Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet interview, Under the Covers

A chat with Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet

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As a Bangle, Susanna Hoffs scaled the heights of the charts during the ‘80s with songs like “Manic Monday,” “Walk Like An Egyptian,” “Hazy Shade of Winter,” and “Eternal Flame.” Matthew Sweet, meanwhile, became the poster boy for 1990s power pop with classic albums like Girlfriend and 100% Fun. In 2005, however, they’ve teamed up and recorded an album’s worth (and then some) of their favorite ‘60s covers, with a token early ‘70s Bee Gees song for good measure, for Shout! Factory. In a conference call, Bullz-Eye spoke with Sweet and Hoffs during their preparations for a few live dates. Settle in and enjoy this epic conversation, where Susanna speaks highly of Mike Nesmith, Matthew quizzes Susanna about Bangles albums, they talk of what their future holds beyond this collaboration, and, oh, yes, we find out that Matthew has a soft spot for a certain film role of Susanna’s. Do tell…

Susanna Hoffs: Will?

Bullz-Eye: Yes?

SH: Hey, it’s Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet on the line for you.

BE: Hey, how are you?

SH: I’m good!

Matthew Sweet: Hey, Will, can you hear me?

BE: I can, indeed.

SH: Where are you? Where’s the 757 area code?

BE: That is…well, I’m in Chesapeake, Virginia, but it’s Norfolk, Virginia, basically.

SH: Wow…

BE: About a stone’s throw from the Boathouse…

MS: Oh, yeah!

BE: …which I know Matthew’s played.

SH: Did the Bangles play there, too?

BE: I think so.

SH: Oh, I think probably everybody’s come through there.

BE: Pretty much.

SH: We played…I feel like we played on a ship or something…? There’s also, like, a big…is a military base or something?

BE: Yeah.

MS: There are military bases near there.

SH: Yeah, I think we played there once.

MS: You played the Boathouse, ‘cause it could be pretty big capacity if they wanted it to be, right?

BE: Yeah, but, actually, it’s pretty much on the verge of demolition now. When we had a hurricane a few years ago, it really tore it to pieces.

SH: You’re kidding.

MS: Aw, man. It was kind of like being on a boat, Suze; you were on the water…

SH: Yeah, but I think we were…we did, like, a…

MS: A real boat show?

SH: Some kind of thing on a ship.

MS: Was it, like, a real aircraft carrier?

BE: Could be.

SH: It might’ve been. I can’t remember. I wish I could.

BE: Well, lord knows we’ve got enough of them around here. (getting them onto the topic at hand) So I got a copy of the album, and it’s fantastic.

SH: Oh, thanks!

MS: Thank you.

BE: But it’s totally my genre of covers to begin with, so you had me from the get-go.

SH: Great.

BE: How did you first come together to record? I know you played together in Ming Tea (the band who appears in the between-scene musical snippets in the first “Austin Powers” movie), but did you know each other before that?

SH: We did. We cannot…we have trouble…

MS: We have trouble remembering this every time. Our memories are so bad.

SH: I know. We have trouble pinpointing the exact…

MS: I figured it all out the other day.

SH: Did you?

MS: I had it all mapped out…

SH: Do tell!

MS: …but now I have to start all over! But I think we talked on the phone when (producer) Fred Maher did something with you…around the time we were working on Girlfriend, I think, and I was a fan of yours, and when Fred was working with you, I was probably all excited.

SH: (giggles)

MS: Then, when we came out to L.A., it seems like we had another connection. Lisa figured it out, who we knew you through.

SH: Greg Leisz…?

MS: Nooooo…

SH: I think Greg Leisz was playing that show with you at McCabe’s (Guitar Shop), and that was the show I brought Mike Myers to.

MS: Right, and I knew you before that. We’d done something together already, because that’s why I invited you to come sing. I came and sang on a cover you did…

SH: (uncertainly) Really…? (realization) Oh, but that was way later!

MS: Was it?

SH: We’ve had all these little connections over the years…

MS: I know the key thing. I’ll remember it later…

SH: Okay.

MS: But, at any rate, we were pretty good friends by the time it came up to do this thing. And I’d always wanted to, really, produce Suze. I didn’t really want to hear me! But as it just sort of developed, I guess…do you want to take it, Suze?

SH: Well, I think what happened was I called Matthew. I happened to run into Jules Shear at a restaurant, and I called Matthew because there was an event that the Bangles had been called upon to do, it was a charity event at McCabe’s, and we wanted to have “The Bangles and Friends.” So all of us got together for about a week, rehearsing some songs and some covers for that little show that we did. And during those rehearsals, Matthew and I got to talking about working together on something. So when Shout! Factory contacted me about doing an album for them, when I was at the first meeting with them, it came up, “Well, how about something with Matthew?” And they were really excited about it. And it kind of morphed into, what about you guys doing covers? And so Matthew and I kind of took it from there and had this idea about doing songs from our favorite era as duets, and kind of really collaborating in a very complete way.

MS: It’s kind of a really specific kind of ‘60s pop music. It’s not really the best known stuff, although there’s some well-known things on it. But just stuff that we really went, “Oh, yeah, that song would be great!”

SH: Yeah!

MS: And even the weird ones…like, we’ve been talking about “She May Call You Up Tonight,” by the Left Banke. That was, like, first on both of our lists.

BE: Which is an awesome song.

MS: And it’s also kind of a weird song for both of us to want to cover, let alone like or whatever.

SH: You know what’s so weird…? I was just talking to the Bangles about some upcoming shows we have…and (Matthew and I) didn’t even tap into the whole Merry-Go-Round / Emitt Rhodes thing, but the Bangles were talking about doing “Time Will Show the Wiser.” But it’s that kind of mid-‘60s folk-rock.

MS: It’s really folk-rock, yeah.

SH: It’s really folk-rock inspired.

MS: Although in some cases, it’s not. Like, the Neil Young stuff is later.

SH: It’s a pretty good mix. I mean, that was the thing; we actually recorded a lot more songs. Matthew keeps mixing them; it’s almost the beginnings of Volume 2. There’s just so much great music. And the truth is, I have an 11-year-old son and a 7-year-old son, and they don’t know any of this stuff. It’s, like, brand new for them. They couldn’t believe “Alone Again Or” – the Love song – the first time they heard it. And that’s kind of the beauty of it to those of us who do know and love that stuff. It’s such a familiar embrace, this stuff that we all love, but to the young kids of America, it’s all new, and we’re getting a chance to turn them on to all of this great, new stuff that we’re all lucky enough to have heard.

BE: And, like, “Run to Me,” by the Bee Gees, I think that’s a great pick, because it’s one of those songs that’s almost a lost Bee Gees song, even though it was a hit, because people just think in terms of the “Staying Alive” era.

SH: Of course! I know!

MS: Yeah, or the real early Bee Gees. I mean, that’s funny with “Run to Me,” because we had a friend over at rehearsals the other night – we’re rehearsing for a couple of shows – and we just couldn’t believe that this guy, who probably really knows the Bee Gees, didn’t know “Run to Me.” It was, like, the first time he’d heard it.

SH: There are so many people who don’t actually…as you said, Will…who don’t know the early Bee Gees stuff: “To Love Somebody” and all those early songs that were just so melodic and amazing.

BE: I got introduced to them in kind of a weird way. I mean, like everyone, I knew them from the disco era, but when One came out, that was the first album of theirs that I bought, then I worked my way backwards. And, from there, I got the box set (Tales from the Brothers Gibb) that covers all the eras.

SH: Wow, that’s a good thing to get.

BE: There’s a giant, giant book on the Bee Gees (“Tales of the Brothers Gibb,” by Paul Williams) that’s pretty good, and I also read this book when I hadn’t heard much of their stuff, and they’re constantly referencing records that Barry wrote. Just so, so much material.

BE: There’s apparently a Robin (Gibb) album from that era that he recorded but was never released (Sing Slowly Sisters), which makes the bootleg circles.

SH: Right.

BE: I know you mentioned Emitt Rhodes. Have you ever met him personally?

SH: Yes, I have. It was such a weird thing. When the Bangles first got together, I mean, I was so obsessed with all of this music, and, even at the time…I was born in 1959, so I lived through the ‘60s, but I was kind of really on the fringe of being too young to really know a lot of the stuff. It wasn’t until I went to college in the ‘70s – I went to U.C. Berkeley – that I started scouring record stores…when they still existed!...and getting used records and rediscovering the Beau Brummels, the Left Banke, and the Merry-Go-Round. So when I met the Bangles, we were sort of in a time warp, y’know? Even in the ‘80s, I was obsessed with the ‘60s…but we were little children at the height of the ‘60s, so that was the musical glue of influences for the Bangles. So, early on, when we were getting ready to make our own do-it-yourself record with our own money, we tracked down Emitt Rhodes. And he was living in one of the beach communities in the south of L.A., and he was doing, like… (voice drops slightly) It was kind of sad, actually. He was very disconnected from his genius stuff of the ‘60s; he didn’t even think it was good. I probably shouldn’t say this now. Now, he’s probably turned a corner and likes it.

MS: You’re right about that.

SH: But in the ‘80s, he was really just working out of his garage, and he was doing aerobics music…when the aerobic movement was really big, and there was a market for people who could churn out songs that had a certain beats per minute. Like, aerobic dance music…? It was kind of strange. But we had this fantasy that he was going to be the same guy from the mid-‘60s, and that he would produce us. But we realized that that wasn’t going to happen, so we did it ourselves.

BE: I talked to a guy named Jim Boggia, and he co-wrote a song with Emitt recently.

SH: (excitedly) Oh, really? So maybe…is it in the vein of some of his original stuff?

BE: Well, it was a song that Boggia had already started writing, but Emitt Rhodes came in and helped him finish it and did backing vocals. And he told him that he’s written a bunch of stuff, but it’s one of those deals where he says he’s working on it and working on it, then he thinks about releasing it and he gets scared.

SH: (sadly) Awwwww, but he’s so good! He was so, like, in the world of…almost a Paul McCartney-esque guy. That was his thing. And it was just so cool.

BE: Okay, well, to jump back to your album…because I don’t want us to get too far off-track…how did you come to bring Van Dyke Parks in to do the string arrangements?

SH: Matthew, that’s your connection.

MS: Well, I just knew Van Dyke. I’d met him a couple of times over the years through some Brian Wilson stuff, and he played a bunch on an album I made a couple of years ago called Living Thing. So we just were friendly. And, in fact, there’s this connection that the head of the legal department at Shout! Factory is actually Van Dyke’s son-in-law.

SH: Really?

MS: Yeah.

SH: That’s right!

MS: So we kept kind of having this connection about us, and I kept saying, “I’m gonna get you to come do something.” So, one day, I just called him up and we had him come over. And it was really cool that he would write the little intro notes (in the CD booklet) for us, because it’s so in the classic, cryptic Van Dyke style, all kind of turned around. He sent it to me, and I sent it to the label and said, “Do not change anything!” And they looked at me, like, “Does he mean this?”

SH: I just sent you, Matthew, an E-mail: Mike Nesmith’s very cool E-mail about our cover of “Different Drum.” Jay (Roach, director of the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” films), my husband, sent Mike and his girlfriend the link to our MySpace spot, which has different tracks of ours on there.

MS: That’s great.

SH: And he was totally into it, which is always good, when the writer / singer…no, wait, he didn’t sing it. Oh, yes, he did, there’s a version of Mike singing it.

BE: Yeah, I’ve got it on a greatest-hits disc of his. Did you…

MS: (quietly) What record?

BE: Um, I’ve got it on a best-of from Rhino.

SH: Yeah, and I think it’s on the record, Matthew, that I brought over one time. Anyway, he liked it. Yay!

BE: Was it a problem deciding which songs to include on the disc? In other words, were you making a conscious effort to say, well, this one’s popular, this one’s kind of obscure, and to kind of mix it up?

MS: Mmmmm…not really. It was more, really, that, in the back of our minds, we thought, “Well, it’s okay that this one’s more commercial.” If anything, even though some of them were mainstream, we still wanted to try them. I don’t know that there are too many that are really that way…

SH: Well, like, “Monday, Monday” was a #1 hit.

MS: “Monday, Monday,” yeah. But, I mean, that one is one that a lot of people wouldn’t really know.

SH: Yeah.

MS: But even “And Your Bird Can Sing” is a different kind of Beatles choice. I’m trying to think. You wouldn’t really think of things off Odyssey & Oracle by the Zombies.

SH: And, yet, so many people unexpectedly know that song (“Care of Cell #44”).

MS: And there’s “Run to Me.” I love the power pop, the ‘60s pop, so…I don’t know what I’m saying. Where did this start?

SH: It started with the choice to do the mix of obscure and known songs.

MS: The short answer is that it wasn’t really conscious.

SH: I mean, it came up. Early on, I was…well, Matthew, you suggested “Monday, Monday,” I’m pretty sure.

MS: I’ve always dreamed of creating the Mamas and Papas with Sue, okay?

SH: Yay! It’s so fun. After all these years of being in an all-girl band, I’m the only girl now. It’s quite special. We’re trying to drag Matthew’s wife up to sing with us, because it feels like “Monday, Monday” wants another girl on it. I think Vicki Peterson (of the Bangles) is going to come up and sing it with us whenever she’s available.

MS: That’s great.

BE: Now, will you be touring behind the album?

SH: We have only a few shows booked that I know of.

MS: We don’t really have a plan to tour. It’ll kind of depend on how much demand there is.

SH: Or how much we’re willing to look at doing. I think we had a few things that were presented to us that the time wasn’t right, but I’m open to doing plenty more shows. This is just the very start of it.

MS: I’d hate to think that we’d learn to play these songs live and then not do it.

SH: I know. We had to learn so much this week.

MS: It’s, like, brain-hurting work. All those producers were making it all.

SH: I know. We have a great band, though.

BE: Who’s in the band?

SH: Greg Leisz, who’s great. I don’t know if people know his name, but…

MS: Greg Leisz, yeah, he’s played on a bunch of my records, playing all of the lead stuff and the slide stuff. And Ric Menck (from Velvet Crush), who’s…well, it’s kind of my band: Ric Menck and Tony Marsico on drums and bass, respectively. Ric played on the record, I played bass on the record.

SH: But isn’t Tony from some famous bands…?

MS: Uh, he used to be in the Cruzados some years back. He’s played with a lot of people. All the L.A. guys…Peter Case, John Doe, like that.

SH: Tony does?

MS: He’s played with them over time.

SH: Greg Liesz has played with k.d. lang, Joni Mitchell…

MS: Greg is, like, a really well-known studio player and really old friend of mine. He’s played on all my records. A million records . So he was kind of like our studio guy.

SH: So we’re playing South by Southwest, and we have three shows in L.A., so that’s all I know about at the moment. But I’m sure there will be more. I hope so.

BE: And I heard you say that the Bangles are playing some shows, too.

SH: Yeah, the Bangles have some dates in the summer, starting in June and going through…probably most of the summer, we’ll have them. They’re kind of strung-together little runs. It’s harder with all of the children factored in.

BE: Is there any talk about a follow-up to (2003’s reunion album) Doll Revolution?

SH: Um, yeah, actually, there is! There’s so much music now, now that we can record at home. Matthew changed my life by opening my eyes to ProTools and everything. Even Doll Revolution was recorded that way, although it wasn’t our gear. So I’m in the process of getting set up so that the Bangles can make recordings a lot more easier than we have been able to do in the past. So, yeah, I think there will be some stuff coming out…probably not this year, but next year.

BE: And Matthew, have you got a follow-up to Living Things in the works…?

MS: Yeah, last year, kind of in tandem with Under the Covers, I recorded a bunch of tracks, and I only have to kind of finish singing and adding a few things. I’m going to try and get it done this spring. It’s really different. It’s a very…it’s kind of a Neanderthal rock kind of record.

SH: Really? Cool!

MS: It’s sort of fun. It’s cool.

BE: Reminiscent of Altered Beast at all?

MS: Maybe a little bit. I mean, it’s a little more…I don’t know. Yeah, I guess it is a little bit like that. Ivan Julian plays on it a lot, I guess sort of filling the (Robert) Quine shoes in the Altered Beast sense, and Richard Lloyd also plays on it, so, in that sense, it’ll probably be a little bit that way. I don’t really know. I can never really tell. Sometimes I think, when I’m doing something really rock and it turns out really melodic, I think, “You’re not rock. Who are you kidding?” But it wants to be rock. It’s supposed to be.

BE: Oh, and the first thing I thought of when I heard this album was the Rainy Day album. (Writer’s note: Rainy Day was a self-titled, one-off collaboration between the members of the Bangles, Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade, the Three O’Clock, and Opal, performing covers of Big Star, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground, and others. It was released in 1984 through Rough Trade Records and is virtually impossible to find on CD; a copy recently sold on eBay for $83.00.)

SH: Yeah!

MS: That’s awesome, because that was when I first became such a huge fan of Sue’s voice, when she sang “I’ll Keep It with Mine,” that Dylan song, on the Rainy Day album.

SH: And, actually, my fantasy…and I think we’re gonna make it happen…is that Matthew’s gonna produce the solo record I want to make, and it’s gonna be very Rainy Day. I want to make a really beautiful, melodic, dreamy type record.

BE: Is Rainy Day ever going to come out…sorry, I should say, be reissued on CD?

SH: You know, I don’t know. I’ve been meaning to ask my friend David Roback (of Rain Parade and Opal fame), but he’s always traveling around, living in strange places. I connect with him every six months or so. But someone told me that it was going to be re-released. My mother actually heard something about that, of all things. Yeah, that’s a cool record. That was a really fun thing. This has been similar in spirit to that for me, the Under the Covers thing. The Sid and Susie thing.

MS: As we call it.

SH: Yeah…!

BE: Okay, and since you mentioned your mother, I do have to say this: I’m a big fan of “The Allnighter.” (Writer’s note: The film “The Allnighter,” Susanna’s lone appearance to date as a leading lady, was directed and co-written by her mother, Tamar Simon Hoffs. It should also be noted to Bullz-Eye readers that, during the course of the film, Susanna spends a not-unpleasant amount of time wearing a bikini.)

MS: Wooooooo!

SH: Mmmmmm! You’re kidding!

BE: I am not. It’s on my shelf as we speak.

SH: Omigod! My mother’s going to be so thrilled! She’s so, like, thrilled when people tell me about liking “The Allnighter.” There are a lot of fans of it, although I always turn five shades of red when people bring that up. Do you know about that movie I made, Matthew?

MS: (slightly lecherously) Oh, yeah.

SH: (laughs)

MS: I just don’t remember it that well. I think I need to see it again.

SH: Oh, come on! Don’t!

BE: I can lend you my copy, if you’d like.

MS: Okay!

SH: I’ll pass that along to my mom, Will.

MS: (dreamily) Oh, do I know about “The Allnighter.” Where does that fall chronologically, Sue?

SH: What?

MS: Is that pre-Bangles?

SH: No, that’s mid-Bangles. It was like ’86. It was right in the heyday.

MS: What had already come out?

SH: Different Light, I think, was already out. Yeah, it was right in the heyday of when we were getting played on the radio.

MS: So what’s the hit on that?

SH: (surprised) On Different Light? Um, “Manic Monday,” “Walk Like an Egyptian”…

MS: Oh, okay, so the one with all the hits on it.

SH: Yeah, pretty much all the first slew of hits.

MS: Was that your first major label album?

SH: No, we actually made three albums for Columbia, and the first one was called All Over the Place.

MS: Right. So was Different Light second?

SH: It was the second one. And then the third one had “Eternal Flame” on it.

MS: Right, right, right. I was a fan on the first record, before you were on the radio. That’s why I was so confused.

SH: The first record was the one that got the good review in “Rolling Stone.”

BE: That was the one that had the Merry-Go-Round cover (“Live”) on it, right?

SH: Yes, actually, it did.

MS: And what was the other one? “Hero Takes A Fall”?

SH: Yeah, “Hero Takes A Fall,” then “Going Down To Liverpool.”

BE: By Kimberley Rew (of the Soft Boys and Katrina and the Waves).

MS: Kimberley Rew, I like him.

SH: I love him.

MS: I had his indie records and everything.

SH: He was so great.

BE: He just put out a few records during the past few years (through Bongo Beat) that have been really good.

SH: Did he? Not with Katrina and the Waves…

BE: No, just him.

SH: Cool.

BE: And Robyn Hitchcock plays on at least one of them.

SH: Apparently, he’s playing tonight or something, Robyn Hitchcock, in L.A.. Or he was just here. Maybe I’ve mixed up the dates.

MS: Yeah, but we have to rest up for Sid and Susie.

SH: We do have to rest up for Sid and Susie. It’s taking a lot out of us.

MS: All the modulations…

SH: All the key changes! Dang! But that’s what makes the songs so exciting. When we’re learning a song like “Monday, Monday,” you really are in awe of a person like John Phillips. Didn’t he write that? Or was that Denny (Doherty)?

MS: You also have to remember how many times they sang and played that. All the time.

SH: I know, but the chord changes! It’s mindblowing! It’s no Green Day, man. This thing is like a symphony!

MS: Yeah, but he was also in the New Journeymen!

SH: Well, man, they were just serious folk players!

MS: You’ve reminded me of something, and maybe we shouldn’t be doing it on our interview time, but I’ll go ahead and say it. Sue, I was reading this article this morning about the making of the record Age of Aquarius, by the Fifth Dimension, and in general how the Fifth Dimension came to be and how they recorded it. And they had Jimmy Webb come in, their first three albums, and they would take each of them apart and, by rote, teach them each of their parts like it was a melody.

SH: Wow…

MS: And then they’d go and record, and they rarely ever got more than two to four bars at once on those records where they had to stop and then go and teach them and punch them in.

SH: And they were all around the same mike, right?

MS: So when you hear those records, you’re, like, how could they have learned all that shit? Well, they did it while they recorded it.

SH: Inch by inch. Measure by measure. And, see, we’re trying to perform that live!

MS: So that’s why Sue has her eyebrows up.

SH: (laughs) So it won’t sound like the record!

BE: Well, I know you’re trying to keep on a schedule, so I won’t go over my allotted time…

MS: You’ve still got three minutes.

BE: (Hesitates) Welllllll…okay, I can kill three minutes! Um, and, actually, this is something I was going to ask earlier about Doll Revolution, anyway: how did you come to have Elvis (Costello) write the title track for you? Or did it just land in your laps?

SH: It landed in our laps, yeah. One day, I got this call on my cell phone, and it was from T-Bone Burnett, and somehow he had my number, and he was trying to get me in touch with Elvis, because he was working with Elvis, and…well, it’s such a long story, but the short version of it is that Elvis had an idea for a TV show, and he’d written the theme song for the show, and he’d been going around and pitching it to people, with him singing, “Tear off your head, it’s a doll revolution,” coming from a female point of view. And they just weren’t getting it because, you know, the men in the suits…if it’s not a girl singing it, they don’t get it. So he thought of me, which I was extremely flattered about, and he wanted to know if I would come down to the studio a few days from when T-Bone and I were talking and sing it. And I said, “Yeah!” I had no idea what the song was; I just kind of showed up. It was such a cool song, and I just by chance played it for the Bangles, and they were, like, “Let’s do it! See if he’ll let us put it on our record…!” And he was totally cool about it. I think, in the same year, his record came out with his version of it, and our record came out maybe a few months later with our version of it. It’s just kind of a classic, old-school Elvis attitude. A good energy and a punk spirit to it.

MS: It was great live when I saw you.

SH: Yeah, it’s a good show opener…or an early song in the set. And it was just such a treat to spend that time with Elvis, talking to him and getting to know him a little bit. He wasn’t actually there when I sang it – he had T-Bone recording it – but we talked a lot. And I met Elvis on the set of…he was in “Austin Powers,” the second one.

BE: That’s right, I remember that: with Burt Bacharach.

SH: Just like with Matthew, I’ve had this weird sort of thing over the years where there’ve been some collaborations with Elvis that have been really fun. He’s a very talented guy, as we all know.

BE: So next up is the Elvis/Susanna Hoffs collaboration?

SH: (skeptically) Yeah!

BE: Well, it’s been great talking to you, and if you end up playing anywhere on the East Coast, I’ll certainly do everything I can to get up and see you.

SH: Great!

MS: Alright, well, come say “hi.”

SH: Thanks, Will! Take care!