To his friends, extended family members and Living Colour band mates, bassist and Bloomfield, Conn. native Doug Wimbish is known as the “ambience director.”
It’s easy to see why. Minutes into my visit to his Asylum Avenue studio, I’ve got a brand-new guitar in my hands. Singer Corey Glover is sitting on the couch with an iPad, and Wimbish cranks a track he and Glover were working on before I showed up, a heavy-rock riff over programmed drums that wouldn’t be out of place on a Living Colour record (it might end up there, in some form or another). So, yeah, I’m playing along to a future Living Colour song. Nice ambience, indeed.
Glover is up visiting from Newburgh, N.Y., where he recently moved (he grew up in Brooklyn). He often drives up to work on music with Wimbish. “It’s a straight shot to Doug’s place,” he says. The guitar, I’m told, is a gift from Wimbish’s accountant, also a guitar player. “He’s a die-hard Jeff Beck/Allan Holdsworth kind of guy,” Glover explains. “Oh,” I respond, “So he can play,” and Glover laughs. “Yeah,” he says, “and fortunately he’s good at math.”
I came here to talk about WimBash 2012. Now in its ninth year, it’s a day-long celebration of music, family and culture that takes place at Sully’s Pub on Aug. 18. At the event, Wimbish will be all over the place, playing with Living Colour’s Vernon Reid and Will Calhoun (Glover will be out of town) and original Sugar Hill Rhythm Section drummer Keith LeBlanc (Wimbish is an alumnus of that group; along with guitarist Skip McDonald, they played on Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” “White Lines,” “New York, New York” and other pioneering hip-hop tracks); with singer-songwriter Vinx and Calhoun in Jungle>>Funk; with Calhoun in Head>>Fake; with members of (ahem) Lauryn Hill’s band (she’s a big supporter); with his son, singer Evan Wimbish; and with Against the Girl (another Wimbish project). The Fort Washington, Penn. School of Rock House Band will also perform, and there’s a surprise guest on the bill (I’m sworn to secrecy, but you know this person). Artist clinics, programs in music production, product demonstrations, giveaways and raffles: not a single dull moment.
“It’s an amazing event that takes place right here in Hartford,” Wimbish says. “And this year’s going to be even more expansive. We’ve got so much going on, so much going on. It’s a lot of fun, and we’re just happy to be able to present this to this lovely city of Hartford.”
Wimbish’s musical journey began here in the mid-’70s, where, as a young musician, he learned tricks from his elders, like stories being passed down. “I had a quest for learning,” he says. “Coming from Hartford, you have to get up off your ass to go do some shit. There was no Internet when I was coming up. You had to get on a bus, go on down to New York and make it happen. I learned how to hustle, how to be patient, how to be in the right place at the right time, how to support people, how to sit on the back burner comfortably and how to sit on the front burner comfortably.”
He joined the Sugar Hill Gang Rhythm Section in 1979, along with McDonald and LeBlanc, and the trio became, in essence, the sound of early hip-hop. In 1984, they relocated to London and became Tackhead, met dub re-mixer and producer Adrian Sherwood and started a record label. “I thought, ‘Ah, fuck it, I’m going to spend more of my time in London,’” Wimbish says. “It’s a little more open in Europe.” Glover, who met Wimbish in 1981, visited the bassist in London during that period; it’s where the idea of the bassist joining Living Colour first came up (original bassist Muzz Skillings left the group in 1992).
Living Colour went on hiatus in 1995, but Wimbish has never had much down time; he’s always been a first-call studio player and has appeared on records by the Rolling Stones (he was in the running to replace Bill Wyman), Seal, Annie Lennox, Madonna, Mos Def and many others. WimBash was born 2004, when the bassist threw a birthday/homecoming party for McDonald (the name “WimBash” followed a year later). “He’s the guitar player who got me in this business,” Wimbish says. “I was like, ‘Skip’s coming home... Yeah! Gotta give him a party.’” He’d been talking with the owners of Sully’s, who’d been trying to get Living Colour to play there for years. “I got Tackhead together, my mom, my godmother, and I was like, ‘Okay, this is the ONE DAY... Get everybody together! Grill’s open! This is my contribution... I said, Gentlemen, if you want to do something, this is the date. So, all these debts that I had from people... I said, let’s balance up the books here. That was nine years ago.” This year alone, he and Diane Nilsson, his girlfriend and manager, have organized four WimBashes, in Miami, Philadelphia, New Orleans and the Dominican Republic.
The support from Wimbish’s hometown, he says, has varied over time. “I’ve lived here, I’m from Connecticut, and there’s been a certain amount that’s been recognized and a certain amount that’s been overlooked,” says Wimbish. “It’s just the curvature of the earth: It’s what you see, and sometimes people see things that are more local and they may not see things that are on another level. I’m kind of involved in this whole scene here, and I’m kind of not. Which one am I?... It’s been a struggle to get people to recognize it.”
Lauryn Hill, who came to WimBash last year, has been a supporter of the event, which raises awareness and funds for education and other causes, including collaborations with the DREAM Project, Backbeat Foundation and the School of Rock. “It was my birthday,” Wimbish says. “She came to surprise me. It was 12:45 at night. She drove up with all of her kids in the car on a rainy night from South Orange, N.J. to be there for 45 minutes, then she drove back.” Wimbash met Hill in 2005 through his hip-hop connections. “We hit it off instantly. I was supposed to audition, and the next thing you know we’re in a 45-minute conversation about sex, life, this, that. I never played a note. She said, ‘I like you. You look like a pirate.’”
The success of WimBash ultimately depends on the involvement of Wimbish’s musical friends. “I’m using my musical currency right now, my association with people,” he says. “I call upon the first wave of folks who are available. I call upon Corey, Will and Vernon and the lads that I know, and basically it’s become more like a family reunion. I don’t even look at it as WimBash... My mom’s going to be there. It’s that one day of the year we can actually get everybody together.”
“Look, you’re a musician,” Wimbish addresses me before I head out. “How many times are you around people who say, ‘Yo, man, let’s do something!’ I hate hollow conversations. After awhile, you start to meet a lot of people... We’re in Living Colour, so we get a lot of folks gravitating to us and stuff, so it’s like, okay, if I do put something together, I’d like to have it be organic.”