Was (Not Was) Still Is For nearly 30 years, David Weiss and Don Fagenson have melded funk and absurdity as Was (Not Was). They talk with Scott Simon about their latest album, Boo!, the first in more than 15 years.
NPR logo

Was (Not Was) Still Is

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89535582/89583832" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Was (Not Was) Still Is

Was (Not Was) Still Is

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89535582/89583832" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

(Soundbite of song "Walk the Dinosaur")

WAS (NOT WAS) (Group): (Singing) Boom, boom, acka-lacka-lacka boom. Boom, boom, acka-lacka-lacka boom, boom.


David Weiss and Don Fagenson, along with a rotating cast of musical pranksters, have melded funk and absurdity for almost 30 years onstage and in the studio as the band Was (Not Was).

They're childhood friends from Detroit, the city that inspired and created the soul of Motown and George Clinton and punk-rock fire of Iggy Pop and the MC5.

Was (Not Was) played satirical R&B tunes, telling outrageous stories, songs like "In K-Mart Wardrobe" and "I Feel Better than James Brown" and this hit from 1988, "Walk the Dinosaur."

(Soundbite of song, "Walk the Dinosaur")

Mr. HARRY BOWENS (Vocalist, Was (Not Was)): (Singing) I walk the dinosaur. I walk the dinosaur.

SIMON: Don Fagenson went on to produce "Nick of Time," the album that reinvigorated Bonnie Raitt's career and won an Album of the Year Grammy. He's also produced records for the B-52s, the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson and dozens more.

David Weiss has contributed to projects for such jazz greats as Freddie Hubbard and Sonny Rollins as well as the NPR program DAY TO DAY. Weiss and Fagenson, you can call them David Was and Don Was, are still making their own unique music.

Was (Not Was) have a new album out. It's called "Boo!" It's the band's first release in more than 15 years, and I guess we can say David Was joins us from the studios of NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. DAVID WAS (Founder, Was (Not Was)): Appreciate it, thanks Scott.

(Soundbite of song "Semi-Interesting Week")

SIMON: And we're going to be joined by Don Was, Don Fagenson, as soon as he arrives at the studio. The song we're listening to, "Semi-Interesting Week," starts off the album.

(Soundbite of song, "Semi-interesting Week")

Mr. SWEET PEA ATKINSON (Vocalist, Was (Not Was)): (Singing) (Unintelligible) getting my freak on when a couple of twins from Washington, D.C., (unintelligible) the other fine land of the free.

SIMON: How does this song get written? Does this creative team just try and out-top each other with something outlandish?

Ms. WAS: I'm victim of a kind of seduction of the phrase. Like if "Semi-interesting Week" came into my head, I'd think that is perfectly useless until I try to draw it to its conclusion.

I'm as surprised as anybody by what comes out.

(Soundbite of song "Semi-interesting Week")

Mr. ATKINSON: (Singing) So far so good. Things were looking so (unintelligible). Oh yeah. But it's been a semi-interesting week.

Mr. WAS: It courses from sex to a little anti-Semitism and finally to a guest appearance by Tom Cruise and who I call Old Father Hubbard, L. Ron. Just hopefully, it's absurdist enough with a little - one pivot foot in reality to be interesting.

SIMON: I have to ask before we go any further, why do you guys call yourself Was?

Mr. WAS: Well, my partner Don's four-year-old or three-year-old at the time was discovering what I think as Piaget's reversibility thinking, saying things like hot, not hot, and blue, not blue, and Don said: We'll be Was (Not Was), and I'll be Don Was, and you'll be David Was.

SIMON: Don writes the music, as I understand it, and you write the lyrics, right?

Mr. WAS: A little admixture on both sides, where he's been my editor, and I discovered him by the way, Scott.

SIMON: Well tell me this story because he's not there yet.

Mr. WAS: I've seen the look on his face too many times as I trot our this hoary tale of him onstage in junior high when we were 12 doing a Dylan song, and I wasn't hip enough yet at 12 to know who Dylan was in '64. So I took him to be Bob Dylan. I had an eye for talent. I was like John Hammond in my own little way.

SIMON: On this new CD, since you bring up the name Dylan, you've got a version of "Mr. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," and you wrote this with Bob Dylan?

Mr. WAS: Don and I were producing Bob's record, "Under the Red Sky," some 15 years ago or so, and Don's wife at the time, a record executive at Virgin Records, was producing yet another Paula Abdul record.

Anyway, Don came in and spotted Bob and I in conference in the lounge at some point, and I think just to mix it up a little, he said hey, David, remember we've got to write that tune for Paula Abdul. My wife says it's like signing our name to a check for a quarter-million each.

And Bob said, and I shouldn't imitate him, but who doesn't, he said a quarter-million? He said David, get some paper. You and I are going to write a song for Paula Abdul.

(Soundbite of song "Mr. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (Unintelligible) and the wallpaper's torn, (unintelligible). Even the dog just ran away.

Mr. WAS: Having worked with some singers whose instruments I thought were enough so that you didn't have to produce much, you'd be a genius by walking in with, like, Rickie Lee Jones, who I've worked with. And I realized whether it's Rickie or Bob Dylan, you need less production per unit of that X factor.

It's when you have a Paula Abdul, not to diss anyone particular except Paula, it's all production, and the singer is like this veneer after you've built the walnut table.

SIMON: By the way, I'm told Don Fagenson has arrived there at our studios at NPR West.

Mr. WAS: No kidding.

SIMON: Yeah. Now, Don?

Mr. DON FAGENSON (Founder, Was (Not Was)): Yes?

SIMON: How do you recall you two met? We've heard David's version.

Mr. FAGENSON: There's not even a grey area in it. We got in trouble in gym class.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAS: Now wait a minute. That's not the story I told.

SIMON: Go ahead. Go with that, Don, please.

Mr. FAGENSON: There was a tumbling unit in gym class, and students were forbidden to go on the tumbling equipment without Mr. Crane(ph), the gym teacher, being there, and of course everybody went on the equipment. Howard Koretski(ph) broke his arm, the gym teacher said everyone who was on the gear step forward, you're failing the unit. And everyone stepped forward but David and myself.

Mr. WAS: Yes.

Mr. FAGENSON: And we were ratted out within the half hour, and we met squirming in the gym teacher's office, waiting for him to come in and bust us.

SIMON: I get the impression that, talking to you about your so-called creative process, is that this album, "Boo!," has been put together, well, something borrowed, something blue, stuff you had lying around the attic.

Mr. FAGENSON: We just worked on it for a really long time. If we hadn't gotten a new record deal with Rykodisc, we'd probably still be working on it. We worked on it right up until we mastered the record. It was really having a deadline that made us stop.

SIMON: Another track we want to ask you about, it's got a signature sound, I think it's safe to say, and that's "It's a Miracle."

(Soundbite of song "It's a Miracle")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (Unintelligible) and little Joey doesn't (unintelligible). It's a miracle, nothing but a miracle, yes, oh yeah.

SIMON: This sounds like it was recorded in the old garage in the building on Woodward Avenue where they had egg crates hanging up, and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: So many great stars came out of there, right?


SIMON: And you guys are from Detroit, but where was this recorded?

Mr. FAGENSON: It's actually recorded in a very historic room, that same room where the Beach Boys cut "Pet Sound," and they cut The Mamas & the Papas records, great history. It's actually closed now. It was called United Western, then Ocean Way, then Cello Studios.

SIMON: This is such a Motown send-up, is that fair to say?

Mr. FAGENSON: You know these things, they don't come out deliberately like that. It's not like let's do a Motown thing. It's just, the way we usually write them is David writes the lyrics first and puts the lyric in front of me and starts singing, and that's what came out. Oh yeah. No, he's a significant musical presence.

Mr. WAS: And Don is my editor par excellence, my…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: So is it nice to be back doing this?

Mr. FAGENSON: There's a real nice feeling about being onstage, standing next to the same people that you've been standing next to for 30 years. It's probably the most consistent thing we've had in our lives. It's longer than we've been married.

Mr. WAS: There's always a little risk involved, even though we've added a couple rings to our trunks. The fantastic thing is you get out in public, and you find that people are, their jaws are agape, and part of it is they called us the LSD-era Temptations, and you come out, and there are still these guys like they arrived in a time machine in pink silk suits standing in front of us.

SIMON: Oh gosh.

Mr. WAS: It's somewhere between entertainment and anthropology, coming to a Was (Not Was) concert.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well gentlemen, you've been a delight to talk to. Thanks so much.

Mr. FAGENSON: Thank you so much, Scott.

Mr. WAS: Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: That's David Weiss and Don Fagenson, Was (Not Was). Their new CD is "Boo!" and it's out now, speaking to us from NPR West.

(Soundbite of song, "It's a Miracle")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Last week he got stabbed in the back…

SIMON: You can hear songs from the new record from Was (Not Was) on our Web site, npr.org/music.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I always have been Scott Simon.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.