A Conversation With Susanna Hoffs And Matthew Sweet

Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet lead the pack of recent beauty-and-the-beast duos. (Others include Zooey Deschanel and Matt Ward, as well as Scarlett Johansson and Pete Yorn.) Hoffs and Sweet may be the perfect assimilation of vocal chops and instrumental savvy, as shown on a pair of recent albums titled Under The Covers (Shout! Factory), with volume one re-examining big hits from the ’60s and volume two tackling the ’70s. The track record for Hoffs and Sweet speaks for itself. Hoffs’ band, the Bangles, was the only member of the hallowed Paisley Underground scene to sell more than a handful of records, cracking the national top-30 no fewer than eight times from 1986-89, most notably with “Manic Monday” and “Walk Like An Egyptian.” Sweet’s breakthrough album was 1991’s Girlfriend, which paved the way for later power-pop classics Altered Beast and 100% Fun. (Read MAGNET’s exhaustive overview of American power pop.) The pair plans to take an acoustic version of their Under The Covers act on the road in September. MAGNET caught up with Hoffs and Sweet during coffee breaks while working on a new Bangles album.

MAGNET: I know you come from an artistic family, Sue. Did you start singing at an early age?
Hoffs: I had grown up listening to things like the Kingston Trio, being influenced by the early folk stuff and harmony singing and acoustic guitars. The first song I wrote was called “Rock Island Line,” which was pretty strange for an eight-year-old girl.

Describing your back-breaking days working on the railroad, no doubt.
Yeah. [Laughs] All through the ’60s, growing up in L.A., I listened to the radio while being driven around from one place to another. My mom loved pop music. I had all the early Beatles records on vinyl; still have ’em. And I loved singing along to the radio, everyone from Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick, singing all those Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs, to Petula Clark and Linda Ronstadt. There was such a great mix of things on the radio. You could hear Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” then you’d hear Petula Clark doing “Downtown.”

And then the real Rolling Stones after that.
Yeah, it was a great time to grow up. That’s when I fell in love with music. I’ve always loved to sing.

I know this was a little before your time, but do you have any recollection of that great era when the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Love, the Doors and the Seeds all played in clubs on the Sunset Strip?
A little bit. I grew up further west than that in Brentwood, but I went to a Donovan concert at the Hollywood Bowl when I was very young. I don’t remember it much. And one time we were eating dinner at Dan Tana’s next door to the Troubadour, so we walked over and it was Judy Collins. I was the youngest person in the audience. I got to come backstage and meet her. I definitely knew what was going on east of the 405 (Freeway). My parents were cool. I’ll just say it. My mom wore mini-skirts. My uncle was a really great guitar player, the one who kept bringing me guitars. I had exposure to stuff. My parents were totally obsessed with movies, so we got to see all kinds of—I guess you could say R-rated—movies like Midnight Cowboy. It was a pretty amazing era for art and culture.

Your mom even directed you in a film in 1987, The Allnighter, with one of my favorite actors, Michael Ontkean from Twin Peaks.
That was a lot of fun. I remember him from that movie Slap Shot. Michael was a huge music fanatic. It was a very low-budget movie, made in a few weeks. I was so excited just to do scenes with Michael, and he couldn’t have been nicer. It was right in the heyday of all the Bangles stuff, and he knew I was a musician. It was an extension of growing up in a family with an exposure to the arts. My mother was a painter. My parents met at Yale when my mom was in graduate school, getting a master’s in fine art. My dad was in medical school there. He’s a doctor, a psychoanalyst. We were always taken to museums. So when my mom wanted to make a movie, it was like, “My god, yeah. Let’s do it.”

How did it feel the first time you saw it on the screen?
It’s very hard to watch yourself. It doesn’t surprise me when actors say, “I’ve never seen the movie.” Now I can’t get away from it because of freakin’ YouTube! But it’s OK. The scary thing about this job is you kinda put yourself on the line. It’s the good news and the bad news. It’s hard to write a song and then play it for somebody and be thinking to yourself, “I wonder if this is just crap.” You never know, but it’s the thrill of it. I don’t think I had a choice in the matter. I realize at a certain point in my life that music was the ultimate medicine, the ultimate meditation, the ultimate friend. It was this powerful force in my life, and without it I just wasn’t as happy. It’s almost like you have a different song for every mood.

I saw the Bangles in February 1983 at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco, with Rain Parade and the Three O’Clock. What was it like in those early days?
Coming up here with those bands as part of what was called the Paisley Underground was really exciting. We were all obsessed with the ’60s. Having lived in the Bay Area from 1976 to 1980 when I went to UC-Berkeley, it was kind of fun coming back and actually being in a band. I was definitely a Berkeley girl in the truest sense, patched jeans and into poetry. I was living with David Roback, who ended up doing the Rain Parade, Opal and Mazzy Star. We always talked about the music we did together as an imaginary band, sitting in the living room, dreaming up what we were going to do. I went to the Mabuhay Gardens. The punk movement was so avant garde at the time. I remember seeing Psycotic Pineapple from Berkeley and the Avengers. And there was that great bookstore just up the street, City Lights. And seeing Patti Smith back then, she was such an inspiration to me. That led to learning more about bands like the Velvet Underground. It was a great time to be a bohemian.

You went to the last show ever by the Sex Pistols in early 1978 at Winterland. What did you think?
It was mindblowing. I remember when I first heard the Sex Pistols, there was obviously something very harsh-sounding and intense, meant to get you stirred up. But to me, Never Mind The Bollocks was pretty. There was a shimmer to it that was beautiful. And the Ramones had that, too.

Exactly. The Ramones always sounded like surf music to me. How did you meet the Peterson sisters and form the Bangles, or the Bangs as you were first called?
I met them through an ad in the Recycler, and I also put flyers in record stores and in the women’s room at the Whisky. The first person who contacted me was Maria McKee.

Wow, the half-sister of Bryan McLean of Love.
Exactly! We ended up not doing anything. But I answered somebody else’s ad in the Recycler and Vicki (Peterson) answered the phone, but it was her roommate’s ad. She had just split from a band with Vicki and Debbi (Peterson), and they were both looking for replacements. It was awkward, like you’re on a blind date and the person who opens the door is not the person you’re supposed to go out with. But it’s, “Oh my god, that’s the love of my life.” I remember calling her back the night John Lennon was killed in December 1980. I just needed someone to talk to, and I knew she was a big Beatles fan. We were strangers consoling each other on the phone.

It was certainly the right choice to get together with Vicki and Debbi after that. You cut some great stuff and you’re still around.
Yeah, and we’re recording a new album we’re producing with Matthew. What’s amazing is we all reference the same thing, like we’ll all hear this certain pattern of handclaps, or there should be a 12-string here or a string part. We all share this common love of certain music. Those influences are the glue that sticks us together.

How did you meet Matthew?
I was recording a song for (1992’s) Buffy The Vampire Slayer and went to New York to record it because Fred Maher, who I really admired from Matthew’s Girlfriend album, was going to produce the song. I met Matthew first there, and when he moved to L.A., this amazing musician Greg Leisz mentioned to me that Matthew was doing a show at McCabe’s and would I hang out and maybe sing some background vocals? The night of the show—this was when [Hoffs’ husband Jay Roach] was just starting to work on Austin Powers with Mike Myers—and I thought, “Mike would really love Matthew’s music.” So I invited Mike to the show, and I was right. He did love Matthew’s music. Then the three of us became this fun band called Ming Tea.

Did you and Matthew actually play any shows with Mike as Ming Tea?
Yeah, we did a show at the Viper Room. Mike is such a talented guy and a fantastic musician. The interesting thing about the Ming Tea band was it was a chance for him to work out the Austin Powers character. We pretended to be a band from the ’60s. I was Gillian Shagwell, and Matthew was Sid Belvedere. We all wore these really awful, cheap wigs. And the Paul Mitchell hair mogul was in the audience. For some strange reason he thought, “This band and hair products!” He wanted to have dinner with us. We never actually connected with him, but we got a giant box of Paul Mitchell hair products that lasted for about a year.

In 1986, I saw the Bangles headline the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco with the Hoodoo Gurus opening, and for the encore you brought out Prince. How did that happen?
That was interesting. He never would say when he would show up. The Warfield had these concrete, dungeon-like dressing rooms. I hear a knock on the door, and he was just standing there. “Oh, hi.” He was definitely very nice, and it was amazing that he had discovered us just when we were discovering him. We were really like a garage band. It was a revelation standing next to him onstage and watching him play. The fact that he took an interest in us was very flattering. He ended up contacting me and wanting me to get this song from him, which was “Manic Monday.” And that became our first top-40 hit.

How did it feel hearing your stuff on AM radio?
Well, it felt pretty weird. The first time we heard it coming out of someone’s car, we were standing on a street corner in Washington, D.C., on tour when this car comes by, and we’re going, “What is that song? It sounds really familiar.” And then we were screaming and jumping up and down and hugging each other. We were having our That Thing You Do moment. When you hear your own stuff at places like the California Pizza Kitchen, it’s really weird. My kids say, “Mom, that’s your song.” And I’ll say, “No, no, that’s not. Oh, yeah, you’re right. It’s ‘Walk Like An Egyptian.'”

How did “Walk Like An Egyptian come to be? It’s so different, weird and cool.
Thank you. I agree. David Kahne was our A&R guy at Columbia. I was sitting in his office one day, and he said, “I want to play you this song.” It was Marti Jones, Don Dixon’s wife, singing it, and it was written by this guy Liam Sternberg, who had grown up with Chrissie Hynde in Ohio. And we got Gary Weis, who had made the Rutles movie with Eric Idle, to direct the video. We knew it was cool, but we had no idea it would take off the way it did. We were really surprised. Columbia stayed with it for a very slow ride up the charts. But once it got to number one, it stayed there.

MAGNET: Why did you move to L.A. from New York, Matthew?
I came out here to record Altered Beast with Richard Dashut, and Dashut severely turned me on to L.A. He was like this magic leprechaun that showed me all the groovy, classic L.A. factors. He took me to all the different areas. He showed me the old clubs on Sunset Strip and took me by where Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham and him rented a house together (when Dashut produced Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Tusk). And Stevie would go down to Ben Franks on Sunset Boulevard and work all day, and they would sit at the house and smoke pot. He turned me on to the California dream sort of thing.

If you know where to go, L.A. is a great place. If you don’t, you’re probably gonna get lost.
You have to understand how it works. Out here, I meet more people and live a little bit more of a normal life. And there’s the weather, which is super great a lot of the time. And a lot things I like are here, like movies. It’s kind of a cool place. Although with the Internet, I feel that where you are matters less. For as not old as it is, it does have a cool history.

Where did you first meet Sue?
Sue and I first met through Fred Maher early in the ’90s, but we didn’t really know each other. Then, when I moved to L.A. I did a McCabe’s acoustic show. I had Greg Leisz coming to play with me at this McCabe’s thing, and he mentioned that he was doing something with Sue, and I said, “Bring Sue over and get her to sing with us.” So, she sang some backgrounds at the show, and she got Mike Myers on the guest list, and afterward, we all went out to dinner. This is six months before Austin Powers. He’s still working on the script and still working on the character. We’d go to his house and we had this Ming Tea thing we were doing, so he could perform as Austin. We wrote a bunch of songs, and that’s how we got to know each other better. Sue’s husband, Jay (Roach) is an unbelievably great filmmaker. Mike fought steadfastly to have him (direct Austin Powers). He’s very gifted at comedy, like Meet The Parents, really a classic.

How is Mike when he’s out of character, or is he ever out of character?
It kind of depends. When he’s in serious work mode, he’s like totally serious. That’s the way it is with comedians, in general. They’re not just walking around, doing all that stuff and not thinking about it. However, if he’s out with friends, he’s more likely to be goofy and all crazy.

What kind of stuff did you play live as Ming Tea?
Well, there was “B.B.C.,” which was our song in the end of Austin Powers. Then there was one called “Salad Cream.” It was sort of weird because a lot of our stuff was not ’60s. I want to say it was sort of like New Order. We watched a lot of movies. I was severely into Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. We all watched that a bunch and got a lot of stuff from that, I think. Then there was this Italian movie called The 10th Victim, a futuristic, cat-and-mouse, gun-chase movie with a crazy soundtrack that was really cool. A lot of things came from that. That’s where the name Ming Tea came from. It was the corporate sponsor of this death match on TV in Italy. There would be commercials for Ming Tea while these guys were trying to kill each other.

Did you ever talk about doing an album?
Mike wanted to, and we were all on board to do a Ming Tea record. But at the time, no one had seen Austin Powers yet. They had no idea how it would blow up. The movie company New Line was very concerned with doing a normal soundtrack album with as many big stars as they could get to sing on it. And why would we do this other thing to water that down? But it’s OK. It’s sorta bitchin’ that it’s so semi-obscure. We still see Mike. We did a Sid & Susie show and jammed at his loft in New York.

Any feedback from the original artists on your Under The Covers sets?
I know Mike Nesmith liked “Different Drum” from the first one. Who else? I’m sure the Raspberries will be thrilled (with “Go All The Way”). We met them when they played out here about a year ago. It would have been great to have had Wally Bryson and Eric Carmen play on that. We did get one of the original guys to play on the Fleetwood Mac song and the Yes song, and that was really fun. We got Lindsey Buckingham to play on “Second Hand News” and Steve Howe from Yes to play on “I’ve Seen All Good People.” He played a Portuguese 12-string and the crazy electric lead.

Some of your choices really came from left field, great picks. I especially loved Sue singing “Maggie May.” That was a great point-of-view shift.
I know. Sometimes the lyrics were kinda opposite, but who cares.

Sure, Joan Baez does that all the time. It adds a little twist to it.
Yeah, and I bet both guys and girls will love hearing it. We’ve got three live shows scheduled so far, all of them acoustic. We’re playing this thing next week at the Grammy Museum, four or five songs, but mostly question and answer. We’ve got 10 bonus tracks for the album version on iTunes: a Buzzcocks song, a Blondie song, the Ramones.

Here’s a recommendation for the punk/new-wave album: “Another Girl, Another Planet” by the Only Ones. Great song!
I love that song. We really mostly just try to have fun with this. We’ve done three songs for a new Bangles album, too. It’s so awesome. It’s them being so incredibly cool. It’s just like you want to hear them. Everybody who likes the Bangles will love it. It’s rock and psychedelic and harmonies like the Mamas And Papas with drum sounds like the Beatles. We’re doing pretty cool treatments. And I get to play bass, this wild and bizarre stuff. It’s just cool.

—Jud Cost

Sweet & Hoffs cover the Raspberries’ “Go All The Way” (download):