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The Muffins in Rockville in 1979
It’s a somewhat ludicrous thing to say about an event that spotlights so many alienating artists, but in its 10th year, the Sonic Circuits Festival of Experimental Music feels, well, kind of big.
This year there are veteran prog and avant-rock draws, like Magma and Univers Zero, and the noise and improv fans that the festival has traditionally drawn can look forward to two of the most notable, critically adored names in those spheres: Fennesz and Merzbow. And so it’s a marquee year for the area’s umbrella of experimental music, whose homegrown acts can now regularly be seen at venues like Bossa in Adams Morgan, Pyramid Atlantic in Silver Spring, and Orion Sound Studios in Baltimore.
But more than 30 years ago, D.C. also housed a constellation of progressive and experimental acts—a small scene that emerged but never quite flourished in the 1970s.
And then, says Steve Feigenbaum of the well-known, Silver Spring-based experimental label Cuneiform Records, D.C. punk rock killed it.
So it might be appropriate that The Muffins—an obscure, D.C.-based prog group that’s made music in the area since the mid-’70s—is headlining the first event of Sonic Circuits this Saturday. It’s a well-deserved spot. Despite its relatively under-the-radar status, The Muffins have made six challenging full-length albums; performed at numerous experimental music festivals, including at the prestigious Rock in Opposition festival in France; and collaborated with high-profile names like experimental guitarist Fred Frith.
While jazz-rock is the easiest label to apply to The Muffins’ music, no one descriptor suffices. Heavily influenced by the British “Canterbury” scene of the late ’60s and early ’70s (think early Soft Machine, Henry Cow, and more obscure practitioners like Hatfield and the North and National Health), The Muffins take this aesthetic and throw in collective improvisation, noise, and a touch of psychedelia. It’s a sound that at first impression can seem aimless and unfocused but, if you have the patience, eventually rewards.
This kind of demanding music is well in character with the progressive rock scene of the 1970s, and although D.C. was hardly a hotbed of prog, The Muffins weren’t alone. Grits (another jazz-rock band with a pair of out-of-print releases on Cuneiform) were an influence, and Muffins drummer Paul Sears lists a host of other D.C.-area groups of varying obscurity that formed at the time a loose local scene: Happy the Man, Crank, Love Cry Want, Sageworth, and Drums.
While the scene was small, it was active: Feigenbaum, 52, says he saw a number of “decent to pretty good” progressive rock bands at bars and outdoor shows. “Every bar used to have live bands back in the ’70s. That was a standard currency of the time… [but] The Muffins didn’t go over well in bars, because their music wasn’t good drinking music,” he says. “So for bands like The Muffins or Happy the Man or whoever, it was generally DIY spaces or ‘time to rent the Washington Ethical Society and do another show.’”
“Gigs were hard to come by,” says Sears, 57. “We did some university gigs, gigs in churches, coffeehouses, and a few nightclubs like the Psyche Delly in Bethesda, and Childe Harold in Dupont Circle.”
The Muffins’ DIY spirit didn’t end with gigs. The band—which also includes Tom Scott, Dave Newhouse, and Billy Swann, multi-instrumentalists all—created a label, Random Radar Records, which in the last few years of the 1970s released The Muffins’ first two official full-lengths, Manna/Mirage and <185>, and a handful of other recordings, including a U.S. pressing of the debut album by Art Bears, one of the earliest Henry Cow spinoff groups. Perhaps most importantly, Random Radar was a collaborative effort between The Muffins, Feigenbaum (who actually contributed some guitar parts to Manna/Mirage), and others. Feigenbaum helped keep the band’s music in print even after its initial demise.
That demise came in 1981, as The Muffins suffered the same fate as countless prog bands: changing musical trends and transient young members.
Feigenbaum blames punk. “It killed [the local progressive scene] dead,” he says. “You have to remember what punk did. For good or bad, punk was the great cleansing fire. It changed everything that came after. It’s very open now, but at the time, lines were drawn in the sand: Anything that existed before it was ‘bad.’ Anything that smelled of what came before was ‘bad.’”
In a punk-rock town like D.C., that seismic shift was pronounced, Feigenbaum says: “The audiences were getting smaller, the chance to be reviewed was getting smaller, and this for a band that had certainly paid some dues and had done some higher-level projects. What we were all doing was always marginalized, but by 1980 or ’81, it was marginalized and also mocked.”
Although Sears found the then-new D.C. punk scene “severely insular,” his judgment is a bit less harsh. “I thought we had more in common with some of them, and today I regret that we, or specifically I, did not try to initiate some collaboration,” he says. “We knew some of them. Tom Lyle from Government Issue was a friend of ours before he was in that band. He even set up at least two shows for The Muffins at American University that I can recall…When Fugazi hit the scene I thought I recognized a name—Canty. I knew Brendan Canty’s family back in the ’60s when he was, I’ll say, quite young!”
Regardless of the causes—and putting aside whatever a Muffins/Fugazi collaboration would’ve sounded like—after The Muffins’ split in 1981, Random Radar dissolved and Feigenbaum went on to found Cuneiform Records, which continued releasing challenging music in what Feigenbaum calls the “dark ages” of the 1980s. The Muffins found a posthumous home on Cuneiform, which reissued Manna/Mirage and <185> and has printed each of the band’s subsequent full-length recordings. This includes recent reunion albums Bandwidth (2002) and Double Negative (2004), recorded after the band reformed in the late 1990s for a gig at Chief Ike’s Mambo Room in Adams Morgan. That show happened after the band realized it still had an audience: Web reviews and retrospectives on The Muffins—an active and highly explorative Internet prog community developed in the 1990s—were almost universally positive.
Ironically Feigenbaum, perhaps the band’s biggest supporter (“They are pretty much single-handedly responsible for why I do what I do,” he says), was opposed to the reunion. “I’m a little ashamed to admit that I thought it was a bad idea, that they couldn’t do it again, that it just wouldn’t work,” he says. “They proved me quite wrong. And I’m glad. I think their work since their reformation is quite splendid and they still sound like themselves without repeating themselves.”
Since the release of their last Cuneiform full-length in 2004, The Muffins have played sporadic shows and festivals, made a short recording with members of the Sun Ra Arkestra, and are working on a new album, Palindrome. Of course, the band’s music is as unfashionable as ever, and its gigs remain few and far between, but now there’s now a thriving, open D.C. experimental music scene that exists beyond Sonic Circuits’ week of shows. In other words: The Muffins, cool or not, have young, like-minded peers.
That just leaves one problem: Sears is moving to Arizona immediately after Sonic Circuits, which means The Muffins’ D.C. shows will become even more rare. But that might be OK for a group that found a far-flung audience but few fans in its hometown. Says Sears: “We will work remotely and still play festivals.”
Photo courtesy Cuneiform Records