By Mitchell Ryan

The Native Cats Review: Streetlights, Breadcrumbs and Power Plays

A four-way intersection, somewhere between 9 and 11pm on a weeknight—the occasional car passes but most people are in their homes readying themselves for the following work day, watching current affairs reports or reality TV, reading, scrolling through social media networks, or else have settled into the rhythms of a nightshift in a hospital or late-night fast food chain. Uninhibited by pedestrians, it is at this time that the buttons affixed to the traffic lights on each corner chatter. Each button emits a constant toc, regular in frequency but ultimately out of sync with the other lights in its system. What results is a back-and-forth; a discussion where the buttons phase in and out of conversation with one another. Standing on one of the corners of this intersection, it is possible to eavesdrop on this discourse—an unintelligible, absurd language that seems to reach a rhythmic pattern before yet again descending into a babble of tocs. But these sounds also intersect with the rhythms of the surrounding street: the clicking of a car indicator waiting at the lights, the chirping of a cricket, the ticking of a watch, the beating of a pulse.

A four-note bassline
your blood flows in a figure 8
it’s a system, it’s a process, it’s a compromise

Left to its own devices, this system would continue to ramble until someone pressed one of the buttons, sending it a message that they wished to cross the road. The fleshy presence of a body—a circuit of veins, arteries, and capillaries; cords, neurons, and synapses; blood, piss, and shit; windpipes, trachea, and bronchi—interrupts the discussion. Two networks momentarily cross like a Venn diagram. As the lights change and the walk signal is illuminated the buttons let off a flurry of rapid tocs before settling back into their regular communications.

*

From the press release (to buck the dominant music writing logic: why rewrite when you can repost verbatim?):

“Tasmanian electronic pub rock iconoclasts the Native Cats have, after ten years, become completely unmoored. Chloe Alison Escott read Nevada, spun out into an unplanned gender crisis, then finally transitioned, changed her name and became one of those true authentic selves you hear about on the news; Julian Teakle read The Big Midweek, stopped writing Peter Hook bass lines and started writing Steve Hanley ones instead. Metamorphosis! Tumult! [… The album is] about queer isolation and loneliness, transfiguration, the ways that lives and relationships continue after they’ve been altered; it’s also about digital spaces, the US Republican Party in the second half of the 20th century, and James M. Cain’s opera-scene noir Serenade, the origin of the album’s title.”

John Sharp Toro is The Native Cats’ fourth full-length record but is re-imagined as a debut in the liner notes: Chloe sez: “This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative.” They still play older songs live. There’s still a common musical thread connecting the band to its past: Teakle’s driving basslines, metronomic drums, wry vocal delivery, Nintendo DS operated synth software, melodica, extra vocals provided by Claire McCarthy, Emma Marson, and Lisa Rime (all of whom have appeared at one time or another on a previous Native Cats release). Yet where machines once provided the rhythmic base, Sarah Hennies has tracked live drums all the way from New York, digitally traversing the (what Google informs me) 16,604 km to Hobart.

The most significant shift that has influenced this album is Escott’s “unplanned gender crisis” and transition. Her recent article in TEMPERED Vol. 2, “Ballad of the Native Cats”, as well as an irregular blog on an “ought-oughts”-esque designed website, both describe the intersection between her transition and the writing and recording of John Sharp Toro. I can’t speak to Escott’s experience (or any transgender experience), but I do think it’s fruitful to explore some of the entwined themes of the album; how the band suggests a reimagining of the relationship between the body and the technology that mediates our existence.

*

and I left a breadcrumb trail when I stole, did I not?

Laid out on a turntable, the needle follows the grooves from the outside edge of the record to the label in the centre, before being flipped over and repeated. While the audio information is read by the technology in such a linear fashion, what is emitted by the speakers is anything but. Escott’s lyrics are labyrinthine—winding through literary references as far ranging as Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, James M. Cain’s Serenade, and Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland. She drops in mention of Forex trading strategies and how music rose in volume as it was mastered for CD. Among it all are samples of the Woodland Secrets podcast, live show bootlegs, and field recordings.

This is a winding breadcrumb trail—perhaps from a loaf of multi-grain bread and by no means stale. Seeds, kernels, and crumbs spell out a path that you follow. It’s impossible to put the loaf back together, but each morsel fuels further wandering or perhaps lays temporarily dormant, germinating for the near future.

*

we are theory
we are concept
we are dark and deliberate shapes
on the walls of a heritage home

we have dimensions
to be observed and to be touched and to be vice-gripped
and we have depth and gravity
to be suggested and indefinitely delayed.

As theorists (Donna Haraway , Norbert Weiner), artists (Laurie Anderson, Nam June Paik), writers (Kenneth Goldsmith, Amanda Stewart), and others (this is not even a partial list),  have long attested, the body is situated in a world that is increasingly mediated by technology and information. John Sharp Toro positions The Native Cats squarely within this pantheon. But the album also delineates a certain political drive—the opening up of new ways to live by experimenting with the social and technological structures of the everyday: data compression, cattle call, they can’t tone you anymore. In a world where we are increasingly living across physical and digital selves, we are constantly butting up against the control apparatuses of those who hold power: algorithms, cookies, automation, etc. The Native Cats give us a means of not only recognising the ways that such control plays upon bodies, but how we can read these webs of power to learn anew.

This happens not only through the lyrics, but Escott’s trademark stylistic delivery—an ironic smirk, a willingness to bend language yet also remain direct in delivery. But beyond style, there is an interest in reformulating the ways in which language and technology establish and reinforce pre-existing power structures.

and I’m playing with power
I’m playing with power
I’m playing with power
I’m playing with power
I’m plain, with power
I’m plain as a sunflower

By playing with, rather than on, words, Escott shows us not only how such an act is political, but how speaking is fundamentally entwined with power. This play has the ability to open up new ways of approaching language, information, and the body itself. Such an opening challenges the protocols that process cultural and personal information, which are all too often set in a manner that enable lazy and harmful universalisms, essentialisms, and binaries.

Of course, the existences that are led by, through, and with our bodies wildly differ, and efforts to challenge and expand protocols can be a fraught and dangerous endeavour: Escott would certainly know. But this is also where the importance of underground arts communities and practices lie: they are sites for such systems to be analysed, broken down, reimagined. A space for fresh breadcrumb trails to be laid out.

data compression, cattle call
they can’t tone you anymore
pitch correction, loudness war
transference, conflation, one for all
my love, my matador
preservation fright, folderol
they can’t pin you anymore
they can’t pin you anymore
they can’t pin you anymore

*

All this talk about talking about bodies when it should also be recognised that the album itself has a bodily effect. Standing at the traffic lights, listening through headphones, the music exerts itself in subtle ways: a slight movement of the hips, an arm, or a leg that may be considered dance; the recognition that you have been singing out loud or miming along to the lyrics. The tocs speed up as the lights change and you keep walking.

The Native Cats – John Sharp Toro
Released by RIP Society in February 2018



Mitchell Ryan is a writer, researcher and musician based in Sydney. His work has previously appeared in TEMPERED music journal and SPLIT.

Top photo by Lou Conboy.

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