Q&A: Penelope Houston On Balancing Her New Solo Album With The Ever-Evolving Tale Of Her First Band, The Avengers


Penelope Houston, the former lead singer of San Francisco punk legends The Avengers, has her solo shoes on again with the recent release of On Market Street (Devoted Ruins), her first solitary salvo in seven-plus years. But the official reissue of The Avengers’ self-titled, posthumous LP—out this week on Water Records—is an even longer-gestating story. We caught up with Penelope while she was packing on the eve of her solo tour in Europe; she’s going over there again with The Avengers in July.

I know you don’t get the Avengers here in town too much. Last time I saw you was at a Trash Bar show in like 2008.

Oh my God, that was our fourth show in 24 hours! That was crazy. We played on WFMU, then in the city at the [old] Knitting Factory, then the same night we ran over to Trash Bar. That was some secret show, really late. And we’d done a show the night before. I thought I didn’t have any voice left at all.

Well you did—it was a great show! What’s the main difference between playing solo and Avengers tours?

Well, for Europe, it’s gotten so that we have a good booking agent, and this band we know who have a backline, driver, a van, all that. So everything is setup, and it’s easy in that sense. The performance is a little more strained on my vocal chords and jumping around, but it’s a little more relaxing in a way. For this solo tour coming up now, I feel I have to be more in charge, working with a new booking agent, a driver I haven’t met, and a band I haven’t played with before. The guitar player, Pat Johnson, who I’ve played with for years and is on the new album, his wife is having a baby soon, so he can’t go. So for some budget reasons, I just decided to use some friends who live in Germany, for the rhythm section. And because the record has so much organ and Hammond 3 on it, it was like, oh I have to have that. Great, I’m gonna lose even more money [laughs]. So I asked Chris Cacavas to come play.

Oh, he’s great! Played with Green on Red and other California kind of garage/roots type bands, right?

Yeah, he’s been living over there for awhile now. He was totally into it, even though I asked him like a month before. So it’s a all new lineup. We’re going to get there, rehearse the next day, and our first show is the next day in Berlin. We’re going to have to jump through some hoops.

The Avengers were your first band. You kind of walked into the first practice as just an art student thinking it’d be fun to be in a band, and started screaming away. Do you remember a time later in life, a little older, when you started doing the more subtle singing of your solo stuff— was there a moment where something happened to your voice, and you thought, “Oh, I better start doing like warm-ups?”

Oh yes, there was definitely a moment when that happened. That was on a European tour with the Avengers actually, just within the last seven years, where my voice just started to disappear. I needed to warm up not just before shows, but before soundcheck and rehearsals. So I’m singing loud, but I’m also singing very high in the Avengers—we haven’t changed the key in any of those songs, same stuff as I was doing when I was 19. And you know, your voice gets lower as you get older. So I really have to warm up, and try to stay away from the booze. Not so much that it dries out the voice like they say, but it makes me more talkative, so I’m walking around all night talking to people, and dragging it out more. [laughs]

Yeah, it’s like you get excited, and you’re like, “Hey, when am I gonna be in Heidelberg again to talk to this guy,” and you stay awake way late yelling over music, not even thinking about it. And then maybe you lose sleep too, which is the most important thing for your voice.

Oh yeah! Especially for the longer tours, I make a point of it. I come back, and my voice is trashed for weeks afterwards. On one solo tour in Europe, I’d lost my voice, I had a cold. And I had this wonderful bassist who sang backup. So one show, my voice had felt really trashed. And on one of the sweeter songs I hit this high note, and I thought, “Wow, I really hit that note, that sounded great!” And I looked over, and she was singing the part, and pretty much nothing had come out of my throat [laughs] But I can keep things under control now.

Ha… Okay, so, any memory of recording “The American in Me”? I think that and “We are the One” are the most influential Avengers songs, I guess.

I do remember when I first wrote that song, I went to rehearsal, and you know, the band would just play some new riff. But that song really came out of my head complete, it just tumbled out, and that was one of those “Wow” moments. It just appeared.

That “I’m a vessel” stuff can sound cheesy, but sometimes it’s true, it happens.

Ha, yeah, I rarely say that. I usually have to work over stuff, and make a conscious effort to complete a song. I’m usually pretty slow in writing. That one was done in a day. And maybe it’s my most memorable song.

How did the Avengers’ only album [self-titled, but often called The Pink Album by fans] originally come together, since it was released in 1983, and the band had been done for about three years?

Yeah, I was actually out of the country at that point. I’d moved to England, and the rest of the guys were still in San Francisco. And Danny [Furious, drummer] always had in his mind that there should be a record beyond the two 7-inch singles we did. And he just came across some people there that said they’d put it out. Then he brought in Jimmy [Wilsey, bassist] to produce it. It was basically the two of them, so I can’t speak much to it. I was gone, and I wasn’t really thinking about the Avengers anymore.

It always struck me that a lot of the California bands from that time that are now currently considered influential—Crime, Weirdos, Screamers, Germs, you guys—they didn’t really record and release much music at the time they were actually active; it’s like their legends grew through bootlegs and later rarity CD comps and such. The canonical NYC first-era punk bands, the CBGB ones, etc. they all had a number of albums, singles, hung around for a bit.

Well Sire Records was in NYC, and they really made sure that important bands of that era got records out. But in L.A. and SF that wasn’t happening as much. Dangerhouse a little, and then Slash came along. You needed people to actually get together and pay to release an album, and no one in these bands individually could afford that, I guess. So people just put their best two or three songs on 7″ singles. About six months into us being a band, Dangerhouse said they’d put us in a studio, and put out our first single, which was great!

Yeah, it’s hard to convey to really young bands sometimes what a mystical, magical, rare thing it was back then for a band you knew around town to actually have an album out. Like, wow, how is this done, where do you record, where do they press these things, who paid for this??!! It was all so foreign. Whereas now, a person can form a “band” in their bedroom and “release” a digital record all over the world so quickly…

Yeah, we could barely afford the gas to get to L.A. to sleep on some person’s floor and record at Dangerhouse’s little studio… I like to tell people that that was actually a great thing back then. Because you’d have a band playing out, and they’d work up like maybe a half hour, 40 minutes of material, a few covers, a set they could play that had been worked on for a long time. Then, when it came time to record, they’d choose their best two songs, because usually that’s all they could afford to record, or all that some little label could put out. So you got their absolute best stuff, and really worked out. And you didn’t have to wade through a bunch of shit. [laughs] And now, you can digitally put out there every single thought that came out of some kid’s brain right away. So in that sense, I think the lack of technology was a benefit.

Yeah, there’s something to be said about not being able to get your music recorded and released sometimes.

I agree!

Okay, I’m sure it’s a worn topic in your life, but can you summon up the gumption to tell us any memories about The Avengers playing on that last Sex Pistols show at Winterland in L.A. in 1978?

I would say that the crowd was mystifying. We’d been playing about eight months by the time of that show, but we pretty much knew everyone in that L.A. scene, knew the bands and the audience that would be at little punk shows. Like everyone always comments from back then, the ‘scene” wasn’t anywhere near as big as you’d think it was from legend or whatever. So for this show to have five, six thousand people there, it was like, “Who are these people?!” They’re not the usual punks. It was like people who’d heard about punk, or read about it in Newsweek or something. The crowd was not at all what we were used to, a different animal. Usually at the shows, you’d know half the people there, and you’d meet the other half after the show. It wasn’t this huge moshing throng of people crushing forward and squeezing people out, and spitting all over the stage. I’d see one face in the distance for a second, and then they’d be lost. So during the Pistols’ set, I decided to go out in the audience to see what it was like, about 10 feet from the stage, and I was instantly completely soaked in sweat. You could lift you feet off the ground and not fall down! It was so crushed. People were passing out and getting handed over the barrier. It was weird to me, cuz I wasn’t one to go to big shows. It was somewhat unpleasant.

So it wasn’t about concentrating on just watching the Sex Pistols?

Yeah, there was no space for that, it was just a crush. So I just went and watched them from the side of the stage. It was a crazy night. The Pistols hung out by themselves, didn’t hang with us at all. There were all these journalists backstage. We were all drinking the free beer, throwing popcorn and beer around, it turned into this crazy backstage riot. The photographers started taking all these pictures, and people were just acting silly. It was this moment where we were like, “Oh okay, you want us to act like ‘punks,’ then yeah, fuck you!” [laughs] But [local big-shot promoter] Bill Graham did not like punk, and it was amazing that that even show happened in that venue. Richard Meltzer was the MC that night, and he would try to incite the crowd, so he was yelling at the bands and the crowd yelling at them to spit and stuff, and I think he dropped the n-bomb or something, and the bouncers dragged him off the stage and started beating him up. I found it all unnerving.

Were you getting a sense that this was all getting bigger, or maybe it was something you didn’t want to be a part of?

Well, at the point of that Winterland show, we all felt like we had a little team. And this show, this was something else, the Sex Pistols bringing that kind of hysterical media circus with them, people waiting for Sid Vicious to puke or get a blowjob on stage or something. But we didn’t see ourselves as that at all. But as far as us on the west coast, we did see ourselves as part of this group of people that were intentionally trying to dismantle pop music as it was known, trying to take it down and replace it with something that was much freer. That we were not trying to be like bands that had gone before, that we were wiping the slate clean.

So you disband around 1979, the posthumous album comes out around 1983, and lays in limbo and/or various bootleg states since then. Why did it take so long to get a proper reissue?

It was more about not having the money and resources to tackle the job of getting all the tapes together, the rights, all that stuff. We put out a couple CD compilations along the way, live shows I didn’t know were out there, some demos—people kept coming up with rare stuff to release, while waiting on the stuff in legal limbo. So there was all this stuff out there, but the thing you really want to hear, The Pink Album, was stuck in limbo. Well, of course there were a lot of bootlegs of that album.

So why did it come together at this time?

Hmm, I’m trying to figure out a way to say this that is legal. Uh, the issues have been resolved. [laughs] The extra stuff on the double-CD was cobbled from those other comps, but those are both out of print. We wanted to offer as many Avengers songs as possible, without getting into a bunch of terrible live recordings. And the original 14-song album is coming out n a 180-gram vinyl LP, on Three Men with Beards. The three original 7-inches are being reissued for Record Store Day, on Superior Viaduct, run by another hard-working Cleveland boy. They look really cool!

As you were trying to develop your solo career, was it ever annoying being asked about the growing cult status of the Avengers?

Well, in America, sure, a lot of fans would come up at solo shows and be like, “Oh yeah, the Avengers, love that album, when is it getting reissued?!”… whatever. But in Europe, if I was known at all, it was for the solo folk stuff, as I was signed to Warners over there. People didn’t know who the Avengers were, I wouldn’t get asked much. But now, over there, maybe I spread the virus, and people ask now. I guess it was annoying at times, but really more for the fact that I couldn’t just say, “Yeah, I was in that band, and here’s the record for sale.”

And now you’ve got your new solo album, the first in seven years.

I kind of blame that on going back to school. [Houston is close to completing the bachelor’s degree she skipped out of to do The Avengers.] But also, I wasn’t writing, I didn’t have a label, I didn’t even have a band. Every year I’d say, this is the year I’m going to make an album. Finally a year ago, between semesters, I thought, “I am going to pay my good friend musicians to go into a studio that I will pay for.” I put another mortgage on my house, and finally made another album. I’m very happy how it came out.

Plus you were doing the Avengers during this along the way too.

Yeah, I basically got it back together around 1999 when Lookout! put out that rarities comp, and they wanted us to tour; and we had three remaining Avengers songs we never got to record, and wanted to record those. It was also Billie Joe Armstrong’s [Green Day] fault. He was a big fan, loved that song “Corpus Christie” and wanted to do a version of it with me. And he has a studio. And we went in there, he introduced me to Joel Reader, a 19-year-old kid bass player from the Mr. T Experience, and Danny Panic from Screaching Weasel. And I asked Greg, [Ingraham, original Avengers’ guitarist], and he was really into recording those songs. So we did it as “The Scavengers.” And we went in and knocked them out. It was super fun. I was like, “Oh yeah, this is fun! I remembered how to sing that!” The label asked us to play a show as “The Scavengers,” and it was so much fun, and it just kind of kept going from there, with a couple member changes… This current lineup has been together three times longer than the original lineup!

No chance of that original lineup ever getting back together?

Well, Jimmy [Wilsey, original bassist] is a guitar player now, he doesn’t want to go back to playing bass in a punk band. He toured with Chris Isaak for awhile. Anyway, he hasn’t thought of himself as a bass player in 30 years, so he’s sort of the holdout. And Danny lives in Sweden, and he was like, “Why the fuck did you guys do this without me?!” And we were like, “Dude, you haven’t played drums in 10 years, and, uh, you live in Sweden.” That’s an issue. [laughs] Since then, he has started to drum again in the last three years, and he might come out and do one show with us. But he’s got kids, a good job, lives in Sweden… So in July we’re doing three and a half weeks in Europe with this lineup. We play on the east coast maybe once every two years; on the west every year and a half; and Europe every three years. So it stays fresh. People still want to hear those songs, and we have fun playing them.