Interview – David “Pic” Conley of Surface

10500305_452011524948613_3293437910877038847_nDuring the 1980s, the smooth sounds of R&B was a hot commodity in the music world, breaking boundaries in mainstream Pop radio and beyond. Through the ’90s, the genre celebrated a sea of success amidst a large listener fanbase, stapling its sounds as influential to many. One of the many successful acts to pave the wave during the ’80s was a three-man group, Surface, who celebrated three consecutive chart-topping records along with a number one single in 1990 with “The First Time.” While the music landscape has changed through the decades, Surface’s tunes remain timeless,and in 2015, founding member David “Pic” Conley returned with his new project, Resurface. Busy over the years, working in a variety of other projects including producing and writing for other artists, Conley has plenty of fire left and put together the new record, Where Have You Been. Recently we sat down with the inspiring musical mind for a look into his past, his years of hard work, the roots of R&B, new music, and more. – You been involved in music for nearly four decades now. In the 1980s, you attained a great deal of success with Surface with a slew of R&B number one singles. What was your experience as a part of Surface like during those years?

David Conley – It was probably some of the best experiences I probably ever had really, to tell you the truth. I attribute everything I did with Surface and after, such as the stuff I was doing with Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Sammy Jordan, and all of these other people, is really because Surface had focus, and we were doing songs with Surface. It allowed me to move my talent to other people because of the recognition of Surface. Everything leads back to Surface for me. – Of course, completely. Surface’s 1986 self-titled debut record came three years after the group’s first single “Falling in Love.” Making a big impression with that single, was the group anxious to put out a full-length record? Also, what caused a three year delay?

David Conley – “Falling In Love,” came out in ’83, I was with Karen Copeland at the time, she was the lead singer of Surface in the beginning. We had three singles, “Falling in Love” was the first, “When Your Ex Wants You Back” was the second, and “Stop Holding Back” was the third. Then Karen and I broke up, then we let Bernard in 1984, and actually we started writing together, Dave, myself, and Bernard. We started out writing for the next girl that was going to be in Surface actually. We were auditioning girls, because we had to deal with Salsoul at the time. One of the songs, “Feel So Good,” it was a playoff of “Falling In Love” because we used the same chords, a similar bassline, and the melodies changed a little bit, but it was basically “Falling in Love” rewritten.

We never found another girl. Eventually it led to a writers deal in 1985 and we were actually staff writers for EMI. We started writing for people back then. That’s actually what propelled us from our record deal, because one of the guys from EMI, named Leonard, he went to Sony with our music. He played it for Larkin Arnold and Erik Norrie, and Larkin just flipped on this stuff. He said, “Well, these songs are nice, but I hear a group in there, is this a group?” Leonard said, “You bet they are!” Next thing we knew, we sat in front of Erik Norrie, who looked bigger than life to me. He was the real A&R guy of Sony, this big giant which was Columbia Records at the time, and when we met him, we were freaking out. We could not believe this was happening. Next thing we knew, we got signed to Columbia Records as a group and we decided to keep the same name, Surface, because there was never going to be another girl. I said, “Hey, let’s just use this name.” The guys said, “Yeah, let’s do it,” and in 1986 is when we started, just the three of us.

Surface Columbia promo
Surface Columbia promo – The group followed with 2nd Wave in 1988 and 3 Deep in 1990, which both were highly charted releases. Looking back, in hindsight, were you happy with the group’s progression over the course of those releases?

David Conley – It was awesome to me, I thought it was never going to end. When you think that you kind of live a certain way, whether it’s money, relationships, style, or whatever, you just say, Ok, this is happening,” but it keeps on happening. We were just staying in the charts and staying in the charts. Then one day in 1991, we had our first #1 Pop record. We were close with “Shower Me With Your Love,” we went to #5, that was huge on the Pop side. We were #1 in R&B of course, but Pop, #5 in 1991. The 3 Deep album, we had a song, “The First Time,” and that went #1 Pop, #1 Adult Contemporary, #1 R&B at the same time, a Gold Single, a Gold Album, and guess what happened? The record company decides to drop us. When you think that you’re riding high, in our case, high became low.

It’s almost like, ok, we did this wonderful thing, we went all the way up where everyone wants to be #1 in Pop. Lets face it, that’s where all of the radio stations are, that’s where all of the people are. R&B, there’s x amount of stations, and Pop stations dwarf on these stations, so we are reaching more people. That’s all it really means, you’re reaching more demographics. When we did that finally, with the progression of being #1 and getting fifteen top with “Happy” and “Closer than friends,” then bam! We finally hit #1 and we figured we were going to be open to do so many things after that. Then the record company says, “We’re going to drop you guys.” I said, “Why? What did we do wrong? We got a gold single, we got a #1 single, we got a gold album. What happened?” We never really got a decent answer, the only answer we got, to tell you the truth was, “We’re spending platinum money on you guys and you’re just a gold group.” I said, “Hello guys, did you just remember that we made platinum on 2nd Wave? They said, “Yeah, but that’s when we put all the money behind you.” I thought, “But you sold 500,000 records, you sell for $15 a piece, you gave us $380 thousand to do the record, you gave us another $350 thousand royalty, the numbers don’t add up to me. That’s not even a million, and you guys made multi-million dollars on us and you’re telling us that we don’t count anymore but there’s gotta be something else in there.” We never found the answer. We just had to grin and bare it. Next thing we knew it, we didn’t have a record deal anymore.

Columbia – That is unbelievable. Talking about this now, you look at the record industry and the numbers you were producing back then, they would be off the charts now if you are an artist selling ten thousand units when it comes to physical albums nowadays. It is really sad where the music industry has gone, where nobody buys music anymore.

David Conley – You’re right. Then you take a group like Surface, you figure, “Oh, those cats, they don’t need any extra money, whatever.” It almost makes people relax, when they think about not buying your record as opposed to running to the store to buy the record. The numbers were like 20 thousand a week, these numbers would be moving, like moving, moving, moving. So you get down to where you can’t even move 10 thousand pieces in a year.

The times have changed, but there’s still plenty of money in the music business. I don’t want your readers to thinking all the money is gone, because it’s not. There’s more avenues in making money nowadays because of the internet. The internet is a double-edge sword of course, but you can reach people all over the world in one little click now. All kinds of financial streams that come from that, movies to shows, to merchandise, plays, on, and on, and on. There’s all kind of ways of making money in the music business that doesn’t have too much to do with the record sale.

It’s not like it’s dead. It also tells you that if the money was your motivation to be in this business, then maybe you should scratch your head and say, “Ok, it’s not like it was before.” Unless you just go viral, like a lot of these artists are doing right now. Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, and Kanye West, you see some of these numbers that they’re moving, even on their views on some of their videos and stuff, they are up to hundreds of millions of views. They are getting views like that on places like YouTube, you can make money when you advertise your music. If you get a million views on YouTube and you monetize it, that’s good for about thirty grand. When you think about that and you’re moving hundreds of millions of views, you can make money for making a video that can go viral. Going viral are not that easy, but they do it. They do a lot of things to get that too; lots of girls are showing parts of their bodies and doing all kinds of stuff.

I particularly liked the video that Macklemore did, a video for the song called “The Thrift Store.” When they did that, it gave me a different view in the music business. When Macklemore did it in one week, when it was viewed 100 million times, I was like, “But how did it happen?” But it happened, and it kept going on and on, hundreds and hundreds more. It has probably about four hundred million views. They were in Central Park singing in their first year, and they didn’t even have a record company. – That is amazing. It goes to show you that there is still ways of making money in the music industry. It is just that the platform changed. The group did in fact disband in 1994, but did reform for the 1998 record Love Zone. There was plans for a new album years later, but tragically, David Townsend passed away in 2005. How difficult was this to lose a friend and fellow bandmate?

David Conley – It’s still difficult. If you knew Dave, you knew he was a conversation piece himself, a very unique individual. He was super funny first of all. In front of girls, he was that tall, good-looking cat, if you know what I mean. Funny to boot. His father was famous, introduced us to Marvin Gaye when we were kids in the business. He had everything going for him. Dave, as well as Bernard, was the one who taught me how to write, play the bass, and things like that. He was more than my best friend, he was actually my mentor, my teacher, and we learned from each other, of course. Losing him took a lot of steam out of the group.

When it was left with me and Bernard, I don’t think we ever recovered. You mentioned we disbanded in 1994, we never disbanded. Even till this day, we never said, “Fellows, this is it.” We just stopped working, which is so ironic as well. Why did we stop working? I don’t know. I had my little side gig, producing and writing for other people. It wasn’t missing financially or something like that, but the group wasn’t doing it. We did do that album in 1998, but that was an Asian record. It was a leasing deal, we didn’t look at it like a record deal. They did pay for the record, it was released over in the Orient, Japan in particular. It didn’t do too well, to tell you the truth. I don’t even know if it sold five thousand pieces, to tell you the truth. I never saw any royalties from it so that would tell you one thing. We just stopped working together.

In a marriage, that can count as separated, one step closer to divorce. Very true, and groups are just like marriages. Me, Dave, and Bernard, we were stuck together by talent and contracts, like everything else. Basically, we were like a family. Families do to each other, sometimes they smack each other around and sometimes you kick each other, steal each other’s girlfriends, and stuff like that. Things like that kept going on and on, but we never said this is over. Nobody said that, even to today. What we did say was, I asked Bernard what are we going to do now? These classic groups are coming back and making a big rhythm again now and we should be out there with everybody. He kept pausing and pausing, and I just got to the point when I said, “You know what, I gotta keep it moving dude.” I asked him, “What do you think about the name Resurface?” He said, “That’s cool.” I told him, “I’m ready to do another record” and said, “What do you want to do?” He never gave me an answer, so I had to take my own destiny in my own hands. The spirit of the group was dissipating little by little after Dave passed. It was doing it before Dave passed, but it was really creating clouds of smoke around us. Now, here I am, with my new CD Resurface, Where Have You Been, selling on iTunes, CD Baby, and all of that kind of stuff. I know the record is hot, and we put our best foot forward.

Victor Entertainment – That is very exciting. The record was released in June of 2015. What was the writing and recording process like for this record?

David Conley – It was a joy because as I was writing this particular project, I had Dave and Bernard in my head. I couldn’t shake them, I felt that I became them. With John Feva, the lead vocalist, coming in and bringing his side of the stories as well and staying close to what I was used to, he had to bend more towards where I was coming from, the Surface legacy as opposed to his group called The Black Flames back in the day. It ended up really good with the collaboration with his respect, including his respect with Bernard too. Pretty much, he ended up singing Surface where I would do some Jazz or something like that. Finally, I said, “We have to do a record.” He was still himself, but he still had to shadow Bernard. It wasn’t bad because he grew up with Bernard, El DeBarge, Michael Jackson, these were actually his peers he grew up listening to and he was trying to be like them. It wasn’t like he was doing anything strenuous, he just fit in their shoes and it worked pretty good.

Also, I wanted to continue the legacy of the stuff I did in the past with Surface or anyone else I worked with. I wanted to make sure people still felt the music from our past still resonate today. That’s what was on top of my head, can we still do it when people would say that reminds me of what you used to do with Surface. Where people say, “You did it with today’s touch to it and I’m really glad that happened where you guys can fit.” It’s not that easy from a new world, when you came from an old and different world of music and still trying to do something similar but making it fit. So that was a challenge and hopefully we did a good job. I feel we passed the exam and got our diplomas, which is the record. It looks good, sounds goo, and I am very proud of it. I already thanked the boys for being a big part of my history and being able to do what I did on this record. – You should be proud of the record. The track “We Can Fly” really has an old school R&B styling to it with a modern flair. Was it you objective to recapture that classic sound and try and bring it to a new generation?

David Conley – Absolutely, and when you say that, it gives me another affirmation that, hey, you might have been on the right page. They say, “You know what? I still get that feeling with those beautiful vocals, and now I get this that reminds me of old school, but it feelings like it is today.” That came from one of our collaborators, Gene Lake. He was in the very beginning with us, he was in the first original band of ours. He’s a drummer, he’s out there with Boz Scaggs, David Sanborn, and everybody else right now. He’s an extremely high level musician. He’s also a writer and does wonderful music. When it came time to do the music with him and John Feva, I felt that I wanted it to feel like a particular song, and also feel something new about it. Then Feva came in with this great guitar part, and I said, “You know what? Keep this guitar part going through the whole song, I don’t want it to change. Keep it going, let it ride like James Brown.” He’ll just give you that one lick and it will go through the whole record and you don’t even notice it because the vocals and everything else is streaming around, making something happen, making you move, making you feel good, and making you smile. – That is what music is all about, making you feel something. It seems that the modern R&B scene has really changed a lot through the years. During the ’80s and ’90s, R&B artists dominated the mainstream charts. Why do you think there has been such a change?

David Conley – The times changed, first of all, streets change. R&B music has always been about what’s going on in the streets. If there’s a lot of sex, drugs, money, swinging, and a lot of that stuff going on, on the streets, that’s what people will talk about. These producers were kind of invented by the Hip Hop Artists. A lot of Hip Hop artists were crappy at taking old music with different beats and bring them together, piece them together, and bring something from the past and then put their vocals on top. The producers changed, the musical ideas changed from the new producers. Remember, they took music out of school, so a lot of them young people are not musically inclined, but they were musical. They might not know how to play keyboards, but they can punch on the keyboard. At least they can figure it out, so music certainly went to the direction where the streets were going. But guess what? I have been hearing a lot of good music right now. It seems we are coming out at the right time. All of a sudden, Kenny Lattimore and D’Angelo coming out with new stuff. There’s been some really good music lately. I figure I’m falling in the right timing, all I need to do is get people like you to reading, listening, get it on national radio, and then get a better idea on what people think after listening to our music. People have to hear it, to respond to it first. I’m hearing a lot of good music on the radio, it is not dead.

It actually feels it’s re-surging now, and I feel like I’m part of this re-surging movement. It wasn’t intentional, it just kind of happened like that, but there’s a lot of good music out there. I actually like listening to the radio again. Not Hip Hop, I like the classic R&B stations. It’s not dead, it is coming back. R&B kind of took a back seat for a while where R&B wasn’t R&B anymore, it became this hybrid of Hip Hop and Pop, if you will. Whatever it is, a lot of people were complaining, and I hear the complaints, I hear it all the time of people saying, “Man, I’m glad, you gotta put out some real music.” All music is real, it’s the way people put it together and the way they feel when doing it. You can’t tell someone that is making so much success from making what they call R&B now to stop doing what they are doing, because it’s working for them. It’s working for Beyonce, did I like Beyonce when she first came out? Heck yeah! Did I like Mariah Carey when she first came out with “Visions of Love”? Heck yeah! I am still fans, but I am a song man. If you are just going to put a beat together with vocals and not much behind it, it doesn’t grab me as much as a real singer with a real song. People out here, they’re satisfied with whatever they get because if you shove it down their throats playing it one hundred times a day, they will like what they hear. Hey, I’m going to end up liking it too.

269e883c-abf4-4630-b26e-2454ae8af6cb – Right, it is exciting to hear that there is resurgence. Perhaps if you give people better quality music, they will listen to it. It is a matter of giving audiences a better option.

David Conley – I don’t know if that’s true. All because, quality has taken a side step right now and the record companies have been pushing this other music out and they have the ability to shove it down their throats. You’re not going to find a bigger Michael Jackson fan than me, but the first time I heard “Love Never Felt So Good,” I was like, “Hmmm, that sound doesn’t grab me.” Then, when you shove it down my throat in the car over and over again, I’m loving it. How do I get from “hmmm” to “love?” Well, it was pushed and shoved down for me. Because they have a vehicle to shove something down you, sometimes it takes away from the quality. When you take away the quality, someone will say, “What are you talking about? I am number one in Pop, there is nothing but quality on this record.” Well, you’re kind of right, but you might be a little bit off in one sense too.

I’m careful with how you view the marketplace, in my opinion, about what’s going on here. It’s not like the music has taken a bad quality turn, you can kind of label it that. Basically, for somebody to put a beat together and put words together, for them to be able to gravitate to that song, you hit something that people will eventually say I love this. Whatever it is, you are achieving your goal, whether it’s through fancy footwork or a good song. There’s a difference. We used to call it, back in my day when somebody didn’t have a great song, their production was so good that it lifted up the song to make it a better song than where it started because the production was so awesome. It made it to great levels because it went over the top. Maybe it was production or maybe it was the great video, or how many times you want to hear it on TV and the radio. Eventually, people are going to want to gravitate to it. There are a lot of variables in what people say is great. People still tell me, because I’m OG, “I miss cats like you, I’m glad you’re coming back again, it’s giving me a good feeling about music again.” Basically, those are the same people that can turn on their radio and kind of be half content about what is on there right now as well. It’s been programmed to their brains and it’s kind of hard to dismiss. You might not like a song and then you end up singing a song, “Oh man, I’m singing the song? I can’t believe I’m singing that song. I can’t get it out of my head.”

11047932_451316665018099_6500235248797933637_n – (laughs) That is all extremely true. It happens to all of us whether we know it or not.

David Conley – There’s this one song I really like out now by The Weeknd, called “Earned It,” and my hand goes to the volume level and I crank it, I can’t get enough of that song. Talking about a Hip Hop artist, The Weeknd, he stumbled on a great song. Just hearing it, it’s revolutionary in my soul, it hits me like an old Soul record. There’s music sneaking through these cracks now and it’s appealing. It not as gigantic as eight or nine years ago, when it was like, “What are you doing?” If this is what the market wants, then I can’t write or produce anyone; I don’t write music like that, I just don’t. I had to come to grips with that part, and then doing this record, I had to say, “You have to figure something out, because the drummer people are moving to now is a different drummer, so get hip.”

As a result, we are starting to come out with stuff where I felt, “I like this, it feels good to me, and it feels good from the past.” So we have our old audience and now, all of a sudden, we have some new folks. Kids like the music, kids like the video. That was not intentionally, my demographic is growing young and sexy. I was not trying to rework the wheel. The wheel works, it moves. At the same time, you can get lucky with something. It’s on a small level right now, but people are starting to respond to it. We haven’t gone national yet, but certain people I spoke to in radio who I sent the music say, “I like this record and are going to play it.” They admired that I was able to come back and do something in today’s market with music from yesterday, but it does feel like yesterday, it’s sort of ironic. That’s what we thought when we started doing it, how can we achieve that goal? I’m grateful and blessed. It is on a small level, I’m trying to build it up to #1 level where everyone is feeling the music. That’s where I’m at right now, and I’m pretty excited for this new movement right now. – As you should be. As you said, it is a delicate balance to get the old and the new. The record provides a great balance. What are some of your musical influences?

David Conley – I lived too long to put it down to one. I can tell you some of my favorite vocalists, and it changes, it just changed this week actually. I grew up loving Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Kool & The Gang, The Commodores, Rare Earth, and Santana. These are the bands I grew up with. We started out as a band. As far as singers, it changed again, I’m sitting here learning “Superstar” by Luther Vandross. I knew Luther, I always thought he was a great singer. I never really dug into him, he seemed too sweet and beautiful. Just recently, I went through his catalog and every song, I was like, “WOW.” I knew I liked those records back then, but I wasn’t so attached to them. I started going through that catalog and loving them more, and more. Now, I love more of his music and I want to buy more of his music. The collection of his music never hit me as much as it did. I loved “Never Too Much” and “Amazing,” all of his songs, even that song he did with Aretha Franklin. I liked it, but it wasn’t like I was following Luther like Marvin Gaye. Marvin Gaye, I would have followed him off of the cliff. I just was that close to his music, his sound, and now I have somebody new. It feels good having Luther on my side right now. I’m reminded on how great he really was. I love him now. – It is amazing a particular artist you will know and respect for years and all of a sudden learn something new from over thirty years, that is what is wonderful about music.

David Conley – The same thing happened to me, I remember the first time I was asked to go to France. I was asked to go over for “Falling in Love.” They just wanted me to go over there and play that song. I go do this song with everybody young and old losing their minds over this song. People came up to me saying, “You don’t understand. This voice, I had to hear it everyday. I never heard a voice so beautiful.” All of a sudden, I get back into Karen. Unfortunately for her, she passed away very young . She was only in her thirties when she passed away. We made up with one another, but it was too late. She did it so well and now that I am seeing people talking about her, it made me think things differently. I went back and I was like, “Wow, she really does have that thing.” It just gave me a different image of her as a singer that I didn’t have before, and that’s because of the people in France. Now, I can’t get her out of my head, and I wish I had more of her.

Epic – That happens all the time. Someone will say something about a different artist and it will change your opinion completely. It is nice not to pigeonhole in an area and be open to all types of music.

David Conley – You do. I think I was still more of a little of a brat back then. I was one of those guys that wasn’t James Brown, but I definitely expected excellence from people that were around me. I expected them to work hard and get me all that they can. I didn’t give people other chances, until it happened to me.

One day I was auditioning for Lou Rawls’ band, I was playing in percussion. I didn’t make the cut. Although, the manager really liked me, pulled me aside and said, ” José Feliciano is going to be out and sit in for him.” I said, “Really?!” He said, “Yeah?” I said, “OK.” I brought my percussion, brought my flute, and I’m all excited to play for him. I was so excited, we get out there. I knew “Breezin Hicks” from George Benson. Guess what? Two different keys. I’m starting to play “Breezin Hicks” in George Benson keys, and I bombed, and the sound man grabbed my mic and pulled it down. I couldn’t even hear I was in the wrong key chord after a few notes because I was so excited. It was terrible. After it was over, we went back, none of the band members talked to me. Then, all of a sudden, José said, “Yo Pic, we have another set, you gonna come back out with us?” The other members thought, “What, are you nuts.” He gave me another shot after I faulted, failed, and disgraced them in front of him and thousands of people. He let me back on stage with him, and of course I had it right this time. It was so wonderful, every song, every note it was perfect. Then all the band members came and grabbed me, excited.

What did I walk away with? If I was José, I wouldn’t have given someone another shot. But he gave me a shot, he must have known there was something in me that could do better, and he gave me a shot. So from that day, I got better about lighter on dealing people. Sometimes they might not be able to do it in the beginning, but then they figure it out. With perseverance and steady grinding, they turn to who you want them to be. I find myself giving second and third chances with a lot of people in my life, and not just musically, we’re talking family members and lovers, it goes on. Everybody can’t be on a certain level at all times, it’s not going to happen, including me. When José gave me another shot, my life changed. – That is a very inspiring, life-changing story. All these years later, look at what you have accomplished.

David Conley – Well, the blessings were there. Of course you have to have talent, but I am one of those guys that you could never keep still. I would be everywhere and I was good with people. With a funny nickname, “Pic,” I used that to ease my way in and out of situations with people. Because of that, I was able to experience things opposed if I was just to lay back, maybe these things would not have happened. – That is very true. Perseverance is key. You cannot let anyone get in the way.

David Conley – No, you cannot. One of the things I always tell people, that don’t even know, “David “Pic” Conley is blind, and I walk with a stick.” When you see me on stage, doing these records, that never stopped me. Don’t let anything stop you from progressing doing what you want to do. Technology is on your side, people are on your side, you’d be surprised, I get a lot of help. I fly all over the world, by myself or with people, there’s always someone there. Don’t let that stop you, just get it going. Don’t let nothing stop you. – Truly inspiring indeed. My last question for you is pertaining films. covers music and Horror/Sci-Fi films. I would like to know, what are some of your favorite Horror films?

David Conley – I read all the time, I read books and I am a Sci-fi fanatic. I just finished reading It by Stephen King. I love all of his things; Cujo (1981) to The Stand (1978). I’m a big Sci-fi fanatic. I read The Shining (1977), I saw The Shining, I saw both versions. I’ve seen both versions of The Shining. I have seen the older movie a zillion times, the older movies got me more into the meaning of The Shining, more so than the newer version, but the books are always better than the movies for me. Like Pet Semetery (1989), I really liked that. The reason why I like Stephen King is because I’m not a visual person, but he makes it visual by the way he describes the whole world he’s talking about. His world of fiction is very graphic to my brain.

Warner Bros
Warner Bros
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

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