Earth, Wind and Fire Celebration Time

Earth, Wind and Fire Celebration Time
Photo: Randee St. Nicholas
They've spent nearly 45 years delivering a soul-sanctified, pioneering blend of funk, soul, jazz, rock and world rhythms that's not only earned them incredible commercial rewards but most importantly established Earth, Wind & Fire as a genre unto itself ⎯ a beacon of soulful, spiritual and syncopated light that's guaranteed to uplift. You'd be tempted to let E,W&F (now reduced to the trio of Philip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson) rest on their laurels and deliver a greatest hits revue on the lucrative oldies/casino circuit, especially now that avatar Maurice White has retired. You wouldn't expect an album as pertinent and vibrant as their 20th studio offering Now, Then & Forever. Eschewing the guest appearances that cluttered 2005's noble Illumination, Now, Then & Forever showcases a clearer distillation of the group's vibe and is a more than worthy addition to this legendary outfit's catalogue.

This is your first album without production from founding member Maurice White. What was it like recording without him?
Lead vocalist Philip Bailey: It was kind of a daunting task, to be quite honest about it, and one that was a process of discovery. I actually did the record almost twice, because the first time, I was looking at other stuff outside of Earth, Wind & Fire. Recording "Guiding Light," which was co-written by my son, with keyboardist Larry Dunn onboard, gave me a new awareness of what needed to happen with this record — it needed to sound like classic Earth, Wind and Fire. So we came up with an album that's more classic Earth, Wind & Fire in nature.

How has the band's creative dynamic changed over the years?
Back in the day, when we were doing the classic records, Maurice was the spearhead. Since he's taken lesser roles due to his Parkinson's disease over the last 20 years, the other recorded projects we have done have not been classic Earth, Wind & Fire. They've been Earth, Wind & Fire members doing music with will.I.am, Floetry, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and the like. It was very intimidating trying to do a classic-sounding record. Once I decided to focus in on all the records that we've done, from Head To The Sky and Faces, it became an easier task — more enjoyable, in fact. [It was] like being reacquainted with an old friend.

You've definitely achieved a more organic sound on this album. Was there any difficulty balancing the group's trademark sound with today's new studio technology?
None at all. That's been a process as well; we went from one extreme to another. We went from being holistic, organic and very old school to totally new school: tech, band not being into the studio, people doing tracks and overdubbing. Now, we've found the middle — though we record on ProTools, we use an analog board. In using all of the technical advantages, we don't have to sing all of those choruses anymore like we used to [laughs]. You don't have to waste a lot of things; we used the technology, but we did it the way we did in the past. We were in the studio all together, with everything set up and we played as a band.

You mentioned some of your earlier classic releases and Now, Then & Forever continues in their cohesive direction. However, thanks to the new digital formats, some have heralded the death of the album as a complete artistic statement. How do you feel the record will be received in this new climate?
We have a very large audience internationally; we tour all the time and we play before several million people every year — that's without a hit record. With that being said, if we only appeal to our core audience, we would still be okay. If we would be so fortunate as to have a massive breakout hit like Santana's Supernatural, that would be icing on the cake.

My first exposure to your music was at the age of ten when I saw Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song, the soundtrack of which was one of the group's first projects. You broke through to the mainstream with another soundtrack: That's The Way of the World. Would you ever consider another film project?
We would definitely consider that because it actually gives you an opportunity to create new music and a great cause to do it from.

The group have been a constant for over 40 years. To what do you attribute your longevity?
First, to the glory of God and also to the fact that Maurice's concept of Earth, Wind & Fire was very brilliant. The idea to do music that celebrated life in its lyrics rendered a positive service to humanity, in a non-preachy kind of way: a music that makes people feel good; has different genres represented; and a band that actually performed and gave people more than their money's worth when they paid to see them. I think that whole concept is very strong; it's a bit like a traveling show, like Barnum & Bailey. The concept is solid and as long as you keep those elements in the presentation that are attractive and entertaining, you will always have an audience.