(First appeared in BAM magazine, 4/21/95)
The sound of roaring guitars with pop melodies on top was absent from the rock landscape for what seems like an eternity. Then, outta nowhere, comes the punk messenger tandem of Green Day and the Offspring, bringing it all back home, and finally busting down the walls of commercial resistance--freedom fighters, indeed. The world capitulates: Kids everywhere are slamming away to the true sound of adolescent aggro, admittedly in the retro mode. To some, it's 15 years too late, but to the teeming masses, who cares? To these punk acolytes, Green Day and Offspring are like the Beatles and the Stones of their era, that is, the new thing.
But guess what, kids? The Muffs were there first.
Well, "first" is a relative term. No, the Muffs didn't play CBGB's, the Mabuhay, the Rat, or the Grande Ballroom; no, they didn't share bills with the Sex Pistols or the Clash; and no, they weren't butting heads at Black Flag gigs. The Muffs are old guard only in the sense that they were doing it on a major label long before most of the hot new kids had even begun to negotiate themselves out of the indie ghetto.
The Muffs originally released three excellent indie singles (one each on Sympathy, Au-Go-Go, and Sub-Pop); and all of the accolades that they received in the wake of these discs brought the band to Warner Bros.' attention in 1992.
And overlooked though it was, the band's debut was a skull-ripper, from the demo version of "Lucky Guy" that made it onto the disc; to the Ronettes-like cuts "Every Single Thing" and "From Your Girl"; to the acoustic Stones-y "All For Nothing" that closed the disc. The radio and the world of mainstream MTV-driven pabulum was still busy lapping up flanneloid fraud, however, and the Muffs' day in the sun was put on hold.
But, hopefully, not for much longer. When the Muffs' second disc "Blonder and Blonder" hits the streets this month, the "jumping on the bandwagon" accusations you'll hear can be dismissed as the poppycock we-in-the-know know it is. "I think about that kind of talk happening now," says head Muff Kim Shattuck. "But it's really inaccurate. Our first record came out before Green Day's Warner Bros. record, and the Offspring have opened up for us. We know we're going to hear it, so it really doesn't bother me too much. We know the real story."
Shattuck, along with the Muffs' rhythm section of former Redd Kross drummer Roy McDonald (no relation), and original bassist Ronnie "King Bee" Barnett, are perched on the cusp of stardom with "Blonder and Blonder." Better produced and smoother than the band's powerful debut, "Blonder and Blonder" is another slab of power-pop, meshing the chords and melodies that are already very familiar to owners of "Please Please Me," "The Who Sing My Generation," and every pre-"Lola" Kinks album. Not to mention the nascent punk assaults of "Rocket to Russia"-era Ramones and LA's premier popsters, the Plimsouls. Kicking in with the heartpunch directness of "Agony" straight through to "Oh Nena" (a Beach Boys-on-meth rant) and "Sad Tomorrow," the first single (and Shattuck's best song to date), "Blonder and Blonder" never lets up. Please, somebody, name me one record that can make that kind of claim in this one-good-song-per-disc era. Blistering tempos are the basis of punk predominate, but "Blonder and Blonder" is the classic pop-cruising record, the one to help get you psyched for whatever is playing at the venue of your choice.
Unlike many second records which get bogged down in overambitious production gimmickry or second-rate songs, "Blonder and Blonder" resounds with Shattuck's familiar-yet-original melodies which velcro themselves to the center of your consciousness and never let go. "Won't Come Out to Play," one of the record's other high points, could be a Buddy Holly cover, with its nursery-rhyme melodics and chiming solo. "I ripped that solo off a piano exercise I did when I was a kid," says Shattuck proudly. "Probably not on purpose, but it might as well have been." There's also a moron-rock riff opus called "Ethyl My Love" about Fred Mertz, Lucy's neighbor, which is suspiciously reminiscent of the first record's "I Need You."
"Oh yeah, I did that kind of thing a few times on this record," says Shattuck. "'Red-Eyed Troll' is kinda like 'Another Day' from the first record, that sorta choppy two-steppy thing. I like a certain style of song, and I guess I use them over and over. But doesn't everyone? I mean, if you do a thing really well, why change it? So many people get hung up on being the new thing, the next sound, like being new is the same as being good. It isn't. I know a lot of what I do comes from loving the Kinks and the Beatles and the Ramones and all of the Merseybeat stuff and the early punk stuff. But my stuff sounds like me anyway."
Why then the definite '60s slant? After all, that decade was half over before the Muffs were even born. "But those records are timeless in that the melodies are so perfect," says Shattuck. "And there has to be an element of sing-songiness to a song for me to like it. Whenever we think about cover tunes we want to do, that has to be a consideration. Like if a melody is too bluesy, I don't want to sing it. That's why I like the '60s bands so much. That's the reason we sound like we do; it's what I hear in my head."
Still, like all second records, "Blonder and Blonder" isn't as carefully arranged as the debut. How could it be, with three years of prep going into the first one and less than a year of rehearsal for the follow-up? "We worked hard to get the songs down, but I know what you mean," says Shattuck. "You can rework stuff over and over again in front of crowds, and you can do it in a room with your band, quickly. I think the new songs have more life, though. They're fresher, I made sure of it."
Well, of course, she did have help. "It is weird to be in a band with guys whose whole lives are dedicated to collecting records," says Shattuck. "But I've been surrounded by that forever, it seems." And we were both surrounded when Barnett and McDonald joined us for dinner prior to their soundcheck. The two record-collector geeks overwhelmed me with their endless quest for obscurities, much to Shattuck's dismay--so much so that she excused herself while the rhythm section dug into its fave groove. "I just got the third Hudson Brothers record," says Barnett with pride. When I register horror at this apparent lapse in taste, he simply informs me, "It's a pop classic," and that is that. A collector of all things kitschy and trashy, Barnett numbers his record collection in the ten thousands. At least. And McDonald claims his collection is equally as large. During a lengthy discussion of which Springsteen album is the best (I say "Nebraska," Barnett opts for "The River," McDonald picks "The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle"), road manager Chris Fahey gets up and leaves the table, utterly revolted by this turn of conversation. "You guys are pathetic," he snorts, and heads out the door to the band's modest rent-a-van and unloads the group's gear.
But this is all so quintessentially Muff-like. I fell in love with this band the first time I saw them in LA and was driven to report that they were the greatest band in the world. And on some nights, they were. (To be fair, consider that in LA, circa 1991-'92, we were lodged in the post-Chili Peppers-Jane's Addiction dark ages, and nearly every band was in that vein. The Muffs were bound to stand out.) During one show at LA's late, lamented Raji's, total pandemonium broke out during the Muffs' set--complete with shards of feedback for ten minutes during the finale, total delirium, capped off with fisticuffs between band members. And in the midst of this bedlam, one classic rock song after another. The stuff of dreams, I say!
As it was--and should've been--for everyone who was fed up with the deracinated metal and funk-rock that was the meat of the day. The Muffs very quickly became one of Hollywood's main attractions, partially based on the audience wondering, "What will they do to each other tonight? Do you think Kim will finally break down and shoot Ronnie onstage?"
Needless to say, they couldn't keep that up forever. Having evolved from the days of onstage punch-outs between former lovers Shattuck and Barnett ("We get along a lot better now," says the singer), through the semi-acrimonious departure of former rhythm guitarist Melanie Vammen and original drummer Criss Crass, the Muffs' chaos seems more directed now than it was in their stormy past.
"When Melanie was playing rhythm guitar, there was always this big pillow of noise, so Ronnie could go and geek out in the crowd. Or I could drop my guitar and belt him," says Shattuck. "Believe me, that happened more than I wanted it to. It was never staged. He has a way of getting under my skin. But now we can't mess around onstage or everything falls apart, and not in a good way." Still, during the group's last show in SF, Barnett fell off the stage, and everything collapsed into joyous noise as usual. The more things change...
The more they stay the same. And the Muffs are virtually powerless over the inevitable breakdown that occurs when the amps go on and Kim drops into the set opener (which is "Agony" these days). Trouble simply seems to follow the chaos, especially when the band brings its lunacy into venues other than punk clubs--like Barnett's bright idea to open for '70s rock heroes Cheap Trick.
"Ronnie thought that we should play with Cheap Trick because they're power-pop, or they were anyway," says Shattuck. "He always has these bright ideas about where we stand. He thinks we're pure pop, but I guess to the kind of dinosaurs that still go to see bands like Cheap Trick, well... I like their old stuff, too. Don't get me wrong. But I'm more realistic than Ronnie is. We're too much for these people, even now. We had three gigs booked with them, but we only did one--at the Coach House. It was all of these suburban redneck idiots in their Christmas sweaters, sitting politely at these cute tables, and they hated us. And I hated them. Plus, the club wouldn't let in all of our guests. So I told the audience they were the lamest people I'd ever seen and that the club sucked. Well, after I got offstage, the manager of the club grabs me around the throat and tries to kill me. I swear! That was the end of that little tour, although to tell you the truth, we were going to blow off the rest of the dates anyway and not tell them."
Gee, Kim, anything else? "Well, at this one college gig we did in Irvine, this cop told me I couldn't bring my water into the building, so I just emptied it out on his head," says Shattuck. "Does that count?"
Which is definitely as punky as Green Day's Woodstock mud fights or Rancid's mohawks, right? "I still don't see us as a punk band at all," argues Shattuck. "Besides, isn't punk, as most people think of it, a bunch of noisy nothingness nowadays? We play loud 'n' fast because it's the most exciting thing there is. Why would you go to see some boring, slow, staid band? I guess some people like that, but I don't. So what if a band is fast and loud? That doesn't mean they rock. Green Day does. Like, I'd rather hear Green Day any day over all of that Pearl Jam shit. I can't recall a single song, a single lyric or melody from them. I can't figure out how anybody likes them. Of course, Ronnie does, but I think he only does that to be difficult, like he's got to take the opposite tack of everything I think."
Like their stage act, "Blonder and Blonder" is tighter and more to the point than the Muffs' debut. Produced by Rob Cavallo, who did "Dookie," Green Day's breakthrough record, and who also co-produced the Muffs debut, "Blonder and Blonder" was done very quickly, at least initially. "The basic tracks, the bass and drums were done in, like, four days," says Shattuck. "Then it was my turn, and you know how that gets. But I was really meticulous about the guitar sound and vocals this time. I thought that the guitars were uneven on the last one." Meticulous, maybe, but why all of the screaming this time 'round? "That's my trademark, I suppose," says the singer. "Every song has to have at least one megascream or it's not a Muffs song. Well, that's not true, but I really did get into wrecking my vocal chords in the studio this last time."
Shattuck also mentions that the LP title "Blonder and Blonder" comes from a remark made by icon Courtney Love as a snide aside to Shattuck during a Muffs Seattle gig. As Love passed Shattuck in the club, she remarked, "Hmm, blonder and blonder I see," in reference to Shattuck's golden mane. (She's recently trimmed her formerly unruly mop of quasi-dreads and looks rather respectable.) "Courtney thinks I'm copping her look; she always has," says Shattuck. "Like we're rivals or something. I have this long rambling rant she left on my answering machine once about her little girl dresses. Because in this interview I did, I said that she ripped off Babes in Toyland's look. She was furious, and I had to save it, but I think she loves to call people up and leave these messages. Someday, it'll be worth something!"
Shattuck herself is on the way to iconography. Or so it seems. "At the recent gigs we've done, I notice that we get a lot more girls than boys up front. They hear our stuff and want to see what I look like, I guess. We used to get a lot of guys--male groupie, girl-band geeks--that was a hangover from the days when Melanie and I were in the Pandoras together. But now it's more girls who are checking me out. Except the ones who dig Ronnie; he's such an altie sex god! It's a relief to be taken as a musician first, because when they think of you as a bimbo or a sex kitten, no one listens. All you get are these creepy guys in the front rows who come up to you after the set and say, 'Hey, you're cute; what's your phone number?' That sucks! In the Pandoras, that's all we got. But that band is a memory to only a small percentage of the audience."
What about the fans who will yell out, "Where's Melanie?" at your new shows? "We've gotten a few of those at every gig," says Shattuck. "I would like to set the record straight: Melanie quit. She quit because I wanted to play all of the guitar parts on some of the songs on the new record--there were parts she couldn't pick the rhythm up on. She said that if she couldn't play on every track, she was out, so... Someday I hope we can be friends again, but we haven't really spoken since she left and joined the Leaving Trains."
It was an easy call to decide on the band's most recent addition, drummer McDonald. "I'd always wanted Roy in the band; he was our first choice," says Shattuck. "But he was living in Texas, and kinda out of it, so he recommended Criss Crass, our first drummer. Criss was a great drummer and he sang great backups, but he was such a pain in the ass--so obnoxious on and off stage. I couldn't take him anymore. So we got Jim Laspesa from Green Jelly. Jim was fantastic at first, but when we were learning the songs for the second record, he was too restrained. Then we found out Roy was coming back to LA, and we called him. And the rest is history. I guess everything works out after all."
But despite these rocky personnel changes, the Muffs are ready to hit the road in May, first touring the U.S., and after that, who knows? "I have no idea what our itinerary will be," says Shattuck. "It's got to be better than the first few tours because we were always at each other's throats. Now there's no real tension in the band. Everybody gets along. Well, today, anyway."
(c) 1995 Johnny Angel