A Conversation With The Psycho Sisters


I’ve had really good luck interviewing women in a writing career that’s gone on for 25 years. Unlike chatting with men, women seem to get right to the point and don’t waste a lot of time with bullshit. Best of all, their memory for historical and anecdotal detail is particularly admirable. In nearly 1,000 career interviews, some of the very best chats I’ve had have been with such notable female musicians as Grace Slick, Joan Baez, Roni Spector, Marianne Faithfull, Rosanne Cash, Siouxsie Sioux, Emma Pollock, Penelope Houston, Sam Phillips and Barbara Manning. Vicki Peterson (lead guitarist of the Bangles) and Susan Cowsill (with her family’s band the Cowsills since the age of eight) are currently tilling the fields as the Psycho Sisters, and it’s given them rare perspective on making music that many lesser talents would lack.

OK, could I have a vocal ID to compare your voices? I hope you guys don’t have voices of a smiiar timbre.
[In unison] “We do! We do! We do!”

Oh great, that’s exactly what I was afraid of. So, if something gets attributed to someone who didn’t really say it, you’ll understand. Then again we’re not transcribing the Nuremberg War Trials here, so it should be OK.
Vicki: We’ll forgive. We’ll identify ourselves if we’re going to say anything controversial.

I have to tell you, Vicki, I saw you play when you were still called the Bangs, back in early ’82 at the Old Waldorf with Rain Parade and the Three O’Clock in San Francisco. You may have just changed your name.
Vicki: Oh yeah, we just did some reunion shows with those guys. It was fun.

So, you’ve been doing Psycho Sisters for more than 20 years. Why take so long to record your first album?
Vicki: Oh yeah, that.
Susan: Your turn, Vic.
Vicki: Is that unusual? If there’s a reason, it’s probably not a very good one, so the only thing we can say is that this is just the right time for us. We started writing together and did a few shows in the early ’90s and then started falling in love with this band called the Continental Drifters. It was a great musical conglomerate. Originally, we were in L.A., but we all moved to New Orleans, the home of a couple of the members.
Susan: It happens. You get stuck in the swamp. We started thinking more in a Drifterly manner than a Psycho manner. And we had all the time in the world to get back to us.

Hey Susan, gotta tell you that I saw the Cowsills play at the Alameda County Fair in ’07. It was great to actually hear “The Rain, The Park And Other Things” performed live, at last. That’s one of the psychedelic classics. And the other connection I have with both of you is you’re old pals of a friend of mine, Howe Gelb of Giant Sand.
Vicki: Yeah, of course. The Psycho Sisters, sure; we sang on Giant Sand’s Center Of The Universe album and toured with them that winter.

So that was post-John and Joey, was it, the new version of the band?
Unison: No, no, they were still together. They’re all dear friends.

Is Howe still living in Tucson? Last I heard he was living half the year in Denmark with Sophie’s family.
Susan: No, he and Miss Denmark still live in Tucson and have a beautiful family.

Miss Denmark? Right, Sophie, or Sofa, as he calls her. So why did you and Vicki hit it off so well?
Susan: You know, that’s one of those who-knows realities. I often attribute many things to past lives. We had enough in common, I should think. Our musical likes, our ages. You know, for all the reasons you can’t figure out and all the obvious ones, too. Our love of the same kind of music, and we’re both equally insane.

So why the name Psycho Sisters? You both seem pretty level-headed to me.
Vicki: Don’t let the name fool you. We were opening for the Cowsills, but we weren’t a valid entity yet. And a good friend of ours, Bill Bartell, said, “You should be the Psycho Sisters.” We just kind of looked at him. We didn’t know he was referencing the infamous C-movie.

Do you guys remember the Ringling Sisters, the poetry-reading outfit down in L.A.?
Vicki: Of course, Annette (Zilinskas, onetime Bangles bassist) was in that. Yeah, poetry and an almost performance-art kind of thing.

Your song “Never Never Boys” is the best song I’ve heard this year, kind of a companion piece to “September Gurls.”
Vicki: Oh, my gosh, thank you. Oh, how cute. We’ll tell Bob (Cowsill).

What do you get from Psycho Sisters that you don’t get from your other bands?
Susan: All kinds of things. We get to hang out because we live in two different states now. And we’re related now. Vicki is my sister-in-law now. On a musical level, there is something there that is not my solo stuff and not Vicki’s. It’s its own creature. It has to do with just her and me, our thoughts, our own experiences of the two crazy ladies on the hill with the cats.

Most of these songs are from the early days, when you first started doing this?
Vicki: They are. But it’s all cut recently, brand new recordings of old songs. We did headline gigs in clubs as the Psycho Sisters. We didn’t play out a lot. The funny thing was when we listened to our old songs to see which ones we’d record and who sang what, it seemed kind of spooky, because I too can’t tell our voices apart. One thing about us singing together is it seems effortless for us. We can’t explain that other than we have similar backgrounds in our exposure to music. I wasn’t preforming at nine, but I was already writing songs and very alert to pop radio. And Susan was on pop radio. The first Cowsills song Susan performed on, “We Can Fly,” was the first record I bought with my own money.
Susan: Is that right?! How’d I miss that!

That explains why you guys were meant to sing together. Tell me about the photos on the CD. They’re great.
Vicki: The little girl on the front is from the 19th century, and we’re not quite that old. The other photos are of us while we were on tour in Europe with Giant Sand.
Susan: It was otherworldly, playing with those guys. It was another familial experience. It’s a component of our kindred experience. Howe is a good egg.

I really like your songs, about 180 degreees away from that crap they sing on American Idol.
Susan: These songs are written by people with real problems.
Vicki: And written by real people and not a songwriting consortium

Do you guys ever watch American Idol? What do you think of it?
Susan: It takes the purpose of making music, which is to save one’s soul and puts it into a meat market. It’s like, what the fuck? It’s like gladiators
Vicki: It’s just entertaiinment for the masses. It puts music into a circus. It’s not what we do, that’s for sure.

Well, it’s not entertaining me. What was the first time you guys met?
Vicki: Susan and I first met in a club down in Redondo Beach where the Cowsills were playing. My high school band, Those Girls—my sister Debbie on drums and my best friend Amanda on bass—had played there two weeks before. I saw the Cowsills were playing, and I freaked out. I was a huge fan. Susan would never remember me from that night. Susan’s brother Bob became a mentor to us and invited us to a rehearsal.
Susan: I just found those girls annoying in the studio. I’d been living this emancipated life since I was 12, and I didn’t understand girls my age living normal lives. They were in school and went home and ate dinner with people. But my animosity turned to absolute adoration. Several years later, I saw the “Manic Monday” clip on MTV, and I was sitting there going, “Oh my god! It’s those girls from the studio.”

Vicki, you played with the Go-Go’s to replace Charlotte Caffey when she had a baby. How was that?
Vicki: I was dating Jeff MacDonald from Redd Kross, and I became good friends with Charlotte and discussed certain things with her later when Jeff and Charlotte started dating. So I used to say, “Yes, I was touring with the Go-Go’s because Charlotte was pregnant with my ex-boyfriend’s baby.” But they were married at the time.

All right, ladies, on that note, it’s up to me to decipher who said what with your maddeningly similar vocal tones.
[In exact unison, as though they’d rehearsed it earlier, they break into a jazzy vocalese] “Good luck with that, good luck with that, good luck with that … “

—Jud Cost