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Susanna Hoffs Interview: ‘The Bangles’ Multitalented Songstress and Songwriter
May 22, 2014
By Ray Shasho
In-depth interview with The Bangles -Susanna Hoffs:
Susanna Hoffs is the beautiful, talented & iconic vocalist for the commercially successful all- female pop/rock/new wave/ band ‘The Bangles.’ Hoffs angelic and awe-inspiring vocals are definitive on such Bangles classics as …“Manic Monday” (1985 #2 US Billboard Hit), “Walk Like an Egyptian” (1986 #1 US Billboard Hit), “If She Knew What She Wants” (1986 #29 US Billboard Hit), “Hazy Shade of Winter” (1987 #2 US Billboard Hit), “Walking Down Your Street” (1987 #11 US Billboard Hit),“In Your Room” (1988 #5 US Billboard Hit), and the breathtaking “Eternal Flame” (1988 #1 US Billboard Hit). Hoffs is also ‘The Bangles’ rhythm guitarist and songwriter.
THE BANGS: After Susanna Hoffs graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied theatre, dance, and art, she headed back to Los Angeles and placed an ad in The Recycler, an LA based classifieds newspaper. A trio began to form with the addition of Sisters Vicky Peterson (vocals/guitars) and Debbi Peterson (vocals/drums) while subsequently adding Annette Zilinskas on bass. After short stints with names such as ‘The Colours’ and ‘The Supersonic Bangs,’ the newly formed all-girl band eventually settled on ‘The Bangs’ while swiftly becoming a vital part of the Los Angeles Paisley Underground scene. The Bangs debut single “Getting Out of Hand” was released on their label DownKiddie Records and caught the attention of KROQ deejay Rodney Bingenheimer who repeatedly played the record on his show.
THE BANGLES: ‘The Bangs’ were auspiciously mandated to change their name so the group dropped ‘The’ and added the letters ‘les’ to form ‘Bangles,’ a banner that would flourish into one of the greatest all-female groups in rock and roll history. In 1982, under new manager Miles Copeland, The Bangles supported The English Beat on a UK tour. In 1983, the group made its first appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.
In 1984, ‘All Over the Place,’ The Bangles first full-length album was released on CBS (Columbia) Records. Michael Steele had replaced Annette Zilinskas on bass. Steele began her music career as Micki Steele with The Runaways. ‘All Over the Place,’ spawned the singles”Hero Takes a Fall,” and “Going Down to Liverpool” which featured Susanna’s childhood neighbor and family friend Leonard Nimoy. The Bangles popularity escalated and was asked to join such acts as ‘Cyndi Lauper’ and ‘Huey Lewis and the News’ on tour.
Susanna Hoffs and The Bangles had captivated the attention of R&B/Pop/Funk/ music artist & songwriter ‘Prince.’ Prince offered his penned single “Manic Monday” (1984) to The Bangles and the group promptly brought the tune into the recording studio. “Manic Monday” (1986) became The Bangles first big hit peaking at #2 on Billboards US Charts.
Their second studio album ‘Different Light’ (1986) produced by David Kahne peaked at #2 on the US Billboard Charts and is considered to be their most successful to date. Also in 1986, The Bangles opened for Queen at Slane Castle, Ireland.
In 1987, “Walk like an Egyptian” won Best Video at the 15th Annual Music Awards and again at the 5th Annual American Video Awards. ‘Everything’ (1988) The Bangles third studio album spawned the Top 5 Hit “In Your Room,” and their worldwide #1 single “Eternal Flame” penned by Susanna Hoffs, Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly.
The Bangles attained a well-deserved hiatus throughout the 90’s but returned with rock and roll vengeance in 1999. They released their fourth studio album entitled ‘Doll Revolution’ in 2003. Bassist Michael Steele officially left The Bangles in 2005 and the band decided to use guest bassists while on tour. The Bangles most recent album ‘Sweetheart of the Sun’ was released in 2011. In January of 2014, The Bangles returned to the legendary Whisky A GO GO to celebrate the club’s 50th anniversary.
SUSANNA HOFFS: In 1991, Susanna released her debut solo album entitled ‘When You’re a Boy’ produced by David Kahne. The album spawned the Top 40 hit single “My Side of the Bed.” The release featured such musical luminaries as John Entwistle, Jim Keltner, and Donovan. In 1996, Susanna Hoffs released her second studio album entitled ‘Susanna Hoffs.’
Based on a Saturday Night Live stint in the early 1990’s, Hoffs performed in the band ‘Ming Tea’ with … Mike Myers, Matthew Sweet, Christopher Ward and Stuart Johnson. The SNL skit morphed into three comedy film series ... Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997), Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999), and Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002). Jay Roach, Susanna’s husband directed the Austin Power series and ‘Ming Tea’ performed in all three movies.
In 2006, Susanna collaborated with alternative rocker Matthew Sweet under the name ‘Sid n Susie,’ and released ‘Under the Covers’ Volumes 1,2 &3 featuring classic rock cover songs of the 60’s,70’s, and 80’s.
In 2012, Susanna released her critically-acclaimed studio album entitled ‘Someday.’ Susanna’s vocals are more radiant than ever. Hoffs collaborated with musical partner Andrew Brassell and producer Mitchell Froom on her best solo album to date. All the tracks are co-penned by Susanna Hoffs.
Hoffs & Brassell continue to co-write music and hope to release a new album sometime in 2015.
‘Susanna Hoffs’ performs at The Satellite in Los Angeles on July 18th with special guests Fred Armisen and Petra Haden.
‘The Bangles’ kicked off their summer concert series on June 6th at The Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, California … click [Here] for a complete ‘Bangles’ tour listing.
Recently, I had the great pleasure of chatting with Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles and discussed … Her latest solo projects …Collaborating with Andrew Brassell … Producer Mitchell Froom … Early musical influences …The Bangles past & present … The inception of “Manic Monday,” “Eternal Flame,” “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” …and future plans as a solo artist & with ‘The Bangles.’
Here’s my interview with singer/songwriter/actress/ legendary songstress & guitarist of ‘The Bangles’ …SUSANNA HOFFS.
Ray Shasho: Hello Susanna, how are you doing?
Susanna Hoffs: “Hi Ray, I’m doing great thank you.”
Ray Shasho: Susanna, you and I are ten days apart in age, you being the oldest (laughing).
Susanna Hoffs: “Oh My Gosh …that’s so cool! It was a very good year wasn’t it?”
Ray Shasho: So did you graduate high school in 1977?
Susanna Hoffs: I was ’76 actually; I know I’m a little off from most of the people in our year. I skipped half of fifth grade; I was one of the youngest ones in my group. It was a thing they were doing in California or maybe just LA where they were trying to shift the starting age of school. So anybody that was my age that year had a choice to either repeat or move up to the next grade. My Brothers and I all moved up and were the youngest ones in our graduating classes of high school.”
Ray Shasho: When I was in 8th grade and before I entered high school, we were amongst the very firsts to be bussed into Black American neighborhoods.
Susanna Hoffs: “Our school was part of the bussing program too. It was a very interesting time wasn’t it, when you look back historically what was going on. I am very fascinated with the 70’s and part of that is the nostalgia of going back and wanting to understand what was going on around us when we were in our formative and coming of age years. There’s a famous book written about my school at Palisades High called ‘What Really Happened to the Class of ’65,’ and when I was in high school that book was fascinating to me. Everything about the ‘70’s is extremely interesting to me again. Now, I’m actually working my way up into the 80’s (All laughing).”
Ray Shasho: Your third solo project and latest release is entitled ‘Someday.’ Some of my favorite tracks include “Holding My Breath” a very 60ish sounding tune with an orchestral background, co-penned by you and Andrew Brassell. I also thoroughly enjoyed “Picture Me” … Susanna your voice sounds better than ever, how do you do it?
Susanna Hoffs: “Thank you! I take pretty good care of myself and learned over the years to be careful with my voice and not go to a loud event on the night before I have to sing, and not be screaming over music, a sporting event, or a party, where I wake up the next day and can’t speak. I’ve gotten better at protecting my voice. I think one of the things about ‘Someday’ is that the writing was all done in a short period of time and working with Mitchell Froom we really tailored the arrangements to make room for the voice, so it’s not competing for sonic space to cut through. I use a capo, so I’ve also learned to key songs that feel right for my singing, to actually put the song in a key that makes sense, and I think that’s a huge thing when you get to that point when… wait a minute, this is too low, or this is too high, and you find that sweet spot where it fits perfectly in your vocal range. I think over the years of writing you just learn things as you go, and that was one of the things that I learned.”
Ray Shasho: You also found a great collaborating partner in Andrew Brassell.
Susanna Hoffs: “Yes definitely, that was a surprise, and we’re writing and recording now, so it’s ongoing. I actually met Andrew through my niece who grew up in Nashville. She had moved to LA from Nashville upon graduating from Vanderbilt University. I was spending a lot of time with her and she said I want you to meet my friend, he’s in a band and I’ve been a real fan of his work. It lead to a friendship with Andrew and then he needed a place to stay, so he stayed in our guest room for awhile, just one of those kids who was always playing music, he took a guitar wherever he went. I started to hear him just noodling around on chords and humming to something and I didn’t know if it was an existing song or not, he would say no, no, just something I’m messing around with. So that lead to me saying, oh, what if we put this melody on it, and before I knew it, we were writing songs together.”
Ray Shasho: You also have a great producer in Mitchell Froom. Mitchell goes way back to playing keyboards with ‘Gamma’ and Ronnie Montrose.
Susanna Hoffs: “I knew Mitchell in the 80’s when he worked with Crowded House and he actually played on the recording of “Manic Monday”. So that’s when I first met Mitchell, it was a chance meeting, we live very near each other in Los Angeles, so occasionally we’d run into one another at local restaurants and stuff like that, but then I ran into him at a really great music venue called Largo, and I was with Andrew, so that’s how the whole project sort of took shape of doing a record together. He’s great and super talented.”
Ray Shasho: So when can we expect the release of your current venture together?
Susanna Hoffs: “We’re just beginning it so probably 2015. It’s always a bit of a juggling act for me because I’ve got a lot of things going on with The Bangles and other projects that I’m working on, including creative things in my life outside of music, so it’s a little bit crazy but I enjoy the energy of it.”
Ray Shasho: Susanna, how old is your kids now?
Susanna Hoffs: “19 and 15.”
Ray Shasho: So you’re sort of veering away from worrying about them too much?
Susanna Hoffs: “I don’t think you ever stop worrying about your kids, I know my parents are still worrying about me. (All laughing) It’s definitely in a new phase, being very well launched now and becoming young adults. That definitely opens up more time in my schedule to focus on music and other creative endeavors.”
Ray Shasho: You’re 10 days older than me, yet my mom is 90 and yours only 79 … also my kids are 28 and 26 … what happened?
Susanna Hoffs: “You got married ten years earlier than I did. I think my 20’s were basically given over to life on the road and touring with The Bangles. That kept me so busy that I couldn’t consider doing anything but just hoping for a good night’s sleep. And then it was … What city am I in? Where am I? What hotel or room number am I in? I don’t know how I ever remembered where I was because it moved that fast.”
Ray Shasho: Record producer/songwriter Kim Fowley was distinguished for producing novelty acts and girl bands, hence The Runaways; did you ever cross paths with Kim Fowley?
Susanna Hoffs: “I knew who Kim Fowley was and actually talked with him on the phone once. Just after I graduated from UC Berkeley, I came back to LA and was trying to put together a band. I put an advertisement in The Recycler which was sort of the Craigslist of its time and had some flyers around town. Then I met the Petersons and we made a single for like thirty-five dollars at a ten-dollar an hour studio called Radio Tokyo in Venice, California. We really wanted our record to be on KROQ Radio. So I tracked down Rodney (Bingenheimer) and managed to get his phone number. I was extremely tenacious at that time to make it happen for The Bangles. I called Rodney and met him at the Odyssey Club where he was a deejay one night a week. I brought him the 45 single that The Bangles had done and he played it every weekend for about a year. Somehow Kim Fowley got my number and called me. Those guys were very much tastemakers and on the LA scene in the late 70’s and early 80’s.I never really got to know Kim but he’s worked with so many people that I know.”
Ray Shasho: Who were some of the music artists that influenced you while growing up?
Susanna Hoffs: “There were so-so many! Starting in the 60’s, I would say The Beatles being the toppermost of the poppermost for me. (All laughing) So many bands … The Byrds, the Buffalo Springfield, The Mamas and the Papas, The Kinks, The Zombies, along with a lot of the great female singers of that time and period like …Petula Clark, Lulu, Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick … my mom had all the Burt Bacharach/Hal David music, many people covered their songs but we had all those Dionne Warwick records. To this day, those Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs move me so much. I love singing them; I got the chance to sing “Alfie” in the ‘Austin Powers’ movie and that was so much fun.”
“In the 70’s, singer/songwriters like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carole King, as well as bands like YES. At the end of the 70’s, where the whole Punk Rock revolution happened musically, I got very into those groups at a time when it started to be an idea in my head. I thought, wow, I could do this, especially after hearing a band like The Ramones because they were like Punk/Pop and I knew those same three or four chords. I could probably get an electric guitar and change my Folk-like sound to a Ramones style treatment of a Pop song.”
“Blondie, the Talking Heads, Television out of New York were all influences, and that whole scene. Bands like Television lead me back to bands like The Velvet Underground, who I kind of never knew about when I was just a kid. I had heard of Andy Warhol, my mom had been a painter and later became a screenwriter, but she started out as a teacher, so I knew a lot about the art scene of the 60’s through my parents. But I didn’t really know about The Velvet Underground’s music until the late 70’s when I rediscovered all of that.”
“But yea, even like Nick Lowe, early Elvis Costello … it was a really interesting time. The fact that I could go to local clubs and see the Talking Heads at the Whiskey A Go Go, probably on their first tour, the early Go-Go’s shows, The Undertones, The Jam, Blondie … it was a great time!”
Ray Shasho: Was there ever any kind of rivalry between The Bangles and The Go-Go’s?
Susanna Hoffs: “Not really, The Go-Go’s started before us so we got compared to them a lot, and when The Bangles were starting to take off by the mid 80’s, The Go-Go’s were actually winding down. It was kind of a funny rivalry fueled by the press obsessing over it so much. We all really got along, hung out together, and got to know them …to this day I ‘m in touch with Belinda, Charlotte, and Kathy.”
“I worked on some songs for Belinda’s first solo record and we were very good friends in the 80’s. Then I worked a lot with Charlotte, Kathy, and Jane. Jane is an incredible songwriter. I’ve spent a lot of time with Jane over the years and she’s incredible.”
Ray Shasho: Susanna, I’m reluctant to admit this, but I never knew that “Manic Monday” was written by Prince … how did that transpire?
Susanna Hoffs: “Oh no? Wow! We were recording at the time with Producer David Kahne and working with David and Peggy Leonard who were recording engineers and worked a lot with Prince. Somehow Peggy was working on Princes’ record at The Sound Factory on Sunset Boulevard and her husband David was working on our record at the sister studio Sunset Sound & Sound Factory. So we got word that Prince had some songs and wanted me to come over to The Sound Factory. So I drove over there, picked up a cassette, it had “Manic Monday” on it and we recorded it. I think Prince had seen the “Hero Takes A Fall” video on MTV and that’s how he kind of discovered The Bangles. Then he came to at least two shows and performed with us onstage. I think he may have watched us the first time, the second time performed with us, then performed with us again in San Francisco. So he was like an early fan of the band. It turned out to be an incredible thing for us because we were very much like the rest of the world … in awe of Prince, his talent, and magnificent stage presence. I really learned a lot watching him and the gift of “Manic Monday” was unexpected, it turned out to be so amazing because it worked its way up the charts, peaked at #2, and it really got our name out there.”
Ray Shasho: How did you get Leonard Nimoy involved in the “Going Down To Liverpool” music video?
Susanna Hoffs: “I grew up with the Nimoy’s; I went to preschool with his kids. At four years old I met Adam and Julie and our parents became really-really close friends pre-Star Trek, and remained very good family friends through all the Star Trek stuff. So we were looking to do a video and I thought… maybe I should call Leonard up and ask him. So I did. I got my nerve up and called him and he said sure.”
Ray Shasho: Do you think The Bangles biggest hit was “Eternal Flame?”
Susanna Hoffs: “Eternal Flame” or “Walk Like an Egyptian.” Both songs went to #1 which was pretty amazing. Sometimes I feel my life is very surreal when I look back.”
Ray Shasho: “Eternal Flame” was about the Elvis Presley gravesite at Graceland?
Susanna Hoffs: “Yes, we wanted to have a tour of Graceland and got what we were told was a special tour that was only given to rock bands. So we got to see things that everybody didn’t get to see and had our own tour guide dedicated to us. The eternal flame at Elvis’ tomb was out that day, so we stood around and sang “Heartbreak Hotel” ala Spinal Tap. Later on I recounted the story to my songwriting partner at the time Billy Steinberg and he said, wait-wait, stop-stop, it’s a great story but why don’t we write a song called “Eternal Flame”? And I said okay. So that’s how it started.”
Ray Shasho: I’ve got a sneaky suspicion based on your love for 60’s Top 40 music, that recording “A Hazy Shade of Winter” was your idea?
Susanna Hoffs: “Actually it was. During the very early days of The Bangles, we met through ‘The Recycler’ and decided to become a band, we were rehearsing and then started playing some parties and clubs around town. I was working for my Aunt and Uncle who owned a ceramic factory in Santa Monica. It was a very lonely job because I’d be down in this basement with just a radio and sanding ceramic pieces. I’d spent hours in this dark room by myself with nothing but the radio. Boy I’m glad I had the radio to keep me company because I had it set to an oldies station and very familiar with most of Simon & Garfunkel’s songs because I was really into their music when I was in high school. But I hadn’t heard “A Hazy Shade of Winter.” When it came on the radio I thought, oh wow, this is perfect for The Bangles. It has this riff that’s so catchy, has all these harmonies, and it’s kind of Folk Rock, just right up our ally. I think I had a rehearsal that very night and I mentioned it. Vicky was a huge Simon & Garfunkel fan and was familiar with the song. So we learned it and put it right in our set. The song became a staple in our setlist for years.”
“Then I had an opportunity in the 80’s to meet the producer of ‘Less Than Zero’ John Avnet, and we’re still friends to this day. Another friend of mine Thomas Newman who is just a brilliant composer that scores for movies, he and I were songwriting at the time and he said, you know, I’m doing the score for this film and I think the soundtrack’s going to be pretty fun, we’re getting together a really cool group of musicians and artists to contribute songs to the soundtrack and the movie. I mentioned the idea of “A Hazy Shade of Winter” and they loved it because it fit very well somatically with the movie. It ended up being a really great thing for us landing on that soundtrack. We also did a video. To this day we open our set with that song. We got to meet Paul Simon in the 80’s and he was very enthusiastic about our version of his song and that made us feel happy.”
Ray Shasho: The Bangles most recent release is ‘Sweetheart of the Sun’ (2011) … what’s up next for The Bangles?
Susanna Hoffs: “We’re rereleasing our first EP that was put out on Miles Copeland’s I.R.S. Records label, who was our manager at the time. He had a small division of I.R.S. called Faulty Products …it gets really complicated. It was released in 1982 and originally with our band named The Bangs, before we had to change to The Bangles. We had a weekend to come up with a new band name and that’s when we added a few letters and came up with The Bangles.”
“We’re also releasing never seen the light of day demos that we did around that same time. Our first demos, our first single that came out in 1981 which was “Getting Out Of Hand,” and “Call On Me” and we’ll include that in the package, then a cover of “7 and 7 Is” that we did at The Palace live, and anything else that we find between now and when we put it all together. It will be coming out in the fall digitally … so that’s exciting!”
Ray Shasho: How about The Bangles on tour in 2014?
Susanna Hoffs: “We’re doing a bunch of tour dates this summer and a two week run in the fall.”
Ray Shasho: Susanna, thank you for being on the call today but more importantly for all the incredible music you’ve given us with The Bangles and as a solo artist and continue to bring.
Susanna Hoffs: “Thank you Ray!”
Purchase Susanna Hoffs latest solo CD with Andrew Brassell entitled ‘Someday’ available on amazon.com
Contact classic rock music journalist Ray Shasho at email@example.com
Visit Ray Shasho’s classic rock music blogs at www.classicrockhereandnow.com