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PopEntertainment.com > Feature Interviews - Music > Feature Interviews A to E > The Bangles (2003 Interview)


some things that THEY SAID

by jay S. JACOBS

Copyright ©2003 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: November 1, 2003.

It's funny how things change in the world.  For example, the last time the Bangles released a new album, George Bush was in the White House, we had a bad economy and there were troops in Iraq trying to get to Saddam Hussein.

Hey, wait a second… 

Well, everything old is new again.  Now, it’s time for the Bangles to return to the record stores, with their first new disk of terrific pop rock in about fourteen years.  However, in the immortal words of LL Cool J, “Don’t call it a comeback!”  The new album Doll Revolution isn’t just the sad attempt of an aging band trying to stay relevant.  Instead, it’s a sublime mix of girl group harmonies and pop-punk sensibilities.  The band has kept an eye on the musical changes of the last decade, but they don’t try to reinvent the wheel.  The sound is classic Bangles and yet totally applicable to today’s alt-rock scene. 

The Bangles’ trump card, having four diverse singer/songwriters with their own styles and talents, continues unchecked.  The latest platter is every bit as good as their four releases in the 80s, which were all critically and popularly received themselves.

So how did we get here, anyway?  Let’s rewind a little.

Our story starts in the California sun of the late seventies.  A couple of teenaged sisters, Vicki Peterson (guitars) and Debbi Peterson (drums) had started a band called the Bangs with Vicki’s best friend Annette Zilinskas.  The group also featured a lead guitarist who just wasn’t working out, so they placed an ad for a new one.  Through a convoluted chain of circumstances, the ad brought in singer/guitarist Susanna Hoffs.  The group released a well-received single called “Getting Out of Hand” in 1981 on their own Down Kiddie! Records.

When they found out about another band also calling itself the Bangs, they decided to rechristen the group the Bangles.  By 1982, the group had released their first self-titled EP on the tiny Fawlty Records label.  It picked up even more of a buzz, and was re-released by the then-smoking-hot indie label IRS Records (The Go-Go’s, R.E.M.).  Soon the band was hooked up with Columbia Records.  Zilinskas decided to leave the band, and they signed up the final link, bassist Michael “Micki” Steele, formerly of Joan Jett’s proto-punk girl group the Runaways.

Their first Columbia album, All Over the Place, was a critical favorite and had a couple of minor hits with “Hero Takes a Fall” and “Going Down To Liverpool.”  They made even more news when Prince took notice of the band and wrote a song for them (under the pseudonym Christopher).  “Manic Monday” was released in 1986 and became a huge hit single previewing their second album Different Light.  It was followed up by hit versions of Jules Shear’s “If She Knew What She Wants” and then the band’s first number one hit, Liam Sternberg’s “Walk Like An Egyptian.”  Even though the band was thrilled that they had broken from the pack, it had the feel of a double-edged sword.  The group had four songwriters and yet they were becoming well known for songs which were not their own. 

“I was coming from the point of view of a songwriter,” admits singer/guitarist Vicki Peterson. “I wanted to be given respect and recognition as [one].  I thought the band itself had a point of view and a voice and something to say that was being underestimated by our label.  I kept looking to bands like R.E.M., who never went outside the band, really, to write.  I’ve since learned maybe that wasn’t actually true.  But, the perception was, it was the band’s voice.  I wanted that for the Bangles.”

Particularly weird was the number one smash “Walk Like An Egyptian.”  The band had heard the demo sung by singer Marti Jones and thought it would be fun to record.  But, suddenly, they were best known for a song that was a bit of a novelty.  Their fourth single, “Walking Down Your Street” was a Hoffs composition and became a minor success.  Then as a soundtrack single for the movie Less Than Zero, the group recorded Simon & Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of Winter,” which just missed hitting the top spot.

The group holed up and started working on their next album Everything and decided to take things into their own hands.  No more covers.  The band would write or co-write the whole disk.  The self confidence paid off, as Hoffs co-wrote the big hit “In Your Room” and the standard “Eternal Flame.”  Finally, people were acknowledging that the group wasn’t made up of just guitars-for-hire; they could do more than merely sing.

“It helped a lot for me, even though I wasn’t the writer on any of those songs,” Peterson says.  “With ‘Eternal Flame,’ for instance, Susanna was able to work with writers that she’s comfortable with, but was able to come up with a song, which became such a classic.  I remember when they first wrote it, I was talking to [co-writer] Billy Steinberg, and he was saying, ‘I think we wrote a classic.’  He just had that sense from the beginning.  That’s an amazing thing.  I wish I could say I was part of it, but I wasn’t.”

Still, tensions in the band were growing.  Hoffs was getting singled out as the leader of the group.  Perhaps, it was because her songs were mostly the ones that were becoming hit singles.  Maybe since she was short and was always placed front and center in band shots.  When Debbi Peterson insisted that her song “Be With You” be released as the third single from Everything and it didn’t exactly take off, the band imploded.  

“It was sort of a slow process,” Peterson recalls.  “Actually, the entire thing was a slow arc.  From my point of view, part of that came from those little hits on my confidence to really take control and be in control of where we were going.  That happened when the singles were repeatedly and pointedly being chosen as songs that were written by outside writers, [or] songs that were only Susanna vocals.  Which wasn’t always true.  Obviously, ‘Walk Like An Egyptian,’ our biggest hit, was a shared vocal.  ‘Hazy Shade of Winter’ was a shared vocal.  But,  the perception was such that there was no hit potential unless it was a Sue vocal or if it was written by somebody other than a band member.  That became very irritating, because it wasn’t a true reflection of what we really were.  That was something that was in the mix for years, so when things actually did fall apart, it was absolutely because they had to.  There was just no other way to go.”

So they all went their own ways.  Susanna Hoffs released a couple of solo albums and even had a few minor hit singles, but nothing compared to her band work.  Vicki Peterson worked with a few groups, finally settling into the Continental Drifters, an alt-rock all-star band she fronted with Susan Cowsill, the youngest member of sixties family group the Cowsills.  Debbi Peterson formed her own band and also worked with former Go-Go drummer Gina Schock.  Micki Steele played some studio gigs.

They all stayed in touch though, and nearly a decade after the band split up, Susanna Hoffs and Debbi Peterson started talking about doing some band work again.  The perfect opportunity occurred when they decided to record the song “Get the Girl” for the soundtrack to the film Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, which was directed by Hoffs’ husband, Jay Roach.

“ ‘Get the Girl’ was just the first time we were actually in a studio together for something like ten years,” Peterson says.  “But, before that, we had already started writing songs together.  We had talked extensively about how we would do a reuniting of the forces.  If we would do it…  Should we do it?  Is there a reason to do it?  Do we have something to say?  It wasn’t just a matter of ‘yeah, let’s jump on the nostalgia circuit,’ which is definitely out there and had been calling for years.  We’d been getting offers since probably the mid-90s, about different opportunities to tour with bands that were popular at the same time that we were, but that we felt we had absolutely no connection with, musically.” 

The sessions worked out even better than they expected.  The next thing they discussed was maybe doing some live gigs.  They tested the waters with small shows in venues like LA’s House of Blues.  Suddenly, it seemed natural, like no time had gone by.  Even more, it was kind of a rebirth for the band.

“It was weird.  It was very odd for me, because I was one of the holdouts.  Michael and I were the last ones to sign on.  I said, yeah, this is something I want and I need in my life right now.” Peterson laughs.  “I was very happy making music with the Continental Drifters and living in New Orleans.  I started commuting back to LA to write songs and to do these shows, and I was still being an active member of the Drifters.  So, it was a very strange double life I was leading at that time.  Actually getting together and functioning as a band was easier than it ever had been.  We were real clear about what we were trying to do, and real clear about respecting the boundaries that we’d set.”

The band soon had enough songs for an album. They recorded Doll Revolution with their own money from touring. They only started looking for a label after the album was complete. That gave them the freedom to experiment more and just have more of the band’s stamp on the album. If they were going to do this, they were going to do it their way. No label interference.

“Which is exactly why we did it that way,” Peterson says. “We raised the funds ourselves. We orchestrated the entire recording and how we were going to do it. We auditioned co-producers. We fell in love with Brad Wood immediately. He was just the easiest collaborator. He was smart, he is an incredible musician, and that was the easiest choice. We pulled that together and we kept reminding ourselves, this is easy guys.

“Micki often reminds us that we would look at each other and go, ‘but, we’re not suffering. This can’t be good.’” Peterson laughs. “Is it art? Nobody’s suffering. We’re all laughing and having dinner. What’s wrong? It was kind of funny that way. For instance, when we got to the point of the process where we needed to pare down the many songs we had tracked, and we had originally come up with over thirty songs, that we’d written and that we were presenting to each other as potential songs to track. We decided, okay, look, we’ll track fifteen, and we’ll probably use thirteen. So we did that, and when it came to that fateful day, we couldn’t let go of two of those songs. We just couldn’t find it in our hearts. And then we realized, hey, guys, you know what? We don’t have to. It’s our record. Nobody’s telling us anything. That was such a liberating feeling.”

Those fifteen songs show many different sides and shapes of the band.  The first single is a delightful mid-tempo love ode called “Something That You Said.”  “Ask Me No Questions” is a lovely piece of jangly balladry with a wonderful sixties vibe.  “Nickel Romeo” has a feels like something a forgotten sixties group like the Neon Philharmonic or Yellow Balloon would have recorded, complete with orchestral interlude.  “Ride the Ride” is an exuberant punk-pop nugget that would have felt at home on All Over the Place.  “I Will Take Care Of You” is a sweet ballad in the vein of “Eternal Flame.” 

Peterson put her best foot forward, contributing songs like the propulsive “Here Right Now” and the defiant “Single By Choice.”   The group also recorded the swinging “The Rain Song” and “Mixed Messages” from Peterson’s other group the Continental Drifters. 

The singing on the album is stellar, with each distinct vocal style melding into a passionate whole.  Instrumentally, the band is tight, with each member in complete charge of their licks and some tasty guest appearances by the likes of Dave Grohl (Nirvana, The Foo Fighters) and Peter Holsapple (The DB's)

Any one of these songs deserve to be smash hit singles, though Peterson says they really weren’t fooling themselves into thinking that they would be huge radio hits.  But, for a change, Peterson realizes, there are alternative ways of getting the music out to the people, with the internet and satellite radio revolutionizing the ways that bands can reach an audience.

“It would be a great bonus [to have a hit], but it was not why we got into the studio,” she says.  “It was not in our heads when we were writing in the studio.  Occasionally, we would think, ‘hey this one is kind of shaping up, and I could hear this on radio.’  ‘Something That You Said’ was one of those songs from early on.  When I first heard it, it was in its embryonic stage.  Susanna and Charlotte Caffey [former guitarist and keyboardist for the Go-Go’s] had started the song that I thought had a really strong chorus, but desperately needed to have its lyrics rewritten and needed a bridge.  So, I went back to them and said, ‘would you mind if I worked on this for a bit?’  They were completely into that concept and Susanna and I kind of reshaped the song.  I always could hear that song as a single. 

“Other than that, I’m still the naïve person who believes almost anything could be a single if it’s just marketed properly, hits at the right time, and gets a shot.  Yeah, I’d love to hear ‘Here Right Now’ [on the radio].  I think that’s one of the most infectious songs on the record.  It’s not a classic contemporary right-now pop single… it’s a little offbeat.  It may not ever get a shot at radio.  If it did, it might resonate, you know?  But, that’s not where our heads were at when we were recording.”

There is only one song not written by a member of the group, the (sort of) title track “Tear Off Your Own Head [it’s a doll revolution…]” was a song written by Elvis Costello for a TV series he was trying to sell.  It was about an all-girl rock group that also worked as private eyes or something… but it never got picked up.  But Costello had written the song as the theme for the show.  Since Elvis’ vocals didn’t show the girl-group vibe he was trying to get over, he called Hoffs and asked if she’d do the demo for him.  She brought Steele along to record it.  Later, when the Bangles were recording the album, Micki kept suggesting they do the Elvis song.  Finally they gave it a shot.  They decided it was not just a cool song, but it really captured the spirit of the record.

The group plans on touring to promote the album, but their concerns have shifted a bit.  Three of the band members are married (Peterson recently married longtime friend John Cowsill, drummer of the pop group the Cowsills and brother of Vicki’s Continental Drifters bandmate Susan).  “We will [play live shows], probably sporadically until summertime, because it’s all about the kids and school schedules,” she laughs.  “That’s how our lives are now.  The kids are the priority.”

In the meantime, Peterson is just glad to have Doll Revolution out there to do the talking for them.  She hopes that it gets to the fans so that they can appreciate the album as a whole, not just one or two hit singles.

“That was probably one of the frustrating things about the post-Bangle years,” she says.  That our legacy… which is a huge word to use, but there was sort of an afterglow, as it were, of Bangle-dom.  It all kind of filtered down to the hit singles.  People would just remember ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ and ‘Eternal Flame’ and then we’d run into people who’d actually listen to the albums, and listen to the CDs, and listen to the full collections.  That was very gratifying to find people who would listen to the entire musical spectrum that was the Bangles.”

One person who appreciated the whole spectrum that was the Bangles was a guy named Sir Paul McCartney (who was in a couple of pretty good bands himself).  He was so impressed by their music that he asked the group to conduct a workshop class at the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts.  Then, in July 2004, he awarded the Bangles with the honorary degree of being "LIPA Companions," to celebrate the band's excellence in performing arts and the priceless guidance that was offered to the students.  The Bangles were the first group to receive this honor.

But the Bangles' legacy, if we may use such a hallowed term, would be simple for Peterson.  “I would hope that people see the Bangles as a band that fearlessly fought all of the stereotypes that surrounded ‘women in music,’ in quotations.  A band inspired by both men and female musicians.  And a kick ass live band.”



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Photo Credits:
#1 © 2003 Autumn DeWilde.  Courtesy of Go Kiddie!/Koch Records
#2 © 2003 Autumn DeWilde.  Courtesy of Go Kiddie!/Koch Records

Copyright ©2003 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: November 1, 2003.

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Copyright ©2003 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: November 1, 2003.