Interview with Valerie Day and John Smith of Nu Shooz

(This interview was originally published June 22, 2011 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Valerie Day and John Smith. They are best remembered by '80s fans as the husband-and-wife team that fronted the band Nu Shooz. Smith founded the group and was the songwriting force while Day became the lead vocalist. Nu Shooz is most recognized by their 1986 hit single “I Can’t Wait” which helped earn them a Best New Artist Grammy nomination the following year and sell over a million records worldwide. I consider it one of the iconic '80s songs and a sound that helped define part of the decade. You will find out more about how Nu Shooz came together, the evolution of that special song as well as what they have been up to since then as we get on to some selections from my interview with John Smith and Valerie Day…

Q: How did you meet each other? Was there immediate chemistry between you two? When did you start performing music together? Were you married previous to forming Nu Shooz?

John: No, it wasn’t love at first sight. It took about a month…after that I knew we’d be together forever. (Awwwww!)

Valerie: We met at a communal household in Portland, Oregon. John was hitchhiking back from Olympia, Washington (to L.A.) and met one of the people who lived there when they were both stuck on the same freeway on-ramp. We didn’t start performing together until about four years later. I finally proposed after we’d been together seven years. He would never have thought of it!

Q: At what point and how was Nu Shooz officially formed? How and why was that name chosen for the group?

John: Valerie and I were part of the ethnic music scene in Portland, Oregon in the late '70s…this was before they called it “World Music”. She was studying congas and I wanted to be an arranger. We went to music school together for a year. At the same time, we were hanging around a Calypso band called Felicidades. Eventually, they let me play piano even though I wasn’t very good, and I started writing songs and arranging for them. This was around 1977. Felicidades had a horn section. After that, I always had to have horns. Felicidades started to phase out around 1978. I took a trip to New York. I thought I was hot s**t, you know, and I was going to be “discovered”. So, like a lot of people, I got my butt kicked artistically and went back to P-Town with my tail between my legs.

But I did figure out that I was done with Latin music. I’m not from Cuba. I wanted to do something American. During that same trip I got to see some early punk, at the Mudd Club and all that, and I thought, “this sucks!” I hated punk and thought maybe there were other people like me, who dug Philly Soul and Disco and Tower of Power. So I went back to Portland determined to do something American…a SOUL band. Nu Shooz was started by me and Larry Haggin who was the lead singer in Felicidades. Our first gig was June 21, 1979, as a four piece. And I have to tell you, we pretty much sucked. Larry left in 1980 and I added four horns, then we were off and running. [In May of 1983, percussionist Valerie Day became the lead vocalist.] As for the name, it was chosen in desperation because we needed something to put on the poster. Jim Hogan, our original bass player, was responsible for the spelling. He was a rocker and thought it looked more “rock”.

Q: Please take us back to when “I Can’t Wait” was conceived and written. What is the back story and what inspired the song?

John: By 1981, we were a nine piece band and we were one of the hot bands in town. Portland circa 1981 was the best music city on Earth. There were so many places to play, and rent was cheap. Anyway, I worked day and night trying to keep four hours of material fresh (an impossible task). I evolved a system where I worked on new songs in batches of ten, and tried to have two completed every week for rehearsal. Wrote a lot of awful, embarrassing songs. My old bandmates still kid me about them. Some of the stuff I wrote makes me cringe to this day. Anyway, I got a four-track recorder around 1983, a sturdy old Teac 3440, and really started cranking them out. “I Can’t Wait” was part of the first reel of tunes written on the new four-track. It was a thing I’d been hearing in my head. It could have gone a lot of different ways, and maybe we wouldn’t be having this conversation now.

Q: Were the lyrics the last part added?

John: I scribbled out the lyrics on the kitchen table in fifteen minutes as the band was loading their gear in for rehearsal. Flashed the piece of paper at Valerie and said, “How’s this?” Valerie said, “Fine”.

Q: When you first recorded it in the summer of 1984, did you feel you had something special? How did it feel when you first heard it on the local Portland radio?

John: Out of all the songs we were recording, that one sounded the most real. For a song to work, it has to be right for the singer and the band…all these factors have to come together. So yeah, I knew it was the best thing on the record, but you can never know what’s going to be a “hit”. All these other factors come in play, mostly having to do with the business.

Valerie: I’ll never forget the first time I heard it on the radio. I was driving in my car heading eastbound on Weidler Street in Portland. I even remember the intersection! The song came on Z100. I started singing along and then had the realization that I was SINGING ALONG WITH MYSELF on the radio. It was crazy and wonderful and I wanted to roll down the window and shout out to the world about what had just happened.

Q: Please tell us about how the Dutch remix version by Pieder “Hithouse” Slaghuis impacted the song and band’s ultimate success.

John: Pieder’s remix made it a hit. The first time I heard it, we were on the road down in Southern Oregon. I liked it right away because he did things I never would have thought of, not in a million years. We brought him to New York to work on a couple other songs. Meeting him was strange, because he didn’t speak English, and he had these weird guys with him. Even so, he taught me some awesome tape cutting tricks.

Even though they originally recorded it in the summer of 1984 and it became a regional hit in the Portland area in spring of 1985, it was that “Dutch Mix” which caught the attention of Atlantic Records which signed Nu Shooz to a contract in January of 1986. “I Can’t Wait” was released as a single in February of 1986 and would reach the top of the Billboard Dance chart by the end of March. It would peak at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in mid-June while spending 15 weeks in the Top 40. It was the first single from their album Poolside which was certified gold later that year.

Here is the music video for “I Can’t Wait” by Nu Shooz…

Q: Finally, in February of 1986, “I Can’t Wait” is released as a single and becomes one of the biggest songs of that year. What changed for you personally and for Nu Shooz after the huge success of this single? Were you prepared for all of the attention and your shot at stardom by this point?

John: When our “overnight success” happened, we had been playing four hours a night five or six nights a week for seven years! We were road warriors! So we could get up there and play. What we weren’t prepared for was the Entertainment Industry. I’ll tell you, there’s a lot of things I’d do differently now, but that’s not the rules of the game. You get one shot, and you’d better be ready.

Q: When you have a mega hit song like that, do you (or did you) ever get sick of playing it? What are your feelings about the song today 25 years later?

John: No, I’m proud of that song. It still sounds fresh and funky 25 years later. What’s gotten a little boring is that it seems to be all people are interested in. That used to really overheat my circuit boards. Now I realize that’s Show Biz, baby. They don’t call it Show ART. Musically, I’ve moved way past synth pop. When I listen to music at all, mostly I like the French Impressionist composers like Ravel and Debussy, and film score guys like Max Steiner. That’s what winds my clock now. Oh yeah, and '60s psychedelia like “Incense and Peppermints”.

Valerie: After all the years of playing in relative obscurity, it felt great to have an original tune that people would actually come up and sing to US! They still do, by the way. After all these years, it’s like “I Can’t Wait” has its own career. We’re grateful – and astonished by its staying power.

Q: The music video for “I Can’t Wait” was directed by Jim Blashfield who has created so many great music videos over the years. First, how did you decide to work with Blashfield on your video? How was the concept developed? Any insight on the meaning and/or some of the symbolism used in the video?

Valerie: We were so fortunate to get hooked up with Jim. He’s an original in every sense of the word. Turns out he completely improvised the whole video shoot. There’s a great article about the “making of” the music video that you can check out if you’re interested.

I got to work with Jim again recently for a show I created called “Brain Chemistry For Lovers” about the neuroscience of romantic love. He created the video portion of the show, edited the script, and directed. He’s the best. It was really fun to get to work with him again after all these years.

Q: Your videos received frequent airplay on MTV at that time which certainly helped to increase exposure and popularity. What are your thoughts on the impact that MTV had on music in the '80s? Also from an image and marketing point of view?

John: Is there anyone alive who remembers when MTV played music? Check it out. What kind of crazy world are we living in when MTV plays reality shows, and the History Channel does a series about long haul truckers? When I heard there was going to be a video music channel, silly me, I’m thinking I’m gonna get to see Louie Jordan, Miles Davis, then Hendrix at Woodstock, then maybe some Rick James. Instead, it went its serpentine way, and changed music forever. I swear to God I felt it from the stage! Back in nineteen-eighty-whatever, the day MTV went on the air [August 1, 1981], audiences got more passive.

Valerie: On the other hand, it added a whole new dimension to the music experience. I’ve always been into working the space where different art forms intersect. Not that all music videos are art, but so much creative collaboration between visual artists, filmmakers, animators, and musicians happened because of MTV. And for a while there, those artists even got paid to do it.
The band’s second single, Shep Pettibone’s re-mix of “Point of No Return“, also had success once again reaching the top of the Billboard Dance chart in September of 1986 as well as peaking at #28 on the Billboard Hot 100. Here is the music video for “Point of No Return” by Nu Shooz…

Q: Your follow-up single “Point of No Return” was not quite the same sensation, but it did top the Dance charts again and reached the top 30 of the Billboard Hot 100. What is the back story and inspiration for this song? What are your feelings regarding this single?

John: Well, “Point of No Return” wasn’t as well-crafted of a song, (Not that “I Can’t Wait” is “Firebird Suite” or anything) and the same care wasn’t put into the recording. I always felt like it was never finished. Hey…it got to number 28, higher than some of my favorite songs. Higher than “Papa-Oo-Mao-Mao”. We did a new version of it on Pandora’s Box [called “(The Return of) Point of No Return”] and it came out cool.

Valerie: I like “(The Return of) Point of Not Return” better, too.

Q: Who did you tour with back in the '80s? Any particular stories or memories from while out on tour back then?

John: Morris Day and the Time, Billy Ocean, Tina Turner, The Pointer Sisters, The Fat Boys blew us off the stage in Minneapolis. They also ate all the bread.

Valerie: We played 70 cities in 71 days. I mostly remember trying to find food after the gig and trying to get my gig clothes cleaned on our one day off. Ah yes… the glamorous life!

In Spring of 1988, Nu Shooz released their next album titled Told U So which had one single reach #41 on the Billboard Hot 100 and another reach #2 on the Billboard Dance chart. The album itself made it to #93 on the Billboard Album chart, but seemingly could not keep the momentum going. The follow up album to that, titled Eat & Run, was completed in 1992 but never released. After that, Nu Shooz disbanded to focus on new projects until Smith and Day reformed the group as Nu Shooz Orchestra in 2007.

Q: Please discuss the circumstances surrounding Atlantic in 1992 and why your third album for them was not released at that time. At that time, did you feel like Nu Shooz would ever record again? Will the Eat & Run album ever be released?

John: There’s a lot of turnover at record labels. We probably spent too much time making the third record. By the time it was done, the people who signed us were long gone. So there was nobody at Atlantic who cared about us. By then, we were tired of submitting songs to deaf ears. And we were not trying to make another “I Can’t Wait”, which of course, is what they wanted. By 1988, I wanted to write songs like Lowell George (Little Feat). We aren’t going to release Eat & Run, which we don’t own, but there were so many songs that came out of those four years, and we’re going to release a batch of them this summer. The album will be called Kung Pao Kitchen.

Valerie: In 2006, we released a slowed down jazz/soul acoustic version of “I Can’t Wait” to celebrate its 20th anniversary. It was a chance to put new clothes on the song and record it with a bunch of our favorite jazz musicians in town. We had a great time doing it, and the response was positive – so we decided to do more. That’s how the NU SHOOZ Orchestra came into being.

Q: Some '80s pop superstars “run away” from the '80s and some embrace the success and fans from that decade. (If at all) How do you personally deal with and keep the '80s alive and in perspective?

John: Let me say first of all that I always thought the shoulder pads were heinous. I loved the eighties, except maybe for Ronald Reagan. A lot of the culture seemed silly even at the time. Go watch Road Warrior. We had a great time in the '80s, a fabulous time, but we were total misfits, alien jazz hippies landed in a world of plastic fashion. We came out of the Jazz and Latin scene of the '70s. So we weren’t punk rockers who discovered synthesizers or new wave pop tarts. We were listening to Coltrane and Charlie Parker, and the Fania All-Stars, and then- Bam!- we’ve got this popular dance band. I have nothing but gratitude for the legions of fans who love “I Can’t Wait”. They’ve made my music career possible, but no way could I keep sounding like I did when I was 25. It’s not even possible.

Q: I have to ask you about being married and working together like you do. Has this ever been a challenge? Has it gotten easier or harder over the years? It certainly is unusual (and admirable) for a couple like you to make it work for so. If you don’t mind me asking, what is the secret to maintaining both your professional and personal relationship at the same time?

John: I adore this girl. That’s the secret to a long relationship. I’m just as thrilled as I was back in 1975. How could a guy like me end up with a girl like that? Miracles do happen. Working together has gotten easier over the years. Part of it was that we both went out and did our own things after the Shooz. Valerie became a jazz singer. I scored films and commercials. So when we came back together to make Pandora’s Box, we had both lived a lot more.

Valerie: The secret? Mutual admiration, respect, and a sense of humor – which John has in abundance. I always felt lucky to be with someone who’s a musician too. It’s not always easy working together, but it’s worked because we understand what the motivation to do this crazy thing is all about.

Q: After over three decades in the business, from your perspective, how has the music industry changed over that time? How do you see the future?

John: We live in a time when everybody can create, and that’s good in a way, but it also means that the audience is fragmented. Everyone’s plugged into the internet and the iPod. It’s harder to get people’s attention these days. You know, I could go on a rant about the modern world, but who cares. Let me tell you about a conversation I had with my son today. I said, “I wonder what the next big thing is going to be, the thing we can’t even see now? Think about it. Back in the 30s and 40s, in the swing band era, they wouldn’t have dreamed of rock and roll, or 70s funk, or hip hop.” And I think we’re ready for a new thing because frankly, hip hop is tired. If you think about it, it really hasn’t gone anywhere in 20 years. The best stuff is still Grandmaster Flash, Public Enemy, Whodini…but you know, I’m tired of hearing people talk over music. I’m like shut up already! What’s the new thing? I actually like the music my son listens to. He’s into Linkin Park and Tool, bands like that. There’s some real innovation going on in the world of Nu Metal.

Q: How have your priorities changed over the years compared to back in the '80s? How has this affected your music, if at all?

John: I thought I’d have a band when I was 60 years old. (Not there yet.) I’d love to be out there playing still, but it’s not my dream to be up there “chunkin'” out the oldies. I call it the Elephant Graveyard. That said, I understand that the music you grew up with will always be important, and it’s an honor that we were able to make a permanent piece of pop culture. Listen, people get into music for different reasons. We take the personality we were born with and run with it, right? I always lived to hear my band play whatever the newest song was that I just wrote. What’s my favorite song? The next one.

Valerie: We have a 15 year old son. I read once that when the opera singer Renee Fleming met with opera diva Jessye Norman that Jessye told her to have children, that it would help to put her career in the proper perspective because performing wouldn’t be the only thing that she would live for or die for. Our son has been an incredible influence on us, both personally and professionally. He’s a wonderful artist and human being. I think we both feel like his presence in our lives has given us a new perspective on what life is really all about.

Q: Nu Shooz just released a new album, Pandora’s Box, in 2010. Can we continue to expect more new music from Nu Shooz? Where do you feel that Nu Shooz fits within the contemporary musical landscape?

John: Well, the obvious answer is that Nu Shooz has endured. As of this writing, “I Can’t Wait” plays somewhere on earth every eleven minutes, and that’s just radio. That’s not counting iPods and YouTube. We’ve been sampled by the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost! Naughty By Nature, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, some jazz girl in Italy, NuFuture in London. Most recently, this guy called MANN wrote a great song called “Buzzin'” over the “I Can’t Wait” rhythm track and then 50 Cent did a remix of it. I dig it. As for us, we’re going to continue making music. We’ve never stopped.

Q: What else are Valerie Day and John Smith each up to now? Musically and otherwise?

John: Our son, Malcolm, is an amazing artist. He’s the talented one in the family. I’m working on a graphic novel called Evolution, a sixteen volume epic. And of course, there’s a whole batch of Eat & Run era songs to throw in the oven.

Valerie: I’m on a quest to become a better musician and improviser. There’s always something more to learn – that’s what makes music (and life) so interesting! I get to play and perform with some incredible jazz musicians and am looking forward to making more records with them. I’m also working on taking Brain Chemistry For Lovers (that concert/cabaret/science lecture about the neuroscience of romantic love I mentioned earlier) to the next level and have become a neuroscience geek in the process. And I can’t wait (sorry, no reference to a certain song intended) to make the next Nu Shooz Orchestra album and see what happens next.

I am thrilled that John and Valerie took some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. It’s pretty amazing to think that at least once every 11 minutes “I Can’t Wait” is playing somewhere on this planet. It is certainly one of my favorites from that decade and the unplugged version they released more recently is fantastic as well. Please be sure to visit the official Nu Shooz website to keep up with everything they have going on. I want to take this opportunity to again thank both John Smith and Valerie Day for their contributions to '80s pop culture through Nu Shooz and, even more, for going back to the '80s for a little while with us here as well. Thanks for taking a moment to “tell us what it’s all about.”

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