Words by Elilee Arulkumar.
Last February, before their first headline festival and concert (certainly a feat not too many bands can accomplish), I got into conversation with Catbandcat, an experimental student band (consisting of bass, synth, guitar, vocals, violin, trumpet, and a drum machine) that leaves the audience not quite able to explain what they’ve just seen. I’d spoken to a few viewers before and after their gigs, with one person describing them as “orchestral EDM” and others just not able to find the right words. I’d ‘categorise’ them as an experience.
Their response to being asked about the genre of their music is one of self-aware confusion, Mhairi considers it a “very valid question”, with Tomas proclaiming that they “just screw themselves over”. Apparently, the question regarding what genre of music the septet makes causes quite the argument in the band, but really it can be considered “a bit of pop… hop… alternative… electric… experimental… art-pop… post-punk”. Rory is a fan of Mikey’s usual response to the question – that as long as it’s not indie, they’re fine with being called whatever.
The theatrical element of their music seems to be what audiences know them for. Within music, there’s usually this dichotomy between ‘the live’ and ‘the recorded’. Jazz historian Ted Gioia says that “whereas early recordings hoped to reproduce the sound of a live performance, today musicians are more inclined to adjust public performances in order to recreate the sound of a studio recording”. This, for him, is in opposition to jazz which relies on improvisation to create an ‘imperfect art’, emphasising the importance of live performance in the genre. I feel that Catbandcat’s incorporation of recorded elements in their live music, which is still clearly very improvisational, melds this historic importance of the ‘live’ with modern technology, to create a really “theatrical” (as Rory labels it) music.
In our discussion about this, they explained that, whilst this became a really important tenet in their style, it actually just started out as a happy accident. “From the start, we just couldn’t find a drummer, so we just put some beats on the sampler and went from that,” says Tomas. Rory remembers that “early on, having a rehearsal and discussing either we’re a band that wants to have a drummer but doesn’t and we’ll get one in the future, or we want to not have one and we’ll see how that limitation takes us”. Their songs essentially start out on the computer, they then play along to it, adding and removing elements as they go along.
Limitation and experimenting as a result of challenges also seems to be a part of how the band keeps making crazy sounds. Not many bands have 2 melodicas, but Deniz and Rory started doing duets together in their house during lockdown, which led Mikey to ask Rory to write a song with “a challenge” – he said, write one with a melodica. The band enjoy the theatrical element of their whacky instrumentation so much that they’re planning on including a side-whistle to their newest song.
We spoke about their influences for a lot of the conversation. I’d attributed a lot of it to jazz, but I found this isn’t necessarily the case. Surprisingly, whilst I’d thought a lot of it to be spontaneous improvisation, I learnt that for a lot of the songs that Mikey writes, the parts are all written out. Regardless, in Mhairi’s words on improvisation when it does happen: “It’s not traditional improvisation – because we’re not following a framework, or working over chords, well we are but isn’t like a lead sheet, it’s just like we throw it in there. Marla changes what she plays a lot, especially the one where it’s just the two of you and you’re playing guitar and singing, sometimes you come out with some ridiculous lines and I’m like “’hat??’”To this, Marla, quite humbly, responds that “sometimes there’s nothing”.
Allegedly, a lot of their influence also came from the composition module at UoM, which they felt “forced” them into trying “loads of random stuff”. Moreover, whilst they all have different tastes in music, Bjӧrk and Jockstrap stand out as big influences, although Mhairi claims that their tastes are all overlapping now because Mikey used to put his music on loudly in their old house. Essentially, subliminal messaging from Mikey to make the music he loves the sound of.
They each attribute jazz influences to other people, and the way they all think about music is clearly very different, but it obviously melds together very beautifully. Tomas notes that Mikey and Deniz have strong jazz backgrounds, “but actually I think Rory as well, the way he talks about his pieces is a bit more abstract. So, he says there’s World 1 and World 2, and they relate to each other but they’re completely different and then you have a lot of room. And he goes – right let’s go! And you’re like?” Deniz claims that this is because Rory is a drama student.
Ultimately, I’d say I got two main takeaways from the band. The first lovely thing I learnt from our conversation was how things I (and presumably other audience members) perceived to be very deep, profound stylistic choices – such as their name (which came to be because that was the only available cat related instagram handle), and the incorporation of recorded elements into performance (that came about having lacked a drummer) – started out as just happy accidents. The second thing was just how well the band gets on together. I asked about their future plans, and whilst the band formed (again, quite by chance) from a group-chat, they think they’ll try and stick together because they are such good friends.
Photo: Catbandcat playing Fuel in November 2021 by Maddie Drake @ The Mancunion