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Spunk Rock

The Muffs' Kim Shattuck can't understand why everyone else doesn't write like her

Kim Shattuck is looking at you, and from the stage she can see everything. She can see your dandruff, your clothes, your zits, the way your mouth hangs open. She can see you scratching. She can tell when you're bored, and it makes her sad. And when you hop and bounce like a puppy to one of the Muffs' two-minute meteorites of pure, ragged pop, the singer/guitarist is very happy indeed.

"I'm reading minds," Shattuck explains, only half seriously, laughing beneath her brown-red bangs. "I'm not even remembering all the lyrics. I'm just blahbity-blahbity-blah, and sometimes it will go on automatic, and I'll be just looking: What are they thinking? I'm just boring a hole through their skulls. So when I'm in the audience and somebody looks at me from the stage, I get all embarrassed: Don't look at me!"

But this evening, Shattuck is far from the stage, hers or anyone else's. She's at home in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, sharing a couch with Muffs bassist (and ex-beau) Ronnie Barnett, who acts both as straight man and foil to Shattuck's wisecracks and loving sneers. An old Count Basie LP spins on a turntable, and the walls are covered with kitschy, bug-eyed portraits of little boys and girls. Nine months ago, Shattuck was still living with Mom back in Orange County, crafting her songs for the Muffs' indelicate blend of mid-'60s garage pop and vintage punk. The trio's new Happy Birthday to Me, released late last month, is loaded with sad-mad love tales, loud melodies and very bad attitude. Even when the words are happy (as on the otherwise blissfully romantic "Honeymoon"), the band's delivery drips with sarcasm and ill will.

"I get it out of my system, and then I'm fine, a normal civilian, all free and happy," Shattuck says with a broad grin.

Her songs owe a debt to the straight-ahead rock of Joan Jett, but find even greater inspiration in the deathless pop of Brian Wilson, Ray and Dave Davies, the Everly Brothers and the Buzzcocks. The Muffs are part of that legacy, and unlike some acts in the festering Los Angeles pop revival, they've not simply mastered the soft and sugary sound of their pop heroes, but also their elusive key ingredient: the hook, the unshakable melody line that echoes in your head long after a song has ended.

It's been that way for Shattuck ever since she was a little girl daydreaming melodies for her own amusement. In another era, she might have shared office space with Carole King or Bobby Darin at the Brill Building, that legendary songwriting factory in the heart of Manhattan.

"To me, it's really easy to think of little melodies, because my brain thinks of them anyway," Shattuck says. "And I'm really easily bored. That's why I write such short songs. So I don't see why the entire world can't write super-melodic songs. That would be the best."

Since releasing their self-titled debut in 1993, the Muffs and their songs of cheerful sarcasm have attracted a crowd of punks, jocks, teenyboppers and the dreaded GBGs (Girl Band Geeks) to their shows. That makes the band a difficult one to classify: too hard for bubble gum, and not mean enough for punk. "People called us grunge! I couldn't believe it," Shattuck says. "We have loud guitars, but don't take heroin or anything. We don't really fit into that scene."

Warner Bros. signed the band up just as Nirvana's angst-ridden thrash shattered the line between '90s radio and what was once considered alternative. Hopes for them rose even higher when Green Day conquered MTV with a bright pop-punk sound not unlike what the Muffs had played all along. Nonetheless, broad popular success has so far eluded the group. Not that the lack of a commercial breakthrough has led Shattuck to compromise her furious pop; the only change on Happy Birthday to Me, the Muffs' third CD, is the presence on a few tracks of the cheesiest Casio keyboard sound imaginable. Even amidst the abrasive guitars, there's something warm within the euphoric Sex Pistols-like pounding that begins "All Blue Baby," and in the way Shattuck's amplifier implodes during the final moments of the countryish ditty "Pennywhore." And screams are kept to a minimum.

"This is our pop record," Barnett says, grinning behind his glasses.
"No, it isn't! No, it isn't! We've always made pop records," Shattuck insists.

"We're wimps," Barnett adds. "We're psycho wimps."
The new CD was the first one produced by the band alone. Now Shattuck remembers every detail that went into the making of it, down to the font style used on the cover: poster bodoni. Barnett jokes, "When we decided to produce ourselves, we found it harder to get ourselves on the phone." Basic musical tracks for the album were laid down at the Ocean Way studio in Hollywood, but Shattuck preferred to record her vocals at home, surrounded by the comfortable clutter of pop culture that decorates her apartment. She spent sweltering days trapped inside, without air conditioning and with the windows closed, keeping the TV muted and tuned to cartoons.

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