an interview w/ Cat’s Eyes (whose album is out now)
by Bill Pearis
Cat's Eyes were supposed to play Bowery Ballroom tonight -- their first-ever U.S. show -- but ended up canceling their first U.S. shows due to "unforeseen circumstances." Hopefully those dates will be rescheduled soon. Their album, however, is out today digitally (CD/LP lovers must wait two weeks) and well worth picking up. With '60s pop as a starting point, Faris Badwan (of The Horrors, who have a new album out this summer) and multi-instrumentalist Rachel Zeffira have crafted their own melancholic, lush and rather lovely take on '60s pop. You can download "Not a Friend" from their website and there are a couple videos below. Faris and Zeffira were over last month to discuss their roundabout recording process, obscure girl groups, and making their live debut at The Vatican.
We talked about how they met, recording the new album, Chris Cunningham, the Vatican, Joe Meek, Henry Mancini, the band name & more. Read our chat below...
BV: I don't want to rehash the press bio too much, but maybe just a quick overview of how you met and decided to form this musical partnership?
Rachel Zeffira: How we met was just kind of boring -- through mutual friends.
Faris Badwan: We didn't talk about music for a long time.
RZ: But at some point we did and started exchanging songs. Faris is always making mix CDs for people, with really obscure bands, ones I'd never heard at least. The first one I remember really paying attention to, that sort of triggered this all, was a '60s girl group compilation. I'd heard The Shangri-Las, The Ronnettes... but his were really obscure. I had no idea that kind of stuff was even around.
Do you remember specific groups or songs from it?
RZ: Yeah. There was this Dani Sheridan cover of this song Brian Wilson had written for Glenn Campbell called "I Guess I'm Dumb." I really liked that. There was a cover of Gershwin's "Summertime," a song I don't need to hear another cover of, that was really interesting by...
FB: It was by The Bittersweets. It's kind of like Portishead but like 30 years earlier. It's really cool.
The Bittersweet : Summertime
RZ: And some song about a girl gang killing a girl...
FB: The Whyte Boots who sort of cashed in on the Shangri-La's thing, but more over the top. Ridiculous but...
RZ: There's some weird instruments in there.
FB: The thing is there with girl groups is there were so many weird experiments within pop songs.
RZ: Avant-garde, in a way, but within '60s teen pop music, and I'd never heard that before listening to Faris' mix. Some of these recordings were as experimental as the classical composers that were around then.
And sometimes that was due to working around budget and equipment constraints.
FB: Could be...especially the girl garage band stuff. You could hear when the musicians couldn't play the songs but couldn't afford to do any more takes.
RZ: What about that really weird one, "Mr Muscle"?
FB: Ricky Wayne. It was a Joe Meek production that was never actually released. He was a Mr. Universe at the time. It's called "Muscles" and he's singing from the point of view of a bodybuilder at the beach. And it's got girls giggling in the background, it's really great.
Ricky Wayne - Muscles - Joe Meek
I've seen Joe Meek referenced a few times in articles about Cat's Eyes and I wasn't sure whether that was something that was a real influence or writers calling out things they hear.
FB: No we do like Joe Meek.
RZ: I don't, though. I hate him...as a person. But I respect the music I guess.
FB: Rachel kind of hears evil in it which I can understand. He was definitely unstable.
RZ: It made me uncomfortable...and then I heard that answering machine message.
FB: Have you heard that? Some of these Joe Meek compilations have his ansaphone messages from his record label.
RZ: Then I found out how he died [murder/suicide]... and now when I hear his stuff there's always this hint of the unpleasant for me.
Did you see [Joe Meek biopic] Telstar?
FB: Yeah, it's horrible. I really wanted it to be good. We watched it in the van, all the Horrors were looking forward to it but it was crap.
RZ: Did everyone think it was crap?
FB: Yeah. The guy who played Joe [Con O'Neil] was good but that's it.
So mix CDs were exchanged which led to making your own music.
FB: Rachel sent me a demo, this imitation girl group kind of thing.
RZ: We didn't actually decide to write together, but the song kept being exchanged. The exchange kept going. That song -- "The Lull" -- is now on the album but it evolved so much it's now kind of unrecognizable from that the thing I first sent Faris. It started as kind of an uptempo '60s, a Ronettes type thing with me singing it. Now it's him singing it, it's slow with a full orchestra and an electronic middle part. Those things happen on their own without us sitting down and saying "we want it to have an electronic middle." We never talked about it, it just happened on its own.
Well how did the writing and recording process go? Were you together for it or was it all through the internet?
FB: It was both really. Some songs we wrote from start to finish, including the lyrics, just sat together. Others we sent back and forth.
RZ: Some songs started with chords first, sometimes lyrics. Sometimes it would just be a melody line, a hook. It was always different.
FB: We just used our weekends and whatever free time we had, really.
Where was the bulk of it recorded?
FB: Real World, which is in Bath, England. But we also ended up using some of the demo vocals and other stuff that was recorded at home because it sounded right. It did open my eyes a bit, that. If you do it right, you can just get the stuff from anywhere. You can capture a moment.
RZ: Some of the vocals were just more sincere when we first did them, than when we tried to do them properly.
Did you have any guidelines about what you wanted Cat's Eyes to sound like. "We can't do this or..."
FB: No the songs decided on their own.
RZ: I'd say you were more particular about it. Faris has pretty strong tastes, where as I'm a little less decisive. I'll go back and forth quite a bit, whereas Faris will be like "No, definitely not." It was more clear-cut for him than it was for me or Steve [Osbourne who engineered/co-produced the album]. Faris is just really sure of his tastes.
FB: For good and bad.
Steve is Steve Osbourne who has worked with Suede, New Order, Elbow...what did he bring to the table?
FB: So much. He brought his expertise without any ego, which is almost impossible to find. He just wanted the songs to be as good as possible. Not only that, but good in the way they were supposed to be.
RZ: He would keep going back to the rough demos. And whenever those sounded better than what we were doing he'd be like "something's wrong." He was just so committed. Steve's the kind of person who will lie awake at night thinking about things. We didn't have a lot of money, he just had tons of faith in us.
FB: Well, we acted as if we did. We booked the studio and the orchestra and everything with no label and no management. It was really stupid.
RZ: Yeah, we paid for the orchestra and then booked the studio. I'd blown money I owed. "Let's go ahead and book Real World and Steve Osbourne."
FB: They were sending us letters asking for the rest of the money. If we hadn't found a label...I guess we all just believed in the project.
RZ: And Steve did too. He really took a big risk with the project, but he didn't feel like it was a risk. I guess we didn't either. I mean, we were going to do it no matter what.
So at what point did this go from a casual exchange of ideas and demos to "This is really interesting, let's get serious about it"?
FB: I think after the first demo she sent me, really. Rachel put this effect on her vocal, it was something I hadn't heard or considered before and it made me want to work with her.
Some of those demos are coming out with the edition being sold through Rough Trade shops, right?
RZ: Yeah that's right, and I'm pretty sure "The Lull" is on there.
FB: We thought it'd be cool for people to hear them, and there are songs that we didn't end up taking any further than our houses. Some of them just didn't fit on the album.
RZ: You can then also hear the way they evolved, which is kind of the point of the project. One of the songs on that CD, it kind of takes you through the whole process...
FB: From the very beginning, Rachel singing a melody into her phone on the street, and then adding piano...to the finished product.
Rough Trade does that a lot, offering exclusive versions of records. I wish we got more of that over here. So the record's out now in England. Do you find it strange in this day and age of instant access everywhere, that we've still got such staggered release dates for things?
FB: It is. But not just that, but we have to wait for records to come out in the first place. We expect them to come out the second we finish them, that's when you're excited for people to hear them. At this point we're almost expecting people to be hearing our second album.
When was the album finished?
RZ: August! And we've started the next one.
Oh, all right. Will that one be radically different from the first?
RZ: Well it's still early. The songs are always evolving, so the stuff we've done so far probably will sound radically different by the time we finish.
One thing I liked about the record, and I dont' know whether it's the mixing or the mastering, but it's... old fashioned sounding? It's quieter than most albums.
FB: Well the record was mastered for vinyl so that's why.
I was originally given the album as wav files, and I looked at them in a sound editing program. It looks like recordings from the mid-90s or before. Peaks and valleys, not one giant rectangle of sound.
FB: We wanted it to have a warmth to it. It's weird you noticed that.
I know girl groups were a big influence...but I hear Henry Mancini too. Was he an influence?
RZ: I'm not sure it was something we thought about but yeah you're right. That "supermarket strings" sound.
There's sort of a "Moon River" vibe to the harmonica at the end in "Best Person I Know."
RZ: Well the instrument at the end of the song is an oboe that Faris distorted through some amps. Henry Mancini wouldn't have used instruments like that. Just in a more pure way. But I like the strings Mancini used, which is hard to find anymore.
Your album has a wistful quality that I think of with his work.
RZ: Yeah it's definitely a wistful album.
You've played a few live shows right?
FB: A couple on our own and a couple opening for Primal Scream.
Is it a daunting task to play these songs live?
FB: It felt like it was going to be...and then it wasn't.
RZ: It's kind of like how we played at the Vatican. We rearranged the songs to fit the venue. The [postponed] Bowery show will be more of a guitar band. We don't want to copy the album, we don't like repeating things...but we like rearranging things and challenges. We did think it'd be tricky, as we played almost everything on the record and did our own backing vocals. You can't travel on the road with a full orchestra and chorus.
FB: Not yet. (Laughs)
But it's not going to be just the two of you.
RZ: No, we've got a band. Some of the shows in London we'll have a choir and instrumentalists and stuff. But for our tour of the States we'll be a guitar band. But it still sounds good, we think. You get more energy.
FB: You don't lose the essence of the songs. They were written simply and can go back to that form. They could theoretically just be one instrument and one singer.
You mentioned the Vatican show which was your first performance. I have to say the first time I saw the footage of that, I thought it was a hoax.
RZ: I swear on the life of everyone I care about. It definitely happened! Why did it seem like a hoax to you?
Because it just seemed like something that would be impossible to do.
FB: And it kind of seems like that now, looking back.
I imagine there's security out the wazoo.
FB: There is.
RZ: It's not clear in the video, but this was covert. We didn't phone up the Pope and say "Hey we're a band and we're going to launch our new record at the Vatican during one of your masses." It was quite underhanded and was part of the challenge of doing it. But "I Knew It Was Over" it seemed like the perfect song to rearrange and fit the Vatican's acoustic grandeur and sacred... it seemed like a really fun challenge to do. The second challenge was getting in there without having them think something wierd was going on.
Cat's Eyes - I Knew It Was Over (Performed Live at the Vatican)
And how much prep did that take?
RZ: A lot. It was a bit of a nightmare. Stressful. We thought the cameras would be stressful, but not so much. All tourists have cameras now. Only one camera got stopped.
FB: But that's because it was the size of his forearm.
What about the audio? It sounds great.
FB: The mics were quite far away from us...which is how you want it in the Vatican because it gets the room.
RZ: Organs like that, up close, don't sound right. Neither do choirs. It blends better far away, you hear how big the acoustic is so much more than if we each had little microphones pinned to us. Though Faris had one close to him.
So after it was over...
RZ: Giant sigh of relief. The things we didn't think about were the problems. They stopped the choir initially for their skirts being too short. I didn't get to practice on that organ. I'd never played one like that before. I was expecting it to be old fashioned but it was some new weird thing. I was just staring at it the whole mass, thinking how am I gonna do this?
It looked like the choir were doing percussion at some point.
RZ: It was bells. Hand chimes. Someone thought they had sticks.
I thought they were like brochures or something! Changing subjects, there's a song called "Cat's Eyes"...which came first. The song or the band name?
RZ: It was definitely the song first, then we decided to call the band that too. Faris disliked the name at first, though it seemed perfect to me. Different countries have different ideas about why we would call it Cat's Eyes. In France there's a really famous Japanese cartoon. In Spain, they thought it was the Stephen King novel. In England, it's the little reflectors on the highway. We've had a lot of different interpretations...
FB: It's nice that it's ambiguous.
Chris Cunningham has done the photography and artwork for Cat's Eyes. Faris you've worked with him before in The Horrors. Will he be directing a video for Cat's Eyes as well?
FB: We had talked about it, but I don't think so. I don't know. He's doing so much at the moment that I can't see it happening. See, he's working on his own music.
FB: Yeah. And we wrote a song for him, with him, and we did a video for that, for his live show. But I don't know if it's ever going to get finished.
He seems to take his time with things. He spent forever making Rubber Johnny, right?
FB: Well, thing is... he gets really busy with one thing, then he'll find something else.
RZ: He's a perfectionist...and easily distracted.
FB: Someone will send him a video of a dog on a skateboard and he'll obsess over that and he'll spend days looking at it. He sent me loads of photos of my face manipulated to look like different characters from The Sopranos!
RZ: Or he'd try and shock me with horrific email attachments that I foolishly opened. He definitely likes shocking people.
Ok, so when can we expect the second Cat's Eyes record? Is it done?
FB: No, just demos. We're going to start recording in June. We'd like to have something to release by end of the year, whether it comes out then or not. But maybe an EP this year? We still have songs from the last record that we didn't use.
Cat's Eyes - "Face in the Crowd"
Cat's Eyes - "I Knew it Was Over" live at the Vatican
Cat's Eyes - "The Best Person I Know"