"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.
"We've pretty much done everything ourselves, kept our own sound and not tried to be popular," Shattuck says. "We've always just been ourselves. People say, 'Oh, you're on a major label .... ' Yeah, but we're smart. We do everything we want to do, and we do it our way. No one tells us what to do."
Shattuck was only looking for a venue for her songwriting when she launched the Muffs. She had just quit L.A.'s notorious Pandoras, the all-female band led through a confounding progression of pop, punk, dance and metal by the late Paula Pierce. The Muffs initially included Shattuck, ex-Pandora Melanie Vam-men, drummer Criss Crass and, unexpectedly, boyfriend Barnett. "After three years, he's like, 'Did you know I played the bass?' " Shattuck recalls. " 'What?! That bass at your brother's house is yours?' 'Yeah.' So he kept that little [fact] from me."
Barnett also ended up providing inspiration for the anti-love songs on the Muffs' first CD when he and Shattuck broke off their relationship. The lyrics to "Saying Goodbye," for instance, erupted after a call from Barnett concluded with him ranting about some problem Shattuck had nothing to do with. She hung up and started scribbling, "I've got better things to do / And better things to listen to / Than all your ranting and raving on me ...."
But on this afternoon, the former couple seem like the best of friends. Barnett has since married a member of the Vancouver band Cub (who, critics note, have a strangely Muff-ish sound). So Barnett's a friendly, funny presence here. But on-stage, a certain tension re-emerges as the pair sometimes trade insults, shoves, kicks and spitballs. The bassist then comes off like a moody, gangly punk, lugging his instrument across the stage like a mastodon bone.
Early on, that explosiveness caused the Muffs to be banned from a long list of dives. They had been together six months before they were first paid: 15 bucks for a show at Club Lingerie, a venue from which they were immediately blacklisted when they started screaming and smashing chairs. At another early gig at Los Angeles's Palomino, drummer Crass reacted to not being paid by shouting, "I just want everybody to know that nobody got paid tonight! The Palomino's fucked!" before smashing some beer bottles and escaping into a waiting car. When they were banned from the Club With No Name, the Muffs were warned, in proper B-movie fashion, "You'll never play in this town again!"
Crass and Vammen ultimately quit the band, and ex-Redd Kross drummer Roy McDonald joined in time for 1995's Blonder and Blonder CD. Now they're courted by the occasional TV star (George Wendt, the ubiquitous Norm from Cheers) and fellow rockers. During one recent show in New Orleans, the Muffs met the members of Marilyn Manson, and guitarist Twiggy followed the trio to an all-night bar, where he spent the entire evening trying to get Shattuck to go to bed with him.
"Then he got all depressed," Barnett says. "And he was talking to a guy from the Queers: 'She won't go with me! I can't believe it! I fucked Courtney!' "
Shattuck laughs. "He wasn't my type," she says. "Guys with messed-up makeup and scary-looking old lady dresses are not my type."
She doesn't spend much time with other rockers, and even leaves the radio off when she's writing, worried that her brain is being invaded by pop melodies floating through the air. How can she be sure where her song ideas come from? "I always have to ask Ronnie: 'What does this sound like to you? I just wrote it, does it sound like anything?' " she says. "One time it was just like a Bob Mould song. It was identical, and I only maybe heard it once. It just stuck in my head so much."
She laughs again.
"I wrote the bridge better than he did, though.