There is little more romantic than — and yet so melancholic as — a synthesizer: Its heavenly emulations of string quartets and choir voices, clanging tower bells, and violins can tie a heart into knots. That’s what Philadelphia-based Book of Love embraced in the electronic decade of the Eighties, using choppy synths to produce delightfully mopey club hits “Boy,” “I Touch Roses,” and “Pretty Boys and Pretty Girls.” They were a surreal band, straddling the line between pop music and underground club beats, their lyrics full of odd, dreary metaphors. Their songs have become beloved staples in new-wave playlists and found even more recognition on film soundtracks, including Silence of the Lambs and American Psycho.
Now, thirty years after their debut self-titled LP, Book of Love have returned with a greatest-hits digital album, titled MMXVI — Book of Love — The 30th Anniversary Collection, that’s suitable for a new generation of club-goers. The compilation includes the new song “All Girl Band,” along with original demos and remastered favorites that we all know. To commemorate its release, all original members of Book of Love will perform a special concert at the Highline Ballroom on June 23 — a rare moment of pure new-wave nostalgia. We chatted with keyboardist Ted Ottaviano and vocalist Susan Ottaviano (no relation) about the new album, the upcoming concert, and New York City’s influence on the band.
Village Voice: Can you tell us a bit about the new release?
Ted Ottaviano: Someone from our record label, Sire, had seen us live and started the dialogue about the fact that we really wanted to release some of our early records on vinyl. [Then someone at] Rhino [pointed out] that there’s a whole new streaming audience that doesn’t know [our] music. They said, “What if we got all your best songs together and remaster them. Would you be open to doing some new material?” [It got] us back into the studio, both writing and recording. We spent from the new year to now writing new songs, and working on the mechanics of getting the original mastered tapes and remastering them.
For your upcoming live show at the Highline Ballroom, will you be playing some rarities?
Susan Ottaviano: Yes, we’ll definitely do that. Ted and I have been doing shows for the last two years but this is the first time all four original members (the Ottavianos, Jade Lee, and Lauren Roselli) are going to be together, and we’re not sure when that’ll happen again, so we want everyone to come out to this show.
Any hints of what you might play?
SO: We’re going to do the song “Witchcraft,” which is a white-girl rap song that we haven’t done since the Eighties.
TO: It’s a track from our second album, Lullaby, that for some reason, caught on, [but] we never quite understood ourselves. Over the years we’ve accepted that it’s one of our well-liked songs, so we ended up recasting it and we’re going to do it for the first time at the Highline Ballroom in years. And I think some of our hardcore fans are expecting that just because they know it’s the right time and place to do the song live. Our fans go really deep with us, that’s what’s so moving — it’s not about those handfuls of well-known songs; they go into the crates with their knowledge of what we do and the tracks they love and what they want to hear. That’s exciting, because it would get boring to us to play to an audience that would only want to hear “Boy.”
Your new song on the collection is titled “All Girl Band” — is this an ode to some of your favorite artists?
SO: It really goes full circle for us. We were originally music fans and we used to go out to clubs — we were inspired by all the girl bands that were around in that time period of the early 1980s, like the Slits and a few other bands we mention [in the song], like the Mo-Dettes, the Raincoats, and other bands like that. Our sound is also inspired by groups from the Sixties, like the Shangri-Las. It’s always been a love for us, and in some ways, this sort of passes it on to the next generation of girls doing the same thing.
How much did living in New York City and being involved in its nightlife shape your music?
SO: It influenced our work in every way. That was our school — where we first heard music, where we were inspired, where we first performed our work. And we were influenced by the artists of the [scene].
TO: Our first song, “Boy,” is actually written about Boy Bar, which was a very exclusive gay club in the East Village. We were art school students, and that’s where art school students went to hang out. We really spawned out of the New York club scene musically and artistically.
What about the now-infamous clubs like Danceteria, Area 51…
SO: The Pyramid! That’s where we first played and where we went mostly — it was in our neighborhood.
Is your song “Pretty Boys and Pretty Girls” also inspired by the New York club scene?
TO: It was a reaction to the AIDS crisis. [AIDS] really, in the matter of two years, just wiped out and changed the entire dynamic of the city and the scene. It was a fear that we had never felt — even since then. “Pretty Boys and Pretty Girls” is a classic Book of Love song because on one level it’s very glossy, melodic, and uplifting but on another level there’s darkness to it. The song was specifically written to address that phenomenon that was happening to all the people that were closest to us.
SO: It was a sobering effect, things were really changing.
TO: The story was that we got offered a Sunkist soda commercial and we told them they can’t use the song to sell soda, that it meant something totally different! But [that sort of instance] kind of spoke to the bipolar nature of the song. So what’s been neat is that in that last couple of years, we’ve been playing it again and it feels like it’s taken on a new life. I didn’t realize people liked it as much as they did.
Book of Love play tonight at Highline Ballroom.