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Susanna Hoffs on The Bangles' new album, Sweetheart Of The Sun
Susanna Hoffs on stage with The Bangles in Las Vegas, 2010. © RD/ Erik Kabik/Retna Ltd./Corbis
"The '80s went by so fast," says Susanna Hoffs, singer and guitarist with The Bangles. "There was so much pressure on us to keep going. The record company, management, promoters, ourselves – pressure was everywhere. All we did was push ourselves to success, and eventually, it all kind of imploded."
Formed 30 years ago, The Bangles - Hoffs, guitarist/singer Vicki Peterson, drummer/singer Debbi Peterson and then-bassist Michael Steele - combined '60s pop harmonies and post-New Wave sensibilities on a chart-dominating run of hits that included Walk Like An Egyptian, Eternal Flame, Manic Monday and Hazy Shade Of Winter.
By the end of the '80s, internal friction broke up the band ("I think we were just tired - tired of everything," says Hoffs) and the members pursued family, solo careers and other group projects. In 1999, however, The Bangles reformed to record Get The Girl for the soundtrack of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (Hoffs is married to the film's director, Jay Roach) and never looked back. Michael Steele was briefly part of the reunited Bangles, but she officially left in 2005.
On 27 September, the trio of Hoffs and the Peterson sisters will release Sweetheart Of The Sun, their first album of new material since 2003's Doll Revolution. Produced by Matthew Sweet (Hoff's frequent collaborator), it's a bright, breezy and altogether winning affair, full of instantly memorable pop-rock gems, along with a few surprising left turns.
MusicRadar sat down with Susanna Hoffs recently to talk about Sweetheart Of The Sun, how The Bangles manage to stay together these days and what artists helped shape the sound of the band - then and now.
How does it feel to be coming out with a new Bangles record in 2011?
"It's pretty crazy! [laughs] To be honest, though, it's great timing because this year marks the 30th anniversary of the band. It's kind of scary when you think of a number like that, but we're pretty happy to still be doing this. It's what we love. It's who we are.
"It doesn't seem like 30 years. So much has gone by – in the blink of an eye, really. We've grown up, we have families, and I guess we have more perspective on things. On the other hand, so many aspects of being in a band haven't changed. We still have many of the same crazy arguments and disagreements. We probably always will."
When you think back to how the band formed in 1981, what sticks out?
"It's so interesting, that time period. The late '70s and early '80s – you had the Sex Pistols, Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith, the Talking heads – it was such an art explosion. It made me feel like I could be part of it. I think we all felt that way. Dancers, painters, writers, musicians – it didn't matter what you did, really. If you could relate, you could do it.
"We were all obsessing over '60s music, but we were so excited about what was happening now, that is, the dawning of the '80s music. It all came together in what The Bangles were going to do."
Sweethearts Of The Sun: The Bangles (Hoffs, Debbi Peterson and Vicki Peterson), 2011.
Now that you're married and raising a family, is the writing that you do for The Bangles different?
"Yes it is. I think everything that happens in your life channels into your writing – if you're being honest with yourself, it does. Emotions that I'm having, changes I'm going through, whether it's with my husband, my kids, my friends, it all comes out in what I write.
"This was always true in my writing sessions with Vicki – anything that we were dealing with, we'd talk about it and suddenly there'd be a song idea. It's so weird to look back at the albums and songs and see different life chapters reflected in them. I'm sure other people don't seem them the same way – they might project their own stories onto the songs – but I look at the songs and sing them on stage and it's like a scrapbook come to life."
You mentioned that you all have the same kind of disagreements you always did. But really, how have you manage to keep the band together since you reformed?
"I think the time that we took off was very helpful. I think we're still a dysfunctional family; we're just better at dealing with it now. When we got back together, the three of us – me, Vicki and Debbi – found that we had a lot of music that we wanted to make and stories we wanted to tell. Michael Steele was with us for a while, but ultimately she decided to move on to do other things.
"I don't know if it's different for guys – maybe it is, maybe it isn't – but when you devote so much of your life to being in a band, and suddenly you feel your biological clock ticking, things really do change. That doesn't mean everything else stops; you just refocus. Now I'm older, the other girls are older – hopefully we're wiser [laughs] – and we can do what we do with the proper attitude."
The Bangles have been compared to The Beatles and The Beach Boys for both instrumentation and vocal harmonies. How much have you actually drawn from each band?
"Oh, tons! A tremendous amount. Particularly The Beatles. You could spend your whole life trying to figure out everything they did – it's amazing. So many bands and artists from the '60s – The Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds – they're all inspirations. Anyone with a 'B.' [laughs] But there's also The Rolling Stones, Lulu, Dusty Springfield – we take anything and everything we can from them."
Let's talk about the new record. The song Anna Lee is pretty gorgeous. How did it come about?
"We wrote that in the studio together, all three of us. For some reason, I really wanted to write in the studio, and it's something Matthew was pushing us to do. The music came together very fast. It started with the riff, and then we all just chimed in singing. It's very '60s and '70s, but hey, that's fine – that's the idea. [laughs]
"The lyrics we worked on separately. Interestingly, a character sort of developed in the song. We had all just read Girls Like Us, the book about Carly Simon, Carole King and Joni Mitchell, and we were inspired by it. We sort of made up a portrait of a person based around those women – it's kind of mythical."
Sweet And Tender Romance is a neat, grungy rocker, with quite an odd timing.
"I know, it is a strange time signature. It's actually a cover of a McKinley Sisters song. Jimmy Page played guitar on the original. It's one of those songs that should have been on the Nuggets series – that's how great it is. Somebody played it for me on the road, and I just fell in love with it. I had such an urge to show it to the girls and Matthew. We did rock it up a bit, and Vicki does an amazing job on lead guitar."
What's the story behind Under A Cloud?
"Well, it's kind of the real deal about LA, that despite the shiny exterior and sunshine, people are just as depressed here as they are anywhere. I had seen an ad on TV for an anti-depressant, one where this woman is holding an umbrella even though it's all sunny outside. The image really stuck with me."
Hoffs capos her signature model Rickenbacker at the Sirius XM Studio in New York City, 2009. © RD/Dziekan/Retna Ltd./Corbis
Through Your Eyes is a beautiful acoustic ballad. Those harmonies are magnificent.
"Thank you. Vicki and I wrote that song quite a while ago, right around when the band regrouped. We do work on our harmonies as much as possible. We talked about doing a sort of Crosby, Stills & Nash arrangement for this song and some other ones. Through Your Eyes was a song that we wanted to leave sparse instrumentally because the vocals had to carry it. We love putting two and three voices on every cut – it's very Bangles."
Let's talk about your guitar playing. Who were the people who influenced you when you were growing up, and who do you listen to nowadays?
"Well, not surprisingly, I still listen to the old stuff. I've always loved '60s pop music – The Beatles and people before them. But I definitely got into Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds. The sound of a nice, ringing 12-string guitar gets me every time. It just melts me! [laughs] I've always loved that sound.
"Paul Simon was a big inspiration, but so was Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. Even though I'm really a rhythm player, I revere people like Bonnie Raitt, who's such an exceptional guitarist in so many areas. I like to hold things down and drive the music. That's what I do best."