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.
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"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."
"Connor came up with the name," Tennant explains. "Cat-A-Tac is actually a sequence in the Human Genome Project."
But now Cat-A-Tac is also a self-contained unit that's turning heads with a persuasive blend of Quaalude-spiked threnodies. Past Lies, over a year in the making and deliberately scrapped more than once, picks up where the band's eponymous EP left off, with feathery, narcoleptic melodies and retro jangle — only this time out, the songs are girded with a denser gauze of warm distortion. Although My Bloody Valentine seems to be an obvious touchstone, the band's members say their lush, plodding compositions draw more from the astral work of Stratford 4.
"We keep saying we got away with murder with that EP," McTurnan says. "I'm proud of that record, though. It was the best record we could've made at the time. I think some bands write new songs and then record right away. Their new record is kind of a reflection of where they're going for the next year — whereas with us, we have to really bang them out live for a while and figure out what's working and what's not working. So it's more a reflection of where we've been, what we've been doing for the last year."
"When I read your lyrics and my lyrics," Tennant adds, "this isn't a progression about where we're going; this is a progression about where we've been and who we've been with."
Progression? An indictment is more like it. On the opening track of "Needles and Pins," in a voice that evokes Pat DiNizio, McTurnan oozes with disdain as he sings the lines "I'm staring at the stains you left on my sheets/It seems surreal that it's just been a week/It must be the ecstasy that keeps you in love/With your old boyfriend, or at least with his drugs." He follows up that doozy of a quatrain with another: "You've ruined all my records/They're now about you/As it seems this song is, too/I can't decide if you were worth the time I wasted." And on songs like "Burn," he continues to eulogize a relationship gone sour with pained veracity. The Tennant-penned tracks, including the title song and "Alone," are no less bleak — but delivered with a whispery croon that recalls Starflyer 59's Jason Martin, they're positively entrancing.
While in an ideal world great music would sell itself, radio programmers didn't just stumble on Past Lies. Convinced that no one would champion their band as well as they could, the members of Cat-A-Tac opted to issue their discs on their own imprint, Needlepoint Records. And McTurnan, who recently completed his law degree, took it upon himself to learn the ins and outs of the industry.
"When we started the band, I knew nothing about how to be a band or how to do anything," he recalls. "The Internet is what made all the difference. The music business used to be a well-guarded secret, so it was much harder to get in the loop, whereas now, with the Internet, it's a lot more transparent. If you want to release a record, you can see, oh, here's what everybody does. You've got your three channels: radio, press and touring — three avenues for working a record and developing your band. So when we started thinking about doing a record, I'd been doing a lot of research on that, and I figured, well, we could just do as much as we could on any one of those avenues, and maybe good things will happen."
Taking a cue from their friends in the Hot IQs, the musicians hired a prominent college radio promoter to do their bidding. It was a good move: Cat-A-Tac peaked at number 98 on the CMJ Top 200. While the chart position hasn't necessarily translated into record sales (McTurnan guesstimates that his group has sold fewer than a thousand discs), it increased the visibility of Cat-A-Tac and all the other bands on the label — Rabbit Is a Sphere, Everything Absent or Distorted (a love story) and Thank God for Astronauts. And that was the idea when they launched Needlepoint.
"There's a lot of labels that have at least started the way we started," McTurnan points out. "It's a model that makes more sense now with the way things are going. At a certain level in music, nobody's making any money. You have to reach a certain point before anybody's seeing any cash. So it kind of makes sense to have a label where the label is not shelling out money that it's never going to see again."
Needlepoint was founded on the utilitarian concept that one group's success paves the way for the others. Everyone has a stake as an owner, operator and financier. This DIY approach is far from a new concept; it's the basis of indie philosophy. But these days, a start-up outfit can have as big an impact as a major-label act, even on the sales end. To make it into the Billboard Top 200 in this fickle singles-driven era, you really only need to move several thousand units in a week — which in the past would not have been enough to be considered a consummate failure. The majors are well aware of this paradigm shift, which is exactly why they're reaching out to acts like Cat-A-Tac, a band that has cachet among true music fans, people actively seeking out music that moves them.
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Not surprisingly, the group got a feeler from a major-label lackey last week, inviting Cat-A-Tac to submit materials for consideration.
"None of us want to be a major-label band," McTurnan says. "Most of our appeal, I think, is that we're a little DIY outfit — the loveable underdog. If our records were on a major, or even a big indie, we'd be the spoiled brats with all the advantages. Plus, I really don't want the masses getting excited about our band. I'd prefer to attract the people who are really tuned in.
"But of course I sent them a CD," he relents. "Above all else, I'm most curious if they're sitting around the office talking about us, or if we were just one of a hundred e-mails the interns sent to whatever bands they stumbled across on MySpace that day. Being courted by the devil is the most essential component of any dramatic tale, so I welcome it. It's a necessary part of every quality indie band's story — you have to actually be confronted with the choice — and there's enormous PR value in such things.
"I'm super-excited that a major label contacted us," he concludes. "Not because I want to be on a major label or even think they'd offer us something, but because it's a milestone: There's no shame in acknowledging that the devil wants you on his team."