Q&A With the Naked Eyes' Pete Byrne, Playing at the Norton Museum on Thursday, July 9
Then again, since the song was originally written in the 1960s by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, originally recorded by Dionne Warwick, and originally became a hit when British singer Sandie Shaw got a hold of it, even you who were there when can't officially count yourselves among the first where that tune is concerned.
Not so with Naked Eyes' second smash hit, "Promises Promises," even though that track shares a title with a Bacharach/David musical. No, "Promises" is pure Naked Eyes -- resolutely tuneful and relentlessly upbeat. In fact it remains such a catchy representation of the era that Lady GaGa herself sampled it for 2008's "Poker Face."
Naked Eyes was a synth pop duo out of Bath, England who were among the first to combine ultra-modern technology and old-fangled songwriting. With the 1999 death of co-founder and keyboardist Rob Fisher, the duo became one, singer Pete Byrne. He continues to carry the name with both solo shows and, on occasion, backed by a full band. Byrne's about to release a new LP of all original songs called Piccadilly, the first since 2007's Fumbling with the Covers. But whereas that last album featured songs from the songwriters Byrne finds most compelling (Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Elton John), the latest finds the pop operative compelled again to compose on his own.
New Times got with the Byrne by phone from Los Angeles where he's preparing a summer jaunt that will include an unplugged set at the Norton Museum of Art. Here's what he had to say.
New Times: First, may I offer my condolences on the passing of Rob Fisher?
Pete Byrne: Thanks. It was one of those things where he hadn't been in good health for years, so it wasn't a total shock. But it still, uh, you know...
You two were still in touch, right, even though you weren't playing together?
Actually we were working on a new Naked Eyes album.
Oh, right. And you used some of that stuff on 2008's Movies I Dream EP?
I used one of the tracks, yeah. And two or three of the songs are going to surface on Piccadilly. I'm just having them redone.
Was the song "Piccadilly" from those sessions too?
No, "Piccadilly" itself wasn't. "Piccadilly" was a song I wrote about six months ago.
I heard it on your site -- it's a terrific tune!
Why, thank you.
In fact I kind of figured it would be about the London neighborhood, which I've always dug.
It's beautiful there isn't it?
It really is. It's odd though that Naked Eyes had more success in Canada and the United States than in your own country.
Yeah, it's one of those strange situations. We did really well in North America, and we did really well in other countries too -- South Africa, Australia, New Zealand.
So, mainly, all the English-speaking countries outside of your own...
All but our own, yeah. I think the problem was that EMI, which was our record label at the time, was really into all the hair groups -- you know, Kajagoogoo, Haircut 100, that sort -- and Rob and I were like kind of the antithesis of that. We basically considered ourselves to be songwriters who used synthesizers to produce our music and who were lucky enough to get a record deal. So we weren't really a part of all that. And I think in England, especially at that time, bands would kind of come and go every week, and it was sort of the image thing more than anything else that really hurt us there. We wouldn't go for it.
They actually brought in a stylist who said 'you should do this.' And I said 'if I wanted to look like you, I would've become a stylist!'
The Naked Eyes bio mentions that you were among the first acts to use the fabled Fairlight CMI sampling synthesizer, which Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and Yello also used to great effect. Had did that come about?
Well, because we were one of the first sort of synth duos, we had just about everything you could imagine -- mainly on rental of course. But when the Fairlight came out our producer I think got one of the first ones and it was only a natural progression for us to spend all our money on one as well. (Laughs)
Yeah, if I recall there were quite expensive, especially for the time. Who was your producer then anyway?
A guy named Tony Mansfield. He was responsible for the group New Muzik. ["Straight Lines" 1979]
And who's producing the Piccadilly stuff?
Actually, I'm producing all of that myself.
Are you also playing all the instruments?
Actually I'd brought in a couple different synth guys. And about six months ago I started redoing everything with this new guy that I found who's really amazing. He's an absolute synth nut; he's got everything you could imagine, including the old original Moogs. I think he's got like 50 or 60 different synthesizers altogether!
What's his name?
And how did you connect with him?
Actually I met him when I was doing a show in Vegas. It was a crazy show, a corporate show, with the singer from The Tubes, Dave Wakelling from the English Beat and a guy from Motley Crue. We'd all go up and sing our hits with this backing band. It was a fantastic band, and James was the musical director and keyboardist.
Anyway James came up after the show and said 'I love your stuff and if you ever need anyone to do any programming, let me know.' And I did.
Who was the guy from the Tubes, Fee Waybill?
And it was Vince Neil from Motley Crue?
Yeah! And Mike Score from Flock of Seagulls was there as well! It was crazy!
Sounds it. Didn't you do a 2008 U.S. tour along with Belinda Carlisle, ABC and Human League? How did that go?
It was fantastic. Some of the shows were better than others, but most of the time we had a really great reception. Actually one of the best shows was the one we did in West Palm, at the Kravis. Unfortunately by that time Belinda and Human League had left for Europe. But I think they brought in Missing Persons to take their place.
It was a really great show.
Speaking of shows, I see that you'll be performing unplugged at the Norton. I imagine you'll be doing your hits. But what else can people expect?
I'll be doing a few tracks off Piccadilly. And I'll be doing a few tracks off Fumbling with the Covers as well. The Fumbling album was really like my favorite artists -- I did a Dylan song, "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" from Blood on the Tracks; I did the Beatles' "Cry Baby Cry." So I was looking for songs that weren't necessarily their most famous songs, but songs that I could re-interpret. And someone asked if I could re-interpret the Naked Eyes songs, so I ended-up doing those as well.
Naked Eyes (Unplugged) at Art After Dark. Thursday, July 9, 7 p.m. Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Avenue, West Palm Beach. 561.832.5196; www.norton.org