One unfortunate hangover from the 1980s, that decade of overproduced bands, Reagan, MTV gloat, silly trousers and Haircut 100, was how the Psychedelic Furs got lumped into that ghastly pop nostalgia train of ’80s packages, flanking, say, the Bangles, or worse, Missing Persons in (pre-) boomer consciousness. Think about that: Here was a London band vaguely defining the "artful" side of punk rock — er, post punk or whatever — this unholy mix of William Burroughs, Andy Warhol, early Roxy Music and the Velvet Underground, fronted by Richard Butler, a strangely graceful man — picture a whorehouse priest with some Modigliani-like facial features — who owed as much to Bowie as he did Johnny Rotten and Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan, who traded on pitched, chain-smoked rasps and cynical-satirical cut-out wordplay. Theirs was indeed a gloriously organized noise that netted pockets of worldwide fans by the group’s second Columbia album, 1981’s Steve Lillywhite-helmed Talk, Talk, Talk. Then the brilliant and poppy Todd Rundgren-produced Forever Now followed and gave up an improbable U.S. hit in "Love My Way," an elegantly unkempt metrosexual ballad that changed everything.
The gold album made them famous.
After the album Mirror Moves, which took on U.S. dance floors and MTV play with "The Ghost in You" and "Heaven," John Hughes called and titled a film after the band’s Talk Talk Talk single "Pretty in Pink." The Furs misguidedly responded by re-recording a lesser version of the song for the film, and fans cried sellout. That howl became prophesy on 1987’s Midnight to Midnight, whose undeveloped sound relied on production more than songs as much as the whole idea was an obvious grab for mainstream. ("Daniel Lanois [U2] was supposed to produce the album but he said we needed more time to develop the songs," Butler says with laugh tinged of regret. "We went ahead and did it anyway with someone else!") Two well-developed — but underachieving — albums ensued, 1989’s Book of Days and ’91’s World Outside (which featured the best Furs’ single, "Until She Comes"). The band — which the Killers call their biggest inspiration — had run its course, and Butler then encored (alongside his Furs bassist brother Tim) with Love Spit Love, a ’90s combo with its own history and moments of winking significance.
But that was then. The one-time art student now lives in New York state ("close to Manhattan") in mostly quiet days, largely spent in his art studio, before he leaves to collect his daughter from school. Butler’s oil-on-canvas work sees openings in galleries around the world.
His 2006 self-titled solo album (Koch) is a thing of gentle despair and beauty; it went basically unnoticed stateside, but was self-defining for the singer.
Today Butler stands outside a studio in Miami where the Furs — which, technically, re-formed in 2001 — are rehearsing for the current U.S. tour. Butler talks of the music that changed his life, the Furs’ unlikely mainstream success, his art, drinking and why New England is the "new" England. He’s constantly laughing, poking at himself, as if it’s almost a gas that the Furs trade on nostalgia these days, to be one of few doing sizable tour business.
Metro Times: It’s like the Furs participated in the grand British tradition of taking all things American — Warhol, Velvet Underground, Burroughs,Dylan — and selling it back to us. …
Richard Butler: [big laughs] Yeah, the British do that well, don’t we? We just take bits and pieces, dress it up and send it back! Yeah, as a kid, I loved all that New York stuff …
MT: So you had a romance with New York City?
Butler: Oh, yeah …
MT: As a lead singer you were always like some kind of whorehouse priest.
Butler: A what?
MT: A whorehouse priest.
Butler: I like that. I never heard it before.
MT: Made it up. But that’s kind of what you were; you gave the impression that you were offering up this sort of trashy sermon, cynical, lyrical and strangely elegant, with this raspy croon that sounded like no one. Where did that croon from? Bowie? Crosby? Maybe Charles Aznavour?
Butler: [big laughs] Um, I’ve got no idea … but I’ve always had to be talked into that sort of crooning stuff. I’m trying to think. … With "Sister Europe," I remember Steve Lillywhite saying, "Look, Richard, I want you to sing this one by imagining that you’d been awakened at 3:30 in the morning by somebody calling you on the phone. I want you to imagine that you’re talking to them." …
With "Love My Way," it was actually sung aggressively at first. [Forever Now producer] Todd Rundgren said, "I want you to try to sing this a lot more gently." He said, "I think this could be the key song on this record. If you don’t like it, we’ll go back to how you were singing it before. So that’s how it came out with this sort-of crooning.
MT: When "Love My Way" came out on American radio, and on MTV, there was nothing like it. The Furs sounded like some kind of pop saviors, up against Madonna, the Police, John Cougar Mellencamp, the Eurythmics and so on. And it’s still pretty incredible that you managed to win a wide audience beginning with that song. But there were still lots of Beatles and Dylan on the Forever Now album.
Butler: Yeah. But with Dylan I don’t know that I was listening to it at that point, but I had listened to it so much. Literally, when I was 9 years old, my dad started coming home with his records. It became the one point where my father and I touched base. We sit down and listen to it and go, "Well, what do you think he meant by that?"
I listened to it when I was growing up and all through art school as well. Then I started listening to other stuff, like the Velvet Underground, David Bowie and Roxy Music. And that’s probably where, in my mind, it all sort of joined together.
MT: Many of the Furs’ early songs were narrative-driven, which isn’t easy to do. You had these fragmented stories, kind of literate, beat and pop. Did you have any pet authors then?
Butler: [laughs] Well, I liked a whole bunch of stuff. I liked The Idiot, actually, by Dostoyevsky. That my favorite for awhile; I read that twice around that time. Of course there was William Burroughs and all of that kind of stuff.
MT: What was the Psychedelic Furs’ biggest misstep?
Butler: I think Midnight to Midnight. We got a little bit lost. When we had done the first two records, we’d said, "Let’s make this next record sound very different." It was a decision we made. It wasn’t Todd’s decision to put cellos and all that stuff on Forever Now. That was a decision we made back in London. We kind of knew what we wanted to sound like, so Todd Rundgren was the ideal person for that album. So that was a shift in sound. "OK, we did that, what should we do next?" So we did Mirror Moves with Keith Forsey, and that kind of worked too. But with Forsey, we hadn’t written songs up front. We had ideas and we built them up in the studio. "Heaven" was written in the studio. It took a day to write that.
MT: The recording bill must’ve been giant for that record. …
Butler: Not as big as it was for Midnight to Midnight. [laughs] That one took forever. So we rehearsed and did backing tracks in Zurich, and then we went to Berlin to record. Having written Mirror Moves in the studio on-the-fly, or a lot of it, we figured we could do that again. And we found that we couldn’t. We were absolutely dry and stuck for ideas.
MT: You went all the way to Berlin to make a Los Angeles-sounding record. …
Butler: [laughs] Yeah, and it just didn’t work at all. I was having a hard time writing the lyrics. It was just a horrible time. That was our misstep. The funny thing is, originally, we were going to have Daniel Lanois produce it. And he came down to the rehearsal studio and started working on ideas with us. And he said, "I think you need to spend more time writing songs." And we said, "Ah, fuck that. We want to do it now." That was a deep misstep.
MT: Were you drinking a lot during this period?
Butler: No! That’s funny. People had this perception of me being this incredible drug addict, and drinker and everything. People were saying, "as soon as I saw that ‘Love My Way’ video I knew you were into drugs." Funny, I used to drink way too much. Around 1981, our tour manager told my then-girlfriend that "if he carries on drinking like that, he’s going to kill himself." She told me that and I quit. I quit everything around that time. So I went pretty much the entire ’80s stone-cold sober.
It was very difficult for me to get out on stage sober. Stone-cold sober is very scary. …
MT: Wasn’t there talk at one point of Bowie producing an album?
Butler: He had mentioned it. He wanted to do it. But we didn’t want to do that. I mean you get a skinny white guy singing in a vaguely cockney accent and people automatically think David Bowie anyway. [laughs] I didn’t want that. We were influenced by David Bowie, certainly, along with a lot of other people. He was just one little piece of the puzzle. We didn’t want to go back to making more of that.
MT: Back to Midnight to Midnight: In a weird way, that album sort of encapsulated the 1980s. You weren’t really an American pop band, but you wound up becoming an American pop band. Later, when the ’80s became nostalgia, it was awful to see how the Furs were suddenly lumped in with all those bands that broke on L.A.’s KROQ, like Naked Eyes, …
Butler: [audible cringe] Ohhhh. Nooo. [laughs]
MT: Naked Eyes was probably a bad example. I mean, coming out of the gate, the Furs were a reaction against all of that pap, but at one point you were part of it. Time has a way of compartmentalizing pop history, where suddenly all disparate things are joined at the hip because they all share certain years. The Psychedelic Furs, particularly by the second album, had redefined rock ’n’ roll after the Pistols. You’re not remembered for that, so much.
What do you think when you’re touring and it’s all about nostalgia? The John Hughes movie was blessing, but also a curse. … Are you OK with that?
Butler: Um, I don’t really think of it like that. When you’ve been in a band for, say, 10 years, people want to hear certain songs, and if they don’t hear those songs they get pissed-off. So you’re torn between wanting the audience to be happy and wanting to get out what you want to say. It gets difficult the longer you go because, in a way, you do become a jukebox — it’s the pressure of your audience. And that’s why we quit at that time. It became boring.
And without doing a nostalgia packaged tour, you become a nostalgia act to a lot of people anyway. It doesn’t matter whether you are us or if you are U2. I think U2 are kind of nostalgia. You hear them do a song and it’s, "Yeah, I remember. … I met my girlfriend to this song. …" It’s all that kind of stuff.
You become associated with peoples’ past memories, and that’s the definition of nostalgia, really.
MT: Is it all nostalgia for you now?
Butler: No, not really. Like I said, I don’t think of it like that. We are doing another record. We’ve got about half the songs for it; we’re rehearsing a couple and may play them on this tour.
MT: Twenty years between records — ah, what the hell …
Butler: [laughs] We were rehearsing a couple songs off my solo record, but we’re not doing those now. We are doing a Love Spit Love song.
MT: The last Furs album came out in ’91, and the single’s one of the band’s three best; "Until She Comes" actually sounded, god, grown-up …
Butler: Sounded what? Grown-up? [laughs] I think my solo album when I think grown-up. …
MT: There’s no irony on that solo record. It’s beautiful in many ways, and has real sadness.
Butler: Thank you. I’m very proud of that.
MT: You live in upstate New York now, and there are more than a few older English pop stars living in New England, David Sylvian, Lloyd Cole, etc.… What is it about New England?
Butler: [laughs] Well, I suppose it’s as close to England as you can get while not being there. And it’s close to New York City, …
MT: What’s a day in your life? You’re painting, …
Bulter: The days vary. I’ll get up, answer some e-mail, head to the studio and start painting. I’ll take a break around mid-day for some coffee and then carry back on painting until it’s time to get my daughter from school. I’ll go pick her up from the train, and we’ll go out to dinner or something. Her mother and I split up, so she spends a couple of days with me, a couple of days with her, depending. So that changes my plan around.
MT: You couldn’t ask for a better life …
MT: I mean it sounds like the Psychedelic Furs have provided you with a pretty good life.
Butler: Yeah, … well, the funny thing is, the painting is doing it as well. The painting is doing well.
MT: I know that your art is shown in various parts of the world; you just had a show in Italy. Do old Furs fans show up and say, ‘Man, I’ll give you 10 grand for this’?
Butler: Um. Not really, it’s not open to negotiation! [laughs] I think there is a degree of that, but not as much as you could imagine. The galleries I’m with have their price they put on it and I turn up for the opening. And I do as little of that as possible. There’s nothing worse than talking about painting.
MT: What was the highest, most defining moment for the Furs?
Butler: The highest moment would probably be certain times while recording Talk Talk Talk. The defining moment in terms of our career would be when "Love My Way" became a hit out of Seattle. It was a hit in Seattle first, and then it spread down the coast to L.A. and then it became a hit, … that was big moment.
MT: Did "Love My Way" change your lives?
Butler: Yeah, it’s funny, suddenly there were more girls at the shows. [laughs]
The Psychedelic Furs play June 10, at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, 318 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak; 248-298-0708.
To see Richard Butler’s art work, go to Richardbutlerstudio.comBrian Smith is managing editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]