A Penn That Doesn't Always Come to the Point : Pop music: The singer, who plays tonight at the Coach House with a new backup group, can sometimes be as hard to figure out as his lyrics.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Michael Penn was being obstinate, living up to and perhaps even surpassing his brother Sean's reputation as a Difficult Guy.

To begin with, Penn had been hard to reach. His former management company claimed to have no idea of his whereabouts, and it took his former record label, RCA, a few days to come up with his phone number. And now, finally, here was Michael Penn, brooding singer-songwriter, answering with venomous sarcasm those questions he didn't dodge outright.

On why he's so difficult to reach: "I shot everyone who was involved with me."

On his songwriting method: "I put every letter of the alphabet on a page, and I use either dice or a computer to construct sentences."

On why he hasn't recorded an album since 1992's "Free for All": "I don't have a record company that wants to make a record yet."

Whew. OK. . . .

Penn, who performs tonight at the Coach House with a new backup group, became a fixture on the L.A. club scene of the '80s through his fondly remembered band Doll Congress.

RCA Records signed him as a solo act in 1990; his debut album, "March," showcased an eclectic and enigmatic singer-songwriter with a penchant for impressionistic lyrics open to any number of interpretations.

"I like it that way," said Penn, in one of his few straightforward responses. "I try to make it interesting and I try to make it truthful, and sometimes that becomes. . . . I'm an oblique guy. That's the best I can do. I always feel like if the terms of reference are so specific and you don't allow people to bring their own experience to it, then it isn't as cool."

Penn was named best new artist at the MTV awards in 1990, an achievement he calls "a thrill and a shock."

He followed up "March" with "Free for All," which further explored his talents for folk song structure, pop-guitar hooks and arcane, poetic lyrics. Since then, it seems he's been hiding out in the trenches, leaving his fans to wonder how long they'll be waiting for another album.

Penn, 36, grew up listening to '60s AM radio, the Beatles and Bob Dylan being particular favorites. He said that the experimental sounds of the era left a lasting impression.

"Times were so different, and radio was so interesting that it was cool entertainment for a young lad," he said.

The Penn household must have been quite an interesting one. It's not every family in which all the siblings go on to successful careers in show business, as Michael, Sean and actor Christopher have done. But then, all kids don't have a famous actress for a mother and an actor-director for a father.

Consequently, Penn said, their parents, Eileen Ryan and Leo Penn, always encouraged their creative impulses.

"They were artists and Bohemians in their own way," he recalled. And at least one of his brothers showed an aptitude for music as well. "Christopher's actually a really good blues singer," he said. "I tried to teach Sean guitar once, but he was dismal."

*

Penn remembers high school as a less-than-pleasurable experience, and he passed the time by playing in a number of garage bands.

"It was a drag," he said. "When I was in high school, it was sort of the peak of progressive education. There was actually a rock poetry class at my school. That's how embarrassing it had become. I'm sure that all had something to do with (becoming an artist), but I'm not consciously aware of it. That's just how I grew up, so it's inevitable."

Perhaps it's a good thing Penn became a musician.

"I figure that if I hadn't become a songwriter, I probably would have become a presidential assassin," he said.

Which President?

"Lincoln."

* Michael Penn and Kerry Getz perform tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $15. (714) 496-8930.

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