Famed Portland band back with new album 30 years after its big hit

COURTESY: HIROSHI IWAYA - Valerie Day and John Smith today are as energized as ever, and excited about Nu Shooz again.The band is back together again for Nu Shooz, which is releasing its first album in 28 years and is celebrating the 30th anniversary of big hit “I Can’t Wait.”

Celebrating they are, as proud Portlanders Valerie Day and John Smith don’t shy away from their 1980s fame.

Burned out on Nu Shooz after the end of the Decade of Decadence, Day and Smith, happily married, went in their proverbial different musical directions, welcomed young son Malcolm into the world and pretty much moved on with their lives.

But the pull of Nu Shooz never left. They joined the Freestyle Explosion Tour three years ago, touring with other ‘80s musical acts, and then returned full-fledged with the band and with work on their new album. It is, indeed, a rebirth.

“We’re going to do the band for awhile,” Smith says, “because it’s a wonderful group of people. We couldn’t ask for better chemistry for nine people, and it’s 37 years in the making.”

Adds Day: “We’re done predicting the future, we’re bad at it. The things that have happened to us, which have been amazing, we never could have predicted. We keep heading to our true north.”

In a twist, soon-to-be 21-year-old Malcolm Smith, their son, has designed the artwork for the album, titled “Bagtown.”

COURTESY: NU SHOOZ - Here's the cover of 'Bagtown,' with bag puppets in a city scape, designed by Malcolm Smith.The album cover depicts bag puppets in a cardboard cityscape, just going through their day. And, yes, real-life events inspired it. Looking to generate energy and ideas, Smith sat around their home studio in Southwest Portland and started making bag puppets, and then a cardboard city. “Bag puppets partying in this cardboard town,” Smith says.

Malcolm Smith, his girlfriend and Day also got involved, and the younger Smith went with the inspiration of anthropomorphic brown paper sacks. “It’s been really exciting, getting a chance to work with them,” says Malcolm Smith, an artist living in Washington, just north of Bellingham in Maple Falls.

The album features nine tracks, styled from mid-1970s funk. It’s nothing like the “I Can’t Wait” days, when the band and its music had trended toward pop.

“I wanted to go back to the pre-synthesizer Nu Shooz, getting back to the horn band roots,” Smith says. “We started in 1979 and by 1980 had 12 people and played in the Tower of Power and Earth, Wind and Fire tradition.

COURTESY PHOTO: PHIL ISLEY - Valerie Day and John Smith never tire of performing 'I Can't Wait.' Says Day: 'It always makes me happy when I sing it.' Says Smith: 'We're proud of the song.'“I wanted to get back to that, the Philly soul record sound, like The O’Jays, with a real piano and (Hammond) B3 organs. It’s really a soul record; at the same time, it’s very vocal heavy and sophisticated.”

Themes emerged, including raising their son — “although not like Harry Chapin (‘Cat’s in the Cradle’) or anything,” Smith says — and songs about feeling like an outsider and being cool with it.

Says Day: “We wanted people to know that we could get Nu Shooz right.”

Although it was never wrong. Nu Shooz just needed a break in the early 1990s. Day continued to work as a singer and session artist, performing or recording with the likes of the Oregon Symphony Pops, Michael Allen Harrison, David Frishberg, Obo Addy, Darrell Grant, Tom Grant and others. Smith became a successful commercial and film composer, workng with Adidas, Taco Bell, Pepsi, Kmart and ESPN.

“We made a life out of music and teaching and raising our kid,” Day says.

COURTESY: MIKE HIPPLE - The nine-member Nu Shooz has re-formed for the long term.After their son moved away, Smith and Day brought their act back on the Freestyle Exposion Tour in 2013, joining Lisa Lisa, Exposé, Stacey Q and Pretty Poison on tour. They went on tour again last year, and plan another tango with their fellow 1980s stars this year.

Eventually, they assembled the band. “We thought, ‘This is the moment,’” Day says. “We never thought we’d do shows again, but we did. Why not do another record? The Freestyle Tour, which was just about the hits and John and I, inspired us. We had the best time, playing the music and interacting with fans.”

Says Smith: “We have so much more music to play; the Nu Shooz catalog is deeper than that. And, we missed the band. Why should we miss the band? Put it back together with people who love this stuff and get it going.”

And “I Can’t Wait” came to the forefront again, as Questlove remixed the song for a high-profile Target ad featuring Swedish pop stars Icona Pop.

COURTESY: NANCY BUNDT - Valerie Day and John Smith back in the 'I Can't Wait' days, enjoying pop music success.In the mid-1980s, Smith sat on a wooden box next to a furnace in his basement and wrote “I Can’t Wait,” and the band put the remixed version on the 1986 album “Poolside.” It reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play in 1986, No. 3 on the Hot 100 chart and No. 2 on the UK Singles Chart.

With Internet and YouTube plays to go with royalty-paying radio play and use in movies, commercials, ringtones and video games and sampling by Vanessa Williams, 50 Cent and Questlove, Smith says plays of “I Can’t Wait” number in the multi-millions. Kind of like an odometer, national debt clock or McDonald’s burgers served sign, the number just keeps going up.

They still like to play the song.

“We’re proud of the song,” Smith says. “When we go to another country, we’re funky Americans, and it makes me feel like a funky American. It still sounds current, it still rates with anything on the radio, people are delighted by it.”

Says Day: “It always makes me happy when I sing it.”

Nu Shooz will put on a CD release show, 7 p.m. May 21 at Star Theater, 13 N.W. Sixth Ave. (VIP tickets and pre-order album are available through In the summer, Day and Smith will be going on another Freestyle Tour, “The Lost ‘80s,” with Flock of Seagulls, Modern English, Information Society and others. For more:

COURTESY: VALERIE DAY - Malcolm Smith is an artist and son of Valerie Day and John Smith.“They’re fired up about the band, it’s great to see,” Malcolm Smith says. “Pretty fired up about Freestyle gigs, too. But it’s nice to see them back with the band, seeing them on stage. It’s like they’re alive and 20 again.”

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