THE BANGLES, CHAPTER TWO
Rock historians view the Bangles as one of the greatest all-female bands ever, lauding the L.A.-based quartet for its inventive incorporation of '60s folk rock, sunny SoCal harmonies and Beatles/Byrds/Beach Boys/Big Star godhead into a sound all its own - beguiling, frequently bittersweet, but always life-affirming; a canny merger of art and commerce. Theirs was a rags-to-riches story, from the band's beginnings in L.A.'s Paisley Underground scene through their reign as the smart-pop princesses of the 1980s - a problematic decade that was far richer for the Bangles' presence in its unfolding.
The Behind the Music version of the Bangles story, by contrast, puts the emphasis on their ugly breakup. "Ahh, the drah-ma. The fatal meeting," quips guitarist/singer Vicki Peterson, who remembers sitting there saying, "OK, OK, we'll work this out," even as her fellow bandmembers were walking out the door.
"Because it's so hard to actually ‘make it' as a band, it was 24/7 in the '80s," guitarist/singer Susanna Hoffs says of the reasons for the split. "We were on the road constantly, and there was no room for anything else in our lives. In some ways, that was the thing that took a toll on us and caused the split, because it was hard to envision doing it any other way. It was this marriage, but it was also a kind of pressure cooker all the time, and it became oppressive. You start to want other things in your life - you want some sort of balance. So inevitably you figure out a way to get that."
Drummer/singer Debbi Peterson puts it more bluntly: "Basically, the four of us had been touring forever, and we were just tired of working together. We all needed a break."
Given their acrimonious parting, the Bangles' self-assured re-entry into the music scene of another century might seem improbable - but that's assuming (wrongly, it turns out) that the bond that had once united bandmembers Vicki and Debbi Peterson, Susanna Hoffs and bassist/singer Michael Steele had been burned away by the accumulated bile that led to the split. Indeed, the fact that 15 years passed between the release of Everything in 1988 and Doll Revolution in 2003 is somewhat misleading, because little more than eight years separated the breakup from the reunion, and the healing came well before that. "It could have been a two-year break," says Susanna, "but it ended up being quite a bit longer because we needed time to live our lives." Indeed, the reunion went down joyfully, if incrementally, starting way back in the late '90s and gathering momentum over the course of the next several years.
The initial re-bonding occurred between Susanna and Debbi, who had something new and special in common - both were new mothers. Debbi, who'd been married since the year of the break-up, had her first child in 1997, a year before Susanna gave birth to her second. "Susanna had her first son a couple of years before me," says Debbi, "so we started talking about kids, and that got us talking more in general." While their conversations were about as far away from rock'n'roll as possible, they proved to be the best kind of icebreaker. Remembering how much they'd enjoyed working together, they started to discuss what it would be like to pick up where they'd left off. The next step was persuading Vicki, who was then living in New Orleans and working in the Continental Drifters, to consider becoming a Bangle again.
In 1998, Vicki recalls, "I started getting phone calls from Susanna with lines like, ‘I know you don't want to do this, but if you were to do this, what would make you comfortable?' And because I was reluctant to revisit Bangelonia - that being sort of a state of mind - it had not been a very pleasant exit for me, and because I was so happily immersed in New Orleans and the Continental Drifters, I felt no need to musically extend myself in a direction that felt like going backwards. So what I told Susanna at that point was, ‘The only way it would make sense to me is if we're still viable as a band today and making new music that we're excited about. I'm not interested in going out and touring with A Flock of Seagulls as part of an '80s package.' You wouldn't believe the kinds of offers we were getting. I kept saying, ‘I can't make enough to pay for the psychiatric help I will need if I actually go out and do that.'"
Vicki's caveats sounded good to Susanna and Debbi, inasmuch as both wanted precisely the same things out of the Bangles experience the second time around. So Vicki came to L.A., where she got together with Susanna and Debbi for some songwriting sessions. "I know it was '98 when we were in that room working on songs," Hoffs confirms, "because I was pregnant at the time." When Vicki returned to New Orleans, the Bangles' revived creative process continued over the phone and through the mail via cassette tapes.
The reconnection was working, Debbi offers, "because we took baby steps and took our time, rather than getting together for a major tour, which would've made us a helluva lot of money but also would've made us miserable. Plus, it had been a few years and a lot of water under the bridge, and everybody had matured and mellowed with time. We all realized it felt really good again-it felt comfortable, like a pair of old shoes."
Vicki picks up the narrative: "Then we reached out to Michael Steele, because we felt that if we were going to do it, we wanted to do it with all four members." Returning to the studio in 1999, the four reunited bandmembers cut the newly written song "Get the Girl" for the soundtrack of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. "We started telling each other the old road jokes again" says Debbi. "It was a wonderful experience, all over again." So far, so good.
During this period, says Vicki, "We had in-depth conversations, and we were able to speak very honestly to each other. Through this process - which was really cathartic - we came up with a way of working that we were all excited about, and decided to do a record completely on our own terms. So in 2000 we started doing a few shows and put the money away in order to finance the recording. In 2001 and 2002, we rented a house in Beverly Hills, rented a bunch of gear and hooked up with Brad Wood, who was the perfect co-producer/engineer/collaborator for us. We had a really positive recording experience, which generally was not the case in Bangles history, and made a record that we were proud of."
That's because Bangles miraculously managed to pick up right where they'd left off. Koch released the album, titled Doll Revolution (after a song written by Elvis Costello), in 2003, to positive reviews, while the Bangles spent much of the year touring, including jaunts to Europe (generating a #1 single in Germany with "Something That You Said") and Japan (where the album sold especially well). They ratcheted up their touring schedule in support of the album, and the critical response was effusive, perhaps reflecting some consternation on the part of the reviewers, who were taken aback by the musical mastery manifested by the reunited Bangles. "They're skilled enough to revamp garage rock, Byrds-style psychedelia, and hippie folk...making room for a lot of magnificence," raved The New York Times.
In 2004 Michael told her bandmates that she wanted to "retire from the Bangles" to spend more of her time at home. "At that point," says Vicki, "we had another powwow and decided that the three of us had a pretty healthy dynamic working together, and that we definitely wanted to continue forward. So we started playing with a series of incredible guest bass players, including my high school best friend Amanda Hills Podany, who was one of the original bass players in the Bangs, and more recently, the lovely and talented Abby Travis, who has a new album of her own."
So things are humming once again. "We look at the Bangles as this little cottage industry," says Susanna, "and we're protecting and reinventing it all the time. Because our lives are more balanced, with family and other outside musical outlets, it's a great place to be, this place we're in. We're so grateful to be a band that still enjoys playing music together, we have a great time performing, there are more songs left to be written and recorded, and we're just putting one foot in front of the other and making choices for the next year in terms of what we can accomplish."
Among the ideas now germinating in Bangelonia are a children's album, a holiday album, and a live concert CD/DVD. "We're also thinking of doing an album along the lines of Crosby, Stills & Nash, where we sing everything in three-part harmonies, top to bottom," Susanna reveals, "like a harmonic layer cake."
Meanwhile, they've continued to tour, appearing at several festivals during the summer of 2006. Plans are in motion for the Bangles to co-headline a shed tour for summer 2007 with other established and emerging female rock bands.
"There has always been a special musical connection and spark between all of us in the band, from the day we met and jammed for the first time in my parents' garage," Susanna reflects. "We've shared so many adventures, including the ups and the downs, and that's given us a great perspective on the whole experience. It seems like now we can really appreciate how fantastic it is to be in a band together. It's something we're very proud of."
They're also working on new material, a process that requires somewhat more planning than in the past. "Life is more diverse now," says Vicki, "with children, school activities - the parenting/family side of life is extremely involving. Our whole goal in this new century has been to fit the Bangles into our lives rather than trying to cram our lives into the Bangles."
The biggest change between the Bangles' original dynamic and now, according to Debbi, is, "We now make choices that everybody's happy with, rather than doing anything that would make some of us uncomfortable - what's the point of that? The difference between now and the 1980s is we communicate more - we have a meeting once a week and discuss what's going on and our feelings about it, and if someone's really opposed to doing something, we won't do it. That's what's different than in the past, and it's what keeps it going."
Susanna picks up the theme. "Our goal is to keep going," she says, "and to do it on our own terms. It's about managing expectations, which can be liberating. For us, it's nice to be able to call the shots, and also spend more time at home, to be quite honest. It's nice to be in the driver's seat."
All of which proves that you can be a Bangle and have a life, too...but only after learning the hard way.
The band, composed of L.A. natives Hoffs, the Peterson sisters and original bass player Annette Zilinskas, first hit the radar in 1981 as the Bangs with Getting Out of Hand (on Downkiddie Records), and soon evolved into a tight-knit unit with a distinctive sound juxtaposing ringing guitars and angelic harmonies. After bringing in bass player Michael Steele, the Bangles signed with Columbia, which released their major label debut, All Over the Place, in 1984. The group then concocted their artistic and commercial breakthrough, the multi-platinum A Different Light (1986), which contained the hit singles "Manic Monday," "Walk Like an Egyptian" and "Walking Down Your Street". The final studio album of their first go-round, 1988's Everything, yielded the hits "In Your Room" and "Be With You", as well as the international #1 single "Eternal Flame," so they went out on top, despite the short-term bad vibes. But though none of them could've anticipated it at the time, the Bangles weren't finished. In a very real sense, picking up their lives after the breakup would contribute to their subsequent growth as a band.
Susanna Hoffs released a pair of solo LPs in the '90s, while also collaborating with the Go-Go's' Charlotte Caffey, Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse and legendary drummer Jim Keltner. She married film director Jay Roach in 1993, and the couple has two children. In the spring of 2006, Shout! Factory released the '60s salute Under the Covers Vol. 1, Susanna's collaboration with her friend (and Ming Tea bandmate) Matthew Sweet.
Debbi Peterson, who has a 9-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter with husband Steve Botting (who did production management for the Bangles in the '80s), has worked on several music projects, including collaborating with Gina Schock of the Go-Go's, and forming Kindred Spirit with English artist Siobhan Maher, formerly of River City People, with whom she recorded an album in 1993. With Kindred Spirit, Debbi drummed on the record, but sang and played acoustic guitar on tour in the UK.
Vicki Peterson joined the Continental Drifters after the breakup and moved to New Orleans with the band. She returned home to L.A. in 2003 to marry John Cowsill and become the stepmom to his two kids, now aged 15 and 10. During the extended hiatus, Vicki also worked with John Doe, Belinda Carlisle, Jules Shear, and Kevin Salem, while hooking up with Susan Cowsill (now her sister in law) to form the Psycho Sisters, who at one point toured Europe with Giant Sand. When the Bangles are off the road, Vicki gets a kick out of playing bass with the Lamps (a spin-off of '90s band Jolene).