The Popdose Interview: Vicki Peterson of The Bangles
It’s easy to misunderstand the Bangles—or underestimate their talent. After forming in the early ‘80s, the quartet became part of L.A.’s Paisley Underground scene, which was indebted to California’s garage and psych-pop acts of the ‘60s. Early live and recorded footage—especially a 1984 live performances of “Hero Takes A Fall” from Late Night With David Letterman and the single “The Real World” — indeed betray a profound mod-pop bent.
But just a few years into their career, the Bangles experienced something very familiar to other bands of that era: overproduction. And while gloss and keyboards oppressed their rawer influences, playing nice with the day’s fads ensured they were soon a staple of the pop charts. Two songs hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart—the Prince-penned “Manic Monday” and Paul Simon-written “Hazy Shade Of Winter”—and two more hit No. 1: the slow dance “Eternal Flame” and, of course, “Walk Like An Egyptian.”
Despite this success, the Bangles remain quite underrated; they’ve never received their proper due perhaps because their frivolous-pop reputation overshadows their talents. And make no mistake: Vocalist/guitarist Susanna Hoffs, and sisters Vicki (vocalist/guitarist) and Debbi Peterson (vocalist/drummer) were (and are) all ferocious players and vocalists—just ask anyone who’s been lucky enough to catch them live in recent years.
Down to the core trio of Hoffs and the Peterson sisters since long-time bassist Michael Steele parted ways with the band in 2005, the Bangles have also continued to record. The band’s long-awaited new album, Sweetheart Of The Sun, is a loving homage to the ‘60s rock they’ve embraced since day one; the music brings with picture-perfect harmonies, jangly guitars with hints of psych-pop and warm, honeyed textures. There’s not a trace of kitsch or nostalgia, however; as always, the Bangles are adept at making retro influences feel modern.
In late summer, Popdose and Vicki Peterson chatted about Sweetheart Of The Sun, the Bangles’ status as role models for women and her memories of filming videos for MTV.
Lay out the challenges and scheduling obstacles you faced when recording the album.
Yeah, it did take us way too long—or all things happen when they’re supposed to, so maybe it wasn’t too long, but it seemed like it was too long. [Laughs.] We did work on the record for almost two years, and it definitely was scheduling issues for a lot of it. Debbi still has young kids, so we literally had this very tight window to work in on a daily basis, and it was hard to sort of get a flow. Even the last record we did, Doll Revolution, we rented a house and we didn’t work 18-hour days but we definitely would do a full day of work, stop and have dinner at the house and it was that kind of a flow. But this was much more difficult; Debbi had to be out of there by 2:30 to get the kids, you know what I mean? So it was a bit fragmented, in a way, and it was kind of hard to get momentum going. The surprise for me—and I think probably for all of us—was when we stepped back and saw what we had as a collection of songs. They kind of hung together in this nice way that I didn’t really expect!
That’s what I was just going to say, that the album was very, very cohesive. The sound and the aesthetic—you’d never know it was fragmented at all.
I think a lot of that just has to do with the fact that we were so in tune with each other as far as what we wanted things to sound like. It’s kind of mysterious to me and I’m very happy about it. We didn’t record it in the same place; we recorded it in three different studios at various times. Toward the end, I just took myself down into my own home studio and put guitars on, or did a lot of my guitars by myself. I just engineered it myself or Debbi would come over and we’d go through it. It’s crazy that it sounds as cohesive as it does.
Every studio has its own character, history, ghosts and things like that. What did all of the different studios then bring to the process?
These were all home studios. We started the whole thing at Matthew Sweet’s home studio, and that really kind of kicked everything off for us, because there is a vibe there. Matthew has a really specific way of working that we would fall into when we were working with him. He has a very positive outlook and is really enthusiastic, and that was just a great way to start the whole process. From there, we moved over to Susanna’s home studio, which she was kind of building up during this whole thing; she actually started it a couple of years ago. So that was really nice and lovely and had a whole different feel. But again, it just seems crazy—there were just these moments when someone would go, “You know what, on the bridge we should have bagpipes!” and then somebody else would go “Oh my God, I was just going to say that!” Just crazy stuff.
That’s the kind of band chemistry you can’t just create. That’s just the function of being in a band for so many years.
Yeah, we’ve known each other for this long—and because it’s the foundation of the band. The music that inspired us to play in the first place when we were kids is the music of the ’60s, for the most part, and it’s just all over this record. I laugh when I hear some of the [references]; there are so many musical references, it’s almost like we’re not wearing it on our sleeve, we’re broadcasting it across our chests. It’s just a love affair to all these bands we love. You definitely can hear it throughout the whole record, and that’s just something that we’ve shared from day one. It’s very easy to throw out even obscure musical references, and the other guy will get it.
I saw you guys live in St. Louis last year, and you covered Nazz’s “Open Your Eyes.” I was so excited to hear a studio version of that song, because it was so great live then. Why did you gravitate towards that song?
Believe it or not, we started playing that in the early ’80s. It was one of the many covers that we liked to do, and it’s something that we kind of stopped doing for a while, but we started doing it in the early ’80s, and it’s just so fun. It’s such a wacky song—that bridge is what? What? But it’s so fun to play, and it was so fun to record that.
“Ball & Chain” has also been kicking around for a while, since the early ’90s, is that correct? So why record it now?
Why now? Why not now is sort of the reason! We really just were collecting songs and recordings in the early days of the recording [process]. I think at one point we were just like, “We could really use another kickass rock & roll kind of song,” and Debbi goes, “Well, I do have this one,” and it was a hilarious demo on a cassette tape that she played us. It was like, “Oh, wow, that is so ’80s!” It was like, “Woo!” I think we kept some of that feel, but hopefully not all of it. [Laughs.] It was this great, tongue-in-cheek, snotty song that we liked. It’s funny, some of the songs date back to the ’90s, believe it or not. One of my songs, “Lay Yourself Down,” I wrote in the ’90s. It’s just a song that I never had a chance to record—and somehow it felt like now was the time.
I interviewed Tori Amos once and she was talking about songwriting, and she was like, “You know, the songs just kind of come to me and some are right and some are not.” It’s all in the timing.
And sometimes they’re right at one point where they weren’t before. The song “Through Your Eyes” and “One of Two” especially started out when we were writing songs for Doll Revolution. We wrote a version of that song—it’s not the same, we changed it and tweaked the approach to it, etc. but we really wanted that to sound like a three-part harmony, [with] a Crosby, Stills and Nash approach to it. That was [always] the inspiration—let’s write a song like that. Again, it wasn’t right for Doll Revolution for whatever reason, and we didn’t even track it, so it’s just been waiting for its moment.
All of the harmonies on this record are just gorgeous. Having seen you guys live, it sounds effortless—and you know that it’s totally not. But I’m a sucker for a good harmony.
Oh, me too! [Laughs.] That’s one of the best sounds on the planet, really. Just human voices and harmony to me is great. It does something… it’s like some physics thing involved with the vibrations and how it affects us; I don’t know. But it can get to your core and for us, it’s always been a huge part of what we do and for me, [it’s] one of my favorite things about the band, definitely. And again, it’s sort of a chemistry blend—and the sibling thing helps and it is kinda easy! [Laughs.] Maybe it’s because it’s the right people, you know? That stuff is always one of my favorite things to record and to work on and to arrange, but that’s not the hard part.
Tell me a little bit more about the label you’re on, Model Music Group. How did you guys get on their radar?
They kind of found us, and I’m not even sure how. We had a bit of a listening party, while we were mixing the record. We were mixing it with Jim Scott and he has this great, amazing space that he works in and we had a party and we invited some people who had been sort of sniffing around and interested. And Tony [Valenziano] from Model was just like a terrier—he wouldn’t let go. He heard the record and he said, “Yes, I’m going to have it.” He was calling our manager every single day [and] he just had this great enthusiasm for it—and that, to me, goes a long way. You can’t make somebody feel that way about your music, so that was a lot of it. And it just worked out with how they’re set up; they’re basically working through Universal, so we have the advantage of that machinery behind us.
Earlier this year, you guys participated in the Small Town Sound contest with clothing store maurices. And then you partnered with Daisy Rock Girl, the guitar company, for a sponsorship. For you, what does it mean to help out younger female musicians like this?
It’s really inspiring, and I’ve been coming across more and more of them. And part of it is through my association with Daisy Rock. I love it when a girl comes up and says, “You know, I play guitar because of you.” What? To me, that’s so inspiring and humbling and exciting. I get really excited about that, because that’s what it’s all about. I mean, if you can actually get to somebody and make an emotional change in them in some way—that makes them want to do something as challenging on a lot of levels as learning to play an instrument— that’s amazing! And plus, I just want more girls playing guitars.
I’m always railing about the lack of women on rock radio. I always tell people, “I grew up in the ’90s and I could name you 10-15 artists that were on alternative rock radio, not a problem at all.” And now, it’s like, where are the girls? It makes me mad. I wonder what girls growing up now, what kind of role models they have?
They’re all over in pop.
I know! You know, some them are good role models and some of them aren’t, it depends on the day and the song.
Well, here’s the weird thing—and it’s the mystery of the ages that we talk about all the time. We don’t really understand why there aren’t more all-girl bands. Why there aren’t more girls banding together and wanting to play, because it’s so fun and it’s this great club mentality that you get to share. It’s highly recommended, I’d say. [Laughs.] There are a lot of female musicians out there; they just aren’t getting heard.
I mean, I personally know two really good, very different—I know more than two, but off the top of my head—all-girl bands who are very young. They started out when they were 16. I know another all-girl band that started out when the drummer was 11 and she’s now 17 and really, really good. But they’re out there. As easy as it is to get your music on the internet—and therefore, theoretically out to the entire world—it’s really hard to get heard, I think. So it’s a bit of a paradox. It used to be you had to go through the channels and then you had to go through a very pre-described way to get your music heard. That’s all blown up and now it’s kind of a free-for-all, and there’s a million ways to get your music out to the world. But to actually get anyone’s ears, I don’t know how you do it. It’s tough; there’s so much out there.
It’s overwhelming, just the amount of music.
Yeah, but they’re out there, believe me, I see them—they’re just not on what is left of radio. [Laughs.]
What can we do? How can we change this?
I don’t know. It’s almost like watching to see how the industry settles into itself. What’s going to come next? Because it seems to me that it’s still in such a state of flux that everyone’s kind of looking around, trying to see what the other guy is going to come up with next. Labels—are they completely antiquated? I don’t know. It seems to me like it does help to have some way to channel the music to a certain set of ears, you know? I was just telling another journalist that I listen to public radio a lot and I find that a lot of times, I’ll discover new music through one of the music programs, because I guess I’m a target demographic for NPR. [Laughs.] Which is fine! Because I love it, and that’s the first place I heard Adele and that’s the first place I heard Florence and the Machine. If I really knew the answer, I’d be a manager and make a lot of money!
The Continental Drifters reunited a little bit in 2009. Do you have any more plans to do things with them? I know you’re busy doing other stuff. Are there any other plans in the works?
No, nothing concrete. But it doesn’t take that much. It was really somebody asked the question, “What would it take to get the Continental Drifters to play my party for Jazzfest?” And that’s [all it took]—the question had to get said out loud and then repeated enough times that we managed to make it happen. It was really great; it was amazing. I’ve always said—and I will continue to say—that Continental Drifters is a band that we’ll be in our eighties, and we’ll be on somebody’s front porch playing, absolutely. We still exist, even though we don’t perform. You know, we’re not a dynamic band; we don’t perform consistently or record or anything, other than the fact that I will always be a Continental Drifter, and that’s how that is.
It’s pretty unique in identity and personality. I like that.
Yeah, it absolutely is. I mean, that band saved my life in a lot of ways, and it’s near and dear to my heart, that music.
I know you guys got on stage with Elvis Costello not long ago. How much fun was that?
Oh, could there be any more fun? Could there be any more fun than go-go dancing next to Elvis Costello with that band that he has and getting in the cage? [Laughs.] Which is a personal favorite of mine to do. I must be a go-go dancer in a previous life! It was so much fun. We were really happy he asked us back too; we did that [previously] back in ’86 with him in Los Angeles, the first time he did the Spinning Wheel concert. So when he decided to revive it, we were so happy he asked us to come and sing again.
He just has so much fun on tour. And doing the spinning wheel thing, it’s just so awesome to see a musician enjoying himself so much.
He’s kind of ridiculously talented, and one of his gifts is that he’s a great master of ceremonies. He really does that well, and he knows his music; he’s like a musicologist, practically, and he just has so much fun. And that band, they’ve known each other for decades. It just couldn’t have been more fun.
As I said, I saw you guys last year. And then I saw you opening for Heart in Illinois a couple of years ago, and it was just so awesome, seeing really talented musicians on stage having so much fun. You just leave those shows so happy.
Yeah, we have fun and we love playing with Heart too, that’s always one of my favorite pairings, because they’re one of my influences. Because I was in high school and learning to play electric guitar, it was like, Nancy Wilson, excuse me? Are you allowed to be that beautiful and that talented? It’s really not fair. [Laughs.]
I think she’s one of the more underrated guitarists, too.
I totally agree. Especially her acoustic work, I mean, she’s really good and innovative. When she plays, she’s not playing folk 12-string—she’s playing rock guitar, but on an acoustic.
With MTV celebrating it’s 30th birthday this year, looking back, how do you think the channel has affected the Bangles’ career?
They did a lot for us in a lot of ways. And it’s funny, because we started as a band almost around the same time, so it was such new technology…or it wasn’t even considered technology, it was just this thing that a lot of people thought was invasive and non-creative. Sort of like I guess how radio people felt when television really kind of took over.
And there was some skepticism about it when it first arrived, but it very quickly established itself. It was a non-question: Of course you made a video when you put out your first single—and then if you could afford it, you did another one! So many of them were like little mini-films and not that different from the “promotional films” that the Beatles and some bands did in the ’60s. They did short films for things like “I Am The Walrus,” “Strawberry Fields Forever” and that kind of thing. So it wasn’t that different from that for me. I always had fun doing them. It’s a lot of work—more work than you think, unless you’re a film actor and you’re used to that. After about 12 to 14 hours, you’re going, “I just want a shower!” [Laughs.]
Which video required the most work?
Mmm, it depends on what you meant by “work.” Probably “If She Knew What She Wants,” which we actually shot twice—once in London and then a different version in Los Angeles. I don’t know, maybe they’re not my faves. Being double the work I guess, that one gets to be the most work. Weirdly enough to me, probably one of our most popular videos was the least amount of work and that’s “Walk Like An Egyptian.” That was just playing in front of the audience that we pulled in off the streets of New York City, while we were on the road. We fit it into our tour schedule, and it was just a blast. And then Gary went out with a camera and started shooting people on the street, getting reactions and stuff.
Anything else that you want to cover?
We’re really happy that the record is coming out. Other than my parents—who just love it, and they’re completely unbiased—I’m looking forward to see what sort of reaction it garners.
Do they come out to your shows?
Yeah. They do when they can. My father is a bit of an audiophile and he has this surround sound system in his house and Debbi and I were both out there because my mother just had a birthday and they literally forced us to sit down and listen to our record with Dad’s sound system. [Laughs]
I know, adorable—and slightly torturous! But actually, also an interesting experiment to hear it. You work so hard to make things sound a certain way to really try to get the best sounds that you can, and you definitely really slave over the mix and really try to create an ambience and a mood and a feel. And then people download it on a downgraded MP3 and then put earbuds in their ears and that’s how they listen to it. [Laughs.]
Sad but true. This album, it feels like it needs to be listened to on vinyl, because it’s so warm. It feels like you need the vinyl crackling as you’re listening to it.
I will look forward to that moment when we get to hear the vinyl crackle.
So you didn’t have the vinyl crackle for dad’s sound system? What did you have, like the master tape?
We had a master CD, so it was still digital, but it was okay.
It passed muster.
It did, yeah!