We spoke to 7-piece band Tigercats about their latest album Pig City and the creative and thought processes that surrounded its making.
On the first night of a baking weekend in Ramsgate that heralded the Fortuna POP! 20th birthday weekend back in the summer of 2016, Tigercats took to the stage and in a move both fantastically contrarian and incredibly brave played a set consisting entirely of brand new material. Bold and confident, the new songs were framed around the addition of the kalimba – an African thumb piano – and had a sonic depth that built on their mature and rich-sounding second album Mysteries and injected an extra dose of energy into the mix. Watching that night it was noticeable how they kept their audience rapt despite exclusively playing them material they didn’t know, but nor was it surprising. It was the sound of a band channelling their inner ambition and running a mile with it, and few sights in music remain as striking or pertinent.
The record that would emerge from that burst of songwriting, Pig City, came out earlier this year and as we speak while snugly ensconced in a bar fashioned form an old railway carriage and with the main sight out of its windows being people frantically scurrying to Indietracks’ indoor stage, it’s undeniable that the climes are miles away from that South coast standout two years prior. But much more has changed besides. The line-up, already expanded on that evening back in 2016 with added brass, has now grown further to the extent that when we meet the band have to spread over two tables – although it’s the core members of Barrett brothers Giles and Duncan along with guitarist Paul Rains and keyboardist Laura Kovic who handle speaking duties.
“It was the sound of a band channelling their inner ambition and running a mile with it, and few sights in music remain as striking or pertinent.”
Pig City sounds totally different to its predecessor, and line-up changes excepted a lot of that comes from its birthing process. Ask anyone in the band about the process of making Mysteries and they’ll quickly tell you of how drawn out it became. Corkscrew-haired bassist (and producer) Giles Barrett is especially outspoken about it, explaining how it affected his relationship with the finished record as “the experience of making it didn’t tally with our expectations because it too so fucking long…we started mixing it and exploring new ideas and long story short, it took three years and we were pretty much done with it by the end. So we made the next one differently.” But the notion of making it ‘differently’ shouldn’t necessarily be conflated with making it more swiftly. Paul Rains laughs when the idea is put forward rebuffing it with an emphatic “No!” before reasoning that “but in this instance we’ve had some line-up changed, which I guess has affected things.” Giles Barrett looks at him and, with a tone that borders on the concerned, asks “but that was part of what was so exciting about it, no?” to which Rains responds with a carefree shrug and an agreement of “oh yeah, at the same time.”
Pig City continues Tigercats’ habit of retaining their core elements and aesthetic but wrapping it in a completely new style on each album. While their latest record is the model of brash and energetic determination it follows on from a rich, multi-layered and contemplative pop record (Mysteries) which in turn was the successor to the knockabout charm of debut Isle Of Dogs. They often seem like a band acting on a self-created mission to constantly challenge and develop themselves on each record, and talking to them about it does little to dispel that notion. “There’s no point in trying to make the same record twice,” summarises chief songwriter Duncan Barrett, matter-of-factly, “and I don’t see the point in recording if you’re not questioning what you’re going to do differently.”
For Paul Rains, it’s never a mindset that’s contrived and instead is something that feeds off the musical flexibility that continues to make Tigercats such an interesting and exciting proposition. “I think it’s something quite intuitive though and I don’t think there’s ever been a plan to specifically try and do something that was especially different. I think the people in the band have been evolving too . That sounds really bad, but as people get better at playing or listen to different kinds of music and start to explore new ideas then it becomes more natural. Everyone in Tigercats contributes a lot in that regard because everyone’s quite fluid and no-one’s stuck in any one genre of music or are hemmed in by an idea of one particular thing that they ought to make.” For Giles Barrett, it’s a mindset that for him personally has been hewn from his experience of recording and producing at London’s Soup Studios, as he stridently details how through his studio work he’s arrived at a point where “it’s really important to me to put something on record that no-one else has done before, because I’d rather be at home having pizza than doing that, frankly. The important thing about being in a band is doing something new and exciting.”
“There are two ways to approach playing music, one is to go away in a room and practice really hard, and then unleash it into the world. Or you do it the other way around”
It would be easy to assume that their decision to play sets of entirely new material for the past two years came from the same never-ending quest of development and evolution, but in actual fact it comes from a place of pragmatism, at least in part. The loss of longtime drummer Jonny Evans necessitated a rethink – Duncan Barrett describes how, thanks to his forceful style, he “dominated the sound of the band in a lot of ways, and when he left we reached a point where we were done with what we’d done before” – and the idea of teaching their incumbent drummer the old material alongside their latest compositions seemed a fruitless exercise. But the band also concede that the honing the songs in a live setting before hitting the studio is also a part of their conscious decision making, on one hand at odds with the process favoured by most musicians but on the other allows the songs to develop and form in an environment which they’d have to be translated to at some point or other in any case. “There are two ways to approach playing music,” explains Paul Rains, “one is to go away in a room and practice really hard, and then unleash it into the world. Or you do it the other way around, and for me the latter makes for a far more real-life situation and you’re playing it in an environment that it’ll be heard in, rather than some boxy room playing only to each other.”
Spend any time with Pig City and it quickly becomes apparent that the band’s strategy has paid off handsomely. The album-closing quasi-lullaby ‘So Stupid’ excepted, it’s a record that feels vital and energised without ever feeling overwhelming. From the straight-ahead charge of ‘Eucalyptus II’ and determined driving soundtrack-in-waiting ‘Tropical Disease’ through to the percussive and effervescent ‘Perfect Fried Chicken’ and insidiously anthemic ‘’Planet Thanet’, Pig City has the air of an accomplished record that’s been meticulously thought out. Looking back, even the band have been caught off guard with what they’ve made, with Laura Kovic laughing as she recounts how the record’s high-energy feel put them at a point where “we recorded some songs we’d listen back to them and think ‘woah, that song is wild!’
“an idea would surface that would leave you thinking ‘that’s exciting, let’s see where that other door leads”
Duncan Barrett goes on to explain how the writing process was one that was largely unplanned, allowing them to revel in the possibilities of experimentation, with Paul Rains adding that “an idea would surface that would leave you thinking ‘that’s exciting, let’s see where that other door leads’ and seemingly everything we did started to open up new possibilities.” Both of the Barrett brothers single out Rains’ contributions for special mention, with Giles mentioning – with something of a wry smile – how they “pushed Paul into new areas so much that when it came to working out how to play them live he’d be looking at me going ‘how the fuck did I do that?!’” For Rains’ part, the collaborative process that permeated the record was something he threw himself into, describing how a lot of Duncan’s early demos predominantly featured “quite electronic sounds, and I’d hear the sounds that were in there and thought it could be quite interesting to try and recreate some of those sounds on guitar. It’s challenging because it’s a fine line between it being good or being really terrible…”
But while Pig City is the sound of a band celebrating the near infinite possibilities inherent in making music, it’s also got a darker subtext. Back in 2016, for Fortuna POP!’s Continental Drift compilation EP, the band released ‘Rent Control’, a blast of relentless and barely controlled fury that hinted of a creeping dissatisfaction with London that culminated in a line that talked of how “our friends are talking of emigrating”. In Pig City standout ‘Stay Out Of Limehouse’ they have something that they refer to as a thematic sequel to ‘Rent Control’, and a song which Duncan Barrett explains came from “some EDL marches that were taking part in London a while back, and the anger of having to defend our community from these outside elements. I can’t remember exactly which horrific news event set off my train of thought but suddenly this song that I’d been trying to write for years presented itself.”
Brother Giles visibly tenses at the mention of the inspirational events, turning to Duncan for confirmation as he asks ‘Wasn’t it when they marched on Altad Ali Park?” before turning back to me with a faced etch with total incandescence and admitting that “It’s quite hard to talk about because it makes me so fucking angry, but they marched on a park that was named after someone who was killed in a racist attack, but thankfully there was some antifascist protestors who held them back. It reminded me of Cable Street and the battle against Oswald Moseley’s blackshirts – it felt like a more up to date version of that.” Duncan chimes in to add, in a tone of utter disbelief, how “there was a time when we thought ‘do we need to be writing anti-fascist songs?’ – it didn’t feel like a pressing thing to do, and then suddenly it became a matter of ‘of course it is, and of course we need to be saying these things’”
The band’s principled nature is matched only by their relentless ambition, and it’s perhaps little wonder that they’re already looking firmly to the future, with a live date at The Lexington in December already a point of focus. In the meantime, Duncan Barrett notes that they’ve yet to record the current line-up on record yet – the roster having changed after the album’s recording session – and has desires set on recording an EP and capturing this particular chapter of the band’s constantly evolving story sooner rather than later.
Whatever Tigercats’ immediate future holds it will doubtless be exciting, and the creative process will have been as fun as the finished product doubtless will be to listen to.