LA’s Favorite Power-Pop Trio on the Secrets of Longevity
I’m sitting with Kim Shattuck, lead singer, guitarist and songwriter for The Muffs, the power pop trio from Los Angeles. With Kim are longtime band mates, bassist Ronnie Barnett and drummer Roy McDonald.
Kim continues, “At CBGB, the bathroom stalls didn’t close all the way, so you kind of had to hold the door. And one time, I was taking a shit and the door pushes open and there’s a girl standing there holding our record and a Sharpie. ‘Can I have your autograph?’ I’m like, ‘I’m taking a shit right now. After I’m done with my shit and I wash my hands.’ I was taking a shit! That was just weird!”
I’ve been a fan of The Muffs since their eponymous release in 1993, drawn by the power of their staccato pop songs, catchy lyrics and of course, Kim Shattuck’s sweet voice and guttural trademark scream. I’ve always associated their brand of rock and roll – equal parts garage rock and power pop – with their native Southern California, along with girl groups, music to drink beer to and play in the car while driving to the beach, windows down, singing along at the top of your lungs.
Formed in 1992, I ask them about the key to their longevity.
“We’re like a family,” Kim explains. “We’ve only made 6 albums in 25 years.”
“There’s not a lot of filler or stop-gap releases,” Ronnie adds. Roy confirms that it’s “six proper albums.”
Despite long breaks between releases, The Muffs remain engaged in the music world as a band that tours on a semi-regular basis, whether or not they have a new record to promote. I caught up with them before the second night of their sold-out stand at Union Pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Interviewing the band is a bit like herding cats, but we managed to cover a number of topics.
TM: Besides being on a limited tour this summer, what have you been up to?
Kim: We’ve been pokin’ around!
Ronnie: We poke around these days.
Kim: We’re learning new songs and playing them live, cuz we’re brave and we don’t care what the audience likes. But it turns out they like the new stuff. We’re noticing how they listen and learn and like.
TM: How many new songs are you putting into your set?
Roy: Probably like three.
Kim: Three and then a rotating 4th.
Ronnie: Let’s do that 4th one tonight.
Kim: Yeah, let’s do it tonight, instead of the other one. The first night I fucked it up, but no one noticed because it’s new. It’s not even recorded.
TM: I always associate The Muffs with Southern California. Is that where you’re from originally?
Kim: I grew up in Orange County, south of Los Angeles and then I moved to LA and I’ve been there ever since.
Roy: I grew up in Southern California, the San Gabriel Valley.
Ronnie: I grew up in Houston – played in a couple bands in high school, but gave it up. I became a journalist. That’s what I thought I would do. But then I met Kim in 1986 and we stayed friends.
Kim: We were pen pals!
Ronnie: And then we re-met in 1989, on tour, and we…
Kim: And we hooked up!
Ronnie: Yeah, we became a couple and I decided to move to LA. Yeah, basically, I gave up my life to move to California to follow my girlfriend.
Kim: Then we started a band!
Ronnie: Then she quit her band [The Pandoras] about a year later. I remember at the time, I said, “You can’t quit!”
Kim: Ronnie doesn’t like change…
TM: Kim – I want to ask you about The Pandoras, but I’ve got a couple other questions first. As I was growing up in the Midwest, my view of Southern California was formed by the Brady Bunch, The Beach Boys, The Mamas and the Papas and the Manson Family. How far off is that from reality?
Roy: That’s about right!
Ronnie: Back then that was reality!
Kim: Yeah, that was basically what it was like. Then the Seventies happened. I was in school so I didn’t really pay attention. Then there was that kind of “New Wavey/punk vibe” that we liked, but I didn’t dress like a goon or anything.
TM: As young kids, you recognized there was a great music scene happening in Los Angeles in the late 1970s?
Roy: Oh, totally. Hollywood was like a kingdom that you wanted to go to. We lived in the suburbs. Kim and I probably lived probably 45 minutes from Hollywood, where everything was happening.
Kim: When I think about that time in LA, I think about X, The Go-Gos and the Bangles and other bands I started liking when I was in high school. We had the clubs we liked to go to and hang out and be goofy and pee on people’s front lawns. All that early young stuff that people do.
Roy: I remember going to a club to see the Kingbees and they cancelled and the Blasters played instead. We’d never heard of them. This was before the first Slash album came out. I’m in high school and John Doe and Exene [Cervenka] were there, and three members of The Go-Gos were there and I was star-struck. It was like seeing The Rolling Stones walk by.
Ronnie: There were good scenes everywhere when that LA scene was going on, that’s just music.
Roy: You’d read about all these great records, then go to record stores to try to find them.
Ronnie: I remember having to trade to get Stooges records, New York Dolls records, MC5 – that stuff was all out of print in 1980.
TM: Kim, when did you first pick up the guitar?
Kim: Around 1982. I was a slow learner, not coordinated. I started writing really terrible songs – really bad, bad songs. I’d get really frustrated and I’d throw it on the ground, I would stomp on it. I wrote a song called “On My Own,” that I played for my mom. She cried.
Then one day, I wrote this song called “Everywhere I Go,” the first song I really, really liked. I worked really hard at it. I was really driven to do it. To this day when I write a song I like, I’m really excited. It’s what keeps me going.
TM: Before you formed The Muffs, you were in the Pandoras, an all-girl group, fronted by the late Paula Pierce. What year did you join the group?
Kim: The summer of 1985.
TM: Didn’t the Pandoras start out as a garage rock band?
Kim: I always thought of the Pandoras as caveman garage rock. Then, somewhere along the line, Paula changed our sound…to bad metal. I was horrified; I hated it. So I learned “What Not To Do In A Band,” like change your sound that severely, to where it’s one kind of music, then another. It alienates every single person who ever liked your band.”
TM: Did you write any songs for the Pandoras?
Kim: When I joined the band, Paula let it be known she was the only songwriter, which I got. I totally got that. But I kept a diary from that time, which I read recently. It’s so embarrassing! I wrote something like, “OK, I’m in the Pandoras now and it’s really cool, but I’m just biding my time until I can have my own band and write my own songs!”
Roy: That’s cool! You should take a picture of that page and put it on Instagram or something!
Kim: “I’m just using this as a stepping-stone!”
Granted, Kim was joking, but she did actually use the Pandoras to gain the experience and confidence needed to start a band of her own. Along with fellow ex-Pandora, keyboardist Melanie Vammen, Kim formed The Muffs in 1991. They quickly added Ronnie Barnett and drummer Chris Crass to round out the band. After putting out number of singles on both the Sub Pop and Sympathy For the Record Industry labels “The Muffs,” their first album came out in 1993 on Warner Brothers.
TM: I would contest that the opening song “Lucky Guy” ranks right up there with The Stooges’ “1969” as being one of the best opening tracks on a first album ever!
TM: Did you know with that song and album that you had something special?
Ronnie: That song came along about eight months into us playing – it was kind of the second wave of songs we were learning – and yeah, we knew it was a special song.
Kim: We knew it was good, yeah. I remember the first time we played it – at Al’s Bar in LA. I said, “This is a new song…Sorry! You’ll like it later!”
Roy: I remember hearing it. I had moved to Dallas and was working in a used record store. They’d asked me to be in the band. I was working with Criss Crass. I said no.
Kim: ‘Cuz you were moving.
Roy: Not because I was moving….
Kim: You didn’t trust my songwriting would be good….
Ronnie: No, at the time, a band with two ex-Pandoras and one of their boyfriends wasn’t exactly the handsomest of offers.
Roy: And the two Pandoras are playing instruments they hadn’t played in the Pandoras, so I was thinking “What is this gonna be like?”
Ronnie: And he used to fuck one of them…
Kim: And it wasn’t me!
Roy: [stumbling] They were like, “It’s gonna be a punk rock band!” and I was thinking, “You know….”
Ronnie: “Dallas looks pretty good!”
Roy: It was just very complicated, but I was working with Criss Crass and told him, “This might be something…” [Crass ended up as the Muffs first drummer.] Later on, I heard the singles and thought, “Wow, I guess they’re a legitimate band! Then I remember the album coming into the store on Warner Brothers, and I’m like “I guess I blew it!” Then I put it on and “Lucky Guy” comes on and I thought, “Oh my God, what have I done? I made the biggest mistake of my life!”
TM: What happened to Criss?
Kim: He and I got into a fight over the phone and he goes, “Fine, I quit!” and it was right before a tour.
Ronnie: Ten days before our tour.
Kim: So the engineer of our first record, Brian Kehew recommended his friend, Jim Laspesa, who was an amazing drummer. He worked out really, really well
TM: Can you talk about how you met Roy?
Kim: Roy’s band, The Things were the opening band at my first show with the Pandoras. I sat there transfixed by Roy’s drumming. I didn’t even hear one single song. I was watching him drum. And I wasn’t watching him to fuck him. I was watching him because I couldn’t believe the quality of his drumming. That night, I was like “When I have my own band, I’m getting Roy to drum!” That was my goal. He was my bucket-list drummer!
Roy: I was playing in a bunch of bands that were trying to be Soundgarden. We kind of came out of the Paisley Underground. Well the second wave of the Paisley Underground was much more garage sounding.
TM: Did you ever consider your sound anything akin to punk rock?
Kim: I don’t even really like punk rock that much. But I like the Ramones; I like melodic stuff. I like the Ramones influences, like the Ronettes and the Beatles. I don’t consider us punk rock, but whatever you wanna call us, who cares? It’s no sweat off my back, you know?
TM: How do you explain your staying power?
Kim: I think we’ve been together so long because we’re genuinely fond of each other. We also don’t follow trends. We have our own thing. If you follow trends, you’re done.
Ronnie: The label kind of left us alone.
Roy: I don’t know if we would have survived success – if we’d still be together. I think it would have been very tough on us.
Kim: We’ve built a tight, loyal audience.
TM: Do the Muffs have anything to say to the readers of PLEASE KILL ME.COM?
Kim: Always tell the truth. It’s more fun that way. Lying is so boring.
The Muffs (with new tambourine player) (Left to Right: Roy McDonald, Kim Shattuck, Todd McGovern, Ronnie Barnett) Photos by Kim Shattuck
TM: Last question – What are ten fun facts that Please Kill Me readers should know about The Muffs?
• Roy is deathly afraid of rats.
• Ronnie bites his nails constantly.
• Kim does most of her social media posts while pooping in the toilet.
• Roy used to be in his high school marching band.
• Growing up in Texas, Ronnie had a nanny who chewed tobacco.
• All 3 Muffs members are Democrats and hate Donald Trump.
• Kim tells the truth at totally inappropriate times.
• The Muffs members always text each other after every show and compliment each other on a job well done.
• None of the 3 members of the Muffs have any tattoos
• When Kim messes up a solo, the rest of the band dissolves into hysterical laughter.
Todd McGovern is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY.