The somewhat unorthodox decision to have funk/soul/jazz legend Kool & the Gang open up for hard-rock icon Van Halen for this year's "A Different Kind of Truth" tour has certainly raised a few eyebrows and ruffled some feathers. Despite getting a mixed reaction, the tour has gone on to become so successful that 18 additional dates have been added to the original 52. (Note: As of this writing, K&TG is not confirmed as the opening act for the additional dates.)
Although this is K&TG's first U.S. tour in more than fifteen years, founding member Robert "Kool" Bell says they couldn't have planned it any better. "Everything's coming together really well," he says. "It's a happening combination." RFT Music caught up with Bell in between concerts to get his take on all the publicity surrounding the tour and his perspective on the music business as a veteran of nearly 50 years.
Calvin Cox: Although Van Halen and Kool & the Gang were both huge in the late '70s and early '80s, K&TG wasn't an obvious choice to be the opening act. Whose idea was it to bring you guys onboard?
Robert "Kool" Bell: That was David Lee Roth's idea. What happened was that David saw us play at the Glastonbury Festival last year. That night we had about 60,000 people in front of our stage. It was us, Beyoncé and Paul Simon closing out the whole ten-day [festival], and we rocked it. When [David] saw that, he went back to Eddie and Alex and said, "I want to have Kool & the Gang open for us."
Was there resistance or apprehension at first, from either side?
There was a little of that to some degree. But Van Halen had that big record [with] "Jump," which crossed over both ways. Plus we've seen each other every so often on the road. David told me something I didn't know; he said that when Van Halen started back in the '70s, they used to play our stuff. They would play "Funky Stuff" and "Hollywood Swinging." The fans might not know it, but they were into our music — and vice versa. Some of my guys were into what they were doing.
The tour has been getting quite a bit of media attention. What's the response been like from where you're sitting?
We were getting some negative feedback in the beginning. One [writer] was like, "I betcha that was that David Lee Roth!" but now that we're out here, and fans are really seeing us, they get it. Now they're looking at David Lee Roth like, "He's a genius! He knew exactly what he was doing." It's surprising a lot of people. It's even surprising Live Nation, who mostly deals with rock groups.
So the Van Halen fans are giving you guys a warm reception?
Oh yeah. When we started the tour, we were kind of looking around and wondering about the hardcore rock fans. We start off with "Fresh," then we do songs like "Tonight," "Misled" and "Emergency" that have a slight rock flavor. The we go into "Too Hot," "Hollywood Swinging" and "Jungle Boogie." When we get to "Ladies' Night," all the ladies in the crowd are up dancing and looking at the hardcore guys like, "What's the matter with you?" By the time we hit "Celebrate," we've got the house.
During the '80s, K&TG was known for its pop-friendly records like Celebrate!, as opposed to the funk-heavy music you were doing prior to that. Do the fans seem to have a preference?
On a crossover level, we're better known for our pop songs, but we're finding that there's a movement towards what we were doing in the '70s. A lot of our pop fans know "Jungle Boogie." That was a top-five record. When they used it in Pulp Fiction, it was like it was brand-new.
During a performance, do you have a preference between those two styles?
When we do our own shows, which are almost two hours, we really mix it up. We do the jazz, the funk, the pop, some rock, you know — the works. For this tour, we don't have as much time, so we put a tight 50-minute show together.
Since James "J.T." Taylor [who fronted the band during the '80s], is no longer with the band, who's handling the lead vocals?
The guy who's doing our lead vocals now, Shawn McQuiller — we call him "Shawny Mac" — has been with us on-and-off for almost twenty years. The difference between Shawn and J.T. is that [Shawn] plays guitar and sings. Really, Kool & the Gang started as a band. So now we're full-circle again. Everybody's a musician, so it takes us back closer to where we started.
What are some of the biggest changes the band has endured in your 40-plus years in the business?
Well, we started real young in the '60s as a jazz outfit. We had our first hit record in '69 called Kool and the Gang. We made our way through the '70s with the funk/jazz sound and scored with "Hollywood Swinging" and "Funky Stuff." We crossed over somewhat, but we were still heavy on the urban side with those songs. Then "Summer Madness" ended up in the first Rocky movie, and that started a pattern. After "Open Sesame" wound up in Saturday Night Fever, there was a whole movement about "Dance music is dead," et cetera. So we made a move and decided to get a lead singer. That's when we got J.T. Taylor — and with that, we survived the '80s. When J.T. left in '88, we decided to go abroad. Traveling around the world, touring and doing festivals was how we survived the '90s. In the new millennium, we've been playing about 100 shows a year around the world, and now we're on a 52-city tour with Van Halen. You could say we've survived challenges in every decade since we started.
How has the industry changed in the time since?
The music industry today is definitely more youth-driven. I don't have a problem with that, because we were young once — but record companies today only want to go with what's immediately selling. They don't develop acts like they did back in the '70s. If you don't make a certain quota, you're getting dropped. The flip side to that is that the groups that are still around are still touring. I see Three Dog Night, Grand Funk Railroad, the SOS Band — we're all still working.
In addition to a Jersey Boys-style musical about the band, I hear a new reality show may be in the works for you. Can you elaborate?
That's something my son — who's a producer — came up with called Making It Kool. It's about guys who started as musicians and went on to be doctors, lawyers — different professions, but they still get together and play on the weekends. So we're going out to find these groups and give them a chance to make it "Kool" again.
And I'm sure there are fans out there who don't know that K&TG never stopped putting out albums...
That's right. We're still pretty much doing what we've always done — we're mixing it up, jazzing it up. We released an album called Still Kool about five years ago; it didn't get the proper promotion from the record company, because in America, if you ain't Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber, the big boys aren't going to promote you. But we covered some Marvin [Gaye] on the album and took a jazz approach to Christopher Cross' "Sailing." We're actually thinking about re-releasing it on our own label.
It's been reported that you and your brother Ronald [Bell] are in the process of putting together a new album as well. What can you tell us about that?
We want to do a record with guest artists, like a "Kool and Friends" sort of thing. We've been speaking with Bootsy [Collins], Nile Rodgers and Charlie [Wilson's] camp. We've reached out to Verdine White [from Earth, Wind & Fire], and we'd like to get Eddie [Van Halen] to play guitar on it. So yeah, we've got another project in the works.