Founded in 1977 by the brothers Butler in their parents living room, The Psychedelic Furs were way more than just the classic hit Pretty In Pink. Hard to define, with thoughtful lyrics, an instantly recognisable vocal and complex music, they never quite got the recognition they deserved. After a significant break, the band are back and working on a new album, plus they’re heading to Norwich to play all their hit singles. I had a lovely chat with bass player Tim Butler about Pretty In Pink the film vs the song, the origins of the band and the state of the music industry in 2017.
You’ve been in the band from the beginning in 1977. What led you and your brother Richard to start the band?
We went to see The Sex Pistols at the Hundred Club and were blown away by the passion and the power of them. One night Richard and I were sitting by our parents’ fire talking about forming a band and he said “Do you want to form a band?”, and I said “OK”. He said “What would you like to play?”, and originally I wanted to play drums but a whole set would have been too expensive. I wanted to be on the rhythm section so I chose the bass. The fact that we’d seen the Pistols, and saw that you didn’t have to be a prog rock guitarist to get out there and say something at that time was really important. Music at that time was really stodgy, mammoth bands playing half hour guitar solos. The Pistols came along and kicked the music business up the arse. We decided we wanted to be a part of it.
Can you remember the first time you and Richard wrote a song together?
We wrote the first song together in our parents’ front room. There was Richard, myself, Roger, our original guitarist and Simon my other brother. We were jamming around and came up with We Love You.
Who were you listening to at the time?
Round about that time The Velvet Underground, early Bowie, Roxy Music…Roxy Music were a big influence because of having a sax in the band, we used to get compared to them. Maybe we were, but I like to think we had the song structure of Roxy Music or Velvet Underground but with the energy of The Sex Pistols.
There were so many music genres around at that time, punk, new romantics, new wave etc. How did you develop your own unique sound?
Punk merged and became new wave and alternative but when we picked up our instruments we were bored by the music we heard, and it was the tail end of punk. Once The Sex Pistols broke up it was pretty much done although it carried on on life support with bands pretending to be the Pistols. We didn’t really know how to play at the beginning, and we’d go onstage and jam around a song like We Love You or Imitation Of Christ sometimes for 20 minutes! People were ready for a change, they’d got tired of jumping up and down to three minute songs with nihilistic lyrics. I think our more thought out lyrics that you had to think about changed things. Richard’s lyrics are down to personal interpretation by anyone who listens to them, and make people think more. That led to us making more alternative, slower, more thoughtful music but with the passion of punk.
Your first album did really well and a lot of the reason for this was that it was played on the radio a lot. As I believe you’re now thinking about recording a new album, how do you find the music industry these days?
For new bands it’s very hard to get into. Nowadays, if you don’t have an immediate hot record companies tend to drop you and it’s onto the next thing, whereas when we got signed we got signed for a four to five album deal. Doing it that way it builds an audience that will stick with you, but how they do it these days they’ll have a band with one single or album and don’t give you a chance to build a band. If you have a big hit you might not have done the groundwork. I think it would be very very scary getting into the music business today. You can record at home and put stuff out on the internet – there’s so much music out there it can confuse people.
What do you think the music industry needs right now?
It need another Sex Pistols, or Nirvana to kick it up the arse and get it back in gear. It’s starting to slow down and become stodgy, producer-led bands. Songs on the radio now are so interchangeable – there are no recognisable voices.
How did your song Pretty In Pink become involved with John Hughes’ film of the same name?
Molly Ringwald was a fan of the band and that song. She played it to John Hughes and asked him to write a film around the song. He came up with the movie Pretty In Pink, and I’m not sure if he misinterpreted the lyrics or didn’t think a movie about that would be good for the teen market! The song’s actually about someone being naked and beautiful, which isn’t necessarily suitable for his target audience.
It probably got your music heard by a different audience.
Yeah it got out there to a teen market – girls would come to the shows in pink t shirts, which meant we lost some of our hardcore original fans because they thought we had sold out even though the song had come out five years previously.
You can hear the influence of the Furs in many modern acts. Who do you listen to these days, and who have you seen live that’s impressed you?
The Killers. They’re fans of ours as well, and actually asked us to play at the Hollywood Bowl and Benicassim with them. At the Hollywood Bowl Brandon asked us not to do Pretty In Pink in your set, and do it with us instead? So they started a song, Jimmy Kimmel came out and did a ‘Kanye’, interrupted Brandon singing, and then we all came out and we all played the song together. It was really cool, it’s on YouTube. There is music out there I like..I’ll hear things and think it’s cool, but not be able to find out who it is which is annoying!
You’re playing singles from your back catalogue on this tour in the autumn. Which ones are you most looking forward to playing?
My favourite songs we’re ever done are Heaven and Only You And I, which wasn’t a single but I hope we put it in there. We have 18 or 19 singles to choose from so we’ll be arguing in the studio I expect! One of the reason we’re doing it is that we’re working on a new album that we’ll hopefully have out next year, so it’s like reminding people of the back catalogue to get everyone up to speed before the new album.
You’re playing one of Norwich’s biggest venues – that’s pretty cool, considering you haven’t released anything for so long.
Yeah, it’s amazing and we’re just so blessed that we still have that audience. I mean the first record came out in 1980 which is 35 years ago or something, and we have audiences that are growing. These days we get the children of our original bandmates coming down, listening to their parents playing The Furs, and we get new fans coming down because a lot of new bands namecheck us in interviews as being an inspiration. We get weird cover versions, like Korn recently did a cover of Love My Way., and then we might get some Korn fans coming along to a Furs gig. The song is strangely similar to the original, not the heavy metal that I was expecting! Maybe they’re getting a bit soft in their old age!
So you’re working on new Furs material – how’s it going?
It’s going really well I think we have more than enough songs for an album. Richard’s still at the lyric writing stage so hopefully we’ll be recording at the end of the year when our touring calendar’s finished and it should be out next year.
How’s it been writing songs together after a long break?
It’s always been easy for Richard and myself to work together, but now we have some fresh blood in the band as well so it’s even easier. We have been entrenched in the old Furs writing style which isn’t bad, but it’s great to have some new input.
Would you say we will immediately be able to recognise the new material as Psychedelic Furs?
Your own music changes because of music you hear around you but of course Richard has one of the instantly recognisable voices in alternative music, I think, so you’ll know it’s us!
Have you played in Norwich before?
I have a question for you – is the Norwich Boogie House still open? In the 1980’s, the only other time we’ve played in Norwich was at the Boogie House! How I remember that I don’t know.
(Ed’s Note: The Boogie House, previously Peoples Nightclub was a basement club located where the old MacDonalds was on Westlegate. Squeeze, The Specials, The Cure and Iron Maiden also all played at The Boogie House before it closed down.)
Where are you living now?
In Liberty, Kentucky in the States, where all the horse farms are. It’s very pretty. Coming to England to tour means I get to see my mother, who I haven’t seen since the last time we were over there – she lives 60 miles outside of Manchester, so I’m going to go up there with my wife to visit with her for a few days.
The Psychedelic Furs play the LCR on 11th September. Tickets available from ueatickets.ticketabc.com