Kim Shattuck Muffs it...again
Kim Shattuck, sometime-blonde leader of punk popsters The Muffs, has a head cold. She is sneezing as we start to talk about her new, second album of Muffs material, Blonder and Blonder.
They actually get headcolds in sunny California?
Should I be sympathetic — outside my office window it has just begun to sleet. My own nose tickles in rebellion with hers.
"It's warm, but there are lots of germs breeding in this warm atmosphere and they all find their way right into my lungs," she says tiredly and then brightens. "Maybe it'll get me out of practice tonight. Yeah!"
Not perhaps, the most constructive attitude to have about your band just prior to hitting the road for a European tour that will probably end with a slurry of U.S. club dates through the summer, but Shattuck points out several times during our talk that 'hey, sloppy is real.' And more fun.
Still, with the world better primed in 1995 for their breed of infectious three-chord punk pop than it was for their debut in 1993, you'd think they'd be practicing like maniacs to put on the sharpest shows possible this summer. The recent successes of Green Day and The Offspring bode well for The Muffs to break from obscurity this time around.
Shattuck calls a technical.
"Green Day maybe, but not The Offspring. They suck," she laughs. "I say that in every interview because I think they're horrible. Everyone I know that knew them said they deliberately tried to sound like other people so they would have a hit — and that's horrible that they wouldn't be true to their own music."
Unlike certain bands I am no longer aloud to speak of in the same breath as The Muffs, Shattuck has remained true to her musical vision — a strange potpourri of late '60s oooh-harmony stuff and late '70s punk power. The result is something like Joan Jett singing Everly Brothers tunes with a backing band of The Ramones.
"It's always been the kind of music I've liked, and I didn't personally know of anyone else doing it," she says. "Me and Ronnie [Barnett, bassist] actually started germinating the idea of The Muffs because I was always complaining about not liking any bands — I'm still kind of that way. I was complaining and I had all these songs, but I'd only play them for myself. But I finally played them for some other people and they liked 'em."
In those pre-Muffs years, Shattuck learned the bitter taste of not being true to your musical muse. She and former Muff Melanie Vammen were part of the last incarnation of The Pandoras, a cult California surf band that in its final days turned into an all-girl sex-metal band.
"I'm not unhappy with what I did with the Pandoras, but I joined the band when I thought they were really cool and then it quickly became, to me, not so cool because it went to the metal thing. It just took a long time to quit. When you're with somebody for a long time, it's hard to give it up, even though you know it's bad — it's just like any relationship."
Eventually though, The Pandoras split and Shattuck found out her former pen pal and one-time boyfriend also played bass. Along with fellow ex-Pandora Vammen and a short-lived Muffs drummer, the band was formed and released a couple independent singles before getting signed to Warner Bros and releasing the frantic frolic of The Muffs.
That the infectious tracks on that debut didn't rock the radio was a mystery to some, but Shattuck doesn't waste coulda-beens.
"The label said we were ahead of our time," she says. "They apologized for the first album [not doing well] and I said, 'hey, don't worry about it, we didn't make that good of an album so it's not really your fault.'"
One of that album's tracks doesn't want to die so easily however. "Saying Goodbye" turns up in a key scene on the Bye Bye Love soundtrack. Shattuck is nonplussed about the song's new life.
"I think we were representing the twentysomethings in the movie. They just asked if they could use that song and we said sure. We have no deep connections in Hollywood."
Drummer Roy McDonald joined the band during the tour for The Muffs, and it was on the road of that tour that Shattuck realized perhaps more lineup changes were in order. Vammen was soon vamoose.
"What happened? We realized that we didn't need another guitar player. We were having personal problems, boring stuff. But it wasn't just like we weren't personally getting along, musically we weren't getting along as well. So she went and joined another band, The Leaving Trains, and now we're a three-piece."
The missing guitar doesn't leave Blonder and Blonder sounding in the least anemic, however. If anything, it's a wilder 35-minute ride than the band's first.
"The difference between the first album and this one? I like this one!" Shattuck laughs. "The first one was too much of a compromise, too many egos involved. I got a lot of shit for like trying to get it to sound a certain way. There was just a lot of hell in making that record. This record was just a lot of fun making. We were dysfunctional the first time around and that's why those other people are gone. And now we're totally functional and happy. So that's the difference for me, but people aren't going to hear it like I hear it."
What you will hear is one of the most compelling female rock vocalists since Joan Jett burst on the scene. Shattuck's raspy crooning retains a girlish honesty to it, an innocent allure, even when she takes to screaming to a distortion art plateau. And while the guitars are as crunchy (and usually more distorted) as any Green Day romp, even on their hardest songs Shattuck's sense of singalong melody keens its way through the veil of fuzz.
It's not all rock 'n' roll though. Following the blueprint of their first album, The Muffs offer on Blonder another Monkees-style country song ("Red Eyed Troll") and a gentle, after-the-storm style closer ("Just A Game").
"I think it's a natural way that a record should be," she explains. Natural also apparently means an album that moves along at a breakneck pace, and in case you were nodding off there near the end, the band powers up the distortion box for the bass-bouncing ode to...Ethyl Mertz?
"Yeah, 'Ethyl My Love' is about Ethyl Mertz. I don't know, I was just tripping out, watching 'I Love Lucy.' What can I say? it's a dumb song with dumb lyrics."
I ask about the suggestive lyrics of "Oh Nina" (Oh Nina, a ballerina/she is a queer and she knows you'll never have a clue...Oh Nina yeah, you'll have a good time").
"Oh, you pick the other dumb lyric song," she laughs, then sneezes. "It's about a transvestite who pulls straight men into sleeping with him. It's very watered down, I guess, but to me, that's what it is."
The Muffs songwriting process these days is pretty simple. Shattuck writes 'em and the band bangs 'em out.
"Sometimes I get songs in my head. Hopefully they're not already written. I get all these melodies going, different songs all finished without word, and then I come and do the big lyric write and everything comes out — all my weird feelings about...whatever. Most of the songs on this record I worked out pretty fully on my little eight-track machine, but then of course the band arranges them the way they want to. And 'Sad Tomorrow,' the first single - that one was worked out by the band fully, I didn't have much of it written."
"Sad Tomorrow" is the quintessential Muffs song. It opens with a musing strum on the guitar and then kicks into a power chord as Shattuck wallows "I don't know why you're so glad and my head's full of sorrow./So maybe if I fade away, there'll be no sad tomorrow." Then in the middle comes an almost country guitar solo and in an ascending rush of harmony at the end, Shattuck breaks into a falsetto! All in two minutes.
"It's just all my favorite styles rolled into me," she says. " My favorite band is The Kinks. I like the Everly Bros., but they're a new craving. I've always liked bands like The Ramones, The Hollies and The Sex Pistols. I love Joan Jett. I love her voice."
I suggest that "I'm Confused" from the new album sounds very Jett-ish. "It does? Cool. I thought it would be more like Roy Orbison or something."
There is no song called "Blonder and Blonder" on this album. Because the album's title has nothing to do with its songs.
"We couldn't think of any other titles and it seemed like my hair kept getting lighter and lighter so we named it that."
That would be from exposure to the California (sniffle) sun?
"No, this would be from the bottle of peroxide that I splash on my head all the time. It turns orange and then it turns white. Right now it's dark with just a little bit of white. I'm rebelling against the title."
Shattuck says the band's name was decided in similar laissez faire fashion. And she suggests that it has nothing to do with, um, feminine anatomy.
"We just couldn't decide on a name," she says. "I don't even think about it being nasty at all. Maybe if we get bigger people will forget what it means, like they did with the Sex Pistols. 'The Muffs' isn't a girl thing, it's not. We looked up muff in the dictionary and it said: 'a foolish fellow; someone who makes mistakes.' So I said my former band members were the real Muffs. But I guess we are too because we make mistakes all the time. We're a pretty sloppy live act — but that's a good thing."
Sloppy and loud. While touring in Germany for The Muffs, the band was shut down for their unruly volume before their show was over.
"Muffs road stories usually end with me going to jail — or cuffed," she says. "In Germany, the promoter came up on stage and said something we didn't understand — it sounded like Hitler giving a speech or something. Then the P.A. went off. He was shutting down the show and the audience was bummed — we were bummed, we wanted to play. Then the guy came up and pushed me. This little bald German man pushed me so I took a highball glass and hit him over the head with it. Clonk. And the whole crowd, which had been loud before, just went silent. You could hear crickets. It was really horrible. But he did that whole Fred Mertz thing — his whole face went red and his hands went up to his temples and they were shaking. We had to pay our way out of it."
So what does a Muff do to get handcuffed?
"You throw water on a policeman's crotch in Irvine, California. That did it for me. Five minutes before I was supposed to go onstage. He was treating me really bad, telling me to pour out my water. I was sick and I needed my water. But he said 'you have to dump it out.' He didn't say where not to dump it out, and that was his crotch...He tackled me and dragged me off in front of all these people. Our manager had to kiss the cop's ass to get me up onstage."
Hopefully, a happier, less dysfunctional Muffs will see less police action this tour. Shattuck promises energy.
"We're actually more rockin' now than we were. We're raw. You hear the mistakes more — it's cool."
She sneezes again, and sighs over the imminence of attending band practice.
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