A lot’s changed for Boy George and Culture Club since they last ruled the charts on the strength of their assertion that “Loving would be easy if your colors were like my dreams / Red, gold and green, red, gold and green…”
Perhaps the biggest difference? George was 22 years old (then practically just a boy for real) when his band hit with “Karma Chameleon”; three weeks ago, the singer turned 57.
But die-hard Culture Club fans know that the important stuff remains the same. It’s still the original lineup: George out front, Mikey Craig on bass, Jon Moss on drums, and Roy Hay on guitar. They’re still getting out on the road: Their 43-city “Life Tour” — with co-headliner The B-52s and special guest Thompson Twins’ Tom Bailey — stops at Cary’s Booth Amphitheatre July 17, then Charlotte’s PNC Music Pavilion on July 21.
And more than 3-1/2 decades after it all began for them back in London, England, Boy George still wears some of the zaniest outfits imaginable.
For instance, the get-up he wore at Sunday night’s Pompano Beach, Fla., show (just the third of the tour, which kicked off last Friday) almost defies description. His black trench coat was decorated with neat rows of matching pieces of skinny, shimmery gold metal; his black bowler hat was covered with what looked like characters from an animated Tim Burton movie and a few blasts of Silly String; and spilling down over his baggy black pants was … well, it was hard to tell. Is there such a thing as a bioluminescent grass skirt?
“I do love clothes,” George says. “I think they’re a lot of fun. … In the past, though, there was a real incubation period with fashion. Now everything’s available to everybody, so in order to stand out, I think you have to do something that is really individual. So more and more, I’m making my own things, having things specially made that no one else can get. …
“In a funny sort of way, I put more effort into what I wear now, because I don’t want to turn up in the same thing that somebody else is wearing. … Yet I still get f—ing weird looks from people when I’m walking from my dressing room to the stage. And I just think, ‘I’m Boy George, what do you think I’m gonna look like?’”
George spoke to the Observer by phone earlier this week about how the first few shows of the tour have gone, the challenges of introducing new music to fans who came for “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” and “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya,” and more about his fashion choices — including why he hopes never to be caught dead at a show wearing something “comfortable.”
Q. So you had a busy weekend, huh? Three shows in three nights?
Yeah, yeah … long way to go. And we’re at that point, you know, where — I mean, I don’t know about other performers, but I always feel like I’ve forgotten what to do. So whenever I go on stage, I’m thinking, “Will I have anything to say?” And obviously you have to work with the crowd, and part of the fun of live shows is that you really never know what the frequency of one particular crowd will be from one night to the other. I’m always saying to the guys, “We have to be careful (not to over-think how the crowd is reacting).” I mean, when I go to a show (as a fan), I don’t jump around. I’m not someone that gets up and dances, necessarily — I’m quite reserved. But that doesn’t mean I’m not having the best time of my life. And you have to watch that, because every night it’s a different mood, and you can start thinking, “Oh, they didn’t like us,” or, “They weren’t having a good time.” Sometimes people look really unhappy and they’re having a great night.
Q. You seriously feel like you’ve forgotten what to do up there?
I mean, listen, I don’t think anyone else would notice. But I like to be completely at ease on stage, ’cause I feel like I’ve been on a real journey with live performances. In the early days, obviously, it went from doing really small clubs to doing stadiums almost overnight, and adjusting to that was quite difficult. I feel like now I love being on stage. But I’m not one of these people that comes alive on stage — I’m not sort of a “smell of the greasepaint” person. I’m very practical about most things in my life, which may surprise some people.
Q. What else stands out to you about the first three shows?
Well, we’re doing a handful of new songs, and that’s always challenging for the audience. But I think our audience is capable of handling that. They’re brave warriors. (You just can’t be) apologetic about what you’re doing. There’s always gonna be people in the crowd that go, “Ew, you didn’t do this song,” or, “You didn’t do that song.” It’s like, “No, we did this song, and we’re doing this song.” I suppose because I’m a lover of music, I’m willing to take that risk. And I’m very happy with the response; people have been very responsive to the new music. … It’s not like we’re going at them and playing s— new music. It’s some of the best stuff we’ve written in years. … We’re not doing anything from our abstract folk period. (Chuckles.)
Q. Right, the new music. It’s been almost 20 years since you’ve put out a new album. Is “Tribes” finally coming out soon?
I’m not sure if it’s coming out soon, but there’s definitely gonna be a single, hopefully by September. It’s being mixed right now, so we’re getting mixes for it every day. And I think this is a really good Culture Club record. I think it’s really about who we are now. It’s very soulful, it’s very funky, it’s got all of our influences in there, from Bowie to even Siouxsie and the Banshees kind of guitar. … But I think Culture Club’s always been an eclectic sort, throw-it-all-in-the-wok-and-stir-fry (group). It’s always been lots of different things. I suppose that’s to do with me because I’m such a social magpie, and I like everything, from Dolly Parton to Pantera. I like throwing things in there and seeing if they work and twisting things around. I like to challenge myself musically. … I kind of feel like no one really writes songs anymore. They just write choruses, and then put a bit of vocoder around it.
Q. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Dolly Parton and Pantera mentioned in the same sentence.
Not mixed together, but my Spotify playlists are really very eclectic. I mean, I suppose ’cause I grew up in the ’70s. Seventies radio was just so — well, particularly in the U.K., it was so mental. You’d have all sorts of things competing with each other. Things that your parents liked, things that your parents hated, punk rock, disco, electro, glam-rock, all was going on in the ’70s.
Q. Are there any current, young artists that you’re really excited about?
Well, my favorite new band is a band called We Are Brando, and they’re on my label. They’re very good. And I listen to bands like Planningtorock and Fever Ray. … I think that you have to look out of the mainstream now to find anything that’s just really interesting, you know? I think that pop radio — not that I listen to radio (by choice) ever, but if you’re in a car and it’s on, you just think, “My God everything sounds the same!” It’s like one song that everyone keeps repeating, and then in the middle it goes, “Ohhhh-OH! Ohhhh-OH! Ohhhh-OH!” That’s kind of what pop music is now. It’s a formula. But I think things are cyclical, and I think things change, and I think the bands are gonna come back. I definitely think we need a return to rock and roll. I love the ’90s. Some of the best bands ever were around in the ’90s. And I kind of miss that. But I think things will change. I think young kids will create the next revolution.
Q. When you were figuring out who you wanted to team up with on this tour, did you at all consider bringing along some fresh faces — like We Are Brando, for instance, especially since they’re on your label?
Well, they’re doing the English dates with us actually. But for America, this is more like a summer package, so you have to think, “Who would be fun to play with? I mean, a lot of bands now are cross-collaterallizing — you know, “You scratch my brand, I’ll scratch yours.” And these fun packages, they can really, really work, but it’s always interesting to work out who you should ask. And who’s available sometimes is the question. And who feels like a right fit. … I’ve done tours in the past where I’ve had bands that I love — new, weird bands — and then it bombs with the audience. So I think you’ve always gotta think about who’s coming and who the crowd will bounce off. So The B-52s and Thom Bailey, they were a good fit for us, I think.
Q. Going back to the new album, so how long has this been in the making?
We did some stuff about four years ago, maybe? And we’ve re-recorded everything. … I said, “Look, let’s just go back and re-record some of those things that we did on the last sessions, so that the album has a continuity and a feel to it. We re-recorded “More Than Silence,” we’ve re-recorded one of the songs that we were doing last year — “The Truth Is a Runaway Train,” which was originally absolute tribute to Johnny Cash. It’s now turned into a completely different song. I mean, it’s the same song, but now it’s like Gladys Knight & the Pips. You never know what’s gonna happen when you start working with new producers. But I’m really excited about what this record sounds like, and I think it really sounds like us now.
Q. Are you still excited about the old stuff?
Well, I think that I would never write a song like “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” now. I’d never cast myself in that role, because I’m much more confident, and I don’t walk around with a sign saying, “You Don’t Love Me.” But at the same time, when I perform that song, it has such a history. … It’s a song that really settled in people’s hearts, and people have a real affection for it, so I treat it with the love and respect that it deserves. I never sing anything under duress. I mean, when we choose songs for the live shows, we always do it with consideration and real affection for the music.
Q. But wait, I can’t tell for sure. When you perform a song like “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?,” do you enjoy it as much as you used to, or not?
Yeah, it’s a weird thing to say, but I think songs do change. You write something when you’re 22, and it’s about a particular thing, then you release it, and it becomes the property of the listener — everybody has their own relationship with that song. Thirty years on, it’s about something very different. … I know it’s such a cliche to say “the journey,” but life is a journey, and I think songs do change. What did Joni Mitchell say? “Songs are like tattoos: They’re hard to get rid of.” The last bit was my bit. I don’t think she actually said that. She said something like, “Songs are like tattoos / I’ve been to sea before / Crown and anchor me / Or let me sail away.”
Q. And finally, going back to the show, I wanted to ask about your clothing choices — or, I don’t know what you’d call them. Costumes?
Visual statements. (Laughs.) Visual statements.
Q. So do you wear something different thing at every show?
No, no. I mean, I think women worry more about being seen in the same outfit twice. But not me. If something’s good, I’ll wear it till it falls off. … Generally, it depends on how you’re feeling. Sometimes you put something on and you go, “Oh no, I’m not going in front of the public in this.” Then other times, you think, “I look fly. I’m going for it!” It’s a minute-to-minute kind of decision, but yeah, I always think about the impact of what I’m wearing, how people are gonna react. And I think people want me to be challenging. They don’t want to see me looking too ordinary or comfortable. I was having this conversation with Jon Moss yesterday, because we have these T-shirts made for him with these zips in them, and he said they were too uncomfortable, and they hurt his nipples. I made the point to him last night, “Do you think I’m comfortable in this?” (Laughs.) I said, “That’s not why we’re here, to be comfortable.” In a funny sort of way, the worst thing anyone can ever say to you is, “That looks comfortable!” ’Cause that’s not a look I’m aiming for. If someone says, “You look nice.” I’m like, “ ‘Nice’!?”
Boy George & Culture Club
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 17.
Where: Koka Booth Amphitheatre, 8003 Regency Parkway
Tickets: $45 and up.
Details: 800-514-3849; boothamphitheatre.com.
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, July 21.
Where: PNC Music Pavilion, 707 Pavilion Blvd.
Tickets: $18 and up.
Details: 800-745-3000; www.livenation.com.