While the music of the ’80s is often disparaged for the plasticity and seeming lack of soul that characterized its most extreme new wave caricatures, the truth is it was a time of top-notch pop and great experimentation, particularly in the realm of electronic instrumentation. Book of Love, a New York–based quartet that formed in 1983, melded the two along with a certain amount of the punk spirit from the environment in which it was born. Their self-titled debut album from 1986 showcased such attributes and became an alternative hit. Even 30 years later, its effervescent keyboard melodies and topical lyrical hooks still sparkle with a youthful giddiness. Three albums followed before the band decided to call it a day in 1993 as such sounds fell out of fashion in the wake of grunge.
To mark the occasion of the band’s three decades, as well as a new collection, MMXVI: The 30th Anniversary Collection, which also includes two new songs, Book of Love—Susan Ottaviano (lead vocals), Ted Ottaviano (keyboards/vocals), Lauren Roselli (keyboards/vocals), and Jade Lee (keyboards/vocals)—has reconvened for a handful of shows that kick off tonight in New York. I caught up with Susan, who isn’t related to Ted, though they share the same last name, to discuss the band’s past and its plans for the future.
When was the last time you played together?
Susan Ottaviano: As the four of us, we haven’t been together in six years. Ted and I have done shows the last couple of years, but this is the first time all of us have been together.
I don’t know that I’ve read about what caused you to get back together. I realize it’s your 30th anniversary, but was there something else that was the impetus?
SO: We have a new album coming out, a digital release on Rhino/Sire Records that’s releasing on Friday. It’s a greatest hits package with some rare demos, some unreleased material, and a couple new songs.
But didn’t you get back together a couple years ago first?
SO: We’ve gotten back together a lot of times, and sometimes it lasts for awhile and sometimes it lasts for a show. Ted and I have been doing shows for the last two years in our most recent reunion, but again this will be the first time all four of us have been together.
I know you had announced at least one show in New York a couple years ago, but then it was cancelled. What happened there?
SO: There were some family problems with one of the members so we had to cancel the tour and then were up on blocks for a couple of years.
In the intervening years, did you have regular contact with one another?
SO: Yeah, we all live in Manhattan.
And you were on speaking terms?
SO: Yeah, we had an amicable divorce, so to speak.
From what I’ve read, it sounds like you felt a little bit out of time in the ’90s and like the band had run its course. Was that the main reason for the break-up?
SO: Yeah, it was. In the ’90s, Book of Love music isn’t where things were going, and we were floundering as a group, so we felt it was best to move on.
While I think these days there isn’t a lot of overlap between styles and niches, when you guys were coming up, although you guys didn’t sound punk, you identified with the ideology.
SO: We came out of the punk scene. But I think these kinds of genre labels limit artists. Any real artist won’t just like one kind of music or one kind of art. That might be a way to promote you, but it’s not necessarily how you feel about music.
Right, you also were identified with the dance scene as well, and I was curious how you thought those seemingly distinct scenes overlapped.
SO: The dance market was totally different than it is now. It was an alternative dance market because you could just barely kind of dance to our stuff. It was a different dance market, and for alternative artists—us, Tears for Fears, Depeche Mode, The Cure, and stuff like that—it was a way for people to hear our music in the alternative clubs.
Looking back, do you wish you knew what you know now or would you have done things differently at all?
SO: No, I don’t think so. I think there’s a time and a place for everyone. I sometimes wish that some of our songs were able to reach a larger audience, but our music reached a larger audience than that of the punk groups that inspired us. You’re a product of your time and your environment, and the ’80s were about a lot of what the ’60s were about: melody and songwriting. The ’90s moved in a different direction, but now there are people doing things inspired by our era.
Did you feel like what you were doing had the lasting power that it has turned out to have?
SO: You can only hope so, but you never know. If you had asked me what bands would stand the test of time, I don’t think I necessarily would have named bands that did. It’s like a TV show, it may or may not translate now.
Getting back together, do you worry about being viewed as a nostalgia act?
SO: For us, it’s always about going forward. Even though we’re playing a lot of the music that made us popular, I’m always looking to go forward. When it feels like it’s just about the past and people are like, “There’s no good music today,” which I don’t think is true, then I’m not happy. But if we’re moving forward in some direction—like I said, we have two new songs on this album—and having a good time, then I’ll continue to do it. The times we have decided to stop are because I’m not into it for the nostalgia. I don’t feel that way about anything. It’s more interesting to move forward while appreciating those parts of your life.
I used to make out with my first girlfriend to your record…
SO: Did you really?
Yeah, that’s one of the records she’d put on.
SO: I’m glad to have been a help with that.
In addition to these two new songs you mentioned, do you foresee more new music, like a new album?
SO: Maybe. I think we’re seeing where we’ll go with this. We’re really excited about the song “All-Girl Band,” which was inspired by the all-girl punk bands that we heard when we were starting out and the scene that we aspired to become a part of and did eventually become a part of. So it’s kind of full circle for us and hearkens back to our time while also passing the baton on to female musicians and all musicians.
It also seems timely for you guys to be back because some of the issues you were addressing, gender roles and gay issues…
SO: Totally! I just read an article that said we were the first pop group to address the AIDS crisis—with “Pretty Boys and Pretty Girls” in 1988—and I didn’t realize that. And then “Boy” was the first song we had. So we’re finally on point.
Did you view those songs as political statements or were they more personal commentary to you?
SO: They were personal commentary. They were about what we were going through in our lives and the idea that biographical information is something other people could relate to. This is the voice I have and you should write about what you know. We were living in New York City in the late ’80s, and AIDS was on our minds whether we liked it or not.
New York was a very inspiring place during those times, but it’s changed a lot. Does that deter your creativity at all?
SO: New York continues to inspire me. It’s changed, but a place is going to change in 30 years. There’s not going to be the same diner downstairs, but it’s still a place where you can go to reinvent yourself. We were talking about “Boy,” our first song. It spoke to everyone who felt like the odd man out, who felt different, who felt disenfranchised, and it said there was an alternative to that. And that’s what New York City still means to me, even though there’s a CVS on every corner and a bank on the other side.
You mentioned “Boy” and that’s one of the two demos included on the set. They sound pretty fully formed, so what was your process like?
SO: Totally, and I think the vocals are the weakest part of it. But as you can see, the songs are completely written before we were signed and had the opportunity to go to a pro studio. Now, people can make quality music at home by themselves, but in our day, you needed to work in a pro studio to bring it to life.
When writing a song, would you start with a lyric or a keyboard line? I imagine there were multiple ways.
SO: Yeah, we wrote in different ways. We wrote more as a band in the beginning, but Ted wrote “Boy” completely on his own. The story is that he wrote “Boy” while waiting for me to come downstairs. We used to live next door to each other on Mott Street. As I was always late, he wrote it while he was waiting for me. But some songs we worked on as a group; some songs Ted gave me the music and I wrote the lyrics. There are multiple ways, but Ted’s the primary songwriter. It’s really his vision.