Susanna Hoffs is best known for her work as a member of one of music’s most loved and enduring all-girl groups, The Bangles. The group arrived on the scene in the early 1980s and ruled the charts with such classic songs as “Manic Monday,” “Walk Like An Egyptian,” “Hazy Shade of Winter” and “Eternal Flame” which launched them to super-stardom and earned them legions of fans worldwide. In the 1990s, the band members went their separate ways and would see Hoffs take on a solo career where she would release two critically praised albums. In the late 1990s, Hoffs reached out to the other members of The Bangles to record the single “Get the Girl” for the second film in the Austin Powers franchise. It didn’t take long for the creative juices to start flowing and the band announced their decision to reunite full-time in 2000. Together again, Susanna Hoffs, Vicki and Debbi Peterson set out once more to create what would become the band’s fourth album, ‘Doll Revolution’, which was released in 2003. With well over two decades behind them, The Bangles show no signs of fading away as they continue to tour and are currently working on their fifth album.
In 2006, music fans were in for a real treat as Hoffs teamed up with power-pop master Matthew Sweet for one of her most memorable projects to date. The duo set out to create a powerful album of their favorite songs of the 1960s which was titled, “Under the Covers, Vol. 1”. With the success of that album and the fact that they had so much fun creating it, it was only a matter of time before the duo would reconvene to create ‘Under the Covers, Vol. 2.’ This time around they have set out to explore the diverse sounds of the ’70s from power-pop, glam rock, progressive and classic rock. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Hoffs to discuss her past, her influences, her collaborations with Matthew Sweet and the status of the upcoming album from The Bangles.
How did music first come into your life?
My Mom says that as a baby, I had would rock and move around in the crib when I heard music and she would find the crib across the room. I have always been totally affected by music and I have always loved music. I think it was in elementary school that I got my first guitar. My uncle was a really good guitar player and he started to teach me how to play. I started writing songs when I was eight years old. I was always transfixed by music. I don’t know what it is about it but it has always moved me.
What drove you to make music your career?
When I was growing up I was very, very much involved with dancing, theater and all of the arts really. I was sort of exploring all of them. I was a very dedicated ballet dancer, starting in elementary school and into high school. I ended up going to UC Berkeley after high school and I started in the theater department. Then I switched to dance and then I ended up in the art department. It’s funny that a lot of musicians go to art school, but that is my story too. I think it was a combination of things. I think it was what was happening in the late seventies with punk rock. There was something about bands like The Ramones coming to prominence that made it feel like it was an obtainable goal, I think. [laughs] As opposed to earlier stuff in the seventies where you would go to these giant stadiums to see bands like The Who or Led Zeppelin, where it seemed so far away and unreachable. There was something about the bands that were starting to emerge in the late-seventies that made you feel like “Wow! I could do that! I know four chords!” It was something that I had always dreamed of in away but I didn’t think that I could go for it until then. At that time, with a lot of those bands coming out of New York, it didn’t feel like it was about the music business or anything like that. It felt like it was coming out of an art movement. So for me, as a student of art, I connected with that. For me being in a band was kinda like doing an art project. I sorta thought of it in those terms. I never thought “I need to make a demo and get signed.” I wasn’t thinking about it in that way. I was thinking about it as an art form and how to express myself and using it as an extension of everything else that I had been studying and exploring.
Who and what were some of the influences that have helped shape you, the musician, that we know today?
I would say the Beatles have been one of the biggest influences all the way through. My parents were always into music. My mother particularly was into pop music and my father was more into classical. She brought home all of those records right when they came out, so my brothers and I were very obsessed with the Beatles. Growing up in Los Angeles, you are in the car a lot. You find yourself going from one end of town to the other, stuck in traffic and listening to the radio. My mom always played Top 40 radio, which was pretty amazing in the sixties! I got to hear everything from Bob Dylan to the Beatles to a lot of the great female singers like Petula Clark, Lulu, Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick singing all the great Burt Bacharach songs. I was influenced by a lot of things. In the seventies, I graduated into more rock stuff but also lots of singer/songwriter stuff. That is one thing that Matthew Sweet and I discovered in covering songs of the sixties and now the seventies on Under The Covers Vol. 2, is that the seventies were a very diverse era for music. It really covered everything. Including disco! [laughs] Rock, more mellow singer/songwriter stuff, punk rock and progressive rock, that decade it had it all. When we decided to cover the Yes song, “Your Move/All Good People,” that was a turning point in our way of looking at the record. We ended up recording 39 or 40 songs because we wanted to dive into all of those different genres. It was very difficult to figure out how to put them all together and which songs would end up on the record. We have a bunch of bonus tracks that will be coming out over the next month because we have covered so much material.
Under The Covers Vol. 2 is your second collaboration with Matthew Sweet. How did the two of you first get together?
I met Matthew in the nineties. I was a big fan of his music, particularly the Girlfriend record. I thought it was an astounding record, the sound, the songs and everything about it. The voice and the production were amazing. I had an opportunity to work with Fred Maher, who produced Girlfriend. I think I met Matthew in the studio and we just stayed in touch over the years. I was working on a solo record with Greg Leisz , who is all over the Under The Covers records. He is a phenomenal player who plays great pedal steel and lap steel. Matthew was doing a little acoustic show and Greg was playing with him. They invited me to come sing with them and I thought to invite Mike Meyers to see the show because I had a feeling that Mike would really like Matthew’s music. It turned out that I was right about that and Matthew, Mike and I started a little band, Ming Tea, just for fun. That band ended up being a way for Mike to work out his Austin Powers character. We approached the band as if it were in the sixties where we all had pseudonyms. It was a funny little thing but we ended up doing quite a bit of music for the Austin Powers movies. My friendship with Matt grew from that. The Bangles were doing a show for a charity at that same little venue where we had seen Matthew, called McCabe’s, we invited him to come sing with us. Matthew pulled me aside and said that he had heard, funnily enough, a couple of cover songs that I had done way back in 1983 or 1984. I had done a couple of Velvet Underground songs. One was a song that had been written by Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground had done back in the sixties called “I’ll Keep Up With Mine.” He had heard that song when he was in high school. He said that he had always had the idea that he wanted to work with me. I said “That’s fantastic! I would love to work with you on something!” It morphed from there to “Lets definitely make a record together!” and that became this series of cover records.
You have quite a few talented guest musicians on the new album, what can you tell us about that and how it came about?
When we started approaching the song “Your Move/All Good People,” we started to have this fantasy “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get Steve Howe from Yes to play the guitar parts!” Those parts are so specific to him, so difficult and he is so amazing. So, Matthew decided to explore on the internet and see if he could somehow find Steve that way. He went on the internet and found a site called something like “The Steve Howe Appreciation Society” and he wrote them an email. Sure enough, he got a response and it went from there. We were able to send the tapes to England and Steve played. It really felt good when he responded to our track and our vocals. We had all of the vocals on there and scratch guitars, but everything else was on there. It was so exciting for us! When we got the music back from him, it was just so magnificent, what he did. To me, only Steve Howe could play those parts. That started us thinking about getting in touch with Lindsay (Buckingham) who both Matthew and I know. Lindsay came over to my house, where I have a little studio, thanks to Matthew. He helped me put together a little studio at home so that I could occasionally work independently on our record. With the technology now, you can actually email stuff back and forth. It is quite amazing compared to how things were in the eighties. Things have really changed! Dhani Harrison (son of George Harrison), who I have known for a number of years because he came to a bunch of Bangles shows in England to our great delight and surprise, is on the album. I have stayed in touch with him through the years and have gotten to know him a lot better in the last year. I called him up and asked him if he would want to perform on one of his Dad’s songs, “Beware Of Darkness,” and he was so happy to come over and play guitar on that. It worked out really well!
Could we expect to see an Under The Covers Vol. 3 in the future?
I would love it! That would be great!
Will you and Matthew be hitting the road in support of the album sometime soon?
The record comes out on July 21st, 2009 and we are singing and doing a Q&A at The Grammy Museum in LA. I have never actually been there before but they tell me that it is a very nice place. It is going to be a kinda of ‘Inside The Actor’s Studio’ type thing. That will be our first performance and we will be playing six or seven songs. Then we have a short run of shows, starting in September. We will be doing New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. We are also going to Chicago next week to play an acoustic thing. So far it is all very intimate venues with me, Matthew and probably one other guitar player, so we are approaching it as an acoustic thing right now and we’ll see what happens. Last time, when Under The Covers Vol. 1 came out, we played with a whole band and that was a lot of fun! This time we are just starting out with the acoustic shows and hopefully there will be more!
I understand that you are also headed to the studio to work on a new Bangles album. What can you tell us about that?
Yeah, The Bangles have been touring on and off for almost the last ten years now, but we have been focusing on playing live and not recording. We made a record in 2003 but it has been quite a few years now and we realized that we really have to buckle down and focus on it. We have been collecting songs for years for this record. We started the record a few months ago and we are about three songs in and are sorta doing them in batches of three and are about to dive into the next three. It is going incredibly well. I don’t know, I don’t want to put a deadline on it because I am going back and forth between doing the stuff with Matthew and doing Bangles stuff and doing my own stuff and I have got two kids so it is kind of a busy time! [laughs] Hopefully by the end of the year, at least the recording part of it will be done.
I am sure you have seen a lot over the years and probably have a tale or two to tell. Will we ever get an autobiography out of you to share any of those stories?
No one has ever asked me that! That is a really interesting question! Maybe! It is funny how you start to see things differently as you get older and you do have more perspective. I find myself realizing that I am forgetting stuff, so it is probably a really good idea to start writing stuff down before I do forget everything! [laughs] The Bangles have worked with many of the same crew that has been on the road with us for 25 years and sometimes one of them will say something like “Don’t you remember meeting Keith Richards?” and I’m like “Really? I met Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones?!!!” and he is like “Uh yeah, don’t you remember?!!!” I don’t know! [laughs] A lot happened! That was a very busy time for The Bangles! It could potentially become an absolute blur if I don’t think about it. It’s a good idea. Maybe Vicki, Debbi and I could write “The Bangles Story” or something. It’s an interesting question!
I was just curious if you personally or The Bangles have been approached for any reality television projects, especially with something like the recording of a new album.
I have been many, many, many times! [laughs] I have never really wanted to do it. There was a period of time where Charlotte Caffey, Kathy Valentine, Vicki Peterson and I had an idea where we wanted to do a television show related to all girl bands. It was a concept that we had and were working on for a little while. We are good friends with those girls. It always struck us as strange that there weren’t more all-girl groups. I don’t mean girl singing groups, I mean bands that play and sing, write their own songs and play the instruments. I don’t know why there haven’t been that many. It is just so strange to me. You can count them all on one hand, the all-girl bands that have survived in the music business. I am not sure why it hasn’t become more of a natural thing. We never thought it was that big of a deal to be girls in a band. And we never thought of it as a novelty thing by the way. But yes, I have been approached but it is not something I want to do, at least not right now.
Looking back on your experiences with The Bangles, to what do you attribute the longevity of the band?
I think that it is because there is a certain chemistry between all of us and we have been so lucky that the records that we have made have somehow managed to stay in the culture. They represent something that continues to mean something to people. It is interesting to me, now that I have more perspective, how the eighties and songs like “Walk Like An Egyptian,” “Manic Monday,” “Hazy Shade of Winter,” and “Eternal Flame,” have a certain nostalgia that people have very strong memories toward, and a whole new generation of kids are discovering all of the songs from that period and they are very intrigued by it and the whole feeling of that era. That is a phenomenon that I have been noticing, because I have a 14 year old and a 10 year old son, and they are very aware of songs because they keep resurfacing. The Bangles are constantly getting requests for the use of their music on things like ‘Family Guy’ and other things like that, ya know? They are out there and they are still played on the radio, so it’s great for us. There is a connection to the music and I think that there is something about that time period and the eighties that is kinda fun, fairly light hearted and a bit escapist. I think that now with things like the economy and the different situations going on in the world, people are looking for entertainment.
I would definitely agree with you on that.
Times are hard and I think that when times are hard there is something really appealing about escaping into fun music. I recently got satellite radio in my car and they have so many choices, ya know? For the sixties, the seventies and the eighties and so many cool stations. I find myself drifting to the eighties channel and I never thought I would say that because I am so obsessed with music from the sixties and seventies! Maybe it is a cyclical thing. I remember back in the seventies, there was this whole fascination with everything from the fifties. There were shows like ‘Happy Days’ and I remember that there would be school dances with fifties night and everyone would dress up in bobby socks, saddle shoes and the skirts. I don’t know, I wonder if it isn’t because things tend to go in cycles like that.
What is the best piece of advice you could give to those who are just starting out and considering making a career in the music industry?
I was talking about this recently and it ties into the covers records actually. I think for me, I came to music because I loved it and I am a music fan. I never really took lessons. I always kinda learned music, I don’t read music, and I learned by the old fashioned folk way of singing along to your favorite songs and learning to play songs that I liked. In a way, it was by learning to play covers of things that I liked that I figured out who I was. I taught myself that way, so I always suggest to people that if there are songs that you love, learn them! I think for Matthew and I, we sort of experienced music very much the same way. He was obsessed with music as a kid. In doing these covers records, we have gotten to deconstruct many of our favorite songs and figure out what they are all about and how they work, instead of just sitting back and listening to them. Now we have a new way of seeing them because of the way we had to learn and record them. Matthew played all the bass parts and it was really an interesting learning experience and process. So again, I always recommend to people that they learn how to play their favorite songs and it will help you when you sit down to write a song, having sort of studied your favorite songs.
Thanks for taking the time out to talk with us, Susanna!
Thank you so much!
Want more of Susanna Hoffs and The Bangles?
Check out all the latest happenings with Susanna Hoffs and The Bangles by visiting their official site at www.thebangles.com.
Check out the official Myspace page for both volumes of ‘Under The Covers’ at www.myspace.com/sidnsusie.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.