Perhaps the unlikeliest act to perform at last weekend’s Stagecoach Country Music Festival, Susanna Hoffs acknowledges she doesn’t keep up with the latest sounds out of Nashville. But the Bangles singer-guitarist known for such MTV-era pop hits as “Manic Monday” and “Walk Like an Egyptian” is all about roots music — in her case, the influential mid-’60s folk-rock of the Byrds and Linda Ronstadt singing “Different Drum” with the Stone Poneys.
In 2006, Hoffs recorded a version of “Different Drum” for the first in a series of covers albums she’s made with the power-pop veteran Matthew Sweet. And at Stagecoach she played the song in a crisply propulsive show that also included “Hazy Shade of Winter” and Big Star’s “September Gurls,” as well as fresh renditions of some of the Bangles’ biggest hits. After her set, Hoffs, 55, answered questions backstage.
“Manic Monday” and “Eternal Flame” sounded great today – kind of eerie but pretty, like something by the Velvet Underground.
The Velvets were the band I found out about in college as part of this wave of information coming to me at that point in my life. It’s a very rich time: You’ve graduated from high school, but you don’t have to live in the real world yet; you just get to have four years to make a ton of mistakes and learn a bunch of stuff. I was a theater and dance major at UC Berkeley, and for me it was all about becoming an artist. I came around to music through the Sex Pistols and Patti Smith and Television, and then they led me back to the Velvet Underground.
Is remaking your old songs what’s fun about playing them today?
For sure. I did this live “Portlandia” show with Fred [Armisen] and Carrie [Brownstein] a couple of years ago, and I just told them to pick whatever they wanted me to do and I’d do it. They picked “Manic Monday” and “Sunday Morning” [by the Velvet Underground], so I went to the sound check and had this cool reverb on my amp and started playing this kind of alternative version of “Manic Monday,” and we just started jamming. And I had this realization that just because the song was recorded a certain way doesn’t mean I have to always play it like that; it doesn’t have to live in that box. So when we were rehearsing for Stagecoach, we were fiddling with it again and making it a little more Rolling Stones — kind of “Honky Tonk Women.”
“September Gurls” was a nice touch.
I’ve been on a Big Star kick lately.
Me too, though I resisted the band for a long time. The music is gorgeous, but when I was younger it just felt like a bummer.
I completely understand that – such emotional pain inside this beautiful dream. In your 20s there’s so much hope, and you’re focused on going forward and all the things you wanna do. Then you hit 27 and you’re like, “Oh my God, I’m an adult – this is so scary!” You become very, very aware of your mortality. I remember that feeling. I was on tour with the Bangles, and I was sitting in a movie theater, and I just thought – this is so depressing – I thought, We’re all gonna die someday.
Next question! Does doing your own stuff ever feel like playing a cover? A song like “Eternal Flame,” it’s so familiar that I wonder if your sense of ownership begins to recede.
It’s an interesting phenomenon. The first time I realized it was when the oldies station that I grew up listening to, K-Earth 101, started playing “Walk Like an Egyptian.” We were on the oldies station!
How’d that feel?
It feels good. Sometimes I’ll just be juggling the normal day-to-day stuff, and then I’ll hear “Eternal Flame” on some TV show or something. Or I’ll hear a Muzak version at the supermarket. It’s kind of a nice surprise; it reminds me that this dream I had as a kid, this dream to play music, I actually got to do it.
The Bangles released an album in 2011, and the next year you put out a solo record. Writing and recording are still important to you.
When I’m not doing it, I’m not as happy. There’s something about the act of making something that’s very stabilizing. For other people it could be sports or cooking or pottery; for me it’s music.
Let’s talk new music. You said you don’t really listen to country, but what about other styles?
That’s where my niece, who’s 25, comes in. And my kids, who are 15 and 19. I listen to their mix tapes. Well, I still call them mix tapes. But they’re Spotify playlists and things.
What have they turned you on to?
Oh, so many bands! The New Pornographers, St. Vincent – things I should’ve known. In a way, I still live somewhat in that 1960s/1970s bubble. But I’ve actually drifted into the ’80s, which is crazy, considering that I experienced the ’80s firsthand.
You could say you helped create them.
I guess so. It’s funny: Back then I just wanted to drag the ’60s into the ’80s and play 12-string Rickenbacker guitars and sound like the Byrds. So I’m a decade behind.