BACKSTAGE after the gig, a flurry of conversation has descended, not unlike the excited chatter of children coming off a roller coaster as they relive the past few minutes in their memories.
Being here as we are at Zouk for the Sport B. Plugged Asian Music Festival 2011, the term backstage is a bit of a misnomer; really we are at a cordoned off section of the club, with only a curtain to protect our privacy.
That’s not stopping any of the band members from fiercely dissecting what went right–and what went wrong–with the gig earlier on.
“We were already having problems with the system during the soundcheck earlier on, though we were hoping it wouldn’t come back during the actual show,” says keyboardist and co-vocalist Black Cat, speaking with an animation that is quite contrary to her languid body language on stage.
“There wasn’t really an ‘oh-shit‘ moment for us on stage because of that, even though the feedback was really bad, and Psycho Cat couldn’t hear his guitar at all. You just have to pretend it’s part of the show though; you can’t show any panic to the audience.”
Black Cat goes on to break down the performance, visibly wincing as she talks about the vocal performance aspect of the show. Unfortunately for the band, Black Cat had passed on a virus to frontman Hentai Cat before the show, one serious enough to pose difficulties for the two singers in the band.
True enough, midway through our chat Black Cat gets up and apologises before rushing off to the washroom.
In the midst of all the bustle is the quietly exhausted Psycho Cat, sitting wordlessly on the couch with the hood of his jacket flipped up to shield his face, his neck resting on his guitar’s.
I focus on this image for a while, shutting out the noise and putting the surroundings into blur for a second, admiring the mise-en-scène of this particular moment, wishing, not for the first time, that I was a photographer instead of a writer.
Band manager Errol Tan soon comes along to break Psycho Cat’s reverie, all business-like, efficiently conducting a debrief of the gig while at the same time updating them briskly about their upcoming Esplanade show.
The band members trade wisecracks, and then as quickly as it was convened, the debrief breaks up into a flurry of packing.
The club is clearing rapidly now, the music festival well and truly over. It’s still too early in the night for Zouk to morph into a party haven, which leaves us with the curious and sad sight of an empty venue.
Stripped of the beautiful people, the dance floor looks pitifully forlorn, beckoning ineffectually with its lights and smoke for bodies to come hither.
In a few hours‘ time, it will be business as usual for Zouk, with alcohol-fueled strangers pressing tight against each other in time to the pounding subterranean rhythms.
It will be all too easy then for one to slip into the crowd and feel lost in humanity and hedonism. Right now, though, in the empty bricks and mortar, all one feels is alone.
TWO weeks later, we are charging down the corridors of the Esplanade backstage, preparing ourselves for the Monster Cat invasion of the Bay.
Tonight marks the second day of Spread The Love, an event which will also see the likes of Inch Chua and B-Quartet gracing the same stage.
There is nothing unremarkable in the air, but this is something of a game-changing weekend for local scene buffs, with Inch soon to leave the country for greener shores and B-Quartet about to take an extended, indefinite break.
Earlier on I had met up with the band at the Outdoor Theatre, where they were conducting the post-mortem of their soundcheck with friend and Leonard Soosay, going over minor technical details while the band members stood in a circle smoking.
After that was done with the programme had proceeded swiftly: backstage to the dressing room to dump their stuff, then dinner.
Because I am technically not a member of their entourage, we have opted for the rock and roll thing to do, sneakily smuggling me past the Pearly-Gates-strict security of the Esplanade, where once again the security guard gave me a suspicious once-over before letting me through.
(It seems I have no luck with guest passes, legit or otherwise.)
As we march past the checkpoint and into the elevator, I ask the band if this particular performance holds any special significance to them, seeing as how it was their rejection from Baybeats that kickstarted this whole meowmeow shebang.
Hentai Cat shrugs.
“It’s not very special, honestly. We’ve all played here before with our respective previous bands, so for us to play here again as Monster Cat doesn’t make much of a difference. I suppose Baybeats might be something else because of the glamour around it, but tonight is just like any other night for us.”
Be that as it may, that doesn’t stop the band from trooping into the dressing room with the glee of school-kids.
Black Cat heads straight into the luxuriously large bathroom, reveling in the acoustics as she lets her voice soar free. Psycho Cat is next to follow, except he unleashes a cat-like yelp, which sounds especially feline drowned in the reverb of the bathroom.
Hentai Cat too is not immune to a bout of playfulness: he sits down at the dressing mirror, inspects the lights surrounding it, then mimicks a choir of angels singing Handel’s Messiah as he flicks the switch on and off again.
(Though notably more subdued, the rhythm section are not altogether free from antics.
Later on after dinner, while Black Cat is in the bathroom changing, drummer Zen Cat will do the same outside, nonchalantly dropping trou in full view of Psycho, who disbelievingly declares his outrage at the indecent exposure.)
AFTER the band has settled in comfortably Hentai Cat rises to his role of the US again, ordering dinner upon a coalition of the willing. On the way out backstage we pass a well-known local classical musician throwing a huffy diva fit, and we just about manage to hold it together until we reach the elevator, where we explode into girlish giggles.
We regroup with Leonard at the food centre. Having spent months in the studio with him the band obviously hold him in high affection, none more so than Black Cat.
Theirs is an easy friendship that manifests itself in the inside jokes and the effortless repartee. They talk about the mutual friends they have from the local scene, about each other, about nothing at all in particular, shooting the breeze. The rhythm is only broken when an auburn cat with golden eyes enters the scene to distract everyone.
Presently a plate of cockles arrives for Leonard’s dinner. Save the man himself most everyone reacts with dismay, Black Cat in particular. He starts upon the plate, polishing
the cockles off with impressive efficiency while the band looks on worriedly.
This will not do. Apparently health issues are at stake, and besides, the horrors of Hepatitis B are ever-present. Fueled by righteousness and worry and visions of Leonard’s poor liver, Black Cat launches into a bout of Soosay-nagging. This goes on for a while until Leonard takes a break and takes the mickey, faking a heart attack, grasping his chest, eyes rolling upwards while his tongue lolls around.
For the briefest moment, an expression flickers across Black Cat’s face, flashed and smothered within the same second, too quick to be read or noticed by anyone else at the table.
Then we lapse back into the same domestic dynamic. Black Cat nags at Leonard about his medication, who responds only in grumpy grunts in the affirmative until she is finally satisfied.
The cat with golden eyes watches all this in quiet, then stretches slowly before ambling away, disappearing into the nearby bushes.
Tonight sees the band going out even further on the avant-garde front than they did at Zouk. Earlier, during the soundcheck, Jun had taken the liberty of setting up four television screens and a projector, except…unlike Zouk, here at the Waterfront’s outdoor stage there is no video wall for his images to dance upon.
This proves to be a small issue, necessity being as it is the mother of invention. In lieu of the video wall Jun projects onto the band and the stage itself, turning their bodies into canvas, the artists into art.
This time he spares not even himself: in a tacit acknowledgement that the visual element is a crucial component of the live experience, tonight Jun is on stage with the rest of the band.
To start off, we are treated to a short clip of a man talking about eating little boys (nothing sets the mood quite like pedocannibalism) before the band starts on Initiation, the dissonant, ambient opening track of the EP.
Black Cat, who has changed into an achingly beautiful grey dress that flows down to her feet, is gently shaking an ornament not unlike a miniature temple gong, whispering softly into her mic as Jun conjures up distorted images of shadows and tall trees.
Presently the band rustles to a stop and the shot stabilises. Foliage gives way to a camera gliding above a road as Black Cat swells up a ghostly intro to Mannequins, a stark and urgent number that is all frenetic piano eighths and snarling vocals. On top of the instrumentation Hentai Cat intones a warning to the audience to run for their fuckin‘ lives, while Copy Cat stomps around the stage to the march of Zen Cat’s insistent beat. (Interesting point to note: at any one time, Copy Cat is bound to be the only member on stage who does not look miserable.)
As I watch the show before me unfold I marvel once again at Jun‘s brilliance. In his own understated way, Jun is as much a musician as any of the other band members on stage, mixing rhythmically, layering image upon image, jamming along brilliantly in visual key.
As Black Cat plays a piano interlude, he overlays faces with city lights that give way to water, foreshadowing the majestic and magnetic intro of Underwater.
I suddenly understand that the band has been counting on Jun to transform their barebones visual look into something terrible and beautiful. In the dressing room earlier on, the face paint the band had been applying had looked garish and slightly ridiculous.
Under the glow of art things look quite different. Hentai Cat is seething with barely restrained emotion, the watery images combining with the make-up to create an unsettling, vampiric effect.
One is used to pre-recorded visual elements being used to enhance live performances, such as with the likes of Pink Floyd, U2 or Nine Inch Nails. Here, however, the human element of improvisation wins out: the effect is both hypnotic as well as gorgeously organic, live in a larger sense of the word.
Live is also the arena for some interesting, if subtle, changes. The Courier is a shy and subtle creature on the record; tonight however they have traded in some of the studio atmospherics for a relentless martial cry.
This makes for an interesting marriage between softness and violence that continues through to their next number, a cover of Nirvana’s You Know You’re Right.
Talk is at a premium tonight; musical interludes fill the spaces that other bands would have used for banter. This time Hentai, Psycho and Black sigh in three-part harmony, ebbing and flowing not unlike the waves breaking at the Waterfront behind them.
Psycho Cat takes the vocal for this one, leading the band into a rendition that is a tad more finessed and atmospheric than the original until halfway through Zen Cat raps out a furious eight-count on the snare. Following his cue, the band erupts into a Pixie-like burst of noise and light that Black Francis himself would have been proud of.
Then we are into the closing numbers of the set, with the sombre outro mantra of These Hands punctuated by random drum shots that lead to a rhythmic interplay between Zen Cat’s hi-hat, muted strumming on Hentai’s acoustic guitar and light splashes of piano from Black Cat.
This is Salem, an as-yet-unrecorded track on which Psycho again takes the lead vocal, backed up by beautiful harmonies from Hentai and Black Cat.
Over this intricately woven vocal tapestry, Jun spins a web from corrupted, stained film reels spliced with psychedelic colours.
This acid trip gradually morphs into a shot of a cat, lingering for a while like a Cheshire smile. And…fade to black.
LATER, while the band tears down, I head over behind the stage to say hi and also bye.
This will be the last gig of the interview, which has taken up almost three months of the year now.
By now Errol has arrived upon the scene, looking terse and stern.
I scuttle up forward to ask about the band’s upcoming tour of Japan. This puts him in a much more cheerful mood as he talks about November’s Japan Music Week, where from the 7th to the 16th the band will be playing at various locations in Tokyo, sharing the stage on occasion with local singer-songwriter Nicholas Chim.
“We’re trying to subsidize the trip by applying for grants (from the relevant government bodies), but at the moment it’s all coming out of our pockets,” explains Errol.
N.B. At press time, the band has already received grants from several government agencies such as the National Arts Council, Media Development Authority and Singapore International Foundation. They would like everyone to know that the funding is helping a great deal towards paying for their trip to Japan. Meow.
Copy Cat proceeds to elaborate a bit more on the preparations for Japan.
“It’s been very stressful because we’ve been working at preparing our posters and design material. We’re actually looking forward to seeing how the album packaging will be received there as well, because that’s another aspect of our art that we’ll like to bring forward. We take the visual and design aspect of the band as seriously as the musical aspects, so we consider the girl who works with us on the design stuff (Paper Cat) a part of the band as well.
“Because Japan is a place with such a rich musical culture, it’s a real privilege to be part of what’s going on. We’ll actually be concentrating all our efforts on Tokyo because unlike Singapore, Tokyo is more dense and different crowds go to different clubs all the time.
“Tokyo sets the bar. We have about 5 gigs lined up with two still to be confirmed, so if it goes through we’ll be playing 7 shows in 10 days, which is more than we have in Singapore!”
One gets the feeling that for all of their avant-garde aspirations, this is still a band that ultimately works by a certain strategic pragmatism which doesn’t keep its fingers crossed for favours.
At Starbucks (an interview that seems ages ago now) Psycho Cat and I had energetically debated the merits–or lack thereof–of a compliment from a friend.
“I think it’d be unhealthy to get carried away with good feedback,” he had said dubiously.
“It’s more helpful to think we suck! Most of the feedback we’ve gotten are from our friends anyway, so I don’t know if you can trust the good reviews.”
It seems the band is keen not to suffer compliments lightly.
I think back to my notes, where I had scribbled streams of consciousness about the soul and spirit of the band, about the girl standing quietly in the arms of her lover in the middle of The Courier, tears glistening on her face.
Black Cat takes this anecdote with a pinch of a salt.
“I don’t think we should take the credit for that, “ she says doubtfully, shrugging her shoulders.
“Maybe her cat had just died or something.”
P.S. In part one of this interview, we mistakenly attributed Hentai Cat with quoting J.K. Rowling (“…Poverty is romanticized only by fools…”). In actual fact this quote came courtesy of Copy Cat. We offer the band our sincerest apologies, and also catnip. Meow meow.
(Samuel C Wee)