‘60s Indie Girl Band The Shaggs Sounding Off Again

Not many rock groups get discovered years after they disband. Even fewer stage comebacks spread over more than three decades. Yet that’s the story of The Shaggs, which started as an obscure girl band in New Hampshire in the 1960s, broke up in the ‘70s, became a cult favorite in the ‘80s and inspired a musical that enjoyed an off-Broadway run last year.

And now? Dot Semprini, the lead singer of the famously discordant group, is striking out on her own at age 65 with a solo album featuring songs written and performed with Jesse Krakow, a New York musician who has long considered The Shaggs personal heroes.

“I think what I loved about The Shaggs when I heard it 15 years ago was that it sounded like these emotional aliens playing these love songs, but it didn’t sound like love songs, and it didn’t sound like jazz, and it didn’t sound like prog rock … it was cooler,” said Krakow, who has a tattoo depicting the Shaggs’ family cat from the band’s brain-searing classic “My Pal Foot Foot.”

“I just became so fascinated by their voices, and how out of tune certain things were, but how precise they were,” Krakow said. “I really became obsessed with the album – I decoded the language of The Shaggs.”

The Shaggs were three sisters whose father – determined to fulfill a fortune teller’s prediction – pulled them out of high school and put them in a band. They played weekly gigs at the Fremont Town Hall and recorded one album, but only a few copies made it into circulation. When their father died in 1975, they abandoned the band and went on with their lives.

The album lived on, however, attracting attention from the likes of Frank Zappa, who was quoted in Playboy as calling The Shaggs “better than The Beatles,” and Rolling Stone magazine, which named it one of the 100 “most influential alternative releases of all time.” Semprini and one of her sisters performed with the band NRBQ in 1999, and a musical based on their story opened in Los Angeles in 2003 and in New York last year.

The new album came about after Krakow invited Semprini to a concert he organized last year to benefit the Fremont Town Hall and someone in the audience asked her if she still wrote songs. When Semprini replied that she had lyrics but no music, Krakow’s arm – the one with the Foot Foot tattoo – shot up. You write the lyrics, I’ll write the music, he told her.

Many phone calls and emails later, they had co-written a batch of new songs, some based on unrecorded Shaggs songs.

The result? A new band, the Dot Wiggin Band (Wiggin being Semprini’s maiden name), and a new album: Ready! Get! Go! The band, which has played gigs in Brooklyn and Baltimore so far, includes Krakow and five other professional musicians, playing what their publicist describes as “something reminiscent of the Shaggs, but refreshingly matured.”

Krakow describes the sound like this: “Like the best pop band you’ve ever heard doing everything wrong,” or “a band making the most unusual choices ever.”

At home in Epping, Dot works two jobs and is devoted to her pug, Newman, who listens to Elvis all day and whose barking is included in one of the new songs. Her sister Helen – The Shaggs’ drummer – died in 2006; her sister Betty, busy with her grandchildren, decided not to continue with music.

But Semprini said she’s not quite ready to stop, even though she dislikes traveling long distances to perform. She remembers how another sister was bullied at school about The Shaggs, and then thinks about the fans from around the world who’ve told her The Shaggs changed their lives.

Photo: Ronny Zvi/AP
Image taken from video shows Dot Semprini with the Dot Wiggin Band at the 285 Kent club in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“I’m not making a whole lot of money, but basically I’m doing it for the fans that have stuck through us all these years, that we didn’t even realize that we had all these fans,” she said. “So, I figure if the fans have been there all these years for us, then I’ll do as much as I can, as long as I can.”