The Collapse Board Interview: Tim Butler (The Psychedelic Furs)

The Collapse Board Interview: Tim Butler (The Psychedelic Furs)
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Photo: Matthew Reeves

Formed in 1977, the Psychedelic Furs melded punk energy with atmospheric soundscapes, defining the post-punk and new wave genres thanks to Richard Butler’s distinctive vocals and Tim Butler’s driving bass lines.

If you grew up in the 1980s, you will know the Psychedelic Furs. They were one of those bands that was inescapable, working their way into the soundtrack of your life almost by osmosis. One of the bands at the forefront of the New Wave British Invasion of the early 1980s that conquered the US thanks to having video clips that MTV needed, their place in that decade’s musical history was ensured thanks to John Hughes using the band’s 1981 “Pretty In Pink” single as the inspiration for his decade-defining 1986 Brat Pack teen rom-com movie of the same name.

Ahead of the band’s shows at the Pandemonium Rocks festival, we spoke to Tim Butler about working with a dazzling array of producers through the 1980s, making their 2020 Made of Rain comeback album, and what saxophonist, the late Mars Williams brought to the band over his long career with them.


Hi Tim, how are you?

Ah, it’s a miserable day here. It’s been nice up to now, but today it’s like rainy but what can you do?

I saw you live in Kentucky now, how did you end up living there?

I met my wife on MySpace, which was like a precursor of Facebook. She had been a fan since the third album, like 1983 and finally got hold of me, we started talking online and there you go, I’m in Kentucky!

You grew up in a household where your father was a research chemist, a communist and an atheist. Was there much music in your house when you were growing up?

Oh, yeah, I mean, my father was a huge Bob Dylan fan, for one thing. When a new Bob Dylan album would come out, it would be straight away in his collection. We used to listen to Dylan and Hank Williams and Edith Piaf and people like Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy and all the blues people, it was a lot of different music, he was very into music.

Dylan offered you one of his songs, back in the 1980s, didn’t he?

Yeah, it was called ‘Clean Cut Kid’. It had like 15 verses, and he said, “Oh, tell them what they can cut it down if they want,” but we had enough songs of our own, it was around about the time we did Forever Now. We had enough of our own songs and to have a 15 verse Bob Dylan song was a bit too intimidating.

Did the band ever demo it?

Oh, no. I don’t think we ever played the tape more than two or three times.

Dylan at that time in the early 1980s was not at his best.

I think he might have written it because maybe Jakob Dylan was a fan or something, and his dad wanted to get in with his son or something. Who knows?

You were inspired by seeing the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club. Being 18, being in London at that time must have been a really exciting time.

Oh, yeah, yeah. It was exciting and depressing because there was so much unemployment. I think like three out of five or maybe four out of five kids leaving school were on the dole. And also in ‘76 there was a garbage strike, so there’d be huge piles of bags of garbage on the street and stuff. It was exciting, but it was also so depressing.

What did you find inspiring about seeing the Sex Pistols when you first saw them?

I mean, we had been listening to cool music. We were big Stooges fans and Roxy Music fans and Bowie fans, but you went to see the Sex Pistols and there was so much anger and energy, it was impressive. And after that Richard said to me, Do you want to form a band?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll form a band,” and he said, “What do you want to play?” Originally I wanted to play drums, but I realised the drum kit would be too much but I wanted to be on the rhythm section of it, so I ended up buying a bass and here we are.

Richard was at art school in Epsom but were you studying anything? Did you have a career planned out before music took over?

No, I’m still deciding! I’d left secondary school and I was trying to decide what I wanted to do. Between secondary school and forming the band, it was only about a year and a half or two years. It was pretty quick going from school to being in a band.

I think I’ve always thought of Psychedelic Furs as being an almost archetypal post-punk band, different from the sound of the 1976 punk bands. What other influences were leading you away from that rawer, original punk sound?

Well, there were so many bands around that time that were Sex Pistols rip-offs, you know. I’ve got a tendency that John Lydon never meant punk to be, you know, “Copy-me.” He just wanted anybody to make music whatever you wanted. So we looked at all the gig listings in Melody Maker, NME, and there were all these bands, like punk bands, like the Slaughter and the Dogs, the Stranglers, and we thought, “What sort of name would draw attention?” And because we were influenced by psychedelia of sorts, you know, the Velvet Underground, Iggy and the Stooges, and the Sex Pistols, we thought, “Let’s call ourselves ‘The Psychedelic’ something, so people would know what our original influences were. I guess we just tacked on the ‘Furs’, I don’t know where that came from, probably a drunken night in the pub. I think our sound is Roxy Music instruments with the energy and aggression of the Sex Pistols, it’s like an amalgam.

I look at the people you’ve worked with down the years, and as well as some notable musicians who’ve played on your albums, you’ worked with so many producers who were either the hottest ticket at the time or soon became very in-demand producers that everyone wanted for their albums. Steve Lillywhite did your first two albums, what did you learn about making records from him?

When we originally worked with Steve I think he had just done the second album with Peter Gabriel, and he’d done Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Scream stuff, he was quite young and fresh. He did U2’s first album, he did our first album, and then he said, “I’ll never produce two albums by one band.” Then he went in and did the second U2 album, and then the second Furs album, so he didn’t take his own advice of not doing two albums.

How do you think he helped the band?

Well, the first album, he just wanted it to sound like we did live, because he came to see us live a couple of times. We pretty much just went in there and played like we would do a normal concert, and he cleaned it up a little bit in production. Then in terms of what went into the second album, he helped us to sort of cut down the amount of guitar overdubs. John [Ashton] liked the idea of going in there and doing five or six different guitar lines and then leave it up to the mix to sort it out. Steve was more into two or three guitar lines, find the part that you like and then play them on one take, because it’ll make it a whole lot easier to mix it.

Another thing he did, and I think he did the same thing with Peter Gabriel, was that he said he thought there was too much cymbals on a lot of rock and roll records, that it didn’t need it. So what he did, we put foam on the hi-hat and took away the cymbals, and recorded like that, and any cymbals or whatever that we thought would be needed, Vince [Ely] would overdub them, so that they weren’t there, so that the other tape would have more control over the drums.

Martin Hannet also did some production work on that first album?

Yeah, he produced ‘Susan’s Strange’, and, what was the other one he produced? I’ve forgotten the other one, oh, ‘Soap Commercial’, which weren’t on the English version of that album, because on the English version of that album we had a track called ‘Blacks/Radio/Chaos’, it was like a long jamming track, and CBS thought it sounded like it was racist but it wasn’t. So on the US copy of that album, we put ‘Susan’s Strange’ and a ‘Soap Commercial on it.

There’s lots of stories around bands being in the studio with Martin Hammet, how did you find working with him?

All I can remember is a cloud of pot smoke [laughs]. He would partake of a lot of pot. Nice guy though.

And then Forever Now you did with Todd Rungren.

Yeah, that’s my favourite album. If you can ever call someone a musical genius, I think Todd is one of them.

You seem to have had a better experience than Andy Partridge, who still complains about recording Skylarking with Todd.

I think they had an argument over ‘Dear God’.

You seem to have been more accepting of his suggestions and ideas. You were sort of willing to use different sounds that you hadn’t used before and to try out different ideas, like the backing vocals.

Yeah, for the backing vocals, it was his idea to bring in Flo and Eddie. We were like, “Nah, those guys from the Turtles. No way!” and he said, “Look, I’ll bring them in, we’ll put some backing vocals on ‘Love My Way’ and see if you like them, we can always take them out.” So he did that on that song and we went up to the control room and listened to it. We immediately said, “Wow, can you get them to do backing vocals on some other tracks?” We were so impressed by it. His whole idea for the backing vocals, was to not to make them sound like words, but just to make them sound like another instrument.

Then you moved on to working with Keith Forsey for Mirror Moves, just as he was becoming the go-to producer at the time. Did he offer you ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’, like he seemed to do with everyone around that time?

No, but I did hear that it was offered to Bryan Ferry and Bryan Ferry didn’t want to do it. I think it was offered to Billy Idol as well before Simple Minds took it. They did a good job with it, it worked for them.

You decided to put the Psychedelic Furs on hiatus in 1992 and you and Richard formed Love Spit Love. Was it an easy decision to make?

We’d gone the peak of Midnight to Midnight and then we decided that that wasn’t the direction we wanted, we’d sort of sold out. So we did Book of Days and we didn’t do any videos or interviews, and I think we sort of lost our audience, and when we came back with World Outside, they’d sort of forgotten about us.

So we decided, “You know, this isn’t fun anymore. We’re not enjoying being the Psychedelic Furs. Let’s take a break and do other things.” So we did, and we decided when we got back together in 2000 that we actually enjoyed being the Psychedelic Furs again. And we still do, because we’re not pressurized by a big record company to do an album and write a hit song. It’s all our own, how we want to do things.

When you got back together in 2000, it was for a tour with the B-52s and the Go-Gos, was there anything that happened around that time to make you decide to reform?

Yeah, I mean, lots of bands were citing us in interviews as influences and we thought, Wow!” we didn’t realise we’d made that much impact on people, so we thought, “Oh, let’s get together again, we’ve been offered that tour just to try out whether we like playing together as a group again,” and we discussed it and said, “Well, they only want us to do a 40-minute set,” which is, you know, nothing, and it was fun to play together again.  We just finally got to do a new album and we’re still enjoying it.

It took another 20 years from reforming to putting out a new album, 2020’s Made of Rain, and you’ve talked about whether you could still record something that stood up with your best work from the 1980s. Does that 80s legacy weigh on you as songwriters?

It did until we did Made of Rain. I think up until then, my favorite album in the 80s was Forever Now but I think Made of Rain stands up well alongside Forever Now.

It’s so good, it’s hard to understand why it took you so long. I read that you said the best songs came in seven months before you started recording it.

When we got together in 2000, we all wanted to do another album, but as I’ve said before in interviews, we were a bit sort of gun-shy about how it would be accepted after over ten years.  We were very, very, very pleasantly surprised by the reaction it got and the reviews and the audience reaction.

Looking at it in hindsight, do you have regrets that it took so long? Did you think you had anything to worry about?

Maybe a little bit. We could have had more confidence in our abilities to write songs but we had 10 years, or eight years, to do other things and just come back refreshed

These are your first shows without Mars Williams. What do you think did Mars bring to the band?

He brought distinctiveness. I mean, in the 80s, there wasn’t that many bands with a sax player, and such a brilliant sax player, I think he was one of the best rock and roll sax players I’ve ever heard. We’re trepidations about how we’re going to get his shoes since he passed but we’re coming out, at first, we’ve got Richard Fortus, who’s played with us a lot before and he’s now with Guns N’ Roses. He’s going to come on tour with us, so it’ll be a more, I guess, guitar-orientated rock and roll show. Of course, some songs we can’t do, because they need sax too much but I think we’ll leave everybody pleased.


Saturday 20 April – Caribbean Gardens, Melbourne – TICKETS

Tuesday 25 April – Cathy Freeman Park, Sydney – TICKETS

Saturday 27 April – Broadwater Parklands, Southport – TICKETS

Sunday 28 April – Eatons Hill Hotel , Brisbane – TICKETS

Pandemonium Sideshow:

Tuesday 23 April – Alice Cooper + Blondie + The Psychedelic Furs + Wolfmother – Newcastle Entertainment Centre – TICKETS

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