Introducing the Muffs: punk rock so hard it'll make your palms sweat

By RJ Smith
(transcribed by Len Tong)

It's no news flash that the suburbs south of L.A. gave birth to the Spur Posse and buried Richard M. Nixon. Held up to the light, Orange County is a dreamland gone sour and bankrupt. But that Orange County might as well be in some other universe. On the picture-perfect block where Muffs singer and songwriter Kim Shattuck grew up, you almost expect to see the Brady kids romping in the driveway.

Kim's mother greets me on a bright Sunday morning at the front door of her suburban home, with solar panels on top and a swimming pool out back. She walks me past the wall of pictures - There's Kim in high school! There's her dad surfing! - across a green shag carpet to Kim's room. "It's the one with the Otter Pops towel on the door," Mom directs.

Kim's bedroom overflows with Beatles film clips, Kinks bootlegs, a videotape of the Raspberries on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert. This is where the Muffs' sound - fast, frayed, and exuberant - begins. It's not the angry Orange County of boy bands like the Offspring, of the male angst that's flooded a hundred hardcore punk acts over the last fifteen years. Kim's O.C. is a place that hasn't run out of money, and where fun still towers like the Matterhorn. This is why she has invited me to meet her, Muffs bassist Ronnie Barnett, and drummer Roy McDonald at her home (she moved back with her parents a year and a half ago to save money) to make the ten-minute drive to this Orange County's spiritual center: Disneyland.

For a place so uniformly administrated, Disneyland summons up a lot of different memories in those who visits. Ronnie, bespectacled, skinny, and even-tempered, thinks of it as the place where several people have been killed in accidents or in homicides. To the straight-talking Roy, the theme park is where he got busted for smoking pot and sent to Disneyland "jail," where they showed him a picture of Mickey Mouse crying (imagine the guilt). And for Kim - who is wearing a Mouseketeer cap with MUFFY stitched into it - Disneyland is a place where you can be yourself, but louder. It's just another stage. She runs up to tourists taking pictures and flummoxes them by jumping in next to Uncle Herb. In line at the Haunted Mansion, she hears a kid at the back crying. "Shaddup!" she yells, as Roy and Ronnie edge away. "I hate that." When a lifesize simulation of Gepetto approaches, she gives him a big wet kiss on his costume's nose. Then she runs up to a stranger and says, "I bet now he's going to go and beat off!" On-stage and off, Kim is constantly pulling someone's chain. "You want to see my underwear?" was one of the first things she asked when we met a few nights before, at a local college where they were performing. After a mildly bumpy start - rowdy kids eating pizza, a malfunctioning bass amp - the trio kicked in with their brand of noisy, energetic bubblegum-pop, Kim let loose a couple of wall-rattling screams, and Ronnie had a little reckless fun booting Kim's guitar during her snarly solo. Taken as a whole, the show was, well, cute.

It's a very good time to be a cute punk-rock band, a great time to be punks who can write songs and deliver them without irony. There's a thousand bands almost like the Muffs, but this is the only one these days that's earnest without being dumb, happy without being foolish. The songs on their new record, Blonder and Blonder, sound like 1965 jukebox hits cranked up hard and fast; if this is punk, it's punk for a pool party.

Like Green Day, the Muffs love the old loud-fast; they also love the way pop makes you forget the ordinary parts of the day. Whether or not the Muffs will share in Green Day's success is yet to be seen; what they already share is personnel: Billie Joe was a Muffs fan way before he was a multiplatinum act's frontman (until recently, he kept a Muffs sticker on his guitar); Green day signed on with the Muffs' manager and A & R person/producer with Kim's blessing.

But unlike Billie Joe, Kim, thirty one, is of the generation that actually caught a show or two of the Sex Pistols. Having grown up with punk and New Wave, she writes songs crafted like the best of the British Invasion, with lyrics that tend to revise "You Don't Own Me." Her voice suggests Courtney now, Joan Jett later. Every time she shouts "Whoa!" - which she does all over Blonder and Blonder - somewhere in the distance a fan mutters "Awesome."

The Muffs don't exactly court trouble, but they love when it arrives. Here in a shady Disneyland lagoon beside a pirate ship, they tell me about the time the band got pulled over by Montreal cops while wearing Kiss makeup. And the time Kim poured water on a police officer's shoes. The time an audience member shouted "Show us your tits," and Kim called the audience a bunch of white-trash yokels in response. The time Kim went to jail after beaning a German club promoter with a highball glass for trying to end their show in midset.

"Okay, basically the guy needed stitches. But look, he walked to the hospital. How bad could he have been hurt?"

"Well, they were stitches," Ronnie says gently.

"Okay, but as a girl I'm used to blood, so I didn't think it was that big of a deal," Kim says with finality. Oh yeah - and in the German clink, she was hit on by a dwarf.

The Muffs formed when Kim and Melanie Vammen quit the all-girl Pandoras to form their own group. (Vammen left the Muffs before Blonder and Blonder.) They played their first show in 1991, but Kim had already known Ronnie by then. "We met when he tried to get my autograph," Kim says innocently. "When I came to get your...autograph?" Ronnie says with a mix of horror and disgust. The two dated for three years, ending it just before their Reprise debut The Muffs came out in 1993. They've managed to hold on to a pretty complicated friendship, which has spanned any number of Hollywood gigs where they physically bash away at each other almost as much as they do their guitars.

As we stand in line for a ride named for a Disney character called Mr. Toad, Kim spies a statue of the cartoon amphibian and grabs for his package. (Whoops, he doesn't have one!) The kid taking tickets recognizes the band from the show two days before. "Hey, I saw you guys the other night. You were pretty good." He turns to a coworker and says, "You oughta hear what their name is!"

Later, as we walk along - with Kim gamely pointing out kids' barf along the way - we talk about the long view. On her records she doesn't want the boy to snare her - she values her mobility. Here at the Happiest Place on Earth, she wants to be able to cause a scene without the Disneyland security knowing her name.

With Blonder and Blonder, the Muffs seem certain to graduate from their beloved Hollywood club scene to bigger stages. Just how big do they want to get? "I want it to be like, where lots of people like us, but not to where I can't go to the grocery store," Kim says. "I want to be able to go where I want." Mickey Mouse had better start running.

Originally appeared in Details, May 1995

[Back to The Muffs Stuff!]

[ H O M E | G e o C i t i e s | S u n s e t S t r i p ]