On and On
Lest you think that female-fronted bands merging glistening Southern California pop and intensely personal lyrics with an aching vocal snarl started with Hole, think again. The Muffs' Kim Shattuck has been combining her tortured prose with sunny sounding punk-pop long before Courtney Love showed off her celebrity skin. When Love was still having her nose (the original one, that is) wiped for her, Shattuck was already a member of L.A.'s quasi-legendary Pandoras. Shattuck and guitarist Melanie Vammen left the group in the early '90s, enlisting bassist Ronnie Barnett and drummer Criss Crass to form the Muffs.
After releasing a handful of well-received singles, the group was signed to Warner Bros. in 1992 by producer Rob Cavallo (Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls). Although their brand of "thrashy bubblepunk" was (briefly) in vogue in the early '90s, the group's brilliant self-titled debut failed to catch on. As cool as the public response was to the band, their relationship with Cavallo turned cold even faster. Cavallo's taste for watered-down punk and shiny mainstream never seemed to jibe with the band's dyed-in-the-wool, old-school aesthetic.
In the meantime, Crass left the group and was replaced by former Redd Kross drummer Roy McDonald. Creative differences led to the departure of Vammen, reducing the group to a trio before they began recording their sophomore effort.
Although, as Shattuck says, the production on the first record was "done by committee," its follow-up Blonder and Blonder found the ever-vocal front woman asserting herself, and demanding more creative input. The production benefits significantly as the group finds its niche with carefully crafted pop-songcraft that doesn't attempt to disguise any of its rougher leanings.
"During Blonder and Blonder, I pretty much tried to boss the situation around. He [Cavallo] didn't want to have the guitars as loud and shrieky and scratchy as I wanted them. But later he went on to claim that it was his sound," says Shattuck.
The group's third album, 1997's Happy Birthday to Me, was another vibrant sonic and lyrical blast that fell on mostly deaf ears during music's post-grunge comedown. In a fairly common (but no less illogical) move for a major label, Warner Bros. told Shattuck and the band that they were basically abandoning the album before it even came out.
"They told us they weren't going to do anything for it. They actually gave us the option to go to another label, but I really wanted to just get it out because it had already been like two years since our last record."
Two more years (and their eventual departure from Warner/Reprise) followed before the release of their new album Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow, their first for Honest Don's M-M-Good Recordings, the poppier imprint of San Francisco-based punk indie Fat Wreck Chords.
Freed from the pressures of being a major-label act, the Muffs' new album sparkles with a sense of creative freedom, without completely abandoning the group's well-honed formula. Shattuck's scream, once her vocal signature, has been gradually eased out of her repertoire. Reaching its peak on Blonder and Blonder, her patented wail became noticeably less prominent on Happy Birthday to Me, and even more so on the new record.
It's an evolution that Shattuck feels comfortable with. "It's kind of a gimmick. Although I didn't do it originally to be that," says Shattuck. "It was just kind of the way I felt, and it was natural. It still is when I do it."
The shift away from the band's pulsating guitar spuzz is also evident throughout Alert Today. The waltz-flavored "Room With No View" is a welcome stylistic departure that finds Shattuck's biting vocals and scorn-filled lyrics dancing along to Barnett and McDonald's gentle rhythm ("I don't want you/Maybe you've noticed/Or maybe you're stupid"). The twangy '60s punch of "I'm Not Around" recalls Blonder and Blonder's "Red Eyed Troll" (which in turn echoes the Sir Douglas Quintet classic "She's About a Mover").
Shattuck is fully aware of the more delicate nuances the group has let seep into their mix. "It's more subtle," she says. "Well, subtle, period. We were never very subtle to begin with."
"My writing has been turning that way a little bit. Which is fine because I realized that lately I've been writing with an acoustic guitar and that totally makes you want to write little ballads and stuff."
Shattuck says the new album also reflects a conscious desire to distance the band from comparisons to the Ramones. Shattuck says she's grown tired of the association, which has become something of a critical albatross for the group. Beyond the obvious superficial similarities, the Muffs share few things in common with the legendary New York protopunks.
"Basically, we don't sound anything like them. People say that because they say we play three-chord rock, and I'm like, 'Wait, haven't they listened to anything that we've done? We're positively chordy.'"
While Shattuck finds the Ramones pigeonholing irksome, she freely admits that her intense listening tastes have colored much of her material over the years. The group's debut gives equal nods to the Buzzcocks and early Blondie, while a quick run-through of Blonder and Blonder reveals a heavy Kinks Kinkdom-era influence.
"On Happy Birthday to Me, I was listening to the Amps and Guided by Voices -- Dayton Rock. Dayton, Ohio, sludge rock, and poppy sludge rock, even. It affected my singing, too, because that's when I started getting slurry," recalls Shattuck. "I still do it, but I try and do it less because I realized that it was kind of a phase I was going through."
The progression toward the eventual sound of Alert Today began with the song "Prettier Than Me," a work-in-progress that Shattuck had in the pipeline for almost a decade. Although she considered recording the track for some of the band's previous records, Shattuck says she feared that the song's repetitive musical pattern and gentle lilt made it ill-suited for the group.
"I wrote it and I thought it sounded like Mazzy Star or Opal or whoever the hell they were. Maybe the Velvet Underground or somebody," jokes Shattuck.
The song is indicative of Shattuck's evolving sense of melodic counterpoint and dynamics, two elements featured prominently on Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow.
The overall somber tone of the album was colored by the singer's own recent personal trials, ones that she dismisses with typical good humor. "I realized that the album is a result of my blue period that I've been going through. I only realized it when I came out of it, though. Now all of a sudden I'm like a bull. Charge!" says Shattuck. "I feel very outward and mean again. So I've been writing new songs and they're really nasty. You can thank my ex-boyfriend for that," adds Shattuck.
The inherent turmoil of personal relationships has always supplied Shattuck with ample subject matter for her songs. Shattuck was romantically involved with Muffs bassist Ronnie Barnett, and even though the two broke up early in the group's career (Barnett has since married), there is still some tension (often evidenced in onstage barbs and one-upsmanship) that is integral to the group's musical and personal chemistry.
Although they're well beyond petty personal differences, the relationship between Shattuck and Barnett is most tenuous when it comes to the subject of musical taste. "He is just this big fan of music. Whereas I'm more of an anti-fan. He thinks the worst things are great."
Their wildly differing musical philosophies have resulted in some interesting moments when choosing what songs to play in the van on the road. "At this point, he's learned to bring his headphones," says Shattuck. "There was one tour we went on and he had the new Pearl Jam, and I'm like, 'If you even play this for one second, it goes out the window.' I hate Pearl Jam," says Shattuck.
Despite her distaste for Eddie Vedder and his crumbled alterna-empire, the group isn't especially eager to be lumped in with L.A.'s retro-pop subculture and its attendant festivals, either. "We skipped Poptopia this time. We're sick of the crowds. The crowd is like all geeks," says Shattuck with typical candor. "It's like, 'No, I don't want to do it.' And then the IPO [International Pop Overthrow], that was even worse."
However, the group is excited about embarking on its first extended tour since 1997. Early in their career, the Muffs (and Shattuck in particular) developed a bad reputation for confronting club owners and rowdy audience members resulting in them being banned from several clubs in L.A. and in other parts of the country. Those wilder days seem to be over for the most part, as the crowds at more recent Muffs shows have been generous, if not downright adoring.
"Oh, yeah, every time we go on stage now it's sooo boring," says Shattuck. "Now people like us. So nobody does anything bad. It's nice and great and fun and I've gotten to enjoy it, but I still kind of miss it. I mean I don't like it when people are being obnoxious to us, but at the same time you get a really good boost of energy when someone is being a jerk.
Despite her desire for a more anarchic concert environment, Shattuck realizes how lucky the Muffs have been in keeping a core following filled with people who are genuinely fans of their music, and not merely faddists. "We have a really nice fan base because it's not full of a bunch of lunkheads. It's more like people who have good taste. Which I guess everyone thinks that about their band," says Shattuck.
In a music scene littered with the corpses of dozens of bands who were one-hit video wonders, Shattuck knows how fortunate the Muffs are to have never experienced that particular kind of "success."
"We actually went through a little bit of that when our video got played on MTV. They tried to make 'Sad Tomorrow' [off Blonder and Blonder] be the hit. It really only got shown maybe five times, that's it," recalls Shattuck. "When that happened, I swear to God, all of a sudden these creepy-ass people started to come out of the woodwork, just from that many plays. Imagine being played 70 billion times on MTV, every sloth in the entire world will come to your show, it's gross."
For all her contempt (most of it relatively mild) for the "music biz," Shattuck is genuinely grateful for having been given the opportunity to record several albums for a major label and cultivate an audience -- a chance that most new bands in today's bottom-line-conscious music industry won't ever get. "I'm totally grateful that we were on Warner Bros. and able to make records," says Shattuck. "They weren't going to push us so hard. Their nature is to throw shit on the wall and see what sticks. I came into it knowing that. Now we're past all that and we're just making music, thank God."
The Muffs are scheduled to perform on Saturday, August 14, at the Mason Jar. Showtime is 9 p.m.
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