During the 90s, LA punk trio The Muffs stumbled into pop culture rather than deliberately courting it. Their song "Everywhere I Go" played in TV ads for the short-lived fad drink Fruitopia. They appeared and performed in the 1997 Robin Williams/Billy Crystal movie Fathers' Day. (Incidentally, so did Sugar Ray). And perhaps most notably, they contributed a chugging cover of Kim Wilde's frothy 80s hit "Kids In America" on the Clueless soundtrack—which netted them a gold record.
But the Muffs are not just an alt-rock footnote—they've kept plugging away at what they do best: melodic, gritty rock music. In fact, their new record Whoop Dee Doo—their first collection of new music in a decade—is full of kicky punk-pop, girl-group garage rock and chiming power-pop, all driven by Shattuck's gravel-pit vocals. While the record certainly isn't a nostalgia trip—Speedy Ortiz fans, take note of "Paint By Numbers"—it sounds refreshingly timeless.
On a recent afternoon, before Shattuck was interviewed by a documentary crew—director Steve Stone, who directed the Wedding Present documentary Drive, is currently working on a Muffs film—she and bassist Ronnie Barnett joined in on a conference call for a freewheeling conversation. Among other things, the pair recalled how their Fruitopia commercial came about, what being in Fathers' Day really did for their career, why new label Burger Records rules, and why you won't hear the band do a St. Vincent cover anytime soon.
I was the type of kid who saw "Sad Tomorrow" on "120 Minutes" and bought your record [1995's Blonder and Blonder] back then, so I'm a long-time fan. I'm so glad you guys finally have a new one out.
Kim Shattuck: Yeah, we've been champing at the bit to put this thing out. And it finally is out. Last night, I felt like, "It's out. Oh my God." There was this big build-up; it's like sex or something. I get a little afterglow feeling.
Ronnie Barnett: We've been working on it for like four years almost. It is amazing that it's actually out. A lot of that time was just business, just getting contracts together and stuff. And then waiting for the manufacturers to get it together.
Kim: I guess there's been a huge surge of vinyl, and so our distributor that Burger uses was overwhelmed with tons of request for vinyl. We had to wait in line.
Ronnie: I like that you discovered us by our video on "120 Minutes" and not by, like, you know, Clueless. We only got played on like two [episodes of] "120 Minutes." So you were lucky.
Kim: [When the "Sad Tomorrow" video premiered] we were on tour. Our whole crew, and Ronnie, Roy and I all gathered around the TV in our hotel room and waited for "120 Minutes" to come on. And when it did, we were like screaming. We were like, "Ahhh!" It was fun. I think it was the first time we ever got played on TV.
Ronnie: And we also had to find a hotel that had MTV; that was a struggle too.
Kim: Oh yeah—remember how all those old hotels used to say "We have HBO?"
Ronnie: There was something more romantic about that than just dialing it up on YouTube.
Speaking of TV: I have to ask you guys about the Fruitopia commercial you were on. How did that come about?
Kim: The director of that video—or all the videos that went to commercial—was a Muffs fan in college. In fact, they made the commercials with our song before they even asked permission to—and then they had to talk to the legal department at Warner Bros. to clear it. And then our publisher said, "You need to pay us a ton of money." We ended up being able to support ourselves for a while off of it, which was nice.
Ronnie: Yeah, there was 15 different versions of it. We were the theme of Fruitopia for like four years, until the company went down. We went down with the ship.
Kim: We used to get checks in the mail from the Coca-Cola company. Some small ones would pile in, like a dollar. Funny ones like that. But some of them were bigger. I would go to the bank with stacks of checks for all these small, weird little amounts, but they add up. Don't throw away the small checks. [Laughs.] Although I did throw away a two-cent check recently.
Who'd you get a two-cent check from?
Ronnie: I got a six-cent check. It's from Fathers' Day.
Kim: How did you get more than me?
Ronnie: I don't know. And they took three cents out.
Kim: That's amazing. Yeah, it was from Fathers' Day. They gave me two cents and I'm like, "What?" I have more taken out than you, obviously.
Was the check for your performance or just appearance? That's hilarious.
Kim: I think it's for our performance in that movie.
Ronnie: Yeah, it must be, because we don't have lines. It used to be more like twenty bucks.
I bet Sugar Ray gets more. They were in the movie too. You should ask Mark McGrath.
Kim: They had more screen time than we did.
Ronnie: Yeah, they had actual lines. [Laughs.] Oh man, another reason to hate Sugar Ray!
Kim: Awwww, no. No harm, no foul.
Ronnie: They probably got a six dollar check.
The guy you worked on Whoop Dee Doo with, Steve Holroyd, assisted producer Glyn Johns. Did he have any good stories?
Kim: He had a good story about Sylvester Stallone having the mic left on. You remember this one, Ronnie?
Ronnie: Oh yeah – I'll never forget this story. It was on a film, and Sylvester Stallone had the mic left on him still and went into his trailer. Didn't turn it off—and somewhere out there there's a recording of him getting a blowjob. Sylvester Stallone, you hear him say, "Stroke the shaft," "Cradle the balls" and then he goes, "Oh, you dirty bitch!"
Kim: [Laughs.] That's my favorite story Steve's ever told. I'm going to be producing a band pretty soon, and we're taking them into Steve's studio again. We'll get more good stories from Steve.
How does the scene Burger Records is cultivating now in L.A. compare to the scene in L.A. you guys experienced when you were coming up in the 80s and 90s?
Ronnie: It's kind of comparable in a way, even though it's a little smaller. Burger has this cult following of kids that like rock music. It's pretty amazing. They follow the Burger brand—Burger does these festivals, puts their name on it, and they sell out to thousands of kids. My big fear is that people say oh, "Burger jumped the shark when they signed the Muffs, an old band." But so far, so good.
Kim: They didn't jump the shark; we needed to be hooked up to a label that was doing good business. We'd been on some indie labels that maybe were a little bit ineffective at promoting us. Burger seems to be really good at it. I'm super happy. They're promoting us better than Warner Bros. did, to be honest.
Ronnie: The Burger guys live in the store. They put the money the label makes back into it. They love music. Like last night, Sean [Bohrman, co-founder] posted, "Iggy Pop mentioned burger Records. This is the pinnacle of our career." They're fans.
Kim: And they're really nice guys, too.
Ronnie: Super nice guys. We love them.
How has songwriting changed for you guys over the years, since you have been so busy with so many other projects? For this record, was there really anything different that happened, songwriting-wise?
Kim: When I sit down and write songs, it's usually when I'm inspired. Sometimes I try to force my inspiration, which usually involves writing a couple of shitty songs. [Laughs.] Then I play them for the guys, and they're like, "Yes! Almost there." And then I'll write more, and they'll say "You'll on a roll!" The guys always say, "You're on a roll!" A lot of the songs I wrote when I went back to school for a little while to do photography. When we started learning them is when we realized what songs work and what songs don't work. We did it pretty much the same way we've always done it; I just wasn't under any big pressure to write a bunch of songs really fast. Which I can do, actually—in 08 I got on a super big roll and I wrote a ton of songs. A lot of those are on the album.
Ronnie: Kim's songwriting is this timeless style. Besides some of the things on our first record, which are kind of grungy, all of our records are kind of timeless. Kim's not influenced by Lorde, know what I mean? Anything trendy.
Kim: No trendy.
Ronnie: Like Lorde or St. Vincent, whatever's hip at the time.
Kim: I don't even know who you just said. [Laughs.]
Ronnie: Her musical tastes are very narrow.
Kim: Yeah, I like what I like.
Ronnie: I think that's why we're probably still around and why our songs are kind of timeless.
Kim: What really drives me to even listen to music or to write music, the thing I've always been obsessed with, is melody. Nothing else matters to me more on the planet than melody. People who write songs with no melodies, I'm dumbfounded. I have no idea what the fuck that's about. That's so weird. My whole take is, I have to love the melodies; it has to be a really moving melody for me. There's different melodies that I like. It's fun. That's why I do it. I don't do it for any other reason than that.
Annie Zaleski is proud to have discovered the Muffs through "120 Minutes." She's on Twitter - @anniezaleski.
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