The Popdose Interview: Susanna Hoffs
One of the real joys about the albums that Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs have done together (using the alias of Sid ‘N Susie) is that they feel truly curated by music fans for their fellow music fans. As we dug into the story behind the third volume of Under The Covers, which lands in stores today (November 11th), it quickly became apparent that our assessment was dead on the money — Matthew and Susanna are indeed fans, just like us. It is that simple but important ingredient which makes each and every collection that they release a real pleasure to listen to.
Susanna spent some time with us recently going over the album in depth and also talking about some of the things that have been left on the cutting room floor. So you can enjoy one side of the story right here and meanwhile, our man Will Harris captured the other side in his conversation with Matthew which is only a short click away.
What is it that you love creatively about doing these albums with Matthew?
There’s just a joy for me in doing covers. I’m a music fan — that’s how it began, so for me, I approach it from that point of view and it’s both a challenge and pure bliss to record songs that I love so much. Matthew and I are like kids in a candy store when we’re making our list and bouncing around ideas of what we could do. I’m always surprised that I end up singing songs that I didn’t expect to sing, because when we’re just throwing out ideas, we don’t even talk about who is doing what — we just know we’re both going to be singing on everything, but we don’t have it fully worked out.
On the ‘70s album when we did all of the ‘70s songs, I ended up singing “Maggie May” and “Bell Bottom Blues” and songs I never thought I would sing. On this one, I didn’t expect to sing “Trouble” or “More Than This.” I didn’t think I would sing those, but it was so much fun to take that challenge. There’s a lot of spontaneity and there’s a lot of creativity that just comes from the recording [process]. This time we did our version of “postal service” [recording] where we send things back and forth, but we did it through Skype.
We would Skype tracks to each other and we kind of recorded remotely at our own studios. Matthew had helped me build a studio at my house so that I could work on things at home sometimes. It just helps with scheduling, because you know touring with the Bangles and what have you, it’s just nice to have that convenience. So the majority of this record was done separately, except for “Kid,” which was the first song I sang and I did it at Matthew’s house and that was just sort of the icebreaker.
But the rest of them, we sent tracks to each other and I would work on harmonies for things and just go crazy and just keep layering and layering tracks, like on “Towers of London,” the XTC song. He would open up the files and have no idea what I sent him. It was a complete surprise. So that was really fun.
Working remotely and separately this time around, had you done that kind of thing a lot in the past yourself as an artist? Did that change the dynamic at all of how this came out? Because listening to it, it sounds very much in line with the last two albums that you both did. You don’t feel that separation like it was pieced together.
No, no. We did quite a bit of that. Matthew put together the studio at my house to kind of be a mirror studio to his on the last record. So for Under The Covers Volume 2, I did a very, very big chunk of my vocals at home and also a lot of harmonies at home. That was originally going to be a double album, so there was a lot of recording going on and the schedule just didn’t quite mesh for us to be up at his studio.
So it wasn’t all that much different from doing Under The Covers Volume 2, but it just became that essentially the whole record I did [my vocals] at my house and he did the stuff that he was working on at his. We did get together and listen to stuff and of course with mixing, I would come in and out and go over there. I went over to his house towards the end and did some percussion stuff, tambourine, sleigh bells and stuff like that over there. So we were in the same room at the same time.
But there was something kind of more fun this time in my mind when I think back on it. The surprise element for me, [came with] for example, the background harmonies on “Sitting Still.” That one and “Towers of London,” I just kind of made up my own stuff and it was kind of outside the box. It wasn’t just taken from the original arrangements. On “Free Fallin’” also, I just added in stuff to make it more Sid ‘n’ Susie, to kind of approach these songs from the point of view that it’s a duets album.
We do things in a duet sort of style, so that opens the door to think outside the box, which is what I love about doing this project with Matthew to begin with, is that we automatically get to have a fresh take on a lot of these songs when we see it from that point of view.
That’s one of the things that’s so great about these records is some of the semi-obscurities that you guys drag out. Like the R.E.M. track that opens the album —- songs like that should be more well-known than they are. A collection like this gives today’s listeners a new chance to experience songs like that for the first time and in some cases, maybe they discover the music of Dave Edmunds, for example.
Yeah, exactly! That’s what’s so fun about it. I was playing the record to my kids who are now 14 and 18 and suddenly the English Beat song came on, “Save It For Later” and they were just so into that song, which made me really happy and they liked the whole record. It was interesting to me that like they had no idea about the English Beat and then I was able to tell them “oh, the Bangles first tour was with the English Beat and I’ve always loved their music and it was so much fun to record that song and it brought me back to that tour.”
It was really interesting and it made me realize that wow, that is a really interesting benefit to doing this music, rediscovering [songs from the] ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and onward, [realizing] that there are generations of people who were not exposed to this music until recently. It’s just not that accessible to everybody, so this is a chance to share it.
The material selection on this, it seems like with each record that you guys have taken a crack at various things, some of which get released and some of which haven’t been released. Were there things that you worked on or thought about doing for this new record that didn’t play out in the way that you might have hoped?
Our problem is limiting ourselves and not going overboard like we did last time. We recorded 40 songs [for that album]. My idea is to put out a sort of odds and ends record next year as soon as we can mix the stuff. Because there are so many songs that didn’t end up on the last two, just because you have to edit yourself, that I really love. We do a version of “Jive Talkin’” that is like one of my favorite things we have ever done, but for whatever reason, between trying to balance things out and make things flow, we weren’t able to get that on the [last] record. There’s so many songs that we had to just edit [out], not necessarily because we didn’t get them just right. There were some that we took on for each album that just were harder than we expected. And then we had some that came together so well that that sort of decided it. They’re all sitting on hard drives — it’s frustrating to think that somewhere in the stacks of things at Matthew’s studio piled up is a giant wall of hard drives and some of these tracks are sitting on there. But he and I have decided that we are going to go back through and mix some of this stuff and finish some of it.
The last time we talked to you both, Matthew was throwing out a few songs — I think he mentioned “More Than A Feeling” was challenging..
Oh yeah, that was really hard! Think about that — that was like known at the time for being this studio production. And you know what, when you get under the hood and you’re like really working on these songs and you’re just tearing apart all of the layers of things and figuring out what went into making these recordings? I started to think “how did they ever play that song live?” You know? Because it’s so complex! We actually took on “Killer Queen” which came out on the deluxe version [of the second album] which was basically just a bunch of the ones that weren’t on the main Under The Covers Volume 2. That was unbelievable!
A lot of these things are such complex recordings. On this one, with “Trouble” which is Lindsey Buckingham’s song, Matthew did a little bit of research. We both know Lindsey and he was able to learn that he did the thing with the guitars where he recorded them at half speed and when you put them up to the proper speed, they get this very bright little sparkly sound on the guitars. I think Matthew laid down the guitars that way and it really sounds cool. There’s so many cool studio tricks that you can do and of course we love the research, because we’re fans of these bands and artists! [Laughs]
I think that comes through that you do your homework on these records. You’ve mentioned “Trouble” a few times and I think that’s another good example of what is so interesting about these collections is that you don’t know who is going to sing a song necessarily. Looking at the album, I thought that Matthew would probably take the lead vocal on that. It’s always a nice surprise to hear these songs and hear it go the other way from what you were expecting. That’s kind of what makes it interesting.
Exactly. And for me, coming from the point of view of just getting into singing, it really is a challenge and also a surprise, because I often fight a little bit with Matthew about it and say “are you sure? You should do that one! Really?” And he’ll say “no, really, I hear you on it — go for it!” I’ll just get up to the mic and start singing and I’ll be studying the original and wanting to make sure that I am phrasing things as close as I can without boxing myself in too much, just to try to get inside the song and inside the whole feeling of it. It’s like a theater exercise. It’s really fun and challenging at the same time.
Sometimes albums like this can be viewed as lazy contract filler, but that’s what really sticks out is that you guys really seem to enjoy the opportunity to dig through the musical back pages in a reverent way. Nothing ever feels tossed off.
Oh no. It’s just a pleasure, it really is. It’s been an unexpected thing that we would find ourselves in 2013, still having an opportunity to work on these projects and to time travel back to different decades. Because when we did the first one, we just thought it was one record and when Shout! Factory said “so this is Volume 1, we’re putting out” and when we saw the artwork, we said “What?” That’s really how it was — and then we just figured that Volume 2 would be the ‘60s and Volume 3 would be the ‘60s if we were going down this path and making multiple records, which we could have done.
We could have just done six albums of ‘60s songs, but it is always such a surprise when you enter another decade and you go back and you have the context of our own experience of that decade. Matthew was born in 1964, but I experienced the ‘60s — yes, I was very young in the beginning of the ‘60s! It’s when I started becoming a music fan at a very early age at like three and four and five years old. Then you go back to the ‘70s — wow, that was a big revelation, because we realized in looking at what was going on in the ‘70s that it was everything from singer/songwriters on one end, to punk rock on the other end with disco and Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones and harder stuff in the middle — what a diverse period.
Then with the ‘80s, even in the ‘80s I was trying to drag the ‘60s into the ‘80s. In my whole era with the Bangles, that was what we were all about. We felt sort of like outcasts from the decade in a sense, like outsiders, because we just were so wearing our ‘60s badges in full view! [Laughs] We felt like we were this garage rock pop band from L.A. channeling all of this stuff from the ‘60s. I was so pleasantly surprised to dive back into that material and realize how much I loved that music. Now, I find myself listening to so much ‘80s music on First Wave, the ‘80s station on Sirius XM.
It’s such festive music and there’s such a joy and carefree thing about the ‘80s. It’s a fun decade. I don’t know what was going on, I think that culturally things were just a little bit lighter or something. I don’t know why — historians will figure that out. But we also found that with our starting point being R.E.M. — you know, we kind of came from the indie side of it — at least the Bangles did and then [we] kind of graduated to a place where Top 40 radio was playing our records. But we really started out like a garage club band — that’s what we were and that’s what we are really. [For] Matthew, during high school or whenever that was for him, he was into the whole indie rock scene of the ‘80s. So it all kind of makes sense.
With the Bangles and the sound you were talking about bringing into the ‘80s at that point. Did producers buck you on that at all?
No, I think it became so much of who we were. In fact, the Paisley Underground bands, which is what Mike Quercio from The Three O’Clock kind of labeled our local scene and the clubs in the early ‘80s, we’re all doing a show together and I’m so excited with the Rain Parade, the Three O’Clock, Dream Syndicate and the Bangles in December, one in San Francisco and one in L.A. I think that when we got signed to Columbia Records, it was really clear that’s who we were and what we were about. We were part of a larger scene at that point and our sound was very much based on the groups in the ‘60s that were doing multiple harmonies, Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas and the Papas, the Beatles, the Monkees, the Beau Brummels, the Zombies, you know, just those groups that used harmony as a main focal point in their sound along with guitar-driven music.
In particular [because] of the jangly bands of the ‘60s, I’ve always played Rickenbackers because I love the Byrds so much — I love their sounds. I love the Beatles and both John and George played Rickenbackers at one time or another. The sound of the 12-string was a big deal and it always has been for me. So whenever I have a chance, like on the Dave Edmunds song, we threw in 12-string — we felt that was something that could become a throughline on this record, the jangly indie rock thing that was happening in the ‘80s but really originated from the ‘60s. Because R.E.M., Peter Buck played a 12 string Rickenbacker too! There was so many of us in the ‘80s that loved that sound. Tom Petty of course, that jangly Rickenbacker sound was a lot of the Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers sound.
You mentioned the interaction with Lindsey on “Trouble,” did you interact with anybody else in regards to the material you were covering on this record to do research?
You know what, I got the lyrics from Marshall Crenshaw for “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time,” when I saw him play a show at McCabes. On the ‘70s record, we had the great blessing of Steve Howe playing the guitar part with basically the same kind of guitar he used on “I’ve Seen All Good People/ Your Move” and we did it postal service on that too where we sent him the tracks and he recorded [his parts] in London and sent them back to us.
That’s the cool thing about the modern world as far as recording goes. I’m friends with Belinda [Carlisle] and I did tell her about “Our Lips Are Sealed.” I don’t think we contacted anybody else. It’s possible that Matthew and Lindsey had spoken at another time not right before we did the record. But we’ve spent a lot of time with Lindsey — he played on “Second Hand News” [from the last album] at my house. Actually, the Bangles played a little set at Lindsey’s birthday party a few years back with Lindsey’s band. It was really fun — he had a birthday party that was a major jam session that happened and that was an incredible night. Lindsey’s techniques in the studio are interesting and I don’t remember when Matthew found that out, but it sure made a difference — you can really tell that the guitars have a really sparkly sound and that’s a Lindsey trick.
Listening to all three of these albums and particularly the ‘70s one, it made me wonder — have you guys taken a shot at any Cheap Trick songs?
Oh, we did! We recorded “I Want You To Want Me” and it came out really well. Again, this is something that’s going to come out on the extras. I love Cheap Trick so much.
Would you consider doing a themed record around a certain type of song, like power ballads, for example?
I don’t know if Matthew and I would do that, but I am very, very interested [in that kind of thing] and that’s kind of what I’m doing with my new solo stuff that I released. The Someday record was like my love letter to 1967 — it was strings and horns arrangements on top of pop songs. .I just got asked to perform at the Stagecoach Festival. So I’m going to do that in 2014 and somebody was like “you’re going to do that?” and I was like “well, I’ve recorded [songs like] ‘Willin’, and ‘Different Drum.’”
It’s an opportunity go a little deeper into that world and I’m so excited about it! My solo shows, they’re always very improvisational and we play things different almost every night. I’ve been wanting to pull in pedal steel and mandolin and do slightly different versions of songs and do “Willin’” and all of those songs that I love to sing that do have a country feel to them or could be interpreted a little bit more in that way. So anyway, I’m going to be doing that. The theme thing, that’s the thing — you can kind of take on the ballads or something with a lot of pedal steel and more bluegrass instrumentation or you could do something more uptempo and groove oriented.
I’ve started writing [for my next solo album] and we’ve just broken the ice so we’ll see where it goes. It’s got to be organic, but that’s very much the way that I am thinking about solo records, because it really is fun to dive into something that has kind of an idea or concept behind it. Otherwise it could be anything and it helps steer you a little bit in your thinking and planning in the studio what you want to do.
Image courtesy of Shout! Factory — Photo Credit: Drew Reynolds