Interview – Nu Shooz

Initially put together as a twelve piece band, Oregon’s Nu Shooz is a Pop act with more substance than meets the eye. Rich in history, the band would find themselves international Pop stars by 1986 with the release of their chart-topping hit singles “I Can’t Wait” and “Point of No Return.” Featured on their gold-selling album Poolside, by 1987, they would earn themselves Grammy nominations in the Best New Artist category, all while their music continued to light up dance clubs the world over.

Thirty plus years later, Nu Shooz are back at it with mastermind John Smith leading the charge along with his beloved wife Valerie Day back on vocals. Inspired by the enthusiasm of the ’80s revival over the past decade, Nu Shooz has been quite prolific, releasing three new studio albums since 2010, including 2016’s Bagtown. Now excited for their summer run on the Lost 80’s Live Tour, the married duo took the time to talk about their musical journey, the relaunching of Nu Shooz, plus more. – Formed nearly four decades ago, Nu Shooz attained a good deal of success with a series of hit singles in the mid ’80s, a Grammy nomination, as well as a gold-selling album. Looking back, what has the musical journey been like for you and the band?

John Smith – One thing is that our streak of hits in the mid ’80s was just one part of a really long musical life. We both started in Latin bands and we played clubs massively, because you really could work a lot in the early ’80s in Portland, Oregon. We were band leaders for seven years, then we were on a label for seven years. Then we kind of quit Nu Shooz – Valerie taught voice and I did advertising and film music for twenty years. Then these ’80s tours started back up. So we didn’t just do Nu Shooz, we did a lot of other things – we played Jazz, Latin, etc.

Valerie Day – The trajectory was the Nu Shooz thing was over forever, but that gave us an opportunity to stretch out to some other styles that we loved, even before Nu Shooz. I got to do a Big Band record, play with some amazing Jazz musicians here in Portland, and do a show called Brain Chemistry for Lovers. It was about the neuroscience of romantic love, as told through science and song, which was a really fun show to do. John’s an arranger, so he did a lot of the work on my projects arranging and producing too.

Nebula Circle
Poolside – Interesting, you are both accomplished musicians beyond the commercial success of Nu Shooz. With Nu Shooz, it was in 1986 you released the album Poolside, which featured both big singles “I Can’t Wait” “Point of No Return.” What was it like for you when the album was breaking the way it did?  

Valerie Day – We played in the clubs for seven years before we got a record deal with Atlantic Records. It was an amazing experience to go from a wonderful local career, but then to get heard by all these different people all around the globe. We had people getting in touch with us from Voice of America, and they heard us in the mountains of China, that part of it was really quite extraordinary. – It sounds like it was an exciting time. Nu Shooz followed up with a strong album in 1988, entitled Told U So, but did not release any new music for over two decades. What led to the decision to return as Nu Shooz in the 2010s?

Valerie Day- Yea, it was actually a confluence of an events. Our son graduated from high school, so we were actually out of school ourselves. (Laughs) We had been getting calls for years to do these ’80s shows and we said, “No, we will never do them, we are done with Nu Shooz. That was then, this is now.” We finally got talked into at least trying a few of the shows. We got hooked because the audiences are so fun, plus the other bands on the bill, we never really had a chance to hang out with in the ’80s because we were busy touring and doing our own thing.

When John and I started going out on these ’80s tours, we only play the hits, which we have two and a half of them. We were missing our band. We have a home studio and we came back from the road one year saying, “You know, let’s put the band back together so we can play more than 15 minutes and maybe make some more new music.” So that’s what we did.

Atlantic – It is great to see Nu Shooz back. You have done some strong new music since putting the band back together from 2010’s Pandora’s Box to 2016’s Bagtown. What has it been like to get back into writing Nu Shooz music?

John Smith – We were very fortunate that our hits were based on what we sounded like. We got to be us. Back in the day, we were the worst cover band in the world – we could play Tower of Power and Earth, Wind & Fire, because we had a horn section, but any of the Pop music of the early ’80s, we were just terrible at it.

The one thing we could do was sound like Nu Shooz, so it was pretty effortless, especially the last record Bagtown. Before we were this synth act that everybody knows from “I Can’t Wait,” we were a horn band. So we decided on Bagtown we would go back to that organic sound of horns, pianos, guitars, and such.

Valerie Day – And lots of vocals and harmonies. We have some wonderful musicians and the band, today, is full of our favorite players to play and hang out with. Life is too short not to have fun and these people know how to have fun!

John Smith – Yea, and it’s been lovely. – Bagtown is a very enjoyable and smooth listen. Lyrically, it also provides an escape from the chaos of the world. Through the years, you two have been the foundation of Nu Shooz. What is like working together creatively as husband and wife.

Valerie Day – We have been together 43 years, as a couple, but we haven’t actually been creating together that whole time. In the early days of Nu Shooz, I would come in as the pitch hitter when John was having trouble figuring out what the second verse was going to be. Really, he is the mastermind behind Nu Shooz. I call him the mad scientist of chords, because almost everything that exists that has the Nu Shooz name on, exists because John thought it up in his mind first.

NSO Music
NSO Music – That is wonderful, and 43 years is a long time to be together, congratulations! 

John Smith – It gets better all the time.

Valerie Day – I paid him to say that. (Laughs)

John Smith – It’d be too hard to train a new one now. (Laughs)

Valerie Day – (Laughs) It’s not easy working with your spouse sometimes, but it really has been an awesome ride. Especially now, travelling all over the country and doing these shows, we are just having a blast together. The ’80s are even better the second time around.

John Smith – And we are getting to see all these cities that are really great. Some of them we stay a few extra days and look around. Also, I am married to someone who really likes museums, which I’m totally grateful for. – It sounds like things are going great. It seems like the ’80s have made a massive comeback in recent years. If you look at mainstream Pop music that has been made over the past 5-6 years, synthesizers are coming back in a big way. What are your thoughts about that?

John Smith – It’s because it’s easier to play than guitar. (Laughs) With synthesizers and drum machines – you can put a record together on a laptop now. You can just pull up a loop or two, it’s a lot easier to make a record now. Back in the day, in the late ’70s, they used to spend all day trying to make the drum kit sound good. – It’s true. Technology has made it a lot easier to make an album, sometimes the recordings are a little too perfect. The minor imperfections is what gives an album textures and makes it special. Nowadays, it can come across a bit hollow because the recordings are completely flawless.

John Smith – You are totally right about that. In the ’80s, when the synth and drum machines came out, we were really enthralled by all of it.

Valerie Day – Because it was new and different.

John Smith – Yes, it was new and that got hard to do. Then the ’90s came in, maybe that was a very favorite era, because it became a mix of the synth and drum machines as well as the live playing that you would sample and put on top of it. It was a really great middle ground between those two things. – That is a good point. Nu Shooz is back on the road with the Lost 80’s Live Tour. It is a great lineup of artists. How excited are you for this run of shows?

Valerie Day – This is going to be a fun one, we really haven’t been on the east coast and in the midwest too much. It will be our first time in Detroit, Chicago, the New York area, and Atlanta. It will be our first time there, some of them we didn’t play in the ’80s either. – That is awesome! Coming from a Jazz background, you both have a strong understanding of music. That said, some people wrongly like to discount Pop music. Would you agree there is certainly a challenge in crafting a Pop tune?

John Smith – I think the more you do it the more you realize how really involved it is. A Pop record is the singer, song, the business, technology at that time, and all those things have to fit together into a matrix. For instance, our understanding of lyrics has grown exponentially over the past forty years. Sometimes I will be driving my car and think of something I wrote forty years ago and just shutter. (Laughs) I am always going back and trying to rewrite those things in my mind. Real lyric writing can be so much more than that, Bob Dylan proved that.

Valerie Day – That is why that Pandora’s Box record was so fun to make. John had been listening to Dylan for a couple of years and watching Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home (2005). We had late night conversations on the back porch thinking, “Wow, wouldn’t it be cool to do a mash-up of all the things we love in music?” That’s how that record came out.

John Smith – Yes, and back to your original question, for sophisticated musicians, is it easy to put down Pop music? Well, it’s easy to put down Pop music until you look under the hood and see what kind of motor is running it. A lot of Country music is about story. The work Brad Paisley is doing is phenomenal. I am glad he is not writing that stuff by himself, because I would be really sick – he has a team of about three guys. (Laughs) There is a lot of humanity in it and story payoff, so I think it’s out there. There is also shallow Pop music, but there always has been. I came to this realization that every era of music had something I was crabby about. (Laughs) Now, I just try to find the good in everything.

Valerie Day – It takes too much energy to be crabby at our age. (Laughs)

John Smith – I mostly listen to books on tape now. (Laughs)

NSO Music – (Laughs) Also, there is the aspect, as we get older and experience more, we open our mind and appreciate different things more. For example, at one point in your life say you listened to just Rock-n-Roll, you may just be stuck in that. Then if you are lucky, as you you get older, you open up and find brilliance in other forms of music.

Valerie Day – Absolutely!

John Smith – Sure, and hopefully one form of music will lead you to another. Jimi Hendrix was really my gateway to Jazz. It was Hendrix, Coltrane, then Latin Jazz. – That is what makes music so special. My last question for you is pertaining to movies. CrypticRock covers music as well as Horror and Sci-Fi films. If you are a fan of either genre, do you have any favorites?

John Smith – If you’re a Hitchcock fan, you have to be a Bernard Herrmann fan. I am a fan of the film score guys, especially Bernard Herrmann. Also, Max Steiner’s score for 1933’s King Kong was one of the best film scores of all time. You know, Valerie can answer this too, we go to the movies to not be stressed out. The last movie we saw I think was Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – Oh, the Mister Rogers film! Did you enjoy it?

Valerie Day – It was great! It’s a lovely contrast to what’s happening in the world and a good reminder that there is still a lot of love out there. In our younger years, we were kind of into Sci-Fi. We watched the entire Firefly series.

Rogue Pictures
Universal Pictures

John Smith – It’s great, it started with a movie called Serenity (2005) and they spun it off into a series. Sci-Fi is great when the writing is good and when it’s a well-built world.

Valerie Day – My favorite of the newer films in the Horror genre was Shaun of the Dead (2004) with Simon Pegg. I can do gore when it’s got really good comedy mixed in with it.

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