Interview | The Psychedelic Furs
Brothers Richard and Tim Butler formed the Psychedelic Furs in 1977, after seeing the Sex Pistols play live. They–on vocals and bass, respectively, along with Duncan Kilburn on saxophone, Paul Wilson on drums and Roger Morris on guitar–began practicing in their parents’ house, but soon were banned from rehearsing there for making too much noise. Before long, the Furs were playing around in England’s punk and post-punk scenes.
Initially the band veered closer to an art-rock sound, but as they grew more proficient on their instruments, the music took on a pop polish, earning them a legion of fans that included American film writer/director, John Hughes. The Furs’ single, “Pretty in Pink,” inspired Hughes to write his ’86 teen rom-com of the same name. The band re-recorded the single for the movie’s platinum-selling soundtrack, boosting the Furs into the international limelight. Their following albums, ’87’s Midnight to Midnight and ’89’s Book of Days, spawned the singles “Heartbreak Beat,” “Should God Forget,” and “House.”
By the early 90s, after years of touring, the Furs took a hiatus. Richard and Tim worked on another band, Love Spit Love, and Richard released a solo album. They didn’t reunite until the early 2000s. The band has been touring, and inspiring new crops of musicians, since.
The Furs, with the current line-up of Richard and Tim Butler, Paul Garisto, Mars Williams, Amanda Kramer and Rich Good, will be playing, as part of Ruth Eckerd Hall on the Road, the Palladium on Thursday, October 20. The show starts at 8 p.m., with My Jerusalem opening. Tickets start at $35.
Tim Butler was kind enough to answer a few of my questions over the phone. We talked about playing Florida, the staleness of current pop/rock radio, and playing music for forty years.
You are coming to Florida in a couple weeks.
And we’re playing at the Palladium.
In St. Pete, and it looks like, from looking at your website, that your tour is starting in New Orleans.
It’s a short tour. We’re doing five or six shows on the east coast and then we fly across and we do a show in southern California and then go to Hawaii and then fly back and do four other shows. It’s a short run.
Most bands skip Florida entirely and you’re doing six shows here. Do you like to play Florida, then?
Most people skip Florida? Wow!
They do! They either skip it entirely because it’s so big and far away from everything else, or they just hit Miami and Orlando and skip everything in between.
We tour down there ’cause we like it, and the audience likes us. We play there pretty regularly.
So that’s another thing I wanted to ask: You tour all over the world, so are American audiences different from other audiences?
American audiences, once you get an American audience–we built up our audience over the years, putting out albums and building an audience–they tend to stay with you. You keep them forever. Whereas in England, audience are very fickle and will go with the trends so it’s hard to keep them. And in Europe as well, but in America, we’re still touring and we’re still getting big audiences. They’re still loving and singing along with the music, so it’s great.
That’s awesome. I’m glad you have such a positive experience here. How do you recharge or keep your sanity while on tour? Or do you not find it stressful at all?
It’s not so stressful. It used to be more stressful when we used to do 9-month world tours, but nowadays we’ll do, at the most, three or four weeks and then we’ll have a few months off, then do a week-and-a-half of touring. We’re not in that pressurized bubble for months on end. It’s still really enjoyable. As soon as we re-formed, we’ve loved playing more than we ever had before. I think it shows in our shows. We’re just enjoying it again. We took our hiatus in the early ’90s. We’d gotten bored of being in the Furs where we’d record, then tour for nine months, come off the road then come into the studio to write the next album, record it, tour for nine months. It sort of wears you out after a while. Now we don’t have that pressure. We enjoy it a whole lot more.
When you guys did go on your hiatus, you and your brother formed another band, Love Spit Love. Has there ever been a time when you haven’t been playing music?
There was a time, after the first Love Spit Love album–I didn’t do the second one, or tour with them–I actually went to audio engineering school. Then I went and worked as an audio engineer at Electric Lady Studios in New York, at Jimi Hendrix’s studio that he built. So, I was in the music business, but I was on the other side of the glass, in the control room. It made it refreshing, when we got back together, to actually be out playing in a band. You feel more privileged, because working in a studio, in the control room, it’s fun, but there’s pressure there. You’ve got to make sure that someone else’s recording comes out right. And you’re still sort of jealous of seeing a band in the studio, where they’re going to be playing, or they’re going on a tour. But then you think, “Well, I used to do that for nine months at a time…” so it was a bit of a daunting idea to get back together. We do it more on our own schedule now.
Do you do anything to prepare when you know you are heading out on the road? Are there any special things you do to get ready?
Other than rehearse the songs and listen to our back catalog and decide which songs we’re going to do, I don’t have any special sort of prep. [Laughs.] I don’t jog five miles a day or anything.
Coming up next year, in 2017, that will be 40 years for the Psychedelic Furs, correct? You formed in ’77?
Yeah, but we didn’t get signed until 1980. Wow, 40 years, that’s a long time!
It’s great that you’re still able to do it, and still enjoy doing it. Have you seen any changes in the music industry or performing?
I’ve seen it get stale and then get a boot up the butt, and then get stale again. In the ’70s, it got a bit stale, then the Sex Pistols came along. It was good for a while and then toward the end of the ’80s, it started to get a bit stale, and then Nirvana came along. So now, we’re looking for another Nirvana or Sex Pistols, because it’s getting a bit stale again now.
Have you seen any other band that hints that they might be the next thing?
No. For a while, I thought the Killers could have been, but then–uh–they didn’t stir up enough.
Yeah, they were good.
Well, they are good.
Now it’s back to the sort of dance music with bad lyrics and it’s all machines and very impersonal. For the most part, you get people like Adele who stick out for the warmth and the passion, but for the most part, most of it is very vacuous and boring.
I think you can probably find more interesting things, unfortunately, in the small basements and warehouses and things like that than on the radio.
Yeah, the whole thing is, when it goes through a record company meat-grinder, they make it really palatable to sell to the most people, so it tends to get sterilized and played on the radio and force-fed to people. So yeah, you’ll probably find the better stuff in basements and small clubs. When the Furs first came out, college radio was a huge thing over here. Now, college radio is pretty bad. Back in the ’80s, college radio ruled.
Into the 90s too, as well.
Now it’s less and less college radio stations. They’re turning into more classic rock stations. There’s no outlet for really underground, experimental bands.
We have a local radio station here that helps push that but I don’t know how many cities have those.
Some people come along, though. I have trust in the underground music scene that something’s going to come along that’s going to surprise everybody.
That will be really exciting when it happens. Speaking of different styles of music, and the way things are going, the Psychedelic Furs have covered a lot of ground in terms of musical genres and are kind of hard to pin down. Is there any sound you’ve always wanted to try out that you haven’t gotten to yet?
Maybe an acoustic, not country, but an acoustic-y sort of album would be nice.
That would be nice. Have you brought that up with the other guys?
We’ve talked about it, about doing an album with one side electric and one side acoustic. It hasn’t happened yet, but in the future, it might.
Are you working on any other new things right now? Are you planning a new album?
Yeah, we’re actually working on recording, we’re writing for a new album, finally, and are hoping to record it early next year. We have the song ideas, we’re just fine-tuning them.
That’s exciting! Is there any sort of thematic elements to the album that stand out?
Not yet, because we haven’t recorded it yet. It’s going to sound like us, of course, because we’ve got Richard singing. You could play a jazz album, and having Richard singing over it and people would say, “The Furs, the Furs,” you know, ’cause he’s got one the most distinct, coolest voices of the last 40 years. But musically, it’ll be current-sounding, but still the Furs. You can’t help but take influence from the things you hear around you and on the radio and what’s on TV or on your iPod or whatever. You grow and change by the year, by what’s on the radio or what’s happening in your life.
You previously mentioned the Killers, and now you’re mentioning being influenced by things you’ve heard, or do hear. Are the Killers an example of a band you’ve been influenced by, or can you name someone you have been influenced by recently?
I’d say the Killers a little bit, which is funny, because the Killers are influenced by the Furs, so it’s coming around full-circle.
I just have one last question, and it’s about the songwriting process. I read that you and your brother tend to work together when coming up with the songs, and he takes over the lyrics and you take over the melody, more of the musical aspects. When you’re doing that, are you on your bass?
Yeah, I’ll usually write on my bass and a drum-machine and I’ll play rudimentary keyboards, and I’ll send the songs to Richard. If he likes it, he’ll come up with the lyrics and the vocal melody. If he doesn’t, he’ll say, “Well, this bit’s good. How about if you add another bit, or if we go here with it?” We’ll rehash it, or it will go on the back-burner.
Do you try to have everything fleshed out between the two of you before going to the rest of the band with it or do you bring them in and try to flesh it out all together?
Flesh it out all together. The rest of the band do the same thing. Recently, with the band we’ve got now, they’ve been sending him song ideas. After these dates we’ve got coming up, we’re going to go into the rehearsal studio for a couple of days and flesh them out, whoever’s song idea it is, with the whole band and then take it from there. And we’ll work on some more ideas until we get an album’s worth of material.
The rest of the band, they don’t live where you are, outside of Lexington, correct? So are you doing it all in Drop Box?
No, no, they all live–are we doing it in what?
Putting the tracks in Drop Box and sending the tracks to each other online?
Yeah! That sort of thing, since everyone lives all around the country. One person lives in San Francisco, another one lives in Washington. I live in Lexington. Richard lives in New York state. The keyboard player lives in England, the sax player lives in Chicago, so we have to do it that way.
When you are able to get together, is there any sort of re-connecting, or is a natural thing even though you live so far apart?
It’s a natural thing because we’ve been playing together for so long. We’ll walk up to each other and hug and then it’s like we’ve never stopped, never taken a break or anything. We know each other so well.