Guitar Girl'd: Interview with Kim Shattuck of The Muffs
Fact: Kim Shattuck is one of the coolest chicks in rock 'n' roll.
After cutting her teeth as the bass player in the all-female LA band The Pandoras in the '80s, she switched over to guitar and formed the bold-angsty-sarcastic-funny-witty-angry pop punk band The Muffs in 1991. Shattuck's catchy pop tunes might even be described as "cute," if it weren't for her famous bone-shaking roar that could ignite a match from 10 feet away.
With a gain-fuelled guitar tone to match her don't-fuck-with-me vocals, Keith Moon-incarnate Roy McDonald on drums and Ronnie Barnett's driving bass lines that glue it all together, The Muffs have carved out their niche in the world of rock 'n' roll with a rusty machete.
Shattuck spoke to Guitar World from her home in Southern California about the 20-year history of The Muffs, her guitar collection and how she feels about men who, er, fantasize about her.
GUITAR WORLD: What's the secret to staying together for 20 years? That's something few bands can boast.
You just do it, no matter what. You have your fights and you have your differences of opinion, but you have the same goal and you have to let the ego go by the wayside. You can't have an ego when you're a team. One person can't really rule the roost. And when you do fight you try to keep it in house and not out house. Out house, haha.
Your first band was the Pandoras?
Yeah. I joined that band when I was really immature and young. I was the bass player and I didn't really have any say on the direction, so I bided my time; I practiced writing songs until I got better, cause I wanted to write songs really bad, but not in that band.
And then you started The Muffs with the Pandoras' keyboard player, Melanie Vammen, in 1991?
Yeah. I was still in The Pandoras and I was starting to write songs. I was going out with Ronnie [Barnett, The Muffs' bass player] and I wanted to start a band, and Melanie had just gotten kicked out of the Pandoras against my wishes. I never had any say about anything. I didn't want keyboards in the band but she started learning how to play guitar so we put it together, me and Ronnie and Melanie. Then we tried out some drummers and we got this really obnoxious guy named Chris [Crass] who you don't even want to hear any stories about because you won't be able to print them (laughs). They're really, really, really, really gross, having to do with sperm and penises. We did the first record with him, which was a nightmare, and then did the first tour with him which was a double nightmare, and then he quit in between tours.
And I was really happy that he quit because I was starting to have a nervous breakdown. We got this guy Jim Laspesa who was one of our friends, and he did the tour with us, and then after the tour, Roy McDonald who we originally asked became available so we got him. He's the best. I don't even think when I've gone to other shows I've ever seen a better drummer than Ronnie. I used to see him play all the time way back when I first started listening to music and I always just looked at him and watched him play, and my dream was to have him as a drummer.
When you started playing music around LA, were there a lot of female guitar players and bass players?
Some. The people I normally admired were guys though. When I first wanted to play guitar it was because I had seen Brian Setzer. He's so good! I mean I was just blown away. I really admired his guitar playing and how he'd do these excellent jazz chords and crazy shit while he's singing and then go to a solo. But The Go-Go's and The Bangles and all those guys were around already.
Was the scene supportive of female musicians?
Pretty much. There were people at the guitar stores who were really stupid about it, thinking I was getting stuff for my boyfriend. I don't care –- the joke's on them. But I think people were generally into it. For some people there's a fetish about it, which is stupid. I used to get really mad at those people. If they got too close to the stage I would literally kick them in the face. Literally! Cause I was just like, I don't want you to like jack off to me later! I would just kick them (laughs).
They probably enjoyed it!
Probably! Yeah, I know, I know. Oh well (laughs). I enjoyed it too, the violence of it all, I enjoyed that part (laughs).
Besides Brian Setzer, who inspires you as a guitar player?
John Lennon. His guitar playing is real basic and really edgy. If you listen to the really mellow stuff that [The Beatles] did, he always had a cool edge to his playing. I love his leads. They're just so raggedy and amazing. I like Dave Davies from the Kinks, before he could play slick. I like really on edge, kinda basic and just sloppy. I don't like real fast intricate stuff. I'm not impressed by it and it doesn't have any melody to me. And I saw the Bangles before I was in a band. I really liked their rhythm. That was right when I was trying to learn how to play guitar. I was really frustrated because I couldn't strum, and then I saw Susannah Hoffs do this cool strum on a song, and it was my goal after that to learn how to do that strum.
My first guitar was an Ibanez semi-hollowbody, I think it was called the Artist, from the early '80s. It was a great guitar, and it cost me more than I had. I wanted to get a Gibson hollowbody but I couldn't afford it. But I swear [the Ibanez] is solid because I have a temper, and I would literally scream and throw it across the room. Luckily most of the time it landed on my bed so it was okay.
Now you play a Gretsch Beast. It seems like you've been pretty faithful to that guitar for a while.
I've been very faithful to the Beast! (laughs) I remember seeing it in a pawn shop. It was really cheap, maybe $200. I needed one because I had the Ibanez and it kept feeding back all the time because it was a semi-hollowbody and everyone kept giving me advice, like, 'Dip your pickups in wax.' I'm like, 'You know what? I'm just gonna get another guitar. Shut up.' I saw that and I liked it but I didn't like the pickups so I changed them to the Seymour Duncan Antiquities. They looked like they were used and beat up and I used to say they were like the Johnny Rockets of pickups, because they made it look old but it sounded really awesome. I used it for a while, and then I bought a Mosrite but the neck was a lot thinner and so it kind of fucked me up. I thought I better stick with the thick neck. The Mosrite was a great guitar, but I have big hands, so the bigger neck works for me.
You write such catchy pop songs. Are there chord progressions that always sort of speak to you? Your songs always seem like they make so much sense, musically. It's like they're really classic patterns.
I'm definitely inspired by classic. Not classic rock, because that would be solos and "Hotel California" and that's not one of my inspirations (laughs). When I first started to write, my inspiration was backwards. It was the late '80s, I was still in the Pandoras, and I was not liking the direction of the band after a while -- it was too metal. Everything that was popular then in Los Angeles was starting to irritate the shit out of me (laughs) and I was getting really bummed. Stuff like the Red Hot Chili Peppers were happening and I was like, "I fucking hate them so much, I have to write the anti-Red Hot Chili Peppers songs (laughs)." It was so clear to me what I wanted people to write, and they weren't. Melodically, I could see the chord pattern in my head, and I could hear it, and I knew where I wanted it to go. So I was like, I just gotta write songs, cause no one's writing the song I want to hear.
The Beatles were a huge influence on me to write really good melodies and I really like the cute Beatles, the beginning. I don't really like the mustached Beatles very much. And then the hippie Beatles I'm not super-thrilled with, although they had good songs. I liked them the best when they were a real band and they toured. I really like early Kinks and mid-Kinks, the Who from the '60s, and then from the '70s I really like Blondie. I really liked the Sex Pistols when they came out and I thought they had a lot of melody. No one ever thinks that! (laughs) People say I sound a lot like the Ramones and it's probably because I'm influenced by the same '60s groups that they were, but I was never a strict Ramones fan. I like some of their stuff, like the poppier stuff. I really liked Joan Jett for a while -– there are some really good songs on some of her early albums. I liked the fact that she sang without vibrato, which seemed like all the chicks were doing. Like, come on! (laughs)
Do you think your songwriting has changed since the early days of the Muffs?
I think so, because we're recording right now, and some of the songs that I decided to present to the band are from when I first started writing and you can tell the difference. I was a lot more careful, a lot more normal, and later I got a little more abstract with my structure. I had to find my rock stuff again cause I did get a little softer and a little more avant garde and weird (Iaughs).
How far along are you on the album?
Almost done! A couple of songs need keyboards. I still have to go through everything with a fine tooth comb, but all my vocals are sung.
Where are you recording?
Mostly at my house, which kinda sounds great. This is the first time at this place, but the other record we recorded at my old apartment. But we usually do the drums and bass at a real studio. Then we come to my house, I do the guitars full bore, loud, super loud, irritatingly loud, and I sing at home, which I've always preferred to do cause I'm shy. I don't like singing in front of people, judging it, so I just do it all by myself and I'm my only judge (laughs). And I'm a strict judge.
Do you have an engineer, or you're just doing everything yourself?
I learned how to engineer. I engineered the last record we did, Really Really Happy, and all the ones before that I was either producer, co-producer, or I just stepped in and just had to do all the work cause the actual producers were always on the phone or doing something else (laughs). So I've kind of had to learn as I went. The first record that I actually produced was Happy Birthday To Me, but I credited The Muffs, not myself. I don't know why I did that, kinda idiotic, cause I was seriously the producer of the whole thing. I think I [did that] just in case it didn't come out well. It was a lot of pressure, so the next one I co-produced with somebody. That was kind of a nightmare. It wasn't the co-producers's fault, but I was not in the right mindset for it. And then Really Really Happy I engineered and produced.
I do get paranoid that I've screwed something up because I'm not a very proficient engineer but I know how to do the basics. Lately I've been doing it myself but I got really frustrated with plugging stuff in. That's the worst - when there's a whole bunch of different routing to do and I'm just like, 'Aaargh! My brain hurts, please help me (laughs).'
Do you have a name for the album yet?
We don't. I swear we never have a name until the very last minute, like when we're doing the art.
Obviously the music industry has changed a lot since you guys started playing. How is it playing now and being on your own versus being on a major label?
The major label was interesting because we were a lot younger and we didn't really know what we were doing, so they were able to guide us and give us support. I don't think they did the best job but they didn't do the worst job either, and they got our music out and gave us opportunities that we wouldn't ordinarily get. So that was cool, and the people were nice and it was a fun time. And then we were on an independent label and they were actually weird and more controlling about the music but we just kinda said, "No, fuck you (laughs)." We were the bosses of ourselves. Later we got on Five Foot Two which was Anna [Waronker] from That Dog and Charlotte [Caffey] from The Go-Go's' label, and it was awesome. It was more of a boutique label. This time we're like, maybe we should put it out ourselves.
When is it due out?
Don't know! All the other records we were affiliated with somebody and this one we're not. We're trying to figure out if we should just do it ourselves and make more money but have more work, or if we should do all the work upfront and then give it to somebody free and clear and then make less money for ourselves, so we're weighing our options.
Anna Blumenthal is the advertising coordinator for Guitar World, Guitar Aficionado and Revolver. She’s been playing guitar and singing in rock 'n' roll bands for the past 12 years and currently fronts the New York City-based all-girl garage band Party Lights. More at facebook.com/partylightsband.