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The Bangles (l to r: Vicki Peterson, Debbie Peterson & Susanna Hoffs at the TLA in Philadelphia October 1, 2011.  Photo copyright 2011: Jim Rinaldi.

The Bangles

America's Sweethearts

by Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2011 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: October 9, 2011.  

It’s hard to believe, but the Bangles have now been reunited for even longer than their original glory days.  Even harder to believe is the fact that their latest CD, Sweetheart of the Sun, is as good as any of their albums. 

This is coming from a band which has put together several terrific albums over the years.  From their original 1983 self-titled EP through their critically acclaimed debut All Over the Place to their 80s smash hit Different Light, The Bangles have always deservedly gotten terrific press.  During a mid-late 80s heyday which spawned the hits “Manic Monday,” “If She Knew What She Wants,” “Walk Like an Egyptian,” “Hazy Shade of Winter,” “In Your Room” and “Eternal Flame,” they were one of those rare bands that got reviews commiserate with their sales.  The band’s strong power-pop chops kicked ass and named names. 

After a long-time breakup that lasted most of the 1990s, The Bangles finally returned to the studio and concert stage at the turn of the millennium.  Most of the band members were married and had families, though, so it is more difficult to find the time to record.  Their 2003 comeback CD Doll Revolution showed that the band still had the musical goods, though. 

Since the release of Doll Revolution, bassist Michael Steele – who played on all the previous full-length albums for the band, but was not on the original EP – has decided to retire.  Therefore, the group is back to being a lean and mean trio of guitarists Susanna Hoffs and Vicki Peterson and drummer Debbi Peterson. 

Sweetheart of the Sun was produced and performed on by fellow pop lover Matthew Sweet (Girlfriend) – who has had a nice little side project covering 60s and 70s hits with Bangles lead singer Susanna Hoffs. 

The band and Sweet have given the music a lo-fi jangly swing that is reminiscent of early influences like The Byrds, Todd Rundgren and power pop faves of the 60s and 70s.  The new songs are strong, from the wonderfully catchy opener “Anna Lee (Sweetheart of the Sun)” to the barreling rocker “Ball and Chain.”  Other standout tunes include the layered single “I’ll Never Be Through With You” and the lively “What a Life.”

As the Bangles got ready to release the new CD and hit the road for their first long-term tour in years, we sat down with drummer Debbi Peterson to talk a bit about the band.

Debbi Peterson of The Bangles at the TLA in Philadelphia - October 1, 2011.  Photo copyright 2011: Jim Rinaldi.In the early 80s when you and your sister started a band, could you have ever imagined that you would still be at it over 30 years later?

Oh, God, no!  (laughs)  But, you know what; I always knew we would do something, though.  I always had this crazy tunnel vision, like I know we’re going to be on the radio.  We’re going to be on AM radio, because at the time, we wanted to be on AM radio.  (laughs again)  So, yeah, I don’t think it was completely [expected]…  If somebody had said it, I would have laughed in their face – like, yeah, right, sure.  But it was probably a possibility in my head at the time. 

The original Fawlty EP and All Over the Place were both critically acclaimed, but kind of flew under the radar of popular music.  At that point, did you feel that you may always be something of a cult band?

Well, it did pretty well in college radio.  So that was kind of fun, because we were going out on tour, all of us in one van and sharing hotel rooms.  It was very much like a glee club type of thing.  (laughs)  We’re all together and we were all young and it was all fresh.  It was one of those things like; well at least it’s on college radio.  That’s cool.  College kids are cool.  So, we started a following, started building up the foundation.  But of course we hoped it would go further than that.  People always do.  So, you just need to keep plugging away and working at it.

One different thing about the Bangles as a group is that you have three lead singers and songwriters – and until recently had four.  How do you feel that this variety helps the band, and in some ways does it make it a little harder for you as a member?

Yeah, it does.  It’s always a challenge trying to please everyone and make sure everybody got a chance to be heard.  That was always difficult, especially having outside influences like record companies and management, who naturally just tend to pick one or two people that they focus on.  That was a challenge, trying to make sure everybody got a chance.  It didn’t always work that way.  But the good thing about it is you have a full album of a lot of different influences, different voices.  It certainly makes for a different album.  You’re not just hearing the same person over and over.  Like, oh that song kind of sounded like the last song…  You know you’re going to have different songs, because they come from a very different four writers.

Suanna Hoffs of The Bangles at the TLA in Philadelphia - October 1, 2011.  Photo copyright 2011: Jim Rinaldi.Over the years I’ve spoken with both your sister and Susanna about this, but I’d love to hear you take on what it was like in 1986 when everything just kind of exploded for the band.  How surreal was it to suddenly be all over the radio and TV after struggling to get there for years?

Well, the thing is, it wasn’t like we were instantly everywhere.  It definitely built up and got to that point.  So it wasn’t necessarily a big shock or anything.  We were just working and working and plugging away.  And touring – we did a lot of touring.  We were on the road a lot.  Basically, we’d make an album and we’d be on the road for the rest of the year.  We were very, very busy when all that started really happening and picking up.  It was really cool.  I remember one time that we were all going for a walk in Washington, D.C., because we used to try to work out and go for walks every day when we were on the road – keep in shape.  We were all walking around the Capitol Building and all the different places.  Somebody drives up and stops at a stop sign in a convertible.  All of the sudden, we all look at each other like, “I know this song.  What is this song?”  And it’s “Manic Monday.”  That was the first time we’d actually heard it from somewhere other than our possessions.  (laughs)  It was very exciting!  We were jumping up and down in the middle of the street.  That was a real highlight moment.  We had a few of those.  We’d turn on MTV and see your video on.  Like, wow, we made it onto MTV!  It was a very big deal.

In your previous albums you had done a lot of covers, but as a band member and a songwriter how important was it to you that by the Everything album, you all had enough clout to record only songs written or co-written by band members?  And the last two albums you had one cover apiece, I believe.

Well, we always had done covers, anyway.  In the very early days in our live stuff, we did “Hazy Shade of Winter” very early on on the Sunset Strip.  We’ve done a song called “How Is the Air Up There?” which was on the EP.  That’s something we still do.  We’ve still got two covers on the new record.

Okay, I knew the Nazz song [“Open My Eyes”] was a cover….

Yeah, the Nazz song and “Sweet and Tender Romance.”  That was a cover as well.  So, that’s something we’ve always liked to do, because we like taking other people’s songs and just making them our own.  But we also write, as well.  The new record has a lot of band songwriting.  We’ve got songs with three of us writing, or two of us writing.  We’ve got songs writing with other people.  There’s a real good plethora, combination melting pot of songwriting on this record.  But we’ve still got our covers, because we still like to do that.

Vicki Peterson of The Bangles at the TLA in Philadelphia - October 1, 2011.  Photo copyright 2011: Jim Rinaldi.It’s kind of well documented that towards the end of the Bangles run there were a lot of hard feelings about everyone wasn’t getting credit in the band.  Why do you feel you needed to take some time away and was it difficult to just walk away from a group you had worked so hard with when it had finally reached the top?

Well, the whole break-up of the band, it was difficult.  It was very sad, because we were like family.  It was like people’s marriage and it was breaking up.  We were living on top of each other.  We were on the road all the time.  Basically, everything we did was Bangles related.  We had no other life.  We got to a point where we were exhausted.  We just had enough of each other.  We needed a break, like anybody does.  You need a break every once in a while.  And some people were not feeling fulfilled, musically.  I often wanted to go off elsewhere and work with other people.  Unfortunately, the actual break-up was kind of a bad scene, because a couple of us were told, “Well, we’re breaking up the band.”  You can go off and do other things.  It was very uncomfortable.  It was very sad.  But, it’s like, okay, fine, now is the chance to go do other things and explore our lives.

I was at your first reunion show at the House of Blues in LA.  I know at that point you had also done the song for the Austin Powers soundtrack as well.  From what Vicki told me, you and Susanna were the ones who wanted the reunion first, she and Micki were the holdouts.  How did the reunion come about and what was it like to play together again? 

(laughs)  Actually Susanna was the one… oddly enough, she wanted to leave when we broke up, really, and then she was the one who kept calling all of us at different times going, “Why don’t we do this again?  Let’s get back.  I really miss that connection.  I really miss the fun that we used to have together.  I really miss singing with you guys and playing.”  So, she was the one kind of pushing it a little.  At first, I was like, no, I’m not interested, I’m doing something else.  Then she had her first child and I was pregnant with my first child and suddenly we started talking like moms, you know?  “What’s it like, being a parent?”  I was getting some parental advice from her and then we started writing together.  That’s how that all started off.  Vicki was still pretty adamant about not doing it.  She had the Continental Drifters going on.  She was still doing her other thing.  I’m like, fine, but I just started writing songs with Sue.  Then, Vicki just thought, well, why not?  Let’s just do it.  I don’t know if we can do “Walk Like an Egyptian” again.  (laughs)  But she said let’s give it a whirl.  Let’s try it.  Then we wrote the song for the Austin Powers movie and we got Michael finally to come and play with us in the studio.  That was fun, because that was like putting a pair of old comfortable shoes on.  We all started laughing and joking.  All the old jokes came out.  It was fun.

Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles at the TLA in Philadelphia - October 1, 2011.  Photo copyright 2011: Jim Rinaldi.Sweetheart of the Sun is the first album you have done since the original EP without Michael.  Was it weird recording the album without her?  How did it change the work dynamic?

Well, Michael had already decided in like 2004 or 2005 that she just wanted to retire.  She didn’t want to do it anymore.  So we had a few years there where we played with different bass players.  So, it was like, well, we’re back to the original Bangles.  This is us.  This is the core of the group.  One day, we finally just woke up.  Dealing with kids and stuff, you’re constantly busy; you’ve always got something going on.  We finally woke up and said, “Hey, let’s make an album.”  We had all these songs.  We had some songs from like 1993, some songs from 2001, or 1999.  We all just got together and said, “What about this song?  What about that song?”  There were a couple of songs that were going to be on Doll Revolution and ended up not being on that because we did all these other songs.  So we put them on this one.  Oddly, enough, it seems to work great with the other songs.

One thing I like about Sweetheart of the Sun is that it goes back to the low-frills feel of the first album.  Were you all trying to give the album a more rootsy, triple-A feel?

I don’t think we were conscious about doing that.  I think it was just we wanted to go back to early Bangles.  Back to basic Bangles.  Kind of going full circle, really.  I don’t know how conscious that was.  It was more like, this feels good.  This feels right.  This song works with this song.  When we were recording – we recorded in 2007 and 2009, just doing the basic tracks, and that was just me and the guitars, we didn’t have our bass player with us at the time – that was interesting.  It was just a very interesting way to make a record.  We didn’t know how it was all going to turn out until right before we started mixing it and finished all the background vocals.  Then we realized there really was a theme going on here. 

Vicki Peterson and Debbi Peterson of The Bangles at the TLA in Philadelphia - October 1, 2011.  Photo copyright 2011: Jim Rinaldi.Matthew Sweet has such a brilliant pop mind.  Obviously, Susanna has a long working relationship with him, but what was he like to work with in the band?

All of us, we’ve done a couple of other projects with him.  I had written a couple of songs with Susanna and Michael that haven’t made it anywhere yet, but just as a songwriting experiment with Matthew.  He’s great.  He’s a great writer.  He’s a great guy.  Very sweet.  A real artist.  He’s an amazing person and it was very fun to work with him.

The music business has changed so much since your hey-day, with the labels floundering, much more indie music, internet, downloading, piracy, radio playlists becoming more & more set in stone.  As a musician, how hard is it to get your work out to an audience these days?  At this point, do you even think of getting hits?

Well, it’s a whole different world out there than when we started.  All different.  It’s still kind of a learning process for us.  As I’m sure it is for the record companies.  They’re trying to figure out what they are doing – the whole download thing, the internet thing.  The good thing about the internet thing is that a lot of up-and-coming bands, young bands can make a video for nothing and put it on YouTube.  That is good, because it gets you out there.  A lot of people watch YouTube.  That’s the good thing.  The drag is the whole downloading thing.  People doing it without artists getting paid.  That’s not very cool.  We’re all still trying to figure it out, how to make it work, trying to go with the flow.

Sweetheart of the Sun is the first album you have released completely independently (Doll Revolution was distributed through Koch) since the original EP.  How is recording for yourself different than recording for a major label?

It’s our record company.  Same thing with Doll Revolution, it is on Down Kiddie! Records, which we did our first single, the very first song, on….

Debbi Peterson of The Bangles at the TLA in Philadelphia - October 1, 2011.  Photo copyright 2011: Jim Rinaldi.Right, “Getting Out of Hand.”

“Getting Out of Hand,” that’s right.  So this one is on Down Kiddie! Records, but it’s also on Model Music, which is our distribution company.  They’ve got Universal behind them, too.  It’s good to have that distribution help, because that’s something that we could never all three of us sit down and try to do that.  (laughs)  It would just never happen.  We’re just juggling too many things.  So, yeah, we do have some help, it’s not completely independent.  Then again, neither was the EP, that was Fawlty Products.  So, it’s always good to have some help. 

Looking back on your career, how would you like for people to see your music?

Well, I’d like to see the band being known as something other than just walking like Egyptians.  (laughs)  Because, there’s so much more to the Bangles than “Eternal Flame” and “Walk Like an Egyptian” and “Manic Monday.”

It’s funny, I interviewed Marti Jones [who recorded the original demo of “Walk Like an Egyptian”] many years ago, and she said she was happy to record the song for Liam Sternberg because she really liked him, but she thought it would be a weird thing to be known for.

(laughs)  It is.  It’s weird.  I mean, the kids get a kick out of it, but it’s weird.  I would like the Bangles to be known for more than that.  As good songwriters, our amazing harmonies and just as a band that has a lot more vast amount of songwriting and music to share.  Hopefully, this album will get heard and people will like it.  To me, this album is more how the Bangles really are.    

Are there any misconceptions out there you’d like to clear up?

Well, there’s still the old misconception that we don’t play our own music.  We don’t play our own instruments.  Some people out there still think we just sing and don’t ever play, and that is sooo wrong.  We do!






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Copyright ©2011 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: October 9, 2011.  

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Copyright ©2011 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: October 9, 2011.