A Pinnacle of Paisleyness

An exclusive interview with the Bangles’ Vicki Peterson about the new Paisley Underground compilation, 3 x 4: The Bangles, The Three O’Clock, The Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade

L-R: Debbi Peterson, Susanna Hoffs, Vicki Peterson /  Photo by Autumn de Wilde

The “Paisley Underground” was an impromptu genretag thrown out there by the Three O’Clock singer, Michael Quercio, during a fanzine interview sometime in 1982 or so.

A seeming blip in a burgeoning post-punk world groping for where to go next, the scene Quercio named was about 10 bands in L.A. who, from roughly 1981-85, decided that back to front was one way to go, marinating in the jangly Rickenbackers, melodic distortion, sunray harmonies and, yes, paisley-flecked outfits of the latter 1960s garage psych sound. Ladling in just enough punk pep, it formed a pretty groovy little scene. Soon enough, nearly all those bands were signed to well-known indie or major labels, touring nationally, and at least one of them – the Bangles – soon became 1980s pop icons.

The Three O’Clock had some minor hits, and even got signed and produced by Prince. The Rain Parade helped define ‘80s “college rock,” while guitarist David Roback went on to fame with Mazzy Star. And the Dream Syndicate, instant critics faves and a busy touring act through the decade, lasted the longest, and have become one of the more influential bands of that decade. And after leader Steve Wynn plowed through a respected, non-stop solo career, he reformed the Dream Syndicate for an excellent 2017 comeback album, How Did I Find Myself Here.

After a couple of “Paisley Aboveground” reunion concerts back in 2013 (which included all four of those aforementioned bands), the old friends knocked around ideas, which eventually turned into a brand new, Black Friday Record Store Day release on Yep Roc Records, 3×4: The Bangles, The Three O’Clock, The Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade. As if that title wouldn’t tell you, essentially, each band covers songs from the other bands. It’s a welcome return and a lovely listen. The new takes divulge a link between each band that one might’ve not noticed back when bands in the “Paisley Underground” would be quick to note that they didn’t all sound the same. Each one though puts a characteristic spin on their chosen covers.

3×4 Album Cover

The Rain Parade offers the most spiraling, winding deviations from the originals; the Three O’Clock turn theirs into strangely melancholic rainbow pop, the Dream Syndicate expose the central rhythm and rough riff of their jangly choices; and the Bangles, of course, find gorgeous harmonies where most bands would just let the lead voice do the talking. The liner notes offer long, heartfelt, and surprisingly confessional stories and memories.

While the whole thing is probably best for those who knew what “Paisley Underground” was before reading this intro, 3×4 works as a guitar tone lovers delight, and probably should’ve come out on the regular Record Store Day in the spring, as this disc is perfect for a summer drive. But then, all these bands were from L.A., where any time’s a good time to roll down the windows and let it ring.

Well, maybe not recently. Upon calling up Vicki Peterson – guitarist, singer, and co-founder of the Bangles – the Camp Fire was still raging through Malibu…

 

 

Thanks so much for chatting. But I know you are near the fires, so if you want to do this another day…

Nah, let’s do it now, I’m good. I just re-dusted my house of debris that’s in the air.

 

Whoa. How close are you to the danger?

Luckily the burn area near my neighborhood burnt out for good as of the end of last week, so we’ve been back in our house since the weekend. But it’s crazy.

 

I guess you must have some friends who don’t know what’s up with their houses?

Yeah, I do have some friends who have lost everything. Really sad.

 

Among the many scary images, I saw some oddly beautiful pictures of multi-colored smoke clouds someone took from an airplane window…

I was one of those people. The day I evacuated, I had pre-planned a trip to visit my sister in Washington state, and on our flight, we flew over Malibu, and I took some pictures, and I posted one of them. At that point, I didn’t know if I was going to have a home to come home to. It’s the definition of the word awesome. It’s awe-inspiring. I was talking to a friend who had suffered losses, and she said it’s almost pure evil. And it can be capricious, the way it serves up its own weather system. And the way the cars, how they look like they’ve been in a tornado, because sometimes they have. The idea of an animal or human going through that, it’s horrific.

 

Well, I appreciate you doing this then. And this shouldn’t be too hard. My questions won’t exactly be like 9th grade math level. But speaking of 9th grade, I’ve been a big Bangles fan, at least since 9th or 10th grade.

Yeah!!

 

And I finally got to see you guys at City Winery here in NYC a few years ago.

Oh, which one? We did like a City Winery tour.

 

It was the one where Jon Wurster got up and played tambourine on “Walk Like an Egyptian.”

Oh yeah, great!

 

 

Then I saw you at Irving Plaza, when that great rarities comp, Ladies and Gentlemen (Omnivore, 2016), came out.

Oh yeah, we were doing some of the really early stuff, which we tend to like to do these days.

 

Why’s that?

There’s something about – and this crosses over into the Paisley Underground project too – but there’s something about really revisiting the genesis of the band, and why we started to play together, and what noises we made when we first got together. It’s inspiring, and there’s something very honest about it. There’re just the earliest days, and there’s a real joy in it.

 

Well I’m the nerdish, “I’ve got the first EP” kinda guy, so when I was at that Irving Plaza show, and it was announced you’d be doing the first album and earlier stuff, I kind of wondered how the audience would react. I mean, you guys are a pretty big band with big hits, and sometimes that’s all people know are the hits. But I was amazed at how most of the crowd was singing along with early tunes and really getting into it, and not just yelling for “Eternal Flame,” or whatever.

Yeah, you never do know, and we took a chance on that. But that was a really, really fun show. It felt really good in that room.

 

So who approached you guys for this 3×4 album?

It happened completely in the confines of the four bands. We had gotten together a few years ago and did a couple of shows for the hell of it, up in San Francisco and here in L.A., and had such a good time.

 

The “Paisley Aboveground” shows, right?

Ha, yeah exactly. And so we just had such a good time, it was a remembrance of a moment where we were all just starting out, and figuring things out, and there was just a lot of joy in the creation. We were all each other’s biggest fans. So this was an outgrowth of that. I was on the phone with [Three O’Clock drummer] Danny Benair, and we were talking about what else can we do. It’s too hard to take stuff on the road, but maybe we could do a record, or new material, or something. So then this idea – partially for simplicity sake, and the functionality of actually getting something done – we came up with this idea of covering each other’s songs or from a favorite record. So it was a way to pay tribute to each other, and to make some interesting new/old music.

 

 

It’s amazing, because living here in New York, there are a lot of like reunions, or tribute parties, or Joey Ramone’s Birthday show, or whatever. And sadly, it’s obvious that – seeing who they can get to play these shows that are in tribute to like the late-70s New York scene or whatever – there are a lot of people who are not with us anymore. So it’s nice that, looking at this compilation, most of all of you are still around.

Yeah, we’re still mostly all above ground, the Paisley Aboveground.

 

So was there a crazy email thread when this all got going?

Ha! Oh yeah! The email threads are miles long, and there are several of them. This is the kind of thing you could compile into a book. We’d have to finally go, “Come on guys, new thread please.” These threads could circle the earth. But it was fun, teasing each other. The analogy of “The Class of ‘83” started, and then the record label was like the teacher handing out homework assignments. And then it was like, “Oh, of course the Dream Syndicate gets to pick their songs first and get to hand their assignment in first ‘cuz they’re so ‘cool.’” Ha ha…

 

Speaking of Class of ’83, I remember there was a TV show around then, maybe 1982, a regional L.A. show called MV3, and it was syndicated on a local TV station in Cleveland. There was a British host…

Oh absolutely. The host was Richard Blade, he might be Australian actually. He’s still around doing DJ nights and stuff. But anyway, yeah it was filmed here, I don’t remember exactly where. We were on it, the Three O’Clock was on it as well.

 

 

Yeah, that’s the first time I heard about both those bands.

Oh, awesome, that’s cool.

 

That was early. Annette Zilinskas was still on bass, right?

Yeah, I have no idea what happened to all that, the tapes of the show or whatever. We were having enough of a hard time trying to get our first EP out around then.

 

Okay, so back to 3×4, how did you decide to have Debbi (Peterson, drummer) sing the Three O’Clock’s “Jet Fighter?”

Well it all kind of fell to personal taste in a way. I think Susanna (Hoffs, singer/guitarist) is more emotionally connected to the Rain Parade, I was more connected to the Dream Syndicate, Debbi to the Three O’Clock. So we just thought about splitting up vocals. But it wasn’t even really that deliberate, it just kind of fell that way. And “Jet Fighter,” the chorus is so catchy, and it’s one we really remembered from the day. And of course there was the email thread about song choices, and again it was like, who’s going to get your homework assignment in first. Like, “Oh man, we wanted that song!” Ha, there was a little of that going on. But most of it fell into place easily.

 

 

How did you get Annette back into the fold to play on the Dream Syndicate’s “That’s What You Always Say?” I guess there were no hard feelings over the years?

Oh no, we’ve been in touch throughout the years. And actually, we’d done a couple of L.A. shows where we’d have her come up and play on a few songs. Just having fun with our rotating bass player slot. Even bringing in one of the very original bass players one time at the Whiskey, someone who was in a band with Debbi and me in high school.

 

What was the name of that high school band?

We had several names. I believe “The Fans” was the one we kept for more than two minutes.

 

What’s an early memory of seeing Dream Syndicate?

I heard their name before I ever saw them. I was working with a woman at Faulty Products, when we were bringing them our first 45 to get distributed. And I was talking to her, and she mentioned the Dream Syndicate, like, “Oh man, you haven’t seen them? You HAVE to see them now!” So that being said, I don’t remember the very first time I saw them, but all I know is that it was love at first listen. They were so beautifully unstructured, or at least seemingly so. There was this kind of freedom in the way they were playing, and it inspired me in how I approach playing guitar. Like, hey you can stand on stage for 15 minutes and just make noise? Cool!

 

Do you ever see (original Dream Syndicate lead guitarist) Karl Precoda around?

No, he’s kind of off the grid, or whatever. You’d have to ask Steve Wynn about that. But god, Karl was brilliant.

 

So same for the Three O’Clock – any memories of first meeting them?

We knew them before, when they were called Salvation Army. And we were all friends with Redd Kross too. That was fun! To us Bangs – which is what we were called at the time – like the Three O’Clcck, we also worshipped mid-60s psychedelic pop music, wearing the vinyl mini-dresses, etc. They were like the perfect pop band to us. Michael Quercio is such a beautiful creature, so artistic, and they were such a great band.

 

Yeah, I saw them open for R.E.M. at the Music Hall in Cleveland in 1985, and – though admittedly it was like the tenth show I’d ever seen – they were the first opening band I saw get called back for an encore. Really great set.

Yeah, they were always good. That was a quick connection, and we played a lot of shows with them because we were both such a perfect musical fit.

 

What were the clubs for this scene in L.A.?

There was a night at a place called Club 88, where the Bangs, Three O’Clock, and the Dream Syndicate played a show – that was kind of an epic night, because here were these three bands that were all in love and sounding amazing, but different in their own ways. Probably 1982.

Our very earliest shows actually were punk rock shows at parties and such, and they did not know what to make of us. Like what are these four girls in miniskirts singing harmonies? Who are you?! Ha. But then, Club Lingerie was another place…

 

I can assume these are all long gone, right?

Oh yes, Well everything except the Whiskey, the Roxy, and the Troubadour.

 

And those might get the ol’ gentrification wrecking ball, too.

God, I can only hope not. We were involved with the 50th anniversary of the Whiskey a couple years ago, and did a couple fun shows. That is a cultural touchstone of Los Angeles.

 

So what about early memory of Rain Parade…

Rain Parade was and is one of the most artistic collections of humans They just make really beautiful sounds. They’re so ambient, they kind of create soundscapes really. I think the Troubadour might’ve been when I first saw them. It’s one of those things where, I don’t remember exactly where it began, but once it did, it became one of those beautiful, rolling experiences where we really did all hang out together. There really were backyard BBQs and going to each other’s shows all the time. It’s hard to pick one, but their songs on this 3×4 collection are some of the most beautiful.

 

So the story of Michael Quercio sort of accidentally coining the phrase “Paisley Underground” in a magazine interview – so not to be pretentious, but the way “film noir” was coined by a bunch of French critics 10 years after most of those movies came out…

Ha, yeah…

 

Was it like that with you guys, where that genre name started coming up, but you didn’t actually call yourselves that?

Well we definitely felt something was happening. It was a brief moment in time, and people did disappear soon – the Dream Syndicate went on tour, we went on tour, and we weren’t home then for basically a decade in the ‘80s. Same with the Three O’Clock. And personnel come and go, things change. But in that moment, like about maybe a year, 1982-83, we were all together a lot, and there were personal dynamics, and it was a very intense time.

 

Was it pretty insular, or did the different bands try to bring in similar ‘60s type bands from out of town to play on bills?

Yeah, there were a lot of other bands around we really loved, including the Fleshtones of course, and there was this band called The Unclaimed. They were one of the first bands that I saw who did songs like “Hey Little Girl.” I loved that band. That early high school band we had played with them in a club once. That band didn’t survive, so it wasn’t a part of this scene.

Danny Benair was the one who is always trying to be very clear that “Paisley Underground” wasn’t a genre, but it was about a moment in time, a small movement. We don’t all sound exactly alike, and we don’t all do the same kind of music. It’s an aesthetic in a way, and it’s definitely drawing inspiration from a moment in time, the 1960s. But there was something recognizable in the four of us. But of course, soon there were other bands that people started saying, “Oh, that’s a Paisley Underground band,” and we’d be like, “Uh, no, they weren’t there.” Ha ha.

 

Yeah, by the time that name as some kind of genre floated out from the west coast, you were all out touring, and maybe there wasn’t that scene so much anymore…

Yeah exactly. But Michael did coin that term in real time though! He did put that purple cape around us all in the moment.

 

I never knew this until I read the liner notes for 3×4, but your song, “Hero Takes a Fall,” was about Steve Wynn?

Ha, well it’s true and not true. It was really a composite character. I’d put this in the category of “non-denial denial,” because it wasn’t like, “Let’s write a song about Steve Wynn.” Susanna and I were talking more about classical theater, and the hero having a fatal flaw, and what’s his weakness, what’s going to bring him down. And we started playing around with that idea. Then I think it was (Dream Syndicate bassist) Mark Walton who said to Steve, “Hey, the Bangles wrote a song about you.” Where he got that, I don’t know. Ha. When I found out about that, I thought, oh god, Steve is never going to talk to me again. We laugh about it all now.

 

 

So just to clarify, this is all Mark Walton’s fault.

Ha, yes. I blame Mark for everything. No, just kidding. Hey, and it’s not about Mark Walton either. They did a great version of that song on 3×4.

 

That newest Dream Syndicate album is great.

Oh yeah, they’re amazing, and amazing live, if you get a chance to see that latest lineup. They’re the most active of all of us, at least in the last few years, they’re playing all over. A really solid band. Steve Wynn has never stopped. He tours worldwide. It’s inspiring. It makes me feel useless. Ha.

 

Steve says in the 3×4 liner notes that the Bangles were obviously the best musicians in that whole scene.

Yeah, well I don’t know if that’s true. Nice thing to say though. Everyone in that scene all had different strengths.

 

So that “Class of ‘83” name – do you have a kind of high school shenanigans story from that time?

Ha, yeah, well the highlight and pinnacle of Paisley-ness was our slightly impromptu trip to Catalina Island. We mentioned that in the liner notes because everyone had memories of that weekend, and they were all slightly different, of course. I was trying to remember, god, did we even bring sleeping bags? Like what were we gonna do? We were going to sleep on a golf course?! That was a bad idea. And now it’s two in the morning, and these ruffians are all laying around this golf course, drinking, and then they turned the sprinklers on us, and we got chased off the course by security guards and a sprinkler system.

 

There was no show in town that weekend or something?

No, it was just a field trip, like a bonding experience. This was sheerly for fun and each other’s company.

 

Are there any pictures from it?

Nah, this is pre-selfie stick. Ha. Actually, I think there is one picture of us sitting on the dock waiting for the boat to take us back.

 

So, kind of a fanatic’s question, but I’ve always wondered about the making of the “Going Down to Liverpool” video, from the first album. Any memories of making it?

We did most of that outside of the downtown Los Angeles area, don’t remember exactly where.

 

 

 

 

And working with Leonard Nimoy?

Yeah, he was very gracious. He was a friend and neighbor of Tammy Hoffs, Susanna’s mom, so she was able to get him to do that cameo.

 

So then, as things start kicking off for the Bangles, and you’re having hits with the second album, Different Light (1986), was there ever a moment where you were sitting in a van somewhere, or in some hotel lobby, where you thought you missed that scene back home, playing bars, or sort of realized, wow, we haven’t played with the Three O’Clock in three years? Or was it all just a whirlwind and enjoying things, and you didn’t want to look back?

Oh yeah, I always enjoyed playing bars, I still do. Yeah, there were moments where you thought, wow, I haven’t been home in 12 weeks. And then when you do get home, we’re going to be home for seven days, then back to the studio, or we’re going to have to shoot this, or whatever. There weren’t a lot of breaks, at all. Which is fine, and that’s how it works. But I definitely felt less in touch with Los Angeles, and what was going on there musically.

But like I said, by then the Dream Syndicate were off touring all the time; the Three O’Clock too. And the Rain Parade kind of split into different directions; David Roback was already doing Mazzy Star, so things had already evolved quite a bit when we left town. And then you’re in that unreal world of touring, where the structure is skewed, and the tiniest things start to seem important, because you have no grounding in anything. Like, “Argh, there is no tooth paste!!!” And you have a dumb meltdown. It’s completely irrational.

 

Yeah, and then you start spending like every waking moment with these people, rather than just local shows and some parties and…

Yeah, you really live with them.

 

Was there a moment too, where you kind of knew things were ending, where you just thought, oh I don’t wanna do this anymore?

Not a specific, little moment of illumination that’s going to be a tidy little story. Just a general feeling of creative and emotional fatigue. But I’m kind of a relentless optimist, and never want to quit. So it wasn’t my idea. For me, it was like, “Wait, what?!”

The Bangles on the cover of SPIN 1988

So you kind of split, but you did eventually get back together to do Doll Revolution (2003). So how did that happen?

I was living in New Orleans, and we’d actually kind of reunited for a song for the second Austin Powers soundtrack. And that was the first time we got together and thought about writing something new. My musical world was so different than what the Bangles had become, so I wasn’t terribly interested in going back to that. But I did miss Susanna as a writing partner. I figured if we were going to do something new, it was going to have to be something viable and real, and not just one of those ‘80s package tour things that were going around. Now I’ll do the ‘80s package thing, ha.

So the opportunity came up, and we wrote a couple songs, and we ended up using one for the movie; then we were involved at a show at the Hollywood Bowl with Sir George Martin conducting. These kind of things started showing up, and it was like, okay, this is fun, this is real life stuff, or at least it’s interesting on a creative level. So it started form there, we started writing more material. And we started sending cassette tapes back and forth with song ideas, then we did a few shows together, and that turned into the basis for Doll Revolution.

 

 

I really like that record. Anyway, there’s also the classic youth thing – as you get older, you realize what you had, and that it’s, say, not always easy to find a good drummer. Like I’m sure you found good people to play with and people to harmonize with, but there’re certain harmonies and whatnot that you have with the Bangles.

Oh yeah, absolutely. The Bangles have a sound that is uniquely our’s because it happens when these voices get together.

 

So what was the recording process for 3×4?

It was on each band to figure how to record. We all tracked in different places in different ways. We tracked at a studio in Venice, actually the same place where the Dream Syndicate tracked, and where I sang harmonies with them. Then both Susanna and I have home studios, so we took it there to add some vocals, percussion, extra guitar. My brother is a kind of a brilliant mixer and masterer, and he threw that all together.

 

That Ladies and Gentlemen compilation of your very early stuff and demos, that’s a really great release. Any chance there are more old, unreleased goodies lying around?

There are a few, I don’t know if there’s enough to make a great whole collection again. The only thing we haven’t done is make a great live record.

 

So there was a limited vinyl press of your last album, Sweetheart of the Sun (2011). Any chance there might be a Record Store Day release of Doll Revolution, since that never came out on vinyl?

Possibly. Of course this year, with 3×4, we’re going to be Paisley-ing all over the place. We’re doing an in-store in L.A., just sign records and goof around.

 

Any touring coming up?

No. We have a couple isolated shows, but no touring plans at this point.

 

So I noticed there are no pictures, old or new, of any of the bands in the 3×4 booklet. What’s the deal? I’ve seen pix of all the bands, and everyone looks really good.

Ha, that was part of the homework assignment that didn’t get turned in on time. I’m just very proud that we all got it frickin’ done, considering where we all are geographically, and where we all are in our lives. And I am very proud to be a member of the Paisley Class of ’83.

 

 

  

 

  

Eric Davidson

Eric Davidson is a freelance writer from Queens; singer of New Bomb Turks; author of We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001, and former Managing Editor of CMJ.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *