THE MUFFS: STOLE IT OFF A DRUNK GIRL
photo by ward robinson
Music journalists and musicians have some big things in common: a dogged, financially ruinous love of music and a determination to bring it into the world. And sometimes they’re friends, too, and normally I’ve got the best poker face of the bunch—but not this time! Not with the Muffs, and particularly Kim Shattuck, whose little sister married one of my best friends from high school. More than some fans, I’ve followed her recent rise and fall with the Pixies with rapt attention, and I’m excited by the news that the Muffs have reemerged, complete with tour dates and an album … and maybe a little anger! But as I’ll find out, what this 23-year-old trio has the most of is what I like to think I’ve got, too: a love of music, and a determination to bring it into the world. They play this weekend at Burger-A-Go-Go. This interview by D.M. Collins.
How long has it been since the last Muffs album?
Kim Shattuck (vocals / guitar): Exactly ten years! A super long time.
Why so long? And why start up again now?
Ronnie Barnett (bass): We’ve actually been working on it for like four years … at least? After we put out the last record and toured the last record we ended up taking about three years off. But I think we’re 23 now—over the course of a long career you just have some breaks. We didn’t stop being friends or anything. It just ended up being a three-year break.
KS: We did the last album on Five Foot Two Records. It was a label that Charlotte Caffey from the Go-Go’s and Anna Waronker from That Dog. started.
Is that a reference to Iggy Pop’s song ‘Five Foot One’?
KS: No, it’s cuz they’re both really short! They have complexes, like, ‘Oh, I’m soooo short!’ Ha! We did a bunch of local shows and did a bunch of shows around the world—like, we went to Japan—and then, you know how things die off. … Right around that time it didn’t seem like rock music was easy music to promote. People were like, ‘Whatever.’ I think our record got good reviews and stuff like that—I don’t read reviews—but even if we’re good, fans were like, ‘Whatever.’ [But] it’s good for your ego to go to Japan. They treat us like the Beatles there. They run after you! I mean, you have to run, too. … But you get to know what it’s like to be one of the Fab Four. People will come up, crying and shaking, and you hug them and you hug them tighter and they shake more and you try to comfort them and they cry more, like ‘Muuuuuuughh!!’ I don’t get it! It’s like, too weird. It only happens there.
I feel like they’re not that way about Japanese bands.
KS: People don’t appreciate their local bands. I mean, everyone’s a local band somewhere. We’re a local band here in L.A. but in Japan, we’re a band that came from across the world.
And you’ve now traveled all the way to Fullerton to join up with Burger Records.
KS: They’re really nice! How I found out about Burger was … well, I just live under a rock. I don’t pay attention to anything except for my own thoughts, I guess. I’m just a homebody or whatever. But Roy had toured with Redd Kross a bunch, and Steve McDonald is all plugged in to knowing everything about everything, and I guess Burger had something to do with the tour. So they were going around in the van … like the Scooby Doo van basically. And Roy got to know Lee [Rickard] really well. So when we were looking for a label, Roy said, ‘You gotta try Burger out, cuz Burger is really cool right now.’ And I was like, ‘I like burgers!’ We have a record called Hamburger, so it’s kind of perfect.
Roy McDonald (drums): Before this album, we were all a little burned out. We were just spinning our wheels at this point. We had put out Really Really Happy, and the touring cycle was over and we were doing some local shows, and we did a show at Safari Sam’s. That show almost crystallized what we were feeling—we were burned out, we felt no energy, there was a weird vibe—that place had a weird vibe anyway! That place was doomed!
KS: I went back to school for photography, just to take some brush-up courses. And I started doing photography more: portraits and weddings and stuff like that.
You took some of me dressed as DEVO.
KS: The ones of you wearing the strap-on keyboard? That’s one of my favorite photos! It’s for fun. It’s not like a paying gig. I’ve realized I don’t like to do professional photography—I like to do whatever the hell I want, and that’s what I’m going to do. Making money off of photography makes me not like photography after a while.
My favorite song you guys ever recorded is probably your cover of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Girl’ by Paul Collins’ Beat.
KS: Oh, thank you! Did you know we tried to change the lyrics a little bit: ‘I want to beat up a rock ‘n’ roll girl’? … I did the chorus like, ‘I want to beat up a rock ‘n’ roll girrr-rrrr-rrrlll.’ And I got a letter saying they wouldn’t use the song unless I re-sung it just like the original words: ‘I want to be with a rock ‘n’ roll girl.’ They said that it wasn’t good for women. And I was like, ‘Wow, THIS woman has a funny sense of humor!’ Not that it’s funny to beat up women, but another woman singing it, I guess it should be okay, right? When we do it live, we redo the choruses. It’s stupid.
Is the original Paul Collins lyric about an empowered woman? Or more like a rock groupie type?
KS: When you hear the original lyric, you think it’s like a groupie kind of thing, and to me that’s more insulting than beating them up—ha! But I guess they had a point. I was morally shunned for my violent nature.
Remember when I interviewed Paul Collins? You had me ask him if being two millimeters away from your mouth gave him any ideas.’ He said, ‘I wanted to kiss her!’
KS: Oh my god—he had the absolute worst breath of anyone on the planet. He’s totally nice and stuff, he’s kind of curmudgeonly … and it was fun singing with him! Smokers have the worst breath of all time, and he’s a heavy smoker, and I guess he’d just chugged a bunch of cheap beer. So it was just this collection of disgustingness in my face!
It’s been kind of a disgusting year! A lot of what’s going on is just dark and evil, and a lot of people have fallen into depression. In times like these, does the band respond with darker material or lighter material?
KS: The things that inspire me to write are usually a little bit dark and a little bit angry. If I can’t write music, it’s usually cuz I’m really happy and I’m just doing my thing. But when I’m a little bit weirded out about something, and I kind of get over the hump of the weirdness where I’m not mad anymore, I’m just like, ‘Wow, that was weird, I’m glad that was yesterday or the day before!’ I’m usually really good about writing lyrics at those times, cuz I’m processing it. But the way I write lyrics also is that I’m not thinking about what I’m writing at all. I just go to a weird automatic place. When the lyrics come out, whatever they’re about is what I’ve been grousing about days before. It’s super weird. If I try to write lyrics, if I try really hard, they just come out sounding stupid. All my best lyrics are done kind of subconsciously.
On this newest album, what have you been grousing about?
KS: The first song on the record is called ‘Weird Boy Next Door.’ I wrote it in about two minutes—whatever the run time is for that song, I wrote it in that amount of time. I thought it would be really easy to write the lyrics if I could just go to that little automatic place. And all of a sudden I heard banging next door, and yelling, and screaming, and I’m like, ‘Holy shit, what’s going on?’ I peeked over next door, and I see the kid over there who lives there literally taking a baseball bat and hitting the garage with it. And screaming! Acting out in this weird, angry way. And I was so pissed cuz I was trying to write songs, and I was scared cuz it was violent! I didn’t want to call the police cuz I live right next door to him … he would know it was me! So I felt really trapped. I ended up writing the lyrics to this song about this guy—scribble scribble scribble scribble scribble. And when I read it, I was laughing cuz it was really intense about him. Kind of jokey lyrics, but perfect for that song.
What’s the theme of this album overall?
KS: More of the lyrics are really complaining about people that I know. There’s a couple songs about me—pretty much about how weird I am! And there’s a fictional song I probably thought about a little too hard, but it came out good anyways.
What is so weird about yourself that you have to chronicle it in song? Do other people perceive those things?
KS: I was going through some ups and downs, I guess—a lot of mood swings. I was like, ‘Shit, I should just write this.’ When I was writing my one song about me [“Up and Down Around”], I didn’t know what to write about, so it just started coming out. The first verse came out about how it feels to be depressed, and then a whole chorus is about going up and down and around. … I thought, ‘OK, what’s the opposite?’ The second verse is about what it’s like to be waaaay too up and animated and not being able to sleep. So it’s just one of those mood-swingy kind of songs. And then another song I wrote is about angst about relationship stuff.
Angst and relationship stuff? Your husband seems so nice! Do you ever have to use other couples as references?
RB: Every couple has their differences. [Kim’s husband] Kevin’s so easygoing and mellow it’s hard to think of him as being difficult. Dealing with Kim, sometimes you’re going to have your difficulties—I don’t mean it like that! Kim is set in her ways and she has her opinions …
KS: Last time I was super happy, so the whole album was a happy album. This one, I’m kinda mad again, and just bitching about stuff and complaining! If I get into a fight, and I’m all frustrated, my feelings come out that way sometimes. … If I figured out why I am the way I am and why people react to me the way they do, songs come out of that. ‘Oh, now I realize why people are mad at me!’
Sounds like a healthy way to deal with other people’s reactions. Have you ever responded with physical violence instead?
KS: Well, yeah! I’ve gotten in fights before. One time some girl was slam-dancing into everybody … she was really super drunk. And I got really sick of it! And instead of being the person who just walks away from it, I decided to just push her down and smack her and take her clothes off—or more like take her jacket off her. So I stole her jacket and I hid it in my garage cuz I was still living at my mom’s house. My mom saw it and was like, ‘Where’d you get that jacket?’ ‘I stole it off a drunk girl.’
Stealing clothes reminds me of a story I heard about the Pandoras in the 80s, your band right before the Muffs—that one time Gwynne showed up at an event after beating up Paula, clutching her love beads in one hand and a big lock of her hair in the other and was like, ‘I kicked the bitch’s ASS!’
KS: I was there! I think it was the Café du Grande, like 1985. I had just gotten into the Pandoras, and we were hanging out outside, and Paula was still inside. And I think that was when Gwynne came up to her with a Perrier bottle—it later got reported as a ‘beer bottle’ but really it was a Perrier bottle, which is thicker and harder—and she hit her over the head with it. And then Paula died of an aneurysm later … hmm, I wonder? Ha! I don’t remember the hair-pulling part, but I remember kicking and fists and stuff. But that was so long ago …
Tell us the story of the Pixies!
KS: It was in September that I heard from Charles [aka Frank Black], just from random messages from Twitter and Facebook, and he was asking if I wanted to listen to some music. And I was like, ‘Yeah sure,’ if he wrote it, cuz I didn’t want to listen to random music that he likes. I hadn’t heard from him in years—it seemed like a whim. Then all of a sudden he asked, ‘I was wondering how you’d feel about being a bass player for the Pixies?’ ‘Yeah. That’d be great.’ Kind of casually. He’s a flamboyant character, so I had a feeling he was maybe saying this to everybody. After a really long time, he got hold of me again and said that they were recording and they had somebody for the album, but still needed me for the tour. Then he told me they were holding auditions. They gave us a variety of songs, so I learned all of those, then learned a few more. They’re not easy, so every second I was self-conscious. Charles liked me, but the other guys weren’t so sure. He convinced them, and then it was just practice, practice, practice. All the time. It was more work than a job, but I wasn’t getting paid. The manager even said to me, ‘There’s plenty of people who’d do this for free.’ I had to deal with a lot of shit from that guy. So that’s the story of how I got to be a part of the Pixies line-up, temporarily.
How did it end?
KS: We started to go on the road and do a bunch of shows. I got a little carried away at one show and I jumped into the pit and basically went up and down the pit being cute, jumping up and hugging people, high-fiving them, kissing people, just being really gregarious. After that I got yelled at by the manager, who was like, ‘Don’t do that. The Pixies just don’t do that.’
RB: A lot of people point it out as why she got kicked out. That wasn’t really the reason she got kicked out—there were a lot of things. It’s basically clear now that the bassist in the Pixies is a hired gun. You don’t see the new girl in the pictures. I think Charles kind of wanted it to be a band, and the other two didn’t see it that way. They’ve been in the band for 26 years, and Kim was getting some attention …
KS: And then after that, the drummer, Dave [Lovering], would not talk to me. He was a good guy in rehearsals, but after that he just would not talk to me unless he had a criticism of how I played. After that leg was over, Dave started talking to me again and he was super nice so I figured something happened. Turns out Charles had a talk with him and said it was unprofessional to not talk to me.
And just not practical!
KS: It turns out he didn’t like that I had a stage persona. He felt like I was getting too much attention. And then they did things like … any show where you hear a recording of the show, they bury my bass completely. On the BBC and the Jimmy Fallon show, you can totally hear the bass. Anything from our shows, they kept my bass down just to placate Dave. He said he didn’t like the way I played, but he didn’t even keep me on in his in-ear monitor. He just decided he hated me after I jumped in the pit and didn’t want to be in a band with me anymore. I was in all the pictures, but none of the interviews. Now Paz [Lenchantin] is in all of the interviews and they are like, ‘We love her so much.’ Which is cool with me. She’s a much better bass player than I am. I’m more of a plunker. I don’t have any problem with her cuz she just took an opportunity. But for a while I would look to see if they said anything fucked-up about me cuz they would. I would show it to Kevin and we’d laugh cuz it was old dudes curmudgeonly saying things about how I wasn’t right for the band. They take it super seriously.
What about the Pandoras? Did they not invite you to be in the second iteration?
KS: I don’t really like what those girls do. I’m not being petty, but the girl who started that whole second generation was only in the band for a month. It’s a different line-up and I am not a big fan of what they put out. I think Paula would flip over in her grave. She was very dictatorial about being the only person who wrote the songs. It’s weird that they’d keep writing and putting out songs and calling themselves the Pandoras.
Kim, you have this raw voice—it’s never going to be that ‘sweet’ sound. But you guys have a pop sensibility, and you had it even during the grunge era. What is it about your band that gives you one toe in song structure that other bands lack?
RB: It’s all about that with us! It all goes back to Kim. Kim is a fan of very little music. She still listens to Freddie and the Dreamers and stuff. It’s all about melodic pop songs. We kind of rev them up. But underneath the screaming and stuff, there’s always a melody going on. I think that’s why we’ve endured so long, too. Even though there’s some grungy stuff on that first record that hasn’t held up so good, there’s stuff that’s kind of timeless. In those Warner Bros. records, we never once used a trendy producer, so aside from some of the stuff on that first record, it doesn’t really sound of the time. Blonder and Blonder still sounds fresh. And the songwriting, too! We have precise pop songs. There’s no drop-down E tuning in this band.
There’s another evil of the 90s you avoided—mid-late 90s melodic punk-pop like Green Day, who had a kind of Lookout! Records sound. No offense to Green Day, but there was a shtickiness to the bands of that time. How do play what you play without sounding trite?
RB: That kind of music that you’re describing is probably my least favorite kind of music in the world—all that pop-punk stuff from the 90s. It’s weird. In our band, we appeal to all these different crowds. We appeal to fans of that music. We appeal to power-pop people. We appeal to garage rock people. We can open for virtually anybody. We could open for Great White and be okay. But we’re not influenced by NOFX.
Do you tell yourselves certain things NOT to do to make sure your melodic pop rock doesn’t turn to the dark side?
RB: No! It’s just all very natural for us. None of this has ever been thought out. The only things that might have become dated is our early grungy stuff. And you know, we wore big shorts, we used to throw our instruments around … that makes me cringe now.
THE MUFFS WITH BEST COAST, DUM DUM GIRLS, BLEACHED, SHANNON AND THE CLAMS AND MANY MORE ON SAT., AUG 2., AT BURGER-A-GO-GO AT THE OBSERVATORY, 3503 S. HARBOR BLVD., SANTA ANA. 4 PM / $32.50 / ALL AGES. OBSERVATORYOC.COM. THE MUFFS’ WHOOP DEE DOO IS AVAILABLE NOW ON BURGER RECORDS AND CHERRY RED RECORDS. VISIT THE MUFFS AT THEMUFFSBAND.BLOGSPOT.COM.