Was (Not Was) reunites

Art-funk group, best known for pop hits like "Walk the Dinosaur," records its first CD in 16 years

May 01, 2008|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

They all missed being in a band. But the guys of Was (Not Was) didn't expect such a long time to pass before they recorded again. The art-funk group's new album, Boo!, comes 16 years after its last effort, 1992's Hello, Dad ... I'm in Jail.

And what took so long?

"In two words: Bonnie Raitt," says David Was (real last name: Weiss), multi-instrumentalist and the band's chief songwriter. His longtime friend and the group's producer, Don Was (real last name: Fagenson), became an in-demand producer after overseeing the pop-rock star's 1989 Grammy winner, Nick of Time.

"After that, every aging rock star came to Don for this fountain-of-youth treatment," Was says. "Don being in demand put a crimp in his availability. After he worked with the Rolling Stones [on 1994's Voodoo Lounge], he got a taste for the band life."

But still there were schedules to hammer out, as Don Was had other production commitments and David Was and the group's two vocalists, Sir Harry Bowens and Sweet Pea Atkinson, were busy with solo endeavors. Eventually, the quartet reconvened in the studio and dove into the satirical, left-of-center funk and pop-soul that established the Detroit band 25 years ago. With the release of the critically well-received Boo!, Was (Not Was) is back on the road. The band plays Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis on Saturday afternoon.

"Give us a decade [and] it looks like we're in style again," says David Was, who last week was in New York City. "In a way, the critics are kinder to us than I would have been. What we did was purely random. But there is this soul reawakening in pop now with nonromantic lyrics. And that's what we've always done."

The irreverent humor and opaque story lines, hallmarks of Was (Not Was) albums, swirl throughout Boo! The lyrics are all bolstered by music steeped in vintage Motown and latter-day Parliament/Funkadelic.

"I'm glad that what we do is perceived as black music," says David Was, the group's other white member besides Don. "The soundtrack to my life was Motown. The innovations in pop have always come from black music. But we wanted to add some imagination, something that made us stand out."

Over the years, Was (Not Was) has stood out making party records with a brain. Beyond the funk grooves, jazz-inflected instrumentation and churchy vocals from the band's dapper black male vocalists, the Was pair offered darkly comedic tales of love and ironic, episodic snapshots of middle-class life. That approach is even more exuberant on Boo!, where brainy, political verses ("Crazy Water") give way to downright silly cuts ("Needletooth").

On the new record, David Was says the group didn't feel any pressure to rehash such past glories as "Spy in the House of Love" and "Walk the Dinosaur," the band's two biggest pop hits from 20 years ago.

"In the beginning, we were doing it for art's sake," David Was says. "Then, after you have a couple of hit records, your cottage industry becomes a corporation, and aesthetically, things don't become as good. You want to look in the aural mirror and like what you see."

The 16 years apart seasoned the group even more, David Was says. The guys were excited about the material, and that comes through on the album, which was released by Rykodisc early last month.

"That's part of the reason for the title," David Was says. "I guess you never thought you'd see us again. Hopefully, on a good day, Was (Not Was) can show that we're not just trying to knock off a form. We're trying to put our thumbprint on a style."

See Was (Not Was) at Rams Head Tavern, 33 West St. in Annapolis, at 1 p.m. tomorrow. Tickets are $30 and are available at tickets.ramsheadonstage.com or by calling 410-268-4545.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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