music education in the world, so I think it is more upbringing that influences that.
Pandora’s Box (2010, NSO) was credited to the “Nu Shooz Orchestra” to further acknowledge your deep affection of jazz-rooted pop. Still, many fans cite it as a proper Nu Shooz record as it was your first album together after Told U So (1989, Atlantic). Could you discuss how this long player stretched Nu Shooz creatively?
JS: Valerie wanted to remake “I Can’t Wait.”
VD: It was the 25th anniversary of the song coming out. Actually, John and I were at a party, we were doing a benefit, just the two of us. He was playing guitar and I was singing and at the very end of the party, some friends of ours called out “Play ‘I Can’t Wait!'” We were like, “We can’t do that, we don’t have a band here!” So they said, “We’ll sing back up!” So, John started playing the chords and I started singing and … it just felt cool. It was like, wow, maybe this could be something.
I thought, hey, why not for the 25th anniversary of the single, just get all my jazz buddies together [and re-record it]. We just put new clothes on the song and it was so fun to do that we decided we need to do a whole record.
We both were saying how we love these different styles of music, so how could meld them together in a way that would be really interesting, and pleasing and different than what we were hearing in the world. Because we weren’t hearing the music we wanted to hear anywhere, so that’s how Pandora’s Box came about. And then John had sort of just rediscovered lyrics. He watched this Martin Scorsese film about Bob Dylan [No Direction Home] and watched it like, 50 times.
JS: 100, 300 times, ha, ha!
VD: He really got inspired and lost in the whole world of creating lyrics from a different part of his brain. In the early Nu Shooz days, it was so much about arranging and the horns, because that’s what he was into; it was “Ah, lyrics, schmyrics!” ha!
JS: Yeah, we’d just stick anything on there so we could do a groove that we liked.
VD: It was all about the groove and horns and stuff. But Pandora’s Box was the melding of all the different styles of music we loved, from spy music to, uh, how do we talk about that record? It was like spy stuff.
JS: Spy cinema.
VD: “Jazz-pop cinema” is what we dubbed it. People were so confused by us doing that record, because it was not what they expected. It was hard for a lot of people, because when you like something, you want that thing to happen over and over again. But, we just had to plant our flag on another planet; it’s like we went to the moon on that one.
Now you have your sixth album, Bagtown (NSO) that dropped this year. Please detail the experience of crafting that album.
VD: So, John went out into the studio in October of 2014 to write songs for this record and he wasn’t sure what to write. The first thing that came out were a couple of classical pieces, and it was like, “Nah, that’s not it.” Then he got into a couple of months of psychedelia and that wasn’t it either. And then, the next thing he did was he started making bag puppets out of these paper bags laying around the studio that he had gotten take-out in.
He made these bag puppets ― he’s a wonderful artist by the way ― and they were really engaging and fun. And around the bag puppets he started building a little town; so in the studio there’s a little island kitchen and the whole thing was covered in bag puppets and buildings. He made this little town out of bags and it became “Bagtown.” So these really hip, groovy bags were hanging out and they sort of started talking to him about the music they wanted to hear for their party! That’s how it happened. They inspired him to write this music that would just be joyful, fun ―
JS: And fun to play.
VD: And fun to play live and that’s what it has been. Everybody that comes to our live shows with our full band, the word they use [to describe it] is joy. Which is really the best thing that we can hear, because the world is in such need of that right now. So that’s how it came about, these bags. I’d say, “John, how’s the songwriting coming,” he’d go, “I’m making bag puppets!” ha, ha!
JS: I think the symphonic stuff happened because, originally, I was going to try to make a “Nu Shooz record” and a “Nu Shooz Orchestra record” at the same time.
VD: The second Nu Shooz Orchestra record didn’t end up happening.
JS: Because Bagtown just took over. The mission was to really not be the synthesizer Nu Shooz, to really just go back to the original horn band when we couldn’t afford a synthesizer.
VD: Really organic sounding.
JS: And also the real mission was to make a vocal-arranging record, to really make these fat, interesting vocal arrangements because we have four great singers in our band.
VD: The other fun thing about making that record is that our son is an artist and so he did all the [album] artwork. He created an astounding and complex world that the bags live in.
What else can people expect from Nu Shooz in the immediate future?
VD: We’re definitely going to keep touring and performing; there’s still a lot we hope to do with Bagtown over the next year or so.
JS: Some remixes, maybe.
VD: Some remixes, another [music] video. We’re working on a U.K. release [for Bagtown] because we’re trying to get over to the U.K. I think that their love of neo-soul will be very helpful to us. As far as more new music, we didn’t even know we’d be back together as Nu Shooz. It feels like a miracle, because we were having a good life and it didn’t include Nu Shooz and we never thought that it would again. As we grew older, we grew more appreciative of the experience. At certain times in your life, you know that if you go to point A, to point B, that C will happen? That’s never been our story, ha, ha! From Peter Slaghuis mixing that record [“I Can’t Wait”] in Holland and it coming over as an import after trying to get a record deal for a year, that was a miracle.
So, as far as what’s going to happen next, we don’t know and we like it that way!