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Alpha Cat: A Rock 'n' Roll Machine that Purrs with Satisfaction
By MuzikMan
(more articles from this author)
2003-02-25
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Elizabeth McCullough (vocals, acoustic, electric guitar, percussion, bass, keyboards) is the alpha female of the alternative rock band Alpha Cat. McCullough fell in love with Meerkats at the Vancouver zoo, and because they were so like little people, was inspired to come up with an unique name for the first incarnation of her New York group: "Meerkat", which eventually morphed into Alpha Cat. Therefore, an infatuation for one of nature's furry little creatures was a key factor in naming a rock group, proving one never knows when or where great ideas will come from.

MP3: Straw Hat (3.1 M)

"I believe that you are influenced in some way by everything you've ever heard in their life, and in fact, as much by what you DON'T like as what you do."

McCullough's music has been compared to many and various artists: Chrissie Hynde, Annie Lennox, a "grittier" Aimee Mann, Beth Orton, Gillian Welch, REM, Beck on Mutations, and Kurt Cobain "unplugged" (a wildly flattering one). These are but some of the names tossed about when the media talks about the band and their sound. She is careful to assert an uncertainty that these most flattering references apply, but appreciates them nonetheless. The one exception has been the occasional suggestion that she sounds like Natalie Merchant. McCullough commented- "I do not enjoy being compared to Natalie Merchant for a variety of reasons." She did not elaborate.

When asked what the band considers their influences, McCullough reels off quite a long list: Everyone from the Beatles, Bowie, old Motown (esp. Smokey, Aretha, Marvin Gaye, and Gladys Knight), Prince, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, Carole King (her first record purchase), Tom Petty, The Cure, The Jam, The Stranglers, the Ramones, REM, The Replacements, Husker Du and Sugar, Tracey Chapman, Freedy Johnston, Nirvana, and Beck. "The list of those I'm conscious of is too long, really, and ultimately, I believe that you are influenced in some way by everything you've ever heard in their life, and in fact, as much by what you DON'T like as what you do."

I found Elizabeth's reflections on the recording sessions for "Pearl Harbor" rather absorbing. I am sure people in the business and all aspiring recording artists will enjoy this play by play of the recording sessions.

RealAudio: Snow

"The basic tracks for their new release 'Pearl Harbor' were recorded at the tiny Melody Lane studio in New York's lower East side, and were engineered by Justin Braun. The first recordings were quite rough so we, primarily Fred (Smith, co-producer and bassist for the influential Television) worked really hard to clean up the sound. The drums tracks from those sessions were problematic for a number of reasons, so Fred did extensive work on them in the computer, a lot of EQ-ing, some Drumagog, etc. This was a large part of the reason the record took two years to finish. Almost all the rest of the tracks were recorded in Cakewalk at Fred's studio in his apartment. I think that experience made us vow never to use Cakewalk again, but we did get the job done, eventually."

And though it seems that many different instruments were used on this disc, in actuality, there was only a little bit of percussion, some slide guitar, mandolin, and the upright (bowed) bass. "The horns on 'Once Upon a Time' were Lori's (Bingel, bass player) idea, since she has been a tuba and trombone player for years, and she did the horn arrangements."

"What was wild was that we turned on the mic began recording, switched on the television, started channel surfing, and the second or third thing that came up was F.D.R.'s Pearl Harbor "Day of Infamy" speech, right from the beginning! It was completely serendipitous, yet freaked us out not a little."

RealAudio: All Mine

"Fred is a fan of the Line 6 Pod, and I thoroughly enjoyed my turn on the Pod on 'Snow', but Angie (Lead guitar) took a little bit of convincing. She really preferred to get the live mic'ed amp sound, but eventually came around and used the Pod for some stuff. I don't know if she could have done that "Pearl Harbor" solo(s) without it, but that could be debated. And the violin was added after we met and gigged with Samy Bishai in London about a year into the making of the record. He was so great we decided to use the "wonders of digital technology" and he recorded his parts in London, sent us a cd, then we synched them up here.

"The sound effects are another story, basically I wanted the whole record to feel like an experience, sort of like the listener is going through this process of transformation with me, this dark night of the soul as it were, and coming out the other side.So I tried to insert some reality checks.

"The prelude to Monsters" is actually Angela's daughter, who at home had been singing a song she made up about a monster who lives in her bathtub, named Cheerio. We were going to try to record that song formally, but one day she started to sing this 'You Can't Do It' bit around the apartment, so in a fit of inspiration Angela had Serena sing it into my phone machine. When I heard it, it suddenly made sense: the real monster under the bed, is the voice in your head that keeps telling you 'You Can't Do It'. Fred was a bit nervous about using that sample, but I just wanted to put it in the pretty much the way it was. So I won that battle, and successful or not, it is what it is.

"The room sounds before 'Sometimes When I Wake', were just really plates, forks, cigarettes being lit by matches and my cat's meow. We decided to record the TV right there at Fred's. What was wild was that we turned on the mic began recording, switched on the television, started channel surfing, and the second or third thing that came up was F.D.R.'s Pearl Harbor "Day of Infamy" speech, right from the beginning! It was completely serendipitous, yet freaked us out not a little. But, of course, it had to be on the record.

"Lastly, the breaking glass at the end of 'Thatched Roof Glass House' was from some sounds our friend Frank Kern (who does a lot of sound editing for New Yorker filmmaker's Scorcese, Spike Lee, and The Coens) compiled for us. We edited them together to sound like a glass wall being broken through, which was supposed to be a positive image. Then,we mastered it in LA, (on September 8, 2001) to be really big, a building falling down, a glass house...little did we know that a few days later that glass would take on a such an ominous meaning. In fact, I debated whether to put the record out because of that glass, but in the end, I could not have afforded to re-record and re-master that CD. So it stayed, because ultimately, with a name like 'Pearl Harbor', the imagery was all over the record, and too much time and work and heartache had been spent in making it. So I ultimately decided to let it be.

"The vocals took a long time, because I wanted them to be relaxed, natural, and conversational. It is not the easiest thing to do for an untrained singer. I ended up buying a Boss BR8 and a reasonably nice mic and recorded them over the course of several months in my house. I was able to sing at any time of day or night, drink some wine, listen and get the feeling I wanted. There were a few 3 AM vocal sessions that did not endear me to my neighbors. (In my defense, I honestly didn't know they could hear me since I was working with headphones)."

McCullough is particularly partial to simple, direct and intelligent pop songwriting; she is not someone who feels accessibility to be a crime. "What does bug me is lazy or cliched lyrics. It actually makes me angry!" There are conscious references to particular songs and artists everywhere in her writing, both lyrically and musically. Though ironically one glowing review made a reference to her "Obvious influence, Beth Orton..." whom she had not heard of at the time the songs were written, or heard before the record in question, "Real Boy," was recorded. But Orton, as well as Joseph Arthur, another reference, "have now been added to the collection, and I really like a lot of what they do, so am grateful for the heads up. It's hard to keep up with all that's out there now."

So there you have it... opinions, tastes, influences, critiques, literally everything and anything that is part of creating and recording music. If Alpha Cat continues to develop and record as a band, I am sure people will begin to compare other newer groups to them and in turn reference their sound as a benchmark to musical creativity.

www.thealphacat.com


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