Bart Cummings And The Cat’s Miaow
Bart Cummings is an Australian indie-pop icon, so why’s he bigger in Sweden than over here? Words by DOUG WALLEN.
Before The Lucksmiths and The Crayon Fields, there was The Cat’s Miaow. Birthed from a handful of other bands, the Melbourne indie-pop quartet spanned the better part of the ’90s yet maintained the lowest of profiles, only playing one public gig and mostly releasing songs through international labels. The idea was to forgo playing live and simply record a catalogue of no-frills pop songs. Those flighty tunes now command a cult following that strengthens by the day, whether via blogs, other music sites or YouTube.
Over its lifespan, The Cat’s Miaow put out three cassettes on Melbourne’s beloved tape label Toytown, shared a flexi 7” with Stereolab and contributed an ambient mini-album to Darla Records’ popular Bliss Out series. It was also among the first of many Aussie bands signed to the American label Drive-In, among The Lucksmiths, Sodastream, Darren Hanlon, and Mid-State Orange. And while the lines get tangled all too quickly, the band had its roots in The Beat Poets, The Ampersands, Girl Of The World, Blairmailer, and Tra La La, later yielding such spin-offs as Hydroplane and Pencil Tin.
The Cat’s Miaow consisted of vocalist Kerrie Bolton (now a professional opera singer), drummer Cameron Smith, and bass- and guitar-swapping songwriters Bart Cummings and Andrew Withycombe. Dreamy and fragile, the band’s songs can float away on a moment’s notice but linger beautifully in the air. In terms of inspiration, Beat Happening stood as tall for them as The Beach Boys, and a penchant for cover songs touched on Spiritualized, Patsy Cline, and bands from the Sarah Records and Flying Nun rosters. Although Cummings and frequent four-track engineer Withycombe sometimes sang lead, Bolton’s daydream-y voice was a consistent draw alongside the soft drumming, ultra-melodic bass, noisy and jangling guitars, and emotionally astute lyrics.
This is a band that wore its heart on its sleeve, mining romance and melancholy with a tender, universal touch. From the early releases on Toytown to the later splay of international contributions, the songs tapped into a pop language that’s proven timeless. All of the band’s recordings – 78 songs total – have been compiled on the CDs A Kiss And A Cuddle and Songs For Girls To Sing, both released in the US and since reissued on Cummings’ label Library. In addition to Cat’s Miaow-related bands, the now-hibernating Library issued releases by Sleepy Township, Stinky Fire Engine, and Sweet William (featuring Jason Sweeney of Pretty Boy Crossover and Panoptique Electrical).
It’s been more than a decade since The Cat’s Miaow ended but last year Cummings played his first Australian gig in 10 years, supporting Melbourne’s Summer Cats at their album launch. It was followed by a new recording by Cummings’ long-running project Bart & Friends, the Make You Blush EP, which features indie pop all-stars like Fred Astereo’s Stanley Paulzen and The Lucksmiths’ Mark Monnone and Louis Richter. (Paulzen and Monnone in part run the label Lost & Lonesome, which released the EP.) Most notably, the EP reunited Cummings with Pam Berry, his one-time American collaborator in The Shapiros. Herself a legend from fronting Glo-Worm and the hugely influential Black Tambourine, Berry co-ran the zine Chickfactor, once immortalised in a Belle & Sebastian song. So there’s no downplaying the credentials behind Make You Blush, which finds Cummings still writing brief, gentle, thoughtful pop songs.
Now based in Ballarat, Victoria, with his wife and two children, Cummings agreed to discuss The Cat’s Miaow’s legacy over lunch.
Let’s start with how and when The Cat’s Miaow formed.
In about ’92 in Melbourne. Pretty much everyone else was in other bands at the time. Cameron and myself were in Girl Of The World. [That band was] putting out singles and playing live, doing the standard thing. Andrew was in another band called The Ampersands. We were all friends. When The Cat’s Miaow began, the only real priority was writing songs and recording them on four-track. We made a conscious decision that we weren’t gonna play live and weren’t gonna put our energy into rehearsing a set of songs. We were just gonna write write write. So we were doing little cassette albums. About every six months we’d release 50 of those to give to our friends and send out to fanzines. It was probably going about two years before we started to get anyone who would put out a single. It was a very slow start. And then, cutting to the chase, Mike [Babb] started up Drive-In Records [in the States] and said, “I like you guys.” By that stage we had a huge back catalogue so we were able to put out quite a bit quite quickly.
It’s really interesting to me that so few Australians know about the band.
For me it’s not surprising because, as I said, we didn’t play live. It wasn’t a strategy or an ambition, like trying to get big in America. We literally sent things to anyone we thought would be interested, and if they said something nice we sent them the next thing. All of our influences were K Records and things like that. The only label in Australia that would have been interested in us at that point was Summershine. We sent them a tape and they said, “It’s good but we’re not going to release it.” The only people who said they’d do things [besides the Toytown tapes] were American labels: Sunday, Bus Stop, Drive-In, Four Letter Words.
I can see how that fit your approach: just recording songs and disseminating them.
For us, I guess the perfect format was the four-song 7”. Our songs were short and there was this traditional format. There was the Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch EP and in the ’60s there was the thing where you’d do three originals and a cover version, the cover sort of being the signpost of what the rest of the songs were about. It was meant to give an indication of what you were going to get.
The band did a fair few covers over the years.
Yeah. I guess because we were big fans of music and we recorded at home. And it was fun. Our take on doing a cover was that you always did it as if you had written the song, so you didn’t have to emulate what it was. It was usually because of the lyrics that we picked it anyway, rather than the music.
There’s a cover on your new EP of the oldie ‘Blue Moon’.
And again I picked that because of the lyrics. It was fun because it’s such an old, traditional song. Again, we kept the lyrics and changed the music around a little bit. I could just keep the bits I liked. It’s fun just to throw those in sometimes.
What’s the availability of the Cat’s Miaow back catalogue?
Mike had done two pressings of the Drive-In [collection Songs For Girls To Sing] and [after that] he was like, “I’d rather do a new thing than keep the back catalogue in print.” And the Bus Stop one [A Kiss And A Cuddle] hadn’t really been distributed that well. It coincided with a time when Brian [Kirk] went into hiatus with the label and was a bit burnt out in hindsight.
I think the first time I heard The Cat’s Miaow was on the Four Letter Words comp Going Against Maz’s Advice.
That’s when it all started to fall into place for us. I was going to America on holiday and Clint [Barnes] put that out so I went and stayed with him. Chickfactor did an interview with us and then Bus Stop said they’d put out Pencil Tin CDs and this guy [from the label Wurlitzer Jukebox] in England said he wanted to do a flexi [7”], all within two or three months. People started saying “yes” to us, as opposed to two years of “no”.
Is that how you got to know Pam Berry, through Chickfactor?
Pam and I had a mutual friend in Dave Harris, who put out Munch video compilations of indie bands. He sent her a tape and she got in contact. I said I’d be in America soon and she said, “Oh, come and stay and we’ll do a single.” That turned into an album.
And that album was The Shapiros?
Yeah, it was just while I was there. It was just meant to be a couple songs and then we wrote half a dozen or so and did a few covers. I stayed there longer, for a couple of months, and we played some shows. It was really hard to do things in Melbourne; it was either hard or expensive. When I was in America, we’d go to New York [from Washington DC] and play a show and get T-shirts made. Everything seemed easy. One of the things I was most envious about is that everyone seemed to have a basement you could rehearse in. No one has basements here.
That whole era was so interconnected internationally.
And it was all pre-internet.
Yeah, it was driven by fanzines and mail order. They fed into each other, and people who ran zines would put out a 7” or a compilation tape and they’d review each other’s things across the world. That’s coming back: bands releasing things on different little labels.
The last couple of years remind me of the early ’90s a lot, not just in the networking but the music as well.
A lot of that era’s sound has been coming back, thanks to bands like The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart. And Black Tambourine recently got a reissue.
Yeah, it’s funny. I emailed [Black Tambourine singer] Pam [Berry] about 18 months ago and said, “You know everyone’s dropping your name?” She [had no idea]. She’s in the situation as me: she’s got kids the same age and doesn’t go out that much.
“You recorded at home, you dubbed them off yourself, you did the covers and photocopying at the local library or at uni.”
I know we’re skipping around in time, but I wanted to talk about Cat’s Miaow doing a split 7” with Stereolab in 1995. That seems really crazy now.
It seemed crazy then. They were much, much bigger than us. Keith [Jenkins] from Wurlitzer Jukebox, who put it out, was like, “I’ll do a split with Cat’s Miaow and Stereolab.” And I was like, “Don’t. They’re not gonna say ‘yes’, and we’re gonna wait and wait for them and it’ll come out in 18 months’ time with someone else.” Their proviso was they wanted to hear the band they were gonna be on the split with, and if they didn’t like us, they wouldn’t be on it. They said, “Oh yeah, this is OK”, and in the end it came out and we were on a split with Stereolab. There was no band cooler on the planet at that point.
Wurlitzer Jukebox was a really important label for me when I was in high school.
He [Keith Jenkins] had amazing taste. It’s a toss-up between Keith at Wurlitzer and Mike at Drive-In as to who has been the best label to be on. Everything they said, they did. They never screwed us around once. If they said it was gonna come out in two months’ time, it came out in two months’ time. No mucking around.
Did The Cat’s Miaow do anything else on Wurlitzer Jukebox?
Hydroplane did some stuff with them. We became friends [with Keith Jenkins] and I was always telling Andrew, “Send him more stuff. He’ll love it.” But it was like imposing on a friendship. Years later I was at Keith’s place and we were talking and he was like, “You guys were one of the bands I wish I’d done more stuff with.” It was the best label.
When did you start your label, Library, in relation to all of this?
1998. The Cat’s Miaow by that stage had pretty much run its course. Andrew was doing Hydroplane. Mike at Drive-In said he owed us all this money in royalties, like 500 bucks or something. I said, “Well, if you give me the money, I’m just gonna spend it on CDs. How about we use it and put out a 7-inch?” So it just went from there.
Did it become something to put out younger bands like Sleepy Township?
They were younger but they had started around the same time as us. It was just, if I liked something I put it out. Its focus was mainly Melbourne bands. But I’m not cut out to run a label. Like my wife said, “You’re great at picking the bands.” But promotion and distribution and all that stuff I just sucked at.
You have to be quite aggressive about it.
You have to be very, very pushy and very, very confident, like, “This is the best thing you’re ever going to hear.” I was like, “Here’s a CD.” I’m not the guy for that.
At least you put some good stuff out before you realised that.
Well, it probably went longer than it should have. I mean, I still like everything I put out, but I think the bands would have been better off putting it out themselves, because I wasn’t doing any more for them than what they could.
How influential was the label Toytown on you?
Toytown was run by Wayne Davidson. His thing was cassettes. He was quite inspiring in that sense of do-it-yourself, taking control of it. Cat’s Miaow pretty much modelled itself on that. Y’know, you recorded at home, you dubbed them off yourself, you did the covers and photocopying at the local library or at uni … You don’t worry about the masses; you just concentrate on your niche. His band was Stinky Fire Engine, which was a fantastic and crazy Casio thing. He was quite influential on what we did earlier on. I think all the bands, like Girl Of The World and Ampersands and Cat’s Miaow, were quite big fans of Toytown. And we all did cassettes initially.
What distinguished Pencil Tin from the other bands you were in?
In some regards nothing. You could say Cat’s Miaow, Pencil Tin, Shapiros, and Bart & Friends are all the same band or idea: concise pop songs, melodic, mainly on guitar, usually with a female singer. I guess what each of them do is give me an opportunity to work with someone else. That was with Rob [Cooper] and Bianca [Lew], who were in The Steinbecks. It was just a chance for Rob to be front and centre singing his songs and me a chance to be working with someone else. For everyone involved I think it was very much a side project.
Did any of your bands besides The Shapiros ever play in the States?
No. [The Shapiros] only did two [US] gigs. Cat’s Miaow played one gig and two parties [total in Australia]. Pencil Tin never played live. Hydroplane played a few parties. And really, it was the same people at all the parties.
Do you think that’s why… No one knows us here?
[Laughs] Yeah, because that’s often how word-of-mouth starts and spreads. And years later people will brag about having seen an old band at a certain gig.
Nothing released locally didn’t help either. Pencil Tin was on Bus Stop and Drive-In. The Shapiros … I mean, I put that out here but I never put it in any shops. I can honestly say I’ve probably sold more copies of the Cat’s Miaow CDs to Sweden than I have locally.
Were there any Aussie bands you related to outside of your immediate friend group?
No, it was us and The Sugargliders/The Steinbecks. Well, The Cannanes were hugely influential to us, even prior to us ever being in bands.
They also managed overseas releases quite well.
That’s just the way it happened. If a local label had been interested in us and wanted to put us out, I would have said yes. It just didn’t really pan out that way.
What was the Australian musical landscape of that time? Was it all grunge and rock?
Yeah. I mean, Australia has been and always will be a rock [country]: playing live and playing in pubs. Even on the alternative side of things, you’re still rock. I couldn’t really say with any authority what it’s like now, but I don’t think it’s changed too much.
There’s a few more bands, like The Crayon Fields, that are quite pop.
Yeah. And The Motifs … I like them a lot. I’m surprised The Lucksmiths got as popular as they did in Australia. Well, I know why: they worked hard at it and played live a lot. I guess we weren’t prepared to put in all that work of playing live. I mean, organising a gig to me is like, I’d rather go to the dentist.
When you supported Summer Cats in Melbourne last year, that was your first gig in about a decade.
Nearly. It was my first gig in Australia in 10 years. Scott [Brewer], the guitarist, asked me. He said, “It’ll be us, The Zebras, and The Motifs.” They were three bands I hadn’t seen and would have liked to see. And I’d get in for nothing. [Laughs] It was like, I wasn’t going to gain anything by saying no.
How did you find the experience?
It was really, really nerve-wracking prior to it. I almost got stage fright. I don’t really enjoy performing that much, so the 20 minutes I was on is a bit of a blur. But it was a really fun night. I’m glad I did it. I don’t think it was a great performance. I don’t think me by myself with a guitar is that entertaining.
Well, I think anyone that knew who you were would have loved it.
And that was sort of the approach I took: it’ll be a bit of a novelty. The worst that could happen is that I suck really badly and it’s 20 minutes we’d all rather forget. But it was fine.
We’ve talked so much about the past, but let’s talk about the EP. The players include some of the guys behind Lost & Lonesome.
Yeah, it’s like the Lost & Lonesome house band. About two years ago I’d been selling the [Cat’s Miaow compilation] CDs by mailorder and the trickle was starting to increase. People were saying, “Are you doing anything [new]?” And I thought maybe I should. I asked Mark [Monnone] if he would play on some songs if I wrote them. I had to go right back to the start, like buy a guitar and start writing songs…
You didn’t have a guitar?
No. I hadn’t done … it was all work, wife, kids. I’d done a lot and I was kind of over it. I guess when I stopped, I was a bit burnt out and thought anything I do more is just gonna diminish what I’ve already done.
How many songs do you think you wrote over those initial years with all your bands?
A hundred and fifty? And I started to miss it. As I said, I’d become a bit two-dimensional with work, family, work, family. I wanted to do something just for me. Louis [Richter] had shown some interest and I asked Mark if he knew any drummers, and that’s why [Stanley Paulzen came on board]. But the idea wasn’t to release a CD. I was just planning to put them up on Last.fm as free downloads because I thought there’s only going to be like 20 people who are interested. Mark wanted to do a CD on Lost & Lonesome and I said no. It was only right at the end when we were just about to do the mixing that I said, “We should release this.” It’s not long but I’m really happy with the way it turned out.
Who’s the James Dean that’s credited as producer?
He was in Tugboat, a band I released on Library. Their last EP I didn’t put out but it came out a couple years ago. I was listening to it thinking it sounds fantastic, like a dream-pop thing. I realised they recorded it themselves at home. I didn’t want to go to a studio so I just asked James if he’d want to record us. And it was great. Obviously I’m up here [in Ballarat] and they’re all down there [in Melbourne]. So I’m just up here writing songs and saying, “OK, we’ll record on this day.” They’d all turn up and learn the chords, rehearse it for 15 minutes, and then record it and go to the next one. You can do four or five songs a day that way.
Is James still doing music of his own?
He is [as Constant Light]. It’s fairly electronic. They’ve got some songs on Bandcamp.
And you had Pam Berry do vocals by email?
Yeah, I’d just email her backing tracks and she’d email her vocal tracks back and ProTools it all … All our old stuff was done on a four-track Portastudio. There’s like three buttons. For me it was very hands-on. Andrew was the one who did all the recording in [The Cat’s Miaow] and I could understand enough to have input into the mixing. But with ProTools I have no idea. I just feel like this old guy going, “Uh, a bit more reverb on the vocals.” And if he does or not, I can’t really tell. [Laughs] I just don’t understand it at all. I feel a bit sort of Grandpa Simpson.
The Cat’s Miaow recorded at one point with Simon Grounds.
That was really early on [in late 1992]. We did six songs with him. I was a huge Shower Scene From Psycho fan. I thought they were brilliant. He’d been recording Underground Lovers at the time and mixing for them. He had a house studio. It was one of those places where there was like 20 years of newspapers and Barbie dolls nailed to the wall. It was just the most nuts house. But he’s great.
You mentioned Underground Lovers. Were they influential for you?
Probably in the early days. Not so much that you listen to them and you listen to us and there’s an overlap. But I would say around that time we – particularly Andrew and myself – went to all their shows. They were one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen.
“I can honestly say I’ve probably sold more copies of the Cat’s Miaow CDs to Sweden than I have locally.”
Were The Go-Betweens big for you?
Again, it’s kind of weird. I can say I have all their albums but there’s nothing of them in [The Cat’s Miaow]. I can be a huge fan of someone and not have it influence me. And some things it’s not even the way it sounds but just the idea of it. For Cat’s Miaow, Phil Spector was a big influence. Not that we did a wall of sound but just some of his ideas motivate you to try and do things. Of course, you never get it right. And you can’t copy it. It’s what’s sparking you to do something. It’s like with the four-song 7”: it’s not like we wanted to sound like The Buzzcocks but that’s a really good idea.
It seems like the innocence of ’50s and ’60s pop songs really resonates with you.
Yeah. And again, it’s almost like arrangement ideas, deconstructing a song and then applying that instead of trying to sound like a ’60s band.
Those songs are often quite short as well.
Yeah, don’t muck around, don’t go quiet for a bit and then repeat the whole song again … I think because we weren’t playing live, we weren’t compelled to make these songs three or four minutes to make the audience comfortable. And the songs started getting shorter and shorter as we went. It was like, if we want one verse and chorus, we can do that, if that’s all we need.
Do you plan to do a launch in Melbourne?
No. Mark and Louis said we should but the logistics make it hard. Everyone is quite busy. And I think the way the current line-up works is that it’s a fairly low commitment time-wise. I just need them for a day every six months. They can do that and it means I can have a really great band in small doses and a band that understands what I’m trying to do as well.
All those guys have such pop credentials.
Yeah, when I got the email from Mark that it was going to be Stanley drumming, I was like, “I’m gonna have to work on these songs a bit harder.” [Laughs] But it’s been great. I’ve been really, really fortunate.
Do you plan to do more things like this and actually release them?
Yeah. We’ve already done one day of recording with Mark, Louis, and Jeremy [Cole] from The Zebras on drums. So we’ve got five songs down and another three or four half-written.
Is there going to be overseas distribution for the EP?
Lost & Lonesome have started a [distribution deal] with Darla [in the States] and there’s been a couple of mailorder places in Europe that have the CD for sale. I’m just a bit que sera about it all. Pretty much for the first time I’m on a label where we’re in the same time zone. It’s always going to be a fairly part-time thing so I don’t know if I’m fussed if it goes much further than it has. It’s just good fun to be writing songs and catch up with those guys every six months or so.
Bart & Friends’ Make You Blush EP is out now on Lost & Lonesome. A comprehensive Cat’s Miaow discography can be found here.