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"The cats here… they don't care about you," Bandwagon editor Ilyas whispers as a cat gingerly dodges his hand as he reaches out to pat it.
The cat cafe is actually a Taiwanese invention, but the Japanese made it famous. It's all over the world now; London just opened one last week, Spain too. America, you're almost there - but we beat you to it. Neko no Niwa is Singapore's first cat cafe, sitting pretty by the Boat Quay riverside, amongst the seafood restaurants selling gargantuan flower crabs. How it works: pay a cover charge (like a club, but no free drinks and drunken teenagers), and for one hour you get to frolick with cats, it's as simple as that. Stay as long as you want but it functions on a time-based fee system, meaning it's another $5 for 1/2 hour blocks.
With French music playing over the speakers which seemed to lull the 13 cats into states of sleepiness, we added another two more cats to the repertoire - Hentai Cat and Psycho Cat, two-thirds of eclectic alt-rock band MONSTER CAT. Once, they dabbled in acoustic guitar-driven dark folk, but have since transcended beyond that and for the new album The Violet Hour, you get to hear electronic textures and distorted vocal samples even. Psycho Cat settles in right away and mews a scarily accurate meow to a cat lounging nearby. He is largely ignored. "It's so nice to not be attacked by a cat," he says, alluding to his feline friend at home, whom he simply describes as 'fat'. He didn't have to worry - the thirteen cats of Neko no Niwa were relatively well-mannered throughout our stay, save for a minor incident involving two cats and one seemingly favourite sleeping spot.
Band On The Run
Fresh from the release of first single - the vibrant 'Take Me To Love' - MONSTER CAT are still as busy as they were when recording first started. And maybe before that, when they were all over Europe, Japan, and Los Angeles. Packing up to record The Violet Hour with highly regarded Aussie record producer/engineer Tim Carr at the famed Studios 301 in Sydney for a two-and-a-half months in 2013 (where the likes of Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Muse, U2 and even Tiesto have also cavorted) MONSTER CAT have never shied away from bold steps. In 2012 for example, they put up their EP Mannequins on Pirate Bay to be downloaded for free; an unorthodox approach that ultimately paid off when they garnered an overwhelming amount of fans worldwide. They now consider themselves as full-time musicians, with a handful of side project. Throughout MONSTER CAT's existence, they've never failed to show us how committed they are to their craft.
The next few weeks are no downtime for the cats as they prepare to be openers for English band Foals in KL (they opened for the flamboyant Empire Of The Sun last week at Fort Canning), and also look forward to their upcoming trip to China where they were invited to play as part of the JUE Festival. "It's sounding really killer in the studios. Not to blow our own horns or anything!" Hentai Cat explains, "Just the other day I got goosebumps over the second or third rehearsal. I think in the past we tried so hard to make it sound good but now it's coming through without having to think or fuss about it."
Prior to the time in Sydney, the band arranged a crowdfunding campaign on the Indiegogo platform where they garnered US$11,365 to go forth and create LP #1. Fans from as far as Brazil have come forward to show their support for MONSTER CAT. "I don't see many cons to crowdfunding," Psycho Cat says. "But I think it's important to not be half-assed about it. Because it's digital and online, you can't expect it to do its own thing. At the end of the day it's crowdfunding, a form of fundraising, so you need some personal connection and interaction," Hentai Cat adds. And this is exactly what these guys have done; with some of the donations, they've included personal flourishes like handwritten thank you notes from the band, 3D-printed figurines and even including the donors' names in the album liners.
We bantered some more about the career progressions of Foals and Coldplay with some laughs and Psycho Cat doing his cat impressions to the prancing cats around (they responded by yawning). I asked about their plucky decision to take the recording process to Australia as Kai Kai and Luna stirred from their slumber near the window.
"We've listened to music where you can hear the idea and what the band is trying to do, but somewhere the production fails them. It's very frustrating. So for The Violet Hour, we wanted to go all out with this one, no compromises on any level," Hentai Cat says.
They talked about how it was good to be away, where they could just focus. "It wasn't fun and games, but it was what we needed to do," Hentai Cat mentions. He adds on an appropriate Kung Fu film analogy about going to the mountains to train and Psycho Cat agrees fully.
"We wanted to get it produced out of Singapore. We wanted to give that a shot, just to see what we could get out from that. What I've learned is that even though music is a creative thing, the process itself is very important, and at the end, the final product is an amalgamation of the process. Going to Australia itself was part of that process and that influenced the music, that influenced the final product," Hentai Cat says.
"It was so hard, I cannot emphasise this more, but it was so difficult," Hentai Cat says, "I'm so proud of everyone, I'm so proud of everything everyone has put in." Psycho Cat interjects and compares it to be like 'taking a long dump'. We're really liking the analogies from MONSTER CAT.
The Violet Hour
Spanning 13 tracks, there was a lot more room to experiment thematic-wise, and Hentai Cat lets in that The Violet Hour is very much a concept album. "I'm a big fan of the Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie concept, and I think The Violet Hour is something around that theme, in terms of how things tie back together," Hentai Cat explains. The music of MONSTER CAT have always had a darker, and deeper edge to it, exploring vivid themes such as identity and existentialism. "There's the realisation that there are so many things bigger than we are - that's just a bigger perspective - but it's up to listeners to interpret that however they want," Psycho Cat says.
In line with the 'bigger' realisations, The Violet Hour certainly is a colossal step-up from their previous EP - or any album we've heard from Singapore, sonically and thematically. It's a record filled with lush textures and multitudes of instrumental layering and at times, electronic soundscapes; enhancing the trademark MONSTER CAT dark atmospheres. Production quality is extremely top-notch and it looks like it'll be benchmark for many Singaporean bands who want to take the next step and record a proper full-length album. It's also a definite grower - with each listen you manage to appreciate the conceptual depth and elusive, understated melodies that pull at the fringes of your peripheral hearing.
Inspired by the TS Eliot poem 'The Wasteland' for the album title, they both expressed their fascination with how the poem takes you sprawling across space and time, from Industrial London to Greek Mythology - and it was this exact borderless and timeless element, they wanted to embody in their music and the album. Delving deeper, Psycho Cat says, "There's a lot going on in the poem - questioning society, the role man was playing - almost like a machine, there's also the duality of things, the clashing, and sonically, it fits us because we're trying to bring together all these different things like electronic textures and samples to our sound".
Translating this sound live, would be a whole different challenge, the band agrees. They are fully well-versed on how the live performance is an extension, an experience to the band's music. "When we can play with 5 members, we'd like to play with 5 members. But sometimes it's a practical thing, we can't bring so many people around," Hentai Cat says. "I'd love to do a Bon Iver, nine people on stage. Maybe get Charlie (Lim) on backing vocals… and wood blocks," Psycho Cat laughs. "For only one song. Then we'll get him off the stage", they jest.
"I wanna ask you, did you find the whole recording process tiring, sort of draining?" Psycho Cat asks his bandmate. He goes on mulling over the process of getting the song right and ponders, "Do we think too much?"
With some zen-ly cat wisdom, Hentai Cat assures, "It's just part of the process." He mentions something about how it's like them to be more meticulous and in a more sassy comment, mentions "If you wanna be like Demi Lovato, then you need to think like Demi Lovato lah." I questioned Hentai Cat on how Demi Lovato would think like and effortlessly Psycho Cat replies, "Like a skyscraper." He gets distracted again by a girl looking too scared to pet a cat who had just woken up. "It's not going to bite you, it's just a cat," he whispers, barely loud enough for her to hear and starts meowing again. This happens quite often throughout the interview, as more customers file into the cafe armed with cameras and squeals of delight.
But on serious side, there are challenges the band had to work their away around. For Hentai Cat it was two things, and one of them revolved around logistics. Putting everything together was the most ambitious thing he has ever done, and it was a huge undertaking - financially and logistically. "How are we going to do this?" was a question that ran through his head very often. Putting a timeframe to the creative process was also part of that puzzle, knowing that they had invested a lot of time and money on it meant that the had to put in everything to make sure they don't 'f**k up'. The other challenge was the creative process itself. It was the first time they wrote an album and with different expectations, they had to learn to communicate their ideas and make decisions collectively. "As musicians, we had grown a lot since Mannequins, and everyone had a stronger idea of what they wanted to achieve with the album, and that was something we had to work out together," he says.
The difficulties Psycho Cat faced were the myriad of things going on at once, and having to deal with every detail and thing, within a timeframe, so as to not throw the band off-schedule. "There's so many headaches, from personal gear issues, to communicating with each other about songs, emails, DIY marketing, the financial stress… it hasn't ended. We're full-time fools."
A (Monster) Cat's Life
A first for a Singapore artist, MONSTER CAT will be doing a commentary of each of their tracks on The Violet Hour. This includes talking about the recording process, their lives so far, and also a vulture sample that is used in one of the tracks. "We'll try to bring out the comedian in us," Hentai Cat promises us.
Somewhere behind a cat fight (fur real) breaks out. Apparently, the ginger cat Kai Kai is set on the coveted sleeping spot currently occupied by the awfully pretty white cat, Emma. Kai Kai pushes Emma down 3 cat-storeys and there is a bit of yowling and all is peaceful again. One of the staff assures us that it's a normal routine.
Psycho Cat and Hentai Cat then took us through the rundown of their typical day in Sydney. It was a lot of early mornings, long hours in the studio, and dedicated hard work that had gone into the making of The Violet Hour. Psycho Cat also shared that new young-punk-on-the-block Justin Bieber dropped by the studios one night, but fortunately/unfortunately not when the band was recording. They also spoke about the importance of homework; prior to leaving for Australia, the band worked hard on material to bring to the studio on Sydney - they were recording riffs in Hentai Cat's room, guitar parts at Psycho Cat's, collecting sound samples and just generally working hard to prepare for an untroubled studio recording period.
And while it may sound like a long arduous journey, the band encourages other musicians to try out the journey they took. "I would encourage them to hanker down after they have material and focus on the production process," Hentai Cat says, "It is expensive, but it is expensive because we were trying to do 13 tracks. I'd use this word carefully, but it is actually affordable, not something beyond imaginable and realistic - it's not like buying a car here lah."
At The Violet Hour, The Evening Hour That Strives
Meanwhile, they're still preparing for the day their album drops - 3 March and still shuffling in and out of the studios quite a bit. "No one has meow-ed yet," Hentai Cat observes. He is referring to the cats. And it's true, the thirteen cats are really well-behaved. As these cafe cats are relishing the good life and living comfortably in Neko no Niwa (they deserve to, all of these cats are adopted or saved from the streets or shelters), we have here, MONSTER CAT who are jumping at every opportunity, going places quite literally, and their constant desire for more and unequivocal ambitions pushing them further towards bigger, better things. And then we see Psycho Cat and Hentai Cat making their rounds - inspecting the cats and occasionally stopping by one of them to spend time with it - and somehow they look right at home.
Interview by: Delfina Utomo and Ilyas Sholihyn
All pictures shot with a Nikon D610, courtesy of Nikon Singapore