BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
Throughout their 40-year career, The B-52s only released seven albums, from their self-titled, “Rock Lobster”-bearing debut in 1979 to 2008’s bouncy “Funplex.”
But their reputation is legendary, especially in Georgia, where their art pop/New Wave mirror ball punk first glimmered.
The road from Athens carried the band through “Private Idaho,” “Whammy Kiss” and the late-‘80s radio explosion with “Love Shack” and “Roam.”
And after four decades, Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson and Keith Strickland (who retired from touring a few years ago but remains a band member) are still spreading the quirky, thought-provoking (if you really listen) charms of The B-52s.
In their non-band time, all stream their creativity into solo projects. Schneider and The Superions recently released “The Vertical Mind,” Pierson unveiled “Guitars and Microphones” in 2015 and Wilson will offer her solo debut, “Change,” on Nov. 17.
But the group will convene for a pair of shows – Thursday and Friday – at Atlanta Symphony Hall, and will be joined, for the first time, by the Atlanta Symphony on several of their most-beloved tunes.
Earlier this week, Schneider checked in – he was staying at a friend’s power-less house in Atlanta thanks to Tropical Storm Irma – to talk about being a B-52.
Q: Does it feel like 40 years?
A: No, it’s funny. But here we are, still here. No matter what, we (in the band) always shared everything equally, whatever ups and downs we had. There was never really a leader per se because no one would have paid attention to a leader. We were friends to start and we wound up friends still. I know a lot of New Wave bands that no longer speak to each other. The music business is crazy. It’s tough putting up with things and dealing with people and having tragedies and triumphs.
Q: You’re performing with the Atlanta Symphony with arrangements by David Campbell (father of Beck). How does that work with the show?
A: This one will alternate. We’ll do our set and the symphony will be onstage the whole time and jump in. A Lot of times if we’re performing and they’re not playing (on that song), they’ll sing along. A lot of the symphony players are younger than us and they’re fans. Of course you have your snobby ones, the “I’d rather listen to Brahms” types (laughs). We have nine songs worked up with the symphony, so it will be a mix.
Q: I imagine it’s an interesting experience for you to perform in that configuration.
A: Since we have different arrangements of the songs, you have to pay attention. You can’t let your mind wander. We started doing (symphony shows) before last year. Whenever a symphony is available, we say sure. We’d rather do something more interesting than go to the same places and do the same show. This way is really different.
Q: Everyone knows you as an Athens band, but it seems as if Atlanta was just as instrumental in breaking the band.
A: There was no place to play in Athens until finally The Last Resort and they sorta didn’t want us – they were a folk club - until we sold out and they made a lot of money. There were a lot more places to play in Atlanta. The first place we played for a paying audience was Max’s Kansas City (in New York) in 1977, so that will be 40 years on Dec. 12. I think we made $17 and we thought we made it. Back then we’d get a (hotel) suite with enough rooms for everybody in the band for $60 a night at the Iroquois. Not anymore!
Q: Even though you had a lot of commercial success with “Cosmic Thing” (in 1989) you never really altered your sound. Was there a lot of pressure from the labels to be “more mainstream” once you had those hits?
A: No, because they knew from the beginning it was what you see is what you get. We didn’t change our way of writing or anything. We’re sort of still punky at heart. We had better clothes, but our attitude was still the same. We still brought all of our creativities together. I thought (1992’s) “Good Stuff” was underrated… and then grunge came along.
Q: Do you think the “party band” label was fair?
A: I think we’re a lot more than a party band, but we’re there to entertain people. If I’m going to preach about something I’ll do it in interview. Then again we’re doing “Channel Z” again and I can’t believe what happened 30 years ago is still going on even worse. I think we write a lot better lyrics than people think.
Q: Tell me about your relationship with the girls and Keith. Do you think The B-52s would have survived in a different incarnation?
A: For the last album, “Funplex,” we wanted to do an album when no one was buying albums. We actually worked a lot faster – we did it in Atlanta - and it really worked. It showed that we could even step up our game and people say it’s as good as our early stuff - and I think better than it. We’re able to connect in a way; there’s a lot of laughter going on and sometimes you can’t hear what the other person is saying. “Tin roof” and “Your what?” (from “Love Shack”) came about because I couldn’t hear what Cindy was singing! I had no idea what she was singing about. People took it to mean the dumbest things, but I was like, look at the lyric sheet. So we have a lot of laughs.
8 p.m. Thursday-Friday. $49.50-$125.50. Atlanta Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com .