A tribute and a belated, rescheduled interview with Muffs bassist Ronnie Barnett, on her life and their band’s final album, No Holiday.
We’re all familiar with the question “Too Soon?” When is it appropriate to tell jokes after a death, tragedy, or other sad event? Or, any joking aside, when is it too soon to do an interview after one?
Such reservations have pertained to this feature, following the surprising, sad passing of Muffs’ singer / guitarist / songwriter / frontwoman Kim Shattuck this past October 2, having spent two years privately suffering from debilitating Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (AKA Lou Gehrig’s Disease). It was originally, routinely scheduled for publication around the time of the release of The Muffs’ excellent new album No Holiday on Omnivore Records, October 18. I needed only to interview her and bassist Ronnie Barnett, both of whom I’d known a long time. Simple enough, it seemed. But circumstances obviously weren’t what we thought, and as well, she died before her comments could be secured. Amidst the shock and public sadness, I didn’t think it appropriate to bother Barnett in the immediate aftermath; all the more so when I read that his mother also died a few days later. (Poor man!) So best to shelve this interview for a while.
Although I’d covered The Muffs for decades, interviewed her often, and chatted with her on their tours, like most I didn’t know that Shattuck had been so horribly sick these past two years. On her insistence, the group had kept that a closely guarded secret, for reasons Barnett explains below. But to my horror, as I set about doing this feature, I’d slowly began to suspect something like that was the case.
In mid-August 2019, the group’s publicist announced that new seventh Muffs album No Holiday would appear in two months. So I requested an advance copy, and, knowing nothing about the unusual, secret process that had been untaken in order to realize it, after I heard it and loved it, I requested and secured the formal assignment here at Rock & Roll Globe to interview them. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
This is how I slowly realized something was dreadfully wrong: With visions of yet another friendly, happy, illuminating laugh fest with Ms. Shattuck—she was a riot on legs that could have made old stone-faced Ben Stein laugh like he was MCing a Dean Martin roast—I contacted the publicist (also a long acquaintance) to arrange the interview, and was told, without explanation, that Kim was only doing email interviews for this record. “That’s really weird,” I thought. I thought it so odd, I asked again thinking there must be some mistake. The Kim we knew would no more prefer laborious, more sterile, written interviews than I would like to retake the sixth grade. Let’s face it, the lady was plain gregarious and irrepressible, a bubbling fountain of a volcano of a gusher of guffaws and belly convulsions, of trademark “heh heh heh heeeehh heeehs” and crackups you couldn’t help but join in with, likely the nuttiest, silliest, most genuine and unfiltered person I’ve ever met. Well into her 50s, she seemed like a perpetual giddy 16-24-year old, so mercilessly ribald and droll/quick-witted, and she seemed to look at life like it was the greatest, most giant goof—even while being serious about music and people she liked, and things worth doing and experiencing. (Example: Even a trad question from me about songwriting once drew a comparison to giving birth—graphically!) Email interview? With someone she knew? “No,” thought I. “There must be something wrong here.” I just didn’t want to believe it.
(In retrospect, no Sam Spade or Lew Archer, I’d missed a prime clue. A few months before in July, Shattuck’s side band The Coolies with ex-Muffs and Pandoras bandmate Melanie Vammen and Palmyra Delran of the Friggs, had released their debut EP—and all the proceeds of Uh Oh! It’s… The Coolies had gone to benefit an ALS Association. In an interview with thepreludepress.com, she’d been asked why it was an important issue for the new group, and she’d answered, “It runs in my dad’s side of the family, and it is so sad to watch it hit a great deal of my family members! Thanks for asking!”)
But since it wasn’t strictly my business, and because I was working on deadline to try to time the piece for the LP’s release, I put aside such foreboding, and was in the process of writing a set of normal questions for her to email—and another set for Ronnie, who would speak normally—and was just about to send them when the news of her death was reported. “Oh no!!!!!!” I thought. In fact, I looked sadly at the final question I had jotted down for her: “On or off the record, why are you only doing email interviews? Are you OK?” (Perhaps had my queries reached her, she’d have just left that one blank.)
That last question, we now all knew the answer to, and it was horrifying. Knowing the dynamo she’d been for so long, it just didn’t seem possible that she was not only gone, but that she’d spent her last year or two unable to walk or talk, and had been eating via a feeding tube. And yet, so typical Kim, she’d refused to make any public declaration of her condition, and amazingly—if that adverb has any meaning—had by all accounts remained exactly the same person she’d been, and had carried on as if nothing had happened, even while now relying on a disemboweled robot voice via modern technology to speak—a Viber app on a Tobii speech tablet that read and translated her eyeblinks. To prove it, she insisted on the group finishing the new album they’d barely begun when her illness struck, and with their hard work, saw ‘No Holiday’ to its conclusion. This required her to sit in a living room, however immobile, listening to them record the sessions in an adjacent study, directing the musicians in her usual self-producer capacity as if nothing had changed. And her humor never flagged, also from all accounts. For instance, when asked by the others what they might call the new album in progress, her initial response was, “That’s All Folks!”
But now she is indeed gone.
Accordingly, when she died, I posted a snap on Facebook and wrote, “This was the last time I saw the great Kim Shattuck whose death announced today leaves me immensely sad; I took this photo at their Brooklyn Bell House show on October 10, 2014. I interviewed her that day, on the radio in L.A. in 2009 and in the mid ’90s at Pianos on an absolutely killer tour with Visqueen, and like thousands who met her, I loved every minute I spent with her, ’cause she was flat out hilarious. All who knew her considered her a friend, as well as a laugh and an immense and endless songwriting and singing talent right up to the awesome new album. Thanks Kim for the great memories and boy will you be missed.” (My editors kindly included that here as part of their news item similarly lamenting her passing.)
And yet for all of the above, none of it should ultimately overshadow what a fine album ‘No Holiday’ turned out to be—this publication’s #1 pick for the entire year 2019, in fact, which, when you think about it is absolutely extraordinary. Yes, their determination to take what little they’d recorded and work up mostly new demos that included her vocals (several of them just her and an acoustic guitar, some just recorded on an IPhone!), and make a full band album worthy of the Muffs name is, and can only be, the big story of this record. No one can pretend we don’t know such an extraordinary, unique, and poignant backstory to an otherwise regular album, a monument to her admirable insistence in doing something meaningful we all could benefit from while life was still hers, however debilitated she became. (Note, this was also remarkably true of the equally estimable Lou Gehrig 79 years ago, as I will demonstrate below!) Yet the new music itself is so full of life, and contains all the band’s kick-ass rock n roll attitude, chops, sweat, and exuberance that the previous six had. Stick it in a six-CD changer (if you still have one) with their previous albums, hit the random or shuffle button, and see if ‘No Holiday’ doesn’t have the exact same raucous yet sweet combustion of her favorites, such as the Saints, Elvis Costello, Zeros, Troggs, Paul Collins’ Beat, David Bowie, Angry Samoans (all of whom they covered!), The Ramones, Leaving Trains, Fastbacks, Who, early Kinks and more. You can’t really tell any difference.
Thus, this feature is still well-deserved on the merits of the music alone, much as it was originally conceived—even if the questions and tone are by nature different. So finally, after five months, it feels OK to engage with Barnett and ask him the below. Although he is clearly missing his close friend, and the emotions are still palpable, by now perhaps we can all just enjoy that we got so much from Shattuck from her time on the planet, as a musician and as a person.
Fittingly, those out in Southern California can still pay deserved tribute to her memory on March 15, at her indie star-studded memorial concert to benefit another ALS charity at the El Rey Theater in L.A. Helping celebrate the life of someone who so obviously lived it to the fullest, there will be appearances by Redd Kross, Veruca Salt, That Dog, Honeychain, Rob Zabrecky, Kay Hanley, Vicki Peterson of the Bangles, Kathy Valentine of the Go-Go’s, Shattuck’s other groups the Coolies and the Pandoras, and Barnett and Muffs drummer Roy McDonald backing others doing Muffs tunes.
How are you holding up? What has been the range of emotions? I’ve been watching your [public] Facebook feed and you’ve been posting so many excellent memories and photos from way back of your friend who has left us. You did so much together, obviously.
RONNIE Barnett: I recently watched Shaq’s [Shaquille O’Neal’s] reaction to Kobe Bryant’s death. He also lost his sister a few months ago. He hit the nail on the head when he said he still goes out, does his job, jokes with friends, smiles in public, but goes home and the sadness, the sudden void in your life is there and the heaviest of weights to bear. Kim has obviously been a huge presence in my life since we met in ’86. We’ve been through so much together and seen things only we can understand—it’s almost overwhelming. I lost my mother two days after Kim went away. I think of them both constantly and though time eases things, I suppose I always will.
My condolences and sorry for your twin losses, for sure. I met Kim only a dozen times or so, but they are great memories. She was quite a dynamo and irrepressible personality. By way of sharing for those who never got to meet her, have you a story or two that really gives a good example of her attitude, as a bandmate/musician and person?
Kim made an impression on everyone she met! As a friend said, I’ve never known anyone who said and did what she wanted as much as her. There’s so many stories, but I always think of the time with just the three of us in the van. Kim was asleep which meant me and Roy could play stuff she, to put it politely, wasn’t exactly fond of. This time we chose UFO’s “Strangers In The Night.” She awoke, heard about five seconds of it and said, dead serious: “Don’t play this even while I’m asleep! It’s going to sneak into my subconscious and affect my songwriting!!” [Laughter.] Needless to say her next batch of songs had no mentions of “Memphis” or “loose fucking!” [More laughter.]
Hilarious as ever. And she sure made an impression on me. Like that time I interviewed her in L.A. on my radio show [February 9, 2009] and told her how much I enjoyed your [Ronnie’s] work playing bass on tour with Visqueen, and she just said, “I think he liked Rachel [Visqueen guitarist/frontwoman Rachel Flotard] though. I think it was in his pants, a little bit. Oh, sorry!” Then she laughed, loudly. And pretty soon we all were. Oh man, what a crazy free spirit—so funny at it.
Hahaha! I’d never heard that but it’s pure Kim!!
VIDEO: Kim Shattuck performs “Just A Game” on WFMU, 2011
Like you, and like everyone, if from must less frequent contact, I’ve got a few! She made every comment sound like a funny joke we were all in on. More seriously, though, from Roy’s piece in the L.A. Times, it sounds like there was a family history of the disease, including Kim’s father. How very, very awful. As a little boy I read biographies of Lou Gehrig, and was first confronted by the horribleness of what ALS does to people as they lose all use of their muscles. It’s amazing that it’s been almost 80 years since Gehrig died at only 37 (!) and called such attention to it, that we haven’t been able to find a cure. [Ronnie agrees.] But I think Kim was a lot like Gehrig, who obviously couldn’t play baseball any more for those last two years after he announced his illness, but he spent the time [1939-1941] working in public service, as a Parole commissioner here in New York City, visiting inmates, and insisting there would be no press coverage, until about a month before his death. His wife had to sign the forms that came with the job because he couldn’t any more. And his attitude was similar to Kim’s while he was becoming debilitated. He said, only five months before his death, when his condition had worsened, “Don’t think I am depressed or pessimistic about my condition at present. I intend to hold on as long as possible and then if the inevitable comes, I will accept it philosophically and hope for the best. That’s all we can do.” [Source: Luckiest Man; The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, by Jonathan Elg, 2010.] I mean, she didn’t even tell anyone publicly right up to her death, while making this whole album with you.
In retrospect I understand her choosing to be private about her illness. She did not want pity or to be defined by that monstrous disease. While I know she would have loved to see the attention and love that came her way after she passed—tributes from [her huge favorites] Elvis Costello [on Facebook] The Who [on the jumbo screens at their show at Hollywood Bowl], amongst all of the others for chrissakes!!—I also understand that it would have been a bit overwhelming. She stayed busy and actually accomplished a lot in those two years. She was still smiling and joking until the end. I’m not sure any of us could have handled it with such grace.
Well said, and I’m sure a lot of us could not. And forgive these sort of questions; Most interviews with musicians are less obviously emotional. But it’s rare that we encounter a situation where we greatly admire a record made by someone who made it knowing quite well that they were dying, and wanted to do one more before they left us. And you all had to deal with that overwhelming fact while making it, as well. That said, as you know, this interview was commissioned and approved by our editor and the band’s publicist before news of Kim’s illness was known; there was no greater story at the time, no greater impetus than the impending release of another new, great Muffs album—and that was enough. But do you think just given the fact of the music, that it was worth doing even with that hanging over your heads? It can’t have been easy.
Yes! As soon as she diagnosed she said she wanted to make this album and we got down to business very quickly. At that point she could still speak and walk but those things were affected pretty quickly. We had actually agreed to play two shows in December —she was diagnosed in October—with the Dream Syndicate where she was just going to sing but around a month before had to finally admit she wasn’t gonna be able to pull it off. In her words at the time, “My voice is poo!” At that point most of the songs were written but we knew we would have to take a different direction, adding instruments around her demos, some of which were recorded well and some that were not. During the process I often wondered if it would actually sound like a coherent statement when it was finished, and while I guess it will always have her passing hanging over it, I think it came out fantastic. About all me, Roy and her talked about in her final months was how proud we were of this great album. And, oh yeah, about how much we loved each other…
I just don’t know what to say about any of this, it just chokes me up. To think, you all knew as you were making it was the final record—like a tribute to her and what you did together for decades. However bittersweet there must a sense of fulfilled mission that you were all able to complete what she wanted so much, but I don’t think I have ever heard of an album being made under these circumstances. In my review, I noted she was only directing the record by speaking with eyeblinks recorded by an app that translated them into a robot voice to talk. But of course that didn’t change her personality, just the tone! I can just imagine the dirty jokes and ribald cracks and the endless crackups and quips and one-liners and guffaws and wisecracks and giggles in that robot voice.
It’s true! Ha ha. And she was still a hard ass taskmaster when it came to producing that thing, ha ha! The fact that in some of the advance press it was getting labeled as merely an album of “outtakes” and that some thought it was a live album because of the cover was driving me crazy! It wasn’t at all. It was a new Muffs record, and most of those songs were written for it. Making it meant a lot to us.
Understandable! That said, it must have felt so different making this record than the others; obviously the songs existed already, as that had to be, and you tracked it much like others only with another musician [Adam Schary] guesting record her intended guitar parts. Which are your favorites that show how you could still triumphant despite the obvious greater difficulties?
As you probably know it’s all about the songs, and Kim was truly gifted. I always knew the reason we were still around during our 27 active years was ultimately because of those great tunes. And while she would have no doubt written a few more, we knew we already had the makings of a strong album. “No Holiday,” “A Lovely Day,” “To That Funny Place,” “Earth Below Me,” “Happier…,” “Too Awake” all would have been the heart of the album and, as it is, are the heart of what it became!
You mentioned the nods from some of Kim’s favorites, Elvis Costello and The Who, who mentioned her at their L.A. show. And I saw she also was memorialized at the GRAMMYs. Were you thinking what I was thinking, “What the [expletive]? Woah!” Have you found since she died just how many people your music has touched, more than perhaps you were aware? And how does that impact you, if so?
Like I said in my eulogy at her funeral: “The tributes have all been amazing but, I’m not sure where all of these motherfuckers were when we were still around and they were taking us for granted!” It got a big laugh. Being included in the GRAMMYs memorial and the NBC Nightly News year end tribute were both so amazing. I cry yet again just thinking about it. I’ve always known this, but I guess everyone else did, too: she mattered!
I couldn’t put that better. And you are making sure she continues to matter, even beyond the music you left us: Talk about the upcoming memorial tribute show benefiting ALS research. Some reading this might wish to attend or donate so another century won’t go by without a cure.
On Sunday, March 15, we are having a celebration of Kim’s life with some of her favorite bands and people at the El Rey Theater here in Los Angeles. We’re going to share stories, play music and me and Roy might even do a little surprise something. It’s a benefit for the cause and will no doubt be an amazing day with lots of laughs and tears…
And for those who can’t make it, where can they get more info and maybe donate?
All the proceeds from the show will be donated to the ALS Association Golden West Chapter. [Here’s their home page, including donations information: http://webgw.alsa.org/site/PageServer?pagename=GW_homepage.]
Finally, unprompted by a question, what would you like others to know, most of all, about your friend and your band and your music, since many who read this will be familiar, but some will not. And feel free to be as philosophical as you like or profound, or the opposite—whatever you think best.
It’s a hard one to answer, but everything anyone needs to know about Kim and us is there in our work. I think we offered more than your usual band and the songs may sound simple, but most are actually quite well crafted with generally lots going on. I’m very proud of the fact that we would get booked on festival shows of almost every genre: punk, power-pop, garage, hard rock—and pull it off. In our final decade, I don’t think we had a truly bad show. We had endured, were semi-established, travelled the world many times, and the shows were all big love fests. The people who like us tend to like us a lot, and they showed us that. When someone cries in your presence because you’ve meant something to them it really hits home how special all of this is. Most bands would kill for a career like we had! I have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that it’s all over. But I take comfort that our legacy is assured and intact and that Kim’s talent will go and continue to inspire and be enjoyed forevermore.