Fuzzbox guitarist Megan Burke: “I love the idea of inspiring young people to follow their goals”

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Megan Burke describes her life as a whirlwind. Barely out of her teens, yet already an experienced musician, she is now the guitarist for recently reunited U.K. pop-punk-rock band Fuzzbox.

Originating from Birmingham, England, Fuzzbox debuted in 1985. Then a quartet, they enjoyed remarkable success, beginning with their first single, the double-sided “XX Sex” and “Rules And Regulations,” which was released in 1986 and remained on the U.K. independent chart for 25 weeks. The band toured Europe, signed a major-label deal, and released enough hit singles to make them the most successful all-female band in the history of British pop music. The original lineup parted ways prior to completing their third album, Out Of This World. Compilations, re-releases, and a DVD followed, leading to a comeback single and reunion tour in 2010.

Fuzzbox – Photo by Jennifer Stone Photography

Burke was too young to experience the Fuzzbox phenomenon. However, she was no stranger to their music as an adolescent, and even forged a working relationship of sorts with vocalist Vickie Perks, albeit not one that she dreamed would someday become a musical partnership.

The new Fuzzbox — featuring Perks, original keyboardist/vocalist Maggie Dunne, and new members Burke, bassist Sarit Black, and drummer Hannah Layhe — performed a show in London in November 2015, and will tour with The Wonder Stuff later this year. But Burke’s musical goals extend beyond playing guitar, songwriting, recording, and touring. “I love the idea of inspiring young people to follow their goals, and especially inspiring young females to embrace their aggressive, creative sides,” she says. “I am a massive advocate of women in music, and after having to deal with sexist comments about being a ‘girl guitarist’ since such a young age, there’s definitely a fire there now to make a difference and prove a point.”

As you mentioned in our initial communication, you are too young to remember the original Fuzzbox and their wave of success. However, you had something of a relationship with Vickie Perks because of an after-school mentoring program. What did that entail?

I am definitely too young to remember Fuzzbox at their peak of success, although a great number of people around me remember them and can recall some of their hits, which is always fantastic.

When I was 13, I branched out of my group of friends at school and found a group of older kids who all played instruments. I didn’t actually know this at the time; we were all just typical alternative teenagers who could talk about the same bands we liked. I uploaded a video onto Facebook when it first started getting popular, which was a guitar cover of one of my favourite songs at the time, and to my surprise a few of them commented, saying I should come to this after-school band session. I didn’t know it was mentoring, and I didn’t know it was led by Vix. When I turned up, all of these friends were there and they had even brought some of their friends from other schools, so it was this fantastic group of local kids who wanted to play music. A lot of us were kind of outcasts from the popular cliques, but we found friendship through this medium. Vix’s approach was that we could do whatever we liked musically, as long as we were prepared to perform it, so some of us got into bands and others went solo. We did songwriting workshops, performances in front of each other, and learned how we could express ourselves artistically. It felt like a community, a haven after school where we could do something we really loved. After some time, I got into a band with two guys, a bassist and a vocalist, and I wrote my first full song. This led to us performing it at a venue called The Custard Factory in Birmingham on my 14th birthday.

This was my first gig. The mentoring program, and Vix herself, allowed me to discover what I wanted to do. I knew since a young age I wanted to be onstage, and I knew since I was 11 or 12 that I wanted to play guitar for a living, but being onstage, feeling the buzz, sharing the experience with other musicians, and then hearing that applause affirmed the years’ worth of dreams for me. It’s mentors like Vix that reach into people and make them realize that they can become whoever it is they want to be. If I’d known then that five or six years later I would be gigging around England with Vix in both Fuzzbox and Vix & her MsChiefs, I would never have believed them!

Your audition came by way learning of their search for a guitarist via Facebook. This certainly speaks to the power and outreach of social media.

Social media has both positive and negative sides, just like everything else. I think younger generations do get seen as these square-eyed, spaced-out, technology addicts, but seriously, I am so thankful to be a musician in this time. For years I have wanted to be in an all-girl band with likeminded musicians who can pack a punch with their playing, but sadly, finding musicians you click with, male or female, can be a difficult task. Questions like, “Do you want the same things? Do you have contrasting commitments? Do you even like each other?” are bound to come up, and I think without the option of going online and finding the perfect artists, there’s the dilemma of moving on to find the right people to work with or settling with whoever you can find. Thankfully, with social media, you can get to know each other’s tastes beforehand, exchange inspirations, sort out issues, promote each other’s bands, the list goes on. Through Facebook I’ve been able to get into other local bands and work with a range of musicians. I’m now working on a project called Vertigo Violet with Charly Malone, who I met through Facebook, and through Facebook we’re being offered gigs. I’m working with another musician called Nat Bite on her band project. I’m dep guitarist for The Sex P*ssed Dolls (The Dolls) for some pretty big gigs too. I wouldn’t have met any of those musicians if it weren’t for social media. I probably wouldn’t have even stayed in contact with Vix, because I was so young when I knew her. Because of sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, we can keep an eye out for our fellow musicians in our local scene.

Fuzzbox have always been recognized for their “pop” sound. Was the music in line with what you listened to growing up and the bands you played with prior to this one? What was the “homework” required in order to blend your style of guitar playing with their music? 

My mom is a big fan of the ’80s pop scene, so I had grown up listening to a number of bands from this era, like Duran Duran, Level 42, Phil Collins, Genesis, Alexander O’Neal, Madonna, and practically anything that came on the radio station she liked. However, when I started to branch into my own style of music, there wasn’t much I didn’t enjoy. I went through phases of new wave, rock, alternative, punk, blues, psychedelic, progressive, trip-hop, and found my way back to ’80s musicians like Depeche Mode, The Cure, Prince, David Bowie, Blondie, and Pat Benatar.

When I started to study music properly, I never really sat down and learned a lot of other people’s songs unless I had to for a performance. Instead I’d learn chord progressions, scales, improvisation, or I’d develop my ear through aural training. Because of this I didn’t have to change much when auditioning for Fuzzbox. I didn’t want to be a copycat guitarist. My approach is just to turn up, put 110 percent into how the piece makes you feel at the time, and channel that. With Fuzzbox the pieces are fun, sassy and confident, so I went in with this in mind. It must have worked when playing, because we clicked as a band almost instantly!

You’ve been gigging since age 14. How did those experiences prepare you for Fuzzbox?

When I was 14 or 15, some friends and I in school started playing together in a blues band. At the beginning I was just the rhythm guitarist, but after a few in-school performances, and after spending all of our time playing together, I ended up fronting the band and playing my first improvised guitar solos for external performances at small local venues. Although my skills probably weren’t as polished as they should have been, I discovered at an early age that I had confidence onstage because it made me genuinely happy. That prepared me a lot for the years to come, even before studying music and playing with other bands, because it showed me that enjoyment and self-belief in that moment are so important to your development and all-round self-esteem as a performer. Because I enjoyed it, I wanted to get better – I wanted to immerse myself in music. It taught me that if the opportunity comes up, go for it. That’s exactly the approach that led me to working in Fuzzbox.

You began playing guitar at age 11, following a band performance in your school. What was it about that band, and that moment, that made you want to be a guitarist? Was music a large part of your life prior to that?

Music actually wasn’t a big part of my life as a child. I wanted to be an actress. I was a very dramatic, extroverted child. I used to dance in my garden, pretending that I was on a stage, and I always wanted to be the lead role in school performances. After some emotionally difficult changes in my life and some bad experiences, I lost a lot of confidence and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I saw this band in a school talent show and it just clicked, like, “Yes, that’s it, that’s what I need to do.” It was exhilarating to watch a live band and feel the energy they were giving out during their performance. After years of neglecting that creative side, it returned with a vengeance and there was no way I couldn’t try. The band was good, too — don’t get me wrong!

Tell us about your first guitar, your musical influences, and when you began developing your own style as a writer and musician.

My first guitar was mega-cheap. I won’t say the brand name, but it was a Les Paul-style guitar, black body with a white scratchplate, and I got it because I was absolutely in love with Gibson at the time. It was actually a present for my 13th birthday. I’d been trying to learn electric guitar songs on a classical guitar, and obviously that wasn’t the best, so my mom picked me up this guitar and a small amplifier for my birthday. I practically begged her for it! It only lasted a year, though, before the bolt for the strap kept falling out and the tuning pegs started breaking. Then I ended up getting an SG copy for my 14th birthday, because I had a gig to play and I don’t think the Les Paul copy would have withstood it. I was kind of into punk at that time of my life. I would stand in front of the mirror playing songs by The Distillers and The Gallows, and alterative bands’ songs, like My Chemical Romance, Mindless Self Indulgence, Marilyn Manson, Fall Out Boy, System Of A Down, Slipknot, Robots in Disguise, and IAMX. I didn’t ever get into virtuoso musicians. I liked raw music that I could thrash about to in my bedroom! That’s still a lot like my playing style now. I don’t enjoy sitting and learning songs by Steve Vai or Joe Satriani – not because I don’t like them, but I’d rather perform music than just play it, and I know that with those styles of songs, I would focus on the notes and the guitar playing rather than losing myself. That is just my opinion, though – I’d rather find myself in the moment and see what comes out.

My favorite musicians did inspire me to start writing my own music as a teenager, but poems and song ideas just piled up in books and I didn’t really use them. I didn’t, and still don’t, like the idea of sharing them – some things in there are just too personal. As I’ve grown up, my writing has become less emotionally raw, but I still find it hard to actually work on something, because then it means that the words are out there. I think that the more I get to grips with the words I put on paper, the more likely I’ll explore songwriting. Hopefully this will be something I’ll journey into as I get older.

At 17 you became lead guitarist for Rose Redd, with whom you recorded and toured. How did that project help you grow as an artist?

I was in college when I joined Rose Redd, and although I knew a bit about the music industry, I didn’t know half as much as I know now since working with musicians that have already been there. I discovered a lot about myself in that band, both good and bad, and I learned a lot about working with different kinds of musicians. It helped me to develop confidence, but it also helped me realize the sort of musicians I’d love to work with and the sort of musicians I’d want to avoid. I had some fabulous experiences with the gigs we played. I learned a lot about the effort that goes into being a DIY artist in the 21st century, but I also learned the drawbacks of it and the negative effects it can have on band relationships. I also learned how important it is to truly be yourself, even if that means someone may not like you for it. Don’t settle for less than what you think you’re worth. Once I started realizing that “I AM good enough to do this, I AM a hard worker, and I have every right to play music the way I enjoy – no one can tell me otherwise,” as soon as I started feeling like that, I worked with and performed with some of the best musicians I’ve ever met, at my most favorite gigs to date.

Your early background is in blues and as a rhythm player, eventually moving on to lead guitar and lead vocals. Was this a natural musical progression or a decision you made to pursue being a frontwoman?

This was definitely a natural progression. We were young, and our singer at the time decided it wasn’t for her, so I thought I’d give it a go. I wasn’t very experienced as a vocalist, and as a young teenager I nearly developed vocal nodules by trying to imitate Brody Dalle, Courtney Love, Leathermouth, and Frank Carter. That should have put me off, seeing as I DEFINITELY wasn’t singing properly, but I loved performing too much. It was a lot of fun, actually! I would definitely front a band again. I think it’s a fantastic experience.

Does blues music still factor into your playing, even with a more pop-oriented group like Fuzzbox?

I think so. I once got described as someone who “plays like David Gilmour but looks like Joan Jett” at a Rose Redd gig, and I think I actually blushed. I love the passionate, “less is more” approach that David Gilmour has, but I’m also massively influenced by Jack White’s playing style – messy, raw and loud – so some blues elements must still show up. With Fuzzbox I still get to improvise a lot of solos, and I play with a fair bit of attack, so that influence still comes out, even when playing music that’s completely different. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more and more influenced by Prince as a guitarist. I can only dream that his influence will one day show in my playing!

You also play guitar in Vickie Perks’ other group, Vix & her MsChiefs, which is quite different from Fuzzbox.  Let’s look at both projects, the guitars and gear you use with each, and how each band brings out different aspects of your playing.

With Fuzzbox I use my American Fender Stratocaster HSS – the humbucker is perfect with the high-end quality of the guitar itself. I run it through a Marshall Class 5 Roulette head and an Orange cab. The head is beautiful – the natural distortion from the valves is amazing, as it’s only 5 watts. My pedalboard consists of an Electroharmonix Big Muff, Ibanez Tube Screamer, TC Electronic Flashback delay, TC Electronic Hall of Fame reverb, and a Dunlop Cry Baby Wah pedal. I love this setup at the moment, but I can’t wait to expand with my pedalboard. The sounds are pretty much perfect for Fuzzbox because I can get a fantastic punk sound with the Tube Screamer and Big Muff for the earlier releases like “Spirit In The Sky” and “XX Sex,” as well as achieve the ’80s pop, atmospheric sounds with modulated delay and reverb for tracks like “Fast Forward Futurama” and “International Rescue.”

I love the difference between Fuzzbox and the MsChiefs. With Vix & her MsChiefs I use a Vintage electro-acoustic guitar straight into the DI. Though, to be fair, I have recently started using a foot tambourine, which is OBVIOUSLY so rock and roll! I’m on my way to being a one-woman-band!

Fuzzbox is still recognized as the U.K.’s most successful female band. Coming into the legacy and the catalogue, how do you establish your musical identity, while respecting the catalog as it was recorded and as longtime fans remember it?

As cliché as it sounds, I try to stay 100 percent true to myself. The Fuzzbox fans are brilliant and have been very loving and accepting of the new lineup. All of us new girls  — Sarit Black, Hannah Layhe, and myself — have different, unique personalities that define us as musicians, and that just comes out. I don’t think there has been any power struggle to be recognized or establish ourselves, because the concept of Fuzzbox allows us to be ourselves. We can be wacky, aggressive, fun, mellow, whatever – Vix and Maggie are incredible women to work with and they promote the idea of staying true to yourself. I, like the other girls, will play and perform in a certain way that will differ from other musicians. It just comes naturally, and the difference is celebrated. That’s the way it should be, I think.

What lies ahead for Fuzzbox? Are you writing and recording new material? Is there anything you can tell us about that?

Plans are definitely being made at the moment and it’s all very exciting! Vix and Maggie have been in the process of writing new material, and they’ve started working with Andy Richards, producer of Big Bang!, to brainstorm their ideas and discover what sound they want to go for before we start recording properly. I was also lucky enough to travel to London to work with him to come up with some ideas on guitar for any potential new material. It was incredibly eye-opening to work with such a professional, talented producer. He’s very artistic, so I’m super-excited to see what we eventually come up with. We are hopefully starting a Pledge campaign to raise funds for the recording. We want to involve the fans as much as possible. I think it’s great that the older, diehard Fuzzbox fans can help with the creation of the new material, and they can receive some goodies for their help!

We are aiming to release some new material this autumn. With new material come new gigs, so keep an eye on our Facebook page!

Much was, and still is, made about Fuzzbox having “played their own instruments,” which was headline news twenty years ago. Now, of course, this isn’t news … or is it? How have or haven’t things changed for women in the music industry, even in the seven or so years since you first began playing guitar?

I still think it’s a huge deal. I saw a post that went viral on the Internet a few months ago, and it was a picture of a magazine stall in a supermarket. There was “Women’s Interests” and “Men’s Interests.” Under “Women’s Interests” there were magazines on home, décor, crocheting, spirituality, gossip magazines, fashion, etc. Under the “Men’s Interests” there were magazines on photography, fishing, sports, and, sadly, music and instrumentation. I know that this is probably a rare situation for hobbies to be marketed in such a sexist way, but this really frustrated me. In a perfect world, everything would be marketed to everyone. If guys want to work in fashion or read a gossip magazine, then fabulous. If a girl wants to take up fishing or bodybuilding or music, then go for it. When I studied music, I was the only girl in my year who chose to play an instrument on the course. The other girls were singers, which is absolutely fine, but the lack of female instrumentalists was shocking, and to be honest, I struggled to find any for a long time. Surprisingly, every band I work in now has at least one female instrumentalist in it. It’s definitely improving, and I think women are starting to be taken seriously in music, but I also think we have a lot of steps to take before a girl can make a decision at a young age to follow her dream to become a working musician. I remember feeling like a black sheep when I was the only female instrumentalist on a music course, and I also remember not being included in a lot of conversation or “play-offs” with the other guys. Thankfully, I was able to laugh this off, or completely rip into the guys and make a joke about it, but I think other girls may feel isolated in such a situation. I have seen a lot of bands that specifically ask for male musicians when they are auditioning new members for a band. They don’t want to work with women, due to the image of being a serious, hard rock band and they feel like the femininity wouldn’t work, but then again, I also know a lot of bands that wouldn’t think twice about female musicians being a problem. It’s a big thing to talk about. I think we are definitely on the way up, but I would like to see a world with more female instrumentalists following their passion. I think the all-female quality of Fuzzbox would still be headline news nowadays. We’re still playing contemporary rock/pop/punk-influenced tunes, we embrace our feminine and masculine sides, we’re being creative, having fun, and doing it ourselves. When we’re onstage, we have a little joke when we introduce the members. We say, “Oh, they’re good for a girl.” It’s something we’ve all heard a million times. It becomes a running joke, and the audiences even start shouting it back at us and cheering. It starts off as a sarcastic comment that leads to us practically owning the statement. I think female instrumentalists still hear this a lot and probably have through the decades – “Yeah, you’re good … for a girl.” It’s incredibly condescending. I worked with a female musician who said to me that girls shouldn’t play drums. She said they didn’t have the aggression. It was so shocking because she was a female musician herself! Women are strong and powerful, and we can be as creatively aggressive as anyone else. I couldn’t believe that another woman in the 21st century had just completely put down her own gender. Women can play drums, we can play bass, we can play guitar – we can do anything we want to do and we can do it damn well.

You’ve stated the importance of  “inspiring young people to follow their goals, and especially inspiring young females to embrace their aggressive, creative sides.” How are you using your position in Fuzzbox to do those things?

Being creative and expressive is incredibly good for our mental health. Young people are under a lot of pressure nowadays. As well as the hormonal changes and the feeling of “growing up,” schools are putting more pressure on them to choose their career early on. They can see the pressures of social media, magazines, and television showing them how to “look good,” or they need this product or this phone to “fit in.” Throw all that in with potential insecurities, family issues, bullying, or whatever problems these kids might feel, and it’s easy for them to lose track of themselves and feel lost. There was an article I read that said children in Primary School are refusing to sing out loud for the fear of being bad due to watching programs like The X Factor and The Voice. Kids should be able to express themselves, and if it’s bad, so what? Who determines what’s bad? At a young age I made a decision to do music, even if it meant I was broke and living like a student for the rest of my life. I know it’s healthier to follow what I love than just do what society says is best for me. Even though teachers told me I should become an English teacher, and friends didn’t show much interest, I knew that happiness is the most important thing. I’m incredibly lucky to have the support of my mother, who agreed with me and picked me up when I was feeling insecure. A lot of young people don’t have that support. I hope that seeing someone in their early 20s who has been through some adversity and overcome the obstacles of people telling them they can’t do something influences them to do it themselves. Positivity spreads positivity. When I was 15, I played a gig, and afterward a father came up to me with his little girl and said, “My little girl wants to be like you when she grows up. She wants to do music.” I cried. I realized that’s the most important part of this for me. If I can help one person realize they can be who they truly want to be, and that ripples and helps other people, that’s all that matters. That’s how we make change.

Cover photo credit:  Mel Burke Photography

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