It all comes together:
An interview with King Of Cats
by Tom Johnson
Next Monday, December 8th, sees the release of ‘Working Out‘ – the tremendous new album from King Of Cats. The solo project of one Max Levy, the full record has been a long-time-coming but feels like one of the most perfectly-placed releases of the year, a heartening, exhilarating gasp of fresh air just as 2014 is stuttering to a close.
Ahead of the release we spoke to Max about his craft, the record he’s made and what all this all means to him. Accompanying the interview are three, self-filmed, videos of Max playing some stripped-back tracks from ‘Working Out‘ – and you can check it all out below.
Hi Max. 2014 is drawing to a close, do you feel like getting reflective yet?
2014 has been largely confusing. I recorded an album, went on tour with Playlounge (!) and spent some time working as a marine lock keeper.I also feel like I am finally becoming an adult, which has caused great confusion.The people that live in my brain have formed a union ,and I must deal with constant picketing.
Why do you feel like you’re becoming an adult? Is it because you’ve made a real album?
I think the album does have something to do with it. At the time I recorded it, I was very much into the idea of performing as a kind of visceral release, and recorded an album that reflected that. The album seems to exist as a sort of personal and artistic way-point for me. When I listen to it ,my change over the last year is very visible. I look back and I see ‘King Of Cats‘ as embodying a very teenage version of myself, content that my wishes and disappointments should be presented as a construct that was inevitable. Recording the album neatly fitted into a watershed type moment that I had musically and otherwise. Kind of a last gasp of teenage energy before beginning something new.
Did you know that at the time – that the songs would be a kind of under-lining? Does that come through in the songs?
The album was recorded last December in three days. I think at the time I knew that some kind of change was due, but I couldn’t visualise it. I had started writing songs for another album – which is to be called microwave oven- and slowly decided it would be good to do things differently. The songs on working out are a representation of my feelings (or feelings that I was scared to have) more so than my ideas. I think it was pretty important to me to have recorded it then. I don’t think I could represent the album as genuinely in recording now, what with being preoccupied with more ideas. I really think the record is telling of how I approached music before. My desire was to create something genuine and exposed. Throughout my early teens until a couple of years ago, I didn’t engage at all really with scenes or networks that were supportive of ideas. They were there, but I didn’t engage with them or learn about them. I just booked shows and got booed off stage, and embraced a kind of ‘local oddball’ persona. I developed a kind of strange confidence in my feelings, but found myself frustrated with how it was being received. Working out is more of an expression of frustrations that came about during that period. Friction between how somebody views themselves and how they are viewed by others fascinated me, because it seemed to me to be the most all encompassing awkwardness.
I guess I wanted to ask about feeling like an outsider in terms of the music you make. I think in the single review I wrote I called you ‘important’ without really knowing why I felt that way. Do you think there’s any importance in making music?
I think making music is incredibly important. In many ways, I am definitely not an outsider. I am a white guy from Ealing. EALING! I think I have made things more awkward for myself, which I don’t regret at all. Musically, this seemed to come about naturally. Partially this was because I had no idea what I was doing, right from the beginning. I had no real background in music, and I started playing as King of Cats when I couldn’t sing, couldn’t play any instruments and didn’t know how other people wrote songs. I would usually write about three terrible songs a day. I didn’t listen to much good music, but wanted to make music more than anything.
I think I was an outsider during the first few years because I was too scared to engage with anything positive, and saw making music as an extension of the regular world, which I wasn’t a fan of. I made music that was very messy and invasive, and very, very unpopular. I guess now I am not a true outsider musically – in that I am lucky enough to have met some like-minded people, but I like to think that I have taken the experiences I had as one to heart, and that they sort of push me into thinking of things that initially might seem too awkward or overwhelming.
How did Reeks of Effort come about and how big an impact has that had on you?
Reeks of Effort was started by Max Warren and Alex Evans. By the time I met them they had already put out a ‘zine, and were thinking about putting tapes out. I met Owen from Joanna Gruesome whilst we were at university, and started going to shows and putting stuff on with the Cardiff lot. We put on a big party in an abandoned swimming pool, went on tour and generally helped each other out, as we still do. It was the first time I had engaged with a really supportive group of musicians that thought about processes in vaguely the same way as me and it felt very empowering. Having a group of friends that can help you out means that it is possible to act rationally and -as much as possible- ethically whilst putting music out and going on tour. From what I can see, rational and ethical decisions are not a top priority for many groups of musicians, which I guess is an inevitability when the ‘song’ has been commercialised in parallel with the idea of the ‘artist’. DIY culture is not without its oversights and I do not think it is a revolutionary culture so much as a recognition of what is great about music and what is poison and the filtering out of the latter. Reeks of Effort is incredibly important to me in that sense. My ROE sailboat tattoo sits with a kind of wonky pride on my arm.
What kind of record have you made? What can folks expect from it?
The record is reasonably simple musically. I was pretty set at the time of making everything quite simple. Again, I think I was quite fixated with the idea of a ‘genuine’ representation of feelings which I found too complicated to express clearly. I am proud of the simple melodies on songs like ‘Ulcers‘. I really love melody and the way it acts as a kind of triggering tie throughout songs. It is quite a yelpy album, in that I do a lot of yelping. It was more tempered though. Sometimes when I used to play live I would find myself constantly yelping and squealing and convulsing, and I would stop playing and regret it and feel embarrassed.
Lyrically it only seemed natural to make an album loosely based around frictions between ideas of a body, because that was what I had loosely been obsessing over for a large portion of my life. I think it will feel good to attempt to write less songs about it now. ‘Working Out‘ sort of helped me work some stuff out.
Do you feel proud of the record? Is your music something that you take pride in?
That is an odd one. Usually I am very proud of what I have done for a short while. After a bit I start to rip apart what I have done in a reasonably brutal fashion.I can think of hundreds of things I would like to change, but the album wouldn’t exist as it does if I simply kept trashing and re-hashing my ideas. I don’t think there has been an achievement in my life that I have not managed to belittle after a while. This applies to ‘Working Out’. I recorded it, was extremely happy with it , and then somehow just kind of convinced myself I should hate it. I have found a happy medium now. I know I am proud of the record, but I also use my doubts about it to kind of mould my image of another album. I think often pride shouldn’t matter too much in the creative field, but then again, I would say that wouldn’t I?
Do you feel yourself learning things about yourself through music? How does your writing process work?
I guess I do learn about myself but I think it is largely to do with the frustrations surrounding the writing and performing and recording of music, instead of the music itself, if that makes any sense.
What are those frustrations?
I guess all of the stuff I was talking about earlier: Regretting stuff, not liking stuff, the general mess of having to represent oneself.
What’s your writing process?
There isn’t really a set one. Oftentimes an image will ferment in my thoughts for a long time, and then I’ll just sit down and expand it. Other times, I do it whilst fiddling with a keyboard or guitar. I think my favourite time to write is when I am in a kind of toddler-esque heightened state, and I just fill pages. Nothing good ever comes of that one, but I do like the way it feels.
Ok, tell us a little bit about the accompanying videos – what are we watching here?
Sure! I am just doing them for fun. Now I am unemployed,making a video is a nice way of using up a few hours that would otherwise just be spent watching ISIS propaganda. I am pretty bad at time management. I enjoy playing the songs in a more stripped back fashion, and I enjoy the silliness of it all. I just like doing something with my week. This week: making videos that revolve around giant papier-mache arms and yelping. Also, I enjoyed making the ‘theme tune’ a great deal.I love theme tunes.You must have seen ‘Fishing with John’ yeah? That has the greatest ever theme tune.
Are all of these tracks on the new record? Also, what’s your favourite track on the new record?
Ah yes, I should have mentioned, they are all versions of songs from Working Out!
Favourite song wise: that changes pretty frequently. Probably Ulcers at the moment. ‘Ulcers’ was the most fun to play for sure. I do like melodies, I do. I like how simple it is. Probably one of the first times I tried writing a pop song based around a melody. Actually, I don’t know why i like it. I definitely do though.
Finally, what are you hoping 2015 brings?
I am mainly hoping that me and Oliver Catt follow a beautiful mountain stream to it’s source. I am also hoping that we will bathe in the crystal clear water, feeling accomplished and using strawberry scented soap. I am also hoping that my next album ‘microwave oven’ all goes to plan. I have lots of plans for it. Lastly, I just want to see my friends more. Where did they all go? Leeds? Bristol? Oxford?
Debut LP ‘Working Out‘ is released 8th December, via Art Reeks