The Most Endearing and Psychedelic of the Bangles, According to Susanna Hoffs

“We were a scrappy band and not everybody’s cup of tea.” Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Fryderyk Gabowicz/picture alliance via Getty Images

Being on the phone with Susanna Hoffs is almost like chatting with a sentient, sun-kissed encyclopedia of music, where digressions — about, oh, I don’t know, the staying power of “Over Under Sideways Down” or the “magical” godfather known as Bruce Springsteen — are not only welcome but strongly encouraged. “I can talk to you forever,” she jokes at the hour mark, “and I like that you’re going to make me sound not too rambling.”

Hoffs is, of course, best known as the guitarist, vocalist, and de facto frontwoman for the Bangles alongside Debbi Peterson, Vicki Peterson, and Micki Steelewhose dulcet pop-rock gems were virtually inescapable in the late ’80s before their untimely breakup for nearly a decade and eventual reconciliation in 1998, whether you were bumping on the dance floor to “Walk Like an Egyptian” or screaming into your mirror with a hairbrush to “Eternal Flame.” (Hoffs also penned some of the band’s big hits.) On November 12, though, Hoffs honored her most profound musical heroes with the covers album Bright Lights, which contains a mix of songs that have earwormed into her life over the years. Some of these covers include joyful nods to the Monkees, the Velvet Underground, and the guy who wrote “Manic Monday.”

But let’s return to the Bangles for now. As part of one of the most commercially successful all-women bands in history — their golden era had the millions-sold triad of 1984’s All Over the Place, 1986’s Different Light, and 1988’s Everything, which is all the more astounding when you consider that era only spanned five years — Hoffs has plenty of intimate memories about their hair-sprayed ascent to fame, their personal nadirs, and the famous faces who loved to orbit around them. (Just wait for the Robert Plant story.) We cut the interview off at 90 minutes, or else we still might’ve been chit-chatting.

Best Bangles song

Oh gosh, that’s a tough call, because there were some songs like “Manic Monday” — which was written by Prince and he gave that song to us — which were very special. And of course “Walk Like an Egyptian.” It was one of those things that nobody expected to be a single, let alone have it connect so much with people. It’s a little bit of a quirky song. Whoa, what just happened with this? Kids are phoning into the radio stations and requesting it. And then “Eternal Flame,” which was a song I co-wrote that’s very dear to my heart, but initially didn’t make the cut for the Everything album. I was heartbroken when it didn’t get picked. In the Bangles, everybody wrote and sang, so we had to be calculated in a certain way, like, everybody gets a certain amount of songs. But about three-quarters of the way through the making of the record, our wonderful producer was like, “You know what? I have an idea for that song.” So we came up with a really cool arrangement and we ended up recording it. I was so delighted to see that it’s connected with people.

But I think my answer has to be “Hazy Shade of Winter.” It was a song from the very early days of the Bangles. I had a job fresh out of college working for my uncle, who was a musician and had this little ceramics factory in Santa Monica. I went to the University of California at Berkeley and it was such a great time to be in college because of the punk-rock and New Wave revolution happening. I saw the Sex Pistols at Winterland; I saw the Patti Smith Group at Winterland. It was a very fertile and creative time for me. But cut to this factory, and I’m listening to K-EARTH 101, an oldies station. I’m alone in this dark room and all I had was the radio.

“Hazy Shade of Winter” came on one day. I thought I was a Simon & Garfunkel aficionado but I, somehow, had missed that badass folk-rock song of theirs. I ran to our band rehearsal that night and was like, “We have to cover this song.” It became a staple in the Bangles set for years and years. We were a scrappy band and not everybody’s cup of tea. But a little further on in the ’80s, we worked on Less Than Zero. We were told that the film was going to be filled with music and the producers were looking for songs, so I went to the meeting and I’m like, “Oh, I have this song that the Bangles have covered for years in our club days. And we always love playing it. I think it might fit for your movie.” The next thing I know, Rick Rubin is producing it. There’s something about the energy of the song. We did a more rock-and-roll version of it, and I like how our voices are all layered together. It’s one of those Bangles songs that stands out, because it has a weird history to it, but also it never fails to be fun to play live. We often open our set with it.

Signature guitar song

Weirdly, “In Your Room,” which is another Bangles song that I love. I always look forward to playing it. It has really cool open voicings on the chorus and I love playing the guitar part; I love playing my rhythm part. It’s really, really fun. I also love playing “Hero Takes a Fall,” because I get to solo on it. It’s always my chance to break out and do my primitive soloing. I like to pay homage to the bands who are sort of psychedelic, but sort of basic rock-and-roll guitar riffing. Just bending one note over and over and over again until it becomes almost like a loop — a trancelike loop.

Worst band memory

Well, it was a bit heartbreaking when “Eternal Flame” was not voted to be a song on Everything. I was so, so bereft when I didn’t think that we would record it. It does have a happy ending, though, so I guess that doesn’t count.

Having the insight now, looking back, I do think that we had gotten to the place where we were doing a third album and had been basically living our lives as 20-somethings on the road … but with exponentially conflicting complexities. Bands are marriages. It’s not just two people in the marriage, it’s four people in the marriage. Just do the math on how many different relationships exist within that marriage of four people. I think that by the time we hit making Everything, it was kind of a fraught marriage with tons of complexities. I don’t want to say the sum is greater than its parts, but it is the friction, it is the debate, it is the push and pull between members and between points of view and between everybody’s creative sensibility that creates the sound in bands. If you look at bands — let’s say the Byrds, the Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas — there’s always bound to be a family-esque situation where a band is a version of a family. In our case, we have actual sisters in a band. They have that intangible vocal blend. You see that in Beach Boys or in bands where there are relatives.

So you’ve got that genetic magical X factor of voices from the people who are related, but it’s also hard to navigate and emotionally fraught. It brings out the best and the worst and life lessons. I’m so proud of the Bangles and I’m so grateful that I put an ad in The Recycler, and through some circuitous way, it got to Vicki Peterson and there was so much connection between us. This was a period when New Wave was happening. Huge stadium-rock bands like Led Zeppelin, the Who, and the Rolling Stones were drying out. It was a time when you could conceive an idea and say to yourself, I’m going to start a band and there’ll be a club somewhere that will let me play in their venue. There was an underground scene. There were starting to be labels that wanted to work with that sound. There was the Sex Pistols, there was punk rock, the Go-Go’s. There was a scene that made it possible. It was like anything was possible. I’m grateful that we were born out of that time period, but it was bound to be fraught. So we did stop working as a band for close to a decade, but then we reunited and made a lot more music.

Song that encapsulates the ‘Fab Four’ ethos

“Hero Takes a Fall” was one of those breakthrough songs for us. It’s the song that Prince heard and was like, “What band is this? I like it.” The song really encapsulates Vicki and Debbi and my love of ’60s music and that sort of under-the-radar … I wish there was a name for that sort of psychedelic pop. The Seeds, Arthur Lee, Love, the Beau Brummels, the Blues Magoos, the Troggs. We were little girls who grew up on the Beatles and loved the British Invasion. You couldn’t Google things back then. You had to go to a record store. You had to pass around cassettes. It felt like gold that we were all sharing this stuff and making these discoveries and going back to the deep tracks that we wouldn’t have been able to name, because it was more underground stuff. That was the brain food for the Petersons and me. We were eating that stuff up — these discoveries of lesser-known bands that did kind of a mix of psychedelia and pop.

The Yardbirds were a huge influence on me, for example. I remember seeing them in the movie Blow-Up, which is one of my favorite movies because I was obsessed with all of the art; I was a theater and dance major at Berkeley, but then I changed to art, painting, and sculpture. I’ve always loved the Velvet Underground because I think of them as more than just a rock band. They were an art project. I was always drawn to that. For that period of the Paisley Underground we did field trips together and we did shows together. It was a very vibrant period of music lovers loving music together, sharing things with each other, performing together, and creating our own little scene in L.A.

Favorite harmonies to sing

I do the lead vocals on “If She Knew What She Wants,” but it’s always the one very much about the harmonies. It’s a great Jules Shear song. He wrote it and I’ve always loved it. That’s one that I love to sing in the living room by myself. [Laughs.] Jules Shear is a master. That’s another one that I love playing guitar on. If I could drag out my 12-string on the road all the time, I would play it on that. I also love the harmonies on “Eternal Flame.” I think that they’re really beautifully arranged. “Walk Like an Egyptian” is unexpectedly fun in terms of the harmonies, the way-o-way-os. Harmony was one of the centerpieces of what the Bangles did. Jangly guitars, folk pop, ’60s-infused melodic songs. We approached pretty much everything from the point of view of being a “vocal group.”

Most psychedelic song

“Hero Takes a Fall” has a kind of a psychedelic-style guitar solo in it on the record, so that’s what comes to mind first. I would also say that our version of “Hazy Shade of Winter” is a little bit psych-pop, too. It was very much like the Electric Prunes’ version of the song. We used to cover the Nazz in our early years. Todd Rundgren wrote the song “Open My Eyes,” which we covered on our most recent record Sweetheart of the Sun. Todd Rundgren was a huge influence for me. I listened to something by Todd, anything by Todd, over and over. I always think of it as the soundtrack of my summer between high school and college.

For me, songs have always been bright lights on a dark night, things of beauty. If you look up at the sky and you see the moon or the stars glimmering, it reminds you that we’re on a planet and we’re just humans and you need to just have that reset moment. I often tell people who are struggling emotionally, “Take a minute and look at the sky. It’s so much bigger than anything else.” Or just listen to the rustling of trees or a bird song. You’ll realize you are this little thing in this big world. To me it’s magic. Music is magic.

Song whose legacy has changed the most for you

I would have to say “Eternal Flame.” As I mentioned, I didn’t think it was going to be on the record, and it became our last single before the Bangles parted for close to a decade. I didn’t know that in the ensuing years it would turn into one of those songs that people know. Like, younger generations know it just as much. It seems to be a song that … I find myself seeing a lot of licensing of it for usage in movies and television shows. People always share their stories with me about moments in their life where that song helped them get through something; or it was what played at their wedding; or it played when they were losing someone near and dear to them; or they thought of a special person when that song would come on the radio; or they’d turn to that song in times of sadness and loss. Or share happier stories, like it makes them think of when they had their first child or started their family. That makes me happy and I’m really touched by it all.

Most endearing Prince–‘Manic Monday’ memory

I have a really fond memory of the first time I was alone in the darkened room with him in the studio. I felt like, Can he see that we’re rolling red light fever? I really sang “Manic Monday” for the first time at that moment. I remember Prince even before that, when he had discovered us through “Hero Takes a Fall.” I mean, it was a song written by a couple of gals sitting in a literal garage with two guitars, and Prince is now playing it on his own tours and he is making it his own? And elevating it? I’m like right there now, watching Prince play.

Another really endearing memory was when he invited us to his house one day. We were all hanging out and suddenly he said, “Let’s go to Sunset Sound and play music, all five of us.” We went into his special room at the studio and he’s got all kinds of gear set up for us. All he wanted to do was play Bangles songs. And he knew them all. We all just looked at each other, like, He knows them all? What’s happening? We all stayed up until three in the morning. We were taking off our shoes and dancing in our socks while Prince played. He just loved to play music. Not for any gain; just to play because you love playing. That’s what that night was. I’ll never forget that. No photos, just memories.

I recently met one of my absolute childhood heroes, Joni Mitchell. I had the occasion to meet Joni and spend time playing music with her. I didn’t ask for a selfie, but somebody else was there and asked for one and she obliged. I got home and I tossed and turned all night long. [Laughs.] I woke up in the morning thinking, Why didn’t I work up the courage to ask? I told my husband how I was feeling and he responded, “But you have the picture in your memory. You have more than that photograph, you have that night.” That brought me full circle to our night with Prince. That experience; it’s in your memory. You don’t need a photograph.

Most sexist review

There was one article written in the ’80s when we were playing in London. The upshot was like, This girl doesn’t deserve to hold Jeff Beck’s guitar tuner. I don’t remember the exact phrasing, but it was sexist in tone. It was a slag on girls trying to play rock and roll. The irony is that Jeff Beck and Sting came to that show and we hung out with them afterwards. This is actually one of my favorite stories. I was sitting with my legs hanging off the edge of the stage with Jeff and schmoozing with him about anything and everything. It was one of those pinch-me moments and he couldn’t have been nicer. He was such a cool cat that night. Like part of me was going, Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. But at the same time I felt like it was so normal and natural. It wasn’t intimidating at all, because he was so gentle-voiced and chill. I was like, wow.

Speaking of rock gods, Robert Plant used to come to our shows in England. We were driving around in a van — putting our makeup on in the little rear view mirror. We were playing these out-of-the-way clubs. He came multiple times to see us because he was that kind of guy. He liked to go check out new music. Oh, who is this new band from America? We started to call him Saint Bob because he was blessing us with his presence.

Biggest self-destructing band moment

I think the Petersons would say that it was when we switched management. But do you know what I honestly think? The biggest self-destructing moment may have been not knowing that we could say we needed a break. I think that had we been able to just step away from risking … to be able to accept that we might be risking something with the momentum we had. To really just step away and say, “You know what? We’re burnt out. We’re fried. We’ve been on the road nonstop. Everyone’s afraid, emotionally, and we should just take a year off. Go follow your bliss. If your bliss is making a solo record, do it. If your bliss is going out on the road, you love the road, go play with some other artist that you love and collaborate.” I think had we taken a year or two off, things might have been different.

But that’s hindsight. It felt like it was all or nothing. It felt like it was spiraling to a place of anxiety, tension, and being overworked and exhausted — and feeling like we had devoted our 20s to the Bangles. I was wanting to just be able to wake up in the morning and not have to be at an airport or on a stage in a costume. And reboot creatively. This is probably true for solo artists as much as it is for people in bands, but going back to the marriage aspect is exponentially complex because there are four members. If we said to ourselves, “You know what? It’s okay. So what if we lose momentum? So what if we disappear from the public eye? Who cares?”, I think it might have gone differently. But I don’t have regrets because you make the best decisions at the time and we were able to reunite. We’re still friends. We still love each other.

You look at time differently when you’re older. You have to make choices. You can’t do everything. There’s not enough time. I’ve hit 60. Your priorities change a little bit and you get more perspective. You’re like, These are the things I did. There’s two categories. Sometimes you make a decision to do something because you think you’re supposed to, for whatever reason. And sometimes you make a decision to do something because you really want to do it. You want to try something new. I never would’ve written a novel had I not said, “You know what? I need to take a little time. I really want to do this. I wanted to do this my entire life. If not now, when?” So much amazing stuff has happened because I made that decision to just take a chance on something. Every time I’ve made that leap of faith, it seems to have brought something good into my life. I met my husband on a blind date, okay?

Greatest lesson from recording ‘Eternal Flame’ in the nude

I was in the dark. There were two people in the control room who could not see me. It was really just something fun for me. Everyone in the band would have their special night in the studio. I had my special night, and there was a lot of care taken to make everybody feel comfortable. If you like this kind of tea, or you want to have a candle burning when you’re recording, or you want to have special wine or snacks. I had this uniform that I would wear every day and it became my lucky uniform.

It was a funny dare with myself because I had been told this story about … I was being punked a little bit, but it was all good. But I heard this story, which didn’t turn out to be true, about how Olivia Newton-John had recorded a whole album in the nude and how much fun it was. True or not, I had this thought to myself, How funny would that be if I tried it just to see what would happen? I knew no one could see me. I was all alone in a dark room with just a little light by the microphone. The minute I tried it I thought, This will feel like skinny-dipping. I’ll feel really vulnerable. It turned out to be something that I decided to do for most of the songs on that record because it worked so well the first time I tried it. I was like, This is a really good vocal I did! Then you get that superstition, Whoa, maybe I should do that on all the songs! It was a funny little quirk of recording my vocals and it added a little vulnerability to the performances.

Most triumphant pop-culture moment: Austin Powers vs. Gilmore Girls

Both of those have exciting pop-culture legacies. For Gilmore Girls, we were on the first season and performed live for a concert sequence. It was really, really special. But I would have to say that my collaboration with Mike Myers on music for the Austin Powers trilogy can’t be beat. I did music for all three films. Working with Mike, who’s a master of comedy and also a fantastic musician; getting to work with my husband on those films and the legacy; and the amount of people who are now telling me that their children watch it, makes me so happy. Austin Powers was such a part of my life for so many years. My second son was born on the first night of shooting the Austin Powers sequel. I remember my husband was frantically driving from the set to be there when the baby was born. It delights me so much that this whole new generation of people are discovering it. That’s very meaningful.

More From The Superlative Series

See All
Prince wrote the song in 1984. It was originally intended for the debut album of his protégés, Apollonia 6. Hoffs placed the ad in December 1980. The ensuing string of events was indeed fate: The roommate of Vicki Peterson responded to the ad, but when Hoffs called her back, it was Peterson who answered. Famously the starting point for these three guitarists: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. Not a bad lineage, huh? A California-originated genre that blended together psychedelic jangle-pop. It peaked in the mid-’80s. Not a drug reference! It’s another term for “studio anxiety.” The filmmaker Jay Roach. After six years with I.R.S.’s Miles Copeland as their manager, the Bangles parted ways with him. Their new management company was more interested in pursuing Hoffs as a solo artist than the Bangles as a band.
The Most Endearing of the Bangles, As Told by Susanna Hoffs