Weird Band Next Door:
An EXCLUSIVE Q&A
Kim, Ronnie and Roy
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
Twenty three years is an awful long time for a band to be together – that’s three courtships, two marriages, two kids and two messy divorces in the average person’s life. But The Muffs are no ordinary band. Led by singer/songwriter Kim Shattuck, the band has persevered through the years, outliving the numerous music trends that both embraced them and tried to knock them down. Shattuck was formerly a member of L.A. based all-girl Garage Rock band The Pandoras so she was already familiar with the ways of the music business and that worked to her advantage. Forming The Muffs in 1991 with fellow Pandoras member Melanie Vammen on guitar, Ronnie Barnett on bass and Criss Crass on drums, the band’s blend of Pop hooks, Punk attitude and timeless tunes made them one of the most talked about bands of the era. The Muffs appealed to the burgeoning Grunge crowd as well as the Indie Pop kids, punks and even lovers of Girl Pop and Chick Rock. They signed to Warner Brothers and released their debut album in 1993. By the time their sophomore album was released in 1995, Vammen and Crass had departed the band. However, they did not replace Vammen but they did bring in Roy McDonald on drums, who had been their first choice years earlier, but he was unable to join the band at the time and recommended Crass. This particular line-up remains intact today. They released two additional albums in the ‘90s before disappearing from the record shelves for a few years. In 2004, they returned with their fifth album, Really Really Happy before laying low for a longer period of time. Though they may not have released a new studio album, the band was still active on the L.A. live scene. Their fans remained rabidly devoted and new audiences were discovering them during this decade-long sabbatical.
When the trio reconvened in the studio in 2012 to record their sixth album, they had plenty of material to work with. During the final stages of putting the album together, fate stepped in when Shattuck was announced as Kim Deal’s replacement in The Pixies. Her involvement in The Pixies didn’t put an end to The Muffs – it merely extended their sabbatical. The announcement was made in June of 2013, but by November of the same year, Shattuck was out of The Pixies and free to continue with The Muffs at her own pace. Thankfully, that meant a new Muffs album sooner than many expected… and after 10 long years, it was about time. As for The Pixies, they decided to recruit a new female bassist whose name was not Kim.
Now that the dust has settled, The Muffs are set to release their long-awaited sixth album, Whoop Dee Doo, which is already creating quite a buzz in the biz. Shattuck, Barnett and McDonald sound as vital and energetic as ever on the album. Whoop Dee Doo packs plenty of punches while also supplying some tunes that are so catchy that they will stay in your head for days. Still edgy, still punky and still filled with the joy of playing real Rock ‘n’ Roll again, The Muffs are more alive than ever on Whoop Dee Doo. And Kim can still go from playful Rock goddess to possessed demon in one scream. Yeah, she’s the Linda Blair of Alternative Rock!
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to send off a list of questions to Kim, Ronnie and Roy and discuss the band’s past, present and future…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Your album Whoop Dee Doo is about to be released. How are you feeling about the album and the reaction you’ve had to it so far?
KIM SHATTUCK: I am very happy with how it came out. Thrilled actually. And so far people seem to be liking it. I love producing our music. I'm branching out into producing other bands too, which is something I'm really starting to wrap my head around.
ROY McDONALD: I’m very proud of the album! I think it has some of Kim’s best songs. Kim would play these demos for us and I could tell that this record was gonna be hot stuff! I love the way the sound of the drums turned out. They have this great natural sound. We haven’t actually played it for too many people but those who have heard it really like it.
RONNIE BARNETT: We feel really great about this album. People always say this, but we're probably happier with this one overall than any of the other ones. Everything connected to it feels right. The songs, the sound, the artwork, the labels.
SPAZ: It’s been a decade since your last full length album. What took so long?
KIM: We took a little break after our Really Really Happy album. I wasn't writing very much after that. Then I went back to school to do more photography studies. I was doing portrait photography a little bit, a few weddings, a little this, a little that. Then I started getting some songs in my head, little musical bits floating around my head, and I had to start writing music again. I really didn't see the guys that much, maybe once in a while. Then our old drummer Jim Laspesa started having dinner parties. He invited Roy, Ronnie and I and our spouses. As we talked it came up that I had some songs brewing and Roy talked me into emailing him a couple of them. He loved them and told me so which inspired me to write more. After a while we decided to make an album and by 2012 it was totally done. Then I joined the Pixies for about 10 months.
ROY: About a year after Really Really Happy came out we took a self-imposed sabbatical. I think we needed to find our mojo again. Kim had written a few songs that we were trying out but I think we were burned out and kind of aimless. It was right around that time that Redd Kross reformed so that kept me pretty busy. Then after a couple of years The Muffs got some offers to play overseas and those shows really sparked something in us. Kim started writing more songs and we started playing more local shows. We got some money from Rock Band 3 for one of our songs and that gave us our recording budget. The thing about not being connected to a label is that you don’t have any pressure to finish so we took our sweet time…something like two years. Then, as we were just about finished the whole Pixies thing happened so that put the album on the backburner for a while.
RONNIE: We've been a band for 23 years, There are bound to be some peaks and valleys in a long career. We ended up taking a few years off after our last album ran its course. We've always been family and friends first and foremost. When we started doing shows again after "the break" there was a lot of love for us. We started getting offers to do shows around the world. We had, after all of the years, become an established band. We could play without having an album to "work." The new songs came fast, Some of them we've been playing for 6 years at this point!
SPAZ: Was there a lot of material to choose from for Whoop Dee Doo? And if so, what were the criteria in choosing this particular batch of songs?
KIM: Off the top of my head I'm going to say I had 20 songs. It's usually pretty clear which songs are the stronger songs. But some of the remaining songs are amazing actually. Maybe we'll put those out too.
ROY: This time we pared it down to the 12 tracks that worked best together. I kept pushing for a shorter album. Really Really Happy had 17 songs. My opinion is that when you have that many songs people start checking out at some point. Each one of us agreed to leave off songs that we liked in order to make a tighter album. We actually have another half an album of solid material in different stages of completion.
RONNIE: We did have a lot of songs to choose from which hasn't always been the case. It's almost harder that way when you have to let go of songs you love because they don't fit or you simply have too many. Some of these will come out. It's not going to be another 10 years before we have another album. That's for sure!
SPAZ: In regards to recording the album, did you tape the basic tracks live together in the studio?
KIM: Roy and I recorded the basic tracks in the studio onto tape and that took one day. The next day we recorded a couple extra songs during a half day. The next day Ronnie recorded his bass. He had to work the day we did the drums. As soon as it was my turn to record my parts I take it home and work that way. Honestly, I have a lot more parts to do so doing it in a couple of days is impossible for me.
ROY: The drums were recorded with Kim on guitar and a click track. I think Ronnie overdubbed the bass. Hell, it’s been so long now that I don’t remember! I know that Kim recorded most of her parts at home and then I went over to her house one day and we did the percussion tracks.
RONNIE: We always try to record live as a band but inevitably you end up having to re-record the guitars and bass for a variety of reasons: sound, tuning, performance. It's a great idea to try and do it live.
SPAZ: You’ve always been involved in the production of your albums. Apart from the changes in technology, was recording Whoop Dee Doo much different to recording your first album together some 20+ years ago?
KIM: Twenty years ago we recorded in a big giant expensive studio with amazing gear. The result is scratchy and mid rangey, but spirited. We order amazing take-out food and eat our heads off. Now we record in a cool little home studio with amazing gear for a really good price. The result is warmer tones and just as spirited. We bring our lunches from home.
ROY: Well, it was a lot cheaper! I think we were overindulged at Reprise. The amount of money that we spent on those albums was ridiculous for a three piece garage band. I remember one time we were trying to get the right guitar sound for a song and our producer had a dozen different guitars sent over…vintage Les Pauls, Strats, etc. I think Kim ended up using her trusty ol’ Gretcsh.
RONNIE: Back in the '90's we had to record in big studios next door to Eric Clapton and spend over 100,000 grand (true). I'm glad we had those experiences because it makes for some great campfire stories but times are just different now. You can make a record at home that sounds better than the ones we used to spend a ton of money on. A fact that has its good and bad points.
SPAZ: Are there any tracks on the album that you feel strongly about at the moment?
KIM: Right now my faves are "Take a Take a Me," "Up and Down Around," and "Forget The Day."
ROY: I always gravitate towards our Pop material. Right now my faves are “Like You Don’t See Me” and “Take A Take A Me,” but it changes all the time.
RONNIE: My favorite track is "You're So Sad." My favorites always tend to be to pure power pop ones. "Blow Your Mind" from our last album. "Every Single Thing" from our first. My favorite song of ours is "Honeymoon" from Happy Birthday To Me. We have some other "half decent" songs as well!!
SPAZ: There seems to be a lot of influences in The Muffs sound throughout the years: Punk, Power Pop, ‘50s Rock ‘n’ Roll, ‘60s Pop and an independent spirit. Are there any influences that the band members have that may surprise your fans?
KIM: I'm a huge fan of Jazz. Old Jazz from the ‘40s and ‘50s. I'm certainly not an expert at it. I just totally enjoy having it play. Sometimes I sing along to the scatting parts. I adore Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Sarah Vaughn, and Anita O Day, to name a few.
ROY: Kim’s a big King Diamond fan. She’s also a big Neil Diamond fan. I think she likes Diamond Rio too.
RONNIE: Our biggest influence that no one probably picks up on is Freddie and The Dreamers. Followed closely by The Honeycombs.
SPAZ: The Muffs emerged during the Grunge movement, but were not part of that scene. What were your chief musical influences before the band came together?
KIM: I was totally into the early Kinks, The Beatles, The Pixies, The Ramones and Sex Pistols. I liked Merseybeat and melodic Punk. The only common thread with Grunge we have is loud, feedbacky guitars.
ROY: Beatles-Ramones-Kinks-Rolling Stones-early Who-Elvis Costello-Blondie
RONNIE: We did emerge during the "Grunge era" and we were influenced by that scene: the loud, fuzzy guitars; the screaming. We used to throw our instruments and each other around. We wore baby doll dresses and big shorts and flannels, Had long hair. Played with Mudhoney and were friends with a lot of those bands. Had a single on Sub/Pop. Were described as "Grunge Pop”. Some of our material from that era sounds a little dated but because we generally were about melodic songs first and foremost and didn't get produced by Butch Vig or mixed by Andy Wallace, our old stuff actually sounds pretty timeless.
SPAZ: Kim, were you concerned that the band were going to be compared to The Pandoras by your local following?
KIM: I figured I had no choice. I knew that people in town would be leery of my songwriting because they never heard it before. That's basically why Roy McDonald wasn't our drummer from the beginning. We asked him first and he gave us the phone number of a guy he worked with named Criss Crass.
SPAZ: This incarnation of the band has been playing together for 20 years. Are you comfortable in a trio format? Advantages? Disadvantages?
KIM: Being a trio is fun. I can't think of many disadvantages to it. I have to do more since I'm the only guitar now. Advantages are that tuning is simpler, more money to split, more room on stage. There is more room in the van on tour. But we had Melanie Vammen join us on stage for four songs recently. It was the first time since 1994 and it was super powerful with her there. It sounded huge. So really there are advantages and disadvantages to both.
ROY: I love the trio. As soon as we started playing as a trio we realized that not only could we pull it off but that musically the chemistry was amazing! When Kim goes into a solo I just compensate by hitting the cymbals harder. Once we realized that we sounded good as a trio there was no point in adding a member. Yeah it would be nice sometimes to have an extra guitar but then we run the risk of having someone in the group that might not mesh with our personalities The secret to our longevity is that we work well together onstage and we are really good friends offstage.
RONNIE: We became a trio by accident. Melanie left right before we made Blonder And Blonder and we assumed we would get someone else. Fate stepped in in the form of an offer to open for our friends Green Day at the Palladium. We played an unbilled show as a three piece and immediately recognized it as a more rocking thing. It felt totally natural and we never looked back. You miss the extra guitar part sometimes but we definitely prefer it this way. It's been 19 years now.
SPAZ: When trying to settle a band disagreement, does Kim get two votes to Ronnie and Roy’s one?
KIM: Ha! I wish. I've said that before just to be funny, but really we operate on an equal level. We all weigh in on things. We are a team.
ROY: No, actually it’s a democracy which can be very tricky. Years ago there were a couple of times where unilateral decisions were made, but for the most part it’s been one Muff, one vote.
RONNIE: Roy and I are never ones to back down on our opinions. It takes some explaining sometimes, but we generally all have the same vision. Kim who??
SPAZ: What question have you wanted a journalist to ask but has never come up?
KIM: That's a hard question. People don't usually ask me what the lyrics mean. Not that I want people to ask about that, but they mean a lot to me and a lot of emotion goes into them. But then again, maybe that's a good thing.
SPAZ: What’s next for The Muffs?
KIM: A bunch of shows, making videos to go with our songs. Recording new songs that I already have written. Releasing more albums sooner rather than later.
ROY: The usual… live shows and plugging the record. We just finished a video for “Weird Boy Next Door.” We’ll be doing some US dates this year and we’re planning some shows in Japan for early November.
RONNIE: Next is a flurry of live dates. Some real exciting trips and shows coming up. That said, we've been going overseas and across the country for many years now with no album to support. I guess when you reach the kind of "semi-established" status we have and in this day and age we can work and not necessarily have to be supporting some new product.
SPAZ: What is currently spinning on your CD, DVD and record players?
KIM: I just stuck Kinda Kinks on my turntable and rocked out to that by myself in my little home studio. It sounds amazing and if I could go back in time I'd go to 1965. I'd see Sandy Koufax pitch his perfect game, I'd go to a Kinks concert, and I'd buy a bunch of houses in Los Angeles for $10,000 apiece.
ROY: I just read the Leonard Cohen biography so that got me to investigate some more of his stuff. I must admit that I like his story more than his records. I like that record by The Strypes. I have a two year old so pretty much the only TV I watch now is Yo Gabba Gabba, Team Umizumi, etc. The upside is that I’ve gotten very good at counting to 10! I am breathlessly awaiting my daughter’s “Yellow Submarine” phase.
RONNIE: Currently hanging out around my stereo is: Any Trouble - The Complete Stiff Recordings, True Believers - Dedication (tour-only CD),The Headboys - The Lost Album, Michael Fennelly - Love Can Change Everything, the Veruca Salt 10", the Elton Duck compilation, The Jetz - The Anthology 1977-79, Wayne Cochran - Goin' Back To Miami: The Soul Sides 1965-1970, Skafish - What's This 1976-1979, The Paley Brothers - The Complete Recordings, Hushdrops - Tomorrow and a bunch of other stuff. I've got a problem!
Thanks to Kim Shattuck, Ronnie Barnett and Roy McDonald
Special thanks to Steve Dixon and Matthew Ingham
WHOOP DEE DOO