by Rob Conery
The Catbirds debut album came out last week and even while their wry, irreverent press release admits that “record stores barely exist anymore,” they are throwing a record release party at the Wellfleet Beachcomber this Friday, Aug. 31.
The Catbirds are Steve Wood, Dinty Child, and Chandler Travis with Rikki Bates on drums.
They’re all veterans of other bands who came together so they could, as Bates sums up, “Go all out [and play] like a loud rock and roll band.”
This word comes up again and again. Each member I spoke to used it at least twice.
“It’s a volume thing,” says Wood. “We’re a rock band, and we prefer gigs where we can play like a rock band.” This is neither dinner music nor background music. A sound this big requires a real rock venue. Woods also plays with the Greenheads, whose music has been shredding the paint off the walls since they used to play Fridays at the old Prodigal Son.
In a recent summary of the Cape music scene, Travis jokes that he liked the Greenheads so much that he stole their guitarist. Woods brings his explosive— almost literally!—guitar to the Catbirds, where he writes and plays, and says he enjoys the ease of having “three singers, three writers.”
Rikki Bates both pounds the drums and manages to play them like an instrument. The drummer-in-a-dress, Bates cites Thelonious Monk as a key influence, and grew up in Springfield and was in the same homeroom as drummer Tom Ardolino— “He was Ardolino, I was Bates; we sat right next to each other.” Ardolino, who passed earlier this year, was drummer for the influential NRBQ, and Bates says that, bored with mainstream offerings, together they started to blaze a path towards “really offbeat” music. Bates cites jazz masters Earl Palmer, Art Blakey, and Tony Williams as influences, as well as, from rock and roll, Charlie Watts and John Bonham, whom Bates calls a “real slammer.”
And while she recalls seeing Ringo Star play with The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, Bates’roots as a drummer trace to— of all places!—the Mickey Mouse Club, where she saw a young kid work out on a drum solo. That was the moment. Her folks got her a drum kit that Christmas, which was destroyed “in about a week.” A hard playing proto drummer was born.
Bates enjoys the feeling during performances when “something takes over me. I’m not thinking, it becomes completely reflexive. It’s a great place to be.”
Bates has for years played with Travis in the Incredible Casuals, who still play shows—last Friday they rocked the Improper Bostonian—even though they’ve wound down their decades-long Sunday happy hour at the Beachcomber. Bates and Travis hold down the Catbirds rhythm section on the new album.
A harmonica warble, a rush of chords, a drum roll and we’re off.
“Catbirds Say Yeah” opens with “All I Wanna Know Is,” a Travis song that is, well, reassuringly a Travis song. That is to say, it’s appealing, with verse-chorus-verse structure and recognizable rock parameters but also with a characteristic dose of the weird and funky. Travis wrote or co-wrote seven of the 12 tracks on the album, and sees himself as a songwriter foremost.
While Bates and Woods speak of the joys of performing, Travis seems more content to extract songs from the vast choral arrangements that play in his head. His says that as a younger man, he already thought the stuff in his head was more interesting than what he was hearing on the radio, questioning the big, six-singer, Mitch Miller-style arrangements as overblown, unnecessary. He likes to go for it as four-piece band, prefers it “loud and propulsive.”
“Don’t Say No” features a real boomer sooner drum intro from Bates.
The fourth track is a Woods composition called “Stoned.” It’s a Stones-in-the-Delta full-swamp boogie. If the Pixies are credited with creating, and Nirvana popularizing, the loud-quiet-loud dynamic to song construction, Woods is more like loud-louder-loudest. But if anything “Stoned” has a little less heavy ordinance than a Greenheads rocker. It still ripples with under-the-surface tension, but never breaks into a full gallop, opting for a powerful restraint.
“Changing Names” is both an album track here and a favorite lyrical trick of Travis, who likes to flip things around, calling one solo album “Writer-Songsinger.” It’s a headlong rush of exuberant chords that shares thematic similarities to the Casuals’ rousing “Summertime.” Lyrics include little surrealistic paintings like: “flowers bloom right where I’m looking/ Ringing phones a symphony, honking horns sounds good to me.” It’s a post breakup song where “words are all in a tumble.”
The impressionistic lyrics are hardly contained to that track. On “Red Red” a monkey chews tobacco while a duck drinks tea.
Travis is prolific. It’s almost quicker to list the Cape bands he isn’t in. (Indeed, just this week his Chandler Travis ThreeO band released a new record.) But he’s excited about the Catbirds album. “I wouldn’t put it out if I didn’t love it,” he says.
They recorded “Catbirds Say Yeah” last fall in two sessions, playing mostly live in Ducky Carlisle’s Ice Station Zebra recording studio. Travis says only the track “I’m Only You” received serious overdubbing, while the rest of the 17 songs they recorded on those sessions are unadorned. A dozen tracks made the album on the Iddy Biddy Records label. Shawn Wolf Wortis is credited with art & design.
After Friday’s Beachcomber show, the Catbirds will hit the road and play three shows in New York, from Brooklyn to Woodstock. They can’t wait to get out there. They all enjoy performing but bemoan a lack of real rock venues on the Cape. “It’s the ‘Comber and that’s it,” says Travis. At other places, they’ll cringe when asked to turn it down when, “we just don’t want to.”
Many years down the road from somewhere— their members are mostly 50-plus vintage—the Catbirds can still bring it.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” says Travis. “I’m not aware of a life without it.”
The Catbirds play Friday at the Wellfleet Beachcomber. Show starts 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $10.