In what is hands-down the year’s most unlikely musical comeback, the one-time/one-third of the seminal all-gal “outsider music” combo figures out how to strike a balance between sonic dreams and the realities of day-to-day life.
BY MIKE SHANLEY
“You’re probably more glad about it than I am,” Dot Wiggin says at the end of a phone interview. She’s referring to Ready! Get! Go! her first solo album, and my excitement over the fact that she’s made her first new recording since her days with the Shaggs in the 1970s. After years of cult worship and occasional stories about the band’s unique existence, the front woman of the trio has resurfaced on Alternative Tentacles backed by a coterie of fans and family. They’ve taken a stack of unfinished lyrics and brought them to life in the spirit of the Shaggs, with slightly stronger arrangements.
It’s not that Wiggin isn’t appreciative of the attention. This New Hampshire mom, giving an interview while preparing dinner for her family, is just a bit overwhelmed. “When we found out about the following we had, and what’s happening today… it’s just kind of hard to wrap my head around,” says Wiggin, who technically is now Dot Semprini, though she goes by her maiden name on the new album.
The Shaggs, which consisted of Wiggin (guitar, vocals) and her sisters Helen (drums) and Betty (guitar, vocals), started playing music in 1968 and gained notoriety for their combination of innocent pop songs and their amateurish abilities on their instruments. Their Philosophy of the World album captured three sisters who sounded like they hadn’t figured out how to play their instruments or keep a steady tempo. And they hadn’t. But their father, Austin Wiggin, believed they were going to be successful so he took them into the studio, and got the album released on the small Third World label in 1969.
At the same time, the sisters had a weekly hometown gig, playing a dance at the Fremont Town Hall on Saturday nights. “There was basically nothing else out there for kids to do,” Wiggin recalls. “It wasn’t just teenagers or young adults. It was a family dance. We’d do polkas even though they weren’t really polkas. We’d just play them faster than normal so they could do a polka.
“Now looking back, I look at it like a babysitting service. Parents would drop the kids off for two or three hours and have free time, knowing [the kids] were safe, in good hands. And a police officer was there.”
In 1975, Mr. Wiggin passed away and the band broke up, thinking they had closed the book on that part of their life. Reflecting on the band, Wiggin has a realistic perspective. “It was fun. I enjoyed it. I wrote all the songs. I wrote all the music. I loved writing lyrics but looking back, I don’t think I knew enough about music to write music. There are probably some that would disagree with that.”
Two people that disagreed were Terry Adams and Tom Ardolino from the band NRBQ. After discovering the album at a radio station, they called Wiggin in 1979, saying they wanted to re-release the album on Red Rooster/Rounder. (Adams allegedly found the Wiggins’ harmonies similar to the work of free jazz musician Ornette Coleman.) After coming down to New Hampshire to visit her and her sisters, they also agreed to put on a set of unreleased songs, which became Shaggs Own Thing.
The reissues brought their ragged-but-right style to curious listeners beyond the Fremont city limits. Despite their primitive ways, the girls touched a lot of listeners. Jad Fair cited them as a major inspiration. The Shaggs were also showcased in Irwin Chusid’s book and CD compilation Songs in the Key of Z – The Curious Universe of Outsider Music. Frank Zappa made one of the most-quoted accolades to the Shaggs, calling them better than the Beatles. (An unironic tribute album titled Better than the Beatles was released in 2001.) Kurt Cobain also considered Philosophy of the World one of his favorite albums.
Wiggins is neither hurt by the criticisms of the band, nor does she believe the hype. “My opinion is everybody is entitled to their opinion. But my motto is, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say nothing at all. So I’m stuck between those two places,” she says, laughing a little. “’Best worst band ever’ – that doesn’t make any sense because you’re either the best or the worst, you’re really not both. You might be somewhere in the middle but it wouldn’t be called best worst band ever. So that’s my opinion. And ‘better than the Beatles’? Ah, I would say not.
“But I think [people are] most interested in the story of the Shaggs, at least to start with, than the music. But I could be wrong on that.”
The story of a driven stage dad and his daughters makes good fodder for a production and playwright Joy Gregory’s The Shaggs was staged in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York between 2004 and 2011. While Dot says parts of the story were fictionalized, she did enjoy seeing the production in New York. “It was weird sitting in the audience seeing someone portray your life,” she says. “But the actors did an excellent job. So it was pretty cool.”
When the group reunited and performed at NRBQ’s 30th anniversary show in 1999, they were approached by a filmmaker interested in taking their story to the big screen. At this time, there are no definite plans but Wiggin remains hopeful.
That reunion brought fans from as far as Japan to see the Shaggs, but the sisters never had any desire to do anything further. Wiggin, in fact, describes the practices for that show as “very hard. Betty and I rented two guitars and amps. And we practiced for about a week. We did 4 songs. We even improvised some other chords and made them easier,” she says.
Last year, a tribute to the Shaggs was staged in Fremont. Dot, Betty and sister Rachel (who later played bass in the band, but not on the albums), didn’t perform but they participated in a Q&A session. (Drummer Helen passed away in 2006.) When asked if she still composed, Dot mentioned lyrics to unfinished songs. Jesse Krakow, who staged the event, eagerly volunteered to finish them for her, and she agreed to hand them over.
Using her a stack of lyrics, she assumed Krakow would want to record them by himself, but he had other ideas. “He called me back, he sent a couple [songs] to me and said, ‘Just one problem. Dot fans are going to want to hear Dot sing Dot’s songs,’” she says. “Well that wasn’t my plan. I’d take the royalty for the lyrics and they can take the royalty for the rest. But here we are.”
Krakow arranged recording sessions that happened, among other places, in Wiggin’s living room and on the stage of Fremont Town Hall, where the Shaggs used to play. In the liner notes to Ready! Get! Go he explains how the musicians tried to capture the feel of the original group: “Should we try and sound EXACTLY like The Shaggs? And is that even possible? We went round and round until Nick [Oddy, guitars] pointed out that we were good musicians who knew how to tune our instruments and play in time. Let’s not try to pretend like we don’t… Forced ineptitude is lame. However, we shouldn’t try to be perfect either. Mistakes are wonderful when they’re real.”
Ready! Get! Go! strikes that balance. Wiggin sings exclusively on the album, leaving the instruments to Krakow and his crew. Her voice retains the soft, gentle warble of the early days, though it seems to get extra momentum from the band on songs like “Speed Limit,” inspired by her real life propensity to be a wild driver. (It’s the source of the album’s title too.) The ballads — including the duet with her son Matthew Semprini, “Love at First Sight” — take liberties with tempo and pitch, but somehow they feel right, as does the cover of “The End of the World.” “Banana Bike,” which opens the album with a wall of twangy guitars, pays tribute not only to the bicycle seat of yore, but it also remembers someone who had one, her late sister Helen.
In her home in Epping, New Hampshire, Wiggin worked at a nursing home for 13 years and still maintains a day job. “I clean the town library about twice a week. The church I go to, I clean that about once a week,” she says. “Then, I clean two different houses every other week. Now I work part time at a day program, for young adults transitioning from high school to adulthood that have disabilities.”
At the time of the interview, Krakow had scheduled release shows in Brooklyn and Baltimore, and Wiggin was optimistic but concerned about life at home. One of her sons has special needs, and she also has two dogs that are near and dear to her. “One of them is diabetic and has three insulin shots a day,” she says of the pooches. “Usually he goes with me. I’m not sure if he’s going because I got a call yesterday from Jesse saying the hotels… charge $75 to $100 more [to accommodate a dog]. I said if the dog can’t go, I’m not going. I’ll pay extra for the dog but I’m not going to be able to go and do my best not knowing how my dog’s doing. If he wasn’t diabetic, it’d be a different story.” Despite these issues, she says she’ll probably tour “once in a while.”
As she talks about Ready! Get! Go!, she remarks, “I have to check to see what else is on there because I don’t remember which ones are on the new album.” It might seem like an odd statement for someone to not know their album’s running order — especially on their first record in over 40 years. But considering the work ethic she was once forced to endure — being pulled out of school to stay home and practice for hours — this relaxed pace seems just right for Wiggin.