Music News & Reviews

Boomslang: Psychedelic Furs bassist reflects from his Kentucky home

Tim Butler, left, and his brother  Richard are founding members of The Psychedelic Furs. Tim Butler now lives in Casey County.
Tim Butler, left, and his brother Richard are founding members of The Psychedelic Furs. Tim Butler now lives in Casey County.

Where is the last place you would expect a founding member of the British post-punk pop-rock brigade The Psychedelic Furs to settle down? How about the Casey County seat, Liberty?

"Yes, I'm an honorary Kentuckian," said bassist Tim Butler, who, with vocalist Richard Butler, are the founding and remaining members of the Furs. "I've lived in Liberty for about five years. I was living in South Jersey until I met my wife, Robyn, who was born and raised in Liberty. We started chatting online, and things progressed from there."

Butler's current home might be in the Bluegrass State, but the Furs' music — a mix of pure pop lyricism, punk-infused fury and, yes, streams of musical psychedelia — reflects its British heritage well. Songs like Pretty in Pink, which became a theme for the popular 1986 movie of the same name five years after the Furs recorded it, and The Ghost in You defined the band's more radio-friendly songs. But Sister Europe, Dumb Waiters and especially Love My Way, all from the band's first three albums, respectively, were pop fabrics born of the British New Wave, even though there were suggestions of late-'70s David Bowie — mostly in Richard Butler's vocals — and the dense, dour guitar/bass textures of contemporaries like The Cure.

"The Furs formed during a time in England when three out of five kids were leaving school and became, as a result, unemployed," Butler said. "It was a really bad time. It seemed to us that the only way to sort of do anything or say anything about these people and about what was going on was through music. That's why punk was around, and that moved into what we now know as alternative.

"The Furs used the energy of punk, but there was also this harkening in our music back to the sort of songwriting of earlier artists like Roxy Music and David Bowie. But we added a certain energy and sneer which was lacking before punk and alternative."

There are modest touches in the band's music that will forever tie it to the '80s, mostly in the drum and keyboard sounds, but the multi-stylistic design in many Furs songs has led to a refreshingly long shelf life — so much so that earlier this year, the band performed its 1981 album Talk Talk Talk, which contained the original version of Pretty in Pink, in its entirety.

"It's strange, really," Butler said. "When did the Talk Talk Talk tour this year, we were really surprised at how current these songs sounded. The thing about the Furs is that we never went with any kind of trend. We weren't swayed by the fashion of the time. I think that's why, for the most part, our back catalog could be released today and sound current.

"We made one mistake. That was with Midnight to Midnight," he said, referring to a 1987 album that was one of the Furs' highest-charting efforts even though both Butler brothers have dismissed the recording for its more commercial, and now dated, sound. "I think you can lock that one into the '80s because of the production.

"But I think albums like Forever Now," the band's third recording, a 1982 Todd Rundgren-produced work that ranks as one of the Furs' finest hours, "and Talk Talk Talk and even the first album (1980's The Psychedelic Furs) still sound strong. I mean, bands could be playing songs like that and still sound up to date."

Not long after the release of 1991's World Outside album, the Furs split. By then, the Butlers had long been the only holdovers from its late-'70s beginnings. The siblings spent much of the '90s with the more guitar-oriented Love Spit Love, a band that is easily comparable to Bowie's elemental rock excursions with Tin Machine. But by 2000, the Furs were back in action.

So what does the bass-playing Butler think of his vocalist brother, having been by his side professionally for much of the past 35 years?

"Well it's been inspiring just to go to work with someone who is so close to you. You can have an argument, and 10 minutes later, it's history.

"But I think Richard is one of the most distinctive voices of the past 30 years. It's incredibly distinctive. I think Morrissey is also distinctive, along with Robert Smith (of The Cure) and Bono (from U2).

"Nowadays — and for quite a while, really — there has been this homogenization of alternative music where you get bands that are essentially interchangeable. You hear them on the radio, and they all sound the same. It's very rare to hear someone as distinctive as Richard."

The Furs haven't released a full album of new material since World Outside, although this year, Sony/Legacy issued a new 14-song retrospective, Playlist: The Very Best of the Psychedelic Furs. Butler said the new Furs lineup — which includes guitarist Rich Good, saxophonist Mars Williams, keyboardist Amanda Kramer and drummer Paul Garisto — is working on new material at its own pace, but he is especially encouraged by the support and respect the band has experienced on its recent tours.

"I think we're finally getting the respect we deserved. When we were going at it in our heyday, I don't think the record company knew what to do with us. As a result, we were passed by a lot of the other bands like The Cure and U2. But now we're getting name-checked by younger bands like The Killers, so that's tremendously gratifying. It makes you feel like what you've done has been worthwhile."

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