The first time the B-52s performed onstage together after Covid lockdowns — playing “Love Shack” on Jimmy Kimmel Live! — might have been nerve-racking for any other band. They had to shave a minute out of the song to accommodate the tight TV spot. Then they had to wait in a trailer until they were called onstage —”We didn’t even get to meet him,” the perennially redheaded Kate Pierson says of Kimmel — and then it was just a matter of tapping immediately into their inborn party spirit. The performance was typically spot-on, with Pierson and Cindy Wilson harmonizing perfectly and Fred Schneider shouting a stentorian “Love Shack, baby!” while banging on a cowbell. In true B-52s fashion, it naturally became a celebration.
“It actually wasn’t stressful,” Pierson tells Rolling Stone over the phone a few weeks later. “We’ve done it before, and it was just really fun to play together again. Everyone was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ We had a couple of days of rehearsal just to get back in shape and everyone was so overjoyed to see each other again and be together. It was amazing.”
Watching the group’s instantaneous connection onstage, it’s hard to imagine that nearly 50 years after the three singers formed the band in Athens, Georgia (with multi-instrumentalist Keith Strickland and the late Ricky Wilson on guitar), they’ll embark on a farewell tour this year. The trek kicks off in August with some dates variously featuring the Tubes and KC and the Sunshine Band, before wrapping in November at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, about 80 minutes from Athens. “It would be really nice to end in Athens, so we might add a show,” Pierson says. “It might be a surprise show.”
But even after the group locks up the Love Shack, they have plenty of other good stuff to occupy them. They’ve already begun trawling their archives for an upcoming documentary — produced by Fred Armisen and directed by Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins, Alex Strangelove) — and are even considering recording some new songs. Pierson adds that they may even play a few one-off gigs after the farewell. Here, she explains why it’s so hard to say goodbye.
Why the farewell tour?
Well, I’m calling it the “Share-well Tour” because I guess I’m in denial. I just can’t believe that it’s going to be the last gasp. We still have so much energy. Keith Strickland, who’s no longer touring with us — but who’s still an important member of the band — has been writing a lot of music so we might even write a couple of songs, but not an album. And we just did a song with Miranda Lambert. She asked the B-52s to sing on [“Music City Queen”]. So we may do some things like that, but I doubt we’re really going to do a big tour again; we might do private shows and festivals and stuff like that. So I think we’ll still keep the wheels greased.
But also there’s a time when you look back on your life and think, “How much time did I spend on the road?” And some people love it. I’m one of the ones in the band that really loves being on the road, but I also love being home. I think everyone enjoyed two years of not playing. To actually be home and have time to catch up on things was just a gift and I think everyone appreciated that.
How did you all keep in touch during the Covid lockdown?
We have a band thread that includes the whole band — the touring band, our manager, and tour managers as well — and Fred’s always sending jokes and we’re always sending stuff back and forth, music clips and stuff. So we’re all in touch.
How did the conversation go when you all agreed, “We’re going to do this farewell tour – the party’s over”?
I think we were just waiting for the end of the pandemic; it’s not ended, but it seems like it was time to crawl out of the cocoons. We’ve been talking about this for a long time: “How long are we going to go? Can we just go forever?” There’s so many parts to being in a band. There’s recording, writing, and promoting, and then there’s touring. So I think that chapter may be closing but opening up into some other things: maybe some new songs, the documentary, a book, a lot of things that we have tried to get going before, but I guess we were always on the road, and it’s hard to do anything else when you’re on the road.
I also have a solo record that I hope to come out in October. I think I’m calling it Radios and Rainbows. I didn’t want to release it during the pandemic because it seemed like there wasn’t much momentum, but we’re kind of onward and upward.
Why is now the best time for a farewell tour?
It came together now because our management was really aiming towards trying to get it all at one time, the momentum of the documentary, the tour and when [Covid] was safe. We always wanted to play with KC and the Sunshine Band. Fred and I always said, “We gotta tour with them.” So I think it’s just going to be a great party.
Have you decided what the band’s last song should be?
Well, the problem is deciding on a set list because we are doing several nights in a row in some cities. Changing the set list is like Congress passing a bill; everybody wants their songs or their favorite songs to perform. We talked about maybe doing just the first two albums, but then we have to do certain songs. We have to do “Roam,” “Love Shack,” and “Rock Lobster.” The audience is going to be disappointed if we didn’t do that. So the question is, do we do the deep cuts? I don’t know.
But I believe the last song is going to have to be “Rock Lobster.” It’s been a tradition and people are going to be very disappointed that we don’t do that. Plus, we have a “Lobby, the Lobster” with us. Our manager came up with this lobster suit that’s very uncomfortable and skinny legs stick out the bottom. You have to be really skinny to fit into it, and it’s hot, and you can’t see, but it has antennas, and it really is fun [when it] comes out to dance. It’s a trip to watch the audience just bust loose and just do their crazy dance.
Are there deep cuts you’re dying to play?
Oh, I’d like to do “Cake,” “Devil in My Car,” “Big Bird,” “Junebug,” “Dry County,” “53 Miles West of Venus.” It would be fun for fans if we did some songs that we never did because a lot of fans are coming to two shows. So we’ve got to change it up.
I’m glad you mentioned “Devil in My Car.” The recording of that on your live album from 1979 is so much fun with Fred screaming, “Heeellp!”
That’s one of the early songs. I think we did it on our very first performance. When we wrote that song we were all in a car, in Athens, and this preacher came on the radio and he was saying, “There’s a devil in my car, the devil’s everywhere, he’s in my carburetor.” So we just screamed and thought, “Well, we have to do that.” We didn’t usually say, “Well, this is a song we have to do.”
We have a lot of disaster songs that I still feel like when Cindy and I are singing and Fred is singing and we’re doing “Lava” or “Devil in My Car,” and we really get into it — we’re really, like, scared, yelling these things like, “Overflow! Hell burning up!” — I feel like we’re really still deep into it and believe it.
People ask, “Do you get tired of it?” But the beat drives you on, like “Rock Lobster,” you just can’t not dance, even if you’ve heard it a million times. That makes it so it’s never boring. Any of the songs, “Love Shack,” all our songs are pretty fast and furious, but you just have to recreate it each time. And with “Rock Lobster,” we can make different riffs on the fish sounds, so we’re always doing different sounds.
It sounds like you’re all still close friends even after all these years.
That’s the miracle. It’s very much a family dynamic. We still make each other laugh, and that’s the key to how we stay together.
You mentioned Keith retired from touring, but would he consider joining you for any of the gigs?
I have talked to him about it and he’s thinking about it, but I don’t know. Wouldn’t that be something if he joined in on the end of “Rock Lobster” or something? If he came onstage, people would go crazy.
In the background of prepping for this tour, you’ve also been working on a documentary about the band. How is that coming together?
We had archivists that came to my studio, and we unearthed all this Super 8 footage that I had in a bin since 1978 or something. They had footage of us performing, oh, my God, it was really fun watching all the crazy dances we did. We were super energetic. And we even found in Fred’s cache of cassette tapes, the first song – the first jam — we ever did together. It was, like, spontaneous combustion, the band exploded into what it is, because we started jamming at a friend’s house and we wrote the song. It was really a partial song called “Killer Bees,” and there was only one tape. I can’t even believe we taped it. It’s really a trip to hear it.
So you hadn’t listened to this tape in more than 40 years? What struck you about it?
I kind of remembered it, but what struck me about it was the spontaneity and fun that we had doing that. It was just this surprise jam after we had a “flaming volcano” drink at Hunan’s Chinese restaurant. We didn’t have money for food, so we got a flaming volcano drink and it had six straws. There were six of us there, the sixth person being Owen Scott, whose house we went to afterwards. And he went upstairs to write a paper and we started jamming in his music room. We wrote by this sort of collective jamming process … it was like automatic writing. I think a lot of musicians will say, “I don’t know where that song came from.” But I know Fred had the idea for “Killer Bees” because we’re all always reading science facts and we love science facts. So he read that the killer bees are coming. That was kind of the basis for that jam.
Was there anything else that you found in the archives that blew your mind?
The archivists were really excited about the Super 8 footage because it’s mostly taken from the side of the stage, sometimes from the front. But being able to see the audience and the energy we had, and the dances are hilarious. We were nervous in the beginning, so we were very deadpan. And Fred had some of his key lines like, “Are there any questions?” Or, if Ricky broke a guitar string, we would do this sort of call-and-response thing, “Is that you, Modine?” But we were terrified when we got on stage at first and we would turn our backs to the audience. Because we were so scared, the first time we went on Saturday Night Live, we looked very robotic and kind of punk and scary, but it was really because we were scared ourselves. But I found it just amazing to uncover all the Super 8 stuff and amazing photographs too.
And we found some of the old things we used to do when we lived in the same house in New York, and we used to just play around and make funny little films, like fake TV shows and Ricky Wilson was the host and it was called The Hell Tyler Show. We did Hell Tyler on the Moon, and we’d all perform some kind of lip syncing and doing crazy stuff. So we have some of that. So maybe that will be in the documentary, too.
So you haven’t started doing interviews for the doc yet?
Nope. We’re just virgins.
I was going to ask, “What does the B-52s retirement plan look like,” but it sounds like there isn’t one.
Yeah, we’re not going to do another major tour, but we have a lot in the works. You haven’t heard the last of the B-52s.