NO FLY ZONE
The carefully considered questions from Zelda Greystoke Smythe for No Fly Zone made it clear that she had really listened to the record, and were both fun and thought provoking.
Here is the full interview: From August 22, 2019
An Exclusive Interview With Alpha Cat
Posted on August 22, 2019 by Zelda Greystoke-Smythe
Like any other good cat, Alpha Cat has been blessed with 9 lives. She takes some time out from her busy schedule to field a few questions for our readers here at The No Fly Zone Magazine and discuss the past, present, and future, as well as what lies ahead in life for her and her music.
NFZ: In the entertainment business you’re professionally known as Alpha Cat.
What’s the story behind the name?
AC: Originally, my first groups’ name was Meerkat, because I had seen and photographed a meerkat at a zoo back in the day, and was a bit obsessed with them. So I was designing the package for Real Boy with that name in mind, because I had a really cool shot of one that I wanted to use. But as I worked on it I actually didn’t like the way the word looked, so I tried a few different things, and Alpha Cat looked cool. Then I got my first real band together, and ended up with a band with three girls and two boys, and it made a lot of sense, with the connotation of female empowerment, and also the priority I had grown to give to intuition, or you might say the yin energy, over the masculine or yang energy. You might guess from my terminology that I’m into some spiritual stuff, and you would be right.
NFZ: Over the years you’ve been both a professional photographer as well as a musician. How did those two artistic lines converge and cross for you?
AC: I actually started out photographing bands in Boston, because I loved music so much and just wanted to be around the people who made it. I couldn’t even begin to believe that I had any musical talent or right to be considered a musician, with no training, and my only musical background being that of a serious music fan. But I somewhat secretly began writing songs right out of college, and did one wedding gig in New Jersey with a couple of friends. The drummer didn’t even know the songs, and I was scared to death, and after the first song I heard one of the guests say, “that was the worst thing I’ve ever heard in my life!” Not encouraging. But after moving to the New York area, I eventually got up the guts to do an open mic, and then more, and eventually my guitar teacher at the time, Rich Feridun, volunteered to play gigs with me. That was a real jolt, that he would believe in the songs of an untrained musician enough to put himself out there with me. And then I started recording demos, and continued to try to get work in New York as a photographer. When I started getting calls for New York gigs for my music and the photography started drying up, it became kind of a no-brainer.
NFZ: You have a new album out called Thatched Roof Glass House. I understand that record’s been a long time in the making. Care to share the history of it with our readers?
AC: I went out to L.A. after Christmas in 2005, and started recording in early 2006. I had gigged in LA with the drummer, Jason Smith, a number of times, and had developed a great working relationship with him and a friendship. So I really wanted to make my next record with him. He was the source of my connections with the other musicians on the record, originally titled Venus Smile, and we got fifteen instrumental tracks and seven of the vocal tracks down, before I had a very serious breakdown, and were unable to complete the record. My father had died a few years before, and I had already started to fall into a depression, but was still functional at that point. Then the rather screwed up ending of a romantic situation kind of finished me off, and I found myself trying to lay down a vocal in the studio and unable to get a decent track. I broke down crying at that point and it was all downhill from there. So then years of treatment followed, suicidality, hospitalizations, ECT, you name it. No relief. Then in 2013 I started this then experimental ketamine infusion treatment, and finally started to feel good enough to book some gigs in London with my friend Chris Butler supporting me. But literally no one came, to two gigs, two years in a row, and I started to fall back on drinking to deal with the anxiety and disappointment. It wasn’t until early this year that I realized I needed to get sober. And I rapidly got better after that (which I could also explain astrologically, but I won’t get into it here). And then, after years of being urged to put out the finished songs as its own record, as opposed to putting out the full 15 song Venus Smile, and resisting, it suddenly became to seem like a good idea. I contacted Brett Thorngren, mixer, mastering engineer extraordinaire who had mixed the songs for me years previously, and he had just come across the tracks weeks before. He was totally onboard and excited, and that got me excited. So he remixed everything again, with fantastic results, and here we are. To this day I have no memory of recording five of those vocals. It’s been something of a miracle, the way everything and everyone has come together on this.
NFZ: You have an incredible line-up of musicians that worked with you on
Thatched Roof Glass House. Please tell us who they are, what they did your recording and what it was like to work with them.
AC: As I mentioned, I had worked with the drummer Jason Smith before, and he was extremely enthusiastic about and supportive of my songs. It was he who hooked me up with Doug Pettibone on guitar, and Reggie McBride on bass. I met Jon Mattox, who engineered the recordings, through a mutual friend. He was a drummer himself and an accomplished engineer in his own right, and really knew how to record the rhythm musicians in particular (as well as playing some drums and percussion on some of the tracks that will be completed later, for Venus Smile.) Doug had played for a long time with Lucinda Williams, who I adored, and Reggie I only knew had at one time worked for Elton John. Their musicianship, as far as my experience went, was unsurpassed. Doug showed up at the studio the first day with a literal truckload of guitars, and used most of them. At the time, I had started on Prozac, which made it very difficult for me to play the acoustic guitar, so I taught him all my parts, and he recorded most of them for me. Jason was particularly in love with a song called Wichita, which will end up now on the next record, but he insisted on bringing in this huge ass drum which he felt was absolutely necessary for the song. Total dedication! And Reggie was really quiet, so I didn’t get to know him well, but he absolutely nailed everything he did.
NFZ: The lyrics of you music appear to be about the dichotomies in life. Is that true?
AC: In some ways, but I would actually call it more of a dialectical approach (a term I learned in film class!) where two seemingly unrelated concepts come together to form an entirely new entity. I guess Mockingbird seems to be about dichotomy, but it’s actually more of a sarcastic, devil’s advocate way of saying we can’t, and shouldn’t, try to be anyone but who we are. And Mona Lisa in a Comic Book is really about people having much more potential than they believe or realize that they do.
NFZ: This is the third record you’ve released as Alpha Cat since the 1990s. Which one is your favorite and why?
AC: Well, I don’t have any children, but I imagine it is like having three children. You love them all equally in different ways and for different reasons. Real Boy was super exciting because it was my first, and the first time I got to see the potential in what could happen when collaborating with other people who were more accomplished and talented than I was. Plus, it was originally meant to be only a demo, and when it did so well on college radio that was a real shock and beyond gratifying. Pearl Harbor was the first record I recorded with a band that I had actually been playing the songs out with, and was basically a concept album, as well as my first full length. So I got to stretch out with it and try some ideas that I hadn’t had the chance to before. As for this one, it seems to be the reward that has come at the end of a very long, very dark period. And I have come back to the people and relationships that I have nurtured over the last years, and once I decided to do it, everything has seemed to fall magically in place.
NFZ: You’ve had many personal struggles over the years. How have these struggles influenced your music?
AC: Even though I went through my own personal hell, it seems to have added a depth and intensity that were hinted at in Pearl Harbor, but not yet fully realized. Plus, I have utilized and embraced a long time obsession that I have had with the use of metaphor that started with my creative photography in graduate school.
NFZ: Are you involved in any political causes or charitable actives? If so, which ones and what do they do, or hope to achieve?
AC: While I have very strong beliefs and opinions about everything from the current government, of which I am extremely far from being a fan, to the environmental crisis and the #MeToo movement, I don’t feel that that is what my work is about. So while I will certainly retweet posts that I agree with on occasions where I feel particularly strongly, I don’t want anything that I might have to say to be only accessible to either one side or the other. Because the songs are more about life and personal struggles which I believe to be applicable to more than just one party or gender or sexual identity. As for charity, I give to animal causes, Heifer International, where they give animals to people not to eat, but for milk. I like that. And a few others that I can’t recall at the moment.
NFZ: If you had the power to change anything in the entertainment industry, what would it be?
AC: I will just say that the approach that I personally am taking is to be fiercely independent and to not have my work be about me, but about the message that I am trying to convey. While marketing is essential to reach the audience, it is not about making money for me. I’m certainly not going to trademark or try to monetize my cats, for example. They are too precious to me. Nor will I ever take money for promoting something I particularly resonate with. I’m not sure I would ever do that any differently. I just don’t need money that badly. Nor do I have any intention of developing a fragrance, for example. I know nothing about it, and don’t know why anyone would buy a product simply because someone famous has put their name on it.
NFZ: Any particular artists you’d care to work with in the future?
AC: I’ve had to think about this a bit, and there is something I’d like to say before answering in specifics. I think that a good portion of the collaborations today are merely about expanding a fan base in order to make more money, and the result is a lot of weak, watered down work. While saying that, I will add that there are also some particularly successful ones, like what I’ve seen Halsey do recently, and pretty much anything Rihanna does with anyone, be it Eminem or Calvin Harris. So while I have never actually written a song with another person, that is, lyrics and melody, there are a few people with which I think it would be interesting to try. I really love a lot of Sia’s stuff, and Elastic Heart is one of those songs that I wish I had written. And I am a huge fan of Beck, in fact, when I wrote Black Hole, I consciously tried to adapt his style of writing in largely metaphorical terms, and it turned out to be a really good fit for me. And I have always been a sucker for an extremely well crafted pop song, so I wouldn’t say no to Justin Bieber, even though I strongly prefer the stuff he has written on his own to any of the collaborations he has put out. I adore Troye Sivan, both for his proud individuality and his songwriting. And I love me some Peter Gabriel. I just rediscovered Digging in the Dirt. Just brilliant!
NFZ: What is something about you that your fans don’t know and would probably be a surprise to them?
AC: That I have studied astrology for pretty much my entire adult life, and love doing people’s charts for them. It really allows me to tap into my intuitive side. And I have written a couple columns over the years as well.
NFZ: How can people follow and stay in touch with you?
AC: At this point my website is being revamped, so I’m not sure when it will be back online yet. So as of now, https://www.facebook.com/alphacatband is where I post any new music, videos or news, as well as stuff that I am particularly into, such as theater, comedy, other people’s music, and other stuff I come across, be it funny things I see in everyday life, or outings I found enjoyable. All that stuff is also posted on https://twitter.com/AlphaCatBand and https://www.instagram.com/alphacatband. And I have music and videos up on https://www.reverbnation.com/alphacat1, while the tracks for the new album are up for streaming on https://soundcloud.com/user-309827301, so people don’t have to buy them to listen to them unless they want to. There is also an Alpha Cat Youtube channel now with a couple of videos up, with more to come.
Thanks to Musique Magazine for this enjoyable interview, I actually learned something about myself in the process…
Here is the full interview: By Nick Gibson, Published on August 22, 2019
Interview with Multi-Talented Music Artist “Alpha Cat"
Elizabeth, please tell us about yourself and your alter ego, Alpha Cat.
Alter ego is a funny way of putting it! It was not my original intent to have one since that name came about when I was first working and recording with a band. It’s just that the bands kind of came and went and there were these records out that got a bit of attention, so the name stuck. Originally, my first groups’ name was Meerkat, because I had seen and photographed a meerkat at a zoo back in the day, and was a bit obsessed with them. So, I was designing the package for Real Boy with that name in mind, because I had a really cool shot of one that I wanted to use.
But as I worked on it I actually didn’t like the way the word looked, so I tried a few different things, and Alpha Cat looked cool. Then I got my first real band together, (as the record was already charting on college radio,) I ended up with a band with three girls and two boys, and it made a lot of sense, with the connotation of female empowerment, and also the priority I had grown to give to intuition, or you might say the yin energy, over the masculine or yang energy. You might guess from my terminology that I’m into some spiritual stuff, like the I Ching and astrology, and you would be right.
How long have you been involved professionally with music?
Well, I would use the term “professionally” loosely. When I first started gigging and recording, and when I first started to get airplay, I had a CD, but I didn’t even have a website or any way to sell it. And I booked our first Alpha Cat tour myself, with no experience or knowledge of really how to do any of it.
I just booked some gigs in towns where the record was charting, rented a van, and off we went. Needless to say, I did not end up in the black! I made some money off royalties from airplay and from a song I had in a film that ended up on TV ultimately, but I seriously lost money on the whole shebang. I financed the music with two mortgages and a line of credit on the house that I had owned with my ex-husband. And a job.
How did you get your start?
I guess it was that I started writing songs with my then-husband (playing guitar) and rehearsing with a Brit keyboard/bass player named Mick (no lie) and a drummer whose name I can’t recall who insisted on bringing a TV down to the basement where we rehearsed so that he could watch the Cosby Show during rehearsals. I was obviously not having it, and when my husband asked him not to do it, he actually called my husband “whipped!”
Who are some of the musicians you’ve worked with along the way?
While I haven’t been that lucky thus far in terms of monetary profit, because I got my start photographing bands and making friends with some of them, I have been very lucky to have made some connections with some pretty amazing musicians through them along the way. So, people that other people might know: Richard Lloyd and Fred Smith of Television, Matt Johnson, who was Jeff Buckley’s drummer, Doug Pettibone, who worked on this current record, just came off of a tour with John Mayer and had a longtime musical relationship with Lucinda Williams.
But I have to say I have an incredibly soft spot for Angela Babin (guitar), Lori Bingel (bass), and Derek Dragotis (backing vocals), who were in the original Alpha Cat, and are featured in the song Black Hole, for both their musicianship and their long term friendship. And of course, without Jason Smith, who hooked me up with the rest of the musicians on TRGH, this record would have never been made. And he is a phenomenal drummer who I feel privileged to have worked with and to call my friend.
You’ve released several CDs over the years. Could you tell a bit about each one?
Real Boy was originally recorded as a demo with Fred Smith. But we ended up liking it so much that I just thought, well let’s just throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. I found a promoter willing to work the record and having sent out 150 copies to the radio, it ended up beating Beck’s Midnite Vultures and Metallica’s S&M in the add charts for that week. And those two had obviously sent out quite a few more records than me. And it was well-reviewed.
Pearl Harbor was a bit of a concept album, based around the song of that name, which was written in response to a couple of soul-shocking events that had happened in my life, and the realization that Pearl Harbor must have been named that before it was bombed, because there were literally, pearls in the harbor. I tried to imagine what it might take to get back to a place where it became about treasure again, as opposed to destruction. So the CD is really about transformation through tragedy, which is a running theme for me.
And Thatched Roof Glass House was originally meant to be part of a much longer record called Venus Smile. For years, a few of my friends urged me to put these songs out as an EP, but I was adamant that I was not going to do it unless it was the full 15 songs I originally recorded. I just wasn’t willing. And then I was. But the songs on this are about relationships, both with romantic interests, and one about my mother, and there is a song I wrote about my experience on 9/11, which I think I may be forgiven for now that enough time has passed.
Do you have a follow-up record in the works that we can look forward to in the near future?
Well, to be honest, I’ve just relatively recently emerged from a really long time in a really dark place, where I had lost my voice and my ability to do music at all, so I’m going to take a bit of time to get those things back. But the plan as of now is to finish the remaining 8 tracks from Venus Smile, all of which require vocals, and then put that out. Date TBD.
When you’re writing a new song which comes first for you, the music or the lyrics?
I guess I originally started with just writing words, for years. It became a stream of consciousness kind of thing where the words started to create their own lyricality and meaning. So usually words first. That said, I had written the music for the song Pearl Harbor a year before the events that inspired the lyrics even took place. And then when the band had a gig on Pearl Harbor Day, I decided to write a song for it, and the words just came and fit perfectly with the music that had been sitting around all that time.
What’s your preferred process for recording; different musicians in the studio at different times to cut tracks, or getting them all together in the same room at the same time to work as together as an ensemble?
I seem to be most comfortable working one on one with the different musicians in the studio. Then I can make sure and get what I want from them while allowing them to shine in their own special talents. I’m a pretty easy producer and collaborator. But I’ve been very lucky in the people I have worked with.
Any upcoming performances scheduled?
To be determined.
Is there an Alpha Cat web site, or social media sites that our readers can go to check in on what you’re doing?
My website is in the process of being updated. So, the best place to keep up is the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/alphacatband), while there are music and a bio up on Reverbnation, music on Soundcloud, and a couple of videos on Youtube (https://youtu.be/Fyq_FghdFaU), with more to come. And of course, the obligatory Twitter (https://twitter.com/AlphaCatBand) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/alphacatband).