The Native Cats’ music for Tasmania
Chloe Alison Escott and Julian Teakle are sitting in a park in North Hobart. It’s a warm winter’s day, free of the wind and sideways rain that typifies early August in Tasmania. They are sitting at a picnic table, speaking to me while cyclists swish past and dogs cavort and parents talk as their children play nearby.
Together, Escott and Teakle are The Native Cats, one of Australia’s most quietly remarkable bands. The pair demonstrate the truth of most Tasmanian art, before MONA and its attendant festivals, separate from those exceptions who find success on the mainland or overseas: the music they make is for, and always has been for, other Tasmanians.
“I’ve always engaged with Hobart as more a psychic space, a psychological space,” says Escott, pushing her hair out of her eyes. “Pre-MONA there was a number of really determined people making art, but Tasmanians outside that community didn’t know that there was anything going on. MONA has been able to succeed because of this arts community. It was already happening and it was already great.”
The Native Cats’ fourth album, John Sharp Toro, was released earlier this year on the Sydney record label R.I.P Society. Its epilogue, the EP Spiro Scratch, came out last week on Teakle’s own Rough Skies Records, one of two he runs. Both Escott and Teakle are fixtures of the city’s music scene. Their concert at this weekend’s Meredith Music Festival in Victoria closes a transformative year, although whether this qualifies as a marker of success is hard to say.
Teakle and Escott think about what success means and share a glance. “More interesting things happen to us,” Escott says.
“The more people hear your songs, and the more people love your songs, the more conversations you get to have. And the better and more complex your songs are, the more interesting the conversation.”
The Native Cats’ songs are complex, but not immediately so. Escott’s wry, intelligent delivery sits over Teakle’s surging, looping bass riffs and rhythms that consist of just a bass drum and a snare. There is a rare joy in finding music this simple and strange. Escott’s lyrics read like poetry, with their odd combinations of imagery and declaration:
We are theory, we are concept
We are dark and deliberate shapes on the walls of a heritage home
We are figures 1 and 2
Untested, unproved, unbeaten, unmoved
They can’t do what we do
Sometimes, Escott adds melodica to a song. More often, a Nintendo DS handheld game console, triggering a synth, which brings the disarming familiarity of a computer game into a new context. The occasional voices of Claire McCarthy, Emma Marson and Lisa Rime are the only other additions, but The Native Cats are unusual for what is absent. No guitars, no keyboards, no crashing cymbals or clicking hi-hat. No familiar song structures, no aspirational radio-ready production, no needy attempts to wrest your attention. Their music makes other bands seem overburdened by comparison. It’s been this way since their formation in 2008.
“To begin with, it was largely Julian’s band that I was singing in,” Escott says. “That’s shifted and balanced quite a bit further in my favour now. A lot of that is from me gaining confidence in my own ideas. I just remember not really feeling like I could speak up in those first sessions.”
“You hadn’t been in a band before,” Teakle adds.
“Yeah. I didn’t really have a strong idea about how I wanted it to sound,” Escott says. “The plan you had for us was The Native Cats would be you and me but we would record these songs and draft in a band to play them. I don’t think there was ever a point where either of us said, ‘Let’s not do that’ – we just didn’t. I think laziness has driven a lot of our creative choices.”
Teakle agrees. “I suppose we haven’t got that spectre or benefit of industry pressure here,” he says. “People are quite unselfconscious. They’re trying to create interesting art that stimulates them and the people around them and often that leads to the best music. The idea of success is still a communally decided thing. It’s not because somebody got on Rage or on Triple J. That’s great, but it’s more watching a band like All The Weathers and going, ‘Holy crap, how good is this?’ ”
After releasing their debut album, Always On, on the Hobart label Consumer Productions, The Native Cats put out their second album, Process Praise, through US label Ride the Snake. It was accompanied by a North American tour and their most acclaimed album, Dallas, in 2013. Each showed the band exploring new ideas with the same spare instrumentation, Escott’s voice and lyrics always front and centre, Teakle bringing a momentum that kept their songs veering between states of tension and release.
Teakle has been an integral part of the Hobart music scene since the mid-1990s, playing in many bands, helping others to release music on cassette and polycarbonate vinyl, and attending countless concerts, whether in pub, hall or living room. Sitting next to Escott, he has the sensibility of a man collecting stories and experiences through kindness, openness and patience.
“When you tour overseas, people can take you a bit more seriously, but it doesn’t change how good you are or whether you were good in the first place,” he says. “I haven’t really noticed any bitterness or jealousy to our success, or not to our faces. We’ve been around so long I think we’re just kind of part of the firmament.” He turns to Escott. “Do you think touring America helped us?”
“It definitely affected those songs we were playing at the time in a really positive way,” Escott says. “We recorded Dallas two months after we got back and we really understood those songs better. It certainly makes you reassess what success is if you’ve done this thing that’s considered to be one of the greatest identifiers of success to people who haven’t been in bands. Sometimes people just need to know that somebody else thought you were worth something.”
“That’s a good quote,” Teakle says.
The music video for the band’s most recent single, “Nixon Nevada”, has a friend, Mick Davies, impersonating Teakle as he visits the sites of old Hobart music venues, some real, some fictitious, while Escott sings and dances in different parts of the city. The past and future splice together.
I tried for perpetual motion, a kind of endless oscillation
Shifting weight ’round ancient pillars, Nixon Nevada
We can go just where we like, we can do just what we please
We can leave unsatisfied because we’ve got new ways to live
“It was really important to me to put that video together,” Escott says. “For people to see me being confident and fearless, but also to get it on Rage so people who are not seeking us out happen upon it by accident. I wanted to put something strong out there, because even as queer, gay, trans, whatever acceptance grows, this is still a world that is hostile towards people finding these answers for themselves.”
Escott spent a lot of time working out the answer for herself. While doing so, she came to affirm her gender as a trans woman.
“I don’t know if you remember,” she turns to Teakle, “at the most recent Sydney show I described my transition as a reaction to how masc the music scene was getting, that just got a bit out of hand.” They both laugh. “But it’s kind of half accurate,” she continues. “All I really knew for sure was that I wanted to diminish the general masc vibes of our whole thing. I was just totally unaware that transitioning was an option for somebody like me.”
Teakle credits Tasmanian homophobes as having turned him into a queer ally long before he was familiar with the term. “I’m a cis white het guy, which protects me from a lot of things in society. I got called a faggot a lot growing up, and it wasn’t hard to imagine how it would feel if I were really gay. Seeing videos on Rage or hearing people on Triple J talking openly about their sexuality really normalised it, made me look at the world around me and want to change it.”
John Sharp Toro was written in a period of denial, Escott says. A transitional time before her transition. “I knew something was up. I was finding explanations for things, and that’s what went into the lyrics. I’m honestly astonished that it holds up as well as it does. And I feel like part of the reason that it’s something I’m proud to deliver on stage today is because I was afraid of being direct about it. I abstracted it and made it cryptic on purpose by building a concept album around it.”
The character of John Sharp was created by James M. Cain, the pioneer of the hard-boiled detective novel. Cain is best known for penning noir serials that were adapted into films: The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity. In his book Serenade, Sharp, a failing but talented opera singer, falls for Mexican sex worker Juana Montes, before the man who gave him his first break returns into his life. Montes can see that Sharp has romantic feelings for the man because, Cain writes, his voice grows weaker when he sings.
“It’s an absolute fact within the fiction of this book that anything outside of full normative heterosexuality diminishes your singing voice,” Escott says. “I am absolutely fascinated by this bizarre theory. All the songs on the album were intended to be read as being in the character of John Sharp.”
Escott credits another book with not only opening the door to transitioning but inviting her through. “Denial became a lot harder to maintain after I read Nevada by Imogen Binnie,” she says. “It has a reputation as a book you pick up, not knowing much about it, then you read it and think, ‘Oh no, I’m trans.’ That’s when you know for sure that you are. And I thought, ‘I’ll give it a shot.’ And sure enough…”
Binnie’s 2013 novel is about Maria Griffiths, a woman in her late 20s living in New York City, five years on from transitioning. Griffiths’ life disintegrates when her girlfriend ends their relationship and she loses her job at a bookstore. These events prompt her to take a road trip across the United States where she meets James, a man living alone in a small town, ordering dresses online and struggling to understand his gender and sexuality.
“Life after transitioning is the closest that you ever get to time travel, in a way,” Escott says. “You try to be somebody that you wish was there in the past. You see people who remind you of yourself at a certain time, so you think, ‘What’s the thing that I can say or do for this person?’
“It’s important to me to be on stage looking and performing the way that I do, so people who aren’t familiar with us don’t think that this is some novelty or drag act. So I just say my completely ordinary legal names, ‘Hey, we’re The Native Cats, my name is Chloe Alison Escott, nice to see you.’ If I’d seen that on stage years ago, it would have changed my life.”
That night, The Native Cats play a concert to raise funds for opposition to a proposal for a cable car development on kunanyi / Mount Wellington. “I apologise for not having my usual banter,” Escott says to a cheering crowd midway through their set. “I was interviewed for a very long time in a park in North Hobart earlier and I feel I’ve shared enough of myself for one day.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 8, 2018 as "Ally cats". Subscribe here.