Raised in a musical family (her mother was a conductor, her sister a cellist, and her brother a violinist), Penelope Houston never intended to become a musician herself. “I played violin for about 2 years when I was really little, but I couldn’t stand the sound of myself,” says Houston. “I thought I was going to be an artist.”
After a short stint at San Francisco’s Art Institute, Houston found herself fronting a punk band — the now legendary Avengers. In their two short years of existence, the Avengers appeared with the Sex Pistols, the Go-Go’s, X, and the Dead Kennedys. “I think my mom thought it was cool that I was in a band, but she worried about my hearing.” After the Avengers split in ’79, Houston moved to L.A. to work in the film industry. After a few years, she returned to San Francisco and embarked on a solo career as a neo-folk singer.
After years of relative obscurity in the U.S. (despite much critical acclaim in Germany and England), Reprise Records signed Penelope Houston and released her major label debut, Cut You , in 1996. Her second album on Reprise, Tongue , came out earlier to this year. Concurrently, the 41-year-old Houston briefly reformed the Avengers with original guitarist Greg Ingraham, Joel Reader from Mr. T Experience, and former Screeching Weasel drummer Danny Panic to celebrate Lookout! Records’ ’99 release of The Avengers Died For Your Sins — a collection of live, studio, and rehearsal recordings of the original Avengers.
Why do you think that a lot of people in the US still think of you as the lead singer of the Avengers and haven’t paid as much attention to what you’ve done since then?
Well, I don’t think everybody in the US thinks that. I just put out this new Avengers collection, and of course brought attention to the band again, but I think that the Avengers kind of held a special place in the hearts of people who are into punk rock, because they were so early on and we had kind of a sincerity or…. hmmm…. we had a lot of integrity, but we were also positive. We were angry about stuff but we were positive at the same time, and I think that people were getting weary of the cynical nature of punk at the time we came out. We were able to be political but positive, as opposed to either not being political at all or political and negative and cynical.
On your newest record, you did some experimentation with electronic sounds, particularly on the song “Scum.” Do you have any plans to continue doing stuff like this, or was that just a one-shot, spur-of-the-moment attempt?
Actually, the person I was working with who was doing the programming is working again on a new song with me. It just depends on each song. I’m sure there’ll be songs I do in the future that’ll have programmed drums and stuff — in fact, in our live set, we’re using programmed beats and loops and samples. Our drummer’s Dawn Richardson from Four Non Blondes, and she is really into using the sampler and triggering loops and having that be a part of the sound. So I’m sure that’ll continue.
What’s your favorite song on the record, and why?
Oh, that’s a tough one. I guess it’d have to be “The Ballad of Happy Friday and Tiger Woods.” It’s, for me, kind of an epic story. I always like songs I write that are about other people instead of myself. Those are the minority of my songs, but I always like it when I can do that. And also, my ex-bass player from my folk band wrote this amazing string section for it, which I just love. It’s hard to say, though, because I love all the songs on the record.