"There's a lot of black magic floating around out there. Music is a great harness for it," says Jason Smothers, half of the Seattle group Are you a cat? with Josh Welbel. The statement belies the duo's cutesy name. Are you a cat? create music that crackles with demonic intensity. The bulk of the material that they've culled from multiple hard drives' worth of music and slapped onto CD-Rs occupies a rarefied realm of experimental abstract electronica that's mainly been the domain of mad geniuses like Conrad Schnitzler, Biota, and the Residents. Other touchstones include Gil Mellé's disturbingly microbial soundtrack for The Andromeda Strain and Bebe and Louis Barron's forlornly bleepy score for Forbidden Planet.
Remarkably, Are you a cat? claim not to be very familiar with any of these artists. They happened upon this bizarre sound through frequent sessions with their cheap gear, most of which they confess to not really knowing how to use. The result—as heard on releases like Beach Volleyball, Pregnant Questionnaire, and Droid Angel Pookah Field—is a kind of devil-may-care improvisational expression that arises when two cats (ha) with exceptional musical taste vibe incredibly well with each other.
"We expand each other's brains a lot," Smothers relates. "After we play, I walk away and [he shudders] God..." That situation is very common, but very rarely does it produce amazing music. There are people like Smothers and Welbel all over the country, dedicated hobbyists making music because it's a good release or simply fun. But you, reader, can lead a fulfilling life without ever hearing it. You need to hear Are you a cat?.
The Are you a cat? universe encompasses much more than the aforementioned surreal symphonies on analog synths and contorted Linn Drum programming. They hold free-jazz sessions every other Sunday as the Sunshine Jazz Club with Noggin violinist Eric Ostrowski, they've been commissioned by Michelle Pannell of the band Ubik to contribute a track to a doom compilation that will benefit the local Subcultural Awakening collective, they intend to shimmy their way into dance music with a slick project (using a to-be-determined production name) in which they hope to enlist cult L.A. vocalist Naomi Elizabeth. Their vast range and the twisted sensibilities they bring to each style they tackle make Are you a cat? among this city's most interesting bands.
Smothers and Welbel—who are both in their mid 30s—met in Chicago in 1997 and moved to Seattle at different times. They started recording in their Columbia City studio in 2007 under the moniker Baby Man, but discovered that a gent fond of diapers had dibs on the name, so they switched to Are you a cat? By now, they should be much higher up in the music-biz ecosphere, but their art has proven to be too uncategorizable and malleable to gain traction with the area's tastemakers. Welbel and Smothers have connections with ethnodelic heavies Master Musicians of Bukkake (both played with that band's Milky Burgess in Chicago), but so far they haven't been able to capitalize on them.
Instead, Are you a cat? are resigned to playing friends' house parties rather than conventional music venues. Their one experience with the Comet earlier this year was disastrous and convinced Are you a cat? that they're better off not dealing with clubs for the time being. Other shows at off-the-beaten-path spaces have been marred by promoters leaving their name out of ads or listing the wrong dates for gigs. Even nature conspires against Are you a cat?; they had to cancel three shows during Snowpocalypse '09.
If Are you a cat? seem to be cursed, it hasn't deterred their prodigious recording output. In recent months, they've given me six CD-Rs of music and say that these discs represent not even 20 percent of everything they've done. And the quality of these discs has remained consistently excellent.
Amid all the mind-fucking strangeness in the group's catalog, Octopus Release is Are you a cat?'s stab at structured songwriting. Done on a dare from Bukkake's Jim Davis and mastered by renowned local engineer Mell Dettmer, the five-track album includes some lubricious, James Pants–like party funk with suave vocals, clap-enhanced 4/4 beats, and everything. Also present are a percolating prog-pop song about a suicidal ranch hand and an off-kilter electro-rock cut with fascinating metallic percussion and tricky rhythms. Octopus concludes with a surprising dip into gently uplifting, gregarious reggae titled "Rose of Fire," which quotes both Toto's "Rosanna" and Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." Of course, Are you a cat?'s flirtation with accessibility still veers into some spaced-out excursions. Nonetheless, it wouldn't be too outrageous to hear these songs on KEXP.
Much of Are you a cat?'s music possesses a relentless, demonic quality. They can't resist pouring on weirdness upon weirdness, all the while seeming like such nice, well-adjusted people.
"People like Roland Kirk, John Coltrane, Fela Kuti, Sun Ra, and John Lennon have tapped into [supernatural] things that can be interpreted through music," Smothers says. "We've opened ourselves up to a lot of it through our chemistry as musicians and from [Chicago's avant-jazz] scene. So if you want to call it voodoo or whatever, it's something that [gets incorporated] into some of our jams." Welbel simply calls it "evil chemistry."
Smothers describes a weird experience to illustrate this. "One of the most intense days of playing we ever had, our amps started doing their own thing. We went to turn the amps off and they stayed on, even though they were turned off; the music was still pouring through, the electricity's off. Some very strange phenomena have taken place in our studio." Welbel adds, "There are moments when we get spooked by the music."
"I think the demonic aspect comes from us growing up with all this metal around us and listening to all this harsh music," Smothers continues. "When you try to make yourself sound like a certain kind of band, you start getting a blend of all the stuff that you like. We listen to a lot of different music, so it might just be a total overload."
Discussing their prodigious recording output, Smothers elaborates that Are you a cat? "condense material so it's enough for people to listen to without getting bored, but for the most part, all of that stuff is uncut. It's the experience of us messing with new instruments. It usually seems like our best music is when we first use instruments. Those are the killer sessions."
Despite being deeply obscure to most in the local scene, Are you a cat? harbor lofty ambitions. They plan to shop upcoming demos to DFA and venerable jazz imprints like Okka Disk and Atavistic—and to Thrill Jockey. "We need Thurston Moore to put out our records," Welbel quips.
Silly name notwithstanding, Smothers claims, "We're trying to be serious about even the goofy stuff—like a Werner Herzog mockumentary. We want it so you don't know if we're fucking with you or not."
"The jokes are the most serious part of it, actually," Welbel says. "When you're open to the funny shit and the scary shit, that's when the best music comes through."