The Bangles' Susanna Hoffs: "I Listen a Lot to the '60s Still"
Photo by Jonathon Kingsbury
In the '80s, Susanna Hoffs was at the top of her game as a member of all-girl band the Bangles, who had many hits including "Hero Takes a Fall," "Walking Down Your Street," "Walk Like an Egyptian," "Eternal Flame," and countless others.
Though the band split in 1989, Hoffs reunited with the Bangles in 1999, but maintains a solo career and recently released her new project, Someday. Rocks Off recently spoke with Hoffs via phone about Someday, her love of '60s music, and the time the Bangles performed on the brand-new Sam Houston Tollway... and thought it might collapse
Rocks Off: I'm a fan of the Bangles on Facebook and I noticed that it said that as of July of this year it was 20 years since you guys played a concert to celebrate the opening of the Sam Houston Tollway. What was it like to play that show?
Susanna Hoffs: Oh wow! Oh man, that was a day that's not easily forgotten, but it was an interesting day. It was a promotional thing with a radio station that they had built that overpass. They decided that there should be a free concert on the actual overpass -- on that stretch of freeway that is extended in the air. It was a blazing hot day and we went out there.
They constructed a little stage up there and all these people showed up. At a certain point, everybody started jumping up and down and you could feel -- and I guess that was probably a good thing that it was engineered to kind of move with whatever jiggling was occurring on the toll road.
Vicki [Peterson] said the thing that you should never say because people do the opposite, she said "stop, stop jumping up and down." So people started doing it more. Having grown up in earthquake country in California, it became so scary that I just bolted. I was like, "this whole bridge is gonna collapse, obviously."
It was a really uncomfortable and scary moment. The horror was that even the structural engineer was running away too but I don't know if that was true. But as the Petersons [Vicki and Debbi] always say that "they were like the band on the Titanic" -- they just kept playing until I left. I was too spooked by it. We will always remember that day.
RO: I've noticed with your music that there's a great deal of '60s influence. Who would you say are your influences?
SH: It was a very diverse era for music, but I would have to start by saying the Beatles will probably always be my favorite band. The Beatles were a big influence on the Bangles even in the fact that we had a lot of harmony vocals, jangly guitars and multiple lead singers that can turn out various songs.
There was a lot of great musicians and music that I heard through the airwaves as a very young child that really informed my musical journey. I loved Linda Rondstadt, Lulu, Petula Clarke, and Dionne Warwick when she was singing all those Burt Bacharach songs. Those voices and those kinds of melodies have always stuck with me.
But I also love the Byrds. When I started playing electric guitar, I went out and tried to get the same guitars that made that sound that I loved so much with the Byrds -- a Rickenbacker 12-string. George Harrison played a lot of Rickenbackers as well. I love Bob Dylan and a lot of eclectic mix of stuff.
RO: What inspired you, specifically, about those influences?
SH: I listen a lot to the '60s still. I've never really gotten away from it. I was with Andrew Brassell, who I wrote most all of the songs from the new record apart from one ["November Sun"] on the Someday record. He's a lot younger than me. He didn't experience the '60s firsthand; he was born in the '80s.
We were listening to Sirius Satellite's "60's on 6" on the way over to do a podcast yesterday that we performed on. Again, I'm always struck by this, and it's something that we talked about when we started making the record.
We heard everything from Tom Jones singing "It's Not Unusual" to the Bee Gees singing "To Love Somebody" - the level of emotion that comes through in the vocals is so astounding to me. You don't really think about it consciously, it's just kind of there. It's just this raw emotion that is not tempered by any desire to be playing it cool, humbleness, or anything.
It's moving and compelling to me. I find the kind of passion that was really flowing through that era of music. I think that aspect is something that I've pulled from that era. Also melody, because it was key. I love how melodic those songs were.
RO: Someday, which is really good. Tell us a little bit about the making it.
SH: Thank you. The making of the record was very fast. I didn't have a record contract. I did it on my own, essentially. I funded it myself and I worked with this really brilliant producer [Mitchell Froom], whose worked with everybody from Randy Newman, to Paul McCartney. We did it at his studio and recorded it live -- all the tracking, drums, bass, guitars and including me singing live, which is a very old-school way to do things.
We went into it with the spirit of the '60s in mind. Also, it's a good way to keep the budget kind of contained. It was done fast. Then we put all the embellishments, all of Mitchell's great orchestrations and string parts along with horns, flutes, woodwinds -- all that stuff was added later. We picked really great players to come in and Mitchell created musical charts for them. We had to do that in a timely manner as well.
It was made last summer, actually. I'm really happy that it's seeing the light of day. Beyond that, I'm over the moon about the response I've been getting. It's been getting really great reviews and good feedback, so I'm happy.
Photo by Rebecca Wilson
RO: One thing I noticed about your new album is that it is slightly more mellow and organic than your first solo album, 1991's When You're a Boy. In what ways do you think your solo albums are reflective of you as a person?
SH: This album is very personal. I met Andrew [Brassell], whose in his mid-twenties and comes out of the Nashville music scene. He was trying to get his footing in Los Angeles as a musician, so I offered him my guest room to stay in.
My family took to him immediately and we wanted to help him because he's so talented. Having a person end up being your songwriting partner living in your home and observing your life became such a great situation for me.
Not only would I get so busy with raising my kids, dealing with life and being a Bangle that I always push my songwriting to the side and never get around to it. We were very creative together, but all the songs are a reflection of what's going on in my life now. I think that makes it very personal.
I think that the organic-ness, truthfulness, and realness of it came from the fact that we were sitting in my living room playing guitars and writing about what was going on in my life. I think whatever or wherever I'm at currently definitely comes through in the sound of my voice -- which gives the story that the songs are telling and the emotions that I'm packing into them. I think that's reflected in the music.
RO: Now about the Bangles, I know that a lot of people of my generation got introduced to you guys courtesy of Gilmore Girls. What was it like being on that show?:
SH: It was great! When Gilmore Girls first came on the air, a friend of mine told me about the show and how much she liked it. I don't watch a lot of television, so I didn't even know about it. The same week I heard about the show, I got a call that Amy [Sherman-Palladino], the show's creator and a big music fan, was really into the Bangles. She reached out to us and had a performance incorporated into an episode which she either wrote or co-wrote.
It basically centered around the Gilmore girls going to a Bangles concert. It was a lot of fun. We got to go onset. We performed live in front of a small audience and filmed the episode there.
RO: What do you see for the future of both the Bangles and you as a solo artist?
SH: Well I'm headed out to do some shows with the Bangles internationally. We're going to be playing outside of Toronto with the B-52s and our own show. We are going to do some big rock festivals in Europe.
After that, I'll start preparing for the solo tour, which will be in much smaller venues. I'll do songs from Someday as well as Bangle songs like "Eternal Flame," "In Your Room" and "Manic Monday," a mix of my own stuff as well as some of my [Sid n Susie] covers. Matthew [Sweet] and I are working on a Sid & Susie '80s cover record, which will come out next year.
RO: Now with the advent of YouTube and the Internet, when you see pictures of you and the band, as far as styles go from the '80s, do you cringe or smile?
SH: A little of both. I can't say that I don't cringe sometimes. I've made peace with the big hair. I've accepted that as part of the look. But in a way, it was a nod to the sixties - the beehive hairdos that were popular. It was just kind of more ratty-looking, a little less coiffed.
The thing that still makes me cringe is some of the outfits -- the big shoulder pads are pretty hilarious.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.