September 27, 2016 Interview – Vicki Peterson of The Bangles
Everyone has hopes and aspirations in life. Born and raised in Southern California, Vicki Peterson’s dreams were that of a Rock-n-Roll fantasy, a fantasy that became a reality with The Bangles. Deriving inspiration from female Rock Stars that came before, The Bangles all female core began their journey a part of the Paisley Underground during the early ’80s, one which helped define their style and sound. Honing their craft, they soon received Pop Rock success by 1984, and through 1989, attained six top 20 hit singles, including 1987’s #1 song, “Walk Like an Egyptian.” Etching their place in Rock-n-Roll history, The Bangles’ music is still spun, and celebrating their 35th anniversary in 2016, they still march on. Recently we caught up with co-founding Lead Guitarist Vicki Peterson to talk their roots, the mainstream success, being a woman in Rock-n-Roll, and more.
CrypticRock.com – The Bangles celebrate their 35th anniversary in 2016. Over that time, the band has attained a slew of number one singles and Platinum-selling albums. Through it all, what has this incredible journey been like?
Vicki Peterson – (laughs) Well, it’s been a journey. When I was a very young musician in LA, I had a dream/fantasy of being in a band that did achieve that kind of success; I believed that it was going to happen. I didn’t know exactly how or when, but I believed the whole time and was very gratified when it did come to fruition the way it did.
CrypticRock.com – Like any band, The Bangles did begin as part of an underground scene out in Los Angeles. Looking back, how would you describe that scene all these years later?
Vicki Peterson – I think we got lucky. Maybe it’s a little more magical than luck. There was a moment in time that was the Post-Punk movement in Los Angeles, there was a lot of Rockabilly bands around, but there was a homegrown groundswell of interest, influence, and love of music from the ’60s. That is firmly where Susanna, Debbi, and I found our love of music as young kids. So even though that wasn’t being played on the radio and we weren’t hearing it, it was the kind of music to make.
We stumbled across this group of bands who were also listening to music from the ’60s in different aspects, not all the same. We were maybe concentrating more on vocal and Folk Rock groups, Psychedelic, British bands, a broad spectrum of musical influences. Then we had friends in bands like The Rain Parade, The Dream Syndicate, Green on Red, The Three O’clock, and The Unclaimed. These were just bands that we fell in love with and were able to share bills with. We hung out, had parties, and even shared houses with. For a moment in time, it was a pretty great social scene, as well as musical scene.
CrypticRock.com – It certainly sounds like it. It sounds like it was a great experience. You seem to have fond memories of it after all these years later.
Vicki Peterson – Absolutely, fond memories and old friends. We’ve stayed in touch with a lot of these people and had a chance in the last couple of years to actually get together again and play a couple of shows with them, which was just magical. It was logistically a bit of a nightmare because we were all scattered and doing many different things, but it was just so great.
CrypticRock.com – That is great that you were able to revisit. The band’s sound is quite unique with blends of Pop, Rock, and even Punk. At what point did you feel the band really hit their stride in crafting their sound?
Vicki Peterson – I felt that we hit upon something pretty special early on, as early as 1982 and 1983, when we were playing in clubs in Southern California, up and down the coast. We were writing all the time and yet bringing our beloved covers of songs like “Live” by The Merry-Go-Round, “Hazy Shade of Winter,” and songs we recorded in later years. I think, early on, songs like “Hero Takes a Fall” and “Dover Beach,” that are on our EP that we recently released, to me, that’s the heart of the band.
CrypticRock.com – You just mentioned some of those tracks that The Bangles recently released. You actually released a sixteen track collection, rarities, re-mastered and live tracks, back in June on CD under the title Ladies and Gentlemen… The Bangles!. What inspired you to bring these out of the vault now?
Vicki Peterson – We had released them as a download only about a year and a half ago and realized that, with a lot of encouragement, they needed to exist in a physical form as well. Some of these, especially the EP, has been a campaign for a long time. I wanted to get this back out into the world because I’m proud of it. I think it was a formative moment for The Bangles, but it was also a touchstone for us. It was a moment for us that our personalities really were developing and it was where the band had a strong identity. It’s something I wanted the world to hear. There are a lot of people that know The Bangles only from our top 5 hits, which is great and I am thrilled that we have those hits too to show the world, but I also wanted people to know that they are really where we started and the band, at its core, is.
CrypticRock.com – It is great to offer that to people. A lot of these tracks have been hidden away from the world forever. Some of them have never been heard up until they were released as a digital download, and now physical. Is that correct?
Vicki Peterson – That is correct, yes. Some of them are very much rarities and you would have to love the band or love this type of music to possibly appreciate it. For us, it’s kind of just a way of showing a little bit of a musical memoir of this is where we started and this is what touched our hearts in the earliest days. We want to share that with you. Some of them are scratchy demos and very earnest versions of covers. I had to admit to Mark Lindsay recently that I did a version of “Steppin Out” by Paul Revere And The Raiders song; we love Paul Revere And The Raiders.
CrypticRock.com – It is a great song. It is very cool that you have this to offer people now. As far as studio records, The Bangles’ last studio record of new material was 2011 with Sweetheart of the Sun. That said, is there a possibility of some new music in the future?
Vicki Peterson – There is always a possibility. We have nothing planned at the moment. Everyone is a little scattered and doing other projects. I would never say never when it comes to that. There is always a possibility of new music being made.
CrypticRock.com – Excellent. Obviously there was the period in the ’90s where everyone was out doing their own things. The band reconvened in the 2000s, and The Bangles have those two studio records then. Talking about 2011’s Sweetheart of the Sun, what was it like to go back in the studio and record new songs after not having done it so long together?
Vicki Peterson – I really liked that record. It took us awhile to finish it. We were working around schedules, school schedules, and things too. I am really proud of that record; we had a good time doing it. We recorded it just in home studios either in Matthew Sweet’s studio, Susanna, and my studios in our own home. It was very relaxed the entire time, the atmosphere of making that record was extremely relaxed. I think there are some real good songs on that record. The sound, again, we were sort of unabashedly wearing our influences on our sleeves. That record in particular was inspired by the Southern California Folk Rock movement, the Laurel Canyon scene that happened in the ’60s with Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Mama Cass holding court at her house. It was all the stuff that happened before we got here, but we read about it. There’s a great book called Girls Like Us that Susanne and I both read and were inspired by.
CrypticRock.com – You had mentioned about the things that came before and influenced you. It is quite interesting because a lot of the things which have come before any of us, they come back in full circle. A lot of the styling of music has come back. If you look now in Pop music, it seems that synthesizers are back in full swing, it seems that more raw Rock-n-Roll sounds are back with a lot of bands as well.
Vicki Peterson – I am really hoping for that energy and the authenticity of emotional music, I think it’s always going to resonate. There are going to be times where people just want to black out and dance and not think about things; that’s where Disco and EDM comes in handy. Then there are times where you really want to sit with your friends and feel things, or jump around and sweat, Rock-n-Roll is always good for that. It feels to me like there’s a lot of young bands coming up who are feeling that inspiration to play guitar-based Rock-n-Roll again. I don’t think it’s ever going to go away.
CrypticRock.com – Agreed. You tapped into something right there, music should make you feel something.
Vicki Peterson – Yeah absolutely, there’s always good music if you can find it. In some ways today, it is both easier and more difficult to find because there is just more of it. You have to go digging through YouTube, you have to go digging through websites, and trying to find stuff that just touches you. It’s not presented to you on a plate they way it used to be, which is maybe a good thing. There are more opportunities for young bands to get their music heard. There’s so much of it out there it’s kind of hard for you to get yourself heard about the fray.
CrypticRock.com – That is so true. It is a double-edged sword for an artist today. You have this ability with this grand format of the internet, but there is also the possibility of getting lost in the shuffle since there is so much.
Vicki Peterson – Right, exactly. I have several young friends who are trying to get their music out there and they are like, “What do I do? What labels do I go to?” And you want to say, “You know what, there are no labels and you have to find a way to be heard.” It’s kind of a tougher road, even though there are immensely more numbers of opportunities.
CrypticRock.com – It is very true, it could go both ways. You have to work hard and put all your effort into it to make sure that you get heard.
Vicki Peterson – I think the bottom line today is true as well as it was when we were just starting out in 1981, and that is, you have to get out and play. You have to get in front of an audience. People like to go see and hear music still, and that’s great. That’s how you connect, that is really the best way to connect to an audience, is being in the room with them. Which is one reason why, when we toured recently, we played mostly clubs and small theaters, because we like that feeling of being in a room with our people and breathing the same air together.
CrypticRock.com – There is no substitute for a smaller atmosphere like that. It is more intimate and you connect more with the audience. Playing a stadium has to be exhilarating as well, but there is something to be said about playing a smaller venue.
Vicki Peterson – Exactly, both are good, in different ways. It’s just fun. Playing in clubs is just something I’m comfortable with.
CrypticRock.com – Now, you had mentioned coming up in 81′. During the ’80s, there was this really fantastic movement of powerful female fronted bands – The Bangles, The Go Go’s, Cyndi Lauper, Heart, and Pat Benatar, just to name a few. Did The Bangles ever feel like they were part of a movement toward more gender balance in Rock?
Vicki Peterson – I did notice it, I felt it back then, I was one of those people. Thankfully, there are women like this today in politics and all kinds of aspects of life where you just refuse to believe that your gender is going to hold you back, you just don’t see it. Of course, yes, we benefited from the female artists who came before us on many levels, and that’s everyone from Joni Mitchell, to Bonnie Raitt, to Carole King, to The Go Go’s, who had a hit record the summer that were just still getting together. Debbi and I had played in a band together in high school for most of it, we already knew that this was something we wanted to do.
I just heard about a seven year old who wanted to pick up the guitar because she saw a Bangles video and then she said, “But girls can’t play guitar.” Then she watched the video, “Oh. maybe they can.” It’s shocking to me that a girl in 2016 would even have to go through that process. I guess that’s still out there. Luckily, today, there’s less of a novelty aspect to the female fronted band since the ’70s. At least there shouldn’t be and because there are so many wonderful women artists out there and a ton of them playing music today.
CrypticRock.com – Absolutely, it should not be looked as a novelty. It really has made tremendous strides in the decades that move forward. You, like the artists who paved the way for females, have helped this. To think a young girl would even think girls cannot play guitar is ridiculous. That is why it is wonderful there are so many strong female artists out there who are being heard. It is not a novelty, because it should not be. Why should it matter whether you are male or female?
Vicki Peterson – It’s a different point of view, and that’s the case we always made with The Bangles. We are singing from a humanistic point of view, but also from reflecting our gender. Let’s see what a woman thinks about sexual politics and what’s going on in a relationship. It can be a refreshing point of view, it’s one I hope is ongoing because there is no reason to not do it.
CrypticRock.com – Absolutely. Speaking of politics and sexual identity, female or male, there is definitely a sex symbol identity associated with Rock-n-Roll. One can imagine, for women, it may be a little more difficult only because people always look to this with a woman. They turn to looks and beauty with women. How did you approach that? How did you balance “I am a legitimate musician,” which you are, with also, “I am an attractive woman.” Those are two things which some may judge you on.
Vicki Peterson – The Bangles definitely struggled with it. I struggled with it in The Bangles because there were expectations put upon us, that we were supposed to be models, and we were not (laughs). These were definitely aspects of what we did to promote our music and get it out there in the world; you have to do the video, you have to do this photo shoot, and you have to get up at four in the morning and do breakfast television. It’s what you do, it has nothing to do with the music, it just has to do with putting a face to the music. That becomes enormously important as you get climbing up the ladder.
There was definitely moments where I was feeling conflicted, where I did not wanting to be attractive. I don’t want to be attractive right now, you know? If I was a guy, I would just slap on sunglasses, put a jacket on, say whatever, turn my back to the camera, and that would be ok. We had to fight to make sure we kept our physical identity as well. We are a band of individuals, people approached that in different ways. That was a bit of a struggle.
CrypticRock.com – Interesting to hear that. It is different for a woman than it is for a man. Women face different challenges that a man does not.
Vicki Peterson – You don’t have to. God bless Patti Smith, did she ever worry about not having enough mascara on? Probably not, she’s the best.
CrypticRock.com – Exactly. Outside The Bangles, you have also partook in other projects including The Psycho Sisters. Interestingly enough, the band which was formed two decades ago put out their first LP back in 2014. What was that like after being together so long?
Vicki Peterson – It was hilarious, one of the possible benefits/drawbacks of being in a band with someone who has always felt like my sister, and legally became my sister in 2003 when I married her brother. Susan Cowsill and I have known each other since the late ’70s and have written and sung together since the late ’80s. It really wasn’t until the mid 2010s that we said, “Hey, you know, we should probably make that record we talked about in 1992,” and so we did. We went back and grabbed songs that we had written together in 1992 and 1993 and made this ghost record. It was the record that didn’t really exist until it manifested itself in 2014. We joked, “Yeah it took us 20 years, but we did it.”
CrypticRock.com – Well, it is great that you finally had a chance to do it. It was a long time coming.
Vicki Peterson – Yeah, we said, “We better not wait another 20 years or we will be dead” (laughs).
CrypticRock.com – Glad it got out there, absolutely. My last question for you is pertaining to movies. CrypticRock.com covers music as well as Horror and Sci-Fi films. If you are a fan of Horror or Sci-Fi films, what are some of your favorites?
Vicki Peterson – I am not a huge Sci-Fi guy, and Horror films, to me, I sort of enjoy the more kitschy ones, The Evil Dead (1981) and the ones that are more physiologically intriguing than the Slasher films. I haven’t seen a scary movie in a long time because they are just not scary to me. That is the challenge, make a scary movie somebody (laughs). As far as Sci-Fi, I am a mainstream consumer of the Star Trek and Star Wars, I am probably not an aficionado.
CrypticRock.com – Excellent, you had mentioned about more Psychological Horror. What do you think of films such as The Shining (1980) and The Exorcist (1973)?
Vicki Peterson – Those are both classics, both those films scared me. They are frightening and beautifully made.
CrypticRock.com – There is something about the atmosphere in those films, the ability to let the dialog breathe. It seems that, at least nowadays, in all types of films there is no room for the dialogue to breathe, it is just full-speed ahead. There is something to be said about people exchanging in conversation in film, in the way it breathes.
Vicki Peterson – Exactly, and I think that, in life, it’s not a bad idea to take that time to breathe too. That’s probably the one critique I’ve heard of the new Star Trek film, is that it’s fast and furious. The thing about Star Trek that I enjoyed was the relationships, it was very sort of philosophical. There was a lot of exploration of human relationships, and to use the word human in a very large sense, because some of the creatures were not human. I find that interesting, we always want to know more about that, we want to know more about ourselves and how we relate to others.
CrypticRock.com – That is why we listen to music, that is why we watch movies, that is why we read books.
Vicki Peterson – Right, and on a Sci-Fi note, I should mention this to you, one of my projects that we are just wrapping up now, I am working on a record with my husband John Cowsill and Bill Mumy. He’s part of the Sci-Fi community music wise. We have a record coming out where we have a band called the Action Skulls. We are in the mixing process of the first record right now.