Interview date: 8/20/2008
Run date: 9/02/2008
Although those of us who came of age during the ‘80s readily recognize Naked Eyes as the band responsible for such classic MTV hits as “Always Something There to Remind Me” and “Promises, Promises,” the duo of Pete Byrne and Rob Fisher drifted apart after two albums, going their separate ways to work on individual projects. When the pair reunited several years later with the intent of releasing and touring behind a third Naked Eyes album, the plan was cut short by Fisher’s unexpected death. After leaving the group’s name behind for many years, Byrne – the voice behind Naked Eyes – decided to revive it a few years ago, releasing an album of his favorite tracks by other artists (Fumbling with the Covers). Now, Naked Eyes are on the road as part of the Regeneration Tour, alongside A Flock of Seagulls, Belinda Carlisle, ABC, and the Human League. Bullz-Eye spoke with Byrne about the history of the group, their highs and lows, the status of the new Naked Eyes album, and what’s true in the group’s Wikipedia entry and what’s not.
Pete Byrne: Is this Will?
Bullz-Eye: It is!
PB: It’s Pete Byrne!
BE: How are you, sir?
PB: I’m well, thank you. How have you been?
BE: Not bad. I don’t know if you recall, but we traded e-mail through MySpace once upon a time…
PB: I know! And…we spoke as well, didn’t we?
BE: No, just the e-mails on MySpace.
PB: Really? Well, I certainly remember your name and that you were with Bullz-Eye and everything, but I’d thought we’d done an interview.
BE: Nope, this is our first. But I’m glad we finally are doing one, and I’m very much looking forward to the Regeneration Tour coming to my area. I guess the last time we traded e-mail was not too long after the release of Naked Eyes’ Fumbling with the Covers album, and at the time, you were still more or less getting Naked Eyes back into the public eye. How did that album succeed for you in that capacity?
PB: I’m not sure that it actually had the effect of making people more aware of the Naked Eyes name. That’s been one of the things that’s really sort of come home to me. I’ve been back on the road for about three years, and it’s really amazing that people know all my songs, but not a lot of people know the name Naked Eyes. If you whistle “Always Something There to Remind Me” in a pub, everyone in there knows it, but if you said the name Naked Eyes, you might find that maybe only 5 percent know who Naked Eyes is. So that’s really been my goal: to connect the dots. Because back in the ‘80s, of course, we were an MTV band, and I did all the promotion, we did all the TV shows and everything, and people who know music know Naked Eyes, but the mainstream population, the ones who know “Always Something There to Remind Me,” don’t know the name Naked Eyes. So this tour is really helping with that, I think.
BE: So how did you get involved with the tour? Did they come to you?
PB: Yeah, I got a call one day…my publicist, actually, called up and said, “I was talking to somebody, da di da di da,” and then the agent called me and asked me if I wanted to do it. And at that point, it was going to be Bananarama on the show. Bananarama, Belinda (Carlisle), ABC, and the Human League. But they dropped out for some reason. I’m not sure why. So it went through a few changes, but it’s still good. It’s a really good tour, and it’s so nice because everyone’s doing a concise history (laughs) so I’m on stage for 35 minutes. The energy level’s really high, and the crowds are going crazy. It’s really a great show.
BE: When it comes to selecting your set list, I guess…well, to be polite, it could be said that you have less songs that the audience absolutely, positively goes in expecting to hear.
BE: Does that free you up to break out the occasional album track to thrill the old diehard fans?
PB: No, it’s almost…a couple of nights, I’ve thrown in new songs, because I’ve got a new album I’m working on called Piccadilly, which will be out next spring. It’s an electronic album, like a real Naked Eyes album, as opposed to the acoustic one. And I’ve been trying to throw in the odd song from that, so when I get to play an extra five minutes, I’ll throw in a new one. But, basically, I’m doing the hits. I’m doing “Always Something There To Remind Me,” “Promises, Promises,” “When the Lights Go Out,” “(What) In The Name Of Love,” “Voices in My Head,” and…I’m there! I mean, five or six songs, and I’m there! (laughs) So that’s nice. I remember going to see shows like that when I was a kid, in England, and I used to love that. I used to love seeing a band play for 20 to 25 minutes. There’s a different energy about it. When you’re on stage for 90 minutes, there’s a whole kind of plan that goes with it, and a certain pacing, things like that. But when you’re just going out there to play a hits show, it’s like you’re being shot out of a cannon. You’re out there, and, bang, everybody’s going crazy. It’s fantastic, it really is.
BE: Given your druthers, is there any song from the archives that you would like to break out?
PB: Well, you know, I’ve grown to love these songs even more than I did when I wrote them (laughs) so I could play anything from the first album. “Emotion in Motion,” I love that one. I’m thinking of re-doing “Low Life.” I haven’t played that one since the ‘80s, so I might do that at some point. But, basically, right now, our usual set involves all the ones that you would think. We open with “Voices in My Head” when I’m doing a long show, and now, because of time constraints, I’m still doing it, but I’m doing a shortened version of it. But, yeah, I love it. I’ll play any of them! I’d like to do some acoustic stuff as well, but there’s just no time for it. (laughs)
BE: So before Naked Eyes, you and Pete were in a band in Bath called Neon. Who else was in the line-up?
PB: Yeah, it was in Bath, and, originally, it was Curt Smith on bass and a guitarist called Neil Taylor, Manny Elias on drums, and Rob and I. And then we played around for awhile – it was a really great band, actually – and then Neil left, and we wanted another guitarist, so Curt suggested Roland (Orzabal). So Roland came and played guitar for us. But it was really Naked Eyes. I mean, they were all Rob’s and my songs, and Roland and Curt were sort of players in the band. But it was a really great band. Basically, Roland and Curt had their own thing to do, so they went back to that, and Rob and I went back to a two-piece again, and, fortunately, everyone did very well!
BE: I’ve heard that you and Pete were childhood friends. How old were you when you first met?
PB: Well, actually, we weren’t childhood friends. We met in our early 20s in Bath.
BE: (sarcastically) Thank you, Wikipedia. Again. But the irony is that I was actually going to preface a different fact from there by saying I questioned its accuracy. That one just seemed so reasonable.
PB: Yeah, there’s a number of things on there that are wrong. There’s another thing in there that’s really cool…but really wrong (laughs) and that’s that we worked with a producer named Alan Talmey, who’s got nothing to do with us at all. I’ve never even met him! I’ve been tempted to do something about our Wikipedia entry, but every time I think about it, I just think, “Oh, I just haven’t got the time. I’d rather be playing music than editing someone’s mistakes.” So I don’t know where that came from, but we basically met at a session in a studio in Bath, and he had one band and I had another. We were sort of world-famous in Bath. (laughs) But as things work out, our groups both broke up at the same time, and, basically, that was it. I was walking across a bridge in Bath, and he was arguing with the girl singer, and I knew her better than I knew him, actually, so I kind of intervened in the fight that was ensuing, and at the end of it, he and I went off to the pub, and we discussed how awful it was being in bands and how tedious it was being a musician! So we decided that we’d attack it from a different angle. We would become songwriters, get a publishing deal, have loads of hits, and all that. And, then, as I like to say, four years later, we were an overnight success. (laughs)
BE: So I’ve read, not on Wikipedia, but in an actual interview, that “Always Something There To Remind Me” has the Burt Bacharach seal of approval.
PB: Apparently, it does now, but I don’t think it did originally. I don’t think he was that thrilled, because we took his song apart and reconstructed it. But, in retrospect, I think he’s grown to like it. At the time, every other version of it was done with Burt’s original arrangement in mind, really. I can’t think of any other version that had strayed very far from the original. And we not only strayed from the original melodically and harmonically, but I even changed some of the words. So I don’t think he was that thrilled in the beginning, but I think he’s grown to like it.
BE: So I’m sure you’ve been asked this a thousand times, but was it coincidence that the second single was called “Promises, Promises,” which was also the title of a Bacharach/David song?
PB: Oh, God. Y’know, actually, I haven’t heard it that often. But at the time, I had no idea that Bacharach had written a song called “Promises, Promises,” so it was a hell of a shock! And when I found out, I thought, “God, he must love us! He must think we’re doing his whole songbook! He probably thinks we’ll be doing ‘Close to You’ next!”
BE: Do you happen to recall what thinking went on that resulted in releasing the first album in the States under a different name and with a different track listing than from the U.K. version (Burning Bridges)?
PB: Basically, it was because, in England, for some reason, they let me do what I like…which wasn’t always a good idea…but in America, they didn’t. In America, they pretty much took hold of it and said, “This is what we’re going to do, this is how it’s going.” And that was it. And by that point, I’d gotten to the point of realizing that maybe my ideas weren’t always the best in terms of marketing and picking singles. I actually picked “Voices in My Head” as a single in England, and nobody agreed with me, but at that point, I was sort of young, naïve, and full of it, so I said, “Well, I don’t care what you think!” Which was a huge mistake, as it didn’t do anything as a single. If the point of releasing a single is to have some sort of commercial success and radio play, then it failed miserably, but it is a great song, and I love playing it live now. And things like the title of Burning Bridges, the whole thing was…”Burning Bridges” was one of the songs that was actually taken off the album when it came to America. But by that point, I’d grown up a little. Although it was only about six months difference, but I’d still gotten to the point where I thought, “Well, these guys know what they’re doing, so let them do it.” And they were right, of course.
BE: Tony Mansfield produced the debut. Had you been familiar with his work prior to that?
PB: Oh, absolutely. His band, New Musik, was one that Rob and I really loved, and when the idea of working with him came up, we jumped at it. Yeah, prior to meeting Rob and working with him, I was really more into sort of guitar-based bands, but Rob being right at the forefront of keyboard technology, because he had an electronics degree as well as being a classically-trained piano player, he was right there, and he kind of steered me in that direction. He put together these incredible two-track demos. I mean, we had this poxy little tape recorder, and he would do these things because he could play two keyboards at once, so it was an incredible thing. And then I’d sing over it and do harmony lines, and we’d have these demos that were just amazing. But bands like New Musik, the Buggles, M, those very early synth-pop bands were the ones that I loved, because I always loved pop songs. Even some of the bubblegum things, like Freddie & The Playboys. Things like “Judy in Disguise.” I loved those out-and-out killer pop songs, and New Musik was great at that. “Straight Lines” and “This World of Water,” their songs were really killer, and Tony had a way of processing it and producing it to make them really different. So we were thrilled to be working with Tony.
BE: You guys used a fair amount of Fairlight on the record.
PB: Yeah, and, actually, that bit is almost true in Wikipedia! (laughs) We were one of the fortunate synth bands from that period who, having had a hit record, the record company went, “Well, how much do you want?” And they started buying all the latest things, and so we bought that fabulous Fairlight, which was, in those days, an amazing thing. Now, of course, it’s nothing compared with the technology that people have, but back then, it was really something.
BE: When I talked to Martin (Fry), I mentioned how ABC’s How to be a…Zillionaire! was also very heavy on the Fairlight, and I asked him how he felt that it had fared over the course of time. How do you feel Naked Eyes’ material has held up? Or, actually, since synth-pop is more in vogue now than it used to be, how had you been feeling about how it was aging?
PB: It’s always difficult when you’re making a record, because you really haven’t a clue about anything. You’re just doing it. And then you listen to it, and you forget about it. But, now, listening to that stuff all these years later, I think it sounds pretty good. Some of the ones that were purely Fairlight…the B-side of “Promises, Promises” was called “A Very Hard Act to Follow.” I don’t know if you know that one, but it’s on the NakedEyesMusic.com Web site. I put it up there because it really is a very cool song, but it’s all Fairlight. Drums, keyboards, everything apart from the vocals. So it’s a really good indication of where that stuff was, and it really is very different from all the other synth sounds, because it was the first digital sampling keyboard, where you could sample a sound and then you could play it back. We thought it was fantastic. Everybody was talking about it. “You can record a dog and then play it back on the keyboard!” (laughs) I don’t know if anybody ever did that, though.
BE: Surely someone did.
PB: Yes, someone probably did! And it also had a light-pen screen, so you could draw waveforms…, which nobody ever did, either, of course! (laughs) But the main thing about it was that it had an eight-track sequencer. When you think back to when Rob and I first started, there were no sequencers, no computers, and no way for us to do the sort of things that one can do now, so when the Fairlight came out, it was an incredible thing, because it had this sequencer so you could run all your keyboards. It was mind-blowing at the time.
BE: When Fuel to the Fire came out, were you just, like, “What the hell? What’s going on? Why isn’t this as successful as the first album?”
PB: Yeah, there was a whole change at EMI, and I remember having a meeting because…when they released the first single, “(What) In The Name Of Love,” and it just scraped into the top 40, we just got the feeling from the record company that they weren’t really that interested in us anymore. And I think it was simply the way the music business works. When you’re in the middle of it, you don’t really realize it that much, but from the outside, you see what happens. Things change quickly, and one of your guys at the record label suddenly gets fired, then new people come in, and they put their own ideas and their own bands that they want to sign, and you get kind of left out, in a way. And I think that’s what happened to us. Plus, there was the fact that I was spending so much more time in California while Rob was in London, so we were kind of, “Well, whatever.” It was a frustrating period, but…it’s just life, really.
BE: What led you to live in separate places like that? Was it just your lives going different directions?
PB: Well, yeah, I mean, I met an American girl…
BE: Say no more.
PB: (laughs) Yes, and I started to live in California, and, of course, once you’ve lived in California, it’s difficult to live anywhere else. It’s such a great environment, not just the climate, which is fantastic, but just creatively. And in the music business, it’s the place to be. And I ended up working with Stevie Wonder (on “Part Time Lover”) and producing and writing with different people, so it was a very creative time for me. And Rob was back in London, doing his thing there.
BE: So is that what led to the eventual disintegration of the band, then?
PB: Well, it wasn’t even that. I would come back to London, and we would work, and at some point, we were just having lunch and he said to me, “I’m doing this thing with Simon Climie,” and I said, “Well, that’s fine, I’m doing this thing with Stevie Wonder.” And we just decided to give it a (pauses) I mean, it wasn’t even a, “This is the end of it.” There were no histrionics, no drama, no Laurence Olivier acting moments. (laughs) It was pretty much just two people saying, “Okay.” I mean, for about four or five years, we’d spent virtually every day together. It’s like any relationship: you get to the point where you’ve had enough. And the record label wasn’t really doing anything for us, so we thought that maybe were done. I don’t know. We just left it. But, then, when we got back together, we just picked up where we left off, as if nothing had ever happened. It was amazing. We got together, and we wrote two songs in a day. My God, both of us were just…I mean, in the meantime, he’d been working with someone else, and I’d been working with other people. We just had something. You know how these things work. Some people just have a spark. It’s like Burt Bacharach and Hal David. They both do things individually, but what you remember from them is what they did together. So there was a bit of that with us as well.
BE: I know that on your solo album, The Real Illusion, there were some songs that you had written with Rob for an intended third Naked Eyes album, but was that material that had been written during the era of the original two albums, or was that from the later writing sessions?
PB: No, these were done later. Yeah, we were actively working on a new album and starting to put Naked Eyes back together. We were talking about touring and all that stuff. When he passed away, that was…it was just an amazing shock to me and to everybody else. But like I said, we just picked it up from where we left it, and we wrote a lot of songs. The new album, Piccadilly, has probably five or six songs that I wrote with Rob. A couple of them were very early ones. The one that comes out on an EP…it actually comes out today…is “Movies I Dream,” which was one of the first songs we ever wrote, but we never recorded it. So I finally got that one done (laughs) and it’s pretty good. It’s got a very ‘80s feel to it, because I wanted to keep it as it was supposed to be, as we saw it and intended to be back then. I didn’t want it to sound contemporary. I wanted to record it like that. So that’s nice. And, y’know, there are four or five others. The ones that we’d written before he passed away, a couple of them are really beautiful, and I think they’re going to be really great when they’re done.
BE: What happened between 2001 and 2007 to make you decide to go back to calling yourself Naked Eyes? Was it a marketing thing? Because I’ve talked to people who admit that it’s just easier to market a recognizable name.
PB: Well, yeah, everyone was mad at me for calling that Real Illusion album by Pete Byrne. Everyone said, “You should call it Naked Eyes,” and I said, “Well, I don’t really think I want to.” I should have done. Once again, I’m not always the best person to make all those decision about what I do! (laughs)
BE: I can imagine it was a damned-if-you-do situation, where you call it Pete Byrne and people say, “Why didn’t you call it Naked Eyes?” And then you call it Naked Eyes, and people say, “You can’t call it Naked Eyes! Rob’s dead, so it’s not really Naked Eyes, is it?”
PB: Yeah, I know, and it really is a tricky thing. I mean, although being the voice of Naked Eyes and only being a two-man band, I still seem to pick up a lot of flak for it. I got the point where…what happened was, after the Real Illusion album, I got involved with a label to release all the 12” dance mixes of Naked Eyes and all the rarities: the B-sides and a couple of things that had never been released. So I did an album called Everything and More, I put it all together, and obviously that was a Naked Eyes album. They said to me…and it was just a bit of luck, really, because they meant something else…they asked me if I could do some in-stores, which to me meant putting a band together and playing some shows. And I think what they meant what that they wanted me to go and sign CDs or something like that. But I did put a band together, and we did a show in Santa Monica and in Los Angeles, and it really was fantastic. I mean, the place was packed. And about two days later, I got an e-mail from an agent, asking if he could represent me, and I said, “Sure!” And then the next weekend I was in Detroit, playing at…I don’t even know where it was! But it was at a club, and I had all of these Playboy girls there, and I was riding around in a Hummer limo with half a dozen Playboy girls. And I thought, “Well, actually, this isn’t a bad gig some days!” (laughs) And that was it. And I’ve been pretty much out doing shows most weekends for the last three years, and the response from the crowds has been great. I mean, I still get a little of flack for calling it Naked Eyes even though Rob Fisher’s passed away, but I do my best. Things like “Always Something There to Remind Me” and “Promises, Promises” I’ve kept like the originals, like the records, some of the other songs I’ve reinterpreted and made them more contemporary. My basic thing is that I’m having fun, and if I’m having fun, I’m just going to do it, and that’s it.
BE: I have to say that, on the acoustic album, of the Naked Songs that you revisited, the reinterpretation of “When the Lights Go Out” was just fantastic.
PB: You know what? I agree with you. The whole thing about doing the Naked Eyes songs was an afterthought. It really came about because, when I started doing it, I would say, “I want to do a Beatles song,” so I would go through every Beatles song I knew, go through the Beatles’ song books looking for a song, and I love their music, so I could’ve known a hundred songs, but I was always looking for something I could change up a little bit and…not make mine exactly, but make a little bit different. And that’s why I did “Cry Baby Cry” when I got to it, because I just went, “Oh!” And it’s so totally different from John Lennon’s version that it kind of works. And I felt that with all of the covers that I did, like Cat Stevens’ “Sad Lisa.” And about halfway through it, a friend of mine asked me why I wasn’t doing any Naked Eyes songs. And it hadn’t even occurred to me. So I did “Promises, Promises,” which I thought turned out pretty well, and then I did “Always Something There to Remind Me,” obviously. And the last one I thought of was “When the Lights Go Out,” and I said, “Well, let me see if I can do it, and how would I do it?” And I was really pleased with the way it turned out, and a lot of other people have said that as well. The other thing about it is that the sound of it is really great. Although it’s just an acoustic song, it’s just as difficult mixing something that has four or five elements as it is mixing something with 60 elements, which is the usual thing with my songs. So I really think that one just sounds great from all those different angles.
BE: And, at least for me, I have to say that its reinvention was also helped by the fact that, of the three Naked Eyes song you revisited, it was the one I’d heard the least over the years, so it was easier to approach with fresh ears.
PB: Oh, I see. Well, that’s great! And there’s some stuff on there that wasn’t on the original, like some low harmonies and some other bits. So it’s a different song in a way.
BE: Last question: how much would it cost me to get you to play “I Am the Cute One,” the song you wrote for the Olsen Twins to perform, when you come to Portsmouth?
PB: Oh, God. Um (hesitates) You know what? I’m not even thinking about the humorous aspect. I’m thinking, “Can I even remember the chords?” (laughs) Because I would play it for you! I’ll see if I can remember it, and then when you come backstage, I’ll play it for you. But do you know what? “I Am the Cute One,” that was such a great gig, because my manager managed the Olsen Twins, and I knew nothing about the Olsen Twins. He called me up and said, “I’m managing these two young girls. Can you write a song for them?” And I said, “Well, I suppose so. Tell me something about them.” “Well, they’re identical twins.” “Fine, okay.” So I wrote this song. I had the idea, I was driving along, and I thought, “Well, what do I do about twins? I wonder if they have a little bit of conflict there.” So I thought about, “I am the cute one, and you’re just my sister.” So I had the idea of it, and I’d also been working on this other song which was really cool and had an interesting chord sequence, and it was…well, it was a grown-up song, basically! And I thought, “You know what? I’m not going to pander to a kid’s melody or anything. I’m just going to try and write a song like I normally do, but using this idea of ‘I am the cute one, and you’re just my sister.’ And so that’s what I did. I wanted to write something that the parents would listen to and think, ‘This is pretty cool,” but also that the kids would like because, well, it’s the Olsen Twins! And it was a fantastic success, actually. At the time…I don’t know about now, but at the time, it was one of the biggest selling videos of all time. So, yeah, it was one of those lucky, lucky things. I’m proud of that song, actually! (laughs)
BE: And it just goes to show you that sometimes the most preposterous thing in a person’s Wikipedia entry is actually true. (laughs)
PB: I know! And do you know what it means to me? It means that you should approach everything in life with a positive angle and not treat it as a lesser thing…which one could do in a situation like that! But I think it stands on its own. It is a good song! It’s difficult for me to sing it, but (laughs)
BE: Well, it’s been a pleasure to have a real conversation with you rather than one via e-mail.
PB: Absolutely! And please come back and say “hi” at the show!