by Jeff Berkwits
CHICHAGOLAND'S MUSIC MONTH: DE LA SOUL, ROBYN HITCHCOCK, JASON AND THE SCORCHERS, CHAINSAW KITTENS
The psychological scars of a sexual assault often linger long after the physical injuries heal, and for many musicians, writing about the experience is a way of dealing with the pain and anguish of this terrible crime. Tyson Meade, lead singer of the Oklahoma-based band Chainsaw Kittens, knows is firsthand, knows this firsthand. "Mouthful of Glass," a tune from the band's raw self-titled disc, recounts his experience as a rape victim. "If it had happened to someone else, I wouldn't have sung about it," he states. "But since it happened to me, I could make my scars into roadmaps and my roadmaps into fireworks. It's a way of freeing a devil."
Ironically, the horrible experience recounted in "Mouthful of Glass" is encased as an upbeat number. "Tori Amos has her version and this is mine," continues Meade. "The tune could have been more droney and Swans-like, but then you boil it all down it's just a pop song."
"At times, it's obviously hard for the rest of us in the band to relate to a tune like that," notes guitarist Trent Bell. "But I like the contradiction of words and music. If it were too depressing and droning then it might be too much to handle, but we take this really cool, great pop melody and then add this weird terrible story to it."
Although the group has previously written about serious subjects, the pop edge is a relatively new addition to their sound. "This is certainly a lot different than anything we've ever done before," states Bell, referring to their three previous releases on the Mammoth label. "Our other records were straight-up rock. This time we got to make the music exactly the way we wanted." While those earlier albums met with critical praise, they were not overly successful for the band.
On Chainsaw Kittens, issued by the Chicago-based Scratchie Records, the band has incorporated many new effects and influences. "This sound is really our record," emphasizes Meade. "We wanted everything to be pop. Instead of making people's heads spin on how fast we could play guitar solos, we wanted to make people's heads spin on how many songs we could put on a 43-minute disc."
The 14 tunes, all of which are under four minutes long, whiz by with remarkable intensity. Among the best is the sprightly "Tongue Trick," which Bell cites as one of his favorite compositions. "It's got every element we wanted in there: an old Acetone organ, drums, strings…"
The vintage organ belonged to Meade's grandmother and is on about half of the tracks on the album, combined with either a Moog synthesizer or the band's more traditional/guitar/bass/drum set-up.
"When I was a kid, I was into acts like Devo and Gary Numan," continues Bell. "I always like the melodies, although not particularly the keyboards that they used. These were influences that had been suppressed on earlier releases, so on this one I just decided to bring them all out."
Chainsaw Kittens were able to integrate such disparate influences primarily because they formed such a far-flung musical locale. Toiling in Norman, OK, the band- Meade, Bell, drummer Eric Harmon, and bassist Matt Johnson- spent years developing their sound before they were ever noticed. "When we were first started in 1989, Seattle had the grunge sound, and they all kind of influenced each other," remembers Meade. "In Oklahoma, there was nothing to influence anybody except for a huge cross-section of what everybody else in the country was hearing. It was kind of cool, since nobody outside of the area knew you."
Their second album Flipped Out In Singapore, produced by Butch Vig, garnered significant industry attention for the act, and soon they were opening for artists such as Iggy Pop, Jane's Addiction, and Smashing Pumpkins.
As Chainsaw Kittens become better-known, they're continually asked how they came up with their name, which sounds simultaneously tempting and foreboding. "When we were formed, everybody except me was still in high school," recalls Meade, who is about seven years older than the other band members of the group. "We had this kitten quality to us and yet the guitar player at the time also had this kind of chainsaw sound. We wanted something ferocious without being metal…and something with a pop sound."
With this album, it's clear that the Chainsaw Kittens have achieved their goal.