There is nothing like walking into a crowded bar and hearing the band on stage launch into a song you’ve never heard before, but still immediately know and love the track. The kind of song that is three chords of almost religious intensity and lyrics that make sense on a level that is impossible to explain, but simple to understand. That happened when I wandered into the Central in Los Angeles years ago, and the band playing that very music was the Mutts. The song was “Funnest Girl,” but there would be many more I’d hear that night that would connect in a way that defied logic. The noise onstage was a post-punk mix of jangly power-pop and garage rock simplicity that careened off the walls of the sweat-soaked joint so thoroughly that I was a fan from the first chord.
Formed in Los Angeles in 1983, the Mutts built up a legend for raucous live shows, ragged pop gems about blondes with bangs, John Hughes movies and the burning desire to live in San Diego. Larry Fortunato could bang on drums hard and loud enough to wake the dead souls of the ultra-hipsters that wandered in. Kevin Grover and Billy Murrell swapped guitar duties with jagged beauty. The two of them traded off lead vocals with bassist Eddy Sill. The Mutts opened for seminal acts like X, The Go-Go’s, The Bangles, Adam Ant, the minutemen and the Dickies. They wore their influences on their sleeves: The Replacements, The Clash, The Rolling Stones and many of the garage bands on the Nuggets compilations.
What made the Mutts different was partly their onstage antics. It was not uncommon to see pizzas delivered to the stage mid-set. Top that off with and after show parties that caused several brain cells to die. The place was Stinko’s Ranch, a dilapidated house, held together by the termites holding hands. It was an inelegant gathering of the oddballs and misfits, located behind Dixon Cadillac on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Wilton Place. The kiddy pool out front was always filled with generic beer and a pulsating soundtrack always included the Replacements. The crowd shouted along with the vocals and the doldrums of everyday life disappeared into the night. The revelry continued until daybreak and the place always reeked of beer, sweat and wet leather. In short, it was Heaven on Earth. It was also Murrell’s home.
“Dixon Cadillac was a thriving business when I moved in. There were other people moving in too,” Murrell said via telephone. Eventually, the business waned and the neighborhood changed, according to Murrell. “I was the last person there.They started tearing down buildings,” he said; eventually his bungalow was the last one standing. That and a practice space Murrell created. Festivities would regularly get out of hand, Murrell said. Sometimes, the police would show up.
“Oh, often. I remember helicopters circling overhead. I was usually so wasted, I would not remember the cops the next day,” he said.
Murrell moved to Los Angeles in 1969 at age 15. “I went to Westchester High, the Beach Boys had gone there, so did the Turtles. The people there wanted to drink beer, I was more into acid and pot,” Murrell said. He said Los Angeles, at the time, gave him a close up view of the second wave of hippies, but he was drawn in a different direction.
“My step-mother started the first Women’s Lib newspaper, so I came home to angry lesbians in my living room. So, it was not a normal childhood.” He moved to Hollywood and picked up the guitar, “to get chicks,” and the rest was a series of bands leading up to the Mutts and getting to know the first wave of punk bands forming in L.A. He moved into the bungalow that would eventually deteriorate into Stinko’s Ranch and formed a band.
“We put an ad in the first edition of Music Connection Magazine that ran on the back page.” The band that formed was Slaughterhouse. But then one night they had all their equipment stolen. “I had a customized Marshall amp with a master volume before they made master volumes. It also had a key to turn it on,” Murrell demurred. That theft destroyed the band, and the bass player left, his house was torn down, but I stayed put and ended up joining and playing in about six different bands that played around town. I also met and worked with a ton of interesting people, including Nickey “Beat” Alexander from The Weirdos and Arthur Kane of the New York Dolls. “Punk was a new thing, I got to see bands at great clubs, I was lucky enough to be there when it happened,” he added.
One of Murrell’s favorites was the legendary Masque on Cherokee and Hollywood. “It was scary, dank and electric, and it always smelled like fish. What an awesome place,” he said. The Germs, X and the Mentors were some of the bands that took the stage with Murrell there to see history unfold in the graffiti-riddled walls. One night at the Coconut Teaser, Murrell was asked by Grover to try out for the Mutts. “He gave me a tape, and they liked what they heard,” Murrell recollected. With the line-up for the Mutts more or less set, the hi-jinks kicked into high-gear.
The record labels often looked at the Mutts with equal parts interest and indifference, until Loud/WEA signed the band and they released “Stinko’s Ranch” in late 1992. Success seemed assured when the album received an A grade in Entertainment Weekly. The cover of BAM Magazine followed. One day, label owner Rick Laudati disappeared and the Mutts were left to fend for themselves. The follow-up record “Nobody Wants Us at Their Party” never saw the light of day. The Mutts broke up, leaving fans heartbroken and the L.A. music scene without one of the best live acts to ever invade Sunset Boulevard.
Murrell ended up in Portland, where he is currently recording after dealing with issues with his hand that made it difficult to play the guitar. “I have it worked out,” he said. “There’s a diet component that is helping, I wear these things on my fingers the force me to hold them a certain way and I’m financially able to buy a smaller scale electric guitar,” he continued. Currently, Murrell plays a Squire, and uses an acoustic. “It’s changed my approach to songwriting. I would play the acoustic like a lead guitarist on an electric guitar, and that was wearing the shit out of my hand,” he said.
As for the music scene in Portland, Murrell said, “there’s a saying here ‘Keep Portland Weird’. Well, although there are some good bands here in town, it almost seems like if you go on stage with a chicken and a pillow, everyone will think you’re awesome.” He is also hopeful for the future of music, not just in Portland, but music everywhere.
“I been living so long, I’ve seen that as world situations get worse — and they’re getting worse now — it causes art to flourish. I would not be surprised to see improvement in the music, and I hope to be part of it,” Murrell said.
In a post-Mutts music world, Eddy Sill went on to form the Popravinas — Sill, bass and lead vocals; Johnny Adair, guitar, mandolin, harmonica and vocals; Dean Lyons, guitar and backup vocals; David Rodgers, drums — a bar band with a nod toward alt-country and rough-edged love songs. Their debut, “Everybody’s Fault But Ours” is every bit as good as anything you’ve heard. A wealth of great tunes and a good time feel make it music worth seeking out and finding. In advance of the band’s show at The Field Irish Pub on April 13, Sill was kind enough to answer some inane questions in anticipation of the release of the band’s follow-up, “California Sonic.”
Barry Benintende: What lead you to pick up the bass?
Eddy Sill: It’s a lot simpler than playing chords on a guitar.
What brought you to Los Angeles?
I came out here from back east in the ’80s when The Mutts formed. I never thought I’d stay, but never say never. I have grown a certain fondness for Santa Monica.
You’re originally from Pittsburgh, did bands like the Iron City Houserockers or the Frampton Brothers inspire you? Who did?
Pittsburgh is a lot better for football than music [laughs]. My influences early on were mainly British: Stones, Beatles, Clash, Pistols. It started evolving a bit when I discovered The Replacements in the late ’80s.
What was the first concert you attended?
It was actually Led Zeppelin. But the first one that really mattered was The Rolling Stones.
Once “Stinko’s Ranch” was released, Rick Laudati disappeared into thin air. What happened and did that kill the momentum of your album?
Well, he didn’t disappear till the checks started bouncing highly. After a few of those, all trust was lost. The album continued to get great reviews and some airplay, but that was pretty much created by our own phone calls.
What caused the delay of “Nobody Wants Us at Their Party?”
A lot of indecision by the Executive Producer. All music and artwork was finished, but the record will sit eternally in the can. The Mutts knocked on the door to the big time many times, but it had a way of slamming shut in our faces. That’s the nature of the beast.
How did the Popravinas come together as a band?
After The Mutts broke up, I relocated back to Pittsburgh for a few years. I moved to Santa Monica around 2000 and ran into a couple guitar players who wanted to start something. Things began evolving, and the next thing I knew I was writing and singing all the songs.
What’s the strangest place you’ve ever played?
Probably outside of The Mutts old party place (in Hollywood) Stinko’s Ranch. We did an outdoor thing around the holidays, and within 15 minutes, the LAPD was flying helicopters right above us. We (and now The Popravinas) did a song called “Christmas in Jail” — so that worked out well [laughs]
Where are you recording this time around?
We laid down the basic tracks at a studio in North Hollywood called Red Hill Studios. The vocals, overdubs, etc. were done at our guitar player’s (Johnny Adair) small place called “Royal Salad Studios.” He’s a real smart music guy, so it works out well. He produced the last record and this one.
How’s it going in the studio?
Tremendous! The CD should be out around mid-February. It’s a somewhat California sounding record appropriately called “California Sonic.”
“Everybody’s Fault But Ours” had bits of alt-country twang and garage rock elbowing up against one another. What’s different as far as the Popravinas’ sound this time around?
An extension of what you described. It has pop rock tunes like “She’s Going South” and country twang things like “Great Western Fiasco.”
Did any band or artist influence you this time around?
I would say there are the usual Replacement influences. But also early Wilco and Whiskeytown. I would kind of describe it as “California meets the running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.”
Any plans to tour California once the album is finished?
Not only plans to tour California, but also head to Europe…Spain in particular. We got a lot of interest over there on the last record, but failed to follow up. This time we will.
How is the music scene in Los Angeles these days?
What can a crowd expect at a Popravinas’ gig?
A bit less insanity than The Mutts. But still raucous and an invitation for the unexpected.
What’s the biggest challenge to getting your music heard?
Connections! They can never be downplayed in the music biz. You can write the best song the world has ever heard, but no one will hear it without the right connection.
Your previous band, the Mutts, had legendary parties that are still talked about years later. Do the Popravinas have the same reckless spirit?
They definitely have some of that spirit, but not as adolescent-like. There’s a bit more versatility on stage via harmonica, mandolin, (sometimes) keyboards.
After all the years of recording and playing live, what is it that makes you want to keep playing?
Two things: Writing songs and playing in front of a good crowd. Both are highly addictive.
Who’s your favorite band from San Diego?
I would say The Beat Farmers. The Mutts opened up for them a couple times at the old Music Machine in WLA. As I remember, they were real nice guys and a lot of fun to talk to.