“We’re back!” Muffins drummer Paul Sears declares triumphantly, before adding a seasonal caveat: “But only in the summers.”
Of course, most D.C.-area folks never noticed that the Muffins were here in the first place. Formed in the Maryland suburbs way back in 1974, the “free-jazz and European progressive rock”-influenced quartet—which also features keyboardist-saxophonist Dave Newhouse, multireedist Thomas Frasier Scott, and bassist-guitarist Billy Swann—toiled away to local indifference before calling it quits in 1981. “We did much better out of town,” says Sears. “We probably sold more records overseas through mail order than we did anywhere else.”
Although distributing their two self-released records, 1978’s Manna/Mirage and 1980’s 185, was “a pain in the ass” back in the day, the advent of the Internet brought about a sea change in the music biz and provided the impetus for a Muffins reunion. “I was reading a buttload of stuff about us on the Web,” Sears says. “I was like, ‘Gosh, we’re famous!’”
OK, so maybe they’re not Moby-famous, but they’re definitely not forgotten. The mostly instrumental group was always well-respected by its art-rocker peers: British guitarist Fred Frith (of Henry Cow, Massacre, and Naked City fame) called them “the finest progressive band America produced.” And Sears was asked to join both Magma and Daevid Allen’s Gong—the two giants of French prog rock—toward the end of the ’70s. But, according to Newhouse, the Muffins had no idea that any kind of “loyal and understanding following” persisted.
Inspired by the discovery, the band decided to give it another go. “Everyone wanted to get back together and play again,” Sears says. “It’s just snowballed into much more than we thought it would be.” The Muffins, who are spread out from Maryland to South Carolina, first tested the waters with a couple of reunion shows in the late ’90s . “When we played Phantasmagoria [in Wheaton] in 1999, there was a couple there that flew over from Frankfurt, Germany, to see the fucking Muffins,” Sears says. “To us, it was just mind-boggling.”
The veteran rockers also began recording brand-new material. Released this May on Silver Spring experimental label Cuneiform (which also keeps the Muffins’ back catalog in print), the result, Bandwidth, recaptures the quartet’s muscular, brass-heavy art rock of yore. “There’s an incredible amount of horn tracks on that record,” Sears says. “There’s probably 18 tracks of horns on some songs.”
Coincidentally, Bandwidth—a nod to Internet transmissions—was released simultaneously with the Fred Records reissue of Frith’s 1980 LP Gravity, which features the Muffins as backing band. “We were, of course,” Newhouse says, “wildass [Frith] fans.” Adds Sears: “As far as we’re concerned, [Gravity] was a huge record. It basically put us on the map. All of a sudden, people all around the world knew who the Muffins were.”
With the recent rise in temperature, activity in the Muffins camp is also set to increase: “We get together in the summertime and rehearse anywhere from two to four weeks every year,” Sears says, “and then we go and do a bunch of shows.” Over the past two summers, the Muffins have played both Rome and New York City. This Aug. 31, they’re heading South for the ProgDay festival in Chapel Hill, N.C. “We’re just enjoying the support we get,” says Sears. —Brent Burton