Ilya S. Savenok, Getty Images The sad news came across late Wednesday afternoon…
- Posted on Feb 21st 2010 12:00PM by Dan Reilly
Featuring six members with disparate musical backgrounds -- including two classically-trained string players and a drummer who sings lead vocals -- Kittens Ablaze are hard to classify in a conventional sense. The New York-based group formed in 2007 and two years later released their first full-length, which was produced by Nic Hard (the Bravery, Aberdeen City). At their first show, former Clash guitarist Mick Jones burned a cigarette hole in the jacket of cellist Michelle Young, who spoke with Spinner about the band's second stint at SXSW.
Describe your sound in your own words.
Folk-punk-indie-chamber-rock. It's a dense wall of sound, and the process is like weaving a thick, cozy winter blanket. We've got six members but something like 10 instruments onstage. We have a really fun time in the studio playing with new toys.
How did your band form?
Grant [acoustic guitar] and Nick [bass] grew up together in Maine and were into punk and hardcore in high school, playing music in barns. Tim [drums/vocals] and Nate [the original electric guitar player] started playing together in college, where they were friends with Grant. They later moved to New York, where they spent some time experimenting with combining bleeps and bloops and analog instruments. Jenny [violin] was trained in the Suzuki method and can chop a violin in half with one swipe in mid air. She played in a few indie bands before she met Tim working in a psych lab at Columbia. Michelle played cello at Juilliard before college and never imagined she'd be in an indie rock band.
One day Nate, Tim, and their friend Brett decided to make a band. Grant showed up on the first day of practice and declared that he was in, too, saying "Let's do this, fools." They randomly met me in a pool through a friend and enrolled me in the band without consulting me. Tim somehow convinced Jenny to play with them -- there may have been cupcakes involved. Brett fled the country, and several bassists later, Nick landed in New York by way of Honolulu and began rocking with us.
What are your musical influences?
I think what defines us as people and our music is that we are all so different. When we write music, there are elements of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, the Pixies, Radiohead, Elgar, Bach, Seasick Steve. When we actually agree on music we're writing, we know it's probably good. The only bands we've all collectively been able to agree on are Titus Andronicus, Frightened Rabbit and the National. Personally, I grew up in a town on Long Island where everyone I knew became a musician or involved in the creative industries -- there was something in the water. I was influenced by classical, jazz and bluegrass. Despite going to Juilliard at a young age, my past music endeavors only made sense in the context of this band and it's the first time I ever wanted to make playing cello a career. I think there is an ultimate hope in our music, despite any sense of loss or uncertainty you detect in the lyrics or sounds. The fact that we all found each other, despite very different backgrounds, personalities and day jobs, and can see eye-to-eye on a creative level, is reinforcement enough that perhaps music can transcend differences, even if in a small way.
How did you come up with your band name?
Like everything with us, with so many personalities we almost never agree -- the band name was no exception. There were literally hundreds of names e-mailed back and forth each day. Less than a month after we got together, we went into the studio to create an EP. The producer came out and was like, "Guys, I need to label your tracks with something. Give me a band name." That day we had been laughing about "Kittens Ablaze," which was a euphemism for, well, attractive female genitalia. And it just stuck. For the record, we actually love cats -- Jenny and Nick are both proud cat owners. The literal meaning of the name has been so inflammatory we couldn't even go there, and with four boys and two girls, it would be kind of confusing. Would people actually believe we just thought the play on words was funny in itself?
What's your biggest vice?
Traveling. In addition to band tours, I've been taking four-to-six week backpacking trips over the past couple of years. Most involve doing earthquake relief work, like in Pisco, Peru and Sumatra, Indonesia. Right now I'm living in Paris working on a flood project on the Seine.
What's in your festival survival kit?
An extra cello, a five-man tent, Vitamin Water and banjos.
Who was your first celeb crush?
Brad Renfro. I'm relieved that Ricky Martin came later.
What's your guilty pleasure?
Musically, vintage Britney Spears. Other than that, 'True Blood.' I don't have an addictive personality, but I watched the first two seasons almost straight through. At one point I hadn't left my bedroom, let alone my apartment, for two days. The place was a disaster and suddenly I knew what addiction was like. I had stopped answering my cell phone and e-mails. My mom even wrote me a message: "I am disappointed when I cannot reach you."
Beatles or the Stones?
Definitely the Beatles. They were my first foray into non-classical music. I had a professor at Juilliard in music theory who focused our class on 'Abbey Road' until he got shot down by the Juilliard School board. It was the most disappointing day of my life. Now I will spout about how important it is for even venerated institutions to embrace change and modernity, and see the overarching historical link between past and present.
What's the craziest thing you've seen or experienced while on tour?
There have been lots. Smashing my cello at SXSW 2009. Losing my cell phone, ID, credit card and cash in the Matt and Kim 2009 SXSW mosh pit (and I was bleeding). I only realized all of that when I went to get more beer. We even managed to relocate all my crap after the pit cleared. Then there was the show where almost the entire band was bleeding, which seems to be a theme. Touring is awesome because you get to meet so many new people and we often end up at random house parties for some reason. My favorite memory is Charlotte, N.C. The night before we played in Richmond, but only Tim and I made it. A car broke down, flights were delayed -- it was like coordinating Normandy. By the next day, we were so excited to see each other that the energy was amazing. The keyboard broke down and Nate pulled out his parts on an accordion, learning it in the parking lot of the Milestone.