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 Exclusive ROBERT "kool" BELL (KOOL & THE GANG) - Interview

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PostSubject: Exclusive ROBERT "kool" BELL (KOOL & THE GANG) - Interview   05.01.09 21:07

Kool & the gang are now in their fifth decade of making music, which is an incredible feat in itself, but do you ever give any thought to what you might be doing now if you hadn't got into music?
Well my grandfather was a mechanic and my grandmother used to tell me that when i was only four years old my grandfather would have me under the car with him, and when someone was looking for me then that's where i'd be; under the car with grandpa, so i guess there's a possibility that i might have been in the car business and been a mechanic...



When you started out did you ever think that you'd be making your living from music for so long?
Not really because we started out when we were so young and we just loved what we were doing - and we still do - just running around playing little shows, or weddings, and just growing up around jersey city with all the jazz musicians that were around at that time who introduced us to listening to people like charlie parker, john coltrane and all those guys, so it was very interesting you know to be part of all that at that age.

Since you started out in 1964 has there ever been a time where there wasn't a kool & the gang?
Well back in 1964 the first name that we called ourselves was the yak yaks and from that we became the soul town band - soul town was a little organisation around jersey city that was trying to be a small motown and we were the young back-up band and we would have to play for about ten artists at the weekend shows, so we had to learn all these other songs, songs by a lot of the motown artists - we'd have to learn tracks by the temptations, smokey robinson & the miracles, diana ross & the supremes tracks... And what we realised was starting to happen was that we were starting to develop a sound that was influenced as much by the great jazz musicians as by the motown songs, and we started to create kool & the gang's sound. After we left soul town and we were doing our own gigs we would take a song by the temptations like 'since i lost my baby' but we would play it instrumentally and that was where we started to create the kool & the gang sound which was jazz and r&b and soul. After that we became kool & the flames while we were working these clubs around jersey and then changed the name to kool & the gang because around '67, '68 james brown and the famous flames were hot and happening and we didn't want to keep the flames so we became kool & the gang which had a sort of street sound to it...

And have you been working constantly under that name since that point?
Well, five of the seven original members are still together... But over the last thirty plus years there have been guys in and out of the band but the core members are still there...

You have obviously had a very long and varied career, but most people know you solely for the big hits you had in the seventies and eighties, and don't know the other side to the band...
For the most part yes that's true, people know 'jungle boogie', or 'cherish', or 'celebration' which are some of our big records, although actually there's a compilation that universal are putting out called 'gangthology' and on that compilation are some of the more popular tracks with some tracks that most people just don't know...

Funnily enough i have a copy of 'gangthology' here and i wanted to ask you about it because to me it reveals a whole side to kool & the gang that i never knew existed...
Yeah, that's kind of the idea - the compilation was put together by daryl easlea at universal over there and i have to compliment him on the tracklisting because he really went back into the catalogue - some of those songs even i haven't heard in years!

Did he work with you on putting the album together?
No actually he didn't - there's a lot of different compilations throughout the years which we didn't pay much attention to, but this particular one is a little bit different and he put it all together, and a lot of it is like jazz done in our style,

It must be a relief to you to finally have the various sides of kool & the gang compiled together, rather than just another hits compilation...
It's also a good thing for the fans, because we have a lot of fans from different parts of the five decades... A fan from the eighties, all they know is 'jungle boogie', 'hollywood swinging', 'celebration'... The funky stuff! So 'gangthology' takes them back to songs like 'sugar', and 'free', and 'messenger of wisdom' and all those songs that i call kool jazz- it's not like straight ahead jazz but it's all about our style and what we did back then. Some of the recordings were made with only about fifteen tracks because it wasn't very high tech back then, but it's nice listening and reflecting you know? When we did those songs we had no idea that in a new millennium they would still be around... But 'gangthology' is good because there are two cds and each one is in a different style; one is kind of funky, and the other one is more peaceful, and more our jazz side.

And of course kool & the gang are also responsible for some of the most enduring party hits of all time!
Well that's all part of what kool & the gang do, but we mix it up you know - we have jazzy stuff, funky stuff, a bit of reggae... With songs like 'misled' or 'tonight' we even - slightly - mixed in a bit of rock!

Listening to 'gangthology' there seems to be a point in your career where you're moving away from being a jazz-funk outfit and starting to pull in more pop and soul elements which i guess has enabled you to outlast other acts who didn't evolve in the same way...
I think it was an evolution, how we approached our music in every decade... In '64 when we were just starting out we were just young and developing ourselves, then it was 1969 when we dropped our first record as kool & the gang and we worked our way through most of the seventies into disco and then into the eighties, but everything really changed around then when we decided that we needed a singer in the band - if you listen to some of the tracks from back then - particularly on the peaceful side of 'gangthology' - you can see where having a singer could take us, and when jt joined the group we just refined it a little bit, got away from being too progressive with the horns so we could make room for the singer and that takes us to today...

Kool & the gang will be here in the uk in june for a few shows - it's been a few years since you were here, are you looking forward to being back?
Oh yes, you know we haven't toured the uk in almost ten years... I couldn't believe it had been that long! But one of the things i'm looking forward to most is coming back and playing hammersmith apollo again, that place is a legend!

Live performance seems to always have been important to you - early on in your career you released a couple of live albums because you worked so well in that environment, but is touring something you still enjoy?
Yes it is. We tour a lot - we're in europe a lot actually, just not in the uk recently! But we do a lot of shows and jazz festivals and music festivals - some of us older guys might get a little tired but we still enjoy it!

Is there still the same thrill in going out and playing - presumably you always have to perform some of your biggest hits, so songs like 'celebration' and 'get down on it' you must have performed thousands of times...
Yeah but it's all about the music, and we do try to change those songs around a little bit, but you can never go too far from the original or people will just be going 'what's that?'!

Looking back on your career up to now, are there things that you are particularly proud of?
Wow... Let me think... Well, there are such different time periods, like when we did the 'light of worlds' album and 'summer madness' and some of the other tracks - that was definitely an accomplishment for us you know? And i guess our success in the eighties with songs like 'celebration' and the american music awards and playing our songs all over the world... It's been rewarding, first of all to be able to sustain everything from the sixties right up to now in a new millennium and then to have that constant fan support despite the various changes in the band. Basically just that we're still here and we still love what we're doing!

If you had some sort of magic wand that would enable you to delete something from your past is there anything you'd get rid of?
Well.. Not really. Because everything has been a learning experience for us - if it had been all good then i don't know if we would still be together - you've got to have good and bad and be able to struggle sometimes to keep moving forward. I have a little saying that i always say that you live and learn and you learn to live, and you've just got to do it.

Going back to that magic wand though... You know we'd probably get rid of all the bad management, bad accountants, terrible lawyers and everything!

And what can we expect in the next chapter of the kool & the gang story?
Well, we're doing a couple of projects; right now we're working on a new album which will hopefully be out next year - hopefully in the spring of next year, and we're also doing a project in europe with some producers working out of london which is called the kool & the gang musical odyssey and we're inviting various artists to record their own versions of our tracks - like jamiroquai who is doing 'hollywood swinging', and beverley knight who has recorded 'steppin' out'... We're talking to people like sugababes, liberty x, westlife, shaggy... They're just going to take our tracks and play with them!

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