Striking a balance between writing gratifying music and presenting an audience with engaging performances can be difficult. For Cats Walking Backwards, a new band featuring a number of scene veterans, a mixture of experience, talent and maturity has helped them land on all fours.
Guitarist Alex Hall and bassist Kevin Cooper were members of the wildly popular Four Ohms, so they had plenty of firsthand experience in the crowd-pleasing realm. Keyboardist Mark Dempsey and drummer Ryan Moore have reaped similar benefits from Travelin' Barefoot, so when this mix of musicians founded CWB, a quest for popularity wasn't the order of the day.
For the former Ohmers, this fresh start meant a chance to explore broader musical territory. As Hall explains, shared creative control is essential, but not at the cost of anyone's vision.
"I want it to be open enough that everybody gets a chance to do exactly what they want to do," he says.
Naturally, a band with this mission is going to employ a host of writing methods. Some songs hatch from nearly complete works brought in by an individual, while others are ideas jammed at rehearsals (which are always recorded).
"If you're too stubborn about your original concepts, you might end up stifling better ideas," Moore says.
Rounding out the quintet is guitarist Billy Quay, who has played with Moore in various projects, including Sons of Gravey. Hall had his doubts about adding a second guitarist, but their sound and styles are distinct enough to avoid muddiness. Hall's guitar work takes a foundational, funkified Rock approach, whereas Quay's playing exudes more of his Jazz and Bluegrass influence.
"I didn't know what to expect, but I felt it as soon as we got together to jam," Quay says. "When you wake up the next day humming the melodies, that's when you know it's right."
He's also grateful for the collaborative songwriting environment.
"It takes me months to write a song on my own, but when you've got talented guys giving you feedback, it's very conducive," he says.
Quay is a soulful crooner, one of many strong voices in the band. More intricate vocal arrangements are in the works to leverage this asset, as are more syncopated instrumental parts and involved arrangements that challenge the Jam label many would apply to the band.
"We're trying to avoid that (label), but it's pretty meaningless anyway," Moore suggests. "It's a catch-all for bands that fuse multiple styles of music and improvise. So Miles Davis, Headhunters, Pink Floyd — those are Jam Bands by that definition."
"Even our longer songs have structure, not just soloing ad nauseam," Hall says. "We're not looking to bore the audience."
Cooper agrees, adding that the complexity of CWB's music almost precludes the noodlefest pitfall. "If you're writing songs that require three different instruments to harmonize, you can't just add your own makeshift part to that," he says.
The band has about a dozen original compositions, but they're not hot to start working on a CD. Only after they have a solid excess of material and all of the songs are completely fleshed out will they consider an official release. In the meantime, they have their sights set on an updated demo. Cooper tapes their live shows as well (generally getting excellent sound quality), many of which are available at catswalkingbackwards.com.
Writing and live shows will continue to be their focus for now, including upcoming appearances at Camp Buzz and the resurrected Ohmstead Festival, which Hall and Cooper will get to enjoy strictly as performers (as opposed to their former duties planning and executing the festival). They're also planning a show at which they'll perform Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy in its entirety (a little early for Halloween, but, hey).
The band seems to have no worries about their future. They plan to focus on adding new wrinkles to keep their audiences entertained while simultaneously honing their material and songwriting chops. Sounds like they're moving forward.
CATS WALKING BACKWARDS play Friday at the Mad Frog with Travelin' Barefoot.