After her stint with The Pixies, Kim Shattuck’s wild band celebrates its first album in a decade with a Westside in-store concert
By Michael Aushenker
Rolling Stone got it wrong.
The venerable rock magazine was quick to report how Kim Shattuck had joined The Pixies and how, after a brief 2013 stint as bassist for the iconic alternative rock band, she was unceremoniously dropped. But when announcing that Shattuck had joined The Pixies, they referred to the singer-songwriter and guitarist as being the former leader of The Muffs.
“I was frustrated. ‘You need to fix that! I’m currently in the Muffs,’” Shattuck said.
To the magazine’s credit, it had been a while since anyone had heard anything new from The Muffs. But on Saturday, the hard-rocking trio celebrates the release of “Whoop-Dee-Doo,” their first album in a decade, with an in-store performance at Record Surplus in West Los Angeles.
The Muffs, in fact, have never broken up — they’ve been an alternative rock fixture since Shattuck first formed them in 1991, initially as a quartet with guitarist Melanie Vammen, bassist Ronnie Barnett and drummer Criss Crass.
Warner Bros. Records signed The Muffs in 1992, after Nirvana ended heavy metal’s reign to usher in grunge and paved the way for more punk-inspired bands. They’re self-titled 1993 debut saw them recording next to Eric Clapton and hanging with Lindsay Buckingham. Then Vammen and Crass exited the band, briefly replaced on drums by Jim Laspesa before Roy McDonald entered. McDonald, Shattuck and Barnett have composed the group ever since.
But not by design. Barnett said they were forced to play a big show on short notice — opening for Green Day at the Hollywood Palladium in 1994 — before they could replace Vammen.
“We didn’t want to turn it down,” Barnett, who remembered playing a secret practice show at Hell’s Gate in Hollywood under the name “Killing Grandma,” said of the gig.
They went on to cover Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” for the “Clueless” soundtrack in 1995, released five more albums through 2004, and then stopped. Until now.
“I took my sweet time writing,” Shattuck said.
What prompted her to finish “Whoop Dee Doo” was friendly competition with L.A. punk band Red Kross, whom Barnett had learned were finishing a new album.
“It became this challenge that I was going to be faster than Red Kross,” Shattuck said, laughing.
Contrary to some reports, Shattuck said “Whoop” is not the reaction to The Pixies tossing Shattuck last year. The album, short of mastering, was finished by December 2012, and the Muffs had already been performing some of the material — until the Pixies came calling.
“I had to put everything on hold,” said Shattuck, who landed her audition after once filling in for Pixies bassist Kim Deal in 2009 during a benefit concert at Silver Lake’s Echoplex.
Deal had left the group when the Pixies’ leader Black Francis reached out to Shattuck via Twitter. Shattuck, who rarely tweets, happened to see it.
Shattuck said she accepted the gig because she’d long liked the Pixies. Her fellow Muffs were supportive, although she first told her drummer only because Barnett “has a big mouth. The minute I told [Barnett], it started going around town. My instinct was correct,” she said, laughing.
With Pixies, Shattuck knew she was “the hired person,” not paid to collaborate. Even though Black Francis seemed to like her work — repeatedly saying, “‘This feels like a real band,’” she recalled — Shattuck believes she was sacked because the Pixies’ other members and manager disapproved of her ebullient stage antics.
“They’re really into their image,” she said. “Even though they thought I was showing off, I wasn’t. I was into it.” In the Muffs, “we’re more of a democracy; we write our own parts. What happens more often is I’ll write a song I really like at the time. They’ll like it more than me. Then I get tired of the song. I hate the song. That spurs them on to like it even more.”
Being a Pixie wasn’t a waste of time for Shattuck, who learned “how to be a side person,” she said.
“We got good press when she joined; we got a bunch of press about how she got kicked out,” Barnett said.
Also getting good press is The Muffs’ new album, released on Cherry Red Records in the U.K., where NME called “Whoop” “equal parts The Runaways and Weezer, but still going, and still good.”
On the album’s penultimate track, “Lay Down,” Shattuck’s voice streams over the controlled chaos that is the song’s roiling bed of music. “Take A Take A Me” is The Muffs at their most Joan Jett, set to cheerleader rhythms with cowboy guitar licks.
Shattuck “was trying to write a hip hop song. That’s as hip hop as we get,” Barnett said.
There’s also the slow burning “Up and Down Around,” and Shattuck/Barnett’s X-ish punk duet “I Get It.”
“Whoop Dee Doo” contains no less than three loser-boy anthems: first single “Weird Boy Next Door,” “Because You’re Sad,” and “Cheezy” (Barnett hated the latter’s title, which Shattuck reinstated last minute after agreeing to sing “Easy.”)
Shattuck, a Glendale resident, won’t identify these songs’ subjects — only allowing that rager “Weird Boy,” punctuated by Shattuck’s Sam Kinison primal scream, was written while witnessing a former Valley neighbor “hitting [his own] garage door with a baseball bat. Who does that?!”
She confirms that these songs aren’t about her husband, whom she’s been with since 2000 and for whom she wrote the record’s sincere closing track, “Forever,” a musical declaration of love (her first) that, like many songs on “Whoop,” recasts the Phil Spector girl groups in a harder rock mold.
Perhaps because Green Day embraced the group, The Muffs have been likened to everything from pop-punk to grunge to grrrl groups and oddball rock genre-mashers like Weezer.
“We’ve always been lumped into different groups, but we never really fit in. Like grunge,” said Shattuck, adding that she actually thrives on British Invasion (the Kinks, the Who circa 1965-67) and Mersey Beat bands more than the Spector-produced girl groups. She finds grunge source bands such as Detroit’s MC5 “completely dull” and only likes the Ramones’ more bubble gum songs.
“We were compared to the Ramones [and their three-chord sound] a lot. I used to get mad. We were doing a lot of chords all over the place,” she said.
These days, Shattuck mostly listens to jazz greats such as Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughn because of how far removed they are from her genre.
“I don’t claim to understand [jazz]. I can listen to it in a way that’s fun instead of in a critical way,” she said.
Barnett attributes The Muff’s 23-year longevity to appealing to fans of the very genres and scenes they don’t fit into.
“You can go to Tokyo with us in two months and see how adoring they are of us. We have touched people.”
The Muffs play from 8 to 9 p.m. Saturday at Record Surplus, 12436 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. Free. (310) 979-4577; recordsurplusla.com