Penelope Houston is still known to many punk fans only for her stint in the Avengers, one of the first California punk bands, in the late 1970s. Actually, by now her career as a solo folk-rock-influenced singer-songwriter has lasted far longer than the Avengers did. With a voice now more given to soft, wistful sweetness than harsh wailing, she would by the 1990s enjoy a large following in Germany, getting dubbed "the Queen of Neo-Folk." She talked about all phases of her career in her Oakland home on Halloween 1996.
What Avengers releases have there been, besides the album compilations?
There's a three-song EP seven-inch, four-song EP 12-inch. There are a huge number of bootlegs, most of them being singles. And one really horrendous CD that I heard, that I swear it sounded like somebody taped the show with a regular transistor radio, and then they played it on the air somewhere, and somebody else taped it with a little hand-held thing. Off of a radio, and it wasn't tuned in right, I swear. You can hear it sort of tuning in and tuning out, and the first half of it kind of sounds fast. So you're listening to 25 minutes of Avengers songs played really fast from a live show, through a radio show, recorded by somebody, put on a CD. Then they have some other stuff that was recorded that sounds slow from a live show, and it's really godawful. And somehow they got their hands on some actual recorded stuff that was done at rehearsals or at some studio or something. This thing has come out in Europe, and says it's limited to 500. But if it's a bootleg, who's to believe anything like that at all? Most of them are live, and they're just godawful.
One of them was really funny. Somebody wrote down the lyrics as they heard them, and I saw them. It's in one of the seven-inch bootlegs. All wrong! Really funny. It was kind of a gruesome lyric that didn't actually exist, having two heads or something like that.
Why didn't the band put out more while they existed?
We were actually together for two years, but there was no independent music industry. There were hardly any labels. Our first record came out on Dangerhouse, and the second on White Noise. Now it's hard to imagine there not being somebody who lives right down the street who's got a record company. Or me, I've got a record company, I put out my own tapes. But back then, there just wasn't. There were more tiny English labels that were putting stuff out. But there wasn't that whole sense of, we'll just go in and record something ourselves and do it. It was kind of like waiting for somebody to recognize that we're this hot little punk band, and that somebody should pay to have us record it.
The first three songs that came out were paid for by Dangerhouse. White Noise, I guess, paid for the four songs we did with Steve Jones, which we remixed. Everything else that's on the Avengers album is from a couple different studios saying, well, we'll give you some spec time, and see if we can do something with it in the future.
Were there any original songs that were never recorded?
There might be some. I tend to just forget things that don't get recorded. I would say that if you had a live tape of our last five shows, you'd find a bunch of songs that never came out. Some of the bootleg stuff was of that.
How did the CD Presents compilation album happen?
I moved to England, and before I left the country--this was in '81, '82--Danny [Furious], who was the drummer, was living in San Francisco trying to ask me for any tapes I had or photos. Because he wanted to get an album together. I think I sent him some stuff. The album originally came out on Go! Records, which were partners with David Ferguson [of CD Presents]. They had some falling out. He ended up suing them, and preventing them from releasing that record when they had already printed up 1000 record covers. Every now and then you can see those in collections. But I was in Europe, and basically he was dealing with Danny. So he had Danny's permission to put it out on his label.
At some point, I think that the other guys said hey, what about us? Because Danny was getting these producer advances. So then Jimmy came on board, Jimmy Wilsey, and he was doing something with it. Because he felt that Danny was not handling it. When I came back to San Francisco, I called up Ferguson's. I said, "You've put all this stuff [out], you haven't even asked me. And you haven't given me money, you haven't sent me any contract." He said, "Oh, yeah, come on in." I was visiting, actually, I hadn't moved back. I called and called and called. I tried to contact him from the U.K., where I was living. I went to his house, and as soon as I was there on his door, somebody said, "Oh, I have some contracts for you to sign now!" So he gave me a small advance. That was the last money that I ever saw from him. It came out as a CD after that. Of all the CDs that have sold of that record, I've seen zero royalties.
It would have been great if somebody might take it upon themselves to wrest the rights from CD Presents, because they really don't exist as a lab3el anymore. They can sell the rights. Since he hasn't paid the band their royalties or their publishing...at one point I got together with Jimmy and Greg [Westermark], and we went and saw a lawyer. Danny was living in Sweden. To see what we could do to get back the publishing. The contract that was signed was so horribly written that not only did we get nothing, not only that we didn't get the pittance that was accorded to us on the contract, but you couldn't take it to court, it had to be settled in arbitration or something like that. The lawyers just looked at it and said, "This is fucked." We didn't have the money to throw at it. I keep hoping that someday some label will decide to write them a letter and see what they're willing to do. In the meantime, we haven't gotten anything. The last time we saw any money from them was over ten years ago. I don't know what it really sold.
You were one of the first few punk bands in the San Francisco area, or even in California.
There were very few bands that came before us. I'd say Crime and the Nuns came before us. The Nuns were influenced more by the Dictators, and Crime was...It's funny. It seemed to me that at the beginning of the whole punk rock thing or new wave thing, all the bands were really distinct. You wouldn't confuse Devo with Crime or the Nuns. It was like everybody had their own thing. It was really more original. We were kind of more English-influenced than the Nuns and Crime. From L.A., X and the Dils--the Dils were probably a little more political than the Avengers. But then, they had those cool harmonies, the kin and bro harmony thing. I don't think there really were that many bands that were...there weren't many bands with female leads that were doing the same thing that we were at the time. X was around, but they had their own kind of L.A. thrift store kind of thing going on.
It's hard to say who we would have sounded like. You could say we sounded like the Weirdos, but the Weirdos had John Denney, and their subject matter was always clowns painted on velvet or something (laughs). We were sort of straightahead classic punk before punk turned into its really boring 1980 version, which it continued to be forever and forever.
How was it that Steve Jones ended up producing some of the Avengers stuff?
We played with the Sex Pistols. They had a publishing company, Glitterhouse, that Malcolm McLaren owned. They opened an office in L.A. And we'd play L.A. a lot of the time, we were pretty popular there. The guy that was running it in L.A., Rory, was also their tour manager for the U.S. He always wanted to manage us. He was really interested in signing us to the publishing company. That was around the time everything just blew up for the Sex Pistols. We did get to play that show [with the Sex Pistols in San Francisco], and we did meet them. I guess Steve Jones fancied himself a producer, and went after that. That was kind of arranged.
Actually, I think when we went in, we recorded that stuff with him without having a label. Nobody was paying for it. Actually, maybe we did do it for a label. I can't remember (laughs). It did end up coming out, but it came out after we broke up. I say things about him in interviews, and he says things about me in interviews--that's the contact we have. I re-recorded all my vocals that I'd recorded with Steve Jones later. The interesting thing about the four-song EP that he worked on was that nobody was there the day that he recorded the guitars with our guitar player, and he got a real Steve Jonesish sound. To this day, I don't know if he actually did any of the guitar playing on that. He did some piano playing on it, that was funny. You won't really know it from listening to it. It's more the thumb going down the keyboard.
I actually recorded some stuff there that's never seen the light of day. It was kind of an odd pop style. I think Steve Berlin played on it. Kind of poppy, kind of like new wave, and poppier than the Avengers. But it had electric guitars and stuff. One of the songs had strings on it. It's really funny stuff. I never listen to it. I never ever play it for anyone either.
I was working with this guy who was actually a film director from Holland. He was putting together this film for the Screamers that was going to be like a big...I don't know what it was going to be. But it was a musical and a film, and all this stuff was going on with the Screamers. He just got the people together that we played with. Interestingly enough, one of the people that arranged all the strings on this one song, and may have played violin, is Beck's father, who Beck never talks about, who is a big Scientologist and a big string arranger. Beck makes it sound like his Dad was some kind of street musician or something, and he was being carried around in a backpack by a bunch of hippies. But his dad was actually a big-time string arranger in L.A., David Campbell. Besides Steve Berlin, I don't remember who else played on it. I guess they were people I didn't know.
That happened in 1980, '81, and then I moved to England. I did kind of a backing track on one of songs that's on...it's a song called "Taking Over Heaven" that's on "Jerky Versions of a Dream." Once I did an interview with some fanzine, and they called that album "Turkey Versions of a Dream." That was his first solo album.
How was it that you made the transition from punk rock to much more acoustic-flavored folk-rock?
I just started getting interested in different instruments, from listening to Tom Waits's Swordfishtrombones, the Violent Femmes, a bunch of people that were coming up at the beginning of the 1980s with weird sounds. And I was sick of electric guitar. I'd basically had it with electric guitar. I thought, if I have a band without an electric guitar in it, that would be great! Just have some different instruments.
In '84, my husband and I had come to San Francisco, actually to look up Ferguson, and we ended up staying; September '84. I ran into Greg from the Avengers. He'd been writing all this music, and he wrote the music to "Summers of War" and "Harry Dean." I started working with him on this music. Actually writing music--he wasn't playing in a band. Somehow a year went by.
You did a single under the name -30-. What was the history of that group?
I started recording some stuff in the middle of '86. -30- was a name that only existed for the record. We never actually played in a group called -30-, because the guitar player quit. It always seemed like the person who named the group would be the next person to quit, so after a while we just, okay, it's Penelope Houston.
I was playing with different people under the name Treehouse, actually. Club Nine, they had the art motel. It was where the Stud is now. They had a couple big rooms where they had bars and bands and would play and stuff. And then upstairs, they had the art motel, which was maybe five rooms of installation art. And we did a treehouse in one of the rooms. People had to climb in the window, and there were leaves everywhere and stuff, glued all over the ceiling, and little films showing on the wall. We played up there. We played a bunch of places around town. I think we switched guitar players, and by the time we finished recording, he talked me into calling it -30- because he was a journalist. [He's] a journalist in New York now. He was really into the poppy end. He co-wrote "Full of Wonder" with me.
I guess I just decided to put that out myself as a single just for fun. But I didn't have a solid group around me to be working with, and was just trying to write my own songs. I think at the time we did that, we had half an album's worth of songs or maybe more. But I hadn't found the wonderful autoharp, so I was still in the stage where I would write lyrics and maybe a melody, and try to find somebody who could find the chords for me. At some point I discovered that "oh, I can do that myself. And fuck all these people." (laughs)
That period, I was going through different band members and having different lineups and stuff. Right when the record came out, I think Eric had just moved to New York, and we got Pat Johnson, who was--his nickname was "Birdboy." He was one of the mainstays of Penelope Houston and the Birdboys. From there, we started to have a more solid kind of band. Birdboys was recorded in '87. Then that band broke up. And then the record came out in '88.
That record had a lot of folk influence, much more folk than punk rock. Was your interest in folk something that arose right before the record, or something you'd had for a long time?
When I was younger, before the Avengers, listened to a lot of Pentangle and Fairport Convention and Incredible String Band. I loved them. I didn't really realize this until maybe six years ago, after I'd recorded Birdboys. I got a copy of the double Pentangle album, Sweet Child. I listened to it and I knew ever song on it. I was like, "Whoa! This is weird." It was before my punk life, I'd heard a lot of English folk-rock. So I think that was a big influence that I'd forgotten about somehow.
What was the reaction among listeners, both in the folk scene and the rock scene?
There's a big folk scene in Berkeley. There's the Freight and Salvage and the traditionalists and stuff, and we weren't really accepted by them. And we weren't accepted by the alternative clubs because we were quiet, so we were kind of in a hard place.
There must have been a lot of surprise among listeners who knew you only for your punk music with the Avengers, though.
Yeah (laughs). In fact, I did an interview with Maximum Rock'n'Roll, and on the air they accused me of selling out. I just thought that was outrageous, because obviously if I wanted to sell out, I'd re-form the Avengers and go touring around. And also, if I'm selling out, where's my big house? Now I've got my big house. Now I have sold out! (laughs)
I was just over at Billy Joe from Green Day's house yesterday, and we're going to write some songs together, amazingly enough. For my next album. We sat around talking about how all these people had accused both of us of selling out. I said, "At least you have a ten million-selling album to prove that you did! (laughs) I sold out, I got nothing. No, I never sold out. I'm true to my punk attitude.
But yeah, they just didn't get it at all. The people that have become Avengers fans since the Avengers had broken up didn't understand it. The people that are my age, that had been around then, obviously--either that was something that you were into for some kind of social world to be in, or that was the beginning of becoming a music fan. I think most people that are music fans that keep it up throughout their life expose themselves to a lot of different kind of genres and can appreciate different things. So I've had lots and lots of people say, "Oh yeah, I was around when the Avengers, I like what you're doing now, I understand the change." So it's not a big confusing thing for me. I've had young people that were Avengers fans also say, "My friends can't understand why I want to play your music, but..." That's something for me. I've had both--people who've just said [in Jewish mother accent], "What are you doing?," and other people who've said, "I like it."
For a long time, there was no attempt at having anything related to rock in our music. It was all these other influences, like jazz and country and folk, and a little punk, but more coming from me I think, but more of a punk attitude. We really fell in the cracks, we didn't fit. There was this point where Michelle Shocked was having airplay and Suzanne Vega, and a bunch of female vocalists were getting signed. There was this kind of a little flurry of excitement around that, but I didn't get signed. I just said, 'Well, I'm just going to go into debut and record this record, The Whole World, at my favorite studio.
Actually, Snakefinger had recorded at Different Fur a lot. So when he died, they told me that they wanted to help me out, because he'd always talked about bringing me in there and stuff. So they were willing to spec me some time. That's where I recorded the last three albums. That was the beginning of the '90s. I just said, after waiting around to find a record deal for several years and putting out cassettes on my own label, "I'm going to make an album, and then I'll shop that. And if it's a small label that wants to put it out, that's okay, let's do it." I'd kind of given up on the waiting around to get signed thing, and made this album which I think was a really good album. Very acoustic and everything, but I had probably my best writing on it. Then Heyday put it out. I licensed it maybe a year later to Normal, and that's when all the exciting stuff started happening.
Why do you think it is you've had more success in Germany than here?
I think that they find the things that are American to be exotic. It's the same as jazz being big in Europe forever and ever and ignored here, or the blues, or country music. You get cult-type fans over there. I think what happened in '93 was that that was a true thing that was going on, this general interest, but also they started it up as this alternative, hip, neo-folk thing, San Francisco neo-folk scene. And it was through the taste of several tastemakers over there. They really pushed it till that was going to sell easily. I think that Heyday and other labels, Normal and other labels, suddenly flooded the market, 'cause there was this big market suddenly for it. And I got to be the queen of neo-folk, which is a title that now I'm ready to lose (laughs). And it got endlessly quoted. That's what I am over there, unfortunately. Ever since Karmal Apple, I've been going in a harder direction than folk and acoustic. I never got an audience in America, so now I'm ready to move on from what I was doing that got me an audience in Germany. So I'm really kind of taking a chance here.
It just took off over there. Part of it was a little bit of hype that was going on. I think maybe people there are more capable of listening to more complex music or something. They have MTV over there, and they have VH1. So there's more to choose from, as far as how music is being presented to the public. Here [in the San Francisco Bay Area] it's kind of like Live 105 and MTV. There's also VH1 and the country music channel and billions of different radio stations, but the majority of people get most of their taste from MTV or Rolling Stone. It's been a mystery. A lot of people have asked me, "Why do you think you're popular in Germany?" It's the German-speaking nations--Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. I got signed to WEA Germany.
How were you able to get an album deal with Warner Brothers in the US eventually?
I signed to WEA Germany for the world, so it was up to them to find licensees. The guy that was the manager for Green Day was shopping my tape for America before I signed a deal with WEA Germany for the whole world. So he was over there talking to them and he knew Howie. When Howie became the president in January, the people from WEA Germany were quite close to him and said, "What about Penelope Houston?" He said, "Oh yeah, I love Penelope. What's she doing now?" (laughs) He liked the Avengers, and he liked the whole punk thing. He actually did know that I was doing a more acoustic thing, and he said, "Well, you're our first signee." I wasn't actually a signing--a licensing. Reprise was one of the labels that I was offered to in America from the German WEA. They did send it out to different people and say, "and she's an American, obviously." For an American label to license an American from a European label is just, "We either really fucked up and else we didn't want her in the first place. We're not gonna admit that we really fucked up." But since Howie knew me, he just said, "Yeah, that'd be great."
Do you have any regrets about working with a major label after being with indies?
No, it seemed like the right thing to do. The thing about European major labels is that they're, especially WEA Germany, the deal they write is much more artist-oriented. They're gonna go out and get some big producer for this next album, and it's all out of their pocket. My recording budget's all out of their pocket. So I don't owe them--they might spend a quarter of a million dollars on my record, and I don't owe them a quarter of a million dollars. I owe them like $30,000 or something like that. So it's a deal that you don't see in America. It's a much better deal. So when that happened, I thought that was great. And I also knew that I'd hit the glass ceiling of my independent labels' abilities. Normal, they're all great people. I really like 'em, I still like 'em. But it's just like, they knew they could only take my records so far.
Is your next album going to be different from the ones over the last few years?
The next record is completely all-new stuff. It's not gonna be as acoustic as things in the past. I actually fired my band when I got back from my tour, pretty much. I might have them play on a couple tracks. I'm just gonna record with different people, and not have it be a band thing. The whole reason I decided I didn't want to work as a band anymore--most people see me as an individual singer-songwriter anyway, but I've been working with the same people for the last three albums. They know that the direction that I've been pushing, I sort of fell like I'm dragging them along in a harder direction, a more electric direction. It's just too much stress to a bandleader to be playing with people and trying to get them to do stuff musically that they don't really enjoy doing. They're really great musicians and the level of musicianship has been amazing on the tours and on the recordings, but when you want the down and dirty stupid drumbeat, and your drummer is like this amazing jazz drummer who studied Indian drumming, it's just kind of like torturing you to get this sound. I thought I would just go ahead and record the next album without--just have people come in and do the parts that they're really good at.
Are the songs much different in nature than ones on your last few albums?
They're not. They're still--a lot of them are based on relationships between men and women, and my general attitude about being alive in the world. That hasn't changed that much. I still have the general attitude, which is cynical but also hopeful. I think it's probably changed a little bit since I was in the Avengers.
A lot of people would hear the music I was doing and say, "oh, this music sounded really nice and pretty and lovely and stuff. And then I started listening to your lyrics and I just thought, these lyrics are twisted and warped and weird! Or angry, or whatever. They would either like that aspect of it, or they would feel like--some people feel like the music isn't representing the lyric. Other people feel like, the lyric is ruining it for them for the music. But I think that there are many many people in the world who listen to music and don't even hear the lyrics. And for me, the lyrics have to be there. If I don't like the lyrics, I can't stand listening to the song.
What I'm trying to do is free myself up to be in a position where the music's gonna serve the gist of the song more directly and more obviously. That way, each song will be more extreme, whatever the feeling of it is.
What do you see as the continuity between what you were doing in the Avengers, and what you've done in the late 1980s and late 1990s on your own?
I guess the continuity is me. The thing that's similar about what I do now without the Avengers is just me. When I was in the Avengers, other people came up with the music, and I came up with the lyrics and the melodies. Now I come up with a lot more. But writing melodies and lyrics to music that is like your basic punk rock formulas, you're gonna tend to write things that you can shout, in a way. I didn't write very many complex melodies back then. It was more shouting. But I think if you take a song like "Glad I'm a Girl," which is on the last album, but it was written maybe five, six years ago, when I was in the throes of the acoustic thing. "Glad I'm a Girl" could be done by a punk band, and it would sound exactly like punk rock. There's nothing about it that would be in any way indicative of being a folk song, or anything like that. If you take the trappings of the music and change it, people think that somehow there's a big change. But actually, good songwriting will lend itself to different interpretations.
I think that myself and my attitude towards life and my willingness to express it is the same as it was then. I don't feel like a different person, really. The music's different, but like, big deal (laughs). For people that are really musically based, or like to listen to the music and don't even hear the lyrics, that would be like, it's totally different. But for me, it's more the feeling of what the person is saying. I can't see the huge difference. It's said differently, but I feel like I'm the same person.
I remember I used to tell people that we were a folk band when I was in the Avengers. What I meant was that we were just playing music that we made up for friends, the way the original of folk is just music of the people. It's the folk music of Mexico, or the folk music of whatever. It's music that's played by regular people. It's not played by the court entertainers for the king. It's just the music that people go out on their porch and start strumming, and the neighbors come around. When I said the Avengers were a folk band, I just meant that we were making it up ourselves, that we'd taken it out of the realm of arena rock and the gigantic showplaces, and taken it back to the garage.
I never really thought, oh, I want to do a cover version of "Wild Mountain Thyme." But there wasn't any...the loudness of the Avengers was so much of the expression. There wasn't really a chance to actually sing. I don't remember ever having monitors. I know we must've had monitors, but I don't remember looking at them and thinking, "I'm not getting enough of myself on the monitor." Everything was really loud and you just screamed at the top of your voice to be heard in live shows. I didn't think our live shows were anything...they were so different than our recorded output.
I guess it was 1984 that I did my first show that was acoustic. The idea of having these big holes in the music, where there was no sound and then my voice would come out, was the most terrifying thing to me. I thought it was much more frightening than getting up in front of a Marshall stack three-piece band and screaming your lungs out. It was like stepping on a tightrope over this huge hole that was left in the music.
And I was never a big fan of rock. I
never a rock'n'roller before I was a punk rocker. I was just a punk. I
was just doing it because it was the most exciting thing that was
It was different, it was new, and we were creating it ourselves, and I
felt the same way when I started doing this music with different
that had big holes in it. I didn't think, I'm going to start playing
music. I just thought, we're doing something new and it's exciting and
it's scary. The whole thing became more musical after that. But the way
we started it was more like the Violent Femmes. It was more like kind
a punk attitude towards really quiet music. Since then, I think I've
a lot more musical. I guess in that way, I've changed.
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