New Covers Album, Austin Powers, ‘Now And Then’ And More

The group would eventually reunite in the late ’90s, but in the meantime Hoffs remained extremely busy putting out solo material – including three covers with Matthew Sweet – and writing music for film (Occasionally, memorable), and popping up in all three Austin Powers movies like Gillian Shagwell, the guitarist in Powers’ (Mike Myers) band Ming Tea.

These days, Hoffs is gearing up to release another covers record, this time minus Sweet. It is called bright lights and includes updated renditions of songs by Nick Drake, Badfinger (that cover features Aimee Mann), the Monkees, Prince (of course), the Velvet Underground, and more. She’s also back in the studio with super producer Peter Asher, working on her debut novel. “I always enjoy singing and playing with the girls,” Hoffs says over the phone. “But I had to make room to work on other things, and I’m sure there will be more collaborations with Bangles in the future.”

forward bright lightsHoffs called me from her Los Angeles home, which she shares with husband, director Jay Roach, to talk about making another covers album, recording with Mann (“her voice gives me the best kind of chills”), and how the Bangles kept their DIY ethos throughout the ’80s.

bright lights & Badfinger cover with Aimee Mann (2021)

This isn’t the first time you’ve ventured into covers, although you’ve done cover albums with Matthew Sweet in previous years. When did you start thinking about making a (mostly) solo cover album?

Susanna HOFFS: As a child I fell in love with music. As a baby, my mother always played the radio. I grew up in the 60’s so I was inundated with great music and it had a profound effect on me. And when I started playing music myself, my uncle put a guitar in my hands when I was six or seven years old, or maybe eight. There’s a photo of me from 1967 playing, so it would have been before that, and I turned eight in 1967. I learned to play other people’s songs. But I also, even at that age, started to mess around a bit writing my own songs, but they were all very much derived from old folk songs, like the stuff of the Kingston Trio. My mom also played Dionne Warwick records all the time, and it was all the Burt Bacharach and Hal David songs. And of course Beatles records.

My mom had a friend who worked at Capitol Records, so we got all the Beatles records straight from Capitol as soon as they came out. And my brothers and I – I have an older brother called John and a younger brother called Jesse – we sang along to those records and we just loved the Beatles. So all these different musical influences from my childhood have influenced my journey as a musician. For me, singing other people’s songs couldn’t be more natural and fun.

I eventually started writing songs when I really started looking into being a professional musician after college, with David Roback, who was my first musical partner. He continued with the Rain Parade and Mazzy Star. But for me, when I’m doing a cover, I don’t differentiate between a song I wrote specifically and a song I like to sing. I’m currently recording with the great Peter Asher, and when it comes to song choice, I never hesitate to say, “Ooh, I’ve always wanted to sing this song, I’ve always wanted to sing that song.” So for me it’s very intuitive and natural to just sing the songs of others.

How did you get in touch with Aimee Mann to cover Badfinger’s “Name Of The Game”?

HOFFS: I’ve known Aimee since the 80’s when she was ‘Til Tuesday and I was a Bangle. And our paths have crossed many times. I’ve played and sang quite a bit with Aimee over the past few years. We both love this location called Largo in LA… And I’ve even toured with Aimee. She often puts on a Christmas show during the holiday season in December, and I’ve performed with her numerous times, both at Largo and on tour with her Christmas show. And I’ve always revered her as a songwriter and I love her voice. Her voice is so instantly recognizable and so beautiful, and I had longed to record with her because I had done many things live with her.

So when I started making this record, where I put together a few songs here and a few songs there, working with Paul Bryan, who has produced the last few Aimee Mann records and plays in her band often, it just came up. I had chosen several songs that I always liked, but had never tried out and sung myself. That was one of the interesting things about bright lightsThere were songs I liked listening to, but they weren’t songs like “Different Drum,” which was written by Mike Nesmith, or “It Matter Not Matter Anymore,” a song by Paul Anka. There were songs from my childhood that I had heard and sung repeatedly over the course of my life, but interestingly, the songs were on bright lights were songs I really liked to listen to, but I never found myself singing along with them. So when it came time to record “Name Of The Game”, I turned to Paul and I thought, “God, it would be really cool to get Aimee on this. I have a feeling she’d like this song sing and she loves this song as much as I do.” So Paul reached out to her, and before saying the name of the song, Aimee said, “Name Of The Game.” She guessed it.

There are other much more famous Badfinger songs. “The Name Of The Game” was one of those beautiful, semi-obscure songs from Badfinger. There was this bizarre, intuitive kind of kismet that Aimee had just guessed the number, and she was in, she said, “Yeah.” So that everything came true like a fairy tale, to finally record with Aimee. Her voice gives me the best kind of chills, it’s so beautiful.

In the lead Stony Island (1978)

How seriously did you consider acting when you were a late teen? You had this moment as a student where you showed up in a few movies before the Bangles were formed.

HOFFS: Well, I did a lot of theater all through school, even high school and high school. And whether it was musicals or plays, in my high school you could almost major, so theater was kind of my major in high school. And I grew up in a family where going to the movies was an important part of our lives. My other great love is film. But I really like all arts. My mother was a painter who began, [and] she became a screenwriter. It was a really fun childhood because my brothers and my parents and I all shared this passion for art, and my parents always took us to museums, and movies, and theater, and I was a ballet dancer when I was a kid, I have always seen the ballet and we have traveled quite a bit so it was great.

As for acting, I think when I went to UC Berkeley I actually started in the theater department, but then I switched to dance. They had an excellent dance department. And then I switched majors and I became an art subject, and I just got my degree in art, where I was painting and sculpting and stuff.

So it was always a whirlwind for me. Theater, music, dance, art, painting, sculpture, conceptual art, everything. In college I went to the Patti Smith Group in Winterland, I think it was 1978. I saw the last Sex Pistols show at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, because I was across the bay from UC Berkeley. Patti Smith was a huge influence because I read her poetry books and then saw her perform… I think for some people it’s hard to decide which thing you’re going to focus on in the end, so I danced around all the different aspects of the arts . When it came to acting, it was something I didn’t take as seriously as music. Music seemed to rise to the top for me, and singing, I guess you could say I eventually found my voice in music.

In the lead The Allnighter (1987)

A little later in your Bangles career, I noticed you were in an 80s movie directed by your mom: The Allnighter.

HOFFS: Oh, so 80’s. Typical 80s.

With a young Joan Cusack. What stands out when you look back on such an experience?

HOFFS: Well, they re-released the DVD with commentary that my mom and I did, I think, in the late 90’s. I think the people at the company that has the DVD available are called Kino Lorber. They do a lot of reissues of classic or cool, interesting, under-the-radar old movies. It’s cool that they’re reviving old things from the 80s and all eras of cinema. So I looked at it recently, and Pam Grier is in it, and Michael Ontkean. It had a very interesting cast. It’s kind of wall to wall music, it’s so 80’s. It was so much fun seeing Joan Cusack in the footage and looking back at making it, it was incredibly low budget. It was filmed so quickly. It was just in between Bangles tours and just on a whim.

When I knew my mom was involved, maybe the script, or the job of directing it, it was a last minute thing, like, “Are you in?” I didn’t even think hard enough about saying yes or no, I just went on an impulse, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” And it was a chance to do something with my mother, with whom I have always been very close.

The day they wrapped up my part in the movie, I flew to a show with the Bangles. It was just kind of pushed between Bangles tours. But it was a really nice experience. And so quintessentially 80s.

Public Access TV Playing with the Bracelets (1983)

With a little more focus on your early work with the Bangles, there’s a very early clip of the group performing on what appears to be a local music channel, MV3. Given the band’s local roots in Los Angeles, what did it mean to you to gain so much fame?

HOFFS: I think it was the beginning of the feeling that there is interest in the Bangles. We had just changed our name to The Bangles, if it was ’83 we would have just signed to Columbia Records. They were really the only record company that was interested in us, and they were Columbia, home of Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan. So I always say to people when they’re concerned, like, “Oh good, will anyone ever sign up or find out about me?” and I say, “It only takes one person, generally in one label or place.” You never know.

We had gotten a small crowd locally in LA, and we were part of this paisley underground scene of young bands in LA who were really obsessed with ’60s music. And we were really into covering cool 60s songs and writing songs in the style of our favorite 60s music. And in the case of the Bangles, Beatles harmonies and Mamas and Papas harmonies, and we were making our sound.

Leave a Comment