Tim Butler on the Psychedelic Furs being like Roxy Music with the attitude of the Sex Pistols
The Psychedelic Furs formed in 1977 in the wake of the explosion of punk rock in England. By the 1980s, the group had evolved from its earlier musical impulses into a kind of atmospheric, at times brooding, at times celebratory, post-punk band with a broad emotional and sonic palette.
The band's 1981 breakthrough album, Talk Talk Talk has become one of the band's classics, but its third album, 1982's Forever Now, yielded the act's first major hit with "Love My Way" and "Pretty In Pink," a reworked version of which appeared on the soundtrack to the John Hughes film of the same name and subsequently made the band international pop stars.
Throughout the rest of the '80s, the band enjoyed much success, and its high energy live shows with the charismatic Richard Butler fronting the band proved the group wasn't just a pop band but also a forceful rock and roll outfit with an exuberant spirit. In 1991, the Furs released its final album, World Outside and then split for the rest of the decade.
The Butler brothers, Richard and Tim, went on to form Love Spit Love, which enjoyed its own success and hit singles in the mid '90s, but by 2000, the brothers reformed the Furs and have been touring ever since. We recently spoke with Tim Butler about how punk made such a huge impact on him and his brother, working with Todd Rundgren on Forever Now and the slowly building, upcoming new Furs album.
Westword: You were the youngest member of the band at its inception?
Tim Butler: Yes.
How did you become aware of punk, and what was your first experience with live music?
We were raised in the country, and the nearest big town was London, about thirty miles away. Our first brush with punk rock was reading about it in a music paper, about Sex Pistols and seeing a picture of them playing at the Nashville. It was on the front page of The Melody Maker. So Richard and I went to see the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club. It changed our lives. It made us want to form a band. Just the fact that you didn't have to be Yngwie Malmsteen in order to form a band. You could just play three chords and get on stage.
Did you grow up playing music, or is that something you started at that time?
Richard and I were talking one night about what the perfect band would be. We were going, "Who would be the best bass player for a band? Who would be in the super group? Hey, do you want to form a band?" I said, "Well, I can't play anything." He said, "What do you want to play?" Originally I wanted to play the drums, but I couldn't afford a drum kit. So I said, "Oh, bass," because it created the grooves. He said, "Well, buy a bass, learn to play, and we'll form a band." So I bought a bass, learned a few chords and we formed the band.
Were there bass players that inspired you?
The bass player that made me want to pick up bass was [Jean-Jacques] Burnel from the Stranglers. We went to see them, and he showed that you didn't have to stand in the background stock still like John Entwistle or something. You could actually be a front player -- and the great bass sound he had as well.
The Furs had a different sound earlier on in its existence than the sound for which the band has become known and even famous. What sparked that shift?
Learning how to play our instruments, because when we started out we were all pretty much...other members of the band, we could play but not incredibly well. We didn't know that sometimes you should hold out and let the other instruments come through. We were all trying to fight for our, sort of, attention. So we tended to make a wall of sound. You could call it a beautiful chaos.
Slowly, as we started to progress as songwriters, we learned that, "Hey, if you could quieten down a little here, Paul [Wilson] and Duncan [Kilburn] can be heard better." So it was a natural progression that we learned how to play and the art of songwriting. We went from being a sort of doomy, goth-y wall of sound to being the songwriters of Forever Now and Talk Talk Talk.
Do you feel that songs like "India" and "Sister Europe" from your first album reflected the earlier sound, or do you feel it was part of the sound you had after the transformation to what the kind of band we've heard on the records?
I think "Sister Europe" is more going toward writing songs with space. "India" was pretty much a jam in the studio that Richard started singing over the top of.
Obviously one of your most enduringly popular songs is "Love My Way." It doesn't sound like there's any guitar on the song, but the bass is very prominent.
I don't think there is guitar on there. Live, we used to put guitar in it. The same thing with "Sleep Comes Down" -- there's no guitar.
The bass line for "Love My Way" is iconic in its way. Did you use a fretless in playing that in the studio. The way the bass notes move is very smooth and moodier than a typically fretted bass?
No, it wasn't a fretless. I think it's just that when we were in pre-production, Todd [Rundgren] said, "We can make your bass sound like anything you want to. Do you want it to sound like crystalline like the Byrds or a rubbery sound?" I said, "Yeah, that sounds cool. Let's try that." I think that's where the smooth sound comes from.
How did you get hooked up with Todd?
We were wanting to move on and start use cello on demos for those songs. We used a cello player form the Royal Academy of Music. Todd did an album [with his band Utopia] called Deface the Music where he did "Good Vibrations" and "Strawberry Fields," I think. So he knew how to get the string vibe and record with strings. Plus I was a huge fan at that time of anything Todd was on. So we decided to approach Todd.
As a producer, how did you find him to be?
He is really cool. I think he's the best producer we ever worked with. Before, with Steve Lillywhite, he would let guitar players track as many tracks as they wanted to. In mixing, they'd have to form one cohesive part from a lot of tracks. Whereas Todd was like, "No, you can't do that. I'll let you do about three or four tracks, and then we'll find the guitar part you wanted to do with the song, and then you can play the whole thing on one track.
It's a lot easier to mix. [Because of] little things like that, I think he was just a great producer for us -- not that the other ones weren't great. But my favorite album is Forever Now. I think it encapsulates what I would like the Furs to be remembered for. I think Richard's favorite album is Talk Talk Talk. That's my second favorite.
A lot of people probably also remember the Furs best for "Pretty In Pink" on the soundtrack for the John Hughes movie of the same name. Why did you record two versions of that song?
When John Hughes had done the movie, he was originally going to get someone else to record that song, and we said, "No, no, we'll do it." I guess the people in charge of the music for the movie said, "We can't use the original because the guitars are slightly discordant, out with each other." Which I think is part of the sound of it. So we went and re-recorded it, but I don't think it has the impact of the original. But it's nice and squeaky clean for the movie. I prefer the original.
When you did World Outside, there were a handful of remixes of "Don't Be a Girl." Had you done remixes before then?
We did a whole load of remixes of tracks on Midnight to Midnight. If I can remember way back to Forever Now, Todd did a dance mix of a song called "Aeroplane." He'd never done a dance mix before. It was a bit strange. But it was an experiment.
Is the remix process something you have direct hand in?
You sort of hand off the tracks to someone else. We did a remix with Todd of "Heartbeat" off of Mirror Moves. We were in the studio when he did it, and it was fascinating. He did it in one-minute sections. That is a good remix -- the New York mix of "Heartbeat." I'm not really a huge fan of remixes and dance floor stuff when it came in the '80s, but I know New Order picked up on it and ran.
You and Richard formed Love Spit Love. For the soundtrack to The Craft, you did a cover of "How Soon Is Now?" Why did you want to cover that?
Well, actually, I had left Love Spit Love by then. We actually did a movie called Angus that had "Am I Wrong" from the first Love Spit Love album. I recorded and wrote the first Love Spit Love with Richard, and then I formed my own band, Feed, which sadly imploded before it could be signed. Then I went to work for Electric Lady Studios in New York.
How did you get hooked up with Electric Lady?
I wanted to get on the other side of the glass. Instead of being in the band, I wanted to be the sound shaping guy. I went to engineering school and then started working at Electric Lady. I knew the woman who managed it, and went there, and worked for two or three years.
Your band is reminiscent of Roxy Music. Did you ever play or tour together?
No. I think the parallel with Roxy Music is because of the saxophone. You don't get many alternative bands with saxophone. We didn't back then. I don't know that there's many around now. We'd love to tour with them. I'm a huge fan, and they were a big influence when we first started. Our influences were the Velvet Underground, Sex Pistols, Roxy Music and Iggy and the Stooges. We were like Roxy Music, but we had the aggression and attitude of the Sex Pistols.
Do you have any plans of writing and releasing a new album?
We are in the process of writing a new album. But we're burning it through at our own pace. We play a couple of new songs in the set. There's no pressure to meet a record company's schedule as when to put it out. That sort of pressure was part of the reason we took that hiatus in the early '90s. Slowly but surely, we're getting it. It's like the tortoise and the hare. Slow and steady gets the record.
[I'd like to say that] The Gothic Theatre is one of my favorite places to play. There's places around the country very similar that have a cool vibe and the sound is good. There's the Trocadero in Philadelphia that has the same vibe. I love those sorts of venues.
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