Earlier this year, Philadelphia's Catbite released Nice One . The record is a snappy mix of punk, two-tone, ska, and power pop that address personal and the political. There is also a very cool Selena cover.
To that end, Punknews' John Gentile spoke with the band about the new LP, ska itself, and jazz onions. You can read it below.
So, one day Catbite bassist Ben Parry was at work and he happened to see two dogs viciously fighting with each other and Ben Parry is a pretty good dude and he said to himself “I really should do something about this” so he went over and pulled the dogs apart and started to console them and said “there, there, pups, there’s no need for all this violence in the world” and after both dogs calmed down and were relaxed and Ben Parry was pleased that further injury had been averted one of the dogs suddenly snapped its razor sharp teeth onto his forearm and bit down like a vice and shredded his skin, flesh, and tendons back and forth like meat grinders and rip his arm apart. There was blood everywhere. Ben Parry was in immense pain. He screamed in distress. His arm was mangled. And what’s worse? Catbite were scheduled to record their sophomore LP within a week.
And you all know how dangerous second albums can be. Any number of bands have darted out the gate with a killer first slab only to be slowed down or even wasted by a second disc slump. Just ask the Damned, the Sex Pistols… or even the Specials.
And that was were Catbite found themselves. Their first album, a self-titled cranker, was short and sweet and found the band kicking out eight near perfect songs that walked the line between soul, punk, power pop and two-tone. (Now, everyone calls them a “ska band,” which I disagree with, but we’ll get into that). Anyway, not only did the band have the difficult challenge of cutting a second LP that could rival their first- there’s that old line that you have your entire life to write your first album and nine months to write your second- but their bass player, arguably the most important guy in a Caribbean influenced band, was hella jacked up and months away from recovery, thereby wrecking the band’s immediate plans.
Little did Catbite know that at the time, Killer Pooch would be the band’s savior.
“The first record cost about $400 to make over the course of four days,” says guitarist Tim Hildebrand. “People liked it so we had to top it. It was a lot of a pressure. We were all very much in our heads. But then, when Ben got hurt, we had to push back the recording sessions. It forced us to re-work the songs and kind of fine tune them.” Singer Brittany Luna adds, “We were NOT ready to record.”
And there’s the trick. The band spent the first half of the pandemic jamming and working over the songs. Now, over working a track can result in making it stale. But here, it seems the extension was the exact little breath catcher the band needed. Hildebrand says, “We were like we need to write songs! We need to write songs! We set deadlines and we made shit happen. That’s how we always worked. We had a show booked before we were a band, for example!”
After the delay, the band decamped out to Davey Worsop’s studio in California. Worsop is in Suedehead, who do kind of a neo-Elvis Costello thing, and worked with the band on keeping their tracks Catbite-y while raising the quality of sound and tightness of the tune.
The result is Nice One! and I’m going to hit a cliché here but the album is indeed a nice one- in fact, it’s a great one…. A killer one, even! The album of course keeps the band down stroke style while pushing the band a bit more toward Tragic Kingdom territory, perhaps. “Creepin’” is a driving number that has the speed and force of first wave punk while being very boppy. “Bad Habit” pulls back into smoky, jazz lounge territory and has lyrics equal to the soul classics. There’s even a ska-ified take on Selena’s “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” and radical reworking that nods to Luna’s heritage.
“We never set out saying we had to have that type of song and this type of song- we just wrote and let it grow from there,” Luna says. Luna’s pipes are one of the releases core strengths. She studied as a classical jazz vocalist and that training is here on the release. She’s both controlled and earnest, resulting the kind of delivery and vocals that you feel in your chest. In fact, she is such a talented singer, that her professors were somewhat unhappy that she quit the jazz think and went “punk” or “ska” as it were. Well, they were wrong and she was right.
What’s interesting about the lyrics is that there are no directly THIS IS OUR POLITICAL SONG tracks. Rather, the band weaves social issues into political ones into personal ones. Therefore, instead of cutting a single-message type song (which can be just fine, mind you), the band paints full pictures that discuss the state of the world and the state of the self all at once. Luna says, “I’m an optimistic person. I lean towards the optimistic side of things. I try to put that in the music. I think that with having the pandemic happen. People seemed to be a little more compassionate. I work in the service industry and people were being super nice. Since then, though… things have gone more back towards… normal…”
Hildebrand adds, “That’s sort of what the song ‘Asinine Aesthetic’ is about. You saw all of this performance online at the beginning of the pandemic. You saw performative allyship. You saw people hiding behind their platforms not saying anything. You saw old punk bands that were anti-racism but saying jackshit about George Floyd being murdered. It was fucking bullshit. Your aesthetic is fucking asinine. That’s what it’s about. It’s about having a genuine aesthetic.”
Drummer Chris Piers (who when not talking seems like the most laid-back guy ever until he starts speaking and he tenses up and shotgun blasts out voluminous info which switches between academic dissertation and street punk rage) says, “most of our songs aren’t necessarily overly political, but that doesn’t mean that we as a band or we as persons are not political or don’t want to support social issues. You can exist and be a political band without being overt in your music. But if you are playing ska or punk, but you have to acknowledge that both of those genres were started by social and political movements! If someone is like keep politics out of ska or punk that person can go fuck themselves because they were started by those movements.
And that’s the other issue. As I’m sure you know, within the last 18 months or so, ska has EXPLODED and Catbite, along with bands like We are the Union, Bite Me Bambi, JER, and Flying Raccoon Suit have been leading the new charge. As for me, I always called Catbite a neo-two tone group and NOT a ska group because a) ska does have somewhat of a negative connotation due to the glut of bad ‘90s ska bands; and b) because the socio-political angle always seems to hover in Catbite’s universe, it seemed more appropriate to comapere them to, say the Selecter and Specials instead of, say… well, pick any band on Warped tour ’97.
But, if you ask Catbite, my opinion is wrong. They are ska and they ain’t ashamed. Piers says, “I think that if you cal y ourself ska, you’re ska. For me, I feel like certian folks have criteria for something to be ska, and I feel like mine is shorter. In the realm where ska had a stigma, I don’t give if a shit. If you want to call yourself ska, then you are ska.”
Hildebrand adds, “We pull heavily from traditional blue beat, two tone ska, rocksteady, we pull different pieces from here or there and its never the same two pieces of a song. Ska is the pizza, and whatever you put on top- power pop peppers, punk mushrooms, jazz onions…”
“Jazz onions, especially,” Luna interjects.
“There are so many layers of onions.” Hildebrand replies.
Piers continues, “I do want the album to go over well with the ska community. If it gets outside that, great. But the people who have been there with us from the beginning… I want it to be well received with them… oh… also… to anyone who is retaining the ‘ska is for dorks’ mentality- fuck off. I don’t give a fuck what you think. If you don’t like ska, you can go shit in your hat.”