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The Bangles Return

In the bin of a CD store a few years ago was found an interesting-looking old album called All Over the Place (1984, Sony) by an ’80s band called The Bangles. When that CD was played, it revealed cool, well-crafted, smart songs by a quartet of girls that were doing something different than the usual trite pop of the time.

Those girls – Susanna Hoffs, sisters Vicki and Debbi Petersen, and Michael (yes, she’s a girl) Steele – fell off of the radar for a while after the ’80s ran their course, working on other music and film projects. But they’re back now as a trio (Steele departed the band in 2005) with an album that perfectly showcases their matchless girl-band sound, which blends Beach Boys-era harmonies into radio-friendly indie rock tunes. Pyxis talked to the band’s Vicki Peterson to see what she thinks of today’s music scene, and to hear all about The Bangles’ brand new collection of songs, Sweetheart of the Sun (2011, Waterfront Records).

PYXIS | As a musician myself, I was so impressed by your music when I ran across that album, as it was such a 180 from the synth-based sounds of most bands of that era. Were you at all aware at the time that you recorded the album that you were doing something so different, and setting a new standard  for future female indie musicians?

VICKI PETERSON | Wow – thanks for the kind words. That first record was just us figuring out how to translate what we did live to a recording. Most of those songs were a few years old at the time. Other than World Domination, we had no grand plans!

PYXIS | Then what’s your opinion on the state of female musicians today? Do you have any favorite performers?

VICKI | I’m running into more and more very accomplished musicians and singers and I love that. I’m less intrigued by the dancing pop singers  – talented as they may be – and more interested by singer-songwriters like KT Tunstall, Neko Case, and Gillian Welch. We had the band Antigone Rising play with us on some recent dates and their new stuff is wonderful.

PYXIS |As far as The Bangles’ own music, what most influenced the music and the sonics on Sweetheart of the Sun?  Is there a deliberate theme or thread to the album?

VICKI | We didn’t necessarily start out with the idea of a theme, other than ‘let’s record some stuff that’s fun to play live.’ But I noticed as the songs developed that there was a sort of the-less-shiny-side-of-life-in-Southern-California motif going on in the songs. Susanna and I had read the Sheila Weller book Girls Like Us, and we were inspired by the stories of Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King living in Laurel Canyon in the late 60s and early 70s. Toni Stern, lyricist for Carole King, was the template for the character of ‘Anna Lee’ in the title song.

PYXIS | So how was the recording  experience overall for the band?  Where did you track the album?

VICKI | We began the process working at Matthew Sweet’s home studio, surrounded by cats – painted, ceramic, and living – which is fine by me. Matthew is enthusiastic and very good at keeping the recording process simple and fun – maybe too much fun. Took us forever to get anything done. Once we were rolling, though, it seemed as if anytime someone piped up with a suggestion for a song – ‘Hey!This one should have Peruvian flutes in the bridge!’ – another of us would say, ‘I was just thinking that…’ so it always felt like we were working in a groove. I really enjoyed the afternoon that I set up a drumline – Debbi, our engineer Evan Peters, and my husband John Cowsill all parked in front of a snare – in Susanna’s high-ceilinged living room. The noise was phenomenal.  The neighbors must have loved that.

PYXIS | So The Bangles’ work dynamic and songcraft is obviously still there. That’s very cool. What do you find most rewarding about working together as a band again?

VICKI | I’m quite proud of how we’ve grown as individuals, and yet have figured out how to work as a unit. It ain’t always easy – kind of like a marriage cubed. We’re happy to shamelessly flaunt our common influences right now, and so making new music with the old sounds has been inspiring – it’s musical recycling!

PYXIS | And what are you enjoying most about performing your new songs in a live setting again?

VICKI | It’s just fun for us to play new stuff, even if some members of the audience are just standing there waiting to hear their old fave. Actually, it’s been so gratifying to see so many people singing along with the new songs. I always want to keep the blood flowing with new material – keeps things alive. We toured last fall, and we’re  planning to head back out in the spring and summer of this year.  Can’t wait.
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Interview by Kristi Kates. Find out more about The Bangles and their music at their official website.