An Englishman in New York: An interview with expatriate frontman Richard Butler of
The Psychedelic Furs
Even at the height of their popularity, in the free-for-all bliss of the 1980s, the Psychedelic Furs were a difficult band to label. Formed in England in the midst of the punk explosion, their first two albums – 1980’s The Psychedelic Furs and the ’81 follow-up, Talk Talk Talk – were much too melodic to be labeled punk. Though 1982’s Forever Now and ’84’s Mirror Moves are considered to be classics of the “New Wave” era, The Furs’ underlying grittiness hardly made them suitable shelfmates for electro-pop contemporaries like Depeche Mode.
In fact, the core group of brothers Richard and Tim Butler, with guitarist John Ashton, were much more akin to The Damned than The Human League. This fact became obvious in concert halls, for to see The Furs live was to absorb a moving wall of sound – a thundering rhythm section punctuated by Ashton’s guitar assault. At the front of this sonic maelstrom was frontman Richard Butler, an art-school student-turned-reluctant sex symbol who belted out lyrics of love, pain, and pleasure with an eternally-smoky set of lungs.
Perhaps emboldened by the success of a “smoother,” rerecorded track that became the theme of a John Hughes teen classic, The Furs released a glossy collection of songs, Midnight To Midnight, in 1996. It was to be the band’s commercial peak, for their subsequent albums, Book Of Days and World Outside, struggled to grab a changing music scene’s attention. The band finally dissolved in 1992.
Outside of the Butlers’ well-received Love Spit Love projects, The Furs’ unique voice had been silent until a short 2000 reunion jaunt, and a subsequently full-length 2001 tour. This winter, they’re on the road once again, in support of a live CD – Beautiful Chaos (Columbia/Egg/Legacy) – and a live DVD, Live From the House of Blues (Pioneer/HOB Entertainment).
As a revitalized Furs were preparing for a string of U.S. dates with Echo and the Bunnymen, I spoke to Richard Butler – an amazingly personable fellow with a rich sense of humor – about his influential band’s breakup… and its enduring popularity.
The Furs have always been known for their live shows. Why haven’t you released a live album or video until now?
It never occurred to us… [laughs] until now, this late in the game.
What was the biggest challenge in preparing Beautiful Chaos, or the live DVD? Was it selecting the songs?
Not really. The live disc was in a way a by-product of the last tour; there wasn’t a challenge in selecting songs for the tour, because we had been away for so long… coming back to the “arena,” if you like, of music as The Furs, people were going to come out to hear the songs The Furs are well-known for — or we needed to remind them of those songs. We played what the audience wanted to hear — and the live record came out of that. On this tour, it’s a little different… you don’t want to stay in the jukeboxes of your own past. You want to remain a creative entity or else you really may as well not be doing it. So, this time around, I guess we’re challenging ourselves – and perhaps the audience a bit – by playing some new songs, and a lot of songs that weren’t singles.
I saw The Furs perform during the Midnight To Midnight tour, and I’ve always remembered all of the young girls throwing bras at you and climbing onstage. Your audience is different, older, more sedate now…
[Laughing] They’re not throwing bras… they’re more likely to throw Geritol and canes.
I got a kick out of watching their faces this last time around — a lot of your “Pretty In Pink” fans were stunned by the power of your set (which included such raucous numbers as “India” and “Into You Like a Train”). Did their reaction surprise you?
No, not really. I think we were more “punky” in the early days than many people thought – unless you were a diehard fan who bought the first couple of albums.
What material, specifically, will you be playing on this tour?
We haven’t finished rehearsing yet. So far, we’ve been rehearsing about twelve songs. I think we’re going to be more “moody” this time around. We’re playing songs like “Imitation Of Christ”… obviously, we’ve rehearsed “The Ghost in You,” because we need to throw some old ones in there… “Sometimes,” off of World Outside. We may play “Virginia Plain,” by Roxy Music [laughs].
Did you see them last summer?
Yes, I did. They didn’t play “Virginia Plain,” which is one of my favorite songs of theirs. They’re a great band, and Bryan Ferry is fantastic.
Do you have any changes in personnel for this tour?
Yes, we’re not working with Richard Fortus [Love Spit Love guitarist] this time around.
Um, he had a prior commitment… he’s working with Enrique Iglesias [chuckles].
No, he’s being a Latin lover at the moment.
Onstage, you and Tim seem to be really enjoying yourselves — which is unlike so many other ’80s-reunion bands touring about, Roxy excluded. After ten years away from The Furs, what is your motivation for this succession of tours?
I love performing, and I love writing songs. I love to hear my own feelings and thoughts echoed back to me in song; I like the idea that other people can relate to them. I get this great feeling when I sing a song and it sounds “right,” and the emotion I had in mind comes back magnified — it’s like, “Wow, that’s intense.” That’s why we either quit or took a hiatus, whatever you might call it. We’d been performing together for ten or twelve years, and it became very rote and not particularly enjoyable.
Did Columbia give you a lot of pressure to come up with a pop hit to top “Pretty In Pink?”
No, not at all. The label had always been pretty good — besides making a lot of mistakes in choosing singles. We bowed to their will, we thought, “They’re a record company, they probably know better than we do about it.” I thought releasing “Cowboys” as a single was a big mistake… no, there was never any pressure. A lot of people think that “Pretty In Pink” was our biggest hit, which it actually wasn’t. It got a lot of recognition for us because of the movie, but actually, as a single on the charts, before that we had “Love My Way” — which was a bigger hit, and certainly “Ghost In You” was a bigger hit. I think any pressure came from ourselves, which is more of a pressure that came after the first two records. We make those two, and wondered, “What do we do now? We don’t want to keep on making the same records.” So it became a pressure to something different with every record, which included Mirror Moves – “Let’s make a poppy Psychedelic Furs album!” But we came very unstuck when it came to Midnight To Midnight, unfortunately [laughs].
World Outside was a bit of “return to form.” It must have been disappointing to make that record and have it flop.
It all came about because of Midnight To Midnight – that record was the beginning of the end, sort of. I remember being on the Midnight To Midnight tour and looking at these hydraulic lights and fancy costumes and thinking, “Why am I doing this? I hate this.” I actually got physically sick – stressed out; my heart was beating out of time, palpitating, for about a year after that. Doctors in England told me that I had “atrial fibrillation,” which isn’t a good thing. It took six months of living with that, and taking digitalis, until I got to a decent New York doctor who told me, “You’re just stressed. I’m not giving you anything for it.” I just hated that record, hated everything about it. To redress the balance – at least in my own mind, which was important – we made Book Of Days, which was a grungy, low-key, some might say “depressing” record. With that, we lost lots of fans — at least lots of fans who were looking for “hits.” This might sound egotistical – and I don’t want it to sound egotistical – but when I would buy, say, Bob Dylan records when I was a kid, it wasn’t just buying a Bob Dylan record, it was buying this “character” that you were interested in. You wanted an update on his life, an update on what he was thinking, and you didn’t care if they were going to be hits. I was more interested in Bob Dylan the person, as I was with Lou Reed, and, to a degree, David Bowie. I think it’s changed these days; I’m looking around and not finding that. People are just buying “hits,” aren’t they?
Or they’re buying Bob Dylan.
[Laughing] Well, I hope they do — that last record was great, wasn’t it?
What initially caused you to believe that you could sing?
I think it was hearing John Lydon [laughs]. I thought, “God, it’s not about singing, it’s about being a ‘vocalist.'” He made sense to me, he made sense to a lot of people. It wasn’t about being a great musician; it was about finding the minimum framework in which you could put your ideas across — and making those ideas intelligible. I don’t really like “singers” — Whitney Houston is a “singer,” Bob Dylan is a “vocalist,” Neil Young is a “vocalist.” I like “vocalists.”
It struck me years ago that your brother is an underrated bass player…
Yeah, I think he certainly deserves to be rated above Adam Clayton [laughs]. I think, stylistically, that Tim is somewhere between Adam Clayton and Peter Hook from New Order… Peter Hook is more melodic, but Tim is close. For some reason, I write songs better to bass guitar than anything else. When I’m onstage, if I can hear one instrument to tune to, it would be the bass.
Did you ever receive any kind of musical education?
No, no, no.
Do you play keyboards or any other instrument?
Guitar… badly, very badly.
A lot of venues nowadays are theatres with seats that are actually used. How do you feel about playing to an audience that’s sitting down?
I feel fine about it. The last show I went to and sat down at was a Nick Cave show, and I kind of enjoyed it. I like sitting down.
Except that they won’t let you sit down and smoke simultaneously.
That’s kind of a drag, isn’t it? At least there’s usually a bar to go smoke in.
I asked your brother once how “Into You Like a Train” came about, and he thought perhaps it was the result of jamming at a rehearsal. What are your recollections of writing that song?
As I remember, we were working on the record at St. John’s Wood. Weirdly enough, I was riding on the subway, and it just came to mind. I was looking for an “Into you like… something,” and maybe the fact that I was on the subway made me think of “train.”
Tell me about this new song, “Alive,” that’s on Beautiful Chaos.
It’s about being the age I am – 45 years old. When you’re young, you think that you’re going to live forever; the older you get, you start realizing your own mortality. It always seemed like you have your parents between you and death’s door; when something starts to go wrong with them, you start thinking, “Once they go, I’m next in line.” It’s about celebrating the “now,” if you like. That sounds a bit “self-help,” doesn’t it?
You’ve been living in the States for some time now. Did you leave England for tax reasons?
No… I was kind of bored with England, and New York was an incredible city. I still think it’s an incredible city… I loved the Velvet Underground, I’d always been wrapped up in the Andy Warhol-Factory sort of scene; when I came over, it was all that I expected it to be.
Are you going to release a CD of new material anytime soon?
Yeah, I know our manager is tentatively beginning to speak to record labels. There’s no plan as yet – plus we need to write the rest of the songs.
Would you produce it yourselves, or get someone like Todd Rundgren to produce?
Well, I’d like to work with Steve Lillywhite again, I think he’s a great producer. I trust him; we went into the studio to make our first two records as a pretty “green” band, a lot of producers might have put too much polish on us or steered us in a wrong direction. He absolutely had the feel of what we were trying to do, and he brought out the best in us.
To what do attribute your songs’ longevity to? Were you ahead of your time?
No, no. I think that maybe we were slightly apart from it all, or maybe not definitively of our time. There’s other, more popular, bands “of our time” that are like that – R.E.M., U2, in twenty years, will still sound great.
But you never sold out.
[Laughing] No, we never got the opportunity.