Tyson Meade, the singer, main songwriter and key creative force behind the twisted pop quintet Chainsaw Kittens, was on the receiving end of literal and figurative brickbats for much of his youth. Considering where he grew up, however, it's not surprising that he had a rough adolescence. In the small Oklahoma town of Bartlesville, a boy is supposed to play football, not play with his sister's makeup kit.
"Bartlesville is a pretty conservative place, so if you're even a little bit different, you definitely stick out," says the decidedly different Meade, who for a time appeared on stage in fishnet stockings, feather boas and drag-queen mascara. "I really started to notice being an outcast in junior high school, where if you weren't into sports, you were a nobody."
Meade found his psychic salvation in Bartlesville's single underground record store and the music of mid-Seventies glam rockers such as David Bowie and the New York Dolls. Listening to rock helped Meade make it through the day, but actually playing music seemed to him an unattainable goal. "I didn't think it was possible to form a band in a small town," he concedes. "That was a dream, something people did in New York or L.A., not Bartlesville."
He was wrong. Thanks to his high school's ironclad caste system, he was soon thrown together with other outcasts his age--those no one else would have. Meade and Bartlesville's other rock rebels subsequently formed a group called Defenestration. While this outfit pretty much stuck to the garage, Meade says, "We actually got hired to play a couple shows around town. Everyone hated us."
The members of Defenestration went their separate ways after graduation, and Meade relocated to the larger town of Norman, where he enrolled at the University of Oklahoma. Several years later he managed to recruit a new band. "Most of the members were real young, like kittens," he says of his late-Eighties creation. "And we had this sort of chainsaw guitar sound, so the name kind of described us."
As distinctive as the group's name were Meade's haunting vocals, which often sound more English than American. "I think part of that comes from a speech impediment I had as a kid," Meade suggests. "I had to relearn how to talk. Plus, I was always into British bands rather than American blue-collar rock."
The original Kittens quickly cut a demo that caught the ears of representatives from the small, North Carolina-based Mammoth label. The band was going through protracted contract negotiations when Meade began to fully indulge in the brand of thrift-store transvestism that made his band the scandal of Norman. "We did it for fun and to get noticed," Meade says.
Unlike Bowie and other glam role models, Meade didn't use his sartorial extravagance as an excuse for bed-hopping. In fact, he actually espoused celibacy during this period. No matter: Because the Kittens were headquartered in a locale geared more to Randy Travis than RuPaul, the band's wardrobe soon provoked harassment and outright assaults. "The cross-dressing did cause a greater reaction than we thought," Meade admits. "Dressing up was fun, but it soon started to overshadow the music, so we gave it up."
Following the consummation of the Mammoth deal, the Kittens released their first album, 1990's Violent Religion. Commercially, it sank without a trace, leading two disillusioned members to leave the band. Okies are practical folks, after all, and rock-and-roll dreams don't pay the rent. "That's one thing about being [from Oklahoma]," Meade observes. "There's not much support, and being a musician, you're considered more than sort of weird anyway. So you really have to have the drive to carry on."
With new players in place, the Kittens produced a sophomore effort, 1992's Flipped Out in Singapore, that was an artistic step forward; the album effectively goosed glam rock into the flannel-clad Nineties. The praise lavished on the recording by the alternative press may have been due in part to the work of star producer Butch Vig, who worked on breakthrough albums by Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins around the same time. On Singapore, Vig whipped up a sumo-size guitar sound and thunderclap percussion that achieved a near-metallic intensity. Although this approach sometimes smothers some of the music's more interesting edges, Meade still manages to infuse songs such as "Never to Be Found" and "Ezekial Walks Through Sodom and Gomorrah" with wounded romanticism and an intriguingly surreal sensibility.
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Despite strong college-radio airplay, though, Singapore racked up light sales figures, as did Angel on the Range, an EP from last year that marked the debut of another new lineup: Meade and original guitarist Trent Bell were joined by bassist Matt Johnson and drummer Eric Harmon. Since then, the group has benefited from a new partnership between Mammoth and the Atlantic imprint. As it did with Mammoth acts Juliana Hatfield and Machines of Loving Grace, Atlantic has thrown its support behind the Kittens, helping to make the group's new album, Pop Heiress, its most assured and satisfying to date.
"We cut our other albums in like eleven days," Meade says. "For the new one, we had five weeks and time to actually focus on the sound. Our producer, John Agnello, has done newer stuff like Screaming Trees' Sweet Oblivion, but he also worked at the Record Plant in the late Seventies for bands like Aerosmith. He's contemporary, but also knew some older tricks and how to dial in a lot of different sounds."
The more open atmosphere on Heiress gives Meade an opportunity to explore moods heretofore lost in the din of screaming guitars. The disc opens with "Sore on the Floor," a hot rocker that showcases the singer's bag of tricks; it features both banshee wails and a multitracked falsetto. Elsewhere, the other Kittens lend able support to "Pop Heiress Dies," a bittersweet sing-along that Meade says traces the evolution of "pop icons and how they've changed. We've gone from Katharine Hepburn through Marilyn Monroe and Twiggy, and now, of course, we have Madonna, Madonna and Madonna." Additional tracks of note include "I Ride Free," which juices up T. Rex's boogie bounce; "Silver Millionaire," a scruffy power-pop tune that calls to mind a grungier Cheap Trick; and "Media Star Hymn," a number propelled by Harmon's frenzied drumming and a Meade lyric that celebrates "a new world with no order."
Although Heiress winds down with some less effective cuts, the majority of the Kittens' new material seamlessly melds pop melody to a hard-rock wallop. "I really like the record," Meade says, "but I don't have a clue whether it will sell. I'm into a lot of music nobody's heard of, and other albums do really well for a while, then totally disappear. I try making music that will still sound good five years from now. Hopefully, people will like it."
First Bartlesville, then the world.
Iggy Pop, with Chainsaw Kittens. 8 p.m. Thursday, March 10, Ogden Theatre, 935 E. Colfax, $18.50, 290-TIXS or 830-2525.