Q&A: Penelope Houston On Balancing Her New Solo Album With The Ever-Evolving Tale Of Her First Band, The Avengers

Penelope Houston, the former lead singer of San Francisco punk legends The Avengers, has her solo shoes on again with the recent release of On Market Street (Devoted Ruins), her first solitary salvo in seven-plus years. But the official reissue of The Avengers' self-titled, posthumous LP—out this week on Water Records—is an even longer-gestating story. We caught up with Penelope while she was packing on the eve of her solo tour in Europe; she's going over there again with The Avengers in July.

I know you don't get the Avengers here in town too much. Last time I saw you was at a Trash Bar show in like 2008.

Oh my God, that was our fourth show in 24 hours! That was crazy. We played on WFMU, then in the city at the [old] Knitting Factory, then the same night we ran over to Trash Bar. That was some secret show, really late. And we'd done a show the night before. I thought I didn't have any voice left at all.

Well you did—it was a great show! What's the main difference between playing solo and Avengers tours?

Well, for Europe, it's gotten so that we have a good booking agent, and this band we know who have a backline, driver, a van, all that. So everything is setup, and it's easy in that sense. The performance is a little more strained on my vocal chords and jumping around, but it's a little more relaxing in a way. For this solo tour coming up now, I feel I have to be more in charge, working with a new booking agent, a driver I haven't met, and a band I haven't played with before. The guitar player, Pat Johnson, who I've played with for years and is on the new album, his wife is having a baby soon, so he can't go. So for some budget reasons, I just decided to use some friends who live in Germany, for the rhythm section. And because the record has so much organ and Hammond 3 on it, it was like, oh I have to have that. Great, I'm gonna lose even more money [laughs]. So I asked Chris Cacavas to come play.

Oh, he's great! Played with Green on Red and other California kind of garage/roots type bands, right?

Yeah, he's been living over there for awhile now. He was totally into it, even though I asked him like a month before. So it's a all new lineup. We're going to get there, rehearse the next day, and our first show is the next day in Berlin. We're going to have to jump through some hoops.

The Avengers were your first band. You kind of walked into the first practice as just an art student thinking it'd be fun to be in a band, and started screaming away. Do you remember a time later in life, a little older, when you started doing the more subtle singing of your solo stuff— was there a moment where something happened to your voice, and you thought, "Oh, I better start doing like warm-ups?"

Oh yes, there was definitely a moment when that happened. That was on a European tour with the Avengers actually, just within the last seven years, where my voice just started to disappear. I needed to warm up not just before shows, but before soundcheck and rehearsals. So I'm singing loud, but I'm also singing very high in the Avengers—we haven't changed the key in any of those songs, same stuff as I was doing when I was 19. And you know, your voice gets lower as you get older. So I really have to warm up, and try to stay away from the booze. Not so much that it dries out the voice like they say, but it makes me more talkative, so I'm walking around all night talking to people, and dragging it out more. [laughs]

Yeah, it's like you get excited, and you're like, "Hey, when am I gonna be in Heidelberg again to talk to this guy," and you stay awake way late yelling over music, not even thinking about it. And then maybe you lose sleep too, which is the most important thing for your voice.

Oh yeah! Especially for the longer tours, I make a point of it. I come back, and my voice is trashed for weeks afterwards. On one solo tour in Europe, I'd lost my voice, I had a cold. And I had this wonderful bassist who sang backup. So one show, my voice had felt really trashed. And on one of the sweeter songs I hit this high note, and I thought, "Wow, I really hit that note, that sounded great!" And I looked over, and she was singing the part, and pretty much nothing had come out of my throat [laughs] But I can keep things under control now.

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