Perfect Sound Forever


All photos courtesy of Cuneiform Records

The history of Maryland's musical mavericks
by Jim Allen
(April 2008)

Among those with a passion for challenging, adventurous music, the name of the Muffins (not the new wave group that did "Echo Beach") has long been spoken in hushed tones of adulation. Cult heroes of an underground genre (the avant-garde side of latter-day US progressive jazz-rock), the Maryland-based band never saw much financial recompense for their bold sonic innovations, but their blend of avant-jazz, fusion, and British art-rock has influenced legions of like-minded musical explorers for three decades. Thomas Scott, Dave Newhouse, Paul Sears, and Billy Swann only made two proper albums before disbanding in 1981, but eighteen years later, they began working together again, ushering in a productive new era of Muffins music. Theirs is the tale of a great American band placing the joy of creation over commercial concerns, reaping artistic gains that ultimately far overshadowed the fickle whims of fame and fortune.

Keyboardist/reedman Newhouse began his musical life by teaching himself to play his parents' upright piano, and developed an early love affair with jazz. "I remember bringing home and listening to Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Moondog's first album, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus, and some of those early avant-garde modern Nonesuch records for the first time. It was immediately familiar to me." As a forward-thinking musician coming of age in the post-hippie era, his fancy eventually turned toward progressive rock as well, paving the way for his own musical endeavors. "I know that to a lot of people the mid-to-late '70s is a terrible time for American rock music, but it was a wonderful time for us and this new 'Canterbury' [Soft Machine, Caravan] style of music coming out of England. The first time I heard it I felt like I had come home." It wasn't long before Newhouse found himself playing piano with a budding prog band called Tunc ("named after an alien in a science fiction book") which included founding Muffins guitarist Michael Zentner. "We tried to emulate our heroes at the time--Moody Blues, Soft Machine, Zappa, King Crimson." All the while, he was faithfully committing his own quirky compositions to tape. "I had a multi-track reel-to-reel tape recorder at the time... I would make imaginary 'albums'... I'd decorate the boxes and title them. My first 'album' was called 'Excuse Me, Sir, But There's What Looks to Be the Remains of a Dog Dragging On the Side of Your Car.' I must have been copying those crazy Soft Machine/Zappa song titles."

Post-Tunc, Zentner brought Newhouse along to a jam session in Virginia, where bassist Billy Swann was living. There was an instant kinship. "Not only did he know all of the same bands that Michael and I knew... he had a real interesting flair: I remember he was dressed very unusually--earring... one of those 1930s newspaper boy kind of caps... a way-too-small t-shirt exposing his belly button, big green bell bottoms held up with suspenders, and I think clogs. I don't know if he dressed up like that all the time or if he did it just to impress us, but it worked." Swann convinced Newhouse and Zentner to start a new band and move in with him to a big old house in Gaithersburg, MD that would become their headquarters. "Someone found some large marquee letters," remembers the keyboardist, "and one of the only things that we could spell with them was 'Buba Flirf.' Billy nailed the letters up on the front porch roof, and so the Muffin house became known as the Buba Flirf house." Drummer Mike Aparetti came on board as well, and it wasn't long before a key player in the Muffins universe arrived. "I come from a classical and big-band jazz background," says saxophonist Scott. At the time that I met the Muffins, that was the first band I'd ever run into that just did 100% originals." The young reedman had an affinity for jazz fusion pioneers like Soft Machine as well as a feeling for such prog rockers as Gentle Giant, and he fit right in. Apparetti bowed out shortly after Scott's arrival, followed some time later by Zentner. The band elected to continue sans guitar, but after a long search, they found a new musical soulmate in adventurous drummer Paul Sears. "It was just the right chemistry," recalls Scott. "Here was a drummer who wasn't gonna be a timekeeper, he was gonna open the Muffins up."

With a properly exploratory spirit established within the band, the Muffins began crafting a unique sound in an instrumental setting. "I think Dave felt like we had this big hippopotamus in the band, that none of us are lyricists and none of us are really singers," observes Scott. "It's a problem we can solve by not going there. Which meant that the music had to keep your attention; all the different meter changes and the constantly evolving melody, and a music form which wasn't really standard became necessary to keep your attention. Where everybody else had words, we didn't, and that made us more jazz-like. But whereas jazz follows certain forms, we didn't. Definitely you could hear the influences of the Canterbury scene, and so you can't say we weren't like anybody else. And having [Henry Cow guitarist] Fred Frith come in and produce the last album before we took the long break definitely showed we were throwing our lot in with that genre, but that doesn't mean that's what we were. I don't want us to be prog-rock, and I don't want us to be jazz or avant garde, I want us to do what it is that we hear." "I believe that that's been our curse and our blessing for the band's entire existence," concurs Newhouse. "We would have had a much easier time of it if we had been in either one or the other niche, but it was difficult for us to do that. Sometimes I feel like a prog musician. Other times my heart is with jazz players. I can go to an avant-garde chamber music performance or a free-jazz Sun Ra or Art Ensemble concert or a prog music festival and feel a kinship with all of the players and the music.

Unfortunately, that free-wheeling, boundary-smashing, musical vision didn't exactly make things easy for the Muffins on the homefront. "The local Maryland/Virginia /D.C. music scene at the time was not really a great place to support and nurture our style of music," says Newhouse. "There was a strong blues/country-rock/bluegrass scene happening that made it difficult for us to fit in. At the same time punk and new wave were beginning to emerge in a big way. We all could appreciate the stripped-down-no-nonsense attitude... but it still didn't give us a place to fit in. To fill the gap we used to put on free concerts in our back yard. We built a makeshift stage and played as often as time and the weather would allow." With this grass-roots approach, the Muffins built up a small-but-rabid cult following for their unusual sound, but it never exactly took the scene by storm. "People like [Cuneiform Records founder] Steve Fiegenbaum ate it up," says Scott. "So we would do a performance and get like a hundred people in a small club, and for us that was success. But we weren't a bar band, people that came to see us play didn't drink. They weren't the drinking type." Newhouse goes a step further in acknowledging the band's uphill climb. "We were always disappointed at the responses to our performances," he admits. "Here we were, practicing very hard... getting sharp and seasoned, and then we'd play someplace and hardly anyone was there. Or if there was a decent crowd, they really wouldn't know what to make of us, and so the reaction would be tepid."

The Muffins moved from "Buba Flirf" to new house in Rockville, MD, which, in keeping with their DIY spirit, was soon home to their fledgling independent label, Random Radar Records. They released not only the band's own music but that of like-minded locals like Michael Bass and Mars Everywhere. "We took our cue from Virgin Records and the incredible flood of independent new wave recordings that were coming out and thought 'Hey, we could do this as well!'" Newhouse remembers. "We were no longer subject to our own local confines. Suddenly we had the whole world as our playground." In 1978, the Muffins released their first official album, Manna/Mirage, a challenging-but-irresistible musical statement evoking the players' broad palette of influences, but still achieving a decidedly nonpareil sound.

"It was incredibly fun," enthuses Scott. "Some of it was recorded in the Rockville house. It was a blast. We had a nice eight track machine... because we did it at home, there was no real cost to it." By contrast, the band would eschew this casual, homegrown aesthetic in favor of an almost maniacally tight approach on their next album, the Frith-produced 185. The challenging, experimental sound of Henry Cow made a big impact on the Muffins. "I was a huge fan," gushes Newhouse. "'Living In The Heart Of The Beast' [from the second HC album, In Praise of Learning] had a tremendous influence on me." While still a Muffin, Zentner had gotten to know [Henry Cow drummer] Chris Cutler, and introduced the Cow to the Muffins music. "He had brought along some Muffin tapes for them to listen to," says Newhouse. "Apparently, they liked what they heard. When "Manna / Mirage" came out, we heard that Chris and Fred both liked it a lot." After Henry Cow's breakup, Frith began spending more and more time in the U.S., eventually playing a Washington, D.C. gig with the Muffins as his back-up band. "We felt very comfortable with him," Newhouse affirms. By the time they were ready to record again, Frith was a full-time New Yorker, and he agreed to produce what would become the Muffins' benchmark album.

"When we got to 185," says Scott, "we were convinced it was time for us to play with the big boys, and that we should go into a studio and have a producer...we were very well rehearsed, and we pulled that album together in four or five days. We'd never done that before, and have never done it again." As it turned out, the eccentric guitarist was just the man to throw a well-aimed wrench in the works. "I think for Fred his approach was "'Hey, you guys are so tight, I'm gonna trash this up a little bit.' I guess that is kind of the danger of what we used to do. In the studio, it was almost too tight. The music that we were doing in 185 had kind of reached a pinnacle of mania, and I like what Fred did, because it brought a certain feel to the mania that was a little easier to deal with." "He utilized some real interesting recording techniques that were new to us," adds Newhouse. "Faraway sounds, as if the mic were in another room, the sounds of a radio tuner being moved along the dial, vocoder/modulation effects on some of the vocals and horns, backwards echo on the drums, etc. We had never had the opportunity or the inclination, really, to experiment in that way. We felt that, not only did Fred understand us and give us some new and interesting sounds, but he gave us a bit of credibility and international recognition that we were missing." The Muffins would soon return the favor, backing Frith on his 1980 album Gravity.

Despite their artistic achievements, like so many rarefied pleasures that seem too good to last, the Muffins crumbled in a quiet, gradual fashion, playing their last show in 1981. "The breakup was just a natural evolution of the band," observes Newhouse. "It was just time to move on. 185 didn't do as well as we had hoped... I think we thought that it would be the breakthrough record that would give us international acclaim or something. When that didn't happen, the wind kind of went out of our sails. I don't really recall us having a meeting about the idea of disbanding or anything. It just kind of dissolved on its own." "I was starting to have children," adds Scott. "I would get off work and rehearse two or three hours and come home dead tired; you can't raise a family that way. So for me the music was the luxury I had to give up so I could spend time with my kids."

The post-breakup Muffins channeled their musical energies far and wide. Swann played with D.C.-based Warner Bros new wave act Urban Verbs. In the late '80's, Sears formed progressive band Chainsaw Jazz, recording for the Cuneiform label. Scott, who had become quite a proficient engineer, ran a recording studio for a while, inadvertently becoming the unsung hero of D.C. hardcore by recording punk cult heroes like Government Issue. Newhouse continued working with Frith in the latter's new band, Skeleton Crew. "I went on a European tour with Skeleton Crew. I remember thinking that if the experience was a pleasant one, and if it looked like it could be turned into a profitable 'career,' then I'd continue on in music. It did turn out to be a pleasant experience. But it was not a profitable one. I decided to begin looking into a new career. Paul and I eventually moved out to separate living quarters, leaving the band house to Billy and his new family."

By the late '90's, the Muffins were basically family men with non-musical occupations, but in '99 the seeds of a reunion were sown. Newhouse identifies Sears as the catalyst. "Paul made us reunite. I blame it all on him... and the internet. We never really lost touch with one another. Paul was telling us that we still had a tremendous fan base out there. Steve Fiegenbaum had turned his Wayside Records distribution company into a full-fledged record label called Cuneiform Records. He had transferred our old albums to CD's. We decided to have a reunion at Paul's house in D.C. one year. I brought along my four-track. We jammed and recorded a song for a sampler that Steve was putting out. The chemistry was unbelievable. It was as if we had never stopped playing. It was such a joy to play together again. I know for myself that I hadn't realized how badly I'd missed it. I have never had that kind of telepathy with any other musicians."

Newhouse maintains that Sears also employed some Jedi mind tricks to instigate a new album project. "Paul began telling us about an album that we were about to produce. He was calling it Bandwidth. He talked about it as if it were a done deal. I think that was his strategy--if he talked about it with us as if it was already decided on, as if it was already a 'real' thing, then it would become a real thing."

Sears' plan worked like a charm, and Bandwidth reintroduced the gleefully quirky joys of Muffins music to the world at large. The band began gigging again, and that old Muffin magic was alive once more. "We decided that we had been missing out on something important and vowed to re-form the band in full," says Newhouse. "It's a total joy to be making music with The Muffins again. We're older and, I like to think, wiser, and much more patient and relaxed. When we see each other... it's like a party for us. We have no inclination to stop making music, and we'll continue making music until we just can't physically do it any longer."

At the time of our discussion, the Muffins were already at work on new album called Palindrome, not to mention having material for yet another album ready to be recorded, as well as plans for another volume in their Loveletter series of outtakes and rarities. Scott, while waxing rhapsodic about the band's present and future, is philosophical about its past. "In the original band, the Muffins was our life. Now the Muffins are our love and joy. We created a connection through lots and lots of improvisation, and that never went away. I have private students now. I want to pass on a little bit of what I acquired over the years to children, that's fun. If it weren't for the Muffins I wouldn't be doing that." Over time, Scott and his companions have come to a comfortable arrangement of priorities in their artistic lives. "It's not about the money," he continues. "It never was. There was a period of time when [British rock impresario Giorgio] Gomelsky said 'You guys need to come to Europe, and I'll make you, you'll be great!' And he just looked like the most untrustworthy guy I had ever seen in my life. I remember telling the rest of the band 'I am not quitting my job and following that guy to Europe! [laughs] I don't trust that man!' Truth of the matter is, that might have been the most stupid thing I ever did, but I really don't think that our music was ever going to be a big deal. See, I don't think that Henry Cow was ever a big deal; I really like their music, and they were well known by a lot of people, and admired, but I don't think they ever made a living; they barely got by. So I never deluded myself into thinking I was gonna get rich from this. No, what I knew I was gonna have was a rich musical experience, because the music was an honest expression of what I wanted to do, not what I knew I had to do to make a living."

Also see the Official Muffins website and author Jim Allen's band Lazy Lions

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