It’s hard to not have a good time when interviewing Kim Shattuck, the lead singer of punk rock power trio The Muffs, the band she formed in 1991 with her best friend and former Pandoras bandmate Melanie Vammen, her then-boyfriend Ronnie Barnett, and drummer Chris Crass. She’s funny, has crazy stories, and is a load of fun—not unlike her music. This year saw the reissue of the band’s seminal, breakthrough album Blonder & Blonder, a delightful romp of a record that still excites this listener twenty-one years later We were happy to sit down with her and talk about the making of this great record, some of the stresses that took place behind the scenes, and about life in the band during a time when the mainstream music world was starting to appreciate punk rock in a much more meaningful way, thanks to the success of their friends and label mates, Green Day.
Coming off the end of The Muffs, on appearance sake, you guys were in a good place. You finally got moved over to Reprise, which was a move you wanted to make.
When we went from Warners to Reprise, it was great. They had great publicity people, they had a whole other staff, and they’d done such a great job with Green Day, we thought they’d do better with us, too. We actually shared the same management as Green Day, so we asked them to get them on Reprise, so we can use that little boat label on our record, and we’d be cool! We liked the staff over there, they were the cool kids, and they got us. Warners, they were great, but we kinda thought they were a little lost as to how to market us. With Reprise, they were fans of the band. We’d see ‘em at our shows, and we liked the people over there.
But like you said, things weren’t necessarily great behind the scenes. We had quite a bit of drama going on around then, back in 1994 and 1995. We split with Melanie, who’d been with us since the beginning, and she was my best friend, so it was hard. Before that, we’d got rid of Chris Cross, but losing him, we sort of saw it coming he was very intense, but he didn’t feel like a team player. I don’t have anything against him, and he was a fun and entertaining guy, but behind the scenes it got too trying, and he just wasn’t working out. Melanie, she was going through a bunch of drama in her personal life, and it was spilling over into the band, and it was making things hard, and then she split.
So now we were a three piece, but you know, I think it worked out for the best! (Laughs) At the time, I was so upset about losing Melanie, and I didn’t think we’d be the same band without her. I hadn’t really thought about us becoming a power trio, and initially, I didn’t think we’d work that way. I was wrong! (Laughs) I hadn’t expected it to gel, but I quickly fell in love with it. It kind of forced me to step up as a guitar player. Every lead I would do was no longer backed up with a rhythm guitar, so I had to up my game, and when I look back at the challenge it presented, I realize how much of a positive influence these negative things had on me as a songwriter, and for the band as a whole.
When you formed The Muffs, it seemed very much to be you and Melanie (with Ronnie helping) against the world. When she left, did you ever entertain thoughts of just splitting The Muffs, because she’d been so central to the formation in the first place, as you did it because you wanted to be in a band with her?
No, and the reason why was because we were getting to make a record, so as a band, we were quite focused. This breakup happened right as we were getting ready to go into the studio—literally a week or two weeks before. In fact, her boyfriend who is now her husband was working with us in the studio as a guitar tech, so it was pretty awkward there for a time! (Laughs) But as time marched on, Melanie and I reunited as friends, and we love each other. Life is too short; she was my best friend in The Pandoras, and when she left, I really missed her, but then we reunited as friends again and then as bandmates, and that’s really made things wonderful, having her around again.
Blonder and Blonder was finished; we were learning all that material with Melanie, so I just went in and did her parts. It was just rhythm, so it was pretty easy for me.Melanie had a big sound, and she had that amazing Big Muff pedal. Without her, our sound suddenly sounded cleaner, and not necessarily polished, but that grunge-y sound was gone, because that was all her. In fact, I borrowed that pedal a few years ago because I wanted to capture that sound again—I love it, it’s so loud and potent and dirty. But that was all Melanie. We didn’t have that on Blonder & Blonder, and without her, the album got much more poppy, and the songs are a lot faster, too.
I think that has to do a lot more with us not having played out a lot when we wrote our early songs; after the debut came out, we toured a lot, so that obviously had an impact on how we wrote.
In fact, I think we probably toured too much. It was fun at first, but it started to take its toll on us, especially on Melanie. I didn’t mind it so much at first, but then it just got so old. When we started to make Blonder & Blonder, we sort of decided that hey, we aren’t going to tour as much as we had with our first record, and we didn’t tour as much as we had previously—we wound up touring more than we had before! (Laughs)
In our last conversation, we discussed how you felt like your debut suffered from too many cooks trying to help out. How, then, was the recording process for Blonder & Blonder, and how did you protect yourself from falling into the same trap this time around?
For Blonder & Blonder, It was more a case of me and Rob Cavallo and Jerry Finn making the lion share of the decision. It was an interesting time, because while we were making it, Rob was away quite a bit; he had an A&R position at Reprise, and with the success of Green Day and Dookie, there were times he was on the phone a lot. It came down to me and Jerry Finn during the tracking, so I started to get a sense of how my records should be produced. I knew how I wanted our music to sound, and now I was starting to learn the technical way of getting that sound I wanted. Rob was still the main producer, even though he was super-busy, and I learned quite a bit from him.
While we were making Blonder & Blonder, I sort of realized that I needed to take charge of things, because, well, producers are annoying as fuck! (Laughs) Sorry, Rob! (Laughs)
I’m the sort of person who doesn’t like to be told what to do, and I’m not exactly open to other people’s ideas, especially if they’re someone I don’t really know that well. I’m kind of controlling that way. When Rob started to tell me this and that, I was like, “Shut up, I don’t care!” (Laughs)
I was kinda tough that way! But now that I’m older, I’m much more open to other people’s ideas, not the stubborn thirty year old punk rocker I was then. Thankfully, I’ve matured, and I take things a lot more open-minded than I used to. I could be difficult! (Laughs)
Did you have a lot more fun making Blonder & Blonder?
Oh god, yeah. It was a lot more fun, but not as much fun as it is now when we get together. What was great was that we got to record the album in this really, really amazing studio, Ocean Way, a place where some great and important music was recorded. It is such a wonderful studio with an important place in music history, and it was so nice. It was really an honor to get to record there. We worked in a handful of other studios too. It was a lot more fun, yeah.
I’m sure Reprise stayed the fuck out of the studio this time around—none of the pressure like Warners did.
Yeah, that’s one of the reasons we wanted to switch to them, because they had a tendency to trust their artists. One of the things all musicians and artists want is artistic control, with little to no interference. We saw our friends Mudhoney making the same sort of records and being left alone, so we wanted that, too. We hated the way things had gone down in the studio when we made our first record. Everyone came into the studio and felt the need to “contribute” to what it would sound like: Rob Cavallo, David Katznelson, the band members, the studio techs…even the janitor! (Laughs) It was very frustrating.
For Blonder & Blonder, we laid down a ground rule that only three people would be able to work on the mix: only me, Rob, and Jerry would do so, though Jerry wasn’t given a final say. Roy and Ronnie also weighed in, of course, but I tended to disregard their opinions! (Laughs) In fact, the album wound up sounding way too guitar heavy, and that’s entirely my fault.
But I don’t really think that’s a bad thing, because Blonder & Blonder is a great guitar record; it’s loud, it’s rockin’, and it’s fun!
That’s true! I was proud of it when it came out, as it was the first thing I had my hand in producing, but now that I’m more experienced at recording, I tend to prefer the bass and drums to be a bit higher in the mix. Everything needs to be loud, not just the guitars. Perfectionist me can get nit-picky about things like that, but hey, you live and learn. You have to remember that you shouldn’t beat yourself up over something absolutely no one but you hears, because ultimately, nobody cares! (Laughs) Sometimes the musician just has to get over it.
When you talk about everyone feeling the need to help out with your first record, do you think that part of it came down to you guys being a band fronted by a woman, because they didn’t think you knew what you were doing?
You know, I normally don’t like to go there with my opinions; I don’t like it when others take on a victim mentality about being a female; I simply am a female. I enjoy being a girl! But honestly, I would say that there may have been some of that at play, but if it was, it was never that overt. I’know it happens, and I know The Pandoras had a few experiences with that as well. But I’d also like to say to that point, well…I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing! (Laughs) I had big, grandiose opinions about things without a lot of knowledge behind it. It was more about gumption, and I am very Type A. I would just blast my way doing things without a lot of experience, and when these guys would help me, I looked at it from the point of learning how to accomplish my goals, and not a reflection of a dude mentality, even if it might have been lurking underneath the surface. I was a loud, proud, and bombastic punk rocker who knew what she wanted and wasn’t subtle about saying so. (Laughs) I like to think I have a little more finesse.
You, bombastic and opinionated? Why, I’ve never…
(Laughs) I know! I know!
With the success of Green Day and Dookie, did you find that Reprise was sort of eyeing you keenly, with the idea of replicating their international success with Blonder & Blonder.
Oh, I’m sure our managers did, because when you look at our team, you can see the common links: we shared the same managers, we shared the same label, we shared the same A&R, and hell, we shared the same producer. But we had a lot of those people on our team well before Green Day even signed. For them, it came down to them being super-duper talented, and they composed a really amazing album. They got lucky; the stars aligned in just the most perfect way for them. Success comes down to something that you can’t codify, really, and though we had almost the same formula they did behind the scenes, things didn’t work out that way for us.
But that’s fine; I’m totally fine with it. We went in and we made the best album we could make with the best songs we’d written, and it’s a really great record. Success, you know, it’s a big gamble. You record your album, you hand it over to the label, and the label releases it to the world. You have no idea how it’s going to be received, if it’s going to be a multiplatinum success or it will go straight to the cutout bin. It wasn’t for lack of trying on either the label’s part or the band’s part; they promoted, we toured, and that’s all you can do, really—after all that, it all relies on the audience and the record-buying public. We gave the world some great stuff, and they liked it.
I also should say that Green Day, they were as surprised at Dookie’s success as anyone. It was a huge shock for them—a very good shock, mind you, but the massive success took them by surprise—and they found that fame was not without its own set of problems, too.
Was “Sad Tomorrow” the type of song that one hears for the first time and says, “That’s the single!”
The radio department, when they heard the album, wanted “Red Eyed Troll” to be the lead single, and we were like, what? (Laughs) I wanted “Agony” to be the single, and they were like, “We really think that ‘Red Eyed Troll’ is the way to go,” and I said no—people would have thought we were cowpunk! I think Rob suggested “Sad Tomorrow,” so we agreed with that, begrudgingly. We were hesitant because we didn’t think we should release a ballad as a single! (Laughs) Rob and David were like, “But dude, that’s not a ballad!” I can see that now…
But bombastic and opinionated Kim…
She thought it was a ballad! (Laughs) Of course it’s not a ballad, but that’s how I thought.
And the video you made for it is delightful.
I look like a kabuki! (Laughs) I know exactly what happened. I wore a lot of makeup, and they had me way too close to the ring light. I was so close to it that my makeup started to glow! (Laughs) But you know, it looks kinda cool, even though it was totally weird and unexpected.
I love making videos. We get all these people fawning over us, it’s nice. When I showed up to the set of “Sad Tomorrow,” I was surprised at how many people were there—cops, vendors, makeup tents, food everywhere—it was crazy! I had no idea it was going to be such a big to-do. All the other videos we’d made before then were done really on a budget, made by friends, and mainly was one person with a camera telling us what to do. For the first record, the label hadn’t really wanted a video, but now they did. It was a massive undertaking and crazy expensive—came out of our budget, of course. When we got together and saw the final cut, I freaked out about my kabuki-looking face. I was like, “Seriously? I look like THAT? I want to reshoot the video!!!” They said, “No, we can’t do that, you can’t afford it.” (Laughs) I hated hearing that. Boo! (Laughs) But I love it now. I thought that people would think I was the punk rock version of Gene Simmons, thanks to that kabuki look! (Laughs)
The other notable thing about Blonder & Blonder is you finally picked up a drummer. Think that guy’s gonna work out?
(Laughs) Roy McDonald! Yeah, we love Roy—he’s amazing! He’s the best drummer I’ve ever met in my entire life. I think he’s gonna work out. (Laughs) Bands always worry about revolving door drummers thanks to Spinal Tap, but we got really lucky. We had Criss Crass, and then we had Jim Laspesa fill in after Criss. He was in the band for about a year, but mainly as our live drummer. He’s a great guy, but he’s more of a session and touring drummer. We found Roy and had him when we started recording Blonder & Blonder. We learned some of the songs with Jim, but decided it would be easier to do them with Roy. He learned the songs really fast; Jim was in the band until mid-1994, and we started recording the album two or three months later. Roy really clicked with our style, which made him a keeper. He’s a quick learner, that new guy! (Laughs) I really love his style, and he inspired a bunch of songs thanks to his pattern of drumming. When I wrote “Red Eyed Troll,” I wrote that song totally with him in mind.
After going in and recording the album, did it come out the way you wanted it?
For the most part, yeah. We went in and mastered it and played with the mix, and I thought it sounded good, but for some reason I thought it didn’t sound quite right. Of course now that I’m more experienced, I know it’s because I didn’t have the bass and the drum up high enough. But I’m not so bothered by how it sounds—I realize now that producing is one of those things you just have to learn as you go, you can only learn certain things from experience. Since I’m such a perfectionist, I’m always sort of dissatisfied with little things, but when I like something, I love it. I remember hearing a playback of “End It All,” and I was like, “oh my god, it’s perfect!” People in the room were like, “Wow, she thinks something’s perfect!” (Laughs) That’s like the perfect recording of the perfect Muffs song.
A song about a blue-haired girl who hung herself at a party. That’s kind of rude of her…
I love that song so much. Too bad for the girl, obviously—I don’t know what the deal was with her. I remember her from hanging out, she didn’t seem troubled to me, but that’s a pretty insane thing to do. I got a good song out of it…selfishly! (Laughs)
Blonder & Blonder comes out, and you guys hit the road, for what, two years?
It wasn’t quite that long, but oh god, it was endless. It felt like forever. We don’t tour as long as Aerosmith, but for me, touring is rough, and for us it’s not as posh as it would be for Aerosmith. We’re in a big van, we’re staying at kinda cheap hotels, and we’re playing club gigs, but not too many big theater gigs. We went on our own tour first, and then we hooked up with Veruca Salt and toured with them for a long time, and played a few bigger places thanks to that. Then we got home for about ten minutes and then went back out with The Queers and Chixdiggit That tour was a lot of fun, it was kinda crazy, but it was a real blast.
But it can be draining. We toured America, which is a lot of work, and then we went straight over to Europe and toured over there for a long while, with no break between them. Then we came back to America and toured it again, and we did it with almost no break. By the time it was over, we were just so tired and beat up.
Was this extra touring due in part to the success of “Kids In America?” It was a hit single, after all, so you gotta promote it.
You know, that may be! I had never thought about it like that. Even though we never released a physical single for it, it was still a huge number for us, and got played on the radio based on the success of the film.
We did that song while we were on tour, and I remember it well how it came about. We had a big, huge carphone in our van, and it was only because Howie Klein wanted to call us. He was the president of Reprise, and if he wanted to get in touch with his artists, he wanted to be able to call them right then. We were told not to use it because it was extremely expensive, but if we had known we could have used it we would have crank-called everyone. (Laughs) So we couldn’t use it unless Howie called.
So he calls us and he tells us we have a chance to do one of three songs for this movie coming out. One was “Kids In America,” one was “All By Myself,” the song by Eric Carmen, and the other was some really shitty song that some songwriter wrote, and it sounded really dumb. Howie Fed-Ex-ed us a cassette with these songs on them, and we picked “Kids In America” because it was the least dumb song on the tape. I loved “All By Myself” but Babes in Toyland had recorded a version of it, and we didn’t want to do it because me and Kat both wore collared dresses onstage, and people would make these faux feuds around stupid, superficial commonalities. We liked them and we didn’t want to do anything to cause people to compare us to them. We listened to the bad original song over and over and over, and we were just laughing and making fun of it, it was so bad.
So we agreed to do a song, because, hey, the president of Reprise wanted us to. We get to New York, and we have a few days off. Howie arranged for us to record at Electric Ladyland, and we went in and knocked it out in a day or two. We hand the song over and then go back on tour. We didn’t think anything of it; it was just another quickie cover. Then the movie comes out, and people loved that song, and it became our most successful number, which kind of sucks, because we didn’t write it! (Laughs) It’s so typical, isn’t it? The one song you don’t write becomes your most popular number, so we never played it. But in retrospect, I think we probably should have played it, and gotten over ourselves. (Laughs)
So, ultimately, Blonder & Blonder was a really good time for you guys.
It really was. We have a lot of funny stories and fun memories. It was fun to see ourselves on MTV the two times they played us! (Laughs) We were on tour and our manager told us that they were going to show us that night, so we sat around this crappy TV in some cheap hotel, waiting for it to come on, us, the crew, and the other bands, just hanging out and having a good time. All that money for nothing! (Laughs)
So what was the craziest thing that happened during that time?
Oh, where to begin? (Laughs) There was quite a bit of drama going on due to some antics and crazy things I would do. When we were on tour with The Queers, we were in Alabama, and we were staying at this multi-storied hotel. I was three sheets to the wind, and I go back to my room, and I threw a TV out of the window, because I couldn’t get it to work—probably because I was too drunk to get it to work! (Laughs) I threw it off the balcony, and the crew guys saw it and were like, “Kim, come to our room now!” The crew didn’t check in with us, so we thought the hotel people wouldn’t know we were together.
I’m sitting there in their room, worrying about being in trouble, regretting doing it, and the next thing we know, the cops have completely surrounded the place. We look out of the window, and it’s just crawling with police. The Queers had been next door at the Waffle House, and they said the cops had searched them; they had gone around knocking on doors, looking for the blonde lady. They’d gone to Ronnie and Roy’s room. They’d been sitting around with some folks, talking about some things that we’d done on our last tour, when the police showed up. That freaked them out, because it was just so perfectly perfect that they’re talking about my antics, and the cops show up looking for me! (Laughs) They told the cops they hadn’t seen me.
So the police are looking for me, and the manager is in the lobby, offering to pay for the TV. I went to my room—and this just sounds so stupid, but it’s true—I was looking for my teddy bear, and I couldn’t find him! I didn’t know where it was, I was freaking out! (Laughs) And what do I do? I call the lobby, because I’m too drunk to remember Ronnie and Roy’s room number. I call right when the tour manager’s paying for the TV I just broke; he’s telling them he doesn’t know where I am, and I’m thinking I’m hiding from the cops, and I just let them know where I was! (Laughs)
I get arrested, and they take me to jail. As a handcuffed person, I would compare myself to Frances Farmer. I was just nuts. I was yelling and cursing and spitting and struggling, I must have looked totally insane. I wasn’t the type of person to go, (launches into hilarious sad drunk voice) “Ohhhh, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that. I feel sooooo bad, please take me back, I don’t want to go to jail, I am scared!” I wasn’t that person. No, I was the “FUCK YOU, I”m not sorry blah blah blah SCREW YOU PUNK ROCK AND ROCK AND ROLL” angry as a hornet person.
They weren’t having any of it. They take me into the station, I get my mugshot taken, I get fingerprinted, and they throw me in the tank with a bunch of prostitutes. Cool prostitutes as well—they were really, really nice people. I’m in my stage clothes, with cuts and tears all up and down the back of my legs for some reason, and a bunch of cool, funny prostitutes. And even then, they’re looking at me like I’m some sort of mad woman, wondering what the hell I am about. Horrifying, but funny.
When I was in the jail, they started handing everybody toothpaste and toothbrushes. It was confusing. One of the prostitutes said, “You need to get rid of that whiskey breath, honey, because you are gonna go see the judge!” She told me to do what I do…and then she proceeded to put toothpaste all over her face! No way was I going to do that, I told her. “You got stinky whiskey breath, girl” Turns out she was more insane than I thought.
The tour manager shows up, and eventually bails me out that morning. Ronnie and Roy were like, “Yeah, you tried to call us, but we really didn’t want to have anything to do with you right then.” And I’m like, you made me sit in jail overnight? They said they were really mad at me and I had to learn my lesson. I didn’t learn it, obviously, because the crazy, opinionated blond lady’s antics continued unabated for the rest of the tour. (Laughs)
Blonder & Blonder was a good time for us. We were very proud of our work. Even if I’m a perfectionist and it doesn’t sound quite right, I’m still happy with it; it was our best work up to that point. The boys probably rolled their eyes and thought, “Shut the fuck up, it’s perfect,” but the thing about the three of us that’s really cool is we’re very tight as a family unit, and we can tell each other the truth, even when it’s not what we want to hear, and we’re cool with that. We’re very fond of each other, we’re family. We’ve stayed together for twenty years, so I think we must like each other a little bit, right? (Laughs)
We hope you enjoyed this conversation, and we’d like to bring you more of the same. You can help us achieve that goal by donating to our Patreon campaign.
Categories: A Conversation With...