As a former angry young rocker, Richard Butler, the lead singer of the Psychedelic Furs, evoked wry and ironic sentiments (i.e. “We Love You” from the 1980 debut album The Psychedelic Furs) through his distinctive raw voice along with the driving rock played by the guys behind him. Those ingredients cemented the Furs’ reputation as one of the influential post-punk bands of the ‘80s.
Today Richard Butler is forging a new chapter in his musical life. After 25 years of fronting his band, he finally released his self-titled solo debut on April 18. That distinctive voice still remains, but the new music is ambitious and stark in contrast to his work in the Furs, drawing more on electronic and ambient textures than the straightforward rock and roll Furs fans were accustomed to.
According to the Englishman, who now resides in upstate New York, there were some opportunities to recording a solo album through the years, but it never came to fruition until now.
“I planned to do one way, way, way back in 1982 or 3,” he remembered, “and it never sort of happened. I was going to do one in around 1990, but that ended up sounding so much like a band, and that became Love Spit Love.” [Love Spit Love was Butler’s post-Furs band in the Nineties].
Richard Butler marked a collaboration between Butler and producer Jon Carin, who had previously played with the Psychedelic Furs on the 1987 Midnight to Midnight album; he also recorded and toured with Pink Floyd. Carin’s expertise with sonic atmospherics certainly, along with Butler’s lyrics, steered the ethereal direction the album took.
“For this one, I didn’t know I was going to do a solo album when I started,” said Butler. “At one point during the recording of it Jon said we should make this record so that the music (showcases) your voice. It was very personal, a lot of it. It seemed right that it was a solo record.
“It wasn’t a conscious thing, really. It just sort of happened because of the way we structured and wrote the songs, so they were automatically more intimate. It gave rise to what I was going through at the time. It became more clear. If I was singing the lyrics against the rock band and singing a lot harder maybe it wouldn’t be so intimate.”
Upon listening to the album, fans and listeners could really hear Butler’s vocals against the subdued musical background. Not laced with his sometimes trademark sarcasm and irony, the songs (which would perfectly fit in with a television or movie soundtrack) reveal a sense of aching and vulnerability that is echoed in his singing, especially on tracks from the fragile strains of “Good Days Bad Days” through the heartfelt “Maybe Someday.”
“Good,” he said matter-of-factly. “I wanted that. I was singing a lot more quietly. The way we wrote the songs were mainly withacoustic guitars. They weren’t a lot of music to compete against and find a place for your vocals. So I was able to sing very quietly. And I enjoyed it.”
Although Butler’s lyrics with the Furs grew reflective and thoughtful on subsequent albums since the punk-ridden angst of the band’s first albums (1980’s The Psychedelic Furs and Talk, Talk, Talk the following year), the songs on “Richard Butler” are the most personal and soul-searching the singer has ever written.
“A lot of [the songs] refer to loneliness,” Butler explained, “whether it’s somebody mapping the stars up in space, somebody being the last person alive, or somebody sitting in a bar and not being able to sleep. It’s just a series of pictures of loneliness asking whether it’s all worth it.”
Not bounded by a deadline, Butler and Carin were freed to work on the album at their own pace and in the manner that they liked.
“We didn’t have a record company breathing down our necks. We didn’t have anybody saying, ‘You should write more songs like this and less songs like that.’ We were left entirely to our own devices, which is perfect. Not that I’ve ever listened to those people anyway.”
Along with the release of the record, Butler has been on the road performing semi-acoustically accompanied by Joshua Lopez and Zak Shaffer on electric and acoustic guitars and keyboards. A recent New York City performance was a far more intimate affair with Butler seated on a high stool with mike in hand.
“I quite like it,” he said of the stripped-down approach, which was done with the Furs and Love Spit Love. “When we did radio shows and acoustic Christmas shows when we were one of a number of bands that were playing acoustically. I really enjoyed it to hear my voice, and really focusing more on singing.”
And when Butler wasn’t making music, he was working on his paintings, revisiting a part of his youth. His art works has been shown in galleries in New York; one of his paintings was used as the cover of his new album.
“I went to art school in England before I started the band [in the Seventies],” he remembered. “In my last year of art school, one of the teachers came up to me and said, “There’s only half a dozen painters in England who can make a living by painting.’ He reeled off a half dozen names and I thought, ‘Oh great, this isn’t going to be easy!’ I formed the band out of the excitement of the music scene of that time, so that took off and painting got pushed aside for a while. I picked it up again ten years ago.”
Fans can take heart that Butler’s present solo work is not an indication that the Psychedelic Furs are breaking up again. The band, who reunited in 2000 after a nearly ten-year hiatus, is currently working on its eighth studio album since 1991’s World Outside.
“Tim [Butler] and John [Ashton] are writing music and they got quite a bit of music,” said Butler. “So I’m due to add the vocals to it.”
As if Butler’s solo album and the upcoming Furs record wasn’t enough to satiate fan interest, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the Furs’ second album Talk Talk Talk, regarded by many as the band’s best album. One of its songs, “Pretty in Pink,” inspired the John Hughes film of the same name five years later and gave the band its first mainstream hit. If you look at any Furs compilation, you’ll notice that a considerable number of tracks are taken from that album.
“It’s looking pretty good for 25-years-old,” mused Butler. “People say its influential. The record doesn’t sound dated. In any given time, there are always different tricks that producers use. Steve Lilywhite thankfully didn’t use many of those so it didn’t have anything particularly to date it.”
With his first solo album now completed, Butler said he is receptive to recording another one down the road.
“Absolutely, I’d love to,” he said. “In fact there are a lot of songs that went into this album that I wanted to use and had written already. They didn’t get used because the album took a slightly different direction when it became very ambient and acoustic.”
When asked if writing these new songs was like therapy after what he had gone through personally, he responded first with a laugh, “I suppose in some ways. Doing anything is any like therapy. As long as you’re not sitting down thinking too much, you’re alright.”