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Jim McTurnan is astounded by how well his band's new record is doing. Released at the beginning of May, Past Lies and Former Lives has already cracked the top 50 on CMJ's Top 200 chart.
"Given the enormous flood of new records out, I didn't think this was even a remote possibility," the singer/guitarist says. "Our radio promoter was completely awestruck, too."
In just a matter of weeks, Past Lies has generated a substantial buzz for the act. The self-released disc is getting frequent spins at Cincinnati's WOXY and Seattle's KEXP, two of the country's preeminent tastemakers. The latter is so fond of the platter, in fact, that it's featuring a track on its influential Music That Matters podcast. That's impressive for a group of guys who got their start playing new-talent night at Herman's Hideaway just three and a half years ago — and on a whim.
"Andy said, 'We're never going to play a show,'" remembers McTurnan, referring to co-singer/guitarist Andy Tennant, who's seated next to him in the band's north Denver rehearsal space. "And I was like, 'All right, fuck you. I'm going to go book it right now.' So I booked the show and said, 'All right, big mouth, we've got three and a half weeks, and then we're playing a show in front of people.'
"As a band," McTurnan continues, "your first few shows are never going to be really inspiring to perhaps anybody but yourself. And I knew that, so I thought about where could we quietly go and play in front of friends and some random people? We sounded very different from all the other bands, but it was fine. We just got up there and played for a half-hour, forty minutes. We thought that if we sucked, who cares?"
"It was kind of the opposite for me," drummer Warren Wonders chimes in with a laugh. "As they started putting mikes on my drums, I was like, 'Oh, my God. People are going to hear me.'"
Wonders's trepidation aside, the four-piece, including bassist Connor Bailey, was more than ready to step up, having already spent the better part of a year playing together in a Boulder basement. But the musicians had never really thought about performing live, since Cat-A-Tac was initially a recording experiment between friends: McTurnan had purchased some gear but didn't know how to use it, and he enlisted Tennant's help. "I'm retarded when it comes to tech stuff," McTurnan confesses. "Once I learn how to use the stuff, I'm fine operating it, but I'm not somebody who figures out that kind of thing easily. Andy, however, is exactly the opposite."
McTurnan and Tennant knew each other from their time at the University of Colorado, where Tennant remembers being blown away by the long-haired kid blazing through blues licks in the common area. McTurnan, who spent his formative years in London, was a fan of players like Eric Clapton and took to their style. Though he was something of a late bloomer and didn't take up the guitar until he was sixteen, he'd quickly become quite proficient — or at least more proficient than anyone Tennant had ever seen. When they met, McTurnan had just transferred to Boulder from Boston University, where he moved after graduating from high school in Houston. He didn't really know anybody, so he opted to live in the upperclassmen dorm, which happened to be connected to the freshman hall where Tennant and Bailey were living. Since McTurnan, a junior, was over 21, he was able to buy booze for the underagers. Suffice it to say, the crew became fast friends and started hanging out together, drinking beers and going to shows.
In 1999, the threesome parted ways for a brief spell — McTurnan headed to Indianapolis with a girlfriend, Tennant went to Winter Park to become a professional ski patroler, and Bailey moved to Seattle. But the group eventually reconvened in Boulder and ended up crashing with Wonders's older brother, whom they all knew. The couch tour was short-lived, though, and the guys soon found a place of their own, where McTurnan turned a spare room into a jam room. After diddling for a while, the trio invited Warren — who'd moved out from Pennsylvania to attend CU — to join them.
During their time in Boulder, they came up with a name for their sorta project and a whopper of a story that later helped them garner some press when the group actually materialized.
"Cat-A-Tac, the band name, didn't really come up that night with Courtney," reveals Tennant, referring to the now-infamous night during which they allegedly coined the moniker while drinking with Dandy Warhols frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor at K's China. "Courtney thought we should be called the New York Rifles, but only one of us is from New York..."
"And only one of us owns a gun," McTurnan interjects. "Really, we were just trying to come up with names. When it got to the point when we thought, well, we should really get out and start doing this, we had to come up with a band name. We needed something that wasn't being used. We didn't instantly hate it, and it was the first name we came up with that no one anywhere that we could find had ever used it."