Penelope Houston
Second to None
by Stephen Slaybaugh

As would be befitting of their punk nature, San Francisco’s Avengers only lasted for two years before they called it quits. That the band, who only released one EP while they were active and never left their time zone to tour, is still revered more than 30 years after their initial incarnation dissolved—and not just for opening for the Sex Pistols’ at that notorious band’s last ever gig at the Winterland Ballroom—is testament to the band’s combined verve, not to mention the burgeoning talents of singer Penelope Houston.

After the Avengers’ break-up, some forays into film, and a collaboration with Howard Devoto (Buzzcocks, Magazine), Houston eventually launched a solo career. But rather than return to the raucous ways of the Avengers, Houston took a more docile approach as she explored various strains of folk, jazz and pop. While she retained a following in the States, this new direction found her a larger audience in Europe, where she was signed by Warner Music Germany.

Meanwhile, Houston and Avengers guitarist Greg Ingraham reunited in 1999, rerecording new versions of three old songs for the Died for Your Sins compilation with bassist Joel Reader (Pansy Division) and drummer Danny Panic (Screaching Weasel) as the Scavengers. They eventually went back to their own moniker as they replaced Panic with Reader’s Pansy Division bandmate Luis Illades, and to the delight of many, began playing for the first time beyond the West Coast.

Between Avengers reunion gigs and returning to college to get her bachelor’s degree, Houston found it difficult to find the time to release a new solo album. Earlier this year, though, finally saw a follow-up to 2004’s The Pale Green Girl, the self-released On Market Street. Also taking up Penelope’s time in recent years was the legal battle to wrestle the rights to the Avengers’ self-titled posthumous album, often called “the pink album” for obvious reasons, back from the CD Presents label. Fortunately, her efforts were not in vain, and the long out-of-print record will be rereleased on CD next month, this time with a bonus disc of alternate takes and live cuts. And if that wasn’t enough, Superior Viaduct is reissuing three of the band’s 7-inches for Record Store Day. As such, it seemed the perfect time to catch up with Penelope to discuss her past, present and future.

In an interview from 1996 you were talking about how poorly written the contract with CD Presents was and how, when you showed it to a lawyer, he said it would be impossible to extricate the rights to the album. So did you go to court or did the rights revert back to you?

Penelope Houston: I think it may be possible to see the court docket online. I’m telling you this because legally I’m only able to say, “The issues have been resolved.”

So you did go to court then?

PH: No, we filed the lawsuit in federal court, but we settled before the trial. It did take two years out of my life just to get to that point—getting the suit together, getting the band together and agreeing on stuff, writing a gigantic 35-item complaint and filing it, then several different motions. It went on and on, and finally last summer, we came to a settlement with the people who were holding us back. So an agreement was come to and the band has the rights to put out the record, and we’re all very happy about that.

It must be amazing that this band that existed for such a short period of time—at least in its original stage—requires so much effort.

PH: Yeah, completely. It has taken up so many years of my life! It is kind of funny considering we were just around for those two years, but I think the longevity of the public’s interest in the band is based on the songs and the recordings, so it is really great to put them out again in their original forms. People have been so excited about these songs that it has made playing them live the last eight years very important to people because they couldn’t find these songs. I suppose you could download them somewhere, but there was no going to the record store to buy an Avengers record. The songs seem to stand up. They stand up for me anyway as far as feeling totally comfortable singing songs I wrote when I was 19, which is a little amazing.

Yeah, I was going to ask you that: how you felt about those songs and also how do you think your 19-year-old self would feel about the music you make now?

PH: I don’t know if the 19-year-old could even see beyond one or two years. There was a whole period of my life from the Avengers—or even before the Avengers—until maybe 10 years ago, where if I could have looked forward two years in time, I would see someone totally different living somewhere totally different with totally different people and doing totally different things. It always amazed me. I was doing a lot of changing and two years seemed to be the period of time, and that’s how long the Avengers were together interestingly enough.

Someone just asked me which Avengers song was most important to me. There’s two of them, but one of them is “Corpus Christi.” It’s a song I’ve done in acoustic line-ups the last 20 years, so I think there were kernels of the songwriter I’ve become now in the songwriting I was doing as a 19- and 20-year-old. “Corpus Christi” is one of the songs that looked forward to the complexity of the writing that I do now. Musically, it was very different, because I didn’t write the music back then. I wrote the melodies of songs, but the band usually came to rehearsal with riffs and chord patterns. They would start playing them, and I’d start making stuff up, which for me now seems like the total ass-backwards way of doing songwriting. Now, I write lyrics, I come up with a melody, and then I come up with chords to fit the melody—it’s so easy! Jesus Christ, the way we were doing it back then was so hard! But I didn’t know because I didn’t play an instrument. So it took me a long time to write a song. We always had a song on the setlist called “new song” that didn’t even have a title. I’d get up there and maybe I’d have a chorus, but I wouldn’t have lyrics for the verses and I’d just make stuff up. “I Believe in Me” is one of the songs that I’ve kept that way. Even when I do it now, I make up the verses every time and the chorus is just one line repeated over and over again.

With the other songs was there much rewriting afterwards?

PH: There generally was never any rewriting back then. In fact, I think I wrote a song on the bus on the way to the studio to record with Steve Jones. Some people can do that—like Ricky (Williams) from The Sleepers was always doing that—but I was never that comfortable.

But it would just seem to me like a song like “White Nigger” would take some forethought.

PH: Amazingly, it probably didn’t. It would be them playing in the rehearsal studio and me going like, “What’s on my mind right now? Blah, blah, blah.” I don’t remember ever sitting down and writing a bunch of lyrics to make into a song, but once my brain caught on an idea, then I would work it out in rehearsals and shows. In fact, the version of “White Nigger” that’s on the bonus CD is an earlier version and it has a few different lines, the melodies are slightly different and there’s almost a reggae lilt to it. It’s kind of cool.

I know when Died for Your Sins came out the intention was to get the other songs that hadn’t appeared on recordings out there. How representative of all the songs is this new set?

PH: I think everything is on there except “End of the World” and then some unfinished stuff that was on bootlegs of live recordings. There are 31 tracks on the two discs and four are repeated, so that’s 27 different songs, which is pretty much everything we wrote except “End of the World.” The only version we had of it was from the Winterland recordings and it didn’t make the cut.

Now having both the Avengers and your solo career exist at the same time and having them be pretty dramatically different, do you see them as separate things?

PH: There’s a lot of crossover in the audience, so there’s that connection. I guess I feel like I’m the same person, and whether I’m singing one set or the other, I don’t present myself any differently. I just expect people to listen a lot harder when I’m doing my solo stuff. Last night was the record release party and it was the first time I played a bunch of the new songs in front of an audience. We put the last song, “USSA,” as an encore. It’s kind of a pop-punk song and I was singing it pretty hard, like if I was singing with the Avengers. I think were was a kind of a recognition in the audience like, “Oh yeah, that voice, that punk voice.”

I discovered a weird thing just a week ago. There was what I thought was a CDR in my house, and I needed to use the jacket it was in to send somebody something, so I pulled it out and left it on my computer desk. Later, I put it in my computer thinking it would open up in iTunes and instead my screen went black and a video started. It was Greg and Joel from the Avengers and myself playing an acoustic set in Rome. It was at a record store. They had asked us to play, but they didn’t want an Avengers instore, they wanted a Penelope instore. Those guys had learned six or so of my songs, a bunch of which are on this new record. I hadn’t seen or heard this in a really long time, and I was like, “Oh, it’s the Avengers doing Penelope songs. Interesting.” We sounded pretty good too, considering we only rehearsed once or twice. It was kind of cool. Not that I would really think about going on a solo tour with members of the Avengers. They could all do my material, but the temptation to suddenly bust out with Avengers stuff would be too great.

It’s funny that you mentioned “USSA” because I was thinking it could almost be a sequel to “The American in Me.”

PH: It was written in the late ’80s and never got recorded. I stumbled across a video tape of us playing it on a TV show and thought it was really good and decided to put it on the new record. It is kind of similar. One of the lyrics is referring to full-color photographs in newspapers. USA Today was a new paper at that point, and it was kind of the only national newspaper and it was also the only one that had a full-color front page. So it was in reference to the glossing over between newspapers and magazines, and the idea that newspapers presented journalism with a cold eye and magazines just sold you shit with color photographs. It was that and the breaking up of the USSR and the idea that people around the globe would somehow embrace capitalism and consumerist ideology. The whole idea of media and how it influences us and our culture is a pretty strong topic.

Having done the Avengers, do you feel like you’ve been better prepared for a solo career either pragmatically or artistically?

PH: No, probably not at all. Except for getting onstage when you’re terrified, everything else I’ve learned on my own. Songwriting—I realized that we were doing it completely wrong. I had to learn how to sort of play an instrument, the autoharp, and learn how to get a band together and keep it together. When I was in the Avengers, it was much more of a band thing. It wasn’t me dragging us into a studio or me setting up a tour or scheduling rehearsals. With the Avengers, we were a band and when our records came out, they were on labels who dealt with it. And I wasn’t so much in charge of that band. All of the skills I’ve had to learn having my own career and being in charge of my band and having my own label and website were all learned from scratch. I think there is a certain toughness that a person has to possess to have a career in music, and maybe I developed a little bit of that when I was in the Avengers, but I’m a hell of a lot tougher now. Sometimes I think I can sing the Avengers songs a lot better now than I could back then. We never went on tour anywhere, but we never could have done 30 shows in 35 days or whatever. We didn’t get the chance to try to to do that, but I know the amount of toughness it takes to be on tour and I probably would have fallen down drunk every night. I used to drink three gin and tonics before getting onstage because I was nervous, and I drank them close together. So the beginning of set would be okay, but then it would get fuzzier and fuzzier as the set went on and the alcohol went into my bloodstream. I think I’ve developed some tactics for coping since then.

Just out of curiosity, why did you drop the Scavengers moniker and go back to the Avengers?

PH: You can blame it on some people in Seattle. We were calling ourselves the Scavengers and clubs kept dropping the “sc” and having it say “Avengers” on posters, but we didn’t think about that much. Then we did a benefit in Seattle at the Shadowbox called No Voice Left Behind. It was to register young voters to help prevent the horrible second election of George W. Bush. They said it would be better for them if they could list us as the Avengers, so we said, “Alright, go ahead.” From that point on, we’ve been the Avengers. Also, I ran into some punk kids on the bus in San Francisco who recognized me and were like, “Oh my god!” I told them that we had just played a couple weeks ago, and they were like, “What?!” Yeah, the Scavengers are the Avengers really. “Why did you call it that? I couldn’t figure that out.” So to make it easy on the punk house kids, we gave in to the weight of the name.

Our drummer Danny Furious is going to be in San Francisco in September, and we might play a ¾ Avengers gig for some kind of Mabuhay reunion.

And what about Jimmy (Wilsey)? Do you talk to him?

PH: Jimmy has been playing guitar so long, I don’t think he wants to play bass. He’s been with us for all the lawsuits, and when we’re in LA, he’ll jump on stage with a guitar. I think somehow for him, the idea of playing bass on Avengers songs isn’t the funnest thing in the world. He did come and see us last time we played down there at the Museum of Contemporary Arts, but I don’t know why he doesn’t want to do the full-on reunion.

For years, Danny was pissed that Greg and I were doing the Avengers. He lives in Stockholm, but he was like, “Why didn’t you guys ask me to be in it?” It was like, how are we going to rehearse? You live half-way across the world. It’s not like you’re saying that you’ll come hang out in America and we’ll rehearse and tour. He was just somehow outraged that we hadn’t included him. He also hadn’t played drums in 10 or 12 years at that point, so it was like why are you so mad at us? But now he’s been playing drums in a band in Stockholm for the last couple years, and I’m sure he’s become the awesome drummer he was in the Avengers again. I have no doubt he can learn all the songs and we can do it with one or two rehearsals. That’s the one thing about this lawsuit: it really got the members of the band talking again more consistently, aside from me sending out an email saying, “Here’s 50 pages of legalize for you to leaf through.”