It’s a mathematical probability that everybody on the planet has slow-danced to the Bangles song “Eternal Flame” at least once in their lifetime. If you’ve been to a prom or wedding reception in the last 30 years — and who hasn’t? — “Eternal Flame” has definitely been played, because it’s the law (like it’s the law that Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” has to be played at all sporting events), and that invariably leads to people dancing awkwardly with each other even if they don’t want to, because that’s the siren song of “Eternal Flame.” For that awesome staying power alone, the Bangles deserve your respect. Or more specifically, Susanna Hoffs, the Bangles lead singer. Purists will point out that the band has no official lead singer, as everybody in the quartet has gotten to sing at some point in the Bangles’ history. No disrespect meant to the other members, who all seem like perfectly competent musicians, but I don’t continue to have erotic dreams about any of their sideway glances. None of the other Bangles could sing a lyric like “employment’s down” and make it sound like phone sex. None of them starred in a terrible but oddly compelling 80s movie like The Allnighter, in which they appeared in their unmentionables in a scene that’s still being watched by countless curious teens on YouTube even as you read this (another mathematical probability). I called Hoffs to talk about the Bangles’ (i.e. her) new album, Sweetheart of the Sun, which I can already tell you, before even hearing a note, is worth a listen, if only to find out what slow song you’ll be dancing to at weddings for the next thirty years.
Eric Spitznagel: Is it weird trying to sell a Bangles album in 2011? Videos were such a big part of the band back in the day. In an era when music videos really don’t have as much power, how do you remind people, “Hey, I still have those same big doe eyes you loved in the 80s?”
Susanna Hoffs: [Laughs.] Well, it’s definitely a lot different. So much has changed in the music business and in the world in terms of technology. Now there’s the Internet and downloading and all these things that have crashed the old structure. There was a time when artists could actually earn a living from selling records. But I think the love of music is still there and will always be there. So we just sort of hope for the best. You know what I mean? We put it out there and hope people will like it and it finds its way in the world.
That’s an interesting business strategy.
I think so.
So when the record company asks you, “Is this album going to make any money?” you respond with, “I don’t know. Maybe? Fingers crossed!”
[Laughs.] Sure, yeah. Listen, we love to play and we love to perform, so hopefully people will come out to hear us play and learn about the record that way. We’ve been mostly under the radar for the past ten years or so, and that’s partly because we stopped touring and had families. We’re mothers now, so we can’t just drop everything and jump on a tour bus and go for a year like we did in the old days. Now we have responsibilities to other people besides ourselves. Back then it was all Bangles all the time.
Everything I know about the Bangles is from your videos. How similar is the live show?
Oh, it’s very similar.
In the video for “If She Knew What She Wants,” the band is standing way too close together, like you’re playing in a studio apartment. Is that how you do it in concert?
Well [laughs] no, not exactly. But the way we play is the same. The way we hold our guitars and sing, that hasn’t changed very much. It’s who we are as people, at least when we’re on stage playing music.
How about that sideways glance you do in “Walk Like an Egyptian.” You know what I’m talking about?
Oh yeah yeah.
Your gaze shifts from right to left in that really flirty way. When I was 14, that absolutely killed me.
I guess it’s become an iconic moment in that video, and I didn’t even realize it was happening. We shot it in this soundstage warehouse in New York, and the audience was all contest winners from a radio show. I knew the camerawoman, Nancy Schreiber, because she’s worked with my mom before, who’s a filmmaker. Nancy was all the way in the back, somewhere behind the crowd, and I guess she was using a long lens because I didn’t even know she was filming me. I had this habit I’d adopted from touring, where I’d find one or two people in the audience and make eye contact with them during the entire show, just to anchor it. I’d single out a person to the left of me and a person to the right of me, and that’s who I’d sing to. And that’s what I was doing when we were shooting the video. But I had no idea the camera was so tight on my face.
So you’re like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, when she was all, “I didn’t know they were filming my beaver!”
[Laughs.] Right, right. And that’s the truth, sometimes you don’t where the camera is. They don’t always tell you. And maybe it’s for the best. If the camera was really close, right up in my face, I would’ve been more nervous and self-conscious. It was just something that I do when I sing live, and I was caught in an unguarded moment.
Have you always known that your eyes were such a commodity?
I don’t know if I’d go that far.
I would. Do you ask for a crate of Visine in the Bangles contract rider?
What? No, no, no.
You get pink eye and the band is over.
[Laughs.] That’s so funny. No, there’s nothing like that. It’s interesting the things that people associate with the Bangles and with me. It’s all just part of the lore. And I’m grateful for whatever those things are. I don’t know, it’s a cool thing. I’m just happy that people are still interested in the band, because we’re still having a lot of fun doing it.
I have a question about “Walk Like an Egyptian.” I watched the video a lot as a teenager, and then at least a half dozen times preparing for this interview. For the life of me, I can’t figure it out. What the hell is that song about?
Well, we didn’t write it. And to be honest, we weren’t totally sure what it was about either.
I knew it!
It was written by this guy named Liam Sternberg, and I heard somewhere that it had something to do with a time he was on a ferry crossing a river somewhere in Europe. It was very windy or something, and there was waves, something was causing people to walk in a funny way. Apparently that was the inspiration.
I would accept that explanation if anywhere in the lyrics he mentioned “ferries” or “wind” or “waves.” But he doesn’t. It’s all gold crocodiles and cops in donut shops.
I know, it’s kind of vague. I just watched that movie To Kill a Mockingbird. And there’s a scene where Scout and her brother, I forget his name, says, “Let’s walk like Egyptians.” And then they do a funny walk. I watched that scene and I was wondering if maybe Liam had subliminally remembered that movie as a kid and maybe that’s where it came from.
But you don’t know?
I really don’t.
This interview is over!
[Laughs.] I’m sorry!
What are you thinking about when you sing that song? What do the lyrics mean to you?
Mostly I’m thinking, “Please don’t let me forget the words!” I have forgotten the words during shows to such a degree that I plaster the stage with little Post-It notes, just in case. And it’s so bizarre because it only happens on the songs that I’ve been singing for thirty years. I could sing those songs in my sleep, and I probably do. But for some reason, I start tricking myself. It’s a mind game. I’ll be up on stage singing, and in the middle of a song this little voice in my head will go, “Who are you kidding? You only think you know this song. You’ve forgotten everything!” And sure enough, I’ll stumble on a line and I can’t find my way back.
I feel like I should test your lyric memory right now.
The panic in your voice tells me this is a good idea.
This is a terrible idea. Because you’ll probably trip me up and it’ll be really bad.
Let’s just do one “Walk Like an Egyptian” verse: “All the Japanese with their yen/ The party boys call the Kremlin.” What comes next?
Um. [Laughs.] See, it’s like the alphabet. If you start in the middle, you’re going to have trouble.
Do you want a hint?
No, no, I can do this. (Long pause.) Let’s see, let’s see. (Long pause.) It’s got to be in order! That’s my problem.
“And the Chinese know (oh whey oh)…”
“They walk the line like Egyptians!” [Laughs.] Thank you. It’s very complicated. It’s like a beat poem. I don’t know what Liam was thinking.
Most of your songs aren’t as confusing. “Manic Monday,” for instance, is pretty straight forward.
That’s right, yeah. Prince gave us that song. He actually found out about the Bangles from MTV. They were playing the video for “Hero Takes a Fall” and he was like, “This is cool and I want to check these girls out.” He jumped on stage when we were at the Palace in Hollywood in ’86, I think it was, and played that song with us. There’s a picture somewhere of me just looking at him, smiling from ear to ear, watching Prince play. It was like the guitar was an extension of his body.
I heard that he wrote “Manic Monday” for the Bangles because he had a crush on you. Is that true?
I would never be able to speak for him in any way, so it’s all conjecture. I know he liked the band, and he invited us on many occasions to jam with him in the studio, just for fun. It was a big thing having Prince’s endorsement. But I couldn’t speak for him in terms of what the motivation was.
If “Manic Monday” was Prince’s way of trying to woo you, he could’ve done better.
Really? I thought it was a great song.
Oh, it was. But when you rhyme “Sunday” with “Funday,” that’s some lazy seduction.
Well yeah, but there’s a lot of stuff in the song that’s suggestive. “Let’s go make some noise” and all that. So who knows? I haven’t talked to Prince in a very long time. Not since the 80s. I couldn’t begin to guess at what he was thinking.
“In Your Room” is another one of your songs that, in hindsight, needs some explanations. I originally thought it was about seduction. But then I watched the video again, and it appears that what happens in your room involves playing sitar and dropping acid. What exactly is that song about anyway?
It’s about seduction! There’s no way it’s about anything else. That’s the great thing about songwriting and music — it allows you to reveal your inner thoughts and desires in a really intimate way. That’s kind of what drives me to write songs in the first place. It’s an outlet for these feelings, and a chance to express something, some sense of longing that you want to say out loud but it’s easier to say in a song. You know what I mean?
Oh yeah, sure. It’s why dudes like Lloyd Dobler hold up boomboxes and let Peter Gabriel do the talking.
Yes, exactly! I think songs are a great way to communicate deep personal notions. I have songs for when I need a little extra courage, or when I’m bummed out and I want to feel good again.
Or when you want to lure somebody into your room under false pretenses and then surprise them with a sitar solo.
Sure, yeah. [Laughs.] We all have that, right? As a writer, you hope that whatever you’re expressing in a song will be something that somebody else can relate to. So you’re kind of like a voice to reach out to other people to share these common experiences with them.
There’s really no reason to bring this up, but I feel like I need to ask you about The Allnighter.
[Laughs.] Sure, okay.
When you look back at that movie, do you think, “Totally underrated?” Or do you wish you could buy every VHS copy still in existence and burn them all in a huge bonfire?
I wouldn’t go that far, but yeah, I cringe sometimes. I always cringe when I’m looking at myself. I just get uncomfortable. But no, I don’t regret doing it. My mom directed it and we had a blast making it. It was made in a month for no money, crammed in between tours with the Bangles and I had no time to prep for it. And it’s gone on to become this weird cult classic. I’m embarrassed by some of it, like all the bright day-glow outfits.
I was thinking more about, you know… the scene.
Oh yeah. [Laughs.] There’s a clip from that movie that’s really popular on YouTube.
Where you’re dancing in your underwear for some reason.
Yeah, that’s it. I cringe at it. But I cringe when I look at some pictures of the Bangles from the 80s. It was a rough decade fashion-wise. The big hair and the shoulder pads. I think as an artist there’s a danger in overthinking too much. Every time you put an album out, or do a film or an interview or anything else, there’s a reason to be anxious about it. People are going to say what they want to say about it. The Internet is full of people saying not particularly nice things. You just have to do the best you can at any given moment, and don’t worry about whether you’re going to look back someday and feel weird about it. Because you probably will. If I thought about it too much, I’d just lock myself in my room and never leave the house. But that would be boring, wouldn’t it?
The Allnighter may not be your best moment, but as regrettable decisions involving girl groups from the 80s go, it’s not nearly as bad as the Go-Gos porno.
Oh, I never saw that! I live in a bit of a cocoon. Was that recently?
No, no, no. It happened a long time ago.
Was it like a real porn?
Not really. It was just some drunk groupie being goaded into masturbating.
Oh gosh! No, no, I never saw that.
You know how you could settle that old argument about whether the Bangles or the Go-Go’s were the best all-girl band of the 80s? Finally leak that secret Bangles amateur sex video which I’m assuming exists.
Ha! No, sorry, there’s nothing out there like that. Not that I’m aware of anyway. Maybe the other girls did something and didn’t invite me. You never know. [Laughs.] No, not really. The funny thing about the whole Go-Gos/ Bangles comparisons; they had this image as squeaky-clean American sweethearts, but they were all girls who came out of punk rock and they were wild and crazy. And they’d be the first to admit as much. The Bangles played this rougher garage rock, but we were pretty darn tame offstage. We were both opposite of our images.
So wait, you’re telling me there isn’t a Bangles sex tape, or you’re not sharing it?
Both. (Laughs.) It never happened. Sorry.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on MTV Hive