or a Big Electric Cat in a damn huge pond
or anything else you want to call it, really...
Big Electric Cat, that largest and strangest of Antipodean goth monsters, is back from the murky depths at last. Furthermore, it's brought with it a new CD, a somewhat modified roar, and a huge swag of road stories from its three months on tour in America with Christian Death and Switchblade Symphony.
Dave Block, bassist for Big Electric Cat, is fond of claiming that (and I quote) "Every band eventually turns into Spinal Tap". Come to think of it, his all-singing, all-guitar-playing, all dry-ice-loving compatriot Paul Sadler has been known to express exactly the same sentiment. Of course, it could be argued that the one time this is most likely to happen is while said band is on tour in the States - one only has to look at the original Tap to see why. Bearing all of this in mind, the Aether Sanctum decided that it really ought to have a word to Dave and Paul about their American odyssey, about their new album 'Eyelash', and about exactly how close they came to drawing models of the Stonehenge monument onto napkins in seedy mid-western diners. Many tangents later (theirs and ours), the following emerged in cipher:
Big Electric Cat, it seems, formed at some point not too far from the start of the nineties, though they spent a while refining their approach and didn't really begin finding their feet - even in their native Sydney - until mid-to-late 1993. Up until that point, it appears that "Sunday nights at the Lansdowne [local indie dive bar] playing to two people, getting absolutely nowhere, and gradually becoming more and more disenchanted with what was going on around us" was the norm as Paul remembers it. "When Dave joined the band ['93] it still wasn't looking that great, until we did our first demo tape 'Suspira', and then everything changed overnight, basically".
'Suspira' impressed the scorching hell out of the notorious Cleopatra records. The Los Angeles based perpetrators of the 'Goth Box', 'Gothik' and other exercises in subtlety and discernment were on the phone to Australia within days of receiving the tape, using phrases like "the best gothic music I've heard in years" and so on. The four tracks on 'Suspira' were remixed, re-mastered and otherwise re-jigged, and six new songs recorded. These ten pieces between them became Big Electric Cat's debut CD 'Dreams of a Mad King', which launched them into the gothic big league in the States. Thus began yet another rendition of the oft-told tale about the Australian band who remain virtually unknown in their own country while their careers proceed exponentially upward overseas.
"I think we went to America pretty sort of wide-eyed", Paul comments. "We didn't really know what degree of fan-base we had over there. It was quite amazing, and really sort of touching. At the first show we played over there it was packed, and none of us could really believe that people had actually come to see us, because we thought 'we're just the support band for these two American bands'. But people were coming up to us afterwards and saying 'We're so glad you came; you're our favourite band. You've come all this way, it's fantastic', and you'd sort of think 'Fuck, how do they know this?' But that happened quite a lot. The thing that surprised me most, though, was that in the places where you thought there wouldn't be a particularly big gothic scene you'd wander out into the venue about half an hour or an hour before you went to play and there'd just be this sea of faces. You'd think 'We're in Buttfuck Texas or something. There's no gothic scene here!', but there'd be three or four hundred people there to see us".
These large American audiences were the fan-base that B.E.C. had been hearing about over the telephone for two years but not quite allowing themselves to take literally. Suddenly massive popularity and admiration reared their not unattractive but totally startling heads, and spoke with an American accent.
"There'd be a sort of core element that knew all the words and they'd sing along, and you'd get people following you around the country", Dave recalls. "You'd see them on one side of America, and then they'd turn up on the other side, and you'd be like 'How'd you get here?' "
"They actually got to the gig before we did", Paul says. "That was the scary thing. I mean, we'd be driving hell-for-leather across America and they'd be actually there as we turned up in the bus. We'd think 'How the fuck did they do this?', you know, because they had no money".
Of course, all meteoric rises to fame (I attempt to use this phrase at one point, but Paul and Dave cut in and replace the word 'fame' with 'obscurity' and 'drunkenness' respectively) exhibit a strange kind of fragility. Indeed, this seems to be especially true of bands whose fan-base grows as a result of the popularity of one particular album. 'Dreams of a Mad King' was followed up in early 1996 by a remix EP entitled 'Burning Embers', but as far as new material is concerned there has been nothing to supercede B.E.C.'s auspicious debut. This is a double-edged sword - on the one hand, it means that they've had a lot longer to write good new material than those countless bands who rush out a shoddy follow-up to a successful album so as not to be 'forgotten'. But, on the other hand, three years is a long time to expect the fans to hold on, and it puts immense pressure on a band to make their long-awaited follow-up worth long-awaiting for.
"It has been a long time", admits Paul. "But we've been quite busy doing other things. You know, feeding ourselves, moving house, that kind if thing". Not to mention the tour. "It takes a long time, because you're always trying to create things within a budget. Often you can't do things just simply because you don't have the money. Now that we do have a bit more money coming in, though, it is easier for us to do basically what we want. This album is probably as close as we've got to the sound that we're after, and that takes time to achieve".
The change in approach on the new album is evident from first listen. It quickly becomes apparent that the sound Big Electric Cat are now 'after' has taken, of its nature, more than a little thought and cleverness to achieve. "After 'Burning Embers' came out it kind of dawned on us that there was a dance factor that was quite important in order for us to get airplay and exposure in clubs", Paul explains. "The first album was strictly a guitar-keyboards-bass type of album, and at the time it stood up but in retrospect by the time it actually hit the street there was a whole kind of techno thing happening. I'm not saying for one minute that we're a techno band, but you have to have an awareness of the fact that people do like to get up and dance. I was actually watching Rage the other night and their guest presenter Perry Farrell said exactly that, that we're going through the decade of dance. In other words, bands have to have an awareness that people actually wanna dance to pop music. So that was a basis for this album. But we were adamant that there would be nine songs on the album. Not just nine dance grooves or nine bits of techno or nine loops or whatever. They're actually carefully constructed songs".
"When they first come across technology, a lot of musicians concentrate purely on the dance aspect, and in doing so they miss the point", comments Dave. "But for us, it's always been most important that a song gets some kind of emotional reaction or creates an emotional mood in someone. I guess we when we became more aware of dance rhythms we started to see the possibility of using them almost in the same way as the shamans and so on use them. By incorporating that element into our music it becomes a more effective emotional vehicle. The rhythms help propel the whole emotion of the song along. It's the rhythmic heartbeat pulse type effect that dance music has that we were after. We wanted that sort of deep, dark, pulsing feel to it, because that feel really sinks in to people".
If the reader is a tad worried at this point, be re-assured that he or she is not the only one. Whenever guitar bands start mentioning the words 'dance' or 'techno', disasters tend to happen. It usually means they've either lost their sound in a sea of bleeps or have run out of material or both (I recall a time when you could call the members of U2 'songwriters'. I also recall being rather embarassed upon first hearing Rosetta Stone's 'The Tyranny of Inaction' after writing a very flattering piece about their bold decision to embrace technology). But you can relax. On 'Eyelash', Big Electric Cat skirt the fringes of dance music in the same way they have skirted the fringes of Mission-esque pomp rock in the past; i.e. they do it a lot more intelligently, sparingly and imaginatively than most. And, yes, in this case the band's sound really is still priority one. The technological wibbles and dabbles simply augment and deepen the message, rather than becoming or replacing it.
Perhaps the best example of this is track two on the CD, the brilliant 'Splinters'. The first moments of 'Splinters' comprise a spacey keyboard swirl that could be the opening bars of any given Hawkwind song. From there, a shifting slow hip-hop drum rhythm begins, accompanied by a suspiciously funky bass riff. The listener is momentarily wondering whether (s)he is still actually listening to Big Electric Cat. But then the layers of snarling guitar and vocals begin to accumulate over the top of all this, fitting seamlessly and creating a collage of dark intensity to rival - if not surpass - 'Red Roses' (vaguely analogous track from the first album). The effect is not unlike that of a number of Depeche Mode songs, notably 'World In My Eyes' from 'Violator' which begins with a monotonous electronic loop. At first the loop dominates and drives the song into electroland, but then Martin Gore's and Alan Wilder's keyboard and guitar swathes kick in, transforming technological doodlings into sublime dark rock. 'Splinters' works similarly, building into one of the album's finest moments, and once the whole thing is experienced the technological elements become features that one looks forward to hearing in the context of the song.
Likewise, the third track, 'Black Water', begins with phased, repetitive bass and trippy keyboard, but these are joined by an early eighties guitar sound (a little reminiscent of that used on the wonderful 1983 album 'Heaven Is Waiting' by almost-forgotten goth band Danse Society). This, along with Paul's reflective vocals, effectively exploit the melancholic potential of electronically-based music in a way that very few pop or rock bands have done since the Pet Shop Boys released the magnificently depressing disco of 'Please' over a decade ago. 'Black Water', along with the following track 'Secret Desire' and track seven 'Blind', place Big Electric Cat on a par with (early) Clan of Xymox - they are moody, dense electro-goth classics firmly imprinted with the band's increasingly distinctive identity. They justify Paul's claim that "We wanted to make the album a lot darker, a lot more atmospheric than the previous one, which we think we've achieved".
The title track initially comes across as a somewhat standard goth anthem, but it grows slowly until the listener finds him or herself humming it in the supermarket and has to acknowledge it's a great song, while the studio version of 'Hallucinations' (which has been kicking around somewhere toward the middle of the B.E.C. live set for a couple of years) shows just how much the band have progressed as recording artists and songwriters. The live version always seemed like it had emerged half-realised from an experiment with a style that Paul, Dave and Deb were still getting their heads around. But in the studio it comes alive, benefitting enormously from the cleverly added details - voice samples, metallic clangs, deliberately too-loud drum sounds a la Trent Reznor, an arabic sounding keyboard solo and so on. "Something that's always fascinated the band - and it links right back to the band's name and everything - is the idea of the human and the artificial components to music and how they react and work together", says Dave. It's a fascination that shows on this track.
The only slight disappointment on 'Eyelash' is track eight 'Crash'. This is a Motorhead-like stream of consciousness that bristles with choppy guitar and cryptic messages of doom. It has traditionally concluded the Big Electric Cat live set in a whirlwind of smoke, noise and generally apocalyptic hi-jinks. It's not that the studio version of 'Crash' isn't enjoyable to listen to; it's simply a very live song which relies heavily on the wall of sound you get when you turn every instrument you own up to eleven and play it very fast through a cheap and nasty mixing desk you've never used before. One wonders whether it may have been better left as a live track, even though the band have actually done a pretty fine job of recording it.
Nonetheless, any lingering feelings of disappointment are soon chased away by the concluding track 'Transience' . Hypnotic, poignant and numinous, 'Transience' exhibits a level of songwriting maturity that most bands in the genre would take five or six albums to reach. Which is to say that it is pretty much a perfect closing track.
One thing that is very noticeable is a more personal edge to the lyrics on 'Eyelash'. In general Big Electric Cat have opted for a tangled welt of stylised and surreal metaphor, undeniably containing some deep personal associations but hiding them fairly well in environments far removed from mundane everyday experience. On this new recording, however, the emotional undercurrents show through a lot more. "I think one of the things that has happened", says Paul by way of explanation, "is that when we first started out it was a lot harder to be completely exposed with our emotions. But as you go on with this stuff it gets a lot easier to lay yourself bare. I think on this album the majority of the songs are pretty much straight from the heart, as it were".
Yet one thing Big Electric Cat will always refuse to do is give you a hard and fast interpretation of the lyrical content of a song - and they have their reasons. Dave believes that "in some ways it's better not to know what the writer's personal motivation was for writing a particular song. If you and another person have a certain song which symbolises your love together or symbolises a certain moment in time, and you sit down and talk to the person who wrote it and find out they actually wrote it about their budgie dying, it could be a bit crushing".
Dave recounts the story of a fan at one of the American shows who told the band he had decided to name his daughter after the song 'Christabel', which opens 'Dreams of a Mad King'. "That song had just hit him in some way, and he had really connected with it. So he came up and said 'I'm getting married in three weeks, and the band I've got playing at my wedding is going to play that song, and I'm going to name my daughter after it'. That's why I think you almost don't have the right to then turn around and say 'Well, I wrote that song about this particular subject'. In a sense, what you're trying to give him you're then taking away, because for him it's obviously taken on an extremely significant role or significant meaning. To me that's the whole beauty of the thing. It's like a painting, or any form of art-everybody's got a different opinion on what it's about, what it means, what it does to them. To say 'Well, it's actually about this' is to remove that artistic freedom that the audience has to interpret it in the way they see it.
"Someone else in America was talking to me about the song 'Orchid Dreaming'", says Paul. "They said there was just one line in that song, the line about an empty paradise being so cold or something like that. They said as soon as they heard that they thought "yeah, that's exactly what I'm feeling, that's exactly what I think". They're living in this country where everything is sort of perfect and you have everything, and yet you just feel so divorced from it, so distant from it. So it actually feels cold to live in that kind of environment".
At last, a reference to the darker side of America. Let's follow that one up, shall we? I mean, let's face it, goths dressed as giant panda bears and smitten fans aside, our heroes must have come across some real fucking fruitcakes over there, particularly in the bigger cities.
"Well, there were some real fucking fruitcakes over there, particularly in the bigger cities", Paul says. "I think it was in San Francisco one night when I was just getting off the stage and there was this really big, tall, fat goth guy standing there. I'd watched him throughout the whole set because he looked kinda strange, sort of wild eyed and whatever. So I got off the stage and he came up to me while I was talking to somebody, and he just stood in a kind of peripheral area staring at me, and gradually shuffled over to me. I continued talking to this other person, and then when they left this guy finally came up to me and he said 'I've killed and eaten two babies' ... [long silence] ... and then just wandered off. And that's the thing about America. You're aware of that violent element all the time.
"Some of the places that we went to you got the feeling that someone could pull a gun on you just basically because they didn't like you. Especially at three o'clock in the morning when you'd stop off in some redneck town in Texas to get a cup of coffee, and there'd be all the good old boys sitting in the diner, and you'd kind of wander in, no sleep, and eye make-up on, and it'd be like 'You boys ain't from round here, are ya?' Over Christian Death there was a little bit of aggravation, particularly in some of the mid-western towns, over their name and because of the whole kind of thing around Christian Death. But I mean Valor kind of played a bit on that anyway. He kind of winds people up pretty well. But you just have that awareness."
"It's a worry when you wander into the truck stop and the only two types of magazines available are either Hustler and Penthouse and shooting magazines, and that's it", says Dave. "You can buy sex magazines and you can buy gun magazines and that's just the kind of country you're in ..."
"This whole thing of guns just scares the crap out of me", Paul resumes. "Some people have got fucking armouries in their house, you know, like eleven rifles and four handguns and whatever. That kind of mentality's so stupid because they've got huge drug and alcohol problems over there. I actually saw a goth with a ... with a gun. He was just walking by and he had this long coat on, and he had a gun sort of tucked down the side in a holster, like a Smith and Wesson or something"
"Carrying silver bullets, of course", Dave interjects.
"I just sort of thought 'Nope. I don't like that'. I don't like the idea of somebody standing in the audience watching a rock band with a [pause] ... with a [pause] ... a gun. That sucks. You know, he might just do something stupid-have an argument with his girlfriend and take a potshot or something. But nobody really talks about it over there. It seems as though they've accepted the culture of violence, and they just don't discuss it. I mean, they say it's bad, but they just don't want to get into it in any detail".
Apparently the band's itinerary for the tour saw them traverse the United States in a pattern which, when drawn on a map, resembled nothing more than a detail from the Mandlebrot set, or some other bizarre fractal object. Hence, these momentary glimpses of the scarred underbelly of American society were mercifully few. In fact, there was little time for anything other than sleeping (a bit) and playing. The sightseeing highlight of the tour was the moment when they spotted the sign pointing out the turn-off to the Grand Canyon, and about two months into the tour they realised they had not seen the inside of a residential house during their entire time out of Australia. "The rest of it was just hotels and the back of the van", Paul says. "You drive until you're basically falling asleep and then you just find the nearest motel and you sleep until it's time to get up the next morning and keep driving".
"Or until the landlady comes around to chase you out because she's convinced there are satanic rites going on in your motel room", Dave corrects him.
"But I mean, we had some fun too. Some good things happened".
"We did the malls", Dave pipes up. "We have the complete Scooby Doo collection from Burger King. Little things like that become important to you when you're touring".
"And also clean socks!", says Paul. "That's the other thing. When you're down to your last pair of socks, and there's nowhere to wash your socks, and you've been wearing the same pair for two weeks, then you'd give anything just for somebody to come up and say 'Here, take these socks'."
So are we to be advised that we should be throwing socks onto the stage during Big Electric Cat gigs in place of the customary underwear?
"Basically, yeah. Socks and food".
"Well ... the underwear we can use too", Dave adds. No further questions on that one.
"Actually, the whole thing was just pure Spinal Tap from day one", says Paul. "I mean, we won't go into it now, but there were times when we'd watch what was going on on stage before and after we went on to play, and it was just hysterical. Americans have no sense of irony whatsoever. They don't understand the irony of any given situation, it's just hell-for-leather with everything. There were a couple of times when it wasn't just the three touring bands playing; they sometimes had a couple of local bands as well, and there were two instances in particular that reeked of Spinal Tap. There was one band whose drumkit could have taken up a small basketball stadium, and they had these kind of flaming torches on each corner of the drumkit. This was a local band that had obviously thought 'Well, there's this gothic thing passing through the town, so let's milk it for every penny'. So they turned up with all their friends and girlfriends, and this huge fucking drumkit. During the climax of their performance this thing caught on fire, and the drummer was frantically trying to put out one of these torches and his sleeve caught alight. So of course everybody just cracked up, and I think they thought it was very serious and nobody should be laughing at them. It was just very funny. But that's the kind of American thing".
"It's good in a way", Dave says, "because you know you can't take a lot of it seriously, so you just enjoy it for the pure trash value. I think if you go to America and you start trying to believe Los Angeles and take it as sincere, then, you know, you're gonna come to grief. So you've just gotta go in there and think 'Oh yeah, this is total fantasy land'."
Big Electric Cat's 'Eyelash' is scheduled to hit Australian stores in late August. You can also hear the band's version of Bowie's 'Cat People (Putting Out Fire)' on the Cleopatra compilation 'Vampire Themes', and with any luck they'll be gigging around Sydney and maybe other bits of Australia soon, before possibly heading off to the States again next year, if not Europe. Clearly, Big Electric Cat have a long career ahead of them, and, if the new CD is anything to go by, their ability to adapt and progress can only bolster this longevity. So hear their stuff, OK?
> The Aether Sanctum <