“Hi John, this is Susanna Hoffs”….and so it begins. I may have interviewed some pretty big stars but as a child of the 80s it is still pretty surreal to hear the voice of The Bangles calling me on my cell. Whenever you’re talking with someone who has not only scaled the heights of rock and pop stardom but also featured prominently in the adolescent crush category it’s going to take a few seconds of adjustment. Like most of us who have grown up on her music, Susanna’s grown as well, having gotten married and raising two sons (with her husband, Austin Powers//Meet The Parents director Jay Roach). What’s interesting is what hasn’t changed. She’s still incredibly gorgeous and still has a distinctly sweet and unique voice. She’s still recording and performing music with The Bangles and she still has a solo career, having just released a really well received new album, SOMEDAY, this past summer. Susanna will be performing a series of very intimate acoustic shows this fall to support the album and we recently talked to her about a bit of everything. Read on…..
Legendary Rock Interviews: Hi Susanna. How are things?
Susanna Hoffs: Things are good. Where are you located?
LRI: Near Rockford, Illinois. You played here back on one of your earlier solo album tours actually.
Susanna: Yeah, I was gonna say I did, it was at a really interesting little club out in the middle of nowhere. I have a little connection too, our longtime tour manager who used to be our head of security, John Calacci is from Rockford and knows all the guys in Cheap Trick. Also our sound guy, Joe Stella who used to do our sound back in the very early 80s is actually from outside Chicago. We’ve actually reunited a lot of our crew from back in those days and those guys are Illinois boys. My mother is from Chicago as well (laughs).
LRI: I know your mom is a film director as well and has worked with you and the band. How is she doing?
Susanna: She’s doing great. She’s actually at a film festival in Germany right now, I think she’s in Munich or something. She’s kind of a force to be reckoned with, my mom. She’s a real inspiration because she’s always out there and she’s always doing something and still going strong. My parents were always a real influence on me in terms of just kind of following through on my goals. They were always kind of different from a lot of other parents of kids in that they were always unusually supportive of my brother and my interests in things. They never really said “That’s not practical” or “You should go to graduate school Susanna”. They could kind of tell early on that the thing that made me the happiest was music, dance and art so they always supported that. Even after college when I said “Hey, I wanna start a band” they never did anything to discourage me even at that point which is kind of a crossroads in your life when you’re supposed to figure out how to become an adult and get a job and all that. They were 100% supportive of the fact that I wanted to try and be an artist.
LRI: Not to pry or play armchair psychiatrist but do you think that growing up in that supportive arts inspired environment where mom is a director and dad believes in you kind of provided a stability that pulled you in closer to your husband who is a film director himself.
Susanna: Oh absolutely. And speaking of psychiatrists, my dad is a psychiatrist, he and my mom met at Yale, she was studying painting with this incredible guy named Josef Albers. There was always this mix in my household of art, science and psychology so I really was really influenced by all this artistic and intellectual debate going on in our household which included exposing us to a lot of really good movies. They always took my brother and I to go see tremendous films even if they were R-rated or something. I remember seeing a movie called “If” with Malcom McDowell, my mom was always a big Malcom McDowell fan and had the opportunity to direct him but I remember us going to see that movie in the theater, that stands out. They took us to go see Midnight Cowboy which was before the NC-17 days and was actually rated X, but they would take us to go see films that they thought were works of art regardless whether they were supposed to be suitable for teens. It’s really interesting, they wanted to share things with us that they felt strongly about, whether it was film, or musical things or museums. They really treated us with respect and treated us like we were intelligent even if we were really young.
LRI: Obviously that exposure to the arts carry over to your kids. Would you guys ever be surprised or even disappointed if they wanted to become athletes or accountants?
Susanna: Oh, no, no. I think all you can do as a parent is to take care of your kids the best way that you know how to do, whether it’s giving them things that worked for you growing up that you took from your parents or giving them something completely different based on knowledge that something didn’t work. At the end of the day a parent wants their kid to be happy and that is the biggest thing I took away from how I was raised. My parents did allow us kids to follow our bliss and that means supporting those interests whether they’re practical or outside the normal scope of “practical”. My kids are still trying to figure out what it is they wanna do, they’re still ensconced in that world of learning and I think that in of itself is cool. Obviously with Jay and I as parents they get lots of exposure to film and music and are surrounded by all of that so they see what we do when we go to work. They go and see Jay on set directing or they see him working on a rough cut of a film and they see my shows and see me working on music so they are familiar with the process. I think they take after us in the sense that they’re both very creative kids but we’ll see what they end up doing. They’re very open about not knowing what they wanna do (laughs) and that’s great, that’s fine.
LRI: Your new album “SOMEDAY” has gotten amazing reviews and I can see why. You’re not supposed to be making your best album at this stage in your career but in some respects it is. The songs are immediate and poppy and could be pulled off acoustically but in contrast, the recording itself is presented in this really rich, orchestrated old-school Beatles way. Is it a challenge to do these songs live?
Susanna: Well, thank you, first of all. That’s very kind of you to say. I really haven’t done that many shows yet to support this album until this upcoming tour, I did do one acoustically in a room in the back of a really cool guitar store and it was pretty stripped down as were the appearances on T.V. or promotional appearances I’ve made. With this upcoming tour, you’re right, there’s a lot of different ways I could go with it but I think it will lean towards the more stripped down version of the songs, bass, drums, two guitars and a little percussion. I wish I could have strings, keys, horns and all of those parts that are organic to the album but I think just logistically that we’ll be a little more stripped down on this tour. I am happy to say that is how the music was initially written, it was written by myself and Andrew Brassell on two acoustic guitars in my living room and that stripped down version of the material was what we presented it to my producer Mitchell Froom. We actually considered doing two versions of the album, at first it was going to be stripped down like it was originally written with just two guitars and harmony vocals and then we started experimenting in the studio and started tapping into this 1960s baroque pop style. You’re right in saying the Beatles were one of those influences, they were really starting to tap into that special place when they entered their studio album phase. An album like Sgt. Pepper’s really went to that place where sound was explored and experimented with and orchestration and different instruments were incorporated and it just exploded, the revolution took off. I made a CD for Mitchell of some of the songs that really came to mind for me and it included things like “She’s a Rainbow” by the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys. What really went into a lot of those songs is really quite incredible when you take a look under the hood. A lot of these songs are such classic songs and are such a part of our consciousness that we don’t even really stop and notice exactly how much was going on in those sessions. It’s really cool that some of that orchestrated pop rock stuff is even coming back in some of the newer music being created. I used to expose my sons to all of my favorite stuff growing up like the artists I mentioned or even beyond that like artists like YES and progressive rock stuff. When the kids were growing up I would play my albums I did with Matthew Sweet, the Under the Covers Volume 1 and 2 on the way to taking them to school. Now of course they’re in charge of being the DJ and I’m impressed with how much some of the newer bands are incorporating some of those 60s and 70s influences.
LRI: Obviously this album is light years away from the jangly, garage rock type stuff on the very early Bangles albums but do you see any correlation as far as your ease of songwriting back in those days and the ease with which these tunes came to you?
Susanna: Ok, that’s interesting. The Bangles did come out of the garage rock template for a band. We literally not only embraced our passion for jangly 60s garage rock, the psychedelic side, the pop side, you name it. We were aficionados of all of that type of 60s music, even the one hit wonder bands and were collecting records and really educating ourselves in all of that stuff and just soaking in it and this was in the 80s. That passion for the same music was the thing that really bonded me with Vicki and Debbie Peterson when we met. In fact, the first song we ever played in the garage at my parents house was “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane.
LRI: Wow. I’d love to hear that.
Susanna: That was it. They taught me the chords, we played it and I was like “Oh my god, we should be a band” and we decided that night to become a band. Who would have thought that all these years later we’d still be out there playing shows and making albums as a band?
LRI: The biggest difference between The Bangles and your solo stuff obviously seems to be that you’re not as tied into the four on the floor rock style, no?
Susanna: There is a difference. I think the biggest difference is that I can explore melody a bit more and channel my expression through the melody. That’s really what I was trying to do when Brassell and I sat down and wrote these songs. I was trying to emotionally explore through the melodies we were coming up with. It was such an organic writing process that happened in such an unexpected way. I have to credit Brassell and my niece for my having met him. He was a friend of hers in Nashville and he’s a lot younger than me and I got to bond with him while we were working and even though he didn’t experience the 60s during the 60s he had a great knowledge of music of many eras, especially the 60s. I was able to tap into that really pop, melodic side of the 60s with him and his really melodic guitar playing and it was really easy to come up with this material once we started working on it. I don’t know why we were able to collaborate so easily but we did. I think with The Bangles there was always emphasis on melody but it wasn’t as extreme of a focus on melody. The band was sort of built on more of the garage rock, heavy guitar/drum driven sound which is great, I love it and a little bit more based on harmony singing and less of that opportunity for a sole expression in a lead vocal. If that makes sense.
LRI: Songs like “True” or “Picture Me” are pretty personal lyrically? Did your collaboration with Brassell extend into lyrics or just melodies and guitar lines?
Susanna: Interestingly enough we did collaborate on the lyrics to both of those songs. I think that was possible partly because of how he ended up coming out here and working with me. Originally he was going to come out and just see how it went and then go back to Nashville and instead he came out to stay in L.A. and brought his guitar and some pedals and gear and was going to find a proper place in town. He immediately bonded with my husband, my family and we put him up in our guest room until he could find somewhere which first of all led to us writing more songs together and the other thing was that he got to know me and my family in a way most people don’t see. He was able to observe and absorb my whole world here and the whole emotional landscape of it all which really came out when we would write songs because he could come up with some really interesting stuff just by observing our life. “Picture Me” was the first song we wrote and by the time that we got to “True” I was like “Ok, wow we are really hitting onto something here” and the collaboration became this really seamless back and forth which was so nice. If one of us would get hung up on a part of a song, the other could somehow finish it. A lot of times when I try to write on my own I end up shooting down most of my ideas and I really love that interplay of bouncing ideas back and forth with someone else. You can start off with an idea, get hung up and pitch the ball to them and they throw it back with another idea tagged on and make it better than the original idea and it inspires you and you throw it back with something else and it becomes this songwriting volley back and forth. I love it. It’s a thrill and instead of second guessing your own stuff into the ground you actually create something even better through all of that feedback on your ideas.
LRI: This album is a bit of well overdue vindication for you as a writer in my eyes. Unless you were a hardcore fan that poured over song credits it would be possible to think that you or The Bangles were one of those major label mega bands that didn’t write your own stuff especially given the success of “Manic Monday” or “Hazy Shade”. Do you think that people tend to downplay the achievements of The Go Gos or The Bangles based on the level of success you had?
Susanna: I do. I think that unfortunately we were up against a lot of people who also looked at us as a novelty and that was just a constant battle. The fact that we wanted to do the all-girl thing was viewed by some to mean that it was a gimmick of some sort as opposed to just us being musicians. I mean we grew up on plenty of female musicians who were solo artists and weren’t viewed that way. I guess it was the fact that there were more than one of us (laughs), I really don’t know what it was but there was something different about the way that bands like the Go Gos or us were treated. It somehow became something that we couldn’t get past and I don’t know why that is. I just recently reconnected with Belinda Carlisle which was so much fun and it turns out she was at the same Sex Pistols show in 1978 that I was, the final show at Winterland in San Fransisco! It’s just so weird but so cool for me to think that we were both in that same room at that same time for this historic show. It was such a crazy thought to consider for me because it was so incredible just to be there to begin with.
LRI: Was there ever any attempt to try and change the band into something it wasn’t as far as moving away from the garage rock vibe to more of a harder sound?
Susanna: Not externally, but internally maybe. Despite all the shared influences there were some differences musically speaking between some of us. We have a lot of fun playing uptempo rock songs live, there’s no doubt about that, it’s very fun but there’s also something unique in the finely tuned, clean vocal harmonies and the balance of those two identities is kind of the voice of the band, for lack of a better word. The sound of The Bangles is the contrast between those loud guitars and drums and the dreamy, layered voice thing that we do.
LRI: “Eternal Flame” is one song you played a major part in writing and it is very similar to the style your new album incorporates and totally has that 60s vibe. I could go so far as to say that when you hear that song and these songs on “Someday” it all makes perfect sense.
Susanna: That song was a real interesting moment in the history of our band. That album, “Everything” ended up being the last studio album on Columbia before we all went our separate ways at the end of the 80s. Having said that, I don’t think the breakup was because of “Eternal Flame”, I think at the time the band needed a break and I think it was actually a really good thing that we took one. That song somehow lived in its own little world. I remember being so excited about it when Billy Steinberg, Tom Kelly and I had finished writing it because it was so intimate and so melodic and it didn’t have a real chorus, it had this left-turn bridge which took you to this whole other unexpected place. I was really excited about that and was just sort of running around with this little cassette in my pocket and playing it for people. I played it for our producer when we were all sort of pitching our songs and he seemed to like it but was just thinking about it and sort of working it out in his head how we could do it. We started recording the album and about halfway through tracking the record we had done all the basic tracks but since that song didn’t have the usual drum and bass tracks we still hadn’t done it. I raised my hand about halfway through and asked “Umm….are we gonna do that song, are we gonna do ‘Eternal Flame’ and was kind of nervous” and our producer Davitt Sigerson was like “You know what, I finally came up with idea for that that I wanna pitch which is to do kind of a music box thing and I’m hearing this little idea for a piano thing” and I said “Great, let’s work on it”and we got together with John Phillip Shenale who did that keyboard part and it was a really exciting arrangement he had in mind. I think his studio was out in the valley, I’m sorry if some of the details are a little fuzzy but it’s been like 30 years ago and you’re bringing up old memories, which is fun. It’s interesting that you’re connecting that song with my new record because that was a song that really called out for that kind of arrangement. We had this sparse little track and the song would have to be expanded on and created in another way.
LRI: I’m not 15 anymore so I can listen to an album like your new album and kind of enjoy the fact that it has a lot of that vibe but back in the day people either LOVED or HATED “Eternal Flame” based on the fact that it was so different from the rest of the album.
Susanna: Yeah, totally. I totally get that. The thing about that song that makes you recognize it in my new album is that it was all about the melody and all about the voice and it called for a different kind of treatment. I remember our manager at the time coming in and going “Where are the drums, it needs the big drums”, you know the whole 80s drum sound at the time with the big giant bombastic snare sound and everything but it just didn’t feel appropriate to what the song needed. There is a tie in to this album in the sense that it was so intimate and melody based.
LRI: These shows you are playing sound really, really intimate as well. The one here in the Chicago market is at City Winery.
Susanna: I am SO excited about this tour and about that show. If it’s anything like the City Winery in New York it is just such a great room and such good sound with good food and good wine and music. It’s a great date night or night out on the town and I am so excited. I love playing with The Bangles but these shows are kind of an opportunity for me to just be myself, in a way, and do something new and refreshing. I am so grateful and so lucky that the band is still going strong and I am still able to do this but it will be very different for me. It’s so stripped down and I won’t have anybody to hide behind. When I played with Matthew Sweet it was different because he was there and we were doing covers and with The Bangles it’s a whole other thing but this is very intimate and very exposed. I think I am partly so excited because I do feel so exposed both in the songs and how autobiographical they are and also to be able to do The Bangles material from my own perspective.
Go see Susanna Hoffs live this fall, starting Oct. 29, tourdates and ticket info are available at her website here: http://www.susannahoffs.com/tour/