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The Psychedelic Furs Return: Richard Butler on Early-Era MTV, Post-Punk and ‘Made of Rain,’ the Furs’ First Album in 29 Years (Q&A)
The Psychedelic Furs were gods of the MTV era.
But after a ten-year run, and a string of hit songs, albums, and era-defining videos – not to mention having a John Hughes film named after the band’s breakout, “Pretty In Pink” – they called it a day in 1992.
Richard Butler, the Furs’ charismatic frontman, went on to form the excellent Love Spit Love, then took up painting in earnest, before a reunited Psychedelic Furs hit the road again in 2000.
But new music wasn’t on the agenda until, inspired by the unique interplay Butler found had developed between him, his brother Tim on bass, Mars Williams on saxophone, keyboardist Amanda Kramer, Rich Good on guitar, and drummer Paul Garisto, that a new album – Made Of Rain, is out now, the band’s first since 1991’s World Outside – started inching its way toward creation.
Rock Cellar recently spoke to Richard Butler about the making of the album, the band’s early, post-punk days, his love/hate relationship with MTV, and what’s next for the Psychedelic Furs.
Rock Cellar: I saw you many years ago when you guys did a week or so of gigs at CBGB’s, which was …
Richard Butler: Oh, good lord! You know, I lived just around the corner, on Mott Street, at that point. CBGB’s was great for me when we did that week, because I would walk out the back door, go along the alleyway, and I was home in about five minutes. A different time.
Rock Cellar: The new record is incredibly dense and exciting. I’ve seen you live, obviously, and your first couple of records captured that live vibe. This, although it’s obviously a studio recording, has a lot of that same feeling to it, as opposed to some of your later, more produced records. Was that something you were going for, or did it just happen that way?
Richard Butler: No, it’s not something we were consciously going for. I think it was rather the fact that we weren’t consciously trying to go for something else.
As a band, we’ve been playing together for quite a while now, and have played what I think to be some of the better shows that the Furs have ever done, with this line-up. I think the fact that we’ve been playing for a while, playing a lot of the old Furs songs, and also, the fact that the guy that we had on board as the producer, Richard Fortus, also was in the Psychedelic Furs for a while …
Rock Cellar: And Love Spit Love.
Richard Butler: And Love Spit Love, yeah. He knew exactly what we wanted to be doing. And that’s just what we were doing live. He wasn’t a producer trying to push things in a different direction. He was completely on board with the direction we needed to go in and what we knew we should be doing.
Rock Cellar: It’s easy to do the jukebox tour, as frustrating as that can be to play old hits. But it is a new landscape we’re dealing with, trying to get our music out there. What was the impetus to get back in the studio to have new material to play live? Or was it just to continue to be creative?
Richard Butler: Well, one of the songs on this album, “Wrong Train,” we’ve been playing live for some time. And we had a few songs like that, that we would bring out and play sometimes. Love Spit Love songs and new songs that we’d written somewhere along the way that we’d drop in. So we weren’t constantly just playing our old songs.
But, you’re right. For the most part, it did become a little jukebox-y at times. The band agreed that we were sounding so good that we all felt like we should get in and make a record. Once we started writing, it became quite exciting, the whole project.
Rock Cellar: You’ve always had an internal monologue going in your lyric-writing, in a sort of post-punk, Ray Davies style. During the making of Blood on the Tracks Bob Dylan found new ways of songwriting from his painting. Your lyrics are as vivid as ever. They feel fresh. I wonder if taking up painting yourself has helped you along in any way.
Richard Butler: I don’t know about if the painting has actually helped me out, but I do write in visual terms. The songs are full of imagery, I suppose, rather than a straight-ahead narrative. That’s the way I like to work. It seems like a very honest way to work, because I don’t sit down knowing what I’m going to write a song about.
The music always comes first, and I pick up the mood from the music, and that steers me as to what it’s going to be about. So it’s not like I set out with a narrative in mind, really.
Rock Cellar: I’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about your origins and your early days. Certainly MTV helped make the band in the States. A lot of bands have a love-hate relationship with MTV and that period. But that time and those videos and those hits are a lasting legacy and that is something that people still have good feelings about, even if they’re just casual fans. How do you see that period? Do you look back on it fondly?
Richard Butler: Love-hate, I would say. It was kind of fun making videos. It was a new thing. When I began in the band, it wasn’t anything I expected to be doing. It didn’t really happen back then. You might get on Top of the Pops and that was kind of it, as far as the visual thing went.
But the whole MTV thing turned out to be a little bit of a rip-off. You were supplying them with free content. For a lot of bands, a video would cost usually, I would guess, $100,000 to make a video. And there wasn’t any guarantee that they would play it.
Or they were playing it at three in the morning, while they were playing Phil Collins 20 times during the day. After having shown them support in the early days, I thought it was a bit of a rip-off, really, I suppose.
Rock Cellar: Talk a little bit about the early days of the band. I always heard the Velvet Underground and Roxy Music in the early records and bootlegs. And being a Dylan fan, I heard his influence in your lyrics. But who were your influences in the early days?
Richard Butler: Oh, very much Bob Dylan. I mean, I grew up with Bob Dylan. My dad would bring home Bob Dylan records when I was a kid, and he’d sit down and play them and we’d discuss what the lyrics meant, or what we thought they meant. In fact, Roger Morris, one of the original guitarists from the Furs, had his mother type out the lyrics.
We wrote them out as far as we could figure them out, and then his mom typed them into a book.
I was fairly obsessive, I suppose, about Bob Dylan. He very much informed what we were doing.
Rock Cellar: And the Velvets and Roxy Music? Where else were you drawing from sonically?
Richard Butler: Well, I suppose that punk rock was the way in to doing what we did. I loved all those bands, especially because I didn’t know how to begin, or where to start. How do you get there? How do you do that? And then when punk rock came along, all these little pubs and clubs that hadn’t previously had music started having music, and there was this explosion of places where you could play. Punk rock really did start a lot of things going. We drew a lot from the energy of that, I think, as well.
Rock Cellar: And you didn’t have to be Brian Eno or Phil Manzanera. You could stumble your way along and find your own sound.
Richard Butler: Exactly. The longer you were together, the better you got. At the beginning, it was rough.
Rock Cellar: And being part of the post-punk thing had to help, too, because a little bit later, when you guys really hit your stride, it was okay to be drawing from the influences you were drawing from, because your “year zero” was different. You couldn’t call on Dylan or Roxy Music in 1977, but by the time 1980, 1981 rolled around, those bands were okay again. You could look to a broader palette of influences, couldn’t you?
Richard Butler: Yeah. Punk rock became very stale very quickly.
Pretty quickly, everybody had the same spiky hair and black leather jacket with the anarchy symbol on the back, and the safety pins and the same kind of three-chord songs. We weren’t buying into that. We weren’t willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater, as they say.
Rock Cellar: And you weren’t afraid to take artistic chances, or to look to new sonic endeavors. You worked with Steve Lillywhite and then Todd Rundgren, which is a whole other animal, as producers. You threw off post-punk pretty quickly and became big in America. I always found my UK friends who are of a similar age resented the bands that left them for greener pastures. Did you experience that at all?
Richard Butler: Yeah. Funnily enough, the critics in England were always fairly dualistic towards us. Some people loved us. Melody Maker was really behind us. Sounds, for the most part, was really behind us. NME was 50/50. Part of the time they were attacking us, and the other part of the time they were loving us. It was really weird. But I did feel a certain antipathy from English critics.
And for a while, being a band that was basically a guitar band, was a bad thing in England. It was considered uncool, and they were trying to paint it as old fashioned. The U.S. seemed to be a better place for us. And the other thing about America was we could tour all year. There were so many towns; it’s so huge. So we loved it over here.
And I loved the Velvet Underground and New York. New York was a magical place for me when I first came over. It was like nothing I’d seen before. All the steam coming out of the roads, the homeless, the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol and all that. It was a very exciting place.
Rock Cellar: The original trajectory of the band was about 10 years. You talked a little bit about making videos and MTV playing them at three in the morning, and I remember seeing you guys do “120 Minutes,” which was Sunday night at one in the morning, or whatever. When I saw you at CB’s, which was probably ’89 or so, you were as exciting a live band as when I’d seen you five years before. At the point you stopped making records with the original Furs line-up, in the early nineties, where did you see yourself? What was it from the inside looking out that you thought, “Okay, we’re done here, let’s try something else”?
Richard Butler: Well, we’d just finished a long tour, and the idea of going back in straightaway to record felt awful. I’d done that record-tour-record-tour thing over and over, already. I didn’t want to go in and make another record immediately. I didn’t want to go in with the same bunch of people and make the same sounding record again. I was just a bit tired of it at that point. I wanted to do something new.
I’d worked with Pale Divine, Richard Fortus’s band, that opened for us in the Midwest on some dates, and I really liked them. So I invited him to New York, because he’s from St. Louis, to see if he wanted to write some songs. Initially saw it as for a solo record. But he was so much a part of it that it seemed for me to put my name on it, when he had done so much of the work, really, wasn’t fair. And it became, very much, a band. It naturally became a band, at that point.
Rock Cellar: Talk a little bit about that collaborative process. I mentioned you worked with Steve Lillywhite and Todd Rundgren. Those are big-name producers. But the relationship with Richard Fortus, especially since it’s now 25 years later, obviously, is a really important one, and significant one to you. I hear a lot of the same sonic palette from the Love Spit Love days, of course filtered through 2020. How do you work collaboratively, and what does he bring to the table as a producer?
Richard Butler: Well, outside of Love Spit Love, he’d actually played with the Psychedelic Furs for a while. But he had never actually produced anything before. He’s immensely talented and, having played with him in Love Spit Love, and having had him on board with Psychedelic Furs, I felt like he knew what we should be doing, and that he would ultimately understand how to bring out the best in what we were presenting him with. Plus, he instinctively understood the music we were making. I knew I wasn’t dealing with a fool when it came to the studio.
But like I said, he had never produced anything before when we got together. So it was a little bit of a leap of faith. But he did a fantastic job, and I had to work with him again.
Rock Cellar: What was the writing process for this record like for you? As I mentioned earlier, the songs are really dense. There’s a real racket to them; something I recall from your live shows. There’s an excitement and energy. Were the lyrics all done first? Were there demos you went in for? Or did they evolve from what you were creating in the studio?
Richard Butler: It’s interesting how it worked. The members of the band would send me ideas, and I’d work from those. Rich Good lives up in the desert in California somewhere. Tim, my brother, is in Kentucky. Mark is in Chicago. And Paul Garisto is in Baltimore. They’d send me ideas. I’d sit down, and with some ideas nothing would come to me. With other ideas, I’d come up with a melody pretty quickly, and I’d write lyrics and send it back. And then back and forth it went.
And then, when we had a lot of ideas, pretty evenly balanced, actually, between the members of the band, we went into the studio and developed them and fleshed them out and changed bits around and changed keys and worked on them as a band. So we didn’t go to the studio not having played the songs, and that’s where the band sound comes from, I think.
We had actually played them before, and we played them live in the studio, too.
Rock Cellar: “Wrong Train” is a highlight. There are some other real highlights, too, but I’ve got to ask you about “The Boy That Invented Rock and Roll.” Is rock and roll dead?
Richard Butler: It’s funny, because the title has nothing to do with, really, the boy that invented rock and roll. I think when anyone thinks about that, they think of Little Richard or Elvis Presley, perhaps. But it was more that I loved the title. As soon as I came up with the title — the title came first — it became a string of things that might engender somebody to make rock and roll music, like rebellion and disappointment and anger. Then it became very impressionistic, the writing. “A flight of crows, my insect heart.” It just became this series of things that could lead up to somebody saying, “I’m the boy that invented rock and roll.”
It wasn’t really about anybody in particular.
Rock Cellar: I interviewed Bob Geldof not that long ago, and we were talking about how he’s now singing songs that are 40 years old, that he wrote out of punky anger, and sadly they’re resonating because in 2020, as much as things have changed, they’ve stayed the same. Your songs are more, as we’ve discussed, an inner monologue and impressionistic. Do you think that helps in keeping them fresh and timeless? These songs feel to me as though if I hear them in 10 years, they’re still going to sound new, but yet they also sit alongside your catalog nicely.
Richard Butler: Oh, good. I think a lot of that’s to do with the fact that the music of the Psychedelic Furs is more guitar-oriented, and I think it has that timeless quality because it’s guitar-oriented. We did use synthesizers quite a bit, but that doesn’t sound quite so timeless. But I think we get away with them. I think “The Ghost in You” still sounds pretty good, but it’s not as timeless as, say, “Pretty in Pink” or “Dumb Waiters” or even slower songs like “She is Mine.” Plus, they’re very simple, really.
Rock Cellar: I came to you about ’83 or so and didn’t know if you were a guitar band, like the early records, or a synth-y band, as that period was known. When I saw you live, I was surprised at how hard the band rocked, and I was really glad that this record does rock, too. But the lyrics are the thing that I gravitated toward, and for anybody who puts the record on, it’s the harder-edged Psychedelic Furs, which die-hard fans will certainly love.
It feels very current, too, but is there even a marketplace for rock and roll these days? Beyond that, did you think about the market at large or the world at large or who this was being made for?
Richard Butler: Not really, no. We’ve been very fortunate in the fact that, though we haven’t had a new record out in some time, our fan base seems to continue growing. So live, we’ve been doing very well in places that we weren’t doing well in, particularly, 10 years ago, like London. Now we do really well in London. Better than we ever did when we lived there.
I’m really making records for those people who come down and see us. Myself first, but I do think of myself performing them when we’re writing them and working on them, and I would hope that the people that come down and see our shows will enjoy them. And that’s about as far as it goes.
We’d be foolish to be writing songs to try and get on pop radio, at this point. That’s not going to happen.
Rock Cellar: It’s 2020. I saw on the original tour itinerary Royal Albert Hall, so you had big shows planned, and a long tour. Obviously, you weren’t planning to put out a record in the middle of a pandemic. What are the band’s plans now? Do you hope to get on the road at some point? It sounds as though there’s more material, since you were writing at a pretty furious rate. How has this affected the band’s plans and how do you see the next couple of years, if you even know?
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Richard Butler: Well, we don’t really know. I mean, the Albert Hall gig has been pushed back till next year. Hopefully, we’ll be able to play it next year, but nobody really knows. There’s a lot of factors and live music will be one of the last things that’s going to come back. As you know, on the news, Dr. Fauci has been saying, “Don’t go to bars, they’re the worst place to be going at this point.” New York, where I am, is doing pretty well. Some places in the country, the cases are skyrocketing, to the point that they’re not letting Americans into the EU. It’s crazy. So nobody really knows.
We certainly don’t know. We hope. There’s a vaccine being promised. But who knows whether the vaccine will work? The flu vaccine only works for 50 percent of the flu strain. And we don’t know whether this is going to morph into something else. The 1918-19 flu epidemic lasted two years. This might last two years too.
Rock Cellar: Well, the plague lasted 800, not to get really grim.
Richard Butler: There’s no such thing as herd immunity for the Black Death.
Rock Cellar: A little nod to Monty Python for the readers. Would you consider doing this again? Would you make more records, if that were your only way forward?
Richard Butler: Oh, yeah. Not because it’s the only way forward, but partly because I don’t really find it very easy to write on the road. Since the excitement of making this record, and the excitement of putting it out, I’d forgotten all about that part of it.
So I’ve been writing songs recently. We have two or three new songs on the go now, and I’m hoping that maybe next year, certainly the year after, we’ll have another record out. But maybe next year.