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"Can we, as a country, all agree

xmag.com : November 2004: The Avengers


The Avengers roared out of the gates twenty-seven years ago--three scrawny dudes and one shit-hot chick. They were young art school punks, but had a world weariness beyond their years. Like the Sex Pistols across the pond, the Avengers were pissed off--at authority, bigotry, ignorance, classism. In songs like "White Nigger" and "We Are the One," Houston implored people to wake the fuck up and think about what they were doing, why they were working shitty jobs and swallowing media dogma. And, like the Pistols, the Avengers fully fuckin' rocked. Greil Marcus says they were "at moments, the best punk band in the country," which in 1977 was saying a lot.

Though the band lasted only two years, Penelope never stopped performing. Throughout the nineties she released numerous albums in various genres, started her own label and toured extensively. Missing "the opportunity to scream," Houston reformed the Avengers and is now packing houses across the country, singing political songs that resonate more than ever today.


VIVA: The Avengers' lyrics are very political. Did you have an idea of what you wanted the band to be at such a young age?


PENELOPE HOUSTON: The very first thing we did was play a bunch of cover songs at a warehouse party. Patti Smith, Lou Reed, the Stones, the Who. Then I went to visit friends in L.A. and discovered you have to write all your own material. We had a show about a week later, and in that one week we wrote six or seven songs. "I Believe in Me" was one. We just made it up as we went along. We didn't have a plan to be a political band. I just wrote about what I felt strongly about. Some of the songs are relationship based, some are political, some are social commentary.


VIVA: Now your career has spanned punk, folk, rock and blues. What stands out to you when you perform Avengers songs as opposed to the other material you do?


PH: It's really immediate, really physical. When I was doing the quieter stuff for years and years before I reformed the Avengers, the thing that I missed the most was the opportunity to scream. With the Avengers I can sing at the top of my lungs and it's got the same feeling as screaming, it just lets out all this emotion. It's very cathartic.


VIVA: You're on the road all the time. Do you have kids or pets?


PH: No, I don't have any kids, no pets, and all my plants have been trained to withstand drought. I have a husband, though. He can water a plant, but I've never actually seen him do it.


VIVA: Do you find it difficult to channel the nineteen year old again and again? Or is the sentiment still there?


PH: It's amazingly easy to sing all the Avengers songs. It may sound strange, but I do feel that the teenager, when I'm singing "Teenage Rebel," is still there.


VIVA: There are still a lot of the same problems, politically. "American in Me." "White Nigger." Do you feel that in these twenty-five years you have more faith in your country or less?


PH: There is a great disappointment in our country. But I feel like that's a better reason to get up and be singing "The American in Me," to be singing these songs. It's a perfect time to be alive and angry. It's frustrating to think that these songs are still applicable. When we went to war last year, I couldn't believe that in this day and age our country was going to war with a little tiny country. Humans have been on earth for X number of years, and we haven't figured out how to talk to each other, how to communicate, how to be diplomatic? Instead we have to drop bombs on each other? It just seems ludicrous to me.


VIVA: What is the secret to staying vital as a musician and a woman in America's cultural wasteland?


PH: Just do what you love. And put yourself first. And for a lot of women that is hard. We only have one life. You can't waste it waiting around for somebody else, or serving somebody else, or following somebody else. A couple of years ago I was really busy and I was only doing one show a year. I was going back to school and I had this job and a bunch of things were happening in my life. And I realized that the thing that you do that makes you feel most like yourself is something you need to do as often as you can. And being onstage makes me feel I'm being the purest me that I can

be. So I was motivated to get my other band back together and get the Avengers together again and to start booking shows. Even though there's a lot of stuff about it that's a big pain in the neck, the business end and stuff.


VIVA: Do you have a day job?


PH: I have a part-time job at a library.


VIVA: What advice would you give a young woman who wants more than anything to be Penelope Houston?


PH: Well, you know, they can't be, they can only be themselves. Find your own way to express who you are.


VIVA: What's your favorite Stones record of all time?


PH: You know, I'm not a huge music fan, amazingly. It wouldn't be the first ones. It would be four or five years in, when they started getting a little more honky tonk.


VIVA: Not being a huge music fan, do you have a favorite Pretenders song or Bob Dylan record?


PH: I remember the first time I heard "Brass in Pocket." It was a seven-inch single that somebody had. It was 1977. Really early. It didn't sound like punk. It sounded like rock'n'roll, but played through this really weird fucked up record player. It was like a kids record player, so fucked-up sounding. And yet her voice just cut through. It reached out and grabbed you. I'll always remember that.


VIVA: Who's the sexiest singer of all time?


PH: The guitar player in my other band, Pat Johnson. We lived together for a few years. His voice always really moves me. Partially it's his voice, but partially it's that a lot of the songs he wrote are about us. I like voices that cut through. Especially if there's a woman's voice and she's singing with a rock band and there's something about her voice that cuts through but she's still melodic and not shrill sounding. I don't like vibrato, I don't like hysterical men's voices like Robert Plant, I'm kind of picky about vocals.


VIVA: Sexiest song ever?


PH: What's that Marvin Gaye song? "Let's Get it On." Whenever I've had sex to that song, it worked.


VIVA: What's your poison?


PH: Love. I don't have too many bad habits right now, but that's something I'm still hooked on. Or the idea of it, maybe.


VIVA: Sexiest onstage experience ever?


PH: My last three shows. And possibly tonight. It depends on how the sound is. If there's good songs, good lights, a good crowd, and the band is really on, there's a moment in the set, usually in one of the more emotionally charged songs, when I just feel like I'm being lifted up into the lights. I'm a foot off the ground floating on the sound of the band and my voice.


VIVA: Would you rather drink til you puke with Lemmy Kilmister or go bowhunting with Ted Nugent?


PH: Neither of those. But I'd rather hang out with Lemmy than Ted. I couldn't get past his politics.


VIVA: Finally, the Cramps question. What color panties are you wearing and how long have you been wearing them?


PH: They're black, and, uh, I think I did wear them yesterday. It's kind of a gross tour thing. But after the show, everything gets washed. No one's ever asked me that.






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