Unlike the famously combative Gallagher or Davies brothers, the Butlers have achieved professional harmony. We posit that songwriting has a lot to do with it: while Oasis and Kinks songs typically have just one writer, Psychedelic Furs songs are co-written by both Butlers, often with at least one other band member sharing the composer credit. It's a basic musical equation: split writers' credits = fewer fisticuffs. It also helps that Tim and Richard are so close that even their mom mixes them up on the phone.
Thanks to exposure on MTV, their songs "Love My Way" and "Heaven" made inroads in America, but their biggest break came in 1986 when the John Hughes film Pretty in Pink was named after the band's 1981 song. A newly-recorded "Pretty In Pink" became the movie's theme, etching the sounds of The Psychedelic Furs into the emotional chasms of teenagers across America, many of whom bonded with further Furs material, including their 1987 single "Heartbreak Beat."
This is the part where we would describe to you the band using terms like "post-punk" and "first wave," but Tim would rather not play the category game, so we'll honor that (he explains the "psychedelic" part late in the interview). We can tell you that The Psychedelic Furs didn't sound like anybody else. Richard's scratchy, oftentimes sarcastic, and always emotional vocals became the act's aural trademark. He handles their lyrics while Tim comes up with melodies and plays bass.
The group's 1980 self-titled debut album was co-produced by Steve Lillywhite, whose other clients around this time included Peter Gabriel and U2. Lillywhite did all the production on their 1981 followup Talk Talk Talk, and the next year their third album, Forever Now, was helmed by Todd Rundgren.
The Butler brothers are still going strong, and when we caught up with Tim, the group was in the beginning stages of another studio album.
Tim Butler: No, not really. I'll kick around a few chord structures, we'll sit down, he'll start singing. If he really likes a song, he'll say, "This needs to go somewhere. Why don't you go to another part?" So I'll sort of jam around a bit more and he'll sing over it, and it goes from there. Basically, if something catches on to him really quickly, then we'll work on it. If it doesn't, then it's scrapped.
Songfacts: How have you, as brothers, been able to maintain a working relationship for so many years?
Tim: Appreciation of each other's role in the band. Back in the '80s, when we used to party a bit much, we used to get into fights and arguing over certain things. But nowadays we realize each other's importance to the band, so it's not so much sibling rivalries or egotism.
Songfacts: I wanted to talk about a few specific songs, since this is for Songfacts. The one song that you do that I think everybody knows is "Pretty in Pink." I'm just curious if you recall creating that song.
Tim: I do, actually. We were in a studio for three weeks writing Talk Talk Talk. Some of the band had gone home; it was later in the day and I think Duncan [Kilburn] and Roger [Morris] because they lived in the same area, they'd gone. It was just me, Richard, Vince [Ely] and John [Ashton]. We were just messing around, and the initial riff of it came up. Usually, we'd play an initial riff and Richard would say, 'Wow, that's cool! Carry on. Do something else.' We would just work round and round it and experiment. That one came pretty quickly.
Songfacts: Was there a particular girl that inspired it?
Tim: No. It could be any girl. Any loose girl. (laughter) No way did it have anything to do with the John Hughes concept of it.
Ringwald appeared in his films Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink - this last one alongside Jon Cryer, whose Duckie she dismisses in favor of Andrew McCarthy's Blaine.
Tim: I guess. I've never had anybody come up to us and say that. I certainly might get a little bit angry if they did. No one to our face.
Songfacts: When you were getting a lot of songs on the radio, "Heaven" and "Ghost in You" got a lot of airplay. Speaking of confusion, did anybody ever assume you were a little bit more religious than you were?
Tim: No, because the lyrics to "Heaven" are pretty heavy lyrics and they're not about anything spiritual. It's about planes flying over ready to drop bombs, nuclear bombs: "And I'm standing on ice when I say that I don't hear planes." It's sort of strange that people would dance to it and stuff with a happy vibe, when it's quite a heavy song.
Songfacts: Did you ever have disagreements when it came to the words that Richard put to melodies you created?
Tim: I trust him because he is his own worst critic. At the moment we're writing songs for a new album and he's so critical of his own writing. I'll be, like, "That's a great lyric!" And he'll be, like, "Uh, I don't know." He doesn't really have that much confidence in himself.
Songfacts: That's so surprising because he's been doing it for so long and he's so good at it.
Tim: He's one of the best lyricists and singers in the last 30 years or more. It's good that he hasn't got a huge ego.
Songfacts: What is the age difference between you two?
Tim: Five years.
Songfacts: One of the things that make Psychedelic Furs songs so great is his distinctive vocals. Sort of that raspy sound. When you sing, do you sound the same way?
Tim: I do. The only time I really sang was in the early days when I used to do backing vocals on "Imitation of Christ" and "We Love You" and it just got to where it was sounding like Richard in a harmonizer. I decided to give up. I do sound like him. Apparently, on the phone I even sound like him, you know, talking. Sometimes I'll call my mother and she'll say, "Richard?" And I'll say, "No, it's Tim."
Songfacts: Did you ever have ambitions of being a lead singer, or was he always the guy that was the natural fit?
Tim: When I first thought about getting into a band, when he was talking to me about it, I wanted to be a drummer because I wanted to be in the bottom end: either drums or bass. It's strange, I never thought of being a singer or an electric guitarist. I always wanted to be in the rhythm section.
Songfacts: I fiddle around with the guitar, but I've never been interested in that rhythm part. You have to have a love for that to do it.
Tim: Yeah. Without the drums and bass, there is no song, really. What do you dance to? What moves your body when you listen to music? It's not someone doing a guitar solo. It's a groove of the drums and the bass. I must be a groovy guy. (laughter)
Tim: It was a different direction. We got bored of being constrained by The Furs. I mean, The Furs expect a certain sound out of it. We wanted to broaden our musical palette, if you like.
Songfacts: Let's talk about this new album you're working on. Do you have a title for it yet?
Tim: No. We have some songs, and we actually play a couple of the songs in the live set nowadays. But we haven't gotten as far as naming it yet.
Songfacts: How would you describe it in how it's different from what you've done in the past?
Tim: The Furs are up to date. Of course, I'm always going to have a hopefully distinctive bass style and sound and Richard has distinctive vocals. It's also got to be influenced by what you hear and see around you. I think it's just our sound, brought into the 2000s.
Songfacts: Does it ever frustrate you getting lumped into the rock of the '80s thing? That people want to put you in a nostalgia box?
Tim: Yeah. People for years have been trying to lump music into different categories. Music is just music. I can remember when we first came out, people were asking, 'How would you describe yourself? Punk? Or alternative? Or new wave?" Why pigeonhole people? It's just music.
Tim: I can remember when we first started they had what they thought was a psychedelic bill in the London Lyceum - you had the new psychedelic explosion. There was us, Echo & the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes and A Certain Ratio. The only band there that was remotely psychedelic was A Teardrop Explodes. We put the "Psychedelic" in there just to show we like some psychedelic bands, because everybody at the time had been putting down the '60s and psychedelia being a waste of time, but some great music came out of that period. We just wanted to show our allegiance and that we enjoyed some of that music. Plus, at the time if you put "psychedelic" on the announcement, you were bound to get some kind of a reaction, and we did. We never professed to be psychedelic.
Songfacts: I've talked about some of the songs that I really like that you guys do. Do you have any particular favorites that you love?
Songfacts: And what do you like about those?
Tim: They are constructed the best and all the parts of the instrumentation is perfect for those songs. They're some of the best-realized songs in our catalogue.
Songfacts: You still sound genuinely excited about making music. Is music as exciting to you now as when you started?
Tim: Oh yeah. I love touring. I love that hour and a half on stage. I just like bringing that enjoyment to the audience. It's the audience singing back your songs - there's nothing better than that.
Songfacts: When do you think the new album will be out?
Tim: Hopefully, next year.
Songfacts: It's been a treat to talk to you. Your songs have been a soundtrack to some important days in my life.
Tim: You saying that is another part of makes it so enjoyable and exciting still. People saying, "I was listening to your song when this happened in my life and it got me through this bad time." That makes all our work over the years worthwhile.
September 19, 2013. Get more at thepsychedelicfurs.com.
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