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How late Muffs frontwoman Kim Shattuck made final album while secretly battling ALS: ‘Nothing would stop her from doing what she loved to do’

·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
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In August 2017, Kim Shattuck, the frontwoman, guitarist, and primary songwriter for seminal L.A. powerpop band the Muffs, told her bandmate of nearly 30 years, bassist Ronnie Barnett, that she couldn't grip with her left hand. That same month, at backyard party where she was supposed to perform with Vicki and Debbi Peterson of the Bangles, she couldn't play guitar (she ended up guesting on tambourine instead), and her friend unwittingly photographed an exchange between Shattuck and Barnett that fateful day.

“She's holding her hand and showing me that she can't make a fist,” Barnett tells Yahoo Entertainment, describing the ominous snapshot. “And that was her other hand. I already knew the left hand wasn't really working, but she was holding up her right hand to me. If you look at my face in the photo, I'm horrified. That is a moment that's going to haunt me forever.”

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Two months later, Shattuck was given the damning diagnosis of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which ran in her family. Her decline was tragic and swift. By December 2017, she was having trouble walking and talking; for the last year and a half of her life, she was unable to move or speak at all, and she had to use a feeding tube. Shattuck’s punk-pop chops and feral punk-rock scream on attitudinal ‘90s classics like “Lucky Guy,” “Sad Tomorrow,” and the Muffs’ cover of “Kids in America” for the Clueless soundtrack had made her one of the most exciting women in modern rock, and “for that to happen to someone like her and silence her, the whole thing is heartbreaking,” says Barnett. But despite her failing health, Shattuck was determined to release one last Muffs album.

“She contacted me and [drummer] Roy McDonald, and we all were messaging and crying,” Barnett recalls of the day Shattuck told him about her newly diagnosed illness. “But she said, ‘I want to finish this record, no matter how we have to do it.’” Shattuck got her wish, and the result is the Muffs’ excellent and characteristically hooky seventh and final studio LP, No Holiday, out this week — only 16 days after Shattuck died at age 56 due to complications from ALS.

“Her attitude was unbelievable,” marvels guitarist Adam Schary, a friend of Shattuck’s who was recruited for No Holiday once Shattuck became unable to play guitar herself. “Nothing would stop her from doing what she loved to do. I couldn't even really understand how she was just like, ‘We're making a record. We're finishing it. That's it. Disease be damned.’ She never once felt sorry for herself. She just told me, ‘OK, you need to be my hands, because my hands are not working.’ And I was like, ‘I'll be there. You just tell me what to do, and I'll do it as best as I can.’”

And so, the Muffs and Schary got to work in December 2017, with Karen Basset, Shattuck’s bandmate in her pre-Muffs group the Pandoras, engineering the record. The basis for the album were Shattuck’s unfinished recordings, many consisting of just her and an acoustic guitar. “She had all these songs that were demos or some songs that didn't make the last record, and then some of them were literally recorded on an iPhone; some of them were just recorded on a computer,” says Schary. “Nothing really new could be recorded in terms of singing, because she couldn't sing anymore.”

Obviously, given Shattuck’s limitations, this wasn’t a typical recording process. By spring 2018, Shattuck was completely immobile, and the band set up in the study room of Shattuck’s house while she remotely supervised the sessions from her chair in the adjacent living room. “She communicated to us from the other room using the Viber app. By that time, she had gotten a machine called a Tobii that would read her eyeballs, so she was able to construct sentences and communicate using that machine. So she oversaw all of it. She'd be like, ‘It's a little flat there.’ Or, ‘Do it again.’ That's how we did it,” explains Barnett.

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“She didn't compromise on anything. She was the same sort of meticulous, crazy-talented musician as she ever was,” says Schary. “We would run a long headphones cable to Kim, and we set up an Apple TV so she could see the computer screen. We'd basically be texting her from the other room, and she would say something like, ‘That's good,’ or ‘No, try this." It was a very slow process, but she knew exactly what she wanted. I think most people would just be so frustrated, but she acted like this was normal. She literally couldn't move, but her ears were so good. I'd record a part and then get a text saying, ‘You're a bit out of tune.’ There she is, in the other room, and she can't move, and she’s telling me I'm a little flat. Crazy.”

“There are some songs that that are recorded better than others. Like, when you have Kim recording her vocal and acoustic guitar track on an iPhone, you can't separate those tracks in a normal recording situation, so there are a couple tracks where we had trouble getting the vocal loud. So I’d compare it to Mag Earwhig! by Guided by Voices, where you have polished songs next to more lo-fi stuff, but it all fits together,” says Barnett.

“She sent me some songs that were just, for the most part, her and a guitar, and sometimes the guitar was out of tune, and some of them were just recorded on her phone. And she's like, ‘We're going to finish these songs.’ But you had to use that [raw] recording, because that was it,” says Schary. “I mean, it shows how good of a songwriter and how talented she was: The songs were are so good, it didn't matter that it was recorded in her bedroom on an iPhone. It made no difference.”

Unbelievably, Barnett describes the band’s mood during these unorthodox home recording sessions as “happy,” saying: “Kim kept her sense of humor until the very end. I remember when she was getting really slurry, somebody said, ‘What's this album going to be called?’ And she said, ‘That's All, Folks.’ There were some moments here and there that were sad, but it was mainly her smiling. She was still able to smile, and she still liked to hear bad jokes and dirty jokes.”

“She would joke around a lot, even towards the end,” adds Schary. “She had this electronic voice thing — the voice was a very robotic kind of voice – and all of a sudden you would hear dirty words and all this stuff coming in this electronic voice, which was amazing and hilarious.”

“About a year ago, I wrote her [an email] and said, ‘Kim, there's so much that I want to say to you, but I feel like when I'm there [at your house], that I should just make you smile and laugh as much as I can,’” says Barnett. “And she said, ‘That's perfect.’ So that's what we did. There was not a lot of sadness when I would see her. It was mainly happiness. She kept that smile on.”

During this entire year and a half, few people knew about Shattuck’s condition, and the band members admit it was difficult to heed Shattuck’s wishes and keep her secret. “She didn't want to be pitied. I don't think she wanted to be defined by being a person with a sickness,” says Barnett, who says he and McDonald were especially frustrated because “there was a misconception with the initial [No Holiday] press release — because we thought she'd still be around when the record came out and she was private about the illness — so we had to say, ‘These are tracks we had laying around, and we just fixed them up.’ And then articles started coming out referring to it as an album of ‘outtakes.’ Me and Roy were going crazy with that, because most of these songs were written for this record. We thought it was really doing a disservice to this album. But we knew the record would be understood one day.”

“I'm really glad people now know [about the circumstances], because it makes it even more amazing that she didn't want people to take pity on her,” says Schary. “I hope now that people realize what this process was. I'm so happy now like she's getting the recognition for her entire life, but this process specifically was such an incredibly touching thing. … I'm so f***ing amazed that it got finished. Recording an album is hard enough, but doing it in this way is impossible. The fact that it came together is amazing.”

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Shattuck indeed has gotten recognition for her entire life’s work. Among the many admirers that have paid tribute since her Oct. 2 death are the Who, who displayed her photograph and the salutation “Rock in Peace, Kim” on the jumbo video screens at their recent Hollywood Bowl concert, and Elvis Costello, who took to Facebook to praise her original music (including the new No Holiday track “A Lovely Day Boo Hoo") as well as the Muffs’ cover of his song “No Action.”

Says Barnett, “When Elvis Costello praises your songwriting… I mean, Kim would've been just over the moon about both of those. She didn't like a lot of music. She had a very narrow focus. But she did love Elvis Costello and the Who.” Adds Schary, “Kim loved the Who. It's funny, because there's a song on [No Holiday] that is a really Who kind of song. It's called ‘The Kids Have Gone Away.’ Even the title is like a Who title! It’s like a straight-up Pete Townshend song, with Kim’s thinking on it.”

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Barnett, McDonald, Schary, and everyone else in the Muffs camp are of course crestfallen that Shattuck didn’t live long enough to see No Holiday’s release, but they take comfort in knowing that she was thrilled with the album, and they are grateful for the time they got to spend with her while making it. “All of us were just so happy. We would constantly tell each other how we loved the record. And over these past couple years, all we did was tell each other how we much we loved each other,” says Barnett.

“There's things Kim would say, like, ‘I wish we could play this song live with you.’ I could feel the emotion, even if it was just a text or an electronic voice,” says Schary. “She really liked the songs and the way they came out. I get chills that I've even been a part of something that's so special, and the fact that she trusted me with this is something I will never forget. She motivated me to do this and had complete faith in me. I took it very seriously, and I'm so happy that she was happy with it. That's all I wanted, was for her to be happy with the record.”

As for what Shattuck would want listeners to take away from what many fans will consider her Blackstar, Barnett muses, “She would just want people to like the record. She wouldn't want it to be looked at like this tombstone that it is kind of now. She would just want to make a good record that people like, and she wouldn't want people to be sad. Kim would want us to smile, think of her, and say she was good. Yeah.”

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