She’s been a Bangle, a Drifter and a substitute Go-Go. And now Vicki Peterson is a Skull – an Action Skull, to be precise. Along with her husband, Beach Boys touring drummer John Cowsill, and singer/songwriter/actor Bill Mumy, Peterson’s love for harmonies is percolating once again, this time with a Laurel Canyon flavor. Premiering in August with their lead-off track, “Mainstream,” the Action Skulls debut album, Angels Hear, will be available later this month on September 27th.
For the chick who for all appearances seemed to be the rocker in The Bangles, Peterson actually started out loving The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, and brought that melody love into every band she has stepped into – from The Bangles to the Continental Drifters and now the Action Skulls, where all three members share equal vocal time. “It was clear to me from the first night that we had an interesting blend of three very different-sounding voices,” Peterson recalled recently. But what on paper shouldn’t work, does. From the Crosby Stills & Nash-like ballad that dips into a peaceful psychedelia, “If I See You In Another World,” to the bouncy “Mainstream,” to Peterson’s own “Map Of The World,” the Action Skulls bring you along on their lyrical musical journey, which by the end leaves you feeling good about a sunny day, some acoustic guitars and those oh so good unjazzed-up harmonies.
Despite an unwavering symmetry to the record, Angels Hear was a few years in the making. Starting out on a new band high with Mumy writing songs faster than Peterson and Cowsill could listen to, it just as suddenly came to a halt due to touring obligations. It was following the death of bass player Rick Rosas in late 2014 that they reconvened to finish up what they had begun. “He’d play the unexpected and it sounded as if that part was meant to be there and the song was now complete,” Peterson remembered about laying down some tracks with Rosas.
Glide spoke with Peterson recently about the immediate Action Skulls chemistry, starting her first band, her love for harmonizing, guitars and playing with Prince.
I understand you used to live in New Orleans
Yes, I did. I spent the nineties in New Orleans. I was there for about ten years and what kept me there was the music. I was making music with the Continental Drifters and that’s not the only magnet to that city – it’s kind of magical and spiritual and gets under your skin for sure.
Were you around when Hurricane Katrina hit?
We had just left the city. I actually left in 2003. My husband, John Cowsill, brought me back to Los Angeles cause that’s where his kids are and so that’s where we needed to be, cause we got married that year. That was the only reason why I would have left (laughs).
Well, it started in the most casual of ways, at a party, a Christmas party, at Angela Cartwright’s house. John and I kind of crashed the party. We ran into Bill at another party, and we were just casual friends with Bill Mumy, and he said, “I’m going to this party at Angela Cartwright’s.” And John, who has been crushing on Angela Cartwright since he was probably seven, said, “Let’s go!” [Angela Cartwright co-starred with Mumy in the sixties TV series Lost In Space].
We ended up staying to the wee hours just sitting around the piano singing Beatles and Beach Boys and anything that came into our heads. And it just struck me sitting in between these two other male singers, how different our voices were and how cool and unusual the blend was. That is kind of what my ear always goes to. Like, it’s what struck me the first time Debbi and I sang with Susanna Hoffs with the Bangles. It was like, this is something special. It’s physics, it’s sonics, it’s something you can’t really quantify or describe but something kind of magical happens when voices get together and I liked how it sounded.
So when these guys went off on this, you know, “Let’s be a band, okay, let’s call it the Peace Skulls! No, let’s call it the Action Figures!” They were like twelve year olds (laughs). They were so excited and I’m just watching this going, “Okay, calm down.” But it was so fun to watch my husband, who has been a musician his whole life but he’s always been in other people’s bands, get very inspired by this idea. It also inspired Bill, who started writing songs kind of annoyingly prolifically (laughs). I mean, he was like sending us three a week or sometimes two a day. Like, “I’ve got another one. Check this out!”
So we just had to go in and record a couple of these and see what happens and it just ended up being so much fun. We did it as often as John was in town, which is not all that often cause he tours year round with the Beach Boys. But we were able to put together five or six songs and then we had this friend, Rick Rosas, who is somebody that John’s known for years and years and Bill’s known for years. I’ve only known him through John. But he was just a phenomenal bass player, who played with Neil Young and Crosby Stills & Nash and a lot of other people. He was just one of those soulful, intuitive bass players. So we made some demos, sent it to him, got him in the studio and two takes later it was perfect. I mean, he was amazing. He just kind of got it.
But the thing is, time just kept moving like it does and kept going on and on and I was involved in other projects and not always available and John was hardly ever available but we kind of cobbled together this record over three years. It kind of sat for a while and there was kind of a bump cause we did lose Rick a couple of years ago to a heart attack and that kind of put everything on pause for a little while and we just kind of sat with it. Then Bill said, “You know what, this will be the last record that Rick’s ever been on and we need to get this out. So let’s finish this up and put it out.” So we started up again and recorded another few songs.
I think Rick would be very proud of this
I think he would. He really enjoyed it. He was just kind of a quiet guy, a quiet soulful guy, but you could tell he enjoyed the sessions. He’d say, “I hope something happens with it.” Like, I hope it gets out in the world. He just wanted people to hear it.
Tell us about the harmonies on this record
The harmonies were fun and you’re talking to a Bangle and a Cowsill so harmonies are really important to us. Bill, who has worked with America and the Kingston Trio and some other interesting, very eclectic selection of people, he is also a harmony fiend. So it was something that just came naturally to us and was also really important to us, which is why we shared the vocals so much on this record and sing a lot of stacked harmonies.
Were most of these songs acoustic-based in nature?
They were not all acoustic-based. Even the earliest demos that Bill sent us, which I termed “The Bathrobe Demos” and I’ve threatened that I’m going to collect them and release them as blackmail (laughs), because he would send us videos he shot with his iPhone at like three in the morning and he’s in his bathrobe going, “Hey, check it out!” But it wasn’t always with an acoustic guitar. He often had his electric plugged in so it kind of had more of a rock feel. There were a couple we started but even the little demos we made for Rick to learn the parts and learn the songs while he was on the road, we plugged in. We had a full kit, we had a full little band, and Bill’s got a home studio and John played drums in his studio and when we actually tracked the record, it was at a studio called ReadyMix, an old traditional studio that was used in the seventies by people like Jackson Browne. So there was a cool vibe there. But the only real acoustic-based song is my song, “Map Of The World,” and that was written on an acoustic and I wanted it to stay with an acoustic base, with very little in the way of embellishments or other instruments. And that is our son on acoustic bass on that one.
Do you remember which song was the first one that really came together for you guys?
I think the first one we actually demoed and sang together was “Feed My Hungry Heart.” We sent that one to Rick and we divvied up the verses and came up with the harmonies. It’s got kind of a country feel to it and it’s one of my favorite ones, I think, cause it was one of the first ones that we just worked on at Bill’s studio.
“If I See You In Another World” has a Crosby Stills & Nash kind of feel to it but then it has this hypnotic sixties psychedelic feel also.
That’s a song that started out one way and kind of evolved into what it is on the record. It’s one song that Bill had started to write and sent it to me and I kind of wasn’t really feeling it so I said, let me take it home and play with it a little bit. So I rewrote the chorus melody and changed the chorus and some of the words. But as far as the really cool psychedelia, a lot of that was Bill, his ideas in the studio he added and the bells and all that, which is very cool. It’s very atmospheric.
What can you tell us about “Faith Waltz”?
I love that one. That’s one of Bill’s songs and I remember he kept wanting to give away his vocals. He’d say, “Vicki, you sing this one.” And I put my foot down and said no. “This one is meant for you. This one is for your voice.” And it sounds fantastic. I was really pleased how that one came out. That one is all Bill.
You weren’t kidding when you said he was on a roll
He was on a big roll. He said he just got inspired but he is that guy. Like I said, he’s kind of annoyingly prolific, and I say that with all the admiration in the world. In the time it’s taken us to begin and finally release Angels Hear, he has produced and released three solo records. So he’s that guy (laughs).
What is the biggest change you’ve noticed in your songwriting?
To be perfectly honest, I’m just coming off of a real dry spell, a real desert, actually. I mean, the next few things I write, which may be Action Skulls or maybe, I don’t know, for something else, is sort of inspired by the fact that I haven’t written in so long. I’ve been pretty scattered and a lot of things have gone on in life so what I’m realizing is that the time and attention that creativity takes is really important and has to really be honored. It’s also easy to take for granted and just push away. Like, yeah, I’ll do that later. But you can’t do that. You actually have to give it that moment and that attention – unless you’re Bill Mumy, in which case you don’t, cause apparently it just shows up (laughs). Just put on a bathrobe and magic happens. But for me, I noticed more so when I was definitely in my twenties writing for the Bangles or just how I wrote when I was a teenager, you really have to take the time and honor the process.
The other thing, and this is just hilarious and something I noticed in life, is that when I’m in a happy relationship, my writing life goes to hell (laughs). I’ve been happily married going on fourteen years so it sucks! (laughs) Isn’t that funny? But it’s true. The marriage is great but like I said, it’s a different process.
What was the main guitar you used on this record?
I used several. Well, I actually used three main guitars on this record, other than when I picked up one of Bill’s, who has a phenomenal guitar collection. He pretty much has one of each (laughs). I used my Daisy Rock Guitar, and there’s a Daisy Rock Bangles edition, which just sounds really great. It records really well, it has versatility, it can sound really clean and bright, and it can also sound crunchy and rock. So I used that for several things. Then I used my nic-named the Love Thing, my 1972 era Les Paul Custom Guitar that I’ve had for decades. It doesn’t get to leave the house anymore because it’s broken it’s neck twice, unfortunately. Now I just baby it. It can record at home but that’s about it. But I did record with that guitar and then I also brought my 1967 Stratocaster to the recording sessions and tracked with that mostly.
Did you only play guitar on this?
I played a little mandolin and some percussion but that’s it.
Do you like getting in the studio and being a knob-turner?
I do. I like to engineer. I’ve gotten that sort of mad scientist thing where when I’m recording now I like to be in the studio by myself, cause I feel completely free to mess up and you really have to be willing to fail if you’re going to do anything that’s worth anything; although working with Bill and John is extremely comfortable and I had no problem, and believe me, I’ve made a fool of myself several times in front of them and it was fine (laughs). But yeah, there is something about just getting in there and your time management is yours, what you try is yours. I am interested in the process of recording. I am learning a lot about it. My studio is bare bones and could be much, much more fleshed out, I know that, but it works for me. I am completely self-taught so I do everything wrong and I just do it the way I do it (laughs).
When you first started learning to play guitar, what was the hardest thing for you to get the hang of?
Probably barre chords (laughs), cause I was nine and my hands were little. I remember trying to play the F chord, barre first position, and I was like, “This hurts.” (laughs). But you get past that and eventually it doesn’t hurt anymore.
What were you learning on?
I started out on acoustic, so that was why it was hard to play barre chords (laughs). But I also had an electric guitar when I was in the fourth grade. I talked my parents into buying me this Rickenbacker copy called an Electro and that was my first electric guitar, which I don’t have that guitar anymore but I have a replica of it my friends gave to me a few years ago on my birthday.
Was starting a band so young a no-brainer?
Yes! It was a no-brainer, absolutely.
How did you do it?
I started the band before Debbi. I had a songwriting partnership with my best friend who is still one of my best friends and we’re still writing other things together and working on projects, and we were writing songs and we were sort of Simon & Garfunkel-ing it for a while. But then we wanted to be a band so we recruited a few more friends, some of whom could play but most of whom could not, so that was a problem (laughs). We had a few experiments with drummers and then at one point it was just like, why don’t we let Debbi try. I think she was fourteen or fifteen at the time and we sat her down on a drum kit and literally some friends of ours who were in a band, a proper band, sat her down and just kind of went over the basics and said, “Hey Debbi, try this.” And she did it and then they went, “Wow, try this.” And she did it and they went, “Okay, we think you’re a natural drummer.” She’d been sort of air drumming to Beatles records for so many years that she already had the hang of it. She’d been able to listen to records and pick out parts. She’d trained her ear to hear what the bass was playing, what the kick drum was playing. So whenever she picked up an instrument she kind of already knew where to go. So Debbi, my best friend Amanda and I had a trio for a while in high school and played during our college years and then in 1981, it was down to just me and Debbi again and that’s the year we met Susanna. So it’s just kind of always what I did.
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
Let me think for a second. I’m thinking of a time where I was meeting a lot of people but who was first? I can tell you who was first that really freaked me out cause I had sat next to some idols, like Joni Mitchell, but in the eighties, hmm, no, that was after Prince (laughs). Prince was first. Prince was always interesting. We met him after he had given us a tape. He had a tape of a couple of songs and he had seen the Bangles video “Hero Takes A Fall,” which was a song I wrote with Susanna, and he liked the video and he liked the band and got interested in the band. So he had a couple of songs, and as people are finding out now but a lot of people didn’t know then, he was a very prolific songwriter, probably even more so than Bill Mumy (laughs). And he spread his stuff around as it were. He had other artists cover his songs and he liked that.
So he was always sending songs to people and he had two songs he wanted us to listen to, one of which was “Manic Monday,” thank you very much Prince for that. He had made a cassette of that and had left that at a studio for us and we actually met him at a show. We were playing San Francisco, it also happened in Los Angeles, where we would get this cryptic message backstage after the show or in-between the end of the set and the encore: “Prince is here and he wants to play.” Okay! (laughs) At that point he’d just show up and I handed the aforementioned Les Paul to him to play and I picked up my secondary guitar and we played a couple of covers. I think we did like a Jerry Lee Lewis song or something and then “Manic Monday.” He wanted to play on “Manic Monday” with us. It was great.
Did the crowd know it was Prince?
Oh yeah, they knew who he was. I don’t think Prince ever got up in the morning and put on a t-shirt and jeans (laughs).
What was the first song that you obsessed over as a kid?
Probably a Beatles song because I completely obsessed over the Beatles as a very young child and then later in high school when I really didn’t like anything that was on the radio. I just kind of went back to the sixties and listened to everything I missed cause I was sort of too young to experience. So Beatles songs, there were so many but I loved the song “And I Love Her” from A Hard Day’s Night. That was just one of them cause obviously it was everything, especially from the first three or four records. For a young kid, it was just candy.
How has your husband John influenced you musically?
Well, because he was the drummer for the Cowsills, and that’s a band that was actually one of the first bands other than The Beatles, I became completely obsessed with the Cowsills when I was a kid. I think partially because Susan and John were close to my age and I saw in them something I might be able to be. I mean, there was a girl my age on Ed Sullivan. I was like, “What universe am I living in? This is crazy!” It completely fascinated me and blew my mind and inspired me in a lot of ways. So their doing what they did was incredibly inspiring to me. John to this day inspires me because he’s just a natural musician in that way that he wakes up in the morning and he’s singing some obscure song. He sings all the time. He can pick up anything and figure it out and play it. And he takes it all for granted because he’s always had it so he thinks it’s nothing, and it’s not nothing, it’s incredible.
He’s also very fun to work with and it’s funny because we’d been married for like ten years before we ever really played together, which is a little odd (laughs). But there is this little cross pollination thing that goes on in making music and it’s a kind of intimacy you’d think would be easy for a couple but there’s also the boundaries you’re crossing. I just didn’t want it to go in a territory that wasn’t happy and comfortable.
How does this new album best describe you as an artist today?
I guess as a collaborator, because it’s definitely a collaboration, a happy collaboration, but it’s an input of three sometimes very different streams of consciousness and musical thought. But because we all came from similar places musically, similar generation musically, it was kind of an easy blend. But it is definitely a group effort and I’m kind of a serial band member. That’s what I’ve been doing since I was twelve so I guess that hasn’t really changed (laughs).
Are you going to be playing some shows?
We have not played a show. We’re kind of figuring out how we can do that with John’s schedule. So as far as doing a live show, it’s a little more complicated. But it could happen. We’re hoping to find the right circumstances and the right timing. It’s just about timing now, mostly with John’s schedule. In New Orleans you can plan something for three days down the line and people will come. In LA, it’s a lot more formal and has to be really planned.
Any plans with the Bangles coming up?
Not as such. We’ve kind of taken this year to pursue other stuff. We’ve talked about doing a repeat of what we did last year, which was around Christmastime we did a series of local shows and invited a lot of special guests up and it was really fun. We did three nights and sold out at the Whisky last year. We might look for a similar scenario for the end of the year but haven’t solidified those plans yet. But Debbi and I have been doing a little bit of songwriting and we’ve talked about doing a possible single.