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The Native Cats’ Peter Escott on ‘Dallas’

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In a special feature, Peter Escott of The Native Cats (pictured left above) discusses in detail the duo’s new record’ Dallas’, which is available now through R.I.P Society. It was originally published on Escott’s blog.

Part One: The True Personal History Behind the Mysterious Title of the Third Native Cats LP

Dallas? Dallas is a state of mind, man. Wait, where are you going? Come back…

The Native Cats toured the United States of America in September-October 2012. We didn’t play Texas, but Dallas Fort Worth was our point of entry into the country. In the months leading up to the tour I had a strong feeling that we were going to be turned around at the airport and sent straight back home. This wasn’t a completely illogical fear – who hasn’t had stories drift sadly past their eye about visa mishaps causing an international tour to be compromised, postponed or cancelled entirely – but it also spoke to a refusal to fully accept that the tour could actually happen, that the idea of it could cross over from daydream to rough idea to itinerary all the way to reality. The phrase “too good to be true” in its purely defeatist form. Dallas is where all thoughts and visualisations of the tour were frozen for months. Dallas is an aggressively pessimistic state of mind which was soon proven wrong.

(I explained the above to Julian when I suggested the title for the album, and he in turn suggested that the inside of the CD booklet contain his photograph of a big, sloppy beef burger, his first meal inside the United States after almost 18 hours of sleepless flight. I suppose it represents the victory over pessimism, the beginning of things turning out alright after all. However, I take this opportunity to apologise to our vegan fans for what you must find a sad and repulsive sight in an otherwise gastronomically unthreatening album. I myself am not a vegan, but I have always defended you against ignorant jokes based on the false premise that you are weak and exhausted all the time, to the point where many people consider me quite humourless as a result.)

When I was 11 I read The Winning Touch by David Hill, a book about a struggling school rugby team and their fairly standard Mighty-Ducks-esque rise to victory. There was a kid on the team named Dallas, and to the best of my recollection, his entire story during the course of the book was this: Dallas joins the team, shy and nervous and oddly bruised; everyone finds out right before the final that Dallas’ dad beats him up; Dallas starts going out with The Most Popular Girl In School.

There are regular childhood daydreams I can recall more vividly than most true memories. From about age ten onwards they were mostly based around being pitied: fantasies of being beaten unconscious for no reason by a group of older kids at assembly, of returning to school at the start of term having lost an unhealthy amount of weight off my already skinny frame, of having cruel messages about myself painted large on school walls, of fainting inexplicably and being rushed to hospital. They started well before I read about Dallas, but I certainly imagined these things a lot more often afterwards, and most of all, that’s where I developed the poison idea that pity was the way that girls form an interest in you.

I never made any attempt to bring these fantasies to life, unless you count slouching around the school grounds almost every day for years, looking miserable, though never more miserable than I actually felt. But undoing the psychic rot took years. Starting the Native Cats was an early step in learning to project a basic degree of self-confidence and never trying to attract pity again, so it made sense to name an album after Dallas the city, and after Dallas the kid.

Dallas is a state of mind, and I’ve named it so I remember never to repeat it. Dallas is a place where you mustn’t ever win.

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Part Two: The Origin and Intent of Each of the Seven Songs which Together Comprise the Third Native Cats LP…

(…with the exception of one lyric, which I was planning on writing about, but I’ve seen a few quite dark interpretations of it in the last couple of months, and in this particular case I’d rather take the credit for an unsettling idea than write about the very ordinary place it came from.)

1. Pane e Acqua

Julian wrote the bass part, recorded it on his phone and texted it to me. The next day I wrote the words, sang them into my phone, and texted them back. Then he texted me to say that he liked what I’d done and that we should keep the song without any beats. That was the entire creative process. Have I mentioned we live 20 minutes’ walk apart?

When I was eight I really liked the young rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg (or whichever songs from Doggystyle were played on Triple J, at any rate), and refused to accept what I would hear on the news about him possessing marijuana or carrying firearms, because why would he, if he was such a good musician? 20 years later I don’t feel like my position on drugs and music has advanced much further. In my whole life I’ve only ever been sober, because nobody has ever made even an hour of any alternative look or sound appealing to me. But that’s just a gap in my comprehension. So this song is about a lifelong teetotaller trying to find a clear point of identification with his favourite drug musicians. I think I managed to fit into the song every confused and conflicted idea I had in the space of an afternoon.

We like to start our albums somewhere unusual — ‘Water Down’ on Always On, ‘The Singer is Dead to Me’ on Process Praise — and as the first song we’ve ever written without a beat, ‘Pane e Acqua’ certainly fits the bill. We’ve started opening our live shows with it sometimes too, the theory being that it kills chatter by being the quietest thing that happens all night.

The title is Italian for “bread and water”, and is, as I learned from a documentary aired during the final act of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, a slang term for cyclists who don’t use performance-enhancing drugs. The first of the album’s many little jokes.

2. Hit

A total mystery. I’ve been using the Korg DS-10 (a Korg MS-10 emulator for the Nintendo DS handheld gaming system) since 2009 and I don’t know when I wrote ‘Hit’ or why I saved the program under that title, though I think I meant it in a physical sense rather than a sarcastic “that’s the single!” sense. One day I played it at a rehearsal, Julian wrote a bass part, and it became a Native Cats song. I’m a Fall obsessive with a wide range of live bootlegs, and heaps of them from about 1990 onwards start with the band playing a moody instrumental for a minute or two (‘Theme from Error-Orrori’, ‘Zagreb’, ‘Tunnel’) before Mark E. Smith comes on and does his “Good evening, we are the Fall” bit. Though my insistence on putting two versions of it on the album was less about This Nation’s Saving Grace and more about my favourite album of all time, the second Tindersticks album (with the accidentally perfect cover photo of Neil Fraser being fitted for a suit, the great signifier of stoic masculinity dissected and laid bare), with the instrumental ‘Vertrauen II’ all tension and fury and chaos, and ‘Vertrauen III’, much later on the album, the same tune but utterly emotionally drained.

3. I Remember Everyone

All the beats on Always On were presets on various keyboards. Almost all the beats since have been mine, but Julian wrote this one, and full credit to him for doing so, as this is the song that gets people goth-dancing when we play it live. The final mix of this song was the last of many genius moves by our producer Anthony Rochester. Neither of us could articulate what was missing but he filled it in for us anyway.

I used to write a lot of songs about people I didn’t want to think about anymore, the trouble with that habit being that I then have to think about the person every time I’m on stage singing the song. So I wrote this song about remembering everyone I’ve ever met while singing this very song. It’s a Dave Graney move. See ‘Playin’ Chicken’.

I was thinking about a spy breaking into a government facility by pumping a non-lethal amount of chlorine through the vents, just enough to make everyone in the building remember swimming pools and get distracted from their security duties by long-forgotten teenage body shame. It’s a scene from a TV series I’ll never write. But I got it into a song.

This song also marks the first appearance of our friends Claire and Emma, dual lead singers in the great new Hobart band Catsuit, and in Claire’s case also co-up-the-front of the great new Hobart band Heart Beach. ”Ksh ksh.”

4. Cavalier

This song is about being 21 and single and not especially confident and trying to build a self-concept practically from zero. For bonus verisimilitude a lot of the words are even lifted from another song that I wrote at that age and within that thrilling life situation.

I have no time for “mash-ups” and never have, but I will happily make an exception should anyone feel inspired to combine our song with the not entirely dissimilar – and, I should stress, more recent – ‘Fluorescent’ by the Pet Shop Boys.

5. Scratch Act

A character piece. Self-explanatory. The second appearance of Claire and Emma. Spot the tribute to Jessie Ware’s ‘No To Love’, from her flat-out incredible debut album Devotion, which I suspect not nearly enough people in our furious little corner of the music world are listening to.

6. C of O

I first heard Broadcast when I was 17, thanks to a private file-sharing server operated by my small group of American internet friends. When people talk about the life-altering possibilities of music piracy, they’re talking about kids like me. My taste in music was mostly limited to some pretty decent Australian rock (Rocket Science, Spiderbait) and the genre I even briefly and somewhat absurdly tried to build my personality around, UK “chillout” (Groove Armada, Kinobe). Then one of my friends uploaded The Noise Made By People, and that was the window into everything I know now. At first I only liked a few of the more openly rhythmic and melodic songs (‘Papercuts’, ‘Come On Let’s Go’, ‘City In Progress’) but the rest was so foreign to me that I kept playing the whole album repeatedly for answers. I had never heard a voice like Trish Keenan’s, I had never heard such fractured, unearthly noises put to such beautiful ends, I had never heard an album start in a place like ‘Long Was The Year’. But now I had.

Broadcast blew my head open wider and wider for years to come. I remember the moments: the tonal impossibilities of ‘The Book Lovers’ and ‘Pendulum’; the freeform God-knows-what of ‘Hammer Without A Master’, the euphoria of Haha Sound occasionally interrupted by dark scuttling madness that I eventually learned to love; the piercing minimalism of Tender Buttons; the astonishing discovery years later that Tender Buttons was just a bunch of demos that the two remaining members were originally intending on playing with a full band, until they heard how extraordinary it sounded already. I remember listening to the legally purchased CD of early singles compilation Work and Non Work for the first time, and being nearly brought to tears by the ghostly minute-long instrumental at the end of ‘The Book Lovers’, which was missing from the .mp3 I’d been listening to for the last three years. Even as recently as a couple of weeks ago I was suddenly completely floored by a lyric I must have heard a hundred times previously, from ‘Lights Out’: “I remember your excitement, choosing pictures for your wall. But now you’ve seen them all so often, you hardly see them anymore.”

My memory of the day I learned of Trish Keenan’s passing was that I had never felt this particular kind of grief before and didn’t have a chance to express it. My son had only been born a few weeks prior, it was becoming clear that one of my responsibilities as a father and a supportive partner was to stay strong and generally keep it together, and on that day it meant heading out to the city for some shopping and a nice lunch and not being a bawling wreck.

I felt sick and confused about Trish and unable to listen to Broadcast for over a year. I thought my inability to process the tragedy and move on was due to having suppressed it on the day, but I came to realise it was much simpler than that: I just didn’t know how. She was a voice to me, not a human being; her lyrics gave no clear insight into the life she had lived. I still had recordings of her music but I had no way to carry her spirit with me in my life. So I tried to write a song for her, out of desperation rather than inspiration.

In an interview with The Wire in 2009 (which I still haven’t felt able to go back to, so I’m going from memory here), Trish spoke about her childhood love of film scores, and how she would record the music from films like The Wicker Man by holding a cassette recorder up to the TV, only to become disappointed later in life upon hearing the official soundtrack album and hearing nothing but the tunes, no dialogue, no doors opening, no footsteps. You come back and it’s just music, you come back and it’s just noise, and all the people have gone.

It’s still all I really know about her outside of what she made.

‘C of O’ is “constellation of Orion”, a lyric from ‘Arc of a Journey’, my favourite of a hundred-odd perfect songs. I liked the sound of the abbreviation. A little bit “C of E”. Vague astronomical imagery and vague religious imagery from someone with little knowledge or understanding of either.

The arrangement of the actual song was a hell of a thing to try and put together. It’s the most complex piece we’ve ever recorded. Top marks to Julian for writing several beautiful bass lines; and to Anthony for making sense of my instructions, frantic, unclear and uncertain as they were; and to Claire and Emma, the astral choir, who of course we didn’t summon all the way out to Rokeby just to sing one line and impersonate a drum machine hi-hat.

Nothing about the song sounds particularly like anything Broadcast ever did, save for the sound at the very end, which was meant as an approximation of the synth tone they used on Tender Buttons, and also as a kind of ascension. That speckled wave. So long, stranger.

7. Mohawk-Motif

This would be the actual tribute to the music of Broadcast, then. “Mohawk” is the name for the track and “Motif” is the name for the lyrics. It started with me inadvertently setting up a drum sequence that sounded just like the song “Hawk” (hence the title) but overall it’s more of an attempt at a ‘Hammer Without a Master’ style tightly-wound freeform epic. The first time we ever played it live was in January 2011 at an outdoor afternoon MONA FOMA event down near Princes Wharf. I walked to a bus stop in the city as the next act was playing, a solo singer-songwriter on acoustic guitar. I could still hear him as I approached the city centre, and I tried to imagine how many people not even attending the event our 10-minute noise fit must have reached.

What you hear on the album is the first and only time we played it in the studio. We had our obligatory little chuckle – you know, “that’s the single!”, ho ho ho – then each independently listened to the rough mix compulsively on repeat and decided that it had to go on the album. I said it in the press release and I’ll say it again: there’s meant to be somebody around to veto that sort of decision, but nobody did.

I can’t even tell whether this is a shameful admission: I listen to ‘Mohawk-Motif’ a lot. At one show I even recorded us playing it on my phone and then listened to the recording on my walk home. It sounds narcissistic (though my vocal part is mercifully short) but really it’s just that whatever it is that we do on this song, this kind of repetitive crackly electronica where the textures keep shifting and a few extra noises whizz around, is the most directly pleasurable form of music to me, and I haven’t found nearly enough of it. Suicide playing ‘Mr. Ray’ at CBGB’s in 1978. Harmonic 313. Shit and Shine’s ‘Bass Puppy’ 12″. Antipop Constortium’s ‘Human Shield’. Autechre, occasionally, when they’ve got the attention span not to go jumping about all over the place. Though Julian takes it more into ‘And This Day’ territory. And that’s how we fell in with the rock weirdos rather than the glitch-hop go-gangers.

The words: one day you find you can hear the musical score of your own life, specifically the leitmotif that accompanies a single repeated bad habit or unwise decision, and the shame comes more than anything else from just how simple your life is, this life you had thought was unmappably complex, like the Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz, but no.

So side 2 of Dallas is in memory of Trish Keenan, and also Brendon Annesley, responsible for the Negative Guest List zine. He asked me to write reviews for NGL, which I did for about a year, and in the process I got turned onto a lot of incredible music – Los Dug Dug’s, Gun Outfit, Lumerians, Sun Araw, the aforementioned Shit and Shine 10″ – way outside my usual frame of reference. We never met and the only communication we ever had, the initial writing offer aside, was him sending me music and me sending him reviews. I had no reason to even think of him directly as a human being until I heard of his passing. You get to be so many things to so many people in your life and you never even get to know the half of it. Sometimes you’re a friend and sometimes you’re an obstacle and sometimes you’re a faceless conduit for life-altering ideas. That’s what Brendon Annesley was to me and I never thought to say thank you.

We recorded heaps of other songs along with these ones (it would be impolite to say how many) and they’ll all come out in time.

The idea that you would have read this far without having heard our record is hilarious, but nevertheless:

Buy the LP from Ride the Snake (U.S.A.)
Buy the LP from Repressed Records
Download the album from our Bandcamp
(we made a CD as well, honest we did, though I don’t have a clue where one gets it)

Word count before announcement of word count: 3191. Jeez I do bang on a bit. Thanks for reading.

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