Archive for August, 2000

Psychedelic Furs

They came from the '80s: The Psychedelic Furs, from left: Tim Butler, Richard Butler and John Ashton

“God, it sounds like a venereal disease when you say it like that!” Richard Butler, vocalist and chief songwriter for ’80s mainstays the Psychedelic Furs is cracking wise in response to my poorly phrased question, “Has Love Spit Love (Butler’s post-Furs project) gone away?”

“Yes. It’s gone into remission,” he continues, laughing.

It’s a pop-culture miracle that Butler can laugh about the collapse of his sole musical outlet throughout the ’90s. He formed Love Spit Love shortly after dissolving the Psychedelic Furs in 1991, following the tour to promote what would become their final album, World Outside. Thanks to an apparently unstoppable demand for all things ’80s, though, Butler has been able to take the Furs out of mothballs and make them fashionable again. The band is currently touring alongside fellow ’80s stalwarts the Go-Gos and the B-52s, and running through the same routine that led to their temporary breakup.

“When you’ve been in a band for 10 years or so and had a number of albums out, the audience, rightfully, expects you to play certain songs,” Butler, speaking from a Baltimore hotel room, explains of the Furs’ fragmentation. “And that list gets longer and longer so that, by the end of it, you have very little time that you can actually play new songs or all the songs from your catalog that you would like to play. And I didn’t want to go out there and be bored of playing the songs and pretending to be enjoying it when, really, I wasn’t. So I needed to take a break.”

The break turned into a nearly permanent hiatus. Butler formed Love Spit Love, which scored a modicum of ’90s alt-radio success with its two albums, a self-titled debut released in 1994, and 1997’s Trysome Eatone. His brother, Furs bassist Tim Butler, joined him, while guitarist John Ashton went on to pursue other projects. Critical and commercial indifference proved a cure for Love Spit Love, as Butler so candidly points out. The Furs, still popular after a decade in hibernation, have reconvened for the current tour and a new album.

Butler isn’t flaunting his ego when he says the band had — and still has — a lot of expectations to fulfill whenever it tours. The Furs have a long set-list of standards without which any concert would seem incomplete.

“Love My Way,” “Heaven” and “The Ghost in You” define the Furs, and over the last decade, these songs have grown into alternative rock anthems. They embody a version of post-punk and New Wave that, through its ironic blend of media friendliness and rigid integrity, serve collectively as a touchstone for the alternative pop soundscape.

The band truly vaulted into the pop culture consciousness in 1986 when they re-recorded “Pretty in Pink,” (originally released on 1981’s Talk Talk Talk) for John Hughes’s teen film classic of the same name. The performance, and the enduring popularity of the film, virtually ensured that, once the inevitable longing for ’80s memorabilia hit full steam — just as it did for the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s — the Furs would find themselves called back into action. The best they or any of their loyal fans could hope for would be fair treatment from pop historians. No associations with their spandex and hair spray abusing peers, please.

And, to be accurate, the Furs hit the mousse hard for only one album, 1987’s Midnight Moves, which, despite yielding them one of their bigger hits (the vacuous “Heartbreak Beat”), the band has disavowed in every interview they’ve given since releasing it. The rest of the releases remain sterling examples of timeless pop. Butler is one of those very rare pop stars who helps define an era without being “of” it. Surely, songs like 1982’s “President Gas,” which poked fun at Ronald Reagan without ever naming him, contain some key to Bulter’s unique status. Rather than immerse himself in the trappings of the ’80s, he and the rest of the Furs focused purely on making music with lasting appeal.

So it’s without a trace of irony that Butler can claim that he doesn’t mind being associated with the ’80s — despite occupying the opening slot of a summer tour that features two other bands that hit their peaks in the Reagan era.

“I’m not worried about that at all,” he chuffs. ” I mean, I think you can’t avoid that. For a lot of people who grew up in the ’80s or who came of age in the ’80s, the Psychedelic Furs will always be a part of their lives then, as Bob Dylan was for me in the late ’60s, I suppose. As Led Zeppelin was in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and David Bowie in the ’70s. You kind of associate certain people with certain decades. And although David Bowie still brings out good records that I like, and I think he remains modern and abreast of things, he will always, for me, have a real special part in my life from when I was growing up in the ’70s. And for me to play that part in someone else’s life I find quite flattering.”

Butler and the rest of the Furs may have a chance to play that role for a new generation of music fans, given that they’ve not only reunited (bringing the Butler brothers back together with Ashton for the first time in nine years), but are writing songs for a new album.

“I was doing some writing with Tim about two months ago,” Butler recounts of the Furs reunion. “And he said, ‘How many songs have you got?’ I said, ‘Oh, about 25 or something like that.’ And he said, ‘Well, why don’t you do whatever you’re going to do with them for your solo record, and then make a Psychedelic Furs album as well? Because you’ve got enough material.’ And I thought, Yeah, why not? That’s not a bad idea at all. So that’s how what happened, happened. That’s how we got back together.”

The reunion was further spurred by an invitation to the Furs to join the Go-Gos / B-52s tour.

“About two weeks after Tim suggested making a news Furs record, our agent called and said, ‘Hey guys, would you like to go out and do a tour? If you think about putting the Furs back together at all, Richard, give me a call. There’s a lot of interest out there.’ And I called him back and said, ‘It’s funny, but Tim just mentioned making an album at some point. So yeah, I guess we are interested.’ And then he called back and said, ‘Look, I’ve got this tour going out. It’s the B-52s and the Go-Gos. You would have the opening slot, which means you would play for about 40 minutes, so there would be no pressure and it would be a great way for you guys to find out if you like playing together again.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds like a perfectly good reason for doing it.’ And it was. In rehearsal, actually, we found out that we did like playing together again,” he laughs. “But the tour has been a lot of fun.”

It’ll be a while, however, before anyone will hear most of the material that the reunited band is working on. The group is only playing one new song while on tour, and Butler expects that a new album won’t hit store shelves until the summer or fall of 2001. One gets the feeling that the work has yet to take on a firm form. Butler agrees.

“You know, we haven’t decided on a direction yet, because the thing about direction, normally, for me, it’s always happened when it comes to actually recording. I mean, basically a song is a song. I can write a song with Tim on bass guitar or John on acoustic guitar or Richard Fortis on acoustic guitar, and at that point, they’re just pretty rough songs. Before, when we worked with Todd Rundgren [on 1982’s Forever Now], we decided, ‘Yeah, we want to have cellos on it, and we’d like horns on it and we’d like marimbas on it,’ and so we chose Todd as a producer because he knew how to do all those things. But before we made that choice, we didn’t know quite what it was going to sound like. We’d try some cello on stuff and we’d tried a marimba sound, but we hadn’t tried backing vocals or horn section or anything.”

Another thing the band lacks a direction on, at least for now, is an Internet strategy.

“Well,” Butler explains, “the Internet has only come to the fore since the Furs have been gone. And we’ve only been together for a couple of months, so we’ll have to get a Webmaster to do it or learn it all myself.” Fair enough. And it’s not like they’ve frozen themselves out of the online music revolution — Butler admits to having kept abreast of the recent furor over Napster and other lawsuit-inviting technologies. “I personally tend to take Metallica’s side over it. I don’t see how artists are going to make money if they can’t sell their product. It’s like, if you open a bakery shop and somebody is around the corner giving away loaves of bread, you’ve got to find another business.”

When, in response, I ask him what he thinks of Freenet developer Ian Clarke‘s maxim that “If your business model is selling water in the desert and it starts to rain, you’d better find a new business model,” Butler laughs, but remains unshaken. “Well, if it comes that musicians can’t make a living from making music, then they won’t make music. So they won’t have anything to sell. It’s always going to rain. There’s not always going to be someone making bread.”

Butler makes it clear, however, that, in the end, he takes more joy in making the bread than in selling it (which, if you’re fond of metaphors, really doesn’t sound like much of a difference). After 20 years as a Fur, he finds that the most rewarding aspect of his job is still “sitting down and writing songs, and then going into a studio and going, ‘God, that sounds great!’ And sitting down, and the feelings that you wanted it to convey, you feel again for yourself. That’s the greatest feeling about it.”

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