Almost three decades after their previous release, The Psychedelic Furs are back on the shelves, it would seem, latest LP Made of Rain’s release date initially put back three months by the global pandemic. But what’s three months after 29 years? Besides, the best things in life are worth waiting for, right?
There was definitely a sense of frustration at not being able to share their latest set of songs until now when I got back in touch with Furs bass player and co-founder Tim Butler. But I guess a lot’s happened since we last spoke in September 2019 (with a link to that feature/interview here), ahead of this highly-influential post-punk outfit’s most recent tour of the country that made them, let alone since that 1991 studio release, World Outside, a rather splendid long player that – as with its cracking 1989 predecessor Book Of Days – was by their own admission too much of a gear change for the wider audience to comprehend – the band eager to distance themselves further from the synth-heavy commercial outfit they briefly became, accordingly losing too much of the fickle part of their audience and the support of the corporate suits behind their label.
While London was their home patch when the band formed in the late ’70s, with much of their early story based around the capital, Tim’s been in America since they reached their commercial peak in 1983, these days long settled in Liberty, Kentucky, with partner Robyn and his step-children, his brother Richard, the Furs’ vocalist and main songwriter, 800 miles across country in New York.
When I called Tim, now 61 (although you’d bever know it from his demeanour over the phone or from the photos the band have shared with us), I’d heard just four tracks from Made of Rain, their new Cooking Vinyl release. But it was a winner on the strength of those songs alone, the band sounding as fresh today as back in the early ‘80s, and still seeking out new territory rather than trying to rewrite the hit singles that made them: like 1981’s ’Pretty in Pink’, which partly inspired John Hughes’ movie of the same name five years later; 1982’s ‘Love My Way’, which featured in 2017 Oscar-winning film Call Me By Your Name; and 1984’s ‘The Ghost in You’, which recently featured in US TV sci-fi success, Stranger Things.
Since then, I’ve got to know the full 12 songs on offer fairly well, and can confirm that my initial presumptions were right. It’s a cracking listen and worthy of their name, proof that if you have the dedication, determination, youthful vigour and creative flair, you can produce a great record this far into your career.
That said, despite the fact that they continue to plough new territory, one of those songs, the single ‘Don’t Believe’, could only be the Furs, even before Richard’s distinctive husky voice comes in. If you haven’t already, you can track down the new LP after you’ve read this, and the band remain hopeful they’ll be back with us soon-ish, with live dates lined up, pushed back to next year, opening at London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall (April 27th, with a special, intimate Q&A for Banquet Records at St John’s Church in Kingston upon Thames the previous day, with special resonance for Richard and Tim Butler, born in nearby Teddington) and including visits to my patch at Liverpool Academy (May 2nd) and Manchester Academy 2 (May 3rd).
The new LP was produced by the band with St Louis, Missouri-based Richard Fortus, who worked with namesake Richard Butler in his between-Furs spells band Love Spit Love from 1992 until they reconvened in 2000, becoming part of the live band for the next two years before joining Guns N’ Roses. Meanwhile, mixing duties were handled by Tim Palmer (David Bowie, U2, Robert Plant), and the result is a joy, in that grand style to which we’ve become accustomed.
They’ve also shared a new video, for ‘Come All Ye Faithful’ – of which Richard said, “It’s a bit about looking for redemption in faith and riches, questioning if either are of any true value and whether redemption is ultimately necessary at all” – the fourth song to be released from Made Of Rain, after ‘No-One’, ‘Don’t Believe’ and ‘You’ll Be Mine’, their first official music video in nearly 30 years, shot in black and white and directed by Imogen Harrison.
A bit of background first to get some of you up to speed, the Furs releasing their first seven studio albums between 1980 and 1991, their spirited eponymous debut – 40 years old in March, yet still so fresh – followed by Talk Talk Talk (1981), Forever Now (1982), Mirror Moves (1984), Midnight To Midnight (1987), and the afore-mentioned, frankly over-looked Book Of Days (1989) and World Outside (1991).
And while this is the first LP since those days, there have been plenty of several live outings over the last two decades, more recently completing a North American tour in 2019 and playing acclaimed shows at The Hollywood Bowl, All Points East, Hyde Park, Benicàssim and a celebrated run of UK shows, including headlining the prestigious Meltdown at the Royal Festival Hall at Robert Smith of The Cure’s request.
Shortly after I last spoke to Tim, there was a sold-out tour of the UK and Europe, supported by recent WriteWyattUK interviewee Wendy James, culminating in a triumphant show at the Roundhouse in Camden, London. And the last few years have seen the band’s legend growing, with more than 150 million streams of their songs worldwide.
Their influence since arriving on the post-punk landscape four decades ago has certainly resonated with a lot of acts that followed, from The Strokes and The Killers to REM, and Foo Fighters. And even Bob Dylan has sung their praises. As Richard put it, “I don’t often recognise it in their music, (but) it’s gratifying of course, as it is that there’s still an interested and enthusiastic audience for us. That’s an honour.”
In addition to Richard and Tim, the current six-piece line-up features Mars Williams on saxophone (1983/89, and since 2005), Rich Good on guitar (since 2009), Amanda Kramer on keyboards (since 2002), and Paul Garisto on drums (1986/88, and since 2009). And it was clear within a minute or so of getting through to Tim that he felt frustrated by the fact that they were having to wait to share the new songs around their old stomping ground, clearly getting COVID-19 lockdown stir-crazy in Liberty.
“It’s getting very, very boring. We’re going crazy here. I want to go out and play, especially as the album’s coming out. It’s frustrating.”
Is that just you and your good lady?
“And my stepson and daughter.”
Ah, a bit of family bonding then?
“Yeah … like it or not!”
Seeing as Richard lives across the States from you, surely you should be used to long-distance communication by now.
“Oh yeah, and my other brother used to live in San Francisco, so we’re spread out.”
I hadn’t realised he’d followed your lead and moved to America.
“Yeah, after a few years. He got a job at Apple Computers in the Silicon Valley … a real job!”
Whereas you’ve managed to avoid one of those so far, of course.
“Ha! So far so good!”
I’m loving the new songs. And while there’s a very different feel between ‘Come All Ye Faithful’, ‘No One’, ‘You’ll be Mine’ and ‘Don’t Believe’, the latter I have to say is classic Furs from the opening bars, even before Richard’s voice comes in.
“Err, yeah, I think so. Some of it’s more classic, but I think the sound of the whole thing was influenced over the long hiatus we had by the music around us, so of course it’s going to seep into what you write, and I think it’s very current but still very much Furs.”
I agree, and those first four releases from the LP suggest that wide range. Are those tracks fairly indicative of the LP as a whole?
“Yeah, I think everyone will be very pleasantly surprised and we’re very, very happy with it. It’s a typical Furs album in that it goes from all-out rockers to ballads and back again. That keeps you interested. If an album’s all ‘balls to the wall’ or all laidback, you tend to lose interest. But hopefully this will keep people interested from beginning to end.”
I have to ask, was ‘Cigarette’ considered for this LP? I was watching your 2001 unplugged version recently, and love that. Seems odd to say this seeing as they came after you, but there’s something of an REM quality there. It’s as much Michael Stipe as it your brother.
“Yeah, that (song) was never seriously considered, never brought up. Not to say it won’t – maybe down the line a bit, but we came up with so many new songs in the six or seven months leading up to when we recorded. We did record ‘Wrong Train’, but a very different version to when we’d do it live. It had an overhaul.”
When the LP’s finally out, it will be six months after you premiered the first single from it. Was there frustration at having to wait so long to share it with us, or was it a case of, ‘what’s another few months to wait after all these years?’
“Ha! It was very frustrating, because we were so happy and excited to get it out and be able to tour with new material. So when the whole pandemic came down we were chomping at the bit to get out there and play to people. That’s what makes it all worthwhile. You can live in a studio, but until you get out and play the songs face to face with your audience, you can’t really gauge the success or failure of a song or album.”
Where did you record the LP, and when was that?
“We recorded it in two 12-day sessions in St Louis. One was late last year after our tour with James, then in January this year, and I think it took Tim Palmer three or four weeks to mix it. And once we had the songs, it all came together really quickly.”
Richard Fortus was with the band at the controls, I see. And he’s from St Louis, isn’t he?
“Yeah, and that’s one of the reasons we went there. He’s worked at that studio we used, Sawhorse Studios, a nice cosy set-up, with no pressure, and of course, Richard’s an old friend of the band, right back to when his band, Pale Divine, supported us on our last tour for the World Outside album in 1992. And being a fan of our work, he could give us pointers on what he thought were the highpoints of the Furs and which areas to sort of steer away from.”
It’s obviously a good working relationship judging by what I’ve heard so far.
“Yes, very relaxed, without all those days getting to know the producer and figuring all that out. We were pretty much sympatico from when we walked into the studio.”
This March just gone marked the 40th anniversary of the eponymous debut album. Does that seem possible? I was listening to that today in celebration of speaking to you, and hooked again from the moment that keyboard and picked guitar gives way to Tim’s driving bass and Vince Ely’s propelling drums on opening six-minute epic, ‘India’, the ball well and truly rolling for The Psychedelic Furs’ career in music by the time we’ve fired through to ‘Sister Europe’ and ‘Imitation of Christ’. It’s weathered well, I’d say. It still sounds great.
“Well, that’s the thing, maybe with the exception of one album in the ‘80s which is definitely stuck in that decade …”
Mmm … might that be Midnight to Midnight, per chance, I wondered, aloud … But he chose to ignore that and carry on.
“If it was released today it wouldn’t be looked on as old-fashioned sounding … But it does seems crazy that it was 40 years ago. Time flies! I’d have never thought when I was recording that, that 40 years later I’d still be making my living from being a musician. You don’t when you first form a band. The most you could hope for is to get a couple of gigs a week or a month, so to survive 40 years in this business is a feat in itself.”
Do you think back on the making that first album – largely with Steve Lillywhite at Mickie Most’s RAK Studios – as an enjoyable experience?
“Yeah, I remember we recorded that in a really short time too. Steve (Lillywhite) had been to see us live a couple of times and just wanted us to get the essence of a live show. We went in there and everybody set up in the studio, did two or three takes, and of course we’d been playing those songs for so many shows that we were pretty tight. It came together really quickly. And I think it still does have that freshness.”
Oh, it does, definitely. It seems an album of two parts within, including the debut single, the tremendous ‘We Love You’ – made with Howard Thompson at Basing Street Studios – and further more overtly punk-influenced tracks like the hypnotic ‘Pulse’ and the closing ‘Flowers’, in a Bowie meets John Lydon style, but also giving us clues to the band you became, tracks like ‘Sister Europe’ and ‘Imitation of Christ’ telling us loud and clear where you might be headed and that you were here to stay.
“Err, yeah, I think originally when we got together none of us could really play very well, so we’d all pile in if someone came up with a chord sequence, trying to make ourselves heard and stick out in a sort of ‘look at me’ way. It became that wall of melody, or ‘beautiful chaos’ as someone dubbed it.
“But with later songs like ‘Imitation of Christ’ and ‘Sister Europe’ I think Steve gave us more direction and took us more away from the punk area. With ‘Sister Europe’, Richard used to sing it with more of an attitude and some aggression. But Steve said, ‘Why don’t you imagine it’s late at night and tone it down a little bit – not croon it, but sing it more laidback’. And he did, and it gained a lot.”
Absolutely, and you hear that difference in Richard’s voice between those tracks, let alone the rest of you in the band.
“Yeah, I think he (Richard) realised he had more of a range in the vocal areas than he initially thought. And over the years that got better and better and better. I think he’s one of the best, most distinctive vocalists of the last 40 years.”
Agreed, and the new songs suggest you’re still on the money now. But I’ll ask that question about whether you imagined you’d still be doing this – 40 years after that first single – a different way. I think this new LP proves you were moving in the right direction after all back in ’89 and beyond, not content to just live by those big hits. But when you made World Outside in 1991, was there a feeling it might be your last record, the Furs story looking like it might be over after barely a decade? Might you have blown it at that point by collectively walking away from the band?
“Erm, I think we screwed around with the audience so much going from the really commercial Midnight to Midnight, clawing our way back to that original sound and maybe gain our original audience back with Book of Days. And we were pretty anti- promoting it, which didn’t help. So, by the time World Outside came out people thought we’d dropped off the face of the earth. That was us shooting ourselves in the foot. After that I think we were tired of being the Psychedelic Furs, doing ‘album, tour, album, tour …’ So, we took a break … a long break! But we came back revitalised and didn’t realise how much we’d enjoy playing those songs now.”
Does it surprise you in a sense that the first spell of the band lasted 15 years, while this incarnation now has 20 years behind it … and that you’re as fresh now as you’ve ever been?
“Lots of times, people say about the ‘original Furs’. But the original Furs were only together for two albums, whereas this version … I think Rich Good has only been with us since 2008, but he’s been with us longer than the original Furs were going! It’s strange.”
The live band is so important to what you’re about, and you’ve played some iconic venues down the years, in London alone from close to your old patch in Camden at the Electric Ballroom and Music Machine back in the day to the Roundhouse last October, and from the Royal Festival Hall not so long ago to the Royal Albert Hall next April, all being well. That’s something to look forward to, isn’t it?
“I know. That’s amazing. I always remember growing up, watching Cream’s farewell concert from the Royal Albert Hall, thinking, ‘Wow! Look at the size of that place! Those guys are huge!’ Little did I know that so many years later I’d be playing that very same place. And who knows, someone might take their kid along to this show and they might be as knocked out by us as I was watching that Cream show.”
What do you think your parents – the brothers lost their father around a dozen years ago, and their mother recently – might have made of the Butler brothers playing such iconic venues?
“My mother died about two months ago, and it’s sad because last year – she was 92 – she was planning to travel down with a friend of hers from Cumbria, where she retired to, and when we postponed it and rescheduled she was thinking about coming down to the one next year. But she unfortunately passed away.
“From the early days they were really proud of us though. Of course, in the early days there was talk of us getting proper jobs, and how we couldn’t rely on this music, but Richard and I have stuck at it, while Simon dropped out and went to university. He was in the original band and co-wrote ‘Imitation of Christ’ and ‘India’. Yeah, they were always proud of us. When they had friends over they would bring out their scrapbook.”
Quite right too. And soon after our interview I got to hear the new LP in full for the first time, not just those initial four released tracks shining out but several others too, opening number ‘The Boy Who Invented Rock & Roll’ doing what ‘India’ did by way of introduction four decades earlier, and plenty more highlights following.
I say this from a place of love, but at times I feel Richard’s vocals are a little too clean on a couple of tracks, his rough edges seemingly held back, as if the band are still chasing that crossover pop market. I wouldn’t begrudge them more hits, of course, but he sounds better where he’s allowed to use a wider range on songs like ‘Wrong Train’. He gets away with it though with those sublime cords, big songs like ‘This’ll Never Be Like Voice’ working well, and the band never over-cooking it. There’s an ’80s vibe here and there maybe, but it’s always about more than mere nostalgia, any criticism just a side-note to the band, the songcraft definitely there across these 12 tracks.
My highlight of highlights? Maybe it’s the closing section on side one’s slow-burning finale ‘Ash Wednesday’, a track that’s grand in that classic Furs style but also summons up the spirit of Talk Talk or perhaps even The Blue Nile in their ‘Tinseltown in the Rain’ era (perhaps it’s just a precipitation thing). And the harmonies are sublime between Richard and …. well, I’m not sure who. Perhaps it’s Amanda. The credits don’t tell us. Either way, that vocal blend takes the song to another level, as is the case on The Smiths-like ‘Hide the Medicine’, a song that gets better with every play, both of those tracks no doubt given extra power in a live setting.
What’s more, the tracks I heard first were still holding their staying power a fair few listens down the line, losing none of their original edge, with ‘No-One’ a great example of that. I’d say ‘You’ll Be Mine’ even carries a new age folk edge – with Richard’s voice up to the task, of course – coupled with that epic Furs feel.
There’s something else I couldn’t quite place at first, thinking of a few bands that made their name in the ’90s and beyond that you hear on closing two numbers, ‘Turn Your Back On Me’ and ‘Stars’, like Embrace, Keane and Elbow at their best. But maybe I wasn’t quite looking back far enough, for on the penultimate track there’s also a Peter Gabriel quality, and on the latter the verse suggests Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks theme, while there’s even a (whisper it) Genesis-like prog feel, Paul Garisto invoking something of a Phil Collins vibe on those tubs before Rich Good’s beautifully-weighted guitar histrionics take over. There, I said it.
In short, as a full-on listening experience, it’s not what you’d always expect. Far from it. And fair play to them for such deviation and experimentation. It’s sweet in places, brooding in others, atmospheric throughout, and all in all well worth the long wait. Let’s just hope it gets the attention that was somehow not afforded Book of Days and World Outside, way back then.
And finally, Tim, you told me last time that Forever Now was your favourite album. There was barely two and a half years between the debut, Talk Talk Talk, and then that. Will the release of this LP inspire more of the same – might we have two more albums turned around fairly quick on the back of this one?
“Yeah … we’re definitely not going to take another 30 years! Ha! We’re already writing and kicking around ideas. We’ve got the fever for recording again!”
Made Of Rain is available on CD, double-gatefold vinyl and in digital format via Cooking Vinyl, with further exclusive formats and autographed options available via the band’s Official Store.
Full 2021 UK dates (with Jah Wobble & The Invaders of the Heart supporting in London and past WriteWyattUK interviewee Pauline Murray & The Invisible Girls on all the other dates): April 27th – London Royal Albert Hall, April 28th – Nottingham Rock City, April 29th – Bristol O2 Academy, May 1st – Glasgow Barrowland, May 2nd – Liverpool Academy, May 3rd – Manchester Academy 2, May 5th – Cambridge Junction. for more details head to the band ‘s website . you can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.