By Jim Schutze
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With his raspy voice and elegant way with words, Psychedelic Furs frontman Richard Butler just oozes cool. Off and on for nearly 30 years now—from the band's humble post-punk beginnings in 1977 to Top 40 success throughout the '80s—Butler has led some version of The Psychedelic Furs with an artistic panache that's rarely been matched.
And although Butler's never been known as the friendliest of sorts, it would seem the prospects of a new Furs album (its first in 18 years), as well as his band's current tour with a rejuvenated Happy Mondays, has put him in an agreeable mood.
"I can't remember having this much fun on tour in a long time," Butler offers, speaking from a stop in Seattle. "I haven't been able to catch the Mondays as often as I would like, but the crowds have been super."
Back in his band's '80s heyday, he and the rest of the Furs didn't worry too much about crowds. Beginning with a self-titled debut in 1980 and continuing on with Talk Talk Talk, which many consider to be the band's best album, The Psychedelic Furs' unique take on post-punk was as refreshing as it was indefinable. And, on top of the band's incessant roar, there was always Butler's croaking mix of David Bowie and Johnny Rotten. As the band became more and more pop-friendly, hitting the charts with "Love My Way," "The Ghost in You" and a reworked version of Talk's "Pretty in Pink," Butler's vocals became the band's defining attribute. It wasn't long, then, before original members started to fall by the wayside. By the time the Furs released 1987's Midnight to Midnight (the band's best-selling album), Butler admits things were unraveling.
"I think we got lost," he says. "We lost our way around that time and such caused a great deal of strife, self-examination and concern. Of course, we were never really a very optimistic bunch."
But Butler and his bass-playing brother Tim kept the band together, even releasing two albums (Book of Days and World Outside) that returned the band to its pre-pop sound with uneven results. By 1990, Butler formed a new band, Love Spit Love, and it looked as if the days of the Furs were over.
It's been a rebirth of sorts for the frontman, who's currently writing tunes for a new Furs record. But he's also come to appreciate his old catalog along the way; the recent tour boasts a set list featuring most of Talk Talk Talk, plus some Love Spit Love songs and even a couple from Butler's superb self-titled solo album from 2006.
"It's been a long time since we had given a lot of that material an airing," Butler says, specifically referring to the bulk of songs from The Furs' sophomore effort. But it's a catch-22, he warns: "You get caught in a trap because you play your most popular songs and people still feel ripped off if they don't hear certain other ones."
But Butler, it appears, will be pleased regardless. And if that's what it takes to keep the Furs going after all these years, then so be it.