By: Chris Shapiro:
When it comes to female musicians, there are few who can boast the success of Debbi Peterson, a founding member of the Bangles. The Bangles formed in the early 80s with Peterson on drums/vocals, her sister Vicki on guitar/vocals and Susanna Hoffs also on guitar/vocals.
The band went on to produce scores of high selling albums along with hit singles that dominated the U.S. and world pop charts. Their singles, “Manic Monday,” “Walk Like An Egyptian,” “Hazy Shade of Winter,” and “Eternal Flame” helped to define the style and sound of 80s music.
Peterson calls her interest in drums a “natural instinct.” She says she was drawn to playing them after “air drumming” to Beatles songs when she was a young teenager.
“I could always listen to the drum part and I understood sort of how it worked before I even got a drum set,” Peterson said.
Peterson’s first involvement in a band setting became a family affair, “My sister Vicki had a little band in high school. A bunch of friends got together and they were looking for a drummer and the bass player at the time suggested me which my sister was thinking, ‘Wow I never even thought about that.’ So I went and ‘auditioned’ and got the job,” Peterson said.
While her parents are not musicians, they did pass down their love of music to their children. Not only are Peterson and her sister Vicki established musicians but also their brother who is also a drummer.
“He was the one who was more interested in drums before me cause he had like a little snare and a toy drum set and everything I was just kinda, at the time, not interested,” Peterson said.
Shortly after her “air drumming” days, Peterson got serious about playing. “Suddenly it like hit me, ‘this is a great instrument’ and there was an opportunity to play it,” She said.
Creating music has always been a dynamic process for Peterson and the Bangles. There was no one distinct way the band went about creating music which, in respects to the creative process, helped to keep their music inventive.
Peterson describes the process behind song writing as a Bangle as being, “kinda like a combination of everything. Somebody would have like a chorus and present it to another band member and we’d work together on that. Or someone would have like the majority of a song and another band member would help out with the lyrics.”
The dynamic force revealed itself again during the band’s recording of their latest album Sweetheart of the Sun. “The song Anna Lee was actually created in the studio just us sitting together playing guitar and singing melodies and completely creating a whole song together in one environment,” Peterson said.
After their hit album, Different Light, the band released a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “A Hazy Shade of Winter” as part of the soundtrack to the 80s film Less Than Zero.
“Well that’s kinda one we did like really early on in the clubs so we kinda were already starting to rockin’ it out in the early days. It’s very much a folk rock song but because we were playing it live it ended up become more of a rock song,” Peterson said.
Creating a cover of a successful song that people know can be a difficult business to dive into. It’s a balancing act of keeping the nature of the song intact while adding a new twist to it as an artist Peterson says.
“You know, you got to keep true to the actual song itself. You don’t want to get too far away from it. So it’s always kinda of a challenge to cover other peoples songs because you don’t want it to sound exactly the same, and it sounds like a complete remake.” Peterson goes on to say that, “you want to add your own special touch to it, your own personal vibe to it.”
The single became a top ten hit in the U.S. and allowed the Bangles to reveal a different musical side. “It was a very nice surprise. And the reason I’m very pleased that that one did so well because it showed very much a rock side of the Bangles as opposed to the more poppy side. So gave the chance to actually say ‘the Bangles can rock,’” Peterson said.
“A Hazy Shade of Winter” established the Bangles as a band that was able to cover more musical ground than just a pop sound. The rock sound of the song infused the band with knew creative potential, a sound that Peterson enjoyed.
“I mean I think as being a drummer and as far as doing it live, doing the songs live, I do love to rock out I must admit. But I do also really enjoy the sort of folksy, sort of more pop side as well. I like both,” Peterson said.
In 1988, the Bangles released their third full length album Everything. The album contained several songs written by Peterson including “Bell Jar,” which was co-written and sung by Vicki Peterson. The inspiration for the song came from the Sylvia Plath book The Bell Jar.
“I actually had a few lyrics that kind of were reminiscent of part of the story and Vicki she had read the book too and we were just sitting down discussing it and I showed her some of the lyrics I had and then she had some lyrics too and it kind of evolved from that,” Peterson said.
Many changes have occurred within the music industry since the days of the first Bangles albums. Peterson says back in the 1980s the majority of time was spent in a “pre-production” rehearsal setting where the band created their music. While Sweetheart of the Sun, released in 2011, was completed mostly in a home based studio environment.
“Back in the old days you’d go to the, you know the big, high class, studio, spend lots of money you know renting it for whatever certain amount of time and it was quite expensive. But nowadays you can do it in your home at your house,” Peterson said.
She prefers recording in the home studio setting as it relieves the pressure of working within a time frame. Peterson says the band can work at their own pace and aren’t forced to watch the clock. “It was much more creative to be able to be in a more home environment this time around,” Peterson said.
Peterson says Sweetheart of the Sun and Doll Revolution were enjoyable albums with Sweetheart of the Sun being her favorite album.
For future musicians, Peterson says they have to understand that the industry is extremely difficult with stiff competition. “You got to really believe that you want to do this and nothing else,” Peterson said.
She goes on to add that, “When we started out it we were like tunnel visioned. It was like, ‘this is what we’re going to do, we’re going to get number one, we’re going to be on the radio.’ And I know it’s a different world than it was when we started out but it’s still the same philosophy. You just have to you know stick to your guns, stick to what you believe in and just work really hard and just keep going. Don’t give up.”