Cougar: “Stay Famous”
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It’s a chilly Sunday afternoon in December, and the members of Cougar are just waking up — in different parts of the country. “It’s 1:00 [p.m.] over here,” says David Henzie-Skogen, the group’s drummer/percussionist and self-appointed ringleader, conference phoning from Madison. “Is it 1:00 [p.m.] down there?” “Yeah, it’s 1:00 [p.m.] down here,” guitarist /synth player Aaron Sleator replies from Austin, where he is a student at the University of Texas School of Architecture. Bassist Todd Hill also is on the call from his home in Chicago.
Formed in 2003 when all five members lived in Madison, the band members now live in cities spanning thousands of miles; in addition to Henzie-Skogen, Sleator, and Hill, Cougar also includes guitarists Dan Venne, who lives in Brooklyn, and Trent Johnson, now in Milwaukee.
Cougar released its debut album, Law, in 2006 on Layered Music, Henzie-Skogen’s own imprint, and quickly caught the attention of American and European critics, who noted the band’s complex, instrumental melodies. Just don’t try calling them the “P word.” “The long and short of it is that we really don’t listen to many post-rock bands at all,” Henzie-Skogen says while laughing.
“People are like, ‘Yeah, [Cougar sounds like] late-period Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky,’ which we’ve all heard, and I think that’s all we can say about them — we’ve heard them. All of us personally enjoy stuff that’s really different, which I’m sure is why the band sounds like it does. Trent is really a through-and-through pop-music guy — music where the hook is the reason for the music, like Hall & Oates and Hendrix.
“I grew up playing a lot of Brazilian music, New Orleans music…Todd studied jazz and classical, and everybody else has played in all kinds of bands from reggae to whatever else, so it’s hard to say that there are specific influences. But it is easy to say that those influences don’t include the post-rock bands that people associate us with, [just] because our music happens to be instrumental music that features guitars.”
With Law, Cougar cultivated a small but enthusiastic audience across the Midwest and Europe. Three years later, the band members found themselves scattered across the country for work, school, or both. Cougar soon attracted the attention of esteemed London label Ninja Tune, which released its sophomore album, Patriot, in September of 2009.
“It’s kind of funny that we’re doing interviews over a conference call, because it feels like a band meeting,” Henzie-Skogen laughs. “For the first record,” Hill says, “we were around each other and basically would just meet in the morning. Everyone had pretty easy schedules at that point. But [Patriot] basically was almost entirely done as an Internet collaboration, as far as basic ideas of songs. We all have simple recording equipment and can record stuff, and Dave acted as the collector. Sometimes the guitar player would fly out to New York to record a guitar part there; it was very piecemeal.”
“It’s probably one of the things that contributed to making it a different record from the first record,” Henzie-Skogen adds. “We started banging our heads together in a room, with the best idea winning out, and we all got to sit there and listen to all these ideas, make all these edits, and argue over thousands of E-mails or occasionally conference calls about what a song should sound like.”
Though the entirety of the album was recorded before the band switched labels, the new Ninja Tune pedigree has already had a galvanizing effect on the band. “For me, it’s just really exciting to see the Ninja logo on the record,” Henzie-Skogen says.
“The most refreshing thing about Ninja is that they’re really honest. They’re not telling us, ‘We’re gonna make you stars’ or whatever. We trust their PR people, we trust what they do, and we like their artists.”
“We keep the music feeling naked as far as production is concerned — you hear all the notes that everybody plays. It makes it really fun and challenging to perform every night, because it’s almost like classical music.”
In the summer of 2009, Cougar launched a 21-city European tour, providing the rare (albeit temporary) chance for all five band members to live, travel, jam, rehearse, and perform together. “It was the best, most successful tour yet,” Henzie-Skogen says.
“The band was playing better than we ever played. It was a nice surprise that people would show up at shows and kind of clap and hoot and holler at the beginning of the song that they liked. It was really refreshing that people had heard a little bit of the music before. We were getting used to playing to blank faces supporting larger bands that are nothing like us, like going out with a pop band like Maximo Park and hoping to win over the pop crowd.”
In addition to providing Cougar with insight into its growing fan base, the European tour also gave the band a chance to reflect on its image and fashion savvy (or lack thereof).
“The first gig of the European tour was in this place in London called the Hoxton right in the heart of this notoriously hip neighborhood,” Henzie-Skogen recalls with amusement. “And Todd had one of the best tour quotes ever while talking about all the kids with cool haircuts: ‘Their haircuts appear to be backwards.’ We’ve had a number of interesting fan encounters posted on the website. ‘If you guys just dressed better or had a singer…’
“But we’ve never been a kind of band that focused more on how we present ourselves, or [try to] look like [we] ought to be famous. We’re the kind of band that books a gig and gets on stage in the clothes that we wore when we got up at 3:00 a.m. in the morning. Maybe that’s a Midwest thing, you know? Why would you change clothes to play music?
“Especially because we’re instrumental, we try to do everything that we can to make sure that the full emphasis is on the aesthetic of the music and not that of us personally. We keep the music feeling naked as far as production is concerned — you hear all the notes that everybody plays, and it’s one of the things that makes it a little different from some other things out there, but it also makes it really fun and challenging to perform every night, because it’s almost like classical music. When you fuck up, everybody knows you’ve fucked up. It keeps it exciting for us.”