A Conversation With Richard Butler (Psychedelic Furs)

Any band that was big in the ’80s has a lot to answer for when it chooses to mount a belated comeback. To their credit, the Psychedelic Furs have gone about it gradually and organically, with an intimate flair that’s made their recent shows somewhat of a throwback revelation. Leader Richard Butler seems rejuvenated—and with his brother Tim still playing bass, the modified six-member version of the Furs feels legit. 

Made Of Rain (Cooking Vinyl), the band’s first album in 29 years, toys with nostalgia without getting mired down in it. It’s no Talk Talk Talk, but it’s certainly a damn sight better better than Midnight To Midnight. For Made Of Rain, the Furs worked with producer Richard Fortus, Butler’s old songwriting partner from Love Spit Love. They’ve equaled the dense theatrical grandeur of those ’90s LSL albums, while providing a suitable platform for Butler’s meatiest lead vocals in decades. The Butler brothers, meanwhile, have surrounded themselves with an impressive supporting cast that includes sax player Mars Williams (Waitresses), guitarist Rich Good (Pleased), keyboardist Amanda Kramer (Information Society) and drummer Paul Garisto (with the Furs since 1986).

An art student in London prior to founding the Furs in 1977, Butler moved to New York in the early ’80s. He eventually found his way to the Hudson Valley, where he continues to do some serious painting, often using his daughter, Maggie, as a subject for his impressionistic portraits. MAGNET connected with Butler at home in the riverside town of Beacon.

How are things in upstate New York during this COVID summer?
I’m very fortunate in that I’ve got a garden, so I can have friends around and have dinner at a distance. It’s not been too bad.

The Psychedelic Furs have been smart about this whole comeback thing, playing smaller venues to give fans an opportunity to really connect with the band again. And you’ve been all smiles onstage.
I think I’m more comfortable onstage now—that’s a big part of it. I’m able to enjoy it more instead being so stressed and introverted about the whole business. I feel confident when I walk out onstage with this band. We’ve been in this consistent lineup for about 10 years, and it’s a pretty solid-sounding band. We never feel like we’re going through the motions up there. Audiences have been getting larger, which has really been a blessing—it’s allowed us to play larger venues. If we’re able to play Royal Albert Hall (on April 27, 2021), that will been the biggest show we’ve ever done in London.

How did the motivation come about to make new music?
From time to time, we’d write a new song, rehearse it and play it. One of them made it onto this album (“Wrong Train”). It felt like the time was right to make a record. There was some downtime between touring, band members started sending me music, and we just started writing. We ended up with 16 or 17 songs to choose from.

The production on Made Of Rain is layered and lush, but with an edge. It’s still the Furs, and it certainly isn’t retro in any sense.
We’re kind of lucky in that we’re a guitar band. The songs that sound more retro are the ones where we delved more into synthesizers—“Ghost In You” perhaps. Richard Fortus is pretty handy in the studio, and he’s toured with the Psychedelic Furs before. He knew pretty well what we were at heart. For a lot of the ’80s albums, there was a good deal more time spent in the studio. This time, there was a lot of preparation in advance, and we got it done fairly quickly in the studio. In a way, it was like recording Talk Talk Talk more than anything else.

You’ve said that you really don’t write topical songs. But is there anything we can take away from the themes on Made Of Rain that might relate to the craziness of our world right now?
I couldn’t have foreseen COVID. But in retrospect, when I listen to something like “You’ll Be Mine,” which is basically a song about death, it seems to be fitting with the mood of the times.

Let’s talk about your singing on this one. You’ve never sounded better.
I think I sound pretty much the same as I always have because I stay pretty comfortably in my range. It’s mostly my natural speaking range—or perhaps when I’m shouting at somebody. On Mirror Moves, I doubled a lot of vocals, which smoothed out a lot of raspiness in my voice. On Made Of Rain, it’s fairly natural.

Are you still painting these days?
Oh, yeah—and songwriting, too. I got back into painting about 30 years ago in New York. Once I started doing it again, I was surprised that I’d ever left it behind.

Is your daughter still your muse?
About 90 percent of the time. I miss her a lot these days. She’s been off in Scotland studying at University of St Andrews. She managed to get back over here about a month ago. She’s staying for about another month before she moves to London, where she’s trying to get herself a job and an apartment.

Now for the mandatory fanboy question: Which ’80s Psychedelic Furs album was the most fun to record, and which were you happiest with once it was all finished?
Talk Talk Talk is still my favorite Furs album. But I remember coming back from recording Forever Now and just being thrilled with what Todd Rundgren had managed to do with our sound. XTC had a really bad time with him—he and Andy Partridge butted heads. We never had any problems with Todd, and he was a funny guy. He’d have to take off at a certain time every night because he was addicted to Hill Street Blues. It was just a great experience with him from the get-go.

—Hobart Rowland