Kid Creole & The Coconuts: Kid Charisma
Led, as ever, by charismatic front-man August Darnell, multi-cultural early-Eighties hitmakers Kid Creole & The Coconuts this month return with their fifteenth studio album ‘I Wake Up Screaming’. Which, in addition to marking the eclectic outfit’s first new release since the 1997 LP ‘The Conquest Of You’, also - with is cover art-work reflecting Darnell’s love of 1940’s film noir - boasts writing and production input from New York-based DJ Andy Butler of Hercules & Love Affair fame.
Born Thomas August Darnell Browder in August 1950 in New York City - where he grew up in the then-cultural melting-pot of The Bronx - Darnell began his musical career in The In-Laws - a band he formed with his brother Stony Browder, Jr. in 1965. However, it was not until 1974 - when he again formed a band with his brother, this time called Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band - that he first came to national chart prominence. As said band’s then-groundbreaking blend of Forties big-band sounds with the disco grooves of the day saw their Gold-certified, self-titled debut album attain US Top 40 success while picking up a Grammy nomination along the way. Following which August would next go on to produce a slew of eccentric projects for ZE Records - including the likes of Cristina, Don Armando’s Seventh Avenue Rumba Band and Gichy Dan.
Nevertheless, it was not until an ever-ambitious August decided to form his own band in 1980 that he would finally make his own mark on the international music arena. As - adopting the name “Kid Creole” - he would go on to put together the multi-racial, multi-cultural outfit that would ultimately become known worldwide as “Kid Creole & The Coconuts”. Whose original members - in addition to Darnell himself and his three glamorous female backing-singers/dancers The Coconuts (comprising then-wife Adriana Kaegi, Cheryl Poirier and Taryn Hagey) - also included vibraphone-player Coati Mundi, pianist Peter Schott, bassist Carol Colman, percussionist ‘Bongo Eddie’ Fold, drummer Winston Grennan, plus the three-member Pond Life horn section.
Indeed, with their first two albums (1980’s ‘Off The Coast Of Me’ and 1981’s ‘Fresh Fruit In Foreign Places’) gaining ever-increasing critical plaudits, it was the 1982 release (through Chris Blackwell’s Island Records) of the band’s third LP - the UK Top Three ‘Tropical Gangsters’ - that Kid Creole & The Coconuts would truly break through on an international level. As - with Darnell’s swaggering alter-ego Creole’s trademark zoot suits and fedora making him visually one of the Eighties’ most unique and recognisable figures - three of the album’s singles (the enduring radio smashes ‘I’m A Wonderful Thing, Baby’, ‘Stool Pigeon’ and ‘Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy’) would impressively become UK Top 10 hits while simultaneously typifying the band’s eclectic mix of heavy tropical grooves, biting lyrics and instantly-accessible pop melodies. All of which would in turn lead to Kid Creole prestigiously bagging the 1983 BRIT Award for Best International Artist.
However, despite an ongoing succession of further album releases (including 1983’s UK Top 25 ‘Doppelganger’; 1985’s ‘In Praise Of Older Women And Other Crimes’; and 1987’s ‘I, Too, Have Seen The Woods’), such heady chart heights have to date sadly never been repeated - with the 1990 Prince-penned single ‘The Sex Of It’ proving Kid Creole & The Coconuts’ last UK and US chart entry. Since which time numerous membership changes have accompanied the release of such commercially-unsuccessful albums as 1991’s ‘You Shoulda Told Me You Were’; 1995’s ‘To Travel Sideways’; and 1996’s ‘Haiti’.
… Which ultimately brings us back to today, and the release (via the Berlin-based Strut label) of the aforementioned new ‘I Wake Up Screaming’. Whose typically-diverse musical moods range from the driving, bass-prodded groove of the set’s alien-themed first single ‘I Do Believe’ and the bump’n’hustle of the disco-flavoured, Savannah Band-recalling ‘Stony And Cory’; to the rousing balladry of the rock guitar-edged ‘Tudor Jones’ and elaborately-orchestrated, life-affirming ‘Love Remains’.
All of which provides interesting conversation-fodder, as a behatted, now-Sweden-based Mr. Darnell meets up for the first time with ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis at Central London’s opulent Sanderson Hotel. Where - coolly decked-out in trademark fadora and suit - he enthusiastically discusses his long-overdue new LP; his Fifties-and-Sixties upbringing in The Bronx; and his convention-defying, five-decade-plus career in music.
The story behind titling his group’s latest album ‘I Wake Up Screaming’
“Well, I’m a big fan of film-noir and actors like Betty Grable and Victor Mature - and ‘I Wake Up Screaming’ is actually one of my favourite movies of that ilk. Though having said that, it didn’t actually become the title of the album until like the eleventh hour. Because, though the album was originally supposed to be called ‘How Green Does Your Garden Grow’, when I actually woke up screaming one morning I suddenly decided that it would be a brilliant idea to instead call it ‘I Wake Up SCREAMING’! Which to me definitely works in its favour. Because, with the world in such a ridiculous state right now, it’s a title that resonates on many, many levels! You know, with the way economics have gone haywire and with all the wars that are occurring, a lot of people really ARE waking up screaming these days! So to me it’s just a perfect title to match the state of world affairs right now!”
How the album came to feature co-composition and co-production input from New York-based DJ Andy Butler (of Hercules & Love Affair fame)
“This album, I must admit, was not my brainchild. It was actually the brainchild of Quinton Scott, who is the A&R man for !K7/Strut Records. He was the one who phoned me out of the blue and said ‘I’ve got a great idea! I’d like to put you together with Andrew Butler - who has a band called Hercules & Love Affair - because I think the two of you would be great together’... And while I first objected - because as a rule I don’t like collaborations for an album project - once I actually started listening to Andrew’s work I realised that he was quite obviously influenced by the music of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band and Kid Creole. So, once Quinton assured me he was a nice guy and that he had quite a following in the dance world, I thought ‘OK, this might be a good idea!’ - and the collaboration actually ended up working BEAUTIFULLY! Because, with Andrew being a big fan of Seventies/Eighties disco, it meant we were able to put a lot of that feel into this album in addition to the more eclectic sound that I’ve always been known for.”
The main ways (aside of involving Andy Butler) in which ‘I Wake Up Screaming’ differs from previous Kid Creole & The Coconuts albums, and the way it was put together musically
“The most important difference, I think, between this album and the previous albums is the fact that it was cut at my home studio in Sweden. Plus, in order to make it very accessible and very youth-oriented, this time I brought in my sons to help me with the production. You know, with them being in their twenties and having their own band called Picture Book, they’ve very much got their fingers on the pulse of today’s dance music - and so we ended up day-after-day just churning out track-after-track... Then, once we’d built the foundations, we called in a gentleman by the name of Mark Anthony Jones - who I’ve worked with for many years and who’s on a lot of my albums - to came to the house and do all the guitar work; we called The Coconuts in to do their backing-vocals… Then from there I called in my old team of horn players - sax, trumpet and trombone - who are all British and still perform with me live... So yeah, basically it was just all put together in that way on a daily basis.”
His early upbringing in The Bronx
“Oh, living in The Bronx back then was like travelling around the WORLD! Because in my neighbourhood there were of course the Irish; there were a lot of Puerto Ricans; there were the blacks, who in those days were called ‘negroes’ or ‘coloured people’; there were the Italians... You know, all these different types of people all in the one neighbourhood! So, when I’d leave my house, on one block I’d hear salsa music like Tito Puente and Celia Cruz; on the next block I’d hear ‘Volare’ sung by a real Italian; on the next block I might hear some ethnic European music… So, while I know it sounds like a cliché, The Bronx really was the most authentic cultural melting-pot that I’ve ever WITNESSED! And I think that was very important to me as child. Because it meant that I didn’t grow up with blinkers, thinking that any one ethnic group was better than, or inferior to, another. You know, basically it was all one universal neighbourhood where, amazingly enough, we all just got ALONG! So for me it was just one of those very healthy learning-lessons that I got early on in life - where everybody genuinely looked out for everybody else, and there was just complete co-operation amongst EVERYONE.”
How such a multi-cultural early upbringing has since impacted on his music
“Because I’ve always looked at being brought-up in that manner as a big advantage in my life, multiculturalism is something I’ve always celebrated in my MUSIC! You know, when I first formed Kid Creole & The Coconuts, because I’ve always loved so many different styles of music, I knew I was going to need a band that was very VERSATILE. Which meant I had to find the right PLAYERS - people who could do the island music, who could do the reggae, who could do the calypso - and who at the same time could also do the funk, the R&B, the blues, the pop... Which was not as easy as it might SEEM, because a lot of musicians do specialise in one type of MUSIC… So yeah, to answer your question, to me the most important thing about Kid Creole & The Coconuts has always been this multicultural, iconic mage that has constantly been attached to the band. I mean, when we first came to Europe I think what most excited people - in addition to the fact that we were a very THEATRICAL band - was the fact that we were borrowing from all strains of music, to where no one music was superior to ANOTHER. Instead everything was put into the one melting-pot to create an interesting combination of many different styles.”
How Darnell recalls his days with the Gold-selling Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, which he formed in 1974 with his since-sadly-deceased brother Stony Browder, Jr.
“It was an interesting period for me, because it basically represented my education in the music business. You know, with my brother being the leader of the band, he was the one that we all FOLLOWED. Because he had a bohemian lifestyle, plus he’d been the one who first said ‘Let’s do this for a LIVING, not a HOBBY!’… And basically the idea behind Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band was to borrow from the past - the close-knit vocal harmonies and the horn arrangements of people we respected like Duke Ellington and Count Basie - and then to combine those foundations that the Forties had given us with contemporary dance music - which, with it being the Seventies, was of course DISCO... And that’s exactly what Stony DID! And the thing that really helped us more than anything else with that was having Cory Daye as our lead-vocalist. Because she was a stylised singer with this special voice who borrowed extensively from her idols of the past like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to create her own style based UPON that... So yeah, we really did bring dance music to a new level while at the same time introducing youngsters to a style of music they’d never heard BEFORE - you know, I think Stony was very, very ahead of his time bringing that big-band-style jazz sound to a new generation... And from my point of view the whole experience definitely did teach me a LOT. Because, with me being his student and right-hand man, while Stony was in the studio producing the records I’d be there sitting by his side just absorbing EVERYTHING!”
The story behind him splitting from his brother and - in 1980 - forming his own band, Kid Creole & The Coconuts
“The reason my brother and I had a falling-out was because I was growing creatively, and I felt he was stifling my GROWTH. Basically Stony was the kinda guy who felt he was the music-composer and I was the lyricist, and never the twain shall MEET! Whereas, as a young man growing up and watching him write the music for the Savannah Band, I started to think ‘Well, I can do that! I can write a song TOO!’ - but, as I say, he wouldn’t ALLOW it. He wanted everything to stay the same way it WAS. So, while in retrospect I do think I should have stayed longer under his tutelage to learn more, when you’re young you just don’t THINK about those things! You just get ambitious and you just jump SHIP!... And so that’s how we fell out, and that’s why I ended up leaving the Savannah Band to form my OWN band - which became Kid Creole & The Coconuts!”
What Darnell wanted to achieve musically with Kid Creole & The Coconuts compared to what he’d been doing before in Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band
“Well, as I say, to me Dr. Buzzard was the learning ground where I went to SCHOOL. And so, when I started to form my OWN band, what I knew I wanted to do was to keep some of the things FROM that, while at the same time also putting the accent on DIFFERENT things. And the main thing I decided to keep was this whole adoration of the Forties. You know, with Kid Creole & The Coconuts we all still wanted to wear the zoot suits and we all still wanted to look like our matinee idols like Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable. BUT, while we did keep that look and that whole respect of the Forties to give it an old-time feeling, at the same time I also wanted to put more accent on the ISLAND/CARIBBEAN kinda feel than we’d had in the Savannah Band. Which is why, with Kid Creole, musically it was the calypso, soca and salsa that became the calling-card and what we became best KNOWN for… So yeah, what Kid Creole basically did was take the Savannah Band’s lessons and bring them to a whole new LEVEL - where we put the accent more on the Latino influence, while at the same time very much keeping it all in an accessible pop encasement. And I think that eclecticism aspect is what helped us enormously in taking the music all around the WORLD! Because we were bridging all these different categories with this so-called ‘rainbow music’ that embraced EVERYTHING! Which is something that’s always made me very happy and is to this day, I’d say, the thing that we do BEST!”
Kid Creole & The Coconuts will perform at The London Jazz Festival, which runs November 11 to 20
The album ‘I Wake Up Screaming’ is released September 12. The single ‘I Do Believe’ is out now, both through Strut
Words PETE LEWIS