One minute you’re a cult/club band with a love for '60s pop…the next you’re sitting in a limo with Duran Duran. That’s what happened to The Bangles when “Walk Like an Egyptian” went to Number One in 1986. As the song makes its DLC debut, we re-live those heady days with The Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs - not only a first-class singer, but one of the nicest folks we’ve ever interviewed.
In this exclusive chat, she brings us back to the days of the Paisley Underground - the mythical brother/sisterhood of '60s-inspired bands that sprang out of the Hollywood clubs in the early ‘80s - and tells how the group found “Walk Like an Egyptian.” She also tells what she and her fellow Bangles (singer/guitarist Vicki Peterson and drummer Debbi Peterson) are doing now - namely, making their first new album in eight years.
Meanwhile, Hoffs and her musical friend Matthew Sweet are currently touring the US behind Under the Covers, Volume 2 - an album of their favorite '70s classics, which includes the surprise choice of the Grateful Dead’s “Sugar Magnolia” (the original version of which is also in Rock Band).There’s some good stuff here about that as well, plus the prog-rock legend they collaborated with by mail.
"Walk Like an Egyptian" will be available on Xbox 360 (on November 17th) and Playstation 3 (on November 19th) for $1.99. It will be available on the Wii (on November 17th) for $2.00.
Brett Milano: Let's get out some history here.
Susanna Hoffs: Okay.
BM: I've always been kind of fascinated by that early mythical Paisley Underground era that The Bangles were part of.
SH: Oh, yeah.
BM: And we had a scene in Boston, too, that was pretty exciting. But it seemed it was back then a run of great bands in Los Angeles that were all getting inspired by '60s music. How did that come about? How did all of you wind up with that similar kind of mindset?
SH: Wow. I don't know if it's that cyclical thing that's actually strangely enough happening now where kids are into '80s music, but I think there was a group of us - David Roback, Rain Parade, Steve Wynn, Dream Syndicate - and Vicki and Debbi and I all shared this insane fascination with '60s stuff, which kind of set us apart from the new wave kind of thing that was going on. Or the rockabilly thing. We weren't doing that. We had a very specific, at least I definitely did, and the three of us, Vicki, Debbi and I, was just a shared obsession with some of the more obscure. Well, The Beatles, but also some of the more obscure bands from the '60s like the Blues Magoos, so many bands.
BM: The Merry-Go-Round, I know you had some.
SH: The Merry-Go-Round! The Beau Brummels. And I had gotten into that when I was just finishing college and I was just sort of trying to start a band with David Roback. It never quite got off the ground, but it was the days of hanging out at record stores - vinyl [laughs] - and getting used records. And kind of going back a little bit into the rediscovery of stuff that we heard as kids growing up in L.A. on the radio driving around all the time in the car. I don't know. For whatever reason we were just inspired to study that stuff and figure it out. And I always say to people when I talk to young musicians and people starting bands, just learn covers of stuff you love. 'Cause that's what we were doing. I mean, we still do "Pushin' Too Hard" by The Seeds and "7 and 7 Is" by Love once in a while we do that. We used to play "Kicks" by Paul Revere & the Raiders. We did - "Hazy Shade of Winter" was one of our first cover songs that we were working on, too.
BM: So you did it long before you had the hit with it?
SH: Oh yeah, definitely. So I think there was just a group of other young bands who were post this new wave, sort of when The Knack was really big, and The Go-Go's were sort of power-pop. And we weren't the rockabilly thing and we weren't punk. And our first gigs were with punk bands. There was something about this shared affection and obsession with the '60s that made it make sense for all of us to do shows together. So there just started to be this thing of, "Oh, we're gonna go out and see a triple bill with the Dream Syndicate, The Bangles, and the Rain Parade." Or Salvation Army which became The Three O' Clock. We would all hand out together. It was actually a scene, you know what I'm talking about.
SH: You start becoming friends with everybody and then it just kinda evolves into a scene, a full-on scene.
BM: And people had really good clothes, too, after a while.
SH: [laughs] Well, yeah. Clothes, is that what you said?
BM: Yeah. People started lookin' good again.
SH: Yeah, we shopped at all the same places on Melrose. You know, the Aardvark, these vintage clothing stores. I was lucky 'cause my mom had a very cool collection of things, she was very organized. Even my dad, I remember I got some cool shirts of his from the '60s. You gotta remember it was just 1981, really. So our parents still had stuff from the '60s and '70s [laughs] in their closets.
BM: Yeah, it was only eighteen or nineteen years or something.
SH: Yeah. So it was a different time. Isn't it amazing when you think of how long ago it was? Wow.
BM: Yeah. So did learning those cover tunes - did that get to be a jumping off point to where you started writing your own?
SH: Oh, yeah. Definitely, but somehow it was so under our skin…I don't know. When you listen to that stuff so much, you've listened to, say, The Beatles, you start referring to Ringo's snare sound or the way that Ringo plays fills, or Paul's really cool sort of backwards guitar lick bass style. He created that whole "Taxman" thing. And then the Bee Gees did it, and then everybody did it. It's like a way of arranging things and a way of using the bridge as a certain melodic turning point in the song. It's just everything. It cracks me up to this day - The Bangles have just started recording again - and to this day we'll be sitting around working on something and we'll all go, "Yeah, the snare should do that thing," or "I'm hearing a string part that's like this," or "harmonium" or some reference to something about the music from that era. It's still there. I just don't think even if we tried, we couldn't get rid of those influences. It's in our brains.
BM: It's something about California too. Because when I hear you sing, and the harmonies you do, it just makes me think of California somehow.
SH: Well, yeah. And that was the other thing. Growing up here, all three of us, that stuff and also the time period of when a lot of the country rock stuff from the '70s, and even very specifically The Mamas and Papas, the Beach Boys. That whole idea of three- and four-part harmonies, that's always been a big part of The Bangles. Always has and always will. The Beatles did it too. There's just something about when a harmony comes in, you kind of just get like… It's like when you listen to symphonic music and some new things gets added to the mix and it's thrilling. It just takes it to another height. A higher high.
BM: So, "Walk Like An Egyptian" - I know your producer originally brought that song in to the band and it was and still is quite a bit different from a lot of the things you've done. What was your first reaction when you heard it?
SH: I heard the Marti Jones version and my first reaction was, because she did this very cool, almost deadpan kind of girl singer approach, it reminded me of that very groovy in its kind of nonchalant attitude. So I heard the demo that she did. I later heard a demo that Charlie Sexton had done with more rootsy.
SH: Yeah, as far as I can remember. Now we're going way back here now. I thought [it was] really an odd and yet somehow hypnotic kind of song. And so different, in a way. But, the whole idea again of a song about a dance, almost like the way they had all these, the Watusi and these songs in the '60s that were sort of themed this way. I just saw it on a lot of levels and maybe I just was looking for those associations but it connected me to something old-fashioned and cool that could work as a Bangles tune. That being the glue that we came from that vibe.
BM: Was there a dance originally to go with it?
SH: Well, we kind of came up with one. But it sort of lent itself. At first I think there was a tad of resistance because the song was kind of wanting to have a drum machine aspect, and we always thought of ourselves as a garage band. So, we were a little reticent about going in that direction, but when we realized that it was more about the grooves than say the jangly guitar or initially the harmonies, that you start off the song by hearing this groove. But that was also intriguing to us, and it seemed like it was - was that our third, no it was on our second album - it was time for us to do something fun and different. It was just kind of a big experiment. And I never knew that it would take off the way it did. I just thought it was a cool kind of left field thing to do it.
BM: What happens to a band like you when you suddenly have this big hit? Do you even absorb that it's happening? I assume you're on the road, you're doing gigs, you're living like a band and suddenly your record's number one.
SH: It's pretty weird. 'Cause there's a period of time where you're just paying your dues and struggling, and even when things sorta start to happen, you're kinda going, "Why do I still have not seen one cent from this?" you know? [laughs] Those are the moments when you just haven't been home in months and you're just schlepping around and you're kind of uncomfortable and you're just working' real hard but you haven't really seen any of it come together. But it was a crazy moment in time. I actually remember pretty vividly it hitting all of us exactly at the same moment, which was when "Walk Like An Egyptian" was number one and it was sort of internationally number one. It just all kind of exploded. And we were in San Remo, Italy at some big festival. It was so La Dolce Vita, but we had our first paparazzi experience where we were standing there and the flashbulbs are going off and we're doing a press conference. Like, "Oh, we're not just doing one-on-one interviews?" No, you're doing a press conference. And we're going, "Oh my God. What just happened?" But our little bubble was burst when we met up with [laughs] Duran Duran and whatever level there was towards The Bangles was miniscule compared to trying to go out to dinner with them - it was like a scene from A Hard Day's Night or something, jumping in a cab with them, a car with them, and girls jumping on the car and shaking the car. Banging on the windows. It was pretty funny [laughs]. All in one day. But it was still the day that it hit us.
BM: Those guys love being pop stars, I always thought.
SH: Yeah, and they were. Oh my God, you shoulda seen what was going on for them. It was pretty funny.
BM: So The Bangles and Duran Duran were all in a limo together on this one night?
SH: Yeah. And dinner too. And they were so cool, 'cause we were sitting there in Italy having this unbelievable meal and there's girls screaming and banging on the windows, going "John! Simon!" And they're just tuning it out, in the way that The Beatles would play their shows and the girls would be screaming and they couldn't even hear themselves. It was like they were used to it at that point. It was very bizarre. But it's a good memory.
BM: Wow. That's great. You've been back together for what? It's nearly ten years now since you've reunited, right?
SH: Yeah, definitely.
BM: Did you figure at the time this was gonna be for real? We're not gonna do the one reunion tour thing?
SH: Oh, we never wanted to do that. No, no. I think you never know how long it's gonna last, in a way. And I'm happy that it's going. And it's getting better. It really is. I think there have been highs and lows all the way through, because it's somewhat challenging. Even though it's the greatest job on Earth, I mean, I'm not gonna ever complain that my job is to go play music. But just, the complexity of making decisions, being sort of a little cottage industry and trying to figure out how to do it. And then add on families and scheduling and how to do it, really. How much to do, how much not to do and all of that stuff. But it's getting better. I feel like we're in a really good place right now. It's pretty fulfilling that the song is now - it's almost like thinking of The Bangles, to me, from my vantage point, in a whole new way than even back when we were having hits. In a way, it's better now. I guess we stood the test of time. [laughs] And people still like our music and in some way people have a different feeling about it. I don't know what it is exactly except that maybe there is something to the whole nature of art and life and how people grow up and they really have some kind of deep feelings, as I did. It all comes full circle for the stuff I heard as a kid. I never would have done The Bangles if not for The Beatles, if not for the stuff I heard as a little kid, the stuff that first excited me about music. So if that's kind of part of why The Bangles are now coming out on this game in the year 2009, then that's a cool thing.
BM: I know that certainly for female bands especially to be feeling like, if it weren't for The Bangles, we might not have done this.
SH: Oh, that's amazing. That's so cool.
BM: So tell me about the record. [Are] you starting one now?
SH: Yeah, we started one in the spring. And because we kind of tour sporadically, we piece stuff together as it comes along. And since we had an album out since 2003. It's just kind of like we'd been meaning to do this for a very, very long time, but I think it took us knowing that maybe now we've finally reached a point where we could do it ourselves. We started doing some songs with Matthew Sweet, which was a great starting point, but we got kind of excited at this whole idea of the technology enabling us to just build studios in our houses for a fairly reasonable amount of money and just the autonomy of that. It's thrilling, actually. We've always been…our studio experiences from the '80s were so vastly different and we were so much younger and more vulnerable then. I'm very thrilled that we're coming into this age of technology and taking the bull by the horns and getting a grip on how to do this. It's really a whole new world for us. Very creative time.
BM: I assume that Matthew Sweet's going to be a full collaborator on this record?
SH: Well, maybe on part of it, yeah. We sort of kicked the record off by doing several songs with him, but now, because of the way schedules are and because of our, both Vicki, all three of us, actually, but Vicki and I are passionately involved in getting our home studios activated. Really and fully activated. I think we just wanna try doing some stuff at our own Bangles studios and see what we come up with, because it's extremely liberating to just be able to wake up in the morning and do music. I think we're gonna do the next batch - we're kinda doing it in batches - at our home studios.
BM: Great. I assume it's mostly stuff the three of you have written. Is there any other songs?
SH: Yeah, we've done some. There's a couple of cover songs that we're doing. I'm not sure I should mention them yet, because I'm very open about that stuff and then sometimes I get in trouble. We don't want people to know because then if it doesn't end up on the record…blah blah blah. You'll know soon enough. I'm not trying to keep a big secret or anything but maybe I'd better not mention any titles of things yet.
BM: Let's also talk about the new record with Matthew Sweet. There's some things on it that I'd pretty much expect you to do, and a few things that I'd probably not expect you to do. One of which being the Grateful Dead song "Sugar Magnolia." Are you secret Deadheads?
SH: I don't know if we're secret Deadheads, but we're both admirers of them. I definitely went through a heavy Grateful Dead phase when I was in college at UC Berkeley, California. Not to be confused with your Berklee in Boston. Again, the whole thing of working on the '70s record was the revelation of how big a deal that music was, 'cause I always thought, "I'm into the '60s" but in truth, the '70s were really the coming-of-age years for me. So that music was really - I don't know. I just really associate it with my Berkeley years. And then The Bangles got a chance to hang out with the Grateful Dead when we were on tour. And it was New Orleans which made it really special. And so I got a chance to hang out with Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia…
BM: But you didn't get busted down in New Orleans?
SH: Yeah, it's pretty cool. There's a lot of nostalgia for…it's not so much that I would necessarily call myself a Deadhead, although I have currently discovered they have their own radio station on satellite radio, [which is] really cool.
BM: I myself am kind of a closet Yes fan, so I really enjoyed your version of "Seen All Good People."
SH: Oh, me too. Thanks. That was a major discovery when Matthew actually called me up and said Yes, and I was like, "Oh my God, what a great idea. And we went 'round and 'round and 'round and I actually thought, "Let's do 'All Good People'" 'cause they're just so musical and so cool. And Jon Anderson's voice is so great. And yay, we got Steve Howe [Yes guitarist] to play on it, which made it so special.
BM: Did he just come into the studio and play those bits like he did the first time?
SH: No, he did it across the pond. He did it in England, can you believe it? And this is when the technology gets really amazing in a way. Matthew found him on the internet through the Steve Howe Appreciation Society, isn't that cool? And contacted him. And then we sent him the roughed out version of the song, which is the guitar just there for singing to. And he was out in the country and had to go to this special mailbox down in the village and get the thing. And then he took the virtual session to the studio when he was doing some Asia stuff, recording and put the thing on and sent it to us. It was just incredible. He did it [from] the other side of the world.
BM: I'm gonna say thanks a lot. That was great.
SH: Thank you!