A Conversation with The Bangles' Susanna Hoffs
Mike Ragogna: Hello, Susanna.
Susanna Hoffs: Hi.
MR: You have a new Bangles album, Sweetheart Of The Sun.
SH: It's been seven years in the making, but yes -- a new Bangles album, finally.
MR: Okay, tell us all about those seven years.
SH: (laughs) Well, it wasn't our intent to wait that long, but many factors affected how slow it was. It was partly because all of us had kids, and we're working moms. We were on the road with The Bangles on and off all year. We did three tours of Australia, a tour of Europe, many, many little runs in the U.S. in different markets -- the East Coast, West Coast, and the Midwest--but kind of under the radar and things like that. It was just that juggling the family stuff with the creative stuff took a while.
MR: It's interesting being a grownup and doing this, isn't it.
SH: Yeah. That's a really good point. When The Bangles started... I actually spoke with Vicki over the phone in 1980, but the band really was formed in the beginning of 1981. During that whole period, we were sort of married to each other. We were on the road; we were like gypsies. It was all Bangles all the time during the whole decade of the '80s, and we worked it. We were in our twenties and our main responsibility was showing up to the gig on time, so it's quite different now.
MR: It's amazing that you all can get back together after that long a break and make as solid an album as this is.
SH: Thank you.
MR: I wanted to talk about a couple of the songs. One of them, "Anna Lee," has some interesting lyrics: "Got a picture of you sittin' in the kitchen without a stitch on." What do we need to know about Anna Lee?
SH: Well, she's sort of a fictional character. The song was written in the studio--actually, up at Matthew Sweet's house where we tracked the record. I had just read a book called Girls Like Us -- Sheila Weller wrote it. It has very detailed biographies of Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Carly Simon. I recommended it to Vicki and Debbi who read it and loved it as I did. In it, there's a lot of talk about Laurel Canyon and the scene in the '60s and '70s, with Joni land Carole King living there. I also had read, during that time -- just prior to writing the song with Vicki and Debbi -- two other books about the L.A. music scene. Hotel California was one and Laurel Canyon was the other. So, they were very much in our minds. There was a section in the book about Carole King talking about her writing partner Tony Stern, and there's a great picture of her sort of crouching down in the garden -- I can't remember what she's doing, but she's completely naked in the picture with Toni Stern. It's really iconic, and sort of said it all about the Ladies of the Canyon. It was an interesting time, because they were feminists in a way -- they were affected by the whole feminist movement -- but they were also free spirits and very feminine. There was this vibe... I don't want to say it was a "hippie-chick" vibe, but it was a unique time for women. We just decided to use those images and some of those stories that we got from the Sheila Weller book to kind of make this composite character that we ended up naming Anna Lee. We wrote the song about her, and about how our generation of women had looked for inspiration from those women in Laurel Canyon in the '60s, those female artists.
MR: Those women sure were the sweethearts of the singer-songwriter genre, and I would go so far as to say they're the archetypes for singer-songwriters to this day.
SH: Yeah. I think the culture today is very, very different from what it was in the '60s, and I feel lucky that I grew up at a time when I had these very strong female role models. They were strong women, but their power was very much connected to their creativity and their voice, as opposed to this culture of beauty that we live in where everything is so wrapped up in appearance. It changed. I can't quite put my finger on how to say it. But I'm glad you like that song.
MR: Another thing about the artists of that era is that they didn't use power for power's sake. It really was about the power of creativity.
SH: Yes, exactly. There's a great picture that I believe is in Girls Like Us of Joni at her house in Laurel Canyon, or at one of the houses that all these musicians were hanging out in -- I think it was hers -- and you just see Eric Clapton sitting on the lawn looking at her, like transfixed, as she's playing the guitar. Eric Clapton, the guitar hero of all time -- at least at that time, for sure -- looking like, "How is she doing that? What is she playing?" It's like he's trying to understand it because it's so impressive. And Joni was that person. She was playing dulcimer and tuning her guitar in all kinds of ways that no one had done, or at least you weren't hearing them much on the radio prior to her doing it. She just kind of took it all on. It wasn't power for powers sake, like you said. That's why in "Anna Lee," we have that lyric, "quiet power, simple grace." It was power through the creativity. It was all the expression that was so strong and was such a point of view -- the female point of view being presented through these very intimate songs. I remember listening to Joni as a little girl and just being so attached to all her records and having a certain experience that a little girl who's age nine or ten or whatever I was has. I remember going back and revisiting those records at different eras in my life as an adult and thinking, "Oh, my god. I had no idea what she was singing about!" These were very personal stories of her life that were coming out in these songs, and I had no idea what it was about -- I just like it. I just like the sound of it as a kid.
MR: Now, you were one of the feisty girl groups of the era. Were you aware of that at the time and playing into that?
SH: Yeah, we were very aware of it. It's interesting looking back, which I'm doing partly because the album's out and I've been talking about it with people and revisiting the whole journey of my life prior to The Bangles and then spending the last thirty years as a Bangle. I went to UC Berkeley for college, and it was during the period when the whole punk movement was happening. So, I'd gone from thinking, "When I'm going to a concert, I'm going to a stadium," like with The Who and Zeppelin and The Stones, to all of a sudden discovering The Ramones and The Talking Heads and The Sex Pistols and Patti Smith. I actually saw the last ever Sex Pistols show at Winterland in San Francisco because I was in college across the bay at Berkeley, and then I saw Patti Smith. It really was that music that emboldened me to decided to be in a band. That became my dream from having been a dancer -- I actually graduated as a painter at Berkeley, in the fine arts. It was really that movement, which was very much rebellious, that made me want to be in a band and made me think it was even possible. It was like, getting that Ramones record and realizing, "Hey, I know those three or four chords they're playing, I could put down the acoustic guitar and grab an electric guitar and kind of make that sound!" It was kind of mind-blowing for me, at the time. So, The Bangles were very... we had a lot of attitude. We were pretty tough little girls back then when we started the band. It wasn't the era of American Idol -- we weren't waiting around to be picked or vetted by a team of people who seem to know or not know what's good or bad. It wasn't that kind of mindset at all -- it was like, "We're doing this ourselves--everything." We made our own single, like, hand-delivered it to Rodney Bingenheimer, who started playing it. It was all do-it-yourself.
MR: And what a great energy you had within the band. When you get together, do you still get that energy, that same feeling?
SH: Yeah, it feels good. Honestly, I have to say that it's a really great job. I feel really grateful to have been in the little club that we call The Bangles for so many years. And to this day, when we get together -- we just did a little radio thing yesterday, just with acoustic guitars and the three of us singing--every time, I feel this chemistry that's special. When we go and rehearse for tour and I go to the rehearsal place and plug in my guitar and crank up my amp and we start playing, it just transports me to a really good place. I just enjoy it -- I enjoy the sound. There's just a sound that the three of us make. We met for the first time--they're sisters, Vicki and Debbi -- when they came over in 1981 and I was living in a converted garage at my parents' house in west L.A., and we played music for the first time back then. We knew. I don't know how it happened, but we just got really lucky. There was something good about the sound that happened that night. We basically said, "I do. Let's get married." We decided to be a band that night. It was crazy, when I think about it. There was no, "Let's go home and mull this over." It was like going on a blind date and getting married that night.
MR: So, I have to confess, "Going Down To Liverpool" is one of my favorite records, and it's yours. Love it.
SH: Yeah, it's great -- it's written by Kimberley Rew. I can't remember how we happened upon the song. I think it might have been during the era when we got signed to Columbia Records. I'm not remembering if maybe David Connor, the producer, had come across it, or if we had. But it's such a cool song. One of the things that sort of glued us together, musically, was our mutual love of The Beatles. So, just when I heard the title, "Going Down To Liverpool," I was like, "Okay, I want to hear that song." You just associate The Beatles with Liverpool, so it just kind of tapped into that thing, our affection for The Beatles. We were very influenced by British Invasion music.
MR: And then there's Gerry And The Pacemakers who gave us the saddest song ever written, "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying."
SH: Oh, yeah I know. I love those bands.
MR: Speaking of writers, I do believe a certain Prince had a little something to do with "Manic Monday."
SH: Yes, absolutely. We got really lucky in that early on, it was sort of the dawn of MTV. It was the era during which it was all videos. It was a music video channel.
MR: Weren't those great days? (laughs)
SH: Those were great days, right? We had a video for the first single off our first Columbia record, All Over The Place. It was a song called "Hero Takes A Fall," and it was right at the point when Prince was starting to become not just an artist that everyone looked up to and knew was really cool, but he started to have hits on the radio. I was just driving around L.A. going from Bangles gigs and rehearsals and things, and I heard "When Doves Cry." I thought, "What a cool song," and then, every single song off that album ended up being a hit on the radio. But at that time, for whatever reason, Prince turned on MTV and saw The Bangles first video -- actually, it was our second video, "Hero Takes A Fall." He really liked the band, so he started to come to our shows. He wouldn't just watch -- he would jump onstage with us. He really liked that song. We still play it... it's still one of my favorite songs to play. It really rocks. It was the real garage-rock or garage-pop side of The Bangles. We were really influenced by '60s psychedelic garage-pop. So, he would jump onstage and play these solos, you can find them on YouTube now. There's not footage of it -- it's just audio -- but it was just incredible for us, because it was exciting. Then I got a call from one of our engineers when we were working on Different Light--the second record for Columbia -- that Prince had a song he wanted to give me. So, I drove over to the studio, picked up the song, and sure enough, it was "Manic Monday." We recorded it and I don't know if he wrote it for us or if he just thought of us, because he had a version of it in existence. I never did find that out. But yeah, it ended up being the first single off Different Light and our first Top 40 single. So, I'm very grateful to Prince for that.
MR: And of course, that led to "Walk Like An Egyptian," which everybody has mimicked since then. Isn't that amazing? That song and that video are like the catchiest things ever.
SH: Thank you.
MR: Now, on your new album, you have a couple of interesting covers. You end the album with the Todd Rundgren song, "Open My Eyes." You've been playing that one live for a while, but how did you decide to finally record it?
SH: It was one that we had done in the '80s. We never recorded it, but it was in our set in the mid-'80s. Actually, Vicki brought it up again. She said, "What about 'Open My Eyes?'" It was actually Todd's first band's, they were called Nazz. We were really obsessed with the Nuggets records, which were these compilation records with the psychedelic pop stuff on them. I think Lenny Kaye from Patti Smith's band had something to do with the organizing of the material for those albums. They were kind of iconic albums. We were big fans of that song, and when we were looking at the themes and the material for Sweetheart Of The Sun, we were kind of honing in on what we wanted to do with the album. We wanted to make an album that would be fun to play live -- that was a definite, conscious thought. So, Vicki had that thought, like "This is one we used to do. It's a blast to play live, and it has a really cool guitar riff that's real signature in the song." So, yeah, we reinvented it a little bit, but the song was full of harmonies anyway. With everything we do, we always want to put a Bangles spin on it by making sure that we approach things from a harmony point of view. We always want to make sure there are three part harmonies in as many places as possible.
MR: Let's talk about your other cover on this record -- "Sweet And Tender Romance" by The McKinley Sisters. How did you come across that one?
SH: There was a guy named John Kirby who has come to a bunch of Bangles shows. I'm not sure what the connection is there, I know there's somebody in our crew that knows him, but I'm not sure exactly what it is, but he is from England and has some connection to Led Zeppelin. Robert Plant also used to come to our shows. We were very lucky, we had really interesting people coming to our shows in our early days, before we had success, to kind of give us a pat on the back and say, "Keep going, girls. You're doing well." Prince was doing that too. Not that we needed that, we were pretty driven and wouldn't take "no" for an answer. We were going to go until we were barred and locked out of the music world. Nothing was going to stop us. But it was a nice thing, having Robert Plant come to the shows. So, this guy was somehow connected to him. I think he might have come with Robert Plant to one of the shows, but I don't know the whole story. And when I saw him at our show in Vegas a few years ago, he handed me this CD and said, "These girls, The McKinley Sisters, had really cool songs in the '60s. It's totally obscure stuff, you've probably never heard it. Jimmy Page is playing the guitar solo on this song." I was fascinated, and I became just completely addicted to listening to this CD, never thinking that it would be something The Bangles would cover. But I just had to share it with Vicki and Debbi and Matthew, so I brought it to the studio when we were tracking and I said, "Check out this song. It's so cool." I think in the spirit of the thing I said earlier, that we wanted to do a record that would be fun to play live, I was thinking that "Sweet And Tender Romance" could be a contender. The thing that's so bizarre about it is that when you listen to the McKinley Sisters version -- which you can find on YouTube -- it's pop, but it's got this really modern, kind of alternative-punk thing going on. It's a really unusual song in a really weird time signature -- it's interesting. It was kind of a left-of-center choice, but The Bangles like to do that.
MR: You also seem to approach song choices the same way when you work with Matthew Sweet. Your Under The Covers albums have the same kind of heart.
SH: Absolutely. Matthew and I share a love for music -- we're music fans. When someone asks what advice I have for young bands, I always say, "Learn your favorite songs. Do some covers in your shows... why not? It's okay to be doing that while you're also trying to find your own voice as a singer-songwriter or an artist." I think that we all come to it from being fans of music and feeling like we can't live without music ourselves. So, I look for that when it comes to covering a song. I love to cover songs. And actually, the girl who runs The Bangles' website found an old online questionnaire thing about your goals and something like, "What would you do if you could do any project?" I forget what the question was, but it was something like that. It was written in, like, 1985, and I said, "I want to make a record of all my favorite songs, a full covers record." I had totally forgotten about that, but that's what Matthew and I have been doing. So, that was kind of cool, stumbling upon this old questionnaire. Because I do believe it's a really great way to find yourself, musically. I know for myself, I never had any formal training. I don't read music, which is a shame, actually, and I shouldn't even speak of it because it's embarrassing, but it's true. I basically taught myself how to sing and play by copying records, and that's just how it was for me. I know that's true for a lot of budding musicians out there -- that's the thing that gets them inspired, is trying to learn their favorite songs. I think it's a great way to teach yourself.
MR: You may not realize it -- and I know that you're not trying to do this -- but you're educating people with those records. I'm always surprised by a few of the songs you and Matthew cover.
SH: Yeah, and the other cool thing is that there is a whole new generation of kids that may not know about a band like Yes. Matthew and I were so excited the day that we realized that we should, for the '70s record, do something from the progressive rock thing in the '70s. We both realized that we were major fans of Yes. I kind of got into Yes because my older brother was listening to those records.
MR: That seven-minute version of "Ive Seen All Good People" was pretty surprising.
SH: And Steve Howe playing guitar on it, which was pretty awesome. I don't know if Matthew told you, but we contacted him and sent him the tracks, and he's playing that acoustic guitar all the way through and then he did all of that solo, just like on the original record. So, Matthew and I just have so much fun working on those records. There's no way to explain it except for that it's just a party with the two of us learning our favorite songs, trying to figure out how to make them our own, which sometimes we don't worry too much about because we don't, obviously, sing like the original singers and when we do the duet thing with it, it automatically takes it to a new place and kind of reinvents it. It's just been fun. We're starting the '80s one -- I don't know if Matthew told you that.
MR: No, but I have to ask, are you going to cover The Bangles?
SH: Well, I said to Matthew, "It's not on the list right now, but if we do it, he's got to sing it." Wouldn't that be cool?
MR: That would be excellent, make him do it.
SH: I know, I might have to just do it as a bonus track. We could take that on and have Matthew sing one of the songs. We do a lot of that gender-bending thing. Songs that you typically think of as a "boy-girl" thing, like in "Go All The Way" by The Raspberries where a boy is singing about a girl, kind of take a twist when I sing them from the female point of view. It gives it kind of a cool edge. We try to mix things up like that, it's fun.
MR: Now, you did touch on this earlier, but I do want to formally ask you -- since I do it in every interview -- what's your advice, or rather, more advice for new artists?
SH: Well, I think it's okay to embrace your love of music, even if that means learning some of your favorite songs. For me, it was singing Linda Ronstadt songs and singing Joni Mitchell songs and singing Bonnie Raitt songs and singing Beatles songs and singing Dusty Springfield songs. I mean, I really owe a lot to singing along with my favorite female voices and female artists. A few more that come to mind are Lulu, Dionne Warwick... singing all those Burt Bacharach songs and Diana Ross with all the Supreme records. I taught myself how to sing just copying them. I mean, I grew up in Los Angeles and still live in Los Angeles and you're in a car a lot here, so my mom -- I have a really great mom who loves music as much as I do. She was always playing the radio and bringing home records. I mean, she brought us all The Beatles records when we were like four or five years old. She just was always playing music, and that's how I learned. So, that's good. Another thing that we did as kids was just teaching each other, really folk-style, how to play. Everybody got taught "Blackbird" and things like that. You feel like a really good guitar player when you learn that and you're young. I mean, just learning other songs is really useful.
MR: Looking back from the All Over The Place album up until now, what do you think are the major differences in your creative self?
SH: Wow. Well, one thing is that because the music business is so changed, my initial response is that there's not that much difference. We were on a major label and the music business was thriving in a kind of way, and was very transformed by technological advances and also with Napster and Limewire and all that stuff that came and took some of the income stream. It kind of crashed it because of the fact that in some ways, it's almost like music is free now. I mean, it's not, but bands like us can now go on the road and play. I think it's pretty tough for bands to survive because of the way that the music business is, but from a musical point of view, not that much as changed for me. I still strive when I make music, when I record or write, to create something that I like. I try to just please myself and hope that other people will like it. I don't get too intellectual about it. It's the same thing that made me love music. I try to find the spark whenever I'm working, whether I'm playing a guitar part or singing a harmony or singing one of my own songs or singing covers with Matthew Sweet. There's something mystical and magical about music.
I don't even know if you can put words to what makes it work on such a deep level for people. I mean, I don't know about you, but music has gotten me through a lot of things. I use music for courage. If I have to go do something hard, I'll pick which song I want to listen to in the car on the way over to whatever it is I'm going to do something difficult. When I'm upset or when I'm happy, there's always a song that seems to capture that emotion and has been a partner to me in life. I don't know if that's just me, but I have this thought that I often wake up with music in my head. Then one day I realized, "Maybe that's because I'm a musician -- or does everybody do that? Is it that I'm writing a song in my mind, or do I have some crazy connection to music?" I know it's not just me, because I meet so many people at our concerts and everywhere I go that have that relationship to music. So, that has not changed. My kids are like that too. They're teenagers -- well, the little one is not quite a teenager, but I have a sixteen-year-old and a thirteen-year-old. God, music is so important to them,and I actually learn about a lot of bands from them. It's all different now, with the internet and how kids discover things... with YouTube too. It's just different. We used to go to the record store and spend hours flipping through those bins. You probably remember that. So, that was my childhood. We would spend hours at the record store. We would just sit there with the turntables and the album art reading the liner notes. The kids find it all online, and they still love music. It hasn't changed the love of music at all.
MR: When we were spending hours at the store flipping through records, that was our social networking, where as now there are Facebook and YouTube and Twitter.
SH: Absolutely. We didn't have any of that. Wow, it was a very different time.
MR: It was a little more prehistoric, but it was the same concept. That's how we bonded with people, made new friends too.
SH: Absolutely. And my kids still bond with their friends over music. The love of music has not changed. The identifying of yourself with your favorite bands or your favorite records and having that excitement when you turn someone on to a new band they've never heard of or something cool. I actually am really enjoying that through my kids and extended family. But the generation younger than me, who are very music-obsessed -- I'm learning a lot from them. It really is fun to be part of that culture. I haven't gone to the big festivals here. We used to play those big festivals in Europe, like Coachella and Bonnaroo and all that. But that's a cool thing. I think it is a really interesting experience of community, and it's a shared event, where people are sharing an experience together. I think it's a continuation of Woodstock, which started it all. It's interesting.
MR: You mentioned your kids. When they hear your records, especially things like "Hazy Shade Of Winter" or "Eternal Flame" or "In Your Room," can you see the wheels turning in their heads?
SH: They've grown up with it and they're both very musical. I don't know if that had anything to do with it -- that they've been around music or whether they would've come to it even if I wasn't a musician. But they have been to a lot of Bangles shows and seen me perform with Matthew a little bit. They both love music, so I don't know. It's hard for me to know exactly how it's affected them. They didn't ever know anything else. They were always surrounded by music, because that's what I do. They'd hear me see singing. Even when they were babies, I was always singing to them and stuff. That's just their idea of their mom. It doesn't strike them as unusual, let's put it that way.
MR: What about when they see mom walking around with a Rickenbacker?
SH: They're just like, "Oh yeah, that's the kind of guitar my mom likes to play." It's normal that mom plays guitar to them, because it's all they've ever known.
MR: What a great way to have grown up. that's really cool. Okay, let's end with talking about how awesome Matthew Sweet is, which is how I will now end every interview.
SH: Oh, yeah. I am such a Matthew Sweet fanatic. I am so excited to get going. I mean, we've already started putting together the '80s thing and have a lot of songs in the works. We recorded so much for the '70s. I actually just emailed Matthew because we just had so much that we didn't put it all out. I want to do mixes of a few of the songs and figure out a way to get them out there because I really like them and no one's ever heard them. So, I want to get working on that too. He's just so great. I'm so excited by the idea that he and I might be -- or very much are working on -- doing a tour. I actually have a solo record that I just finished that's going to come out in 2012, and he's got a record he's promoting now. So, we're thinking of doing a tour where we both have a solo set and then also do our Sid and Susie covers-duo thing. That's something we're planning.
MR: I forgot to ask you about your hit, "My Side Of The Bed," from your first solo album, which was in '91 and was called When You're A Boy. Well, I don't really have a question, I'm just sayin'.
SH: Yes, and now I have another record that I've just done with Mitchell Froom, the fantastic producer who actually played the little signature keyboard riff on "Manic Monday." He produced everything from "Don't Dream It's Over," and all those songs from Crowded House to Randy Newman -- amazing, amazing stuff. We did a record together of ten original songs of mine. I'd been waiting for the perfect moment to do it and it finally just clicked when I ran into Mitchell at a club in the spring. We both went, "Wait! We can do this -- soon! Let's do it," and we did. I'm excited to have it come out and perform those songs.
MR: I don't think there's anything we haven't talked about.
SH: No, I think we've covered a lot of good ground here.
MR: Susanna, thank you very much for everything.
SH: Thank you. I've really enjoyed talking with you. I'll have to talk again after Under The Covers: Volume Three is done.
MR: You can talk to me anytime you'd like, please come back ma'am. This was a lot of fun, all the best with everything.
SH: Thank you. Hopefully, we'll talk again soon. 'Bye, Mike.
1. Anna Lee (Sweetheart of the Sun)
2. Under A Cloud
3. Ball 'n' Chain
4. I'll Never Be Through With You
6. Circles in the Sky
7. Sweet and Tender Romance
8. Lay Yourself Down
9. One of Two
10. What A Life
11. Through Your Eyes
12. Open My Eyes
Transcribed by Claire Wellin
Mike Ragogna: Matthew, your first track, "Oh, Oldendaze," has one of my favorite lines on your new album, Modern Art: "Memories never stand the test of time." I love that. Can you talk about the inspiration for the song?
Matthew Sweet: Well, it's hard to say. Part of the thing with Modern Art was that I spent some time going through the very first moments from when I was making up an idea, and then tried to sort of translate that without chopping them up and making them into normal songs. I think that "Oh, Oldendaze" was the first one I worked on. I kind of completed that before I did the rest of the record, and so it does sort of exemplify, in a lot of ways, what I was going after. I wanted the record to be really personal and have melodic parts that were memorable, especially if I knew it was going to be structured kind of weirdly. So, I think that it has a very personal vibe, that song. The idea of memories and times that have gone before come into it, but it's sort of in this trippy fashion. I guess what I mean by "memories never stand the test of time" is that it will never be as good as when you were there and it was happening. And in some ways, you don't want to spend your time in the past thinking about it. But also, it's more abstract than that. Even at the beginning, I think at some point I say -- I might just be talking, I can't remember -- "first impressions." Part of how I got the record to be more abstract was by using those first impressions of the songs that I had. So, it covers a lot of territory on what the record's about to me.
MR: To me, the title Modern Art relates to how the album was constructed -- it's abstract but still "normal."
MS: It's hard to do both things. I had the urge to tear songs in half. When everything falls apart in the middle of "Oh, Oldendaze," it's kind of like that. But how do you do that, exactly, with music and then have it not be so incidental? Like, when you're only going after a moment like that, to me, you need some more feeling in it than just that. "Modern Art," the song, also kind of refers to the weird modern world we live in, where things have changed so much because we've all become so connected through the internet. There's even a song that mentions the internet -- it's not on the main album as it's coming out -- called "At The Screen With The World Flowing In." It's a bonus track somewhere, and it's got that feeling as well, a very almost psychedelic feeling of information flowing out of the screen and into you, and what it means to become emotionally swayed by things even though you're not really sure how they were meant. (laughs) So, there are a lot of feelings in the record, but I didn't plan it. It mostly came out of starting to record and then something coming from that.
MR: Matthew, when I listen to that song I get all sorts of impressions. You mentioned wanting to tear a song in half, and I'm noticing that it's also about showing all sorts of influences. For instance, I'm hearing some George Harrison and some nods to the latter days of The Beach Boys.
MS: I love all those things! I'm totally flattered that you would get even a vibe from them like that. I've heard that a lot about this record, that you can hear a lot of different influences. There's a thing that goes on where even on the songs that are sort of simple and seem like a normal song. For instance, "Baltimore" kind of repeats the same chords most of the time, but every time I come at a verse or something, it'll be a different thing. It'll be a different melody. When I'm writing songs, I do that a lot, I try some different things. Some of those sections that come along -- a lot of them only happen once, and then they go by -- are kind of a separate little thing to learn. I can see how that might show influences as well.
MR: You've also been compared to Neil Young in the past. How does that not go to your head?
MS: (laughs) Well, because I'm clear on it. I have no illusions that I'm like Neil Young. I worship those kinds of guys, but I don't have my design to be as great as they are. I'm happy to be in their shadow, you know what I mean?
MR: (laughs) Yeah. I've seen you perform a number of times, and you do share some qualities with Neil, oh by the way, sir. Her, what was your first Neil Young adventure, and what's your favorite song of his?
MS: Wow, that's hard. It would be hard to pick one song off the top of my head without thinking about it for a while. I really got into Neil Young when I was making the demos for Girlfriend. I had a drum kit and I'd split up with my wife -- we had separated -- and so I'd set up the drum kit in the living room and thought, "I'm going to try to play the drums." I was not good at playing drums, but my manager -- who is still my manager to this day, although he was my lawyer then, Russell Carter -- heard those demos and said, "Oh, it's like Neil Young in Crazy Horse." I was kind of like, "Oh, I know -- I have a really high weird voice" or whatever because I didn't really know Neil Young intimately. I was in my stratosphere because I listened to rock radio as a kid. I just hadn't gone there and learned about him and gotten into it. So, Russell made me these cassettes of Neil and sent them to me, like with Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and then I was like, "This is the most amazing thing I've ever heard," because it made sense with what I was kind of trying to do right then. So, I got really into Neil. I kind of went back to a lot more of that primary music -- The Beatles and The Byrds and things -- and learning about them. I was there already with The Beach Boys. I'd been turned on to Pet Sounds by... I want to say Peter Buck down in Athens when I was just out of high school. I knew about Pet Sounds and was also hugely into Big Star, who took so many influences from those '60s things as well. It also had to do with the fact that I'd spent several years learning to program drums in the '80s and trying to make them sound like real drums just so that I could control what they were doing. Then, when I played real drums, it kind of opened up this whole new world. That's when I really got into that music and became such a huge fan.
MR: That's a pretty interesting route.
MS: It is strange. I'd found some great things when I was a teenager, but I'm not one of those guys whose parents had all the classic, great records or whatever. I'd learned stuff from my older brother, who was five years older than me, and so I'd gotten some Beatles records from him. And there was some '80s stuff I was into. I remember when he got The Pretenders' first record and we became fans of that. So, there was more New Wave -- Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe and all that stuff -- before I really knew the classic people like Neil Young or The Beatles as well as I do now.
MR: Speaking of drums, you have Ric Menck back on this album.
MS: That's right, yeah. It's like we've never been apart.
MR: (laughs) He's your longtime musical cohort.
MS: Oh, we go way back. Paul Chastain, who is the other member of Velvet Crush with Ric, is also going to be touring with us this year. But, yeah, Ric plays all the drums on the record, with the exception of the one track that Fred Armisen plays, which is "Ivory Tower." Fred and I became friendly when Susanna Hoffs and I sang in a couple of his comedy shows he did when he'd come out to L.A. over the last couple years. During the time I was doing Modern Art, to anyone I would see who was a drummer, I'd say, "Send me raw material, or give me junk. I might turn it into something." Fred went in a room in New York and recorded two or three things and sent them to me, and I'd had the song idea already and it weirdly melded with the exact thing he played. So, I didn't even change anything about it. It's just like I jammed along with his crazy drum thing.
MR: Okay, back to the songs. In "She Walks The Night," I love the lyrics, "How many times to her face did I lie and she wakes me when the sun comes out again." On the surface, it seems like a love song that can have an interpretation of a guy being forgiven by the gal for coming home late after being a dog, but there's this creepy, eerie undertow of a story going on.
MS: Yeah, in the song it's really strange because the girl is dead. She's basically a ghost. "She drapes around, her feet are barely touching on the ground, she loves the dark because she knows where it's coming from, she comes alive painted in the glow of the streetlight," and he says, "How many times in her place have I died?" It's like he doesn't want to believe that it's not reality. He says, "Why would I pretend she isn't there if I can feel her be, she's real enough to me," or something like that. I've never quoted so many lyrics from a song, ever! Luckily, I've been trying to learn a version of that for us to play live, so it's a little bit in my head. But it is like a love song as well, and "she wakes me when the sun comes out again" is like when he gets up and it's daytime and it's reality, it's because she ushers him into it or something. It's interesting to talk about these lyrics because it's so abstract for me. I don't even know what I mean by stuff when I'm writing. Later on, you can go and say, "Oh, this is what that's kind of saying," and unlike what I just said, a lot of songwriters have very specific things about the songs. I'm more open-minded. I love when someone just gets what they get from it.
MR: What about "Ladyfingers?"
MS: What we call "Ladyfingers" are those inch-and-a-half firecrackers, and where I grew up in Nebraska, fireworks weren't illegal. I sold fireworks as a teenager around the 4th of July to make a little bit of money. We would have Roman Candle fights in the parking lot and stuff, so, "there in the smoke she lingers," I think, is like the smoke from fireworks, kind of. But it's about an imaginary woman, I guess. I'd have to look at the lyrics -- it almost has kind of a trucker thing going on in it, where he'll be rolling along. It talks about "four-eyes," because he has glasses. I thought that was kind of good. (laughs) "I keep four eyes on the road."
MR: Let's move onto "Late Nights With The Power Pop." Power Pop is a category you've been sort of placed in for years.
MS: That comes from a thing that happened on tour with Tony Marsico, who played bass with us for years and years, until Paul started playing bass last year. Tony had this little book thing called "Late Nights With Bob Dylan" that was about when his band, The Cruzados, backed up Dylan on ...Letterman. There was always intense interest about it, so they made this little fanzine about it called Late Nights With Bob Dylan. Ric would joke that he was going to have his comeback, which was "Late Nights With The Power Pop." It's especially funny because it's "The Power Pop" instead of just "Power Pop," so I just had that title in my head. I always planned I would just make a song that used the title, but then it worked in this weird way to have this song that had memories of some of our times live in it. There's an interesting bunch of stuff going on in it.
MR: Another one of my favorite songs is "Baltimore."
MS: You know, there isn't really much of a story. I wrote it in Baltimore -- I just liked the name "Baltimore" and thought, "I'm just going to write something with 'Baltimore' in it," and it became kind of... You get the idea that there was a relationship and it ended when they got to Baltimore, and somehow, she escaped and he's sort of there. It doesn't really knock Baltimore as much as it is his fate. That's where it went down and he's still there.
MR: Now, you're becoming a musicologist of sorts. Your Under The Covers albums with Susanna Hoffs are wonderful equally from the performances and the material you're choosing.
MS: Oh, thank you. We pick stuff that we think we'll be able to do. (laughs) We stay away from stuff we think we just can't do. I think we have a pretty good instinct for what might work with the two of us.
MR: And you have a good working knowledge of a lot of music.
MS: Kind of -- I really think of myself as not knowing as much as people might think that I do about records. But I know this guy Ric Menck, who plays drums with me (laughs) and he is a musicologist. He really knows a lot of stuff, and so I do rely on him a little bit as well.
MR: Well then, in regards to Ming Tea and the Austin Powers movies, who comes up with the appropriate music?
MS: The Ming Tea thing was really just a little riff that I made up and we all kind of jammed on together over at Mike's house. I think of it as being a little bit like the song "Dinosaur Act" off of Altered Beast. It has a similar thing going on in it. But then, later on, we wrote another song for the third Austin Powers movie. Mike and I wrote it together, it's called "Daddy Wasn't There."
MR: Are you working on any movies currently?
MS: I'm not doing any movie stuff right now. I'm actually at the tail end of another album -- what will be the follow-up to Modern Art. I'm almost done with it. I finished Modern Art last September, so it's taken us almost a year to get it out through various hitches along the way. The other thing that's going on is that we're going to make an '80s record with Susanna and I -- we'll be working on it when I get back from touring this fall.
MR: Nice. Volume Three.
MS: Volume Three.
MR: Yay. Also, you have your fingers in some other pies. You worked with Hanson for a while.
MS: Oh, yeah. That's been a while back now, but I did write a couple songs with them and got to know them a little bit. They were very nice. I've seen them a few times over the years and they're so grown up now. They look like male models or something, in their late twenties. How old are they now? They may be 30. More recently, I did a theme song for the latest Scooby Doo episode, "Mystery Incorporated." (laughs) I worked on that last year. I know there are some other things I'm not thinking of.
MR: Well, you made it into Guitar Hero with "Girlfriend."
MS: Oh yeah -- Guitar Hero and "Girlfriend" go a ways back. I started hearing about that, and then eventually, a friend of mine's kid performed it for me while we were at a party at their house. (laughs) I thought it was me -- the real recording -- when I heard it. They did such an exact job of copying everybody, and a few people tried to get a lawsuit going because nobody got much money for it, and then it became the biggest video game of all time. I know The Romantics and 38 Special and all these people that were on it wanted to get something from them. Somehow, it never got going as a class action thing, and it was forgotten. So, we just have to be happy for the promo, which is pretty big.
MR: But we have to discuss your biggest break that came with your big screen debut in Terms Of Endearment.
MS: (laughs) Oh, my God. I was an extra in Terms Of Endearment. At the time, I guess I was in high school. I was a senior, and I had convinced my counselor to let me go and take university courses my last semester of high school. So, I was taking weird courses I didn't have prerequisites for, like poetry, for which I was supposed to have taken other poetry classes, and film, for which I was supposed to have taken other film classes. But they just let me do it because I was sort of under a "visiting student" status. So, I was taking this class on Film Noir and James Brooks, the producer of Terms Of Endearment, came and talked to our class. Afterwards, a few people were kind of hanging around and chatting with him and listening to him. I was one of them, standing in the background with nothing to say. (laughs) He said, "If any of you want to be extras in the movie, go over to the stadium later today and they're going to be picking a bunch of people." It was great because I got off of school for several days, because we had to keep going there and be in the same spot. I'm kind of in the background, I don't even know how easy it is to see me, but I'm pretty sure you can see me there somewhere. There's a great photo of me and Debra Winger on the grass while filming that movie. She was really funny--she cussed like a sailor and was dating the governor, so it was kind of cool to be around.
MR: Since we're going into the past, you've got Community Trolls, Oh-OK, Buzz Of Delight, and all other sorts of stuff to mention. What are your thoughts, looking back on that period?
MS: It was a real growing period for me. I felt like I was pretty innocent and wide-eyed and was just taking in what I saw most of the time. I was lucky enough to be around a lot of cool people, to be around R.E.M. when they were just starting to really take off. At the time, it seemed pretty simple. I had met them when they were playing in Nebraska at this little place called The Drumstick -- it was also a chicken restaurant by day and was like the New Wave club of Lincoln. So, I went and saw R.E.M when there were fifty, sixty, seventy people going to see them. I had their 45 of the Hib-Tone "Radio Free Europe" backed with "Sitting Still." So, I was just a fan of this indie group, and then I moved down to Athens because I was writing postcards to them, and they hooked me up with Mitch Easter from Let's Active. I was a really giant fan of Mitch's stuff from some indie records and compilations and things I'd got his stuff from. So, for me, it was really amazing to get to be around those kinds of people. They were really nice to me, so it was kind of a special time. I think, later on in Athens, it became much more cutthroat and there was more of a larger community/judgment kind of vibe. (laughs) But during the time I went there, I think it was still kind of small. There were people who knew the B-52's and the people that knew R.E.M. and a few other bands. Everybody was friends and went to the same parties. There was Pylon, who are so amazing, and Love Tractor... I love all those records.
MR: And of course, you were on a few records here and there. Then you got your own record deal. Russell Carter's in this period, right?
MS: Well, there was this guy, Steve Ralbovsky, and he called back on one of my tapes and was interested. He was at EMI at the time and was going to be leaving and going to CBS. He was interested in these multi-tracks I was doing, and I think it was Jefferson Holt who was R.E.M.'s manager who hooked me up with Russell because he thought I could use a lawyer to figure out a couple of things. When we did Buzz Of Delight and stuff, we had tiny little agreements for the indie records. So, that's how I met Russell. And then, I got deals before Russell was really managing me -- or managing anyone -- but he did the legal stuff for my deals. Then I ended up getting signed at Columbia by the same guy that had been interested -- Steve -- and in fact, my fate went with him to A&M and I made a second record there. Then there was Girlfriend, and he left the label right at that time. So, we sold Girlfriend to this little, up-start label called Zoo Entertainment. That third record was really the charm for me, and like we were talking about, it was the one that really had a human feeling and was more retro than I'd been thinking most of my young adult life up to that point.
MR: Which brings us to the 20th Anniversary of Girlfriend. Twenty years later -- I can't believe it's twenty years later -- what are your thoughts on that record?
MS: Well, it's interesting because I've been having to learn the whole thing. We never even did that back in the day, we'd just pick which songs were easy to do or best known and tended to play those songs. It's kind of weird. It's forced me to go through what my feelings are about that time. I have good feelings about the record. It's a record that worked for people really well; they could put their own feelings and thoughts and lives into it, which I like. It made it really a communal thing, and it was unlike other records. It's not like there are a million records that were just like it or something. It's so unique, and when we were making it, we were just doing exactly what we wanted to do -- some (tracks) being influenced by The Beatles and The Byrds and Brian Wilson and some by The Velvet Underground or Neil Young or Jimi Hendrix. There were a lot of things we were all digging as records, and it just had that vibe where people really like the record. It's a one-time record to me. It would've been hard to make Girlfriend over and over again, because it was such it's own way, you know?
MR: Yeah, yeah. What classics, and kicking it off with "Divine Intervention" is genius.
MS: That's one of the earliest songs that's on that record, probably when I guess I was still coming to terms with the fact that I am an atheist. (laughs) Not in any evil kind of way, but at the time, I still was kind of like, "I'm going to be nasty towards God." I was mocking a little bit, but that's not to exclude Christians or whatever. It's not that I don't believe in Jesus or that his ideas aren't great or whatever. "Divine Intervention" dealt with that a little bit. I noticed in the lyrics of "Nothing Lasts," which was originally going to be the title of record, one of the three bonus tracks out in the outer reaches, says, "...if I could locate a god above." I was coming to terms with that a little bit, that that wasn't going to be a big help in my emotional life, exactly. There are so many. "I've Been Waiting," which is just a real innocent thing about falling in love. And of course, "Girlfriend," the title track itself, which Russell believed could get on the radio, and he was right. It was on rock radio and sounded just unique to what it was at the time.
MR: That was one of the most memorable hits of the era -- it was unlike all of the nice, clean, little pop songs that were programmed around it.
MS: Yeah, I wasn't afraid to be noisy, although the other thing about that time was that our live shows were twice as ferocious as anything on the record.
MR: I remember. And you also had those anime clip videos, which didn't hurt.
MS: That's right, and it's so fun to think that it wasn't so hugely well-known in mass culture then, and now you think of anime as almost American sometimes. (laughs) At the time, my wife and I, when we were dating, were collecting anime posters and trying to find comic book translations and things. So, when they said, "We want you to make a video," I tried to get something I liked into the video so I would want to do it, instead of it only being me or something, which I dreaded. That's a really cool thing, because now people look back and it's like part of the ancient history of it or something. (laughs)
MR: One of the fun things about that record was the controversy over the song "Winona." Did you ever meet after that?
MS: We did meet. I was touring once with Soul Asylum and Dave Pirner and her were going out and so she was kind of hanging around. I didn't see her a lot on that tour, but I saw her once or twice. At one of the shows, I showed her how to play the part on acoustic guitar, and she actually came out and played with us. So, she actually performed "Winona" once with us. We never really discussed the song -- I was a fan of hers and she was one of these girls I sort of fantasized about, but the song wasn't literally only about her. It could've been anybody, but it was titled "Winona." It was because Lloyd Cole knew that I really liked her, and he was like, "You should call it 'Winona'" in his English accent, and I thought, "Yeah, maybe I will. That's kind of cool." It wasn't really about her, but it had a movie star in it so it made sense.
MR: (laughs) I love that story, thank you. Before we get back to Modern Art -- "You Don't Love Me" is one of my favorite songs of yours. I had to confess that.
MS: Somebody just asked me, "What are your favorites on that record?" and that's one of the ones I picked. It just really captured a dark, undertow feeling that went along with part of what I was going through at that time. I really like that kind of melancholy music. It's not really the popular music, ever. People are always looking for a happier pop song that's more normal, but I always loved those songs that are deeper like that on records that I was a fan of, so I always try to have a couple of them in there.
MR: And I think "Come To California" should've been a huge hit. What a hook.
MS: Oh, thank you. Brendan O'Brien thought that too. We got a little action off of it, but it wasn't huge, I don't think.
MR: Now, the expanded version of Girlfriend that's out right now is a double-disc set with all sorts of fun extras.
MS: Well, at the time, they had me get together some tracks for a "thing." It was really a gift to retail and mom-and-pop stores. A lot of retail, although it's hard to imagine now, really drove the popularity of Girlfriend, with people getting into it at their record store and playing it. So, we made this disc called Good Friend as a gift to retail at the end of that year for what they'd done for us. It then became this thing that was really hard to find because there weren't that many of them, and for a while it was even like this rare thing you had to pay hundreds of dollars to get. Of course, now it's out as the bonus disc for this version of Girlfriend -- The Legacy Edition.
MR: With fancy packaging too.
MS: Yes, it's very fancy. I was very excited that they did that. I didn't really have a lot of input into it, but they did a really nice job.
MR: I know that some of those packages don't involve the artist because of contractual weirdness and all that, but I was such a fan that I just had to reach out to you when we were doing your To Understand collection at Universal.
MS: Your thing turned out awesome -- it was totally great.
MR: And I loved collaborating with you on that. It was a lot of fun.
MS: Yeah, it was. I agree. I had to go back through a lot of the history -- I remember talking with Jeff Calder a lot about it during that time too.
MR: Let's get back to Modern Art and "My Ass Is Grass." Why? What did you do?
MS: Why? What is that? I don't know, it was more about how you're mortal or whatever, I guess. (laughs) Yeah, that's such a weird thing because there's not much to it as a song. But there was just something about it that I liked, and I remember my wife really liked it. We just thought it was kind of funny, I don't know. "My Ass Is Grass." (laughs)
MR: It always begs the question, "Well, what did you do now?" (laughs)
MS: What did you do? You were alive -- you got born. Your ass is grass.
MR: (laughs) Let's talk about one more song on the album, "December Dark."
MS: I like "December Dark." It's one of those songs that's a little bit like "You Don't Love Me," which we were just talking about. I go through Seasonal Affective Disorder, I think. I feel it strongly. I suffer anyway from Bipolar Disorder, so when I get to the time of year when there's the least light, I can just feel it pulling on me. I know Susanna gets that too, and it's funny because I just made up this song called "December Dark." But it also is symbolic, like a "My Ass Is Grass" sort of thing, because it's sort of symbolic of how you never fully escape the dark side of things. It will come back around.
MR: Beautiful. Matthew, what have you got as far as advice for new artists?
MS: God, it's so hard. I mean, I can't imagine being a new artist now just because there are so many people that are artists. I think you should do your own thing that you're comfortable with. If you just get really into it and you're doing what you dig, then other people are more likely to dig it. If you're trying to think like other people or be like something else, I think it's a lot harder. So, I would say be yourself and try to really care about the music the most. All of the other stuff? First of all, it's very hard to have success in music and second of all, when you do, it's not going to be forever or at the same level. You might try and try and try and never get that far or you might do incredibly well and then it all goes away. So, in the end, you just have to really like doing music, and that separates, as they say, the men from the boys, or I guess the ladies from the girls as well, in terms of who hangs in there and becomes an artist. You have to have the urge to keep doing it, to really hang around long enough to have made a mark.
MR: Well, you sir have stayed around, and I am personally grateful. With every album that you put out, there are three or four songs that mean a lot to me.
MS: Mike, you're so nice. Thanks so much.
MR: By the way, "Easy" is still one of my favorite songs ever.
MS: Oh, I like "Easy." It has a little bit of hurt in it there. I like that song -- it's the opening song on Earth. That was one of the ones we played live when I first played live. It has a little bit of that achy feeling in it, like "Things were good and now they're not so good."
MR: But it is so simple, and it reflects "Oh, Oldendaze."
MS: "It was so easy." Yeah, it is a little bit like "...Oldendaze."
MR: Matthew, you're going to do a tour, right?
MS: Yes. We're going to tour this Fall. It looks like all over the East Coast as well as in the Midwest. I looks like the Midwest will be more in November, but we're still kind of working that out. I'm going to be in New York right on Halloween and the two days after, we're doing three shows there. And with all these shows, we're going to attempt to play the entire Girlfriend album, which will probably take up most of the show. And then we'll play a couple songs from Modern Art and maybe a couple of other things.
MR: Nice. Will you include the three bonus tracks from Girlfriend.
MS: I think we're going to, yeah. We've been rehearsing them. It's a lot.
MR: I don't want to keep you too much longer, although there's so much to talk about. You've been very generous with you time, Matthew.
MS: Oh, it's my pleasure.
MR: It's always good to talk with you. We've got to do this again soon.
MS: Same here, I would love that. Hang in there.
Modern Art Tracks:
1. Oh, Oldendaze!
2. Ivory Tower
3. She Walks The Night
4. When Love Lets Go I m Falling
6. A little death
7. Late Nights With The Power Pop
9. My Ass Is Grass
10. December Dark
11. Modern Art
Girlfirend - The Legacy Edition Tracks:
Disc One - Studio
1. Divine Intervention
2. I've Been Waiting
4. Looking At The Sun
7. Day For Night
8. Thought I Knew You
9. You Don't Love Me
10. I Wanted To Tell You
11. Don't Go
12. Your Sweet Voice
13. Does She Talk?
14. Holy War
15. Nothing Lasts
16. Good Friend (Demo Version)
17. Superdeformed (Demo Version)
18. Teenage Female (Demo Version)
Disc Two - Live
1. Divine Intervention
3. Day For Night
4. Thought I Knew You
5. Looking At The Sun
6. Does She Talk
7. You Don't Love Me
8. Someone To Pull The Trigger
9. I've Been Waiting
12. Cortez The Killer
Transcribed by Claire Wellin
Follow Mike Ragogna on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ragz2008