THE AVENGERS PENELOPE HOUSTON INTERVIEW BY STEVE OLSON;
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARCUS LEATHERDALE AND PENELOPE HOUSTON
It’s the American in you. It’s not what you can do for your country. It’s what your Country can do to you. With that said, start a band and sing what you believe. Change is for the good… From Punk to Art. From Art to Punk. And back again. Talent is one thing. Pulling it off is another. The proof is in the outcome. Penelope is the proof. If you don’t know, you should. Then, when you realize, you’ll understand exactly what I’m talkin about. – INTRODUCTION BY STEVE OLSON
Hello, Penelope, how are you? Where are you right now?
Right now I’m at my home in Oakland, California. I live in a 100-year-old house and I’ve been here for over 20 years. I have Warner Bros. to thank for that because I had my only major label deal in the ‘90s and I got a little advance and I used it to put a down payment on this house, along with my husband at the time. I thank him too. This house is the best thing that I got out of that whole deal, so that’s awesome. I paid a mortgage on it for 20 years, so it wasn’t like I bought it with cash. Some people can do that. So I’m in my house in Oakland and it’s a beautiful sunny day and I have all of my art stuff around me and a big kitchen and a garden that is a giant mess and a big garage full of garbage. [Laughs] That’s what happens when you live in one place for a long time, I guess.
I know it all too well. So where do you come from originally?
I was born in L.A. I didn’t live there very long, but I think coming back to California was always in the books for me because I had some L.A. experience. I lived in upstate New York, in Potsdam, but most of my life I spent outside of Seattle in Bellevue, Washington, from third grade through high school. The Pacific Northwest made an impression on me. In ’77, I went back to California to go to art school and that’s when the Avengers got started. After that, I lived in L.A. for a few years and then London for a few years, and then I came back to the Bay area, so this is my home.
So you have traveled around and lived in different areas. As a kid, what did you do in the Pacific Northwest?
From seventh grade on, I went to an alternative school. It was a very small school, so we would play soccer with people from other alternative schools because all these schools were too small to have sports teams or anything like that. I got to grow up with a lot of weirdoes around. My mom was also a weirdo.
Were your parents married?
Well, they were separated and I lived with my mom. My dad had been a hippie and then became a Socialist Economics professor at the University of Pittsburgh. He was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania until he retired. My mom was a painter and a musician and I followed more in her footsteps. She ran her own Gilbert & Sullivan musical theater group for almost 40 years, so I was in one or two of her productions. I would do posters for her too. Then I went to a hippie college up in Bellingham and met some interesting people. I moved back to Seattle and was hanging out with The Tupperwares, who became The Screamers – Tomata du Plenty and Tommy Gear, who was known as Melba Toast in time, and Satz from The Lewd. He was Satin Sheets. They were all part of Ze Whiz Kidz. Then Tommy and Tomata and Rio de Janeiro split off and started doing this more proto-punk thing with The Tupperwares. It was an interesting education. When I was 19, I moved to San Francisco to go to the Art Institute, in the December of ’76. The punk scene was just beginning.
How was the city in ’76, when you moved there? Was it a shock to you?
No. I had spent time in Seattle, so it wasn’t that different from most cities. I just remember San Francisco being like a black and white photo and then punk came in and, suddenly, you saw someone with blue hair and they stood out like a burst of color. I was going to the Art Institute and working on painting and print-making and punk rock and that’s when the band started.
So art was always around you from your mom. Did your mom start you painting and drawing when you were young?
Yeah. We would do a lot of drawing and painting. I was the youngest of three. I had a sister and a brother and she had us doing illustrations for T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which was a book of very funny poems. She made a full set of marionettes for Alice in Wonderland and we would put on little shows in a homemade marionette theatre. Then there was always music. My sister played the cello, my brother and I played the violin and my mother played the piano and harpsichord. I was terrible, but they were more accomplished than I was. We were in little youth symphonies in Seattle too, so we had a lot of music and art around.
When did you fall in love with music?
It was always part of my life and I never thought of a world without music. I didn’t actually fall in love with rock n’ roll until I was a teenager. I had a couple of albums growing up. As a kid, I had a Cat Stevens album and a couple of Beatles albums and maybe a Joni Mitchell album, but no one in my house was a big popular music record collector. We had classical music in the house and also Gilbert and Sullivan, so music was always around. I started listening to rock music when I was 16 with friends. I was the only rocker in my family.
Did your siblings influence you at all?
My sister is a geophysicist and my brother became a rock climber. It’s weird because my grandfather on my mom’s side is from Greece and his last name was Vrachopoulos, which means ‘Son of Rock’. He was a stonemason and a carver of grave stones. Rocks are part of my sister’s career and my brother is a rock climber and I became a punk rocker, so we all ended up into some kind of rock.
When you moved to San Francisco for art school, what kind of art were you hoping to learn about?
I had always done figurative art, so I was taking painting and printmaking from the Art Institute and trying to ignore the requirements for other aspects of a college career, and just do art classes. A lot of my friends were photographers, but I didn’t do photography. I ended up in a lot of their photos though, which was awesome, just to be able to have those all these years later. I would say that portraiture and figurative art was something that I was interested in right from the start. I haven’t really swerved away from that too much. Some of my prints are a little bit more abstract than my paintings. The last semester that I was at the Art Institute, in painting class, I handed in a 84-page Xerox book of set lists, band names, fliers and weird collages having to do with early punk rock and I got an “F”. After I left, they started a course called New Genres, which that booklet would have fit into much better, but my painting teacher was like, “Nope.” I thought, “My band is keeping me really busy and I’m just done with this school stuff.” So I dropped out.
How old were you when The Avengers formed?
I was 19 when the band started. Danny and Greg were probably about 23 maybe or 22. Jimmy was basically my age. I think he was 20 when he joined.
I saw you play a few times. There was one show that I remember so well. It was amazing. I was a skateboarder and Santa Cruz Skateboards sponsored me and I saw you play at Santa Cruz College.
Was it the College 5? We played College 5.
I think so. It was so great. I also had friends in San Francisco like Terry Nails and Johnny Patterson or Hugh Patterson. I saw you play and I was floored by the power of it. Your vocals were great and what you were singing about was also fantastic, so you had an influence on me as a kid.
Oh, that’s awesome.
I loved it. I loved the Avengers. I knew Jimmy pretty well, later on. I met him in San Francisco when I lived up there in the early ‘80s. I remember I saw him on Polk Street at some pizza joint. I said, “Hey, I saw you and the Avengers. Maybe we should do a punkabilly band.” We were doing this punkabilly band and then he joined Chris Isaak and I did a gig with Hugh.
What was your band called?
That band was called Cowboy Zero. We played three gigs up there and it was really quite good, I thought. We played one of Hugh’s old No Alternative songs, “The Good Die Young” or something.
What did you play?
I played bass, but that’s beside the point. When I saw The Avengers, the guitar player was attacking his guitar, and Jimmy was on the bass and the drummer was attacking his drums and you were out there as this amazingly sexy singer with your short blond hair. I’m just saying this is the honest truth. I was so deeply moved by it. I thought, “I will go back and see this band whenever and wherever I can.” It had a profound impact on me.
That’s awesome. Most of the people that I do interviews with were not around back then. It’s so nice to talk to somebody that actually saw it.
I saw it and I really loved it. So how did the Avengers form?
Well, I was at the Art Institute and Danny Furious, (Danny O’Brien) the drummer, had done a bunch of art, so we met as art students or at the Mabuhay. He was putting a band together with his friend, Greg Ingraham. They had grown up together in Fullerton, down in Orange County. They had a glitter band, kind of a hard rock, glam band, called Head Over Heels back in Fullerton. He was trying to get Greg to move to San Francisco to start a band with him and he was looking for a singer. Danny and I had started going out. He was living in a warehouse on Third Street out by the water and I was staying over there quite a bit, because we were getting to be a couple. They had a PA set up and one day I put on a Patti Smith record and I started singing along with it through the PA. I was like, “Whoa!” I fell in love with being extremely loud and amplified. When they came back from being wherever they were, I said, “I’m going to be your lead singer.” And Danny said, “Oh, ok.” So we formed a band. We had a bass player who was a photographer at the Art Institute, Jonathan Postal, for maybe four or five shows, but that didn’t work out because he was more of a power pop guy. Then we found Jimmy [Wilsey] on Polk Street. I saw Jimmy sitting on the street playing guitar and I asked, “Do you play bass?” He was like, “Yeah. Sure.” So we asked him to try out for the band. He didn’t even have a bass. He went and pawned one of his guitars and got a bass from the pawnshop on his way to our rehearsal/audition and we were like, “You’re it.” So Jimmy was in the band. From there, we just started moving forward.
“It was sold out and we had only played in front of 500 people before that. It was terrifying and then I slipped on a lugie on the stage. At the beginning, when I was speaking between songs, my voice was shaky because it was terrifying. By the time we got to the end of our set, we were jubilant and triumphant and had overcome our fears.”
Where did the name come from?
We had a list of possible names and I had a friend in Seattle who said he was going to start a project called the Art Avengers on July 7, 1977. It was going to be a nationwide event where people would do art performances, so I just stole the Avengers from that. Also Jonathan said, “There’s a million bands called the Avengers in Long Island.” There were a lot of bands called the Avengers from the ‘60s too and it was a fairly generic name, but we thought it was going to work.
I thought it sounded very punk rock.
Well, now, if you try to Google it, millions of movies come up.
Oh yeah. That English TV show pops up quickly too. Emma Peel was very sexy as well and had a good sense of style.
I was a fan of Emma Peel too. The ‘60s British show was over by the time we picked the name, so we didn’t think there would be any confusion. We didn’t know that the Internet would exist, so now confusion reigns and there are all kinds of Avengers.
Right. Well, there is no confusion over here about who the Avengers are.
For punk rock, we pretty much nailed it down as our name.
Where did you come up with what you were writing songs about?
Well, at the first show we did at a warehouse party for friends of ours, we were playing covers. Then we got our actual first show at the Mabuhay. It was a late night show at an after party for The Nuns because they had gotten a gig at Winterland. They were like, “You guys should play our after party.” In between that warehouse show and our first gig at the Mabuhay, I went to L.A. and was hanging out with Tommy and Tomata from the Screamers and they said, “You’ve got your cover songs, but you have to write your own material.” I was like, “Oh.” So I went back to San Francisco and I said to the band, “We have to write our own material.” We had five days until the gig and we wrote five songs and three of them stuck. “Car Crash”, “I Believe in Me” and “Fuck You” were in our first set.
Was it crazy to play a live gig for you?
Yes. We got up there and played one song and it went okay, but I was pretty nervous. Then the band started playing the next song and I thought, “I can’t remember the lyrics to this. I don’t know what this is. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be singing here.” I was dumbfounded. All of a sudden, everyone stopped playing and the guitar player and bass player looked at each other and said, “What song are you playing?” They were playing two different songs. [Laughs] That’s why I couldn’t figure out what song it was. Then they started playing the same song and I was like, “Oh, okay. I know how to do this.” There was that one terrible moment where I thought, “Oh shit. This doesn’t sound at all familiar to me. I’m a failure.”
Oh, that’s nerve-racking.
Yes. That was funny. That was the second song we did at a club. I had no idea what was going on.
Do you remember who else was on the bill at your first gig?
Let me look. I have this amazing little book where I wrote down every single show we played and every band we played with and how many people came and what the ticket price was and how much we got paid. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep a journal at that time, so this daybook is the only source of accurate memories. Apparently, no one else played that first show at the Mab with us. We made zero money and there was no cover charge. It was June 11, 1977. Our next show was at the Rio Theatre out in the town that Billie Joe Armstrong grew up in, Rodeo. It was a week later, June 18th, and we played with the Nuns. I think Mary Monday was on that bill and we made $37. [Laughs]
That probably covered gas and beer.
Exactly. Then we got more shows at The Mabuhay. We played with Crime, the Screamers, Berlin Brats, Street Punks, The Nuns… By October, we were headlining The Mabuhay. In October, we played with Psycotic Pineapple and we were headlining, so we made 50% of the door and that was a lot. The tickets were $2.75 and we made $221.
That’s not so bad.
If you charged too much, people would come and picket your shows. That happened to us once. There was a group called New Youth made up of pretty much underage girls, plus Peter Urban, and they were trying to form an all ages club. They picketed one of our shows because we charged $3.75.
That’s crazy. They picketed over a dollar.
Yeah. It’s funny that you mentioned that show at Santa Cruz at that school. We played that show with Roy Loney and the Suburbans and they paid us a flat $500, which was really good in those days.
I remember the Suburbans. I haven’t thought of that band in a long time.
Yeah. This book is great because it’s got pretty much all of the opening bands. Somebody will write to me and say, “I was in a band that played with you guys.” I’ll say, “Yeah? What were you called?” They’ll say, “The Potato Chips.” I’ll look at my book and, sure enough, we played with The Potato Chips in ’78. Can you believe it? [Laughs]
I love that. Weren’t you regulars at the Mab? The scene was really good there.
Yeah. Over the two years that we were together, we played 111 concerts and at least 25% of them were at the Mab, which was definitely one of our mainstays. We played the Whiskey in L.A. a lot too.
Did you play the Masque?
We played the Masque in November of ’77. We played with the Nerves and the Zeros. We played a Friday and a Saturday and it actually got filmed. That was our third time in L.A. There is a film of that on YouTube. It’s very cute. The sound is very shitty, but we looked amazingly young.
That’s always nice. When you were going to play at Winterland with the Sex Pistols, were you tripping that you had come to this place in your career where you’re opening for this giant band from England that had turned the music world upside down?
We were pretty excited. We already had our first EP out on Dangerhouse. “We Are The One,” “Car Crash” and “I Believe in Me” are on that EP, which came out in October ’77. The show at Winterland was January ’78 and their tour manager, Rory Johnston, was a British guy who lived in L.A. and he was interested in managing us, so he got us on the bill as the support band. The Nuns had played Winterland a bunch of times. I think they were friendly with Bill Graham, so they got on the bill as the opening act and they were pissed off.
They were mad that you were opening for the Sex Pistols and they were opening for you?
Yeah. They were playing Winterland even before our first show, so Jeff Olener called me up with his New York accent and he asked, “Do you guys want to switch places with us?” I was like, “Uh, thank you for calling and offering, but no. We’ll just see how it goes with us supporting the Pistols.” So that’s how it happened. The Nuns played first and, by the time we went on, the stage was covered in spit and bottles and cans and whatever people had thrown at the Nuns. I walked out on stage and there were between 5,000 and 6,000 people. It was sold out and we had only played in front of 500 people before that. It was terrifying and then I slipped on a lugie on the stage. At the beginning, when I was speaking between songs, my voice was shaky because it was terrifying. By the time we got to the end of our set, we were jubilant and triumphant and had overcome our fears. There was also a moment where we started playing a song and we stopped because two people were playing different songs again. It was less than 10 seconds of a song and then we started it over. It was an amazing concert. One reason it was memorable was that there was a four-camera crew shooting it and it was different than anything we had done. It was like stepping into the deep end of the pool.
Right. How was the audience reaction?
There were a lot of people that we knew. There were people from Los Angeles and Seattle that we had played to before, so it was a good response for us. There were another 4,000 people that had never seen us and had just heard about punk rock and only knew that you were supposed to throw things and spit and act badly. Anyone that we knew or was a fan of us was probably drowned in a sea of wannabe punkers. You’d spot somebody out there and then their head would disappear into a sea of heads. People were actually passing out and getting handed over the crowd. When the Pistols were playing, I went out and stood in the crowd and I was immediately covered in other people’s sweat and thought I was going to pass out. It was so hot. While we were on stage, I told people to take a step back because people looked liked they were being crushed on the front barrier. It wasn’t a particularly sympathetic audience although people definitely responded to our songs and we got applause. We also didn’t egg anyone on like the Pistols did. Someone threw a camera and Johnny Rotten was trying to get people to throw more stuff onto the stage.
Obviously, the Sex Pistols broke up that night. After that show, did anything come from it for you and the band?
Yeah. When Steve Jones was back in town, Rory set it up so that Steve produced some recordings with us. That’s what ended up being our next EP, which came out right after we broke up. That was the White Noise EP. We went into the studio with Steve Jones, so that came out of it. Of course, it also cemented our standing as one of the San Francisco punk bands. At that point, there was no denying it.
“When Steve Jones was back in town, Rory set it up so that Steve produced some recordings with us.
What about the song you wrote, “The American in Me”? Where did you draw that from?
I wrote that in November 1977 around the the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, so it was on my mind. I came into rehearsal and Greg said that he had a song he was working on, which was basically a bunch of chords. I just started singing and it just came out. Boom! It was one of those amazing moments where a song just comes out of your brain, which was rare. When we would do a show, we had other songs on the set list that would be called, “New Song” because I hadn’t named it yet or figured out the lyrics. The band would be like, “Let’s play that song!” I’d say, “I’m still working on it.” They’d be like, “It’s okay. It’ll be fine.” I’d get up there and just go with it. One time there was a set list that said “New Song” and then, later on in the set list, it had another “New Song”. There were two songs that I was still cooking up. It was a terrible way to do it. When I started my own solo career, we only played songs that I actually had all of the lyrics and titles for. “The American In Me” wasn’t like that. It just came out off the top of my head and then I wrote it down. It was magical. It was one of those rare moments of inspiration.
Did you think there was a rivalry between the L.A. and San Francisco punk scene?
Yeah. People used to say there was. There was kind of a fake rivalry between the Weirdos and us. The other thing was that we played The Whisky a lot. Since Greg and Danny were from Orange County, people used to pretend that the Avengers were from L.A. Over the years, a lot of the reviews of our records described us as an L.A. band. Both Dangerhouse and White Noise Records were in L.A., so people saw the address and assumed we were from L.A. I was born in L.A. too, so, if there was a rivalry, we were probably one of the more accepted San Francisco bands for the L.A. scene. We were friends with the Screamers and then I moved to L.A. after the band broke up in ’79.
Why did the band break up?
That’s a good question. Greg, our original guitarist, who I play music with now when doing Avengers shows, quit the band in December of ’78. I think he and Danny had an argument. We had an opening spot with The Runaways at The Old Waldorf and we had to cancel that. We had shows that we did do with Tony Kinman from the Dils playing bass and Jimmy switched to playing guitar. We did one show with Craig from Negative Trend on bass and Jimmy on guitar. Then we got Brad Kent from Vancouver Canada to play guitar with us for the last six months we were together. We already had this change in our sound because Brad was slightly more prog-metal. We wrote one song with Brad that I loved, “Corpus Christi”, but there were not a lot of songs with Brad. Danny and I had been a couple through the whole Avengers and we were starting to get a little rocky. I wasn’t the one who decided that the band was going to break up, so it was not my choice. Overall, most of the people we knew were not getting signed and nobody had the money to put out an LP. I think the Dickies were the only band that got signed. The labels that formed later that supported a lot of L.A. and San Francisco bands had not really started up. Slash Records wasn’t really started then and Dangerhouse was fading away.
Dangerhouse had some really good acts.
They did have a lot of great stuff. Mostly, they had singles, but they had Dangerhouse compilations and they had an X album. They had a lot of stuff, but they didn’t have a lot of money for putting out albums. Although we recorded a bunch of stuff, there was nobody that came forward and said, “We’re going to help you guys record an album or give your band support.” There wasn’t very much radio for new bands either. There were other people going in the New Wave direction for more exposure or something. I think that we felt that we had hit a plateau. I don’t know. Bands fall apart. I still don’t think that any of us thought, “Oh, this is the worst thing ever. We should keep going.” I think we all were like, “Okay. Let’s stop.”
How about the fashion sense of punk rock for you when it was new to you?
That was amazing. A lot of it was based on what you could find in thrift stores. It was very much DIY and make up your own clothes, spray paint things, color things, draw on things, rip ‘em apart and pin them back together. We did that before any knowledge of fashion. We weren’t super fashion plates. There were bands that were definitely more into a look. Crime had the police uniforms and the Mutants had these crazy outfits because Sally and Sue were queens of the thrift store. The Weirdos had their exploded closet look. The Avengers definitely thought about how we looked, but not to a huge extent.
You had your short spiky hair, which seemed groundbreaking in comparison to the glam scene and rock n’ roll scene.
Yeah. I actually had some short Bowie-esque hair when I was about 16 in Seattle. My hair, I have to credit Mary Lou Green. She was the Art Director at the San Francisco branch of Sassoon. They were the only ones that could get Crazy Color. They would bring it over from England when no one could get Crazy Color. I remember having turquoise blue hair really early on in the ‘70s. I went there just to be a hair model and said, “Do whatever you want. I leave it completely up to you.” She used to do all this great stuff, so I have to thank her for that. In fact, when we played with the Pistols, she did this thing where she bleached my hair and it was short in a crew cut length and then she put this rubber swim cap with holes in it on my head and she pulled little tufts of hair through it and dyed that hair black, so I had salt n pepper hair. It was the most difficult way to get salt and pepper hair. Now I have natural salt and pepper hair because my hair is turning gray. It’s like, “Wow.” It used to be so much trouble and now all I have to do is let it grow in. One time I went to Sassoon and this is a skateboarding-related story. When Danny was living in the warehouse south of Market, there were a bunch of skateboards. This warehouse was huge and you could see all around it.
I went to a party at that warehouse off of Third Street. It was gigantic.
It was at the American Canning Factory. There were a bunch of huge spaces there and he had one of them that he shared with a couple of different people who were artists, so I don’t know if you were in his or another one. It was huge and there were these beams that were going across and they used to build lofts up in the beams. There was a guy who rented a space up above and, in order to block the landlord from seeing that loft, they had hung these long curtains. The beams were maybe 20 feet up, so they hung these long curtains from the beams and put metal bars on top to hold the curtains. They didn’t attach them in any way except to have this metal bar on top of the curtains. So I was skateboarding around very poorly because I didn’t know how to skateboard very well and I got up to the curtain in the front and I was slowing down and I reached out and grabbed the curtain to hold myself up on the skateboard and the curtain came down in my hand and this metal bar hit me in the head. I had a huge egg on my forehead and I got two black eyes. I went to the free clinic and the doctors asked, “What happened?” I was like, “It’s a long story involving a skateboard.” I started to explain and they were like, “Okay. Wait here.” Fifteen minutes later, a cop comes in and says, “Can I talk to you about what happened?” I said, “Honestly, nobody punched me. I was skateboarding and it was a complete accident.” [Laughs] Then I went to see Mary Lou at Sassoon and she looked at all of the colors in my black eyes. There was purple, yellow, green and blue, so she dyed my hair that way. That was one of the coolest hair color jobs I had ever gotten. It was reddish at the base and then a little bit of yellow and some purples and blues. It was like, “Whoa!” My black eyes really stood out, so that was fun. That is my best hair color and skateboarding story all in one.
Nice. I went to a party at that warehouse after I saw the Dead Kennedys, the Cramps and the Clash at the Kezar in Golden Gate Park in the fall of ’79 and I was taken back by how gigantic it was.
Yeah. That was a great space. I don’t think we were in there very long. By the end of ’77, we had moved to North Beach. Most of us lived together in an apartment in North Beach with Tony from the Dils. It was a crazy household. It was me, Danny, Tony and Jimmy. Greg lived by Hamburger Mary’s in SoMa with Chip from the Dils. It was this whole Avengers and Dils household situation.
That’s what ended up being our next EP, which came out right after we broke up. That was the White Noise EP. Of course, it also cemented our standing as one of the San Francisco punk bands.”
That’s excellent. What about after the band broke up? Did you move to L.A. with Danny or did you guys break up as well?
No. Danny and I broke up and then the Avengers broke up. Greg had already left town I think. Then Jimmy got in the Silvertones with Chris Isaak. Danny ended up playing with Joan Jett and he’s the one who named the Blackhearts. Danny was the first drummer for Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. Danny played with a bunch of people. He was on tour with Jorma Kaukonen from Jefferson Airplane, and I think he joined Social Distortion for a hot minute, but he kept getting kicked out of bands. He had a serious substance abuse problem and ended up moving to Sweden. After The Avengers broke up, I moved to L.A. to work with a Dutch filmmaker, Rene Daalder, who was working with The Screamers, and he put out a movie of stuff that we worked on.
What were you doing?
We were writing songs and I was in the movie. The movie was called Population: 1 and it starred Tomata from the Screamers. In the meantime, Rene managed to sorta break up the Screamers as well.
Wow. Was it more of an avant-garde film?
No. It had a plot. Tomata was the last man on the planet and he was living in a bunker and it was his memories of life. It’s kind of a musical. It’s nutty.
Can you see it anywhere?
I think you can stream it somewhere somehow. It’s an odd film. There are definitely DVDs of it floating around in the world. So that took a couple of years. That’s also when I started writing some of my own music, which was a little more on the folk end of things. Then I went to England to work with Howard Devoto from the Buzzcocks. He did a solo album called Jerky Versions of the Dream and I’m singing in the background of one song. He had me come out there, because he didn’t know if he wanted to sing on his solo album. He thought maybe he would just write songs and produce it and get a female vocalist. I was also writing lyrics, so we kinda clashed in a way, and he ended up singing on his own album with another female vocalist doing parts. I was in London for a while and that’s when I saw the Violent Femmes play and it was incredible. It was the Violent Femmes and Morrissey and Kurtis Blow, the early rapper. The Violent Femmes really struck me too. When I was growing up, I was into all of these folk bands like Fairport Convention and The Incredible String Band and Joni Mitchell and then I fell in love with Tom Waits and Patti Smith. For me, the Violent Femmes were a stepping-stone between punk and folk. They were pretty dark folk rock, so I decided that I would pursue that. By early ’81, I’d fallen in love with someone in England and moved to England and we got married. Then we ended up coming back to America to do a walkabout. We bought a car in Seattle and drove it down the West Coast. We were going to drive across the country to New York and sell the car and then fly back to England. We still had an apartment completely full of stuff in England that we never went back to. [Laughs]
You never went back?
Right. We ended up driving down to L.A. in the car. It was a nice 1966 Dodge Dart – an old beater. It died on us, so we had to have it fixed and we came back to San Francisco. Then I ran into Greg from the Avengers and he didn’t have a band and he had been writing a lot of very complicated, crazy music without any lyrics, so I said, “Let’s work together on some songs.” I convinced my husband, Mel Peppas, that we should stay in San Francisco for a while and work on some music. We ended up staying and working on music and putting together a band. Mel started playing the mandolin, which had belonged to my Greek grandfather. Mel is half Greek and half English. So we just stayed here and started making this folk, punk acoustic music.
Were you playing out?
We did play out from probably ’84 and then it just got bigger and bigger. Then I started touring and having records come out on smaller labels. Then I got signed to Warner Bros. in Germany in ’91. First, I was on a small label in Germany and I toured a bunch with my band in Germany.
What was the name of that band?
Penelope Houston And Her Band. [Laughs] That started to take off in the late ‘80s.
When it started to take off, were you touring the world?
We would go to Europe and play 35 towns in a row. We were just going and going and getting more and more popular. We had a label and a few albums out. That’s when Warner Bros. Germany got their eyeballs on us. It was called New Folk or Neue Volksmusik in Germany. They signed me to a two-album deal on Warners and then I got licensed back to Reprise for America, so I have two albums on Reprise from my solo stuff. I knew Howie Klein from the old punk rock days. He was like, “We’ll license your record.” When you’re licensed though, you don’t get the same sort of attention as if they had signed you themselves, so my star was shinier in Europe than it was in the U.S. for that stuff, but I did manage to buy my house from that. So I had some success with that and then I got more into the rock end of folk.
What is the rock end of folk?
I think if you listen to my last records, that’s it. My first record, Birdboys, came out on Subterranean in ’87 and that’s when I moved back to San Francisco. I had a cover of “Wild Mountain Thyme” on it and there are some songs without any drums and there’s mandolin everywhere. It’s more on the folk end of things. By the time I started working, I had a drummer and electric guitar and acoustic guitar. For a few years, I had a stand up bass, acoustic guitar, mandolin and a drummer, and sometimes an accordion player. That went on for a while and that was fairly successful. For my second major label album, I went in a different direction with a different band. I also co-wrote some songs with Jane and Charlotte from The Go-Go’s and Chuck Prophet. When I say rock, it’s more in the Chuck Prophet end of rock, instead of the Joni Mitchell end of folk. My last three studio albums were more in the folk rock end of it, and less in the ethereal chamber folk end of it where I started out. Birdboys was self-produced. We put together a bunch of recordings and someone was like, “Let’s put this out.” For my second solo album, I scraped together some money so that we could go into a real studio, in the middle of the night to get the cheap rate, and we recorded The Whole World. That one got the attention of a German label and that’s when we started going to Germany and doing shows. They had success with it and they financed my third album, which was called Karmal Apple, which only came out in Germany. That sold really well and got me the attention of WEA Germany. They signed me and I did two more albums with them more in the folk rock direction. After that, I recorded another two studio albums. Each one was like seven years apart. My last album came out in 2012. The last two were self-funded. On Bandcamp, everything is there except the Warner Bros. albums because I don’t own those. The Avengers are on Bandcamp too, so people can get my 12 records discography.
Wow. That’s a lot of records.
Yeah. There are seven studio albums and five live albums or compilations.
Did you continue painting and making art throughout all of this?
Once the Avengers started, I didn’t do any painting until I went back to school, which was about 12 years ago. What I did do was that I got a job at a library, when I was living in L.A. When I came to San Francisco, I got a job at a library here. I was just a lowly page and I worked part time.
Do you know Tim Lockfeld? He worked at the San Francisco library too. I’ve known Tim forever.
Yeah. He’s one of the skateboarders that I know. So I worked at the library part-time through a large part of my solo career. When I got signed to Warner Bros. and, even before, I was doing so many tours that I had to quit for about seven years. After the Warner Bros. deal was over and I was doing my own recording and financing, I needed to get a job again, so I went back to the library. Then I became a library technician, which is a higher-paying job. That’s what Tim was doing too. We worked together in the same department for a while. We shared a desk and we were on opposite schedules, which is funny.
“I painted a pair of mug shots for a guy known for building a lot of skateparks in Montana. He commissioned a couple of mug shots from Montana, but he let me find them and pick which ones I wanted to do. I picked eight and he chose two of those. It’s a couple of petty criminals from 1940.”
That is funny. When you toured Europe as a folk artist, were people aware of your Avengers’ affiliation?
Barely. Over there, they would say, “It’s Penelope Houston and I heard she was in a band a long time ago called the Avengers.” Over here, it’s like, “It’s Penelope from the Avengers and I hear she’s doing solo music.” In ’99, Lookout approached me about putting out some Avengers stuff. The pink album was being endlessly bootlegged and it had all of these legal entanglements, so I worked with Lookout Records and we found live recordings, and studio recordings that hadn’t ended up on the pink album and we put out Died For Your Sins. I did a record release party with Greg [Ingraham] and we re-recorded three songs with Greg and Danny Panic from Screeching Weasel and Joel Reader from The Mr. T Experience. That was super fun and we did one or two shows. We were calling ourselves the Scavengers because I felt like it wasn’t really The Avengers because not all of the members were there. Then people kept asking us to play. We got asked to play in the U.K. and Europe and New York, so The Avengers ended up reforming and started playing. Now I’ve played Europe many times with the reformed Avengers. At the end of 2019, they were like, “Do you want to go on tour with Stiff Little Fingers across the country and drive yourself?” I’m said, “Yes!” We toured with Stiff Little Fingers right before the pandemic closed everything down and it was crazy.
Did Stiff Little Fingers drive themselves?
No. They have a tour bus and a driver and a whole crew. They’re sleeping on their tour bus and we’re driving a rented van.
How was it going back out and doing the Avengers stuff?
Well, it’s been about 15 years since the reformed Avengers with Greg, the original Avengers guitar player. It’s me and Greg, and Luis Illades, who was in Pansy Division, and Joel Reader. It’s super fun. We love doing it. We’ve been to Europe numerous times and the U.K. and we’ve done the U.S. a bunch of times. This last go round, with Stiff Little Fingers, I had Hector Penalosa from The Zeroes and Dave Bach who was in The Afflicted in San Francisco. That was because Joel and Luis live on the East Coast and couldn’t get six weeks off from their jobs, so I used the other guys and we had a great time. When we got back, we did a few more shows. In Feb 2020, we were playing the Great American and then everything shut down due to COVID.
Wow. Let’s talk about your painting now.
Well, I got back into painting 12 years ago, when I went back to school and got my Bachelors.
How long did you go to college before you left the first time?
I went to college in Bellingham first, so it would have been almost two years by the time I dropped out of the Art Institute in San Francisco. Later when I scraped together all of my credits, I think I had about two years worth of credits, mostly in drawing and print making, so I needed to do all of the other stuff. I went to San Francisco City College and I was working at the same time, so I wasn’t going full time, but I had to take a Speech class, a Math class, English and Laboratory Science. Eventually, I got my B.A. in Studio Art.
What is Studio Art exactly?
Under the realm of art, there is Studio Art and there is the teaching end of art where you can become an art teacher and there is Commercial Art. I have a degree in Studio Art from San Francisco State University and it doesn’t really mean anything. It just means I could go to Library School or do a Masters, which I didn’t do. Basically, it just got me back into painting. Since then I like to do my artwork in series, like doing an album. You don’t think about just writing one song. You think about doing 11 or 12 songs. So I did a series a couple of years ago of mug shots. They were from a mug book that we had in the San Francisco History Center, which is where I was working for the last six years, at the library. I was excited to do this series of mug shots and it got shown in Los Angeles at La Luz de Jesus Gallery and that was super fun. Once this pandemic happened, I couldn’t do any touring, so I focused on my painting. In the last year and a half, I’ve done a whole bunch of mug shots. I’ve done some small ones and some larger ones. I painted a pair of mug shots for a guy known for building a lot of skateparks in Montana.
That’s Jeff Ament.
Yeah. He commissioned a couple of mug shots from Montana, but he let me find them and pick which ones I wanted to do. I picked eight and he chose two of those. It’s a couple of petty criminals from 1940. I also started doing a little auction once a month on Instagram, so I have been putting my latest two or three works up and people bid right there on the post. That’s been fun too.
Do you sell your work?
Yeah. I think I’ve sold 13 in the last year. Some are small and some are bigger. The ones I did for Jeff are 12” x 12”. I have www.penelopehouston.com, which is my art website. My music website is www.penelope.net.