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Cat-A-Tac – Standing Atop The Haystack

The guys in Cat-A-Tac were in a celebratory mood this particular Sunday. Or should I say, recovering from weekend celebrations and passing on my offer for some cold PBRs.

Andy Tennant (vocals/guitar) had just finished finals, and Jim McTurnan (vocals/guitars) had received news that their debut full length Past Lies and Former Lives (Needlepoint Records) was poised for success after being included in the CMJ top 20 adds to college stations on the CMJ charts. They shared these results with Elliott Smith, Electric Soft Parade, Tori Amos and The Sea And Cake.

“We’re thrilled with the ad chart results,” Jim said. “They’re so many records out right now. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens over the next two weeks on the top two-hundred. I mean, you know how many records have come out this spring. So the charts are just clogged with superstars. I don’t know how much room there is for us little guys.”

Jim read a statistic about the huge increase in album releases. Ten or so years ago it was around 2 million a year and today it’s over 20 to 30 million a year. “There’s ten times the number of bands putting out records now every year as there were in the 90s. The funny thing is, particularly with the Internet and everything, I feel like the level of competition has gone up so high that, as much bad music as there is out there, there’s a lot of quality stuff.”

Yes, there is a ton of music being released by both well-known and baby bands every month. But it’s no surprise that Cat-A-Tac was included in the CMJ quality click.

Past Lies… is a series of songs that not only stand on their own individually, but as a whole, flow effortlessly and seductively from the speakers into the crevices of your ears. The album triggered decade long memories of the very first time I heard The Dandy Warhols at a friend’s apartment in San Francisco, personifying that abstract, almost psychedelic trip with “Respite.” The fluidity of “We’re All Gone” draws icicle lines down the back on a balmy day, while the title track “Past Lies and Former Lies” stretches and bounces through an endless sea of crisp blue harmonies.

This stride that Cat-A-Tac is running at has picked up speed since its beginnings back in 2003 after Jim, Andy, Warren Wonders (drums), Conner Bailey (bass) moved from just buddies to bandmates in Boulder, and then releasing their first E.P. in 2005.

As things evolved, each found their role in the band beyond who is playing or singing what. Andy is the tech guy handling on things computers and studio production, and Jim, well, he’s not. “I’m lucky I can play guitar. Although that’s debatable as well,” he said grinning, “I can operate a guitar and stand in front of a microphone.”

Andy shakes his head, thinking of past recording sessions. “When it comes time for me to play guitar parts on the album, it’s usually me standing there yelling across the room, ‘No! Press this button!’ and Jim is like, ‘Andy, I did and nothing’s happening.’”

“So he has to stop what he’s doing, come over and figure it out,” Jim says, while also trying to redeem himself a bit, “I can follow instructions….kind of.”

Jim’s strengths reside on the business inner workings not only of the band, but of their label. “I’ve been playing in bands since I was in high school, but this is the first band I’ve been in where I handle the booking and all that stuff. For me it’s become an obsession. I really enjoy it, so I just try to educate myself on everything.”

But he also sees many other bands missing the boat, “They think you go out and you play shows, you rock really hard and then people will come to you and do it all for you. And then they wonder, ‘Why isn’t this working for me?’”

And while handling the business of music is part of the game, most bands also have their gig horror stories, and Cat-A-Tac is no different. One such story took place at the Lion’s Lair, where Andy had a verbal bout with the sound guy, “I told him, ‘You’re a fucking moron. Have you ever done this in your life?’ And he said, ‘Actually, no.’”

Jim had to jump in, “He was the door guy! They didn’t have anyone to work sound!”

“We were getting just screeching feedback. It was such a joke,” Andy said.

To add insult to injury, they were opening for a band they really admired, Vive Voce. “That was the first national act we’d played with and I was so stoked to be on the bill with them,” Jim recalled. “We got up there and it was the nightmare show from hell. Everything was going wrong. We broke a string on every song. Very quickly, moral went down the tubes.”

But to take it all in stride, they had to just rely in their sense of humor. “We were making fun of ourselves from the stage and had to ask, ‘Does anyone else feel like they’re watching a train wreck?’”

Warren reminds them of the shining moment when that national act took the stage, giving Cat-A-Tac props for enduring their pain, “Vive Voche gave us the Spirit Award.”

With those times put in the past and after returning from a tour, Cat-A-Tac decided it was time for a full-length and hit the studio in 2006. Working around varied schedules, still playing shows and having practices, and then having to set up for four six hours, play, tear down, only to do again the next session—it wasn’t jiving.

The disparity between sessions and the workings of the songs themselves caused Andy to, “hit the delete button on everything at least twice,” he states, causing Jim and Warren to laugh the way people do when something is finally behind them. “From a pure sound quality, we just weren’t there. And I don’t care how good an engineer you are; albums should have some semblance of consistency. Having the fewest number of set ups for the stuff that really shines through, like bass and drums, is really critical.”

Andy took time off from the Cat-A-Tac production to work on the release for Everything Absent or Distorted album, The Soft Civil War.

During this time, they also gave their music new life. Jim explains, “We’d been playing the songs live for a long time, but when we did that first round of recording we realized that the songs just weren’t sounding right. We had to step back and reevaluate for a while.”

Changing tempos and arrangements, adding more noise to the mix, and shifting moods from poppy to a bit more evil, the songs were transformed.

When Andy came back, they were in a different state of mind, “Alright, we’re ready now,” said Jim. “We had a few more songs that we were liking better than some of the others, and dumped a few off that we would have put on this record had we not taken that time. When we came back later we had a much more cohesive group of songs.”

For a period of two weeks they took over the studio they share with Everything Absent or Distorted (who is also on Needlepoint Records), they laid everything down in one giant session.

After getting past the adamant arguments and peacemaking concessions, the group settled in on the flow of songs, agreeing that the gate breaker would be “Needles and Pins.” Good call. As one of the strongest songs on the album, interest is peaked after just a few seconds of the driving guitar and harmonies. The reaching tempo and vocals on “Credit Whore” spark a scene where the boys are performing atop a building in New York City, showing the city’s mix of low and high, lush and metal landscapes, panning down to all the chicks strutting down in $500 Manolos down 5th Ave.

Jim recalls the making of that song during a period when his raging fever dropped him into a deep state of creativity, “I wrote a huge batch of songs in one sitting, which I think was everything on the E.P. along with ‘Credit Whore.’ I wrote four songs all at once, which is the most I’ve ever written all in one sitting. I write songs, sort of, unconsciously.”

As the main songwriters of the group, Andy and Jim take ownership of their creative endeavors that are born during solo sessions with an acoustic guitar.

“I sit in a dark corner in the middle of the night, play something and get hypnotized by it. With lyrics, I start spitting out gibberish and the words come together…” Jim said.

“…or they just stay gibberish,” Andy adds sarcastically.

Continuing on the topic of “Credit Whore,” Jim stated, “That song was abstractly disgruntled with consumerism,” pausing for a second, “and society as it is.”

“But I named it,” Andy reminds him.

“It’s funny. Andy’s better at naming my songs than I am. Writing the song itself is fine, but I hate coming up with the names for them.”

“I always believe you should go with the first thing that pops in your head” Andy states, matter-of-factly, adding, “unless it’s really gay. And what if it is? Fuck it.”

Altering music to appease audiences, in most instances, is a rarity for any band. The exception to this rule, in my humble opinion, has to be “Bevery Hills” by Weezer. When I heard it on the radio, I thought it was a commercial for the next episode of The O.C.

Jim jumps in on this subject with the real story behind the making of that song. Pointing a large finger at a producer he despises, Rick Rubin, he explains that every night after their recording sessions, Rubin would give his musical clients writing assignments. These are meant to break songwriters out of their comfort zone, and in the case Mr. Quomo, release him from the school boy sweater.

Riverboy would go home each night and write a song based on the criteria Rubin had given him. “For example, write a song that would be an extra track off of Billy Joel’s The Stranger.” The assignment for one particular night was: write a song to the drum beat of “We Will Rock You” by Queen.

“He does this with all the bands he works with, which is why so many bands put out shit that sounds nothing like themselves when he produced them,” Jim said with distain in his voice. “It’s a little less God awful knowing the story behind it, but still, why would you put that on a record?”

But of course, commercial radio gobbled it up. Who knows what Weezer was thinking, and at this point who cares. But it does lead to the question of how much radio means to any band, known or unknown.

As one of the oldest songs on the album, “Selling Out” dates back to the days in 2002 when Jim and Andy shared an apartment, when the band was just a twinkle in the eye, and their recording studio was a 24-track in a box.

“This is when Jim and I were writing songs that were similar enough that we thought we could be in a band together,” Andy recalls. “I had just moved back from Winter Park. Up there I was playing guitar in front of people, but it was alt country type stuff.”

Picturing him in Winter Park playing with a guitar in front of people, I held my breath when asking this question: “So, did you play ‘Margaritaville’ at the Après lodge? Please say no.”

“I love Jimmy Buffet!” Andy responds adamantly, as Warren and Jim shift in their seats uncomfortably, half laughing as their bandmate starts to serenade us all with a huge smile, “Nibblin’ on sponge cake, watchin’ the sun bake; All of those tourists covered with oil.

Jim interrupts him, “There are certain songs that you can only here so many times in one lifetime.”

He then goes back to the “Selling Out” question, “Lyrically, I was inspired by one of the old Uncle Tupelo songs that was written from a fan’s perceptive, and I always thought it was kind of funny how [fans] complain about bands selling out. Most of the time, bands are just doing what they do.”

Putting commercial radio aside and selling out in order to get airplay, it’s been Internet radio that has been a feather in Cat-A-Tac’s hat, which started with the E.P. To this day, is not only playing tracks from the 2005 release, but has jumped on board for the full-length.

KEXP, after ignoring the E.P., gave the album some love at 3:00am one morning. Pointing out with a glass-half-full attitude, Jim says, “Three AM is midday over in London, for those who are listening over there.”

When it comes to college radio charting, the results as of May 8 put Cat-A-Tac in the top 200, which is another win for the band.

Jim raises an interesting development with radio play on the new album, specifically how the melody line of “I won’t tell nobody else, I won’t tell nobody else,” pours from “Selling Out” into “Powder.” A simple splice separated one 5.42 minute song into two. But really, it’s still just one song.

“There are some radio stations that are playing ‘Powder’ by itself, which is hilarious because it’s half a song. We’re curious to see if people continue to play it as one song or if they’ll play them together. We’re all secretly amused.”

Cat-A-Tac may be playing coy, but it’s really the oldest trick in the book to get more airtime. A trick that goes back to 1978 and the Infinity album, when Journey would catch radio DJs off guard with a split second splice between “Feeling That Way” and “Anytime,” and after a while, DJs just gave up and let both song play together. Genius move boys.

Although Andy is an avid fan of NPR, voicing his political opinions and observations in detail, “I can’t stand politics in music. There’s only a few people I would shoot on sight: one of them is Dave Matthews, the second one is Jim Carey, and the third one is Bono.”

Laughing, Warren has to interrupts him asking, “Why Jim Carey?”

Andy answers without skipping a beat, “’Cause I can’t stand him.” He goes on to explain his point, “I guess it has to do with the times, but politically charged music, for me, has to be politically charged in a not so overt way. I don’t want to see Bono naked, with his hands tied above his head pretending to be some Abu Ghraib prisoner. What’s up with that? Bono gets up in front of people and talks about the environment and all these political issues, which is great and all, but he professes to be some kind of expert on this shit. Why should people listen to a rock star? They need to go and look up this stuff and learn about it themselves.”

Does he disagree with an artist using their music to express his or her view of the world around them in regards to politics or controversial situations?

“I don’t disagree with it. Artists are artists. I don’t like it…”

“My thought on it is, and I think we’re both this way,” Jim said, looking at Andy, “it’s more about ourselves. Yes, it involves the world around us but I’m writing from a first person, what I feel about things. I suppose there’s an abstract political sense to ‘Credit Whore,’ but I’m not writing about political things. I’m writing about myself.”

Okay, the next taboo dinner table topic: religion. I had to ask about the last track, “Jesus Won’t Save You and I,” which caused both Andy and Warren to chuckle a bit and Jim to take a deep breath before answering.

“I’ve never been religious. People who are religious freak me out. It’s kind of a ‘Carpe Diem’ type of song; don’t waste your life waiting for somebody else to save you. I think I’m here, and when I’m dead, I’ll feed the plants.” More chuckling was heard by the peanut gallery.

The topic of religion caused me to recall my early days in Colorado when I lived in Colorado Springs before moving to Denver, and how you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a church.

Andy pops up with, “Remember, some cows go ‘woof.’” Huh?

“I know, he had to explain it to me too,” Jim answers.

Andy tells the story of a gay rights campaign that took place during the last election cycle in the Springs, which ran an ad about embracing the differences in individuals with “Some Cows Go Woof.” Then Focus on the Family responded with another ad stating, “No, Actually Cows Go Moo.”

“Apparently, there was some national press on the issue. And every now and then I’ll see a bumper stickers, where a normal person will have the ‘Cows Go Woof” and I’ll see the freaks with ‘Cows Go Moo,’” Andy explains.

The story telling by Andy doesn’t stop there. He recalls one if his day jobs where he drove a large delivery truck to install pool tables. One day as he sat at the same level as most diesel trucks, he was stopped at a light and turned to look at the truck next to him.

“I had to do this triple take. Here’s this dude just jerking off. And I’m like, ‘What!’ So he sees me looking at him, and all he could do was say, ‘Hey,’” Andy said, doing a head nod at the same time. “Then Keith, this guy I’m working with asked what was going on, and I’m like, ‘Dude. Look!’”

Jim, sitting with a look on his face like he’d just bitten into a pickle after drinking orange juice, commented, “I think I would be a little distracted if there was this other dude looking at me, commenting. It might be a turn off.”

“Although…some cows go ‘woof,’” Andy chimes in, laughing.

“That’s true,” Jim answers, shaking his head.

“Okay, I’ll take you up on that PBR now,” Andy said matter-of-factly, as the other two agree with his motion by standing up to receive their cold cans of relief.

After Cat-A-Tac has their run of local release shows for the album here in town, including this Saturday’s show at Larimer Lounge, they’ll head out in July to hit the east coast and the Midwest.


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