British pomp rock exponents Cats in Space have only been in the public domain for a comparatively short time since their brought their staggeringly good debut album Too Many Gods out at the arse end of last year. However in that time they’ve created a veritable tsunami of goodwill powered not by hype but simply through the undeniable power and grandeur of their music. They’ve got a new single out, the funky, seventies-flavoured Only in Vegas, so what better time to catch up with the band’s prime mover, guitarist Greg Hart, for a chat about all things feline?
How surprised, really, are you to the reaction to the record? “Blimey… I’d say we were very surprised. Although we knew we had something that was pretty good by the time we were finished with it, and I knew that if people could get hold of it and understand it it was a good product for people that like that kind of music. We really didn’t expect quite what has happened with all the reviews, the interviews, the album of the year awards… we just lost track in the end. It’d been crazy – at the last count over a hundred and fifty features, a couple of radio stations dedicated entire shows to our album, we got on BBC Radio 2 in the UK which is huge; It hasn’t stopped since last October and it’s brilliant!”
It’s an amazing phenomenon isn’t it? Everywhere you read you see people saying the music industry is dead, but I think in some ways, if you’ve got the talent and you’re prepared to do a bit of work the situation now is maybe better for a band like Cats in Space. Even at the turn of the century a ‘traditional label’ would probably have turned the band down. “Definitely. If you go back to the nineties the rock scene in the UK was a barren wasteland. Even Iron Maiden couldn’t sell out a couple of nights at Hammersmith Odeon. A lot of people I knew went out of the industry for eight, nine, ten years. And then The Darkness came out in 2003 and I think they have to take a lot of the credit, especially in the UK, for putting the scene back in the limelight again. I certainly got interested in writing songs again, and slowly but surely it all came back again. And certainly now with all the tools bands have at their disposal, and the social networks, it is possible to make and promote your own albums. If you’re quite savvy with it, and you do it as best you can, intelligently, there is a cottage industry there where bands can make a few quid. I’ve been doing it this way for ten years, and it’s bloody tough, make no bones about it, not having a record company behind you, but at least you are master of your own destiny. I’ve had deals in the past, management companies, people looking after every aspect of my interests – telling me just to concentrate on the songs – I’ve had all that. And, basically, I couldn’t help thinking I could have done better myself. I was passionate about it, and no one is going to be as passionate as you are about your own work; Its like having kids. Nobody can be as passionate about them as you are. I live by that every day to be honest”.
I guess it’s a lesson learned over time isn’t it? It takes time to actually get the experience and gain the confidence in your own abilities to say “I’ll do it myself”. “Yes. When you start out you’re an egotistical maniac who just wants to play guitar and shag women, which is brilliant at the time, but when you get a bit older you realise that if you want to make a career out of it you’ve got to dig a bit deeper; I had a record label that spent a hundred grand on my band and brought an album out just as grunge hit, which meant we were dead in the water with a hundred grand tag on our heads. There’s nowhere for you to go when that happens. You do learn from it, you become more honest about what you are doing, you stop being part of the herd. In the eighties we were all just following what Bon Jovi were doing; but of course when he did something he’d been planning it for a year and moved on by the time we’d caught up with it. Everything went out of date very quickly. Nowadays music is music, there’s a market for everything now, especially the retro kind of thing we’re doing. I’ve been touring theatres in England for a decade in the Supersonic 70s Show, playing to around a thousand people a night, and there is very definitely a market there, people who love Abba, Queen, The Sweet, ELO, or new rock music in that vein. People who are forty years old and upwards who just like rock music. And they are the ones who’ve got the money to spend on records and merchandise now. Our music is totally geared to catching the vibe of those times, and people have said when they hear the music it’s like being transported back to something that was going on in 1977”.
I’m interested you say that, because one of the songs on the album, Last Man Standing, actually took me back to being seventeen and heading up to Denmark Street in the West End of London to look around the guitar shops there. “Then that’s totally job done then! I had the tune for that song, and me and (Co-writer, 10cc’s) Mick Wilson were wondering what we were going to make it about. We’d just been up to London for a meeting with a publisher. I don’t get up to London that much anymore and I was crestfallen at how the place has changed, how sterile that part of the West End has become. We used to go up to London as kids every Saturday, round the music shops, round the record shops… We used to dream. I remember one day being in one of the music shops, looking at a Les Paul on the wall. It used to belong to (Whitesnake axeponent) Bernie Marsden, had a bit of card next to it saying what songs he’d used it on, how it had been used on the Whitesnake live album. Magical. And while we were standing there (David Bowie guitarist) Mick Ronson walked in! We were sixteen at the time, to see Mick Ronson in a shop meant we were going to make it! I told Mick Wilson about all this, and we suddenly wrote Last Man Standing. It was quite a deep song that, one of my favourites on the album”.
It’s one of mine too. Being a guitarist, do you find the lyrics take more work than the riffs to get them to where you want them to be? “It’s fifty fifty really. I think all songwriters will tell you that. Sometimes you just hit a magic chord progression. I dabble a lot on the piano, although I’m not a trained professional by any stretch of the imagination. So sometimes I find chords I wouldn’t usually think of because I’m coming in from a different angle. That naivety sometimes leads to some good stuff. Sometimes I can come up with a lyric and smash it; Unfinished Symphony literally took ten minutes to write, even though it sounds very epic. It’s got lots in it. But the structure of the song, the lyric, the title, I did in ten minutes. You might get a couple of those on every album you do if you’re lucky. At the minute I’ve got all the titles for the second album but I’m going through a bit of a drought lyrically”.
You say you’re preparing album number two, but you’ve still got to tour album number one first. You’ve got a tour with Space Elevator coming up later in the year and not much until then – is that frustrating? Would you be out on the road more if you could or are you happy to pick the right, select shows? “If somebody gave me a hundred gigs a year and they were all good gigs then of course we’d do them. It’s a no-brainer. Hearing somebody sing your songs back to you when you’re on stage is the best feeling in the world. I’d love to do a lot more of it. But you have to be careful how you’re perceived, which is something we were very careful about when we planned the band. Danny Bowes (of Thunder reknown), who has worked with us on a lot of aspects, said ‘you’re problem is you sound a lot bigger than you actually are’, We sound like ELO but we can’t go and play Hammersmith”.
You couldn’t turn up at The Royal Standard in Walthamstow on a Monday night and just plug in? “It’s not going to happen (laughs). It’s not because we’re being snobby, it’s just that everyone who comes to a Cats in Space show has an expectation of how the show is going to be through hearing the album, and if we don’t meet that expectation they are going to be disappointed. That’s our problem. So we decided to do a tour in fairly decent venues, spend a bit of money on it… maybe nobody will turn up, we don’t know yet. But if we’re going to do it, even if only a hundred people turn up in a five hundred seater theatre, at least those hundred people will see the band on a big stage with a production of some sort. We’ve got very grand ideas, but we don’t yet quite have the fan base or budget to do it”.
I’ve seen clips of the band playing live at the Half Moon pub in Putney and there’s definitely a latent power in the performance that needs venting on a big stage. It’s not heaviness, it’s more the grandeur of the sound. “Yes, and we can’t contain it on a stage that size. (bassist) Jeff Brown is a one man show on his own, before you get to (vocalist) Paul Manzi in the centre of the stage… Steevi Bacon’s one of the most visual drummers you’ll ever see. We’re all fifty year olds but we’ll all run around like idiots if we get the chance. But you’ve got to be so lucky to get out of that situation”.
Now to move into slightly more ephemeral territory, you’ve said that you play music very much for that demographic of people who grew up in the seventies; I’ve mad a little list of songs from that era that I’d love to hear Cats in Space playing. I’m wondering what you’re going to make of these suggestiions. “This will be interesting because we’ve actually got our own little list of things we’d like to do”.
Well, let’s see if our lists coincide. First up: City Boy – 5-7-0-5. “Yeah, Mutt Lange. To be honest I want a song like 5-7-0-5 on the next album! That would be a monster cover and it has been mentioned already. Very good call. City Boy are a huge, huge influence”.
Number two is Touch – Don’t You Know What Love Is. “Oh my goodness. I was in talks with (Touch keyboardist/allround AOR God) Mark Mangold before the album was recorded. We were going to do a song together. I emailed him the basis of a song but it never quite happened. I should touch base with him again. I bought that album purely on spec because it was in a sale. I put in on and when that song kicks off, Christ on a bike… That album is one of the blueprint AOR albums. I think from my perpective it’s too eighties for Cats in Space whereas 5-7-0-5 is bullseye and then some”.
Fair enough. My third selection is Sad Café – My Oh My. “Oh, wrong choice! Funnily enough I was listening to that album (Facades from 1979) two days ago but you’ll never get me away from Everyday Hurts. Top five ballad. My Oh My is a good song but I don’t like the Mick Jaggerisms on the vocal on that song. The chorus is too Rolling Stones for me. Good song, but we’re not doing that!”
OK, I’ll cross that off the list then. Next is Boston – A Man I’ll Never Be. “Genius. To be honest I’ve probably nicked that chorus chord progression about ten times already in one way or another! That’s another beauty. The thing is Paul Manzi can sing that. I know what his top note is. He can sing the top note on More Than a Feeling too. Personally I think Don’t Look Back is a better song, I think the guitar sound on that is phenomenal. But A Man I’ll Never Be is a good song. Not as good as 5-7-0-5, mind”…
Obviously not! The last one I’ve picked is a bit obvious – John Miles – Music. “I play that every night in the seventies show so I must have played that 500 times already! Jeff Brown’s played it, Steevi Bacon’s played it… the only person in the band who hasn’t played it is (guitarist) Dean Howard and he’ll learn it. Paul Manzi’s sung it when he’s depped for the seventies show. The place goes nuts, it takes the roof off. It’s one of those things where if Cats in Space had to do an hour and a half set tomorrow, Music would go in the set and we’d do it. It’s phenomenal. You could say that we’re three quarters of the way down the road to putting that in the live show”.
Well, I got two out of five. “I’ll add a couple more to your list – Burn on the Flame by The Sweet which we close the set with, and the other one is, and I’m not sure if it will ever happen, is a song called Last Night I Wrote a Letter by Starz off of Coliseum Rock. That’s the daddy”. I was going to throw in Boys in Action by Starz. “Phenomenal song”.
And finally – Any chance of a trip down under at any point? “We’d love to come to Australia, we’d come tomorrow and I think it would be a good market for us. We’ve had a lot of interest from Australia already, mainly on the back of your amazing write-up that you did last year, and if anyone would like to bring us down then please let us know”.
Promoters of Australia reading this – make it so.