The Muffs: Big Whoop

Muffs

After a decade adrift, the Muffs get their melodic pop groove back

Kim Shattuck has always observed a private ritual when retrieving her mail. If the Muffs bandleader finds a check in her daily bundle, she’ll set it aside for a full month before opening it. Even early on—despite two stellar garage/punk efforts for Reprise, a self-titled debut disc in ‘93 and ‘95 follow-up Blonder And Blonder—those paydays were few and far between.

“By 1996, I was pretty poor, and I’d just moved to a new apartment that didn’t have a refrigerator, so I was all freaked out,” she says. “But I finally opened one letter, and it was $850 from ASCAP. And I was like, ‘Hooray! That’s my refrigerator!’ So now, any time I get a check that’s in that range, I always call it ‘refrigerator money.’”

Believe it or not, swears the 50-year-old Shattuck, said random payments have sustained her over the full decade between Muffs albums—2004’s Really Really Happy and the brand-new Whoop Dee Doo, a reunion with longtime backing members Ronnie Barnett (bass) and Roy McDonald (drums), who always maintained straight jobs.

“I’ve managed to make a living just doing the music,” she says. “It’s ebb and flow, but publishing stuff has kept me afloat.” Not counting, of course, her surreal European-tour stint playing bass for the Pixies last autumn, as replacement for the departing Kim Deal. The rocket ride paid quite well, was fun while it lasted, but crashed to Earth as spontaneously as it ignited.

Shattuck says she was never planning to stage a comeback. But she never officially pulled the plug on the Muffs, either. After working hard to create her sneering stage persona and melodic way with a power-chord hook—best exemplified by the bratty cover of Kim Wilde’s “Kids In America” on the Clueless soundtrack—it was almost as if she felt so unappreciated that she and her bandmates simply shrugged and walked away from their project.

“But I really like those guys, and we’re a team,” she says. “And a good team can get back together, even if they haven’t talked in years and years.”

It took former group percussionist Jim Laspesa to reunite the Los Angeles trio. Shattuck had happily settled into domestic life with her TV-exec husband, and was listening exclusively to jazz for long periods, as well as attending every Dodgers game she could, since the couple has season tickets. But Laspesa began inviting her to dinner parties, along with Barnett and McDonald, and communication lines opened again.

“And I had been starting to write songs again, and that came up,” she says. “And they were like, ‘Oh my God! Email them to us!’ So, we just kind of gravitated back together again.”

Shattuck produced and engineered almost all of Whoop Dee Doo. And she’s in fine raspy form, as the album kicks off with the scream-punctuated “Weird Boy Next Door,” then wends its way through Ramones-propulsive anthems “Paint By Numbers,” “Take A Take A Me,” “Because You’re Sad” and harmonica-embellished folk jangler “Cheezy.” The 12-track set closes with a Searchers-chiming ballad called “Forever” that—despite its earnest intentions—still manages to sound like a schoolyard taunt when this vixen snarls it.

It was awkward at first, says Shattuck, ditching her jazz mindset and rediscovering what makes a great song tick. Her first Whoop Dee Doo efforts were clunky, lumbering. “But my passion is writing melodic rock songs, and I am still definitely driven to do that,” she says. “So, I had to go back to my roots and see what inspired me originally. That was my goal—I didn’t want to get soft when I got older. So, this album is kind of all the inspiration of my youth.”

And don’t read too much into the snotty lyrics. “Basically, I’m not inspired to write words unless something’s eating at me,” says Shattuck. “Which kind of sucks, because it’s very painful. So, when I was writing these lyrics, I just turned my mind completely off and just let it come out. I’m not even sure how I did it—it was like automatic writing.” The record was finished in 2012, but put on hold after the Pixies offer came in.

These days, the Muffs mistress is spending her refrigerator money even more wisely. Instead of liquor and cigarettes, she prefers health food and a gym membership. “And I did actually join a yoga place,” she says. “But I, uh, only did it three times so far. I got so sore, I had to take some time off.”

—Tom Lanham