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BEARING THE BLUNT : There Is Nothing Refined About the Muffs, Whose Sound Is Tough and Whose Singer Is as Subtle as a B-1 Bomber

January 20, 1994|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

There is nothing fancy about the Muffs.

The Los Angeles/Orange County foursome plays raw, messy mid-'60s garage-rock that gets jolted into the present with punk-rock aggression. Songwriter Kim Shattuck writes sweetly catchy melodies, then curdles her confections with screaming, growling interjections that are all garlic and hot peppers.

Shattuck doesn't worry about subtleties in her lyrics, bluntly stating what's on her mind, whether it's desire for a new love, regrets over an old one or antagonism toward someone who has tried to put her down.

One could theorize that the Muffs' singer-songwriter-lead guitarist is one of those reticent souls who find in rock music an outlet for asserting passions and opinions that would otherwise remain concealed.

Then one could sit down with Shattuck and her band mates and have that theory quickly trashed.

Shattuck fires from the lip in conversation as freely as she splatters guitar noise across the Muffs' only album, which was well-reviewed but not a big seller and failed to crack the charts.

Melanie Vammen, the band's rhythm guitarist and Shattuck's pal and musical sidekick since the mid '80s, joined in the fusillades from time to time during a recent interview at Vammen's house in Los Angeles. Ronnie Barnett, the easygoing bassist from Houston, ducked and didn't return fire when Shattuck sent occasional shrapnel his way, while the Muffs' new drummer, Jim La Spesa, hid behind a shield of self-effacing quips.

Among those who raised Shattuck's ire during the interview were:

* Guitarists who flaunt flashy technique: "Eddie Van Halen, I think that's (expletive)."

* Suburban women who follow certain dictates of fashion: "Especially in Orange County. They're the kind who have pantyhose and long fingernails and go to tanning booths. All these people could keel over now and die, and I'd be happy."

* Poor Barnett, for suggesting that the band's name is not intended as a double-entendre: "Yeah, it is," said Shattuck, before casting aspersions on Barnett's manhood in a way silly enough not to really hurt.

The two were romantically involved until about a year ago, and they seem to have a friendly understanding that allows Shattuck to fling insults at her mild-mannered ex without his taking offense.

Things have been known to get a tad volatile between Shattuck and Barnett on stage, but Shattuck says it has nothing to do with baggage from their 3 1/2-year romance.

"We'll always be friends. Ronnie's a good guy," she said. "But he likes to egg me on and see how far I'll go."

"She comes at me with her guitar, meaning to maim," Barnett said of the times when his onstage egging has born results. "I try to wrestle her off stage. But I never tried to hit her with my guitar."

Vammen ("Me, I'm the band mediator, I'm pretty mellow") says such tiffs have become relatively rare lately.

In a way, the Muffs--which perform tonight at Our House in Costa Mesa and Feb. 10 at Cal State Fullerton--owe their existence to Shattuck's outspokenness.

She and Vammen met in a vintage-clothes shop in Orange Circle. Vammen, who grew up in Fountain Valley, was the keyboards player in the all-female L.A. band, the Pandoras. Shattuck was a bass player looking for her first gig.

"I said, 'Your bass player sucks and is ugly,' " Shattuck recalled. "It was true. She looked like a fat Tatum O'Neal."

Vammen ignored her at first but eventually conceded that Shattuck had a point. Shattuck got the Pandoras bass gig, and the two became friends. As Pandoras leader Paula Pierce took the band away from '60s-style garage rock and toward heavy metal during the late '80s, Shattuck and Vammen shared gripes, then finally decided to start a band.

The Muffs debuted in January, 1991, generated a buzz in Los Angeles and, to their surprise, found themselves courted by Warner Bros. Records. The Muffs signed with the big label and spent a big-label sum to record a debut album with an off-the-cuff sound suitable to their style.

For the next one, they say, they'll work more quickly and keep the budget tighter.

The band did get to tour extensively last year, ending with an eventful five-week trip to Europe in which Shattuck managed to send a promoter in Stuttgart, Germany, to the hospital after whacking him on the head with a highball glass. The promoter had made the mistake of cutting short the Muffs' show and making menacing advances toward Shattuck's guitar amplifier.

"I'm very protective," Shattuck said, referring to her gear. "I'm glad I did what I did. He deserved it. He wasn't hurt very bad, because he walked to the hospital." Shattuck wound up paying a fine after being escorted to the local police station.

Now, Shattuck says, she is in hot water with the Irvine police for having thrown cold water on an officer last month when he tried to stop her from bringing a bottle of water into UC Irvine's Crawford Hall, where the Muffs appeared on a punk rock bill.

"I'm a basically decent person," Shattuck said. "I just don't like to take (expletive) from people."

The Muffs might have war stories to tell from their first round of recording and touring, but they don't have a lot of money to show for it.

La Spesa, who works in a record store in Hollywood, is the only member employed, but the others are contemplating getting jobs to tide them over until they get another chunk of Warners money to make their second album.

"I live in my parents' house and have no money," Shattuck said. "We're going to have to get real jobs, and we don't want to. We're trying to live a real fantasy life here."

What: The Muffs.

When: Thursday, Jan. 20 at 8:30 p.m., with the Women.

Where: Our House, 720 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa.

Whereabouts: Take Costa Mesa (55) Freeway south to its end; go right on 19th Street. Our House is west of Pomona Avenue, on the right.

Wherewithal: $6. All ages admitted.

Where to call: (714) 650-8960.

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