Music Interviews

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Psychedelic Furs
Interview with Richard Butler

Interview by Jeff Goldman
Published in Artist Magazine, San Francisco

Richard Butler/Psychedelic Furs c Ron Delany/Artist Publications

Richard Butler
photo © Ron Delany/Artist Publications

“My attitude is that I like music that helps me understand myself, because when I understand myself I can understand the world outside a bit better. I think that when people come shouting slogans ... it doesn't help you come to terms with yourself and how you can relate to other people.”

The Psychedelic Furs are riding high these days, thanks to a stunning new album, Mirror Moves, that should finally garner them the large audience that has mysteriously eluded them ever since they first appeared in 1980. Their eponymous debut LP snarled and spat at you straight from the cynical mouth of lead singer/songwriter Richard Butler. Songs like "India" and "Sister Europe" powerfully wove together Roger Morris and John Ashton's post-punk guitar stylings, brother Tim's raucous bass playing and Vince Ely's intense drumming. Add in Duncan Kilburn's surrealistic sax stylings and such classic Butler cynicisms as "I'm American, Ha! Ha! Ha!" and you got a wall of sound that quietly roared at you.

The Furs' second LP, Talk, Talk, Talk, was even more beautifully chaotic, with tunes such as "Pretty in Pink," "Into You Like a Train" and "Mr Jones" establishing Richard Butler as one of the foremost songwriters in rock'n'roll.

With 1982's Forever Now came numerous changes, with the group trimming down to just four members: the Butler brothers, guitarist Ashton and drummer Ely—who was to be replaced by the time The Furs went on tour by Phil Calvert, an ex-member of the Australian band Birthday Party. In addition, the group changed producers, preferring Todd Rundgren's live sound over the booming drum sound of former producer Steve Lillywhite (U2, XTC). The result? A hit single in "Live My Way" and an LP that ranked #13 in the Top 200 albums for the last five years on the CMJ/Progressive chart.

And now, after a two-year wait, comes The Furs' fourth record, Mirror Moves. For this release, the Furs picked up a new drummer and producer in Keith Forsey, of Billy Idol and Nina Hagen fame. The first single from the LP, the hauntingly beautiful "The Ghost in You," promises to be even more popular than "Love My Way." And "Heaven" is one of the most melodically pleasing songs to appear on the music scene in quite a while, with the potential to be a mega-hit. But as Richard Butler recently said in an interview from London, where the Furs were currently on tour, "I think we're well on the way to winning the battle in America, but I think we're still fighting."

While their latest release is much tamer than that first transcendental album, it is not a case of compromise in order to gain a larger audience. Instead, Mirror Moves is the work of a confident group of musicians who have matured since their inception in the late '70s. As Richard Butler says, "We never made records to become massively commercial or anything like that. [For] a lot of bands, being in a pop band and being famous is the reason that they 're doing it, whereas I don't think for us it is. But you know, I don't think we're alone in that—I wouldn't be that big-headed about it. There are a few bands that I have a lot of respect for, like Talking Heads, Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, and David Bowie.

In addition to the new record, the Furs are currently on a worldwide tour that will bring them to Los Angeles this month. According to Butler, "Musically, it's the most organized and rehearsed tour we've ever done. I think people are going to be surprised by the difference, not only between albums but also by the show itself. We've been getting a wider reaction than we ever had before. People have been extremely enthusiastic for an audience that I've always thought was a bit reserved—you know, our music isn't really the kind that you can pogo to—and we haven't had a bad review for a show or the album yet.

Richard Butler/Psychedelic Furs c Alanna Alberts/Artist Publications

Richard Butler
photo © Alanna Alberts/Artist Publications
digital effects © Joy Williams/Artist Publications

And there shouldn't be many more to come. Although Butler describes Mirror Moves as "a romantic album," there are still bits of cynicism and vicious attacks on some of our present political figures. A stellar example of this commentary is the tune "Here Come Cowboys," in which Butler sings "Here come cowboys/ Here to save it all/ They're so well inside the law/ They're no fun at all." Asked if the song was written about President Reagan, Butler replied, "Yeah, yeah, he's obviously the most famous one [cowboy] but it's also an attack on TV heroes."

Although Butler has written songs involving political commentary in the past—"President Gas" from the Forever Now LP, is one that immediately comes to mind—Butler prefers to stay away from such topics. On groups who lean toward the direct sociopolitical type of songwriting, Butler says, "I think it's fair enough, but I also think its ineffectual. I respect them for it but you take a band like The Clash, who go around espousing political views. But people who buy Clash records, probably almost 100% of the time, espouse such views anyway, and people who don't hold those views wouldn't buy a Clash record. My attitude is that I like music that helps me understand myself, because when I understand myself I can understand the world outside a bit better. I think that when people come shouting slogans, it really doesn't help you understand [anything] other than there's some war going on in some corner of the world. It doesn't help you come to terms with yourself and how you can relate to other people. Communication is kind of minimal. It comes out of a speaker at you and it stops at your head, and that's about as far as it goes."

While Butler still respects bands who do write directly about political concerns, there are certain songwriting subjects which get the normally good-natured Englishman a bit wrankled. One of these sore spots is the "I'm-a-superstar-and-isn't-it-a-drag" method of songwriting. He says, "If I'm writing from the point of view of being in the public eye, I don't think that would give people anything to relate to. There's nothing I hate more than bands that write about life on the road, about rocking on the road and all the women they get and all the drugs and drink they get. I don't think there's anything so tedious as singing about your position. I think you're really running dry of ideas when you're doing that. I'm in a very enviable position, I love doing what I do, and I love writing and I love performing. I feel too lucky and too grateful to moaning about it."

"The lyric writing," Butler explains, "is a very important part of why I'm doing this. I want it to be understood but then again I want it to make people think. To do both, you end up in quite a complicated position." Since Butler's songs utilize some of the most affecting lyrics currently being written in rock'n'roll, he is naturally looked upon as being one of the foremost experts on rock'n'roll lyric writing today. As a result, he is quite aware of what his colleagues are up to. He's also not afraid to air his views. "The thing about music in England is that a lot of people are considered poets who are working in the rock field, like Morrissey of the Smiths, and Echo and the Bunnymen. To me, not that I'm putting them down, it always sounds like they're making poetry sort of noisy; they string words and images together to look like poetry, but in fact don't have the essence of poetry, and it's a dangerous sort of thing. They claim to be influenced by Rimbaud and Mallarmé and Beaudelaire, and I think they're just hooking up the words and making it look like poetry. It's like somebody getting a brush and some paint and painting a lot of boxes and calling it cubism, without actually looking at what cubism was supposed to do, that it was supposed to be one object in three dimensions, portrayed in a series of planes, not somebody who can draw lots of straight lines, and make them look like boxes, and calling it cubism."

As far as influences go, the well-read Butler—among his favorite authors is Kurt Vonnegut ("I like his sense of humor"), and among playwrights he likes Sam Sheppard ("He sounds honest somehow"), and Tom Stoppard—refuses to cite one specific lyricist who has affected his own writing. Instead, Butler says "I like different people at different times in their careers, but always with reservations. I have a way of writing, or am trying to find a way of writing, that I think is a kind of ideal, and I look around at other writers. I don't think I've seen anybody that's achieved that ideal, though they may well have achieved their own [ideal]. I can't hold anybody up and say, 'That's exactly how I want to write!' but there are certainly writers that I can appreciate—Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan at a certain point in his career. Some people just grab me for one song."

Butler feels that on the Mirror Moves album he "made the lyrics simpler on purpose, clearer. Thinking back, for me some of the best lyrics are on Talk, Talk, Talk. I couldn't write lyrics as good as Talk Talk Talk again, just because I don't have the inclination to write in that confident style. On that album, you can get a visceral understanding of the song without knowing what it's about. But on these new ones, I feel it's quite easy to get a narrative idea of what the songs are about."

While much of the material on Mirror Moves is fairly easy to understand—a direction Butler's songwriting has been moving toward with each successive album—there are still songs that can be baffling without careful listening. Fortunately, Butler was extremely open toward specific questions dealing with many of the songs' meanings—a position rarely granted by serious songwriters. One of the tunes, "Alice's House," features the following lyrics:

In the softest room you sing without a key
The butler is serving tea
Wearing a shirt
without any sleeves...
In the bedroom down the hall
Your secrets deep
It is always late at night
Won't you stay?
Why don't you stay?

Confused? Well, here's Butler's explanation: "'Alice's House' is an asylum, and it's just a song basically about madness. Where it says, 'in the softest room,' you can take that as a padded cell, and you sing without a key.' Well, I always associate people who are insane as singing way out of tune, plus, you're in a room without a key. 'The butler is serving tea' is just sort of a wild image, and wearing a shirt without any sleeves' is simply a straitjacket. It works on illusions like that." When asked about the rather bizarre subject matter of the tune and the "stay" at the end of the song, Butler replied: "There's a weird attraction about insanity, there's something very intense about it. It's almost alluring. I'm not talking about when you see people feeling those things, that that's not very attractive, but sometimes when you feel like that yourself, there's like an evil allure about it."

Another tune that displays some of Butler's excellent songwriting is "Highwire Days," possibly the strongest tune the Furs have recorded since "Into You Like a Train." The song, which deals with the powers of our mass communication systems, features the following lyrics:

Yeah they tore up our kisses and ran
On tomorrow's pages
And the lions have eaten the lamb
On tomorrow's pages...
They pushed all the buttons and things
On tomorrow's pages
And the sirens do nothing but sing
On tomorrow's pages
And you put on your prettiest face and you wait for the news that we made...
And our dreams have all gone off on sale
On tomorrow's pages
And we paid for a cross and the nails
On tomorrow's pages.

Meanwhile, in the background, we hear Butler urging us to "Get smart/ Get scared." When asked about the tune, Butler has this to say: "Yeah, it's an attack on the press, and it's just saying that you can see through it all. There are still weird delusions that I can't get rid of like 'They tore up our kisses and ran' is one I tend to think is maybe too complicated." In addition, Butler was asked if, as referred to in the song, he has ever felt like a sacrificial lamb, to which he replied, "Yeah, I have in the past, more than I do at this particular moment."

The Furs two videos from the Mirror Moves album—one is of the song "The Ghost in You," while the other is of "Heaven"—will never be confused with your typical MTV schlock. "The Ghost in You" was shot in black and white and features many dynamic camera angles and an interesting use of film language. "Heaven" is a mood piece and consists entirely of the band singing and playing the tune while being drenched by a rain storm—a sort of modern-day "Singing in the Rain." Butler has "a hatred for story board videos, where if you mention a girl in a song you always get he same blond—They're almost interchangeable." He continues by pointing out that "we didn't want to be literal about it. What we felt was that our music has a kind of atmosphere about it, and the best thing to did was to give us an atmosphere and let us perform in that atmosphere.

While Butler may feel that the Furs' videos are "very simple compared to most videos," he does admit that "we're putting more emphasis on videos now than we've ever done before." With the seemingly important status that video holds with the band, one would think that Butler feels strongly about the future of videos. However, the opposite is the case. "I don't think [video] will always have quite the same impact it has now. I think it'll just become very accepted, just because the standard. There'll always be a place for just music, where the music has to stand up for itself."

With all of the success the Furs have had, Butler still feels that they have a ways to go. He defines success as "doing something that I've set out to do and finding out when I've done it that I was right." And while Butler believes he's had "bits of success," he still yearns to "make an album that musically people find exhilarating and inspiring. And also lyrically, I think we've done a certain amount of that, but not as much as I would like." Whatever Butler feels about the Furs' accomplishments, he is adamant in suggesting that they are an original band who are constantly experimenting with new ideas. In addition, Butler will be the first to deny that the Furs are attempting to be trend setters, As he says, "I'm not the kind of person who'll sit down and map out what I'm going to be wearing for the next six months, We don't set out to try to instigate anything, that's not what we're into, and we certainly don't want to follow anybody else. But then again, you kind of have a duty to present yourself well on stage, but I'm not gonna come off looking like boy George or anything! (laughs)


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