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Scratch Act: The Native Cats interviewed

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As one of Australia’s strangest pop groups, The Native Cats are unusually generous in interviews. Peter Escott even offered a track-by-track breakdown of the Hobart duo’s most recent album Dallas, describing it as “a state of mind,” so named so that he can “remember never to repeat it”. The duo released their debut record Always On in 2010, which was followed by a string of 7 inches (one split with The UV Race, another on their lonesome) and then 2011’s Process Praise. Since then the band have attracted the descriptor “electro pub rock”, a reference to the group’s odd mixture of deadpan, matter-of-fact lyricism with stripped back electronic instrumentation.

In the lead up to a national tour in support of the record, the duo discuss – separately – the origins of the group, the different reactions they elicit in a live situation, and how to deal with being at parties alone.

I’ve seen the Native Cats play shows in Hobart on two different occasions. Is there a difference between playing internationally or in other states, versus playing in your hometown? 

Julian Teakle: There didn’t seem much difference playing in the States, because we played gigs mainly in bars, galleries and house shows like we do here. [The main difference was] playing to new people and sometimes having no idea where we were. We have a pretty small, regular crew who come see us in Hobart so there definitely was a novelty looking out to the crowd at our US shows and not knowing anyone.

How do you feel your Hobart shows and reception have changed throughout the years?

JT: I don’t think things have changed a whole lot for us in Hobart. We’ve never been a “big” band or huge crowd puller, there has just been a semi-regular crew who come to our shows. More people will come out for the record launches or when we had a fundraising show for the tour. I’m not fussed. A lot of other people in bands down here get all indignant that people don’t come see their shitty bands every week they play, but there’s not enough people down here to sustain stuff like that all the time, and well, their bands are shitty.

The Native Cats’ lyrics seem to deal with several themes – personal, political, historical. But there’s something uncannily Australian about your songs, particularly on Dallas. Julian, would you say that you are an inherently ‘Tasmanian’ band? And how have your themes and ideas evolved over time?

JT: Yes and no. We don’t sound like what people may know as your usual underground Tasmanian band, if they’re familiar with the history. It’s usually guitar-y music in all its permutations. For me on a personal level we are Tasmanian, but Pete may feel differently cos he doesn’t have as much of a history with the “scene” as me. I’m still trying to figure out the nature of being a music person in Tasmania, though I feel I have a cultural identity aligned with the music and art that goes on here. It’s not unique but there’s not many people here that would have it, except maybe a hundred local art weirdos. I feel lucky to have this identity as it has shaped my life and approach to music in a mostly positive way.

I guess we’ve always tried to do something better than what we’ve done previously. Getting to know each other over the years has given us an understanding of where the other is coming from musically.

Thanks to the instrumentation (bass, drum machine, electronics) some of the songs sound really bare: there’s a sparseness to them that couldn’t be achieved with the use of guitars. Is your musical setup a conscious exploration, or more a condition or circumstance?

JT: I’d played guitar a lot with my previous bands and wanted a change within my musical means. Pete had been left with a mutual friend’s bass with the thought of learning how to play it, and I guess I appropriated it for the first bunch of demos I recorded at my folks house in Claremont, which became Native Cats songs. I was also soooo over loading and unloading heaps of gear, so as we developed the songs some loose “rules” in regards to instrumentation were put in place for how we would do them. It was a practical thing as well because neither of us have cars. When we started, the songs had more stuff going on, with backing tracks and such, but we went more minimal when Pete bought the drum machine. We discarded things [and they] became direct and stark. It wasn’t a huge plan with flowcharts, it was just how we developed as co-composers over time with the usage of the drum machine and the Nintendo Korg DS-10.

Pete, are your lyrics confessional, a cathartic experience or an expression of relief? Listening to your words always feels like an intimate experience, as though you are speaking only to the listener. Is this your intention?

Peter Escott: When I was much younger I’d often get quite annoyed at lyrics that were anything less than literal statements. “If nobody knows what you’re singing about, what’s the point?” But after I started writing songs I began to understand why there’s this space where one is encouraged to be a touch oblique. You can spend a whole song orbiting a central point without coming to any firm conclusion, you can explore irrational and illegitimate feelings that you’d have no hope of directly explaining to anybody. And with any luck you end up a bit further ahead with whatever is on your mind than you were before. And as a bonus you’ve got a new song, which is always handy for filling in time at shows and on records.

That’s why I’m grateful to have this outlet. Every idea I put into a song is an idea I have no other way of expressing. If something is on my mind and I know all I need to do is talk to my wife about it, then I just do that, because it’s a lot more efficient and I only have to do it once.

I wanted to ask you how your experience with comedy plays into your musical performance – I’ve always seen you as a very brave performer, but there is a cool calmness to your delivery that is not often seen elsewhere. What would you say this confidence is a result of?

PE: I’ve got a few answers to this. The simple ones are experience and a supportive home crowd. For the first year or so of the Native Cats I didn’t want to commit too fully to my performance and thus be open to ridicule, but I got over it. Though in a different city (and without the Teakle Seal of Approval, which is like diplomatic immunity in Hobart) I might have been mocked mercilessly and quit in shame early on. Who can say?

The other factor is that I’ve always found “fitting in” so difficult as to be exhausting, which was a liability in high school but has worked out in my favour here in my nearly-completed 20s. If I look like I’m too confident to care what anybody thinks of me it’s only because I’ve tried it and always failed.

Lastly: modelling myself quite strongly on Moodists-era Dave Graney. I’ve always been an introvert but I didn’t want to be a wallflower on stage and trying to be Nick Cave (i.e. the main option for a dude in our region) would have just been overcompensating. Graney’s been a legendary performer for decades now but his Moodists act in particular was a good fit for an aspirational shy boy.

I can definitely relate to what you say about respecting and modelling yourself on the more introverted performers. The last time I saw Dave Graney perform he had this sly giggle or smirk on his face and I spent the whole show wondering exactly what he was thinking about. Would you say that in the act of performing onstage you have to push yourself to do something you normally would never consider doing because you ‘have to’? When have you been the most comfortable and confident, and the most afraid and insecure – if you could pinpoint a time?

PE: The most comfortable and confident I ever feel is when the Native Cats play house shows where I hardly know anyone, which is ironic because the least comfortable and confident I ever feel is at parties where I hardly know anyone and the Native Cats aren’t playing. Near the end of our US tour in 2012 we played in a garage at a sharehouse in Oakland, and the rest of the night felt like all those parties I foolishly attended in my late teens and early twenties, except instead of sitting on my own feeling miserable and watching everyone get drunk, I had strangers starting up conversations and thinking I was really interesting (admittedly just because I was from another country), and also I’m married now so I didn’t even have to be anxious about girls or anything. And of course with house shows in general it’s a thrill to be in such close proximity to the audience and to have the drum machine plugged into a double adapter that is also servicing a microwave.

The only times I ever feel insecure on stage is when we have equipment issues. Even when it’s not our fault it’s still shameful to be reminded mid-song that we can’t do what we do without y’know “an amp” or “a functioning mic cable”. The things our prehistoric ancestors put on very successful gigs without.

On Dallas, how would you say your themes have evolved? The lyrics really stick with you after repeat listens, and kinda echo around, ‘I Remember Everyone’ in particular. How would the mood of say, that song, relate and compare to the instrumental track ‘Hit’, or the non rhythmical ode ‘Pane e Acqua’?

PE: If there’s a theme tying all the songs on Dallas together – and almost by accident, there is – it’s the business of trying to understand people, and trying to be understood. Finding ways to be in the same mental space as somebody else, whether by coming to them or inviting them over to you. I think I buried myself in social obsession on Dallas to such an extent that I’ll need a wholly unrelated topic for the next album. Suggestions are welcome.

***

The Native Cats’ Dallas is available now through RIP Society. Tour dates below:

Adelaide
The Metro
Friday 20th of September
with Major Crimes and Wireheads

Melbourne
The Gasometer
Saturday 21st of September
with Bitch Prefect, Sarah Chadwick and Exhaustion

Brisbane
The Alliance Hotel
Friday 27th of September
with Four Door (NSW), Multiple Man & School Girl Report

Sydney
Red Rattler Theatre
Saturday 28th of September
with TV Colours (ACT), Four Door & Ruined Fortune

Hobart
Brisbane Hotel
Saturday 5th of October
with Dick Diver (VIC) and Heart Beach

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