Hoffs and Sweet cover up

 By  Peter Lindblad
Matthew Sweet and The Bangles' Susanna Hoffs have collaborated on two albums of cover songs. (Drew Reynolds)
Matthew Sweet and The Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs have collaborated on two albums of cover songs. (Drew Reynolds)
Susanna Hoffs and The Grateful Dead have a history together.

It comes full circle with Hoffs and power-pop architect Matthew Sweet doing “Sugar Magnolia” on the Under The Covers Vol. 2 collection, which finds the pair covering some of their favorite songs of the ’70s. “I just have had so many weird experiences somehow in my life with The Grateful Dead,” says Hoffs.

One occurred in 1988, when Hoffs and her band, The Bangles, were performing in New Orleans. “We were opening up for George Michael,” recalls Hoffs.

Arriving in New Orleans, The Bangles checked into their motel. Feeling restless and bored, Hoffs decided to go for a walk. She got to the lobby and saw a van pull up.

“And the doors opened and the Grateful Dead got out of the van,” laughs Hoffs. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. Not only were they having a show in the same city, but they were staying in the same hotel. So I’m sort of standing there with my jaw dropped.”

Not trusting her eyes, Hoffs went up to ask the last guy to roll out of the vehicle if that was, indeed, the Grateful Dead. The next thing she knew, Bob Weir had invited Hoffs and the Bangles to a crawfish party at the Neville Brothers place, and Hoffs was taking a walk with Weir.

“Because I was having a moment where I got past any shyness I might have been feeling,” says Hoffs, “I said, ‘You know, we sing good back-up harmonies if you want a little back-up on your show tomorrow night … and sure enough, we sang for them.”

Weir wasn’t done walking. After the Dead’s show that night, Weir asked Hoffs to take a walk around the city. It was a surreal experience.

“It was such a crazy thing because for me, he was Bob from the Grateful Dead, but to him, he was just himself,” says Hoffs. “He was so used to living on the road and touring and everything, but we’re walking down the street, and I realize that at a certain point — you know when you can kind of sense that somebody’s behind you — that there was a huge group of fans with tie-dyed T-shirts like following us, just wandering, not bothering him. We were at the head of this line of people in tie-dyed T-shirts, and he was like the Pied Piper or something.”

When Hoffs wistfully looks back on her college years at the University of California-Berkley, which she attended from 1976 to 1980, she often thinks of the Dead.

“There’s something about the spirit of that band that just kind of captures the’70s for me,” explains Hoffs. “I don’t know why. There was just sort of a [Grateful Dead] lifestyle in a way, as well as being a great band. There’s just something about listening to their music that just puts you in a kind of trance and just sort of like … I don’t know, puts you in a good mind-set.”

A lot of songs on Under The Covers Vol. 2 have that effect, and that explains why Hoffs and Sweet created this project, under the aegis of Sid & Susie. Vol. 1 included covers of the duo’s favorite songs mostly from the ’60s.

Hoffs and Sweet started hatching this plan in 2006, though they’ve known each other much longer than that. As she remembers it, they met in the early ’90s through Fred Maher, who produced Sweet’s archetypal example of power-pop, the Girlfriend LP. Maher was producing a track Hoffs was doing for the “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” movie soundtrack. Then, when Hoffs’ husband, director Jay Roach, was working on the first “Austin Powers” movie, Sweet asked Hoffs to sing with him at a show he was doing at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, Calif. Hoffs then did a little matchmaking of her own.

“I thought, ‘You know, I bet Mike Myers would just love Matthew Sweet’s music,’ because he loves pop music, and so I brought Mike over to meet Matthew and it was like a really great match,” says Hoffs. “And then the three of us, Mike, Matt and I, started to play music together just for fun. And we came up with a little band called Ming Tea. And we ended up doing quite a bit of music for all the Austin Powers movies, so my friendship with Matthew grew a lot through that period of working with Mike on those songs.”

When The Bangles played a charity event at McCabe’s, Sweet laid out the idea for a covers album to Hoffs.

Hoffs is no stranger to doing covers. “In the very early days of The Bangles, it was really cover songs that sort of cemented what our sound was going to be,” she says.

“I remember sitting and working in this little ceramics factory when we all had day jobs in the early, early ’80s and just having the Oldies radio station on all the time was … it was very lonely in this room all by myself all day,” says Hoffs. “So all I had was the radio, and I heard ‘Hazy Shade of Winter.’ When I heard that song, I thought, ‘That’s so perfect for The Bangles.’ It became a single that was on the radio that people now associate with The Bangles.”

And now, perhaps, classics like Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Secondhand News” and even Yes’ “I’ve Seen All Good People: Your Move/All Good People” will come to be, at least somewhat, associated with Hoffs and Sweet. Though the two share vocal duties on the latest record, it was Hoffs who sang “Maggie May” and “Bell Bottom Blues,” two songs with distinctive male vocals, at Sweet’s suggestion.

I just sat down to listen and learn the chords to ‘Maggie May,’ and I called Matthew and said, Okay, so you want to do this in the original key,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, but you’re going to sing it,’” says Hoffs. “And I said, ‘What? Are you kidding?’ And he said, ‘No, I really want you to sing it.’”

Changing keys, first of all, was necessary for Hoffs. Then, she just had to wait for a day when her voice was scratchy, like Stewart’s.

“My voice gets really raspy anyway, but there were days when I had like the major rasp going, for whatever reason, and I would call Matthew from the car and say, ‘Can I come over? My voice is cutting up in a really good way right now. It’s really rough-sounding,’” says Hoffs. “And he’d say, ‘Oh, today’s not going to work out.’ So, finally, I go over to his house, and it was like the one day out of the entire year that I had like a very crystal-clear voice. So it was like, ‘Oh, what do I do?’ And he’s like, ‘Just go in the other room and scream for a while.’”

 That did the trick, and so, Under The Covers Vol. 2 came together. Sweet and Hoffs, their breezy vocal harmonies blending perfectly, did songs like Big Star’s “Back Of A Car” and The Raspberries’ “Go All The Way.”  “Ooooo … I love that song,” says Hoffs. “That song always really … something about the way the guitars sound and stuff, and I always thought, in that case, I thought that would be a fun lyric for a girl to sing, ‘cause it kind of changes the perspective a little bit.”

Which is what doing cover songs is all about.

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