ZANI have a natter with Susanna Hoffs of The BanglesWritten by Matteo Sedazzari
© Words Matteo Sedazzari
“Why not just live in the moment, especially if it has a good beat?” Goldie Hawn,
Inspiring words from a beautiful woman who achieved international stardom and iconic status in the late sixties, as a regular in the US hit cult comedy show Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, a wacky and satirical sketch show which ran from January 1968 to March 1973. A comedy show that seemed to be part of the counter culture revolution
that was sweeping across the US while rocking the establishment. The humour, today, may seem a little dated, yet it inspired and entertained a nation and many of the children of that decade would carry the cultural, fashion and music of the sixties into the late seventies and eighties, when they were older and wise enough to express themselves.
In England 1978 there was the Mod Revival (originally from the sixties, sharp dressed boys and girls with an aspiration for Italian clothes and scooters, American soul music and British beat groups) which became a phenomena in 1979, headed by bands like The Jam, Secret Affair, The Chords, formed by men, whom as school boys would have seen The Kinks, The Who, The Small Faces on Top of The Pops, the Mod cult TV show Ready Steady Go. Whilst over the ocean, in Los Angeles California, in the early eighties there was a collection of musicians inspired by the American rock, Garage (not the garage genre of today) psychedelic and folk sound of the late sixties, The Byrds, Mammas and Papas, The Monkees, The Beach Boys and such like. Gaining their influence from that decade and obtaining their confidence from Punk in the mid to late 70’s, these bands such as The Three O'Clock, The Dream Syndicate, The Rain Parade had created a healthy and exciting scene that even inspired international pop star, Prince, to name his label Paisley Park. However it would be fair to say that this sixties influenced scene stayed purely on the west coast, and the only band to achieve international stardom was The Bangles.
Four young ladies from California, Susanna Hoffs (Rhythm guitar and vocals) sisters Debbi (drums vocals ) and Vicki (lead guitar, vocals) Peterson, started out as a three piece in December 1980 , originally calling themselves The Colours, then The Supersonic Bangs, and shortly afterwards The Bangs. (Just like The Beatles, who went from The Quarrymen - the foundation of The Beatles, with Harrison, Lennon and McCartney being members for this skiffle band - to Johnny and The Moon Dogs, The Silver Beetles, The Beetles and until Lennon, master of the play on words, replaced the e with an a , and they became The Beatles and released their first single, which was self-funded, Getting Out Of Hand in 1981). Due to legal reasons, these young ladies changed their name to The Bangles in 1982 before they released their first EP, The Real World. Annette Zilinskas briefly joined as a bass player before leaving and being replaced by Michael Steele, original member of the American all girl rock band The Runaways, who joined in 1982 prior to The Real World, which was released by Faulty Products, a label owned by Miles Copeland who, at the time, was manager of one of the most successful bands in the world, The Police, with his brother Stewart as the drummer. Dressing in a late sixties fashion, loose and colourful dresses, or shirts and trousers, with long and beautiful hair, backed by their punk, sixties garage, psychedelic rock and folk sound. These girls were accomplished musicians, who had great voices, as the harmonies in the songs are truly beautiful. However even under the guidance and experience of Copeland, it would be another four years, 1986, before The Bangles hit the big time and achieved huge chart success across the world, as their debut album All Over the Place released in May 1984 on Columbia Records only reached 80 in the US and 84 in the UK respectively.
In February 1986, The Bangles appeared on Top of The Pops for the very first time with Manic Monday (written by Prince) and I think every male in the UK during Thursday dinner time became besotted with the petite, curvy, sweet female with loose curly brunette hair, large hoops earrings and large brown eyes strumming a classic black and white Rickenbacker guitar as she sang “I wish it were Sunday 'Cause that's my fun day”. Susanna Hoffs and The Bangles had arrived in England, and the song title became intertwined into part of modern language as millions woke up for the start of the working week. Moreover for the next three years, The Bangles became a huge band, achieving two number ones in the US, Walk Like An Egyptian ( a catchy pop song) and Eternal Flame ( a poignant love song), co-written by Hoffs, which was a smash across the world and became an anthem for the decade. That is some achievement.
Sadly, due to personal differences, or after nine years of being together, The Bangles ended on a rather bitter and harsh note in 1989. However moving to a positive, they did reform nine years later with the original line, but Steele leaving for good in 2005. At the time of writing they are still going strong. Yet even though The Bangles is where Hoffs made her name she has not rested on her laurels. Since their original demise Hoffs has released three solo albums, the last one was in 2012 entitled Someday, written with Andrew Brassell and produced by Mitchell Froom. Original material, which pays homage to the orchestral sound of the sixties fronted by powerful harmonious sweet soulful female vocals. In 2006 Hoffs formed Sid n Susie, with Matthew Sweet, releasing three albums Under the Covers volumes 1, 2 and 3, with each volume covering a different decade of music, starting with the sixties in volume 1, the seventies in volume 2 and the eighties in volume 3 with hits such as The Who’s The Kids Are Alright, Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes, The Smiths’ How Soon Is Now. All projects have received critical acclaim and continue to flourish.
Prior to becoming ‘a singer in a band’, Hoffs (she attended and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley where she) studied art, acting and was part of a dance group. Hoffs starred in The Allnighter (1987) made during the height of The Bangles’ success, directed by her mother Tamar Simon Hoffs, a story about three college friends coming to the end of their college with some soul searching. The film was a commercial failure , but Hoffs did briefly return to acting with Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and Austin Powers again in Goldmember, a sixties spy spoof starring Mike Myers and directed by her husband Jay Roach, whom she married in 1993. Yet it is music that seems to be her forte.
So it would be fair to say that Susanna Hoffs has made a mark on the pop and contemporary culture across the world and with such an interesting background and promising future, ZANI were delighted to speak to the beautiful Susanna on the phone. We chatted about music, the sixties, her life, favourite guitars and much more.
ZANI - Your signature guitar is the Rickenbacker, was that the influence of the Beatles and The Byrds?
Susanna Hoffs – Absolutely. I loved the look and the sound of the guitar. The Beatles had a profound effect on me, I was very young when I heard them for the first time. My mom’s friend worked for Capitol Records (The Beatles’ US label), so we got the albums fresh from the plant. I was about five years old when I got Meet The Beatles, their first American album. They were my first musical crush. I had such a strong reaction to the music that I not only loved them, but I wanted to be them. My brothers and I each had a favourite Beatle that we emulated. I was Paul, my brother John was John, of course, and my brother Jesse was Ringo. We were influenced, inspired and thrilled by their music as little kids.
ZANI – No one was George?
Susanna Hoffs – If only I had another brother. Alas, there were only three of us kids, and four Beatles. Amazingly, a year later, The Beatles attended a charity event at a home in our neighbourhood---they were in Los Angeles at the time to perform at the Hollywood Bowl. So, the actual Beatles were literally down the block from my house. All the neighbourhood children came out to catch a glimpse of the Beatles; it was so exciting for the five-year-old me. I don’t think I would be playing music today if not for The Beatles.
ZANI - OK, totally understand that. You have been busy with both bands, Sid n Susie and The Bangles. Is it hard to switch your mind set from one band to the other?
Susanna Hoffs – No, it’s kind of fun, mixing it up along with my solo stuff. They are all slightly different variations on the same theme. My long love affair with music gets a chance to come through in the Under the Covers series that I do with Matthew Sweet (Sid n Susie). We’re just two kids in love with music, having fun and enjoying being able to sing, play and record our favourite songs. Music has always played a powerful role in my life---if I am not working on music, I am listening to music.
The Bangles just finished reunion concerts with Rain Parade, Dream Syndicate and the Three O’Clock--all bands that were part of the the “Paisley Underground” scene that was happening in Los Angeles from 1981 to 1985. The thing that united the bands was a love for the music from the sixties. It was exhilarating being able to go back and play the earliest Bangles’ songs, where the influence of the Mamas and Papas, The Beatles, The Byrds and Motown was very strong in our music and song writing. The decade of the sixties has been a constant influence throughout my entire career, including my recent solo record, Someday, which was a love letter to 1966/67, specifically in terms of arrangements, putting strings and horns into the songs.
ZANI – You can sense a Burt Bacharach influence in the album.
Susanna Hoffs – Very much so. When I was growing up my mom loved Burt Bacharach songs. She played all those great Dionne Warwick records. So with Someday, I got a chance to explore and work on a record with that sort of production, and sing those kinds of songs. As a young girl, I would sing along with the car radio to Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick, Lulu and Linda Ronstadt. All those women were big influences on me.
ZANI - You had a gap of 15 years between solo albums. Will your fans have to wait that long for your fourth solo album?
Susanna Hoffs – I don’t think so. I have already written a bunch of songs for the next record. This has been an unusually creative time for me--my kids are older, and I feel like this chapter of my life has more room for me to focus on art. I have had three new albums out in the last three years, and that's a record for me. So I am on a roll, and I am enjoying it.
ZANI – You are being very prolific. What are you like in the studio, do you have a vision and sound of how it should be, or do you let it grow organically?
Susanna Hoffs – It’s different with every project. When I was making my solo record, Someday, I was working with Mitchell Froom and my writing partner Andrew Brassell. Our process was old school and organic. We workshopped the songs together in my living room and then recorded them live with musicians in a small studio, all together. Although we recorded the record with Pro Tools, it was still done in the style and spirit of the 60s.
With Matthew, we did the whole record via Skype. We were hardly in the same room together. Instead we “Skyped” tracks back and forth to each other, which is a very modern approach. Pro Tools has allowed the record making process to be much more flexible and affordable.
ZANI - You are embracing technology as well as paying homage to the past.
Susanna Hoffs – Exactly.
ZANI – Talking about the past, you were at the final Sex Pistols gig, before they reformed in the 90’s? I love the clip of them performing No Fun, tell us about that night. Was that the moment you wanted to join a band?
Susanna Hoffs – Seeing the Sex Pistols was life changing for sure. When I first heard their music, it struck me as very melodic and emotional. I responded to the intensity, artfulness and truth of it-- to me it was such beautiful noise. When I went to see them, I actually waited in line for five hours in the rain, but it was so worth it. I am very grateful to have witnessed this historic event and the art revolution of the late seventies, with Punk rock, Patti Smith and the many great bands coming out of England and New York. I was studying art, theatre and dance at U.C. Berkeley at the time, so I was very excited at the idea of bands being more like art projects. The era of rock gods playing huge stadiums was being replaced by The Ramones, Blondie, The Talking Heads, and The Jam playing in small clubs, and I was like “Woo. what’s this? This is something I can do. I can get an electric guitar and play those four chord Ramones’ songs”, and that is what I did. Those were exciting times.
ZANI – That is the philosophy of punk; would you say you are a better guitarist or a better singer?
Susanna Hoffs – I am a better singer than guitarist, but I can hold my own as a rhythm guitar player. Recently, the Bangles have been experimenting with a very stripped down line-up. No keyboards, no extra bells and whistles, so the guitar playing is totally exposed. This is something I have wanted to do for a long time. And I am having so much fun breaking out the fuzz pedal and playing some leads.
ZANI – You sound very upbeat about it. Before you broke into the music industry, what was the worst job you had?
Susanna Hoffs – I worked in a ceramics factory, where I sat alone in a basement with no windows--all I had was the radio to keep me company, which I had tuned to the Oldies station. As a matter of fact, that is where I heard Simon and Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade of Winter for the first time. I loved the song so much, that later that same night, I showed up at the Bangles’ rehearsal and suggested we cover the song. It was perfect for us; it had a cool riff and three part harmonies. Even though it was a lonely job, I got a lot of inspiration from listening to all those amazing songs, which I was able to channel into my early songwriting.
ZANI – It was a bad situation, but you turned into a positive one by being creative from listening to the radio. I know you were a fan of The Beatles at a young age, correct me if I am wrong but was Joni Mitchell the first single you bought with your pocket money?
Susanna Hoffs – One of the first records I bought was Carole King’s Tapestry. I also remember buying Sweet Baby James and Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon and Blue as well as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
ZANI - 1986 was the year the world got to know The Bangles. Like many I remember you performing Manic Monday on Top of the Pops, was that the first time you ever came to the UK?
Susanna Hoffs – No, I had been to England with my family in the 1970s, and the Bangles toured in the UK in 1984 and 1985. Performing in England where The Beatles came from and where Punk rock was born was a huge deal for us. We were major anglophiles, in fact our fan club at the time was called Bangles and Mash, a play on the popular British dish, bangers and mash. We were obsessed with Carnaby Street fashion, Mary Quant and the whole vibe of the swinging sixties. My love of the culture, fashion and art of London in the sixties ended up being helpful when my husband (Jay Roach) began directing the Austin Powers movies.
ZANI - I know it’s a lot to ask in a couple of sentences, but what was it like from 86 to 89, you were achieving number one across the globe, in particular Eternal Flame, did it feel like Banglemania ?
Susanna Hoffs – When we attended the San Remo music festival in 1987, we had our first paparazzi experience---so fitting that it happened in Italy. Walk Like An Egyptian was number one around the world at that time, but we were totally caught off guard when a wall of photographers started snapping pictures. We’d never seen so many cameras and flashbulbs going off at the same time. The next night we went out for dinner with Duran Duran, and that gave us a bit of perspective on our paparazzi moment. During dinner, there were girls banging on the windows of the restaurant and screaming their names. We got into the limo with Duran Duran and a crowd of girls started climbing onto the car.
ZANI - Best year of music from the sixties?
Susanna Hoffs – 66, maybe 67, no 66, I love the music from 1966. The whole year.
ZANI - Plans for 2014?
Susanna Hoffs – I will be playing more of the garage-rock style shows with the Bangles, and we are hoping to do some more Paisley Underground shows. I’m very excited to be performing, as a solo artist, at a big Americana/County music festival in California called Stagecoach. I’m also busy writing for the next solo album.
ZANI - Do you still reside in California?
Susanna Hoffs – Yes I do, sunny California.
ZANI - Final question, what song from the sixties do you think reflects Susanna Hoffs the best and why?
Susanna Hoffs – Here Comes The Sun by The Beatles always comes to mind, probably because I connect with the feeling of hopefulness that follows on the heels of darkness. There is a certain awareness of gratitude you feel for sunshine after a dark period.
A wonderful choice of a song from a wonderful person, who seems to have a magical and positive outlook to the world. Highly intelligent and clearly passionate, with a huge love and understanding of music, yes her roots are in the sixties. However Hoffs experience of and understanding Punk, and The Sex Pistols really did inspire her, as well as The Beatles and Joni Mitchell. She understands the past as well as embracing today’s technology to create her music, she is reflective and welcomes changes, be it circumstances or age, she adapts, and with that Hoffs always brings a new project to the table. From speaking to her, the warmth from her voice was endearing, her knowledge inspiring, and Hoffs is very much for the now, and like words uttered by Goldie Hawn “Why not just live in the moment, especially if it has a good beat”, the statement certainly rings true for Susanna Hoffs, and here’s to her for 2014.