- 05 Aug 20
Frontman of cult new wave heroes also talks John Hughes, David Fincher, Bowie and being inspired by Brendan Kennelly.
Almost 30 years after World Outside, new wave legends The Psychedelic Furs have finally released an album of new material, the excellent Made Of Rain. Produced by Richard Fortus – a one-time Furs member who these days plays in Gun N’ Roses – the album incorporates the band’s trademark melancholy into some thrillingly experimental soundscapes. There are even some avant-jazz flourishes, recalling David Bowie’s memorable swansong, Blackstar.
Having become a hugely acclaimed and influential act in the ’80s, The Psychedelic Furs went their separate ways early the following decade. Whilst not especially in vogue during grunge and Britpop, there was too much inherent quality in the band’s output for the culture not to come back around to them again. Thus, having reformed in the early part of the century, they became an influence on a fresh wave of post-punk groups, most notably Interpol.
Elsewhere, with ‘Pretty In Pink’ having previously inspired writer-director John Hughes to write the ’80s teen comedy of the same name, the Furs’ velvet-y new wave has latterly had a fresh lease of life courtesy of films and TV shows like Stranger Things and Call Me By Your Name. Frontman Richard Butler, meanwhile, would be personally sought out by acclaimed director David Fincher to sing a cover of Charles Aznavour’s ‘She’, for the trailer of the hit 2014 thriller Gone Girl.
I recently caught up with the engaging and wryly funny Butler at his home in upstate New York, for a wide-ranging discussion encompassing Made Of Rain – the title of which was inspired by Irish poet Brenan Kennelly – soundtracks, Bowie and much else besides.
PAUL NOLAN: I saw The Psychedelic Furs almost exactly 15 years ago in Vicar St. You’ve obviously been touring for many years – so why did you choose to make a new album now?
RICHARD BUTLER: I don’t know. We were writing songs here and there along the way, but it wasn’t until about three or four years ago that we really decided we should make an album. My brother Tim and different members of the band starting sending me ideas, and it sort of snowballed. We hadn’t thought it particularly important – of that last 29 years, I spent the first 24 saying “Why make a new album?” and the last four saying “Why not?!” (laughs).
It has the band’s typical sense of melancholy, whilst musically, it reminded me of Bowie’s Blackstar.
Yeah, I’ve always been fairly melancholic I suppose. Along the way, I guess there have been certain songs that were celebratory, like ‘Love My Way’ and ‘Heaven’. It’s funny, somebody else – I forget who it was – compared it to Blackstar. It has a very similar mood in its melancholy.
Did you ever meet Bowie over the years?
Oh, lots of times. He would come and see the band when he was in town, or we were in town. I remember him coming down to see the band in Australia, and he came backstage in Sydney. We hung out then, and then he came to see us in Germany. Also, we had a mutual friend in the painter Julian Schnabel, so I’d see him at Julian’s parties too.
Was his cut-up lyrical style an influence on early Furs?
No, not at all! My influences were more like Bob Dylan, who was also abstract. Though having said, he had more narrative-based songs like ‘Hurricane’ and the early protest stuff. But when he moved into Bringing It All Back Home, Blonde On Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited, it became very abstract, and that was the period of his that I was really into writing-wise. And I also liked some of the Velvet Underground stuff, which was very abstract.
On the front cover of your celebrated greatest hits, All Of This And Nothing, the band look very Velvet Underground. Were they a big influence on your image?
Yeah, to a degree. I was also a huge Andy Warhol fan from my time at art school, so we were very influenced by that whole Warhol aesthetic. In fact, the back of the first Psychedelic Furs LP is almost a direct copy of the back of the first Velvet Underground album. (Laughs) Somebody took the photograph and I thought, ‘Oh that’s brilliant, it looks like the Velvet Underground – we’ll have that!’
Being Irish, I couldn’t help but notice the Catholic element to certain song titles on the new album, like ‘Ash Wednesday’ and ‘Come All Ye Faithful’.
(Laughs) I love the title ‘Ash Wednesday’, and I love the pomp and circumstance of Catholicism – the rites and rituals. But I was actually drawn to the title ‘Ash Wednesday’ by TS Eliot. With regard to ‘Come All Ye Faithful’, I remember singing the hymn in school, and the idea of using it for a song title that was completely secular sounded like a good idea.
Given that he was previously in the band, was Richard Fortus an obvious choice as producer?
I don’t know if it’s an obvious choice, because he’s never produced anything before. It was bounced around between the band and Rob, our manager, and at the end of the day, it was a leap of faith. Though Richard hadn’t produced, he had sent me demos and pieces of music that were fantastically recorded in his home studio. We actually didn’t use his home studio, but it seemed a good idea to work with someone who was that talented.
Also, he’d worked with the band before, and he knew what we sounded like and what we wanted. He didn’t have that thing producers often get, where they have a certain sound and bands who work with them get cookie-cutter results. Richard was open to anything. He knew what he wanted and what the band should sound like – which was fairly natural.
Along with Richard, Frank Ferrer used to be in the band – and they’re now both in Guns N’Roses. I was just wondering if you’d ever considered touring with GNR?!
(Laughs uproariously) No, not at all! It’s really bizarre, isn’t it? Richard and Frank were both in a band that I formed with Richard in the early ’90s, called Love Spit Love. And then when I reformed The Psychedelic Furs, they both played with us again for a while. There was also one gig we did in Spain where we needed a keyboard player, and Dizzy from Guns N’ Roses played with us as well! (Laughs) So half of that band was in Guns N’ Roses!
I know you’re an artist as well – did you do the cover for Made Of Rain?
No, actually it was a friend of mine called Kevin Grady. He posts things on his Facebook page, and when I saw that image, I immediately contacted him and said, ‘What is that? I love it.’ We’d already suggested he do the artwork, because he’s very edgy and contemporary. I really loved this thing he posted, so I said, ‘Can we do something like that? I just love it.’ He said, ‘Well, you can use that if you want.’ And I said, ‘Great, we’ll have that!’
It’s cool the way it mixes an old image of a sculpture with the new element of graffiti.
Yes, that’s what I like about it. Actually, Cooking Vinyl made a video, in-house I believe, using that sculpture in a 3D way and it works beautifully. It’s for the song ‘You’ll Be Mine’, it’s on YouTube.
I’ve heard you say before that you felt John Hughes misinterpreted ‘Pretty In Pink’. The song has a real sense of melancholy, whereas the film is a very straightforward ’80s teen rom-com.
Yeah, he completely misinterpreted it. I mean, in my mind, the song was about a girl who sleeps around a lot and thinks it empowers her somehow. Meanwhile, the people she sleeps with are kind of laughing at her behind her back. Nobody gives her flowers, remembers her name, sends her letters – that sort of imagery. And then John Hughes came and turned it into someone who literally wears a pink dress, which had never crossed my mind at all! I thought Pretty In Pink was just a metaphor for somebody being naked.
Did John Hughes contact you himself when he made the movie?
How it happened was I think Molly Ringwald heard the song and loved it. Then she took it to John Hughes and said, “You have to put this in a movie.” He thought, “Well, why don’t we make that the title of the movie?” Our manager at the time told us this was going on, and I forget exactly what happened with it – I think they may have said they were going to use somebody else to re-record it. So we said, “Why don’t we re-record it?” But I don’t honestly remember that clearly.
I feel there’s an added element of poignancy now, in that Hughes later became quite reclusive and died at just 59. Did you feel there was a mystique to him?
No, I never picked up on the mystique, and to my mind, he was very sweet and friendly. I remember he wanted me to go in and see him one time in LA, because he wanted to show me some parts of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. So I went up to his office and I was watching clips. There’s a part in that film, where they’re walking around the Chicago art museum, and I was kind of going, “Oh, there’s a Matisse, and that’s a painting by such-and-such.”
Then John said, “You know, I’m thinking of making a film about Mogdiliani – maybe you’d be good in that.” I just sort of laughed at it, and told my then girlfriend, who was very jealous, because she’d been trying to be an actress for many years. And I’d just seemed to have fallen into this thing. But nothing ever really came of it – thank goodness, I don’t think I’d very good in a film to be quite honest! (laughs).
More recently there was huge acclaim for Luca Guadagnino’s use of ‘Love My Way’ in Call Me By Your Name.
I absolutely loved it. You go from John Hughes – who, god bless him, totally got the wrong end of the stick – to Call Me By Your Name, which was so perfect for the song it could almost have been a long-form video. It’s such a great film too.
You also covered ‘She’ for the trailer of David Fincher’s Gone Girl. How did that come about?
Well, he just approached my manager and said, “I’d really like Richard to sing a cover of ‘She’ by Charles Aznavour.” I was thrilled, and it’s funny, David Fincher was very much involved in the whole process. He was in the studio when I was doing the vocals, and he kind of knew what part of me he wanted – he wanted the more melancholic, huskier part of my vocals from a song like ‘Love My Way’. He actually mentioned that song.
Who produced the track?
I think Fincher did! He had an engineer, but like I said, he pretty much knew what he wanted, and he was in the studio all the time when the vocals were being done.
Finally, I’ve read that your ’80s lyrics were influenced by Martin Amis, who’s one of my favourite authors. Did he feature prominently in your reading at the time?
Yeah, I liked some of his books. I was reading a fair bit of him, but I’m influenced by a good amount of people I suppose. Bob Dylan notably I think; Velvet Underground also lyrically to a degree; and TS Eliot to a degree as well.
In fact, the album title was actually stolen from an Irish poet called Brendan Kennelly.
I believe he underwent a quadruple bypass, and was kind of at death’s door. He had this vision come to him, which he described as a man made of rain. The title of his long-form poem was The Man Made Of Rain: I just loved that title and the idea of it. (Laughs) But I couldn’t rip his whole title off – so I just took the “made of rain” part!
Made Of Rain is out now on Cooking Vinyl.