On and on
The Muffs' singer-guitarist Kim Shattuck is careful not to sound too arrogant when discussing how big a part she's played in the recording of her band's four albums, including the recent Alert Today Alive Tomorrow, released in June on Fat Wreck Chords offshot Honest Don's Recordings. While Alert Today is the first disc to list Shattuck's name as producer, she's always held the job, even while Rob Cavallo -- best known for his work with Green Day -- took most of the credit. Yet when she clears up that misconception, she doesn't seem to feel bitter or slighted, although maybe she should, since Cavallo basically made his name as a producer based on his work with The Muffs, using the tips he picked up working in the studio with Shattuck to turn Green Day into platinum punks. But she just laughs it off, giggling in a voice that is far removed from the throaty screech that has appeared on every Muffs album since their 1993 self-titled debut.
Maybe she is mindful of her early years with the band, when drummer Criss Crass and guitarist Melanie Vammen left the group after its first album because they felt The Muffs had become too much about Shattuck, a charge she insists is not true. And even if Crass and Vammen's reasons for leaving the group were valid, it doesn't matter much. Now a trio, with bassist Ronnie Barnett and ex-Redd Kross drummer (and onetime Pagan Rhythms employee) Roy McDonald joining Shattuck, The Muffs have only gotten better with each successive release, one-upping themselves each time out, though the band has never enjoyed the success its less talented peers have achieved. (Courtney Love couldn't come up with songs as breezy and ballsy as Shattuck no matter who's writing them for her.) Blonder and Blonder, released in 1995, was too smart to catch on with the mallrats who believed Billie Joe Armstrong invented punk rock. Reprise Records cut the legs off 1997's Happy Birthday to Me while it was still in the starting blocks, abandoning the disc before the first shipment had returned from the pressing plant.
Shattuck has laughed that off as well, preferring to concentrate on making albums rather than worry about who is or isn't releasing them. With a budget reined in by a return to the indie ranks, Alert Today Alive Tomorrow delivers twice the goods at less than half the price, bounding from bedroom pop ("Prettier Than Me") to sock-hop screamers ("Blow Your Mind"). After almost a decade together, The Muffs have finally created in Alert Today an album that will stop short-sighted critics from dismissing the band as little more than Joan Jett fronting the Ramones, a comparison Shattuck has never completely understood. But, as with most things, she shrugs off the misguided similes. She probably knows she'll have the last laugh anyway. And with Alert Today, that is definitely the case.
Dallas Observer: Did the release of the album get thrown off by Reprise Records' dropping the band?
Kim Shattuck: No...that didn't take so long. We got all of that out of the way really quick. But everything just took so long. I don't know why. There was this one dumpy-ass place we started in, and we had to leave because they sucked so bad. They threatened to sue us. I'm like, "Come on, you guys suck. Go away. We're not going to record at your shitty old place." We were there for two weeks, and it totally threw us for a loop. One day, I just couldn't take it anymore, and I fell asleep in this depressed nap, which I do if I'm really depressed and I don't know what to do. But when I wake up...I know what to do. So I woke up and said, "OK, are these problems going to be fixed?" And they said [in a dopey voice], "Well, we're working on it...." So I started packing up my stuff. "I'm leaving, and I'm not coming back." They were pissed. But I did the right thing.
DO: You said after Happy Birthday to Me came out that you wouldn't produce another album yourself.
KS: Well, it wasn't by myself. I co-produced it. [Laughs.] Steve Holroyd, who was our engineer last time, for part of the time, anyway -- we produced it together. We toyed with the idea of bringing in a producer, but I swear to God, I was going to have to fight with somebody again. I know exactly what I want it to sound like. As it turned out, me and Steve fought somewhat. It got quite frustrating at times, because you're together every day, constantly. I think he was kind of mad that I was pretty much running the show for a while. Like, he didn't think I was listening to his ideas. I didn't think he was coming up with any ideas. I guess my protocol is a little weird. I just bulldoze ahead and do things at my own speed.
DO: How did you end up on Honest Don's? The Muffs don't seem to fit in at that label.
KS: I sang on a NOFX song awhile ago, and then we played with them one time, and I sang onstage with them one time. So, that's about it. We didn't know each other very well or anything. But Erin, who is [Fat Wreck Chords owner] Fat Mike's wife and pretty much runs the label, she really likes our band and wanted to sign us. We said all right. Everything was really cool, like much cooler than a major label, over there. Way more efficiently run than Reprise or Warner Bros. It's weird after being in the red-tape machine for so long to realize that, oh, yeah, things can get done quicker. Even though it did take a long time for our album to come out once we made it, but that was more because everyone was like, "The timing's all wrong." Oh God. Timing, schmiming. Who cares? And I like that we don't fit in there. I'm not too much for conformity. I'd much rather be the only band on a label that thinks like we do.
DO: Was there anything you intentionally avoided on this album?
KS: I try not to listen to music while I'm writing, because I don't want to be like The Offspring and rip everyone off. [Laughs.] Or Sarah McLachlan.
DO: But she would only have to listen to one of her songs to write 10 more just like it.
KS: I know. Oh man, that would suck so bad. And then I would become fat like her. [Laughs.] Well, beforehand, just for fun, I did start listening to a lot of jazz and big-band stuff. But that had no bearing on what we were doing whatsoever, I don't think. But I just knew that I wanted to write stuff that was a little bit different, 'cause I was sick of being called the Ramones all the time, especially since I didn't really think we sounded like the Ramones. Only every once in a while would we sound like the Ramones.
DO: That is the catch-all for any band that plays catchy pop songs loud and fast.
KS: I know. Of course, I was kind of going, "OK, I'm never writing any song that sounds remotely like the Ramones ever again." But I probably did anyway. [Laughs.] Who cares? It made me self-conscious a little bit, but I got over it.
DO: Is it hard to come up with a fresh-sounding record this far into your career?
KS:: It's always hard, because we always really want it to be the best one we've made. We're always trying to top ourselves, which I guess is good, but at the same time, it's hard. I can only speak for myself, but I'm never, ever relaxed when I'm making a record. I'm having a great time, but I'm just like up, all this adrenaline -- this natural adrenaline -- making me totally crazy.
DO: Is it more of a problem when you have a bigger hand in the recording process?
KS: Well, it's sort of a myth that I've had more to do on these last two, because my name wasn't on the other ones. But I sat there and I always told everyone what to do the whole time. When it was me and Rob Cavallo sitting there, I would tell him, "Come on, you've got to brighten up these guitars. It sounds dull. Blah blah blah. This and that. They didn't mike 'em right." Now that I know more about it, they weren't miking stuff right. They were doing stuff kind of...dumb. And then he subsequently said, "That's my sound." You know, he kind of claimed that as his sound. [Laughs.] I don't know. Maybe he learned it from me. I don't mean that in an egotistical way. He would say, "We went way over budget because of Kim." But then somebody would say, "Wow, that Muffs album sounds great," and he'd say, "Oh, thank you. Yes, it was all my doing." [Laughs.] Kind of like Larry Tate.
DO: What did the band think about you calling the shots?
KS: They give me their opinions, but they usually like it. That's the thing that I'm really, really happy about. The first incarnation of the band thought I was an asshole, because I wanted to do this certain thing, and they always thought I had this self-centered motive, like I wanted everything to be me, me, me. They thought I did, but I didn't. When they were gone -- thank God -- it was me, Ronnie, and Roy, and that was much better, but I still had to earn their trust. I said, "Look, you gotta trust me. I'm trying to do everything that's the best sound for the whole band." So I proved it to them. On the third record, I had to prove it again, and they liked that one so much that I was like, "OK, guys. This time I'm producing, and it's not going to say The Muffs." It said The Muffs on our third record -- you know, produced by -- but it was mostly me. And I felt more comfortable putting my name on it after that. But I still didn't want to produce it by myself, because that was hard. [Laughs.] That was really hard.
DO: What was the hardest thing about it?
KS: I'd feel really insecure. My rhythm guitar would be off-time a little bit, and that drives me nuts. That's the hardest thing for me. I love doing leads, and I love doing harmonies, but the two hardest things are rhythm guitar and singing for some reason. So I would hear stuff that was off a little bit, and I'd get really mad. Arghhh. But you know, I'd hear it back the next day when I was really fresh and go, "Oh, this is fine." There's a lot of having to listen to things the next day. I definitely use my instincts more than anything. And my instinct on this one says that we should have had a couple more songs on it. That's OK. Whatever. [Laughs.]
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