SpinningPlatters Interview: Penelope Houston of The Avengers

by Dakin Hardwick on May 21, 2012

Penelope Houston is a rock legend. She is the lead singer of seminal San Francisco punk rock band The Avengers, and actively performs with both The Avengers, and releases solo albums. She recently released a fine new record called On Market Street, as well as a 2-disc edition of the band’s 1983 debut full length, self titled release, often referred to as “The Pink Album.” The Avengers will be performing at The New Parish on Friday, May 25th.  SpinningPlatters had the opportunity to sit down with Penelope to discuss her career and her writing process.

How do you feel about people constantly asking you questions about the Avengers?

Well, they always will. It’s part of what I do. And, since there’s a new Avengers release coming out in May, it makes perfect sense.

What is this release exactly?

It’s the pink album (Avengers sole full length) on disc 1, and a second a disc of 15 tracks that didn’t make that record. Nearly all of these were from 77-79. There were four tracks from a live show in 79, right before we broke up. Two of those tracks, “Amerikan In Me” and “Uh Oh” were from the White Noise EP. Those were different versions from what was on the original record, and people kept asking me about when I’m going to release those versions again. So it’s everything you could always want. Every song that we’ve done in one form or another.

In the last ten years, there have been three Avengers releases (Live Album, Died For Your Sins, The Pink Album). Why did it take so long to  start putting these out? There was almost twenty years between the first album and when you started putting stuff out again.

There were legally difficulties. I can’t actually talk about the specifics, but there was a lawsuit, it was settled, and we are now able to release these things. It took a lot of years, a lot of struggle. The Pink Album came out in 1983, and that label went out of business, so it went out of print. The possibility of releasing it again became very complicated.

Well, a bunch of tape traders came out of the woodwork, and I kept hearing all of these songs that I haven’t heard in years. Some songs that I don’t even remember singing on!  So, I gathered those for the …Died For Your Sins record on Lookout, which they did an excellent job with.  While listening to these tracks, I heard several songs that I wanted to include, but the recordings weren’t quite good enough. So, I called (Avenger’s guitarist) Greg Ingraham, and we also found Joel Reader of Mr T Experience and Danny Panic from Screeching Weasel, and we re-recorded three songs. We renamed ourselves The Skavengers, just so people knew that we were a different band. We were only going to play one record release show, and we had a lot of fun, so we decided to keep doing it the live shows. It was cool, we got to go to Europe, and people really enjoyed it.

The Amerikan In Me live record was a full live show that somebody gave us that sounded great, so we decided to release it. The versions on that were very distinctive.  Since the other stuff was in legal limbo, we decided to put those things out in the meantime. That came out on DBK Records.

Both as a solo artist and as The Avengers, your tour routing is odd. You seem to only play here and Europe. Why is that? What is it about tourng Europe that has you going back so frequently?

Well, they treat you really well over there. We have a good booking agent, and whenever we are traveling out there, it feels like we are very safe; they take care of us nicely.

We go there, and everything is taken care of for the whole tour. We are given hotel rooms, they feed us, and most of the venues have better sound systems. And, if you are lucky, you get to bring home a little bit of money. Not a lot, but a little.  We are going back in July, and we are playing all over Europe, and it’s going to be incredible.

The problem with playing in the US is that, although you know you’ll do well in a lot of cities like New York, Chicago, Philly, San Francisco, obviously, there are a lot of other cities where you don’t know what’s going to happen. They could book you against other events, or you can end up in a tiny dive bar. You are also driving yourself around a long distance, and the clubs will never book you into a hotel or anything like that. We will do little tours here and there, and we will be doing a short west coast.

Have you ever booked Penelope Houston solo shows at the same time as Avengers shows?

I have done that a few times where there will be a Penelope show in the middle of an Avengers tour, but it’s difficult to transition between the two. It’s also hard to keep two completely different sets of a bands going. I have had the nightmare where I will get on stage and look behind me and see a band of different musicians from different parts of my career, and all I can think is “What song can all of these people possibly know?”

Is there any song that you’ve played with every band?

Corpus Christi is the closest. Nearly every band has done that. Although, in 2006, when The Avengers were on their first European tour, a record shop had me do an instore, and I had Greg & Joel on acoustic guitars and me on autoharp, and we were asked to do a set of my solo stuff, not Avengers material, and they did pretty well.  We also did a show at a museum with my solo band, and board members asked for some Avengers songs, and we were able to do that.  But, without Greg, it really doesn’t sound right.

I recently put On Market Street on shuffle against The Pink Album, and I’ve noticed a dramatic shift in the quality of your lyrics, although the core influence , the politically charged nature, seems to remain the same. What is your writing process like, and how has it changed?

This album is very much a break up album, very personal, but with a handful of political songs. Most of those songs come straight from my journal, and those things evolve into songs.

As for The Avengers, I wrote the hard way: I’d come up with melodies, and then try to fit words into the melody.  Now I write the songs, and then write the music around it.

It amazes me how little your voice has changed in the last thirty years or so…

Once I saw Patti Smith, she did a poetry reading with Lenny Kaye on acoustic guitar. She did several songs off Horses, which was a huge influence on me.  It was amazing: once they started singing, something triggered in my brain. It was like a smell triggering a memory- hearing those songs triggered something in my brain that took me back to 16 years old.  Well, people keep coming up to me after our shows with all of these stories about how our music saved their lives when they were kids. Seeing Patti Smith helped me realize that there is some aspect of the human voice that triggers memories and feelings of when you first heard it.

I’m not trying to sound exactly like I did then. I think I sing more in tune, but I can pull up that attitude still, and that’s what I think people find. I know that I sound really hard and high, and I can’t do that every night. I won’t be able to keep my voice.

The song “Amerikan In Me” had a bit of a resurgence in the early part of the Iraq War.  A lot of bands were covering it… Why do you think so many people embraced that song at that time?

I think it’s because we were brought up for generations to believe that being an American is a good thing: it means you are strong, successful, etc. That song, in 77, just having the audacity to say that the American is someone to blame for something… It was saying something that nobody wants to say. And when the world thinks that Americans are a bunch of assholes, and we make all these wrong decisions, the ability to step away from those decisions, to make that separation, it provides some sense of comfort. It’s the feeling of separating yourself from the decisions that your country is making.

It’s weird, because I wrote this song when I was 19, and I didn’t think much of it. The thing that draws people to that song seems to be the very essence of the song. It’s an emotional reaction that is a product of the times, and of being aware of what is going on in society.

Do you feel that you could write that song now?

I don’t ever sit down and try to write a political song. On the new record, “If Your Willing” is a song where I look at my position in this world, and I look at how the individual deals with their position in society. In that song, I try so show a certain amount of passion: the ability to condemn a government’s actions without seeming self righteous about it.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Fox C May 24, 2012 at 12:32 pm

I think you mean “ovarian San Francisco punk band”


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