CatDesigners - Indie's Scratch & Purr
CatDesigners hail from London (the UK love their cats, even more than the US, ya know), and have developed an introspective indie feel that trips into a marriage between David Bowie's Scary Monsters and Earthling. Maybe more toward Scary Monsters, but with a great sense of modern mixing and scheming.
Musically, their scope is guitar, non-danceable eclecticism, skirting pop and rock while feeding in enough melody and feedback to sink a DJ. Chemically, they are more emotionally disturbed, and hard to pin down. Like a kid who loves cartoons, yet could the next minute sit and stare at the wall like Michael in the first Halloween. Yeah, it can get scary if you think about it. So don't. Just listen to the grey areas.
Nick Troop - vocals, guitar, programming
Steve Heath - bass
Fred Binding - drums
Qy - keyboards
Their calling card was the moody Chemical Jazz, released in September 2003. The sequel was highly anticipated and is now out: Strange Little Creature. And like any young guy's locker, there is a wealth of dirt, underwear and hidden treasure within.
A perfect explanation comes in the opening "Vain as I Am," combining loud distortion and laconic listlessness with the whole seedy situation, yet there is a boldness to Nick Troop's lead vocals that will remind you of Bowie's "Fame" or a lighter INXS tune without the crutches of electronics.
Then there's the title song, "Strange Little Creature," which sounds like it should have escaped from a new Richard O'Brien musical.
Losing myself a strange little creature
Amusing myself but still happy to meet you
Losing myself a strange little creature
What does it mean? It means these are not disposable lyrics, but thoughtful, indie mirrors set up in every room in the house or every pulsating lobe of the brain, as succinct and individual as a fingerprint pressing against the music that is ONLY CatDesigners. Somewhere between spiritual and subversive.
Just like the band name. As Nick says, "I once wrote a song called 'Designer Cats.' It was a rubbish song, but I liked the idea behind it - that we (humans) seem to feel the need to tinker with things, constantly changing the way things are and never leaving them alone. Sometimes this would improve things but often it's simply because of our own vanity; a trivial example is the hairless cat, designed to keep hair off our furniture. Now we have a cat that can't regulate its body heat and needs to wear a coat. Absolutely pointless.
"Also, the reason it's 'CatDesigners' rather than 'Cat Designers' is because (a) I thought it was a little bit different and (b) when I did a Google search there were thousands of the latter (including some rather dubious she-male porn sites ... which I only looked at in the interests of research, you understand), but only a handful of the former which I figured would make it easier for people to find us if they were looking."
So what is Nick trying to say with his fur? "There's no specific message I'm trying to give. I hate being preached at by someone who thinks, just because he has a microphone, that he has an opinion (a) that matters and (b) that I should adopt. Because I hate people preaching at me I expect that others would hate me preaching at them.
"Generally my songs are quite psychological, quite impressionistic, quite exploratory and usually (though not always) self-referent. There is a lot of ambiguity in what I write about. I don't go out of my way to be ambiguous, it just happens. Usually I just write - I try not to plan exactly what my attitude is and I try not to be too deliberate in what I say or how I say it - and then look at what I've written to try and make sense of it. I think you can learn a lot about yourself that way."
Being compared to Bowie all over the place flatters Nick deeply, because he's "definitely my favourite artist. I think we soak up a lot of influences, some more obvious, others more subtle. I have referred to Jacques Brel a lot but noone has picked up on this yet. Although I don't think the influence is obvious on the first two albums, I think what I have got from his music is a sense of the sound of the words, that the words fit together not just in terms of their meaning but in terms of the flow.
"In my own writing I will often rewrite lines until the words flow properly. Sometimes it can be frustrating if I think I have encapsulated a great idea in a clever way and I have to struggle to rewrite it, trying to keep the meaning but changing the sound or flow of the words until it 'feels' right. Sometimes in doing this I have even completely changed the meaning of what I was trying to say and ended up with a song that seems to contradict itself. That can be very interesting. You can learn a lot about yourself that way too."
Speaking of songwriting, the effort that goes into the usual CatDesigners song goes something like this: "I tend to write in fairly short bursts and I have to be in the mood. I can't force myself to write (well, I can, but experience tells me that I always write rubbish when I'm not in the mood).
"I collect ideas, phrases, snippets of conversation etc. over time and scribble them on bus tickets, receipts, envelopes, stick-it notes, cigarette papers, whatever I have to hand (I still can't get into the habit of carrying a notepad). One day I'll be tinkering with my guitar and I'll come across something interesting. Maybe a melody and a few words will come there and then. I'll also look through the scribbled ideas I have and see what else seems to fit. Even if I've written a range of apparently disparate thoughts I generally find that several will fit together conceptually as if something has been playing on my mind for a while that I hadn't been consciously aware of.
"Once a structure begins to emerge (I may have a verse or a chorus), I carry on with it until I can't think of anything else that works but I'll make sure I've played it enough to have the tune fixed in my mind.
"At that point I may stop and let it incubate. I'll replay the song in my head quite a lot over the next few days (usually without the guitar) and write more lines as they occur to me (scribbling the lyrics on bus tickets, etc.). Each time I'm in the mood I'll revisit the song with the guitar, bringing in the next few lines that I've written as well as trying to add more there and then. Any time I feel it's not going anywhere I stop and maybe switch to another song.
"It can be quite a slow process and a song can take anywhere between two hours and two years to finish, so I usually have several songs on the go at any one time. That's only one way I write, of course, and I have several different ways of going about it - sometimes I set specific challenges or limitations to trigger new ways to approach my writing. However, I think it's the way I've written quite a lot of my songs and it was the first systematic technique that I evolved that seemed to work for me."
When you see 'em gig, they play only their own stuff. "It's a good time to be creative. I find my own ability to be creative seems to be tied to there being great music around - when I'm bored by everything that's out there I get bored with my own music and it suffers. There are some great bands around at the moment and it's quite an eclectic mix - The Libertines, The Streets, Keane, Franz Ferdinand plus some great bands who have been around for two or three albums, like Queen Adreena and Muse."
That's in the UK, of course. According to Nick, it's notoriously difficult for UK bands to break into America. CatDesigners is still looking for the magic formula. "I don't mind the influence the US has on music in the UK (after all, without that we'd never have had The Beatles, The Rolling Stones or David Bowie), although I do get tired of UK bands trying to be more American than American bands. The template for singing seems to be to sing with an American accent, but this has been taken to ridiculous extremes with skinny white English guys rapping in an American accent (I've never 'eard anyone from London say 'fo ba fo' in conversation, but tell 'im to rap and suddenly 'e's a 'gangsta')."
At the moment they are organizing as many gigs as they can in London and East Anglia, but would like to get over to the States as soon as possible, "even if it means me coming over on my own with my acoustic 12-string to peddle my songs on street corners" says Nick.