by Bob Hanshaw
Despite being relatively new on the Tucson scene, Brittany Katter is helping to define its look and style – and her band, Katterwaul, is one of the defining bands of its generation in the city.
“I’m definitely way more comfortable as a performer,” she said, relaxing after shooting some photos in a graffiti-covered alleyway. “I just thought that music and theatre could be so powerful together.” Katter, 27, has been involved in ballet and theatre throughout her life, but only recently came into full confidence as a singer. Katterwaul is the culmination of that change. With a reputation for intense and cathartic performances, it’s no surprise that the band’s frontwoman comes from a background in those expressive arts.
An Oregon transplant, Katter moved to Tucson in 2008 on the recommendation of a friend. She had done her share of singing and jamming on porches up to then, but had never performed with any bands – and certainly had never fronted any. All that changed when, after a stint with Gabriel Sullivan’s project Fell City Shouts, she was invited to share lead vocals with Emily Marchand in Kiss and the Tells.
That band was formed as a one-off ensemble to play for TAMHA’s Great Cover-Up in 2010. (Tucson Artists’ and Musicians’ Healthcare Alliance raises funds yearly at this event, where local musicians perform songs by their favorite bands.) But after covering The Exciters that year, they had so much fun that they decided to keep it up. “I want to say that Tucson is the only place where something like that could come together,” Katter said, grinning at the thought. Tucson, for her, has an urgency and spontaneity that even Portland lacks.
She cites Kiss and the Tells as a nurturing bridge from singing backup with Sullivan to working on her own. “I always kind of had a hangup as a musician. Because I started as a singer, and I always wanted to be a guitar woman, you know, I always wanted to just wield the axe! […] Being surrounded by a lot of amazing guitar players [in Fell City Shouts], it was hard to start from ground zero and not get frustrated fast… I just know what good guitar players can sound like.”
But there was no such pressure as a member of Kiss and the Tells. “They showed me how much I adore that kind of [soul] singing.” They also took her as she came, recognizing her soulful and expressive voice and requiring nothing of her but that she use it. After the band dissolved – 9 members being difficult, at best, to keep together – Katter felt supported enough to sing her own music, and started Katterwaul as a one-woman band.
“I honestly wanted to see more women in rock and roll… There were just not any women in the scene!” she said animatedly, citing one of the main reasons she started her project. By this time, she was armed with the means to make it happen. “I’ve been playing guitar for 3 years… I know the 5 golden chords and I just work ’em to death.”
She draws inspiration from the San Francisco garage scene, and a variety of artists such as Jack White, stating, “I bought a Fender Strat when I was in Eugene after hearing Jack White for the first time.” Ty Segall, and local Tucson acts like Amy Rude and Acorn Bcorn, also make the list. “That kind of music just made me feel so alive… I also just loved the simplicity. It seemed approachable to me, it seemed doable.”
Katter took Katterwaul on the road early, moving to North Carolina in 2012 immediately after she started the band. She picked up a drummer there and moved back to Tucson a year later. At that point, the band began to pick up some serious steam. Katterwaul became a fixture of the nascent indie/garage/noise scene in Tucson, mostly by virtue of frequent and intense shows at the epicenter of that scene, a venue called Topaz Tundra. (Topaz has since ceased holding shows regularly.)
Katter has a big voice and a versatile one. Her first album, Gimmie Fever, features lusty blues, teasing little whoops, tantalizing whispers, and all kinds of strange unhinged inflections that leave you imagining her lunging all over the stage. It’s clearly an early effort, with all the honesty and rawness that entails. “I played them as fast and as loud as I could,” she said. That was enough to garner some very positive press and a following in Tucson, which has propelled her forward.
She names gospel music among her influences for Katterwaul, acts like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and others like Etta James and Patsy Cline. “I really love big voices.” She jokes about how she and her friends wish “death to the indie white girl voice,” meaning that performers like CocoRosie and Cat Power.
“Women’s voices that are held back,” though they have a style and a niche of their own, have no place in Katter’s oeuvre. “That’s NOT the kind of music I want to play.”
Katter wants musicians with “a certain kind of urgency, a certain kind of desperation to their songs… it’s just gotta have that [feeling of] ‘If I don’t sing these songs, I’m gonna die!’”
She tempered that brutal attitude with a little more nuance in her next release, Desert Kats, in April 2014. Enlisting the services of Lori LeChien on bass and harmony vocals, Ben Sol Schneider on drums, and Jeff Lownsbury on guitar, she fleshed out and slightly mellowed some tracks from her debut album. She also added another, “Sweetie Pie,” a track verging on doo-wop parody, which demonstrates a much more toned-down and flippant approach than any of her other material. It’s a short glimpse of what’s to come: a new full-length album is in the works.
“I put pressure on myself to write an album,” Katter remarked, “but I don’t have to.” She thrives in the atmosphere of total freedom that being a DIY artist entails – nobody’s telling her to write more, so she takes pleasure in being prolific anyway. “I want to create a rich dynamic [this time]… more contemplative, capture something that’s real.” Hardly a soul would accuse Gimmie Fever of being fake, but it will really be something to see where Katter takes her sound as it matures.
“I love fashion.” Another draw to rock and roll, for her, was the outrageous and iconic style that a great performer can adopt. It’s also something that helped her identify with Tucson, even in absentia: “This is the only place I’ve been recognized as an artist, and that’s very powerful to me, so I feel very connected to this aesthetic here, and this look, and this style… I’ve done so much growing here.”
Katter’s music video for “No Free Meals” stands as a testament to her keen eye for style, and her love for her adopted hometown.
“I wanted to capture the women of Tucson specifically. Their rad style! They are just so rad! And it never gets wholly documented in one place.” The video features Katter and a group of “babely babes” slamming Tecates, driving in the back of an ancient Chevy, and grilling Sonoran dogs in the yard. “That was my backyard. It’s very legit; that’s my life.”
Aside from being a fitting accompaniment to the slow-burning garage tune, the video does indeed document a very specific look that is native to the young women of Tucson. Katter throws out adjectives: dusty, Western, punk, durable, rock and roll, Mexican, hostile, sun-exposed, sexy, trashy, plenty of leather, plenty of color. But fashion is notoriously slippery to describe, and the most accurate depiction is in the look and feel of her video itself.
Whether she knew it or not, setting out to document a phenomenon means, in part, defining its boundaries. And in that sense, Katter is among those defining Tucson fashion for her generation. Popular response to her video very often included phrases like “it’s so Tucson, it hurts” – so she’s clearly getting it right.
TOPAZ, LIGHTNING, YOUTH ROCK – THE TUCSON SCENE
Katter came from Eugene, Oregon six years ago. Up to then, she had seen plenty of opportunities to join the Portland scene, but had always held back. “All the niches are full [in Portland]… You’d have to schmooze it for at least a year” before being able to play any good shows. She sighs, “It just takes them so long to start anything!”
But her experience in Tucson was precisely the opposite. For Katter, something here fosters growth unlike anywhere else. “I didn’t have any experience singing [with a group], and I had a show within a month… I definitely feel like I’ve been on the fast track to being a musician here, because of that nurturing feeling.” She sums it up: “It feels like a land of opportunity for me.”
Part of it is the cost of living – people here live very cheaply, so the art flourishes. Part of it is the brutal sun, the atmosphere so different than the murky and overcast Northwest. “You kind of have to be a little crazy to stay here through the summer,” she says, implying that such craziness feeds the creative ferment in this town. But a lot of it, the bulk of it, is in the people and places that have dedicated themselves to furthering Tucson’s homegrown art – those who saw a moment of opportunity and seized it.
“As far as youth music has been here… there was kind of a death of the scene, and kind of a strange resurrection,” Katter remarked. All this happened between her entry on the scene in 2008 and the present day. Some of the casualties were the notorious Red Room, for so long an incubator of Tucson’s underground scene: Mr. Free and the Satellite Freakout, who relocated to New York; Mostly Bears, who slowly faded as Brian Lopez went solo. Regarding the Red Room, Katter says its closure was “a huge devastation to the scene.”
But there are new players in the Tucson game. Katter named Prom Body, Burning Palms, Night Collectors, Sex Prisoner (though the latter tends toward hardcore, and that scene is usually more closed-off from the rest of Tucson music). She named Katterwaul as well, acknowledging her own participation in this musical renaissance. “There’s a lot of ambition in the air,” she said. “It’s like, whoah! We can do this on our own! […] A lot of things have happened in the last five years in terms of how to promote yourself.”
According to Katter, though, the most important thing is the entry of Topaz Tundra on the scene. The venue (and fashion retailer, and art gallery, and record label) brought a new aesthetic to town. “It cracked the outside world and funneled it into Tucson,” she said, noting its connection to a sister venue in Seattle called Cairo. The owners, Joel and Krysta Leshefka, have been diligent in bringing a certain type of act into Tucson, and fostering connections between local musicians and the touring bands that come through. Katter credits Joel with much of the musical rebirth of the last few years: “[It’s] a scene that’s so much bigger than Tucson, and so much more diverse. And he’s created a taste for it.”
Topaz, and Leshefka in particular, have also been busy promoting a small roster of bands as a record label. Prom Body is the most prominent of these, with coverage on Stereogum, Spin, NPR, Noisey, KEXP, and counting. Topaz has also released a mini-LP by Sutcliffe Catering Co., with at least a few more acts presumably to follow. In general, they support a tight-knit cluster of bands that seems to be the nucleus of the most visible – and most ambitious – scene in Tucson.
There are other institutions here that promote a similar strand of music, an overlapping community. Lightning Records deserves a mention. It’s a boutique label conceived by Seth Olinsky of Akron/Family, and his partner Ali Belectic, when they were living in Tucson. Algae and Tentacles singer and guitarist John Melillo, along with Ryne Warner of Ohioan, also became involved with the label early on. Lightning has put out records, magazines, miscellaneous items (surfboards, flags) and even organized a music festival in the desert. But Katter sees something missing. “If the scene needed anything, it would be a label, and a wide-ranging label like Burger Records in Fullerton.”
Burger does have its own devoted national (and international) fan base, and a huge roster of bands from many genres. It’s too soon to tell whether Topaz and Lightning will follow anything like the same trajectory. Though a model might be found closer to home in Rubber Brother Records, which has exploded in the Phoenix Valley over the last year.
This is an article on Brittany Katter, on her experiences, her music, and the lens through which she sees Tucson’s music scene. It will be followed by other articles on other people – and ideally, eventually, some sort of coherent picture might emerge from the mess. For now, let’s close with this thought, which I would like to quote in its entirety:
“I also have a theory that there is no such thing as bad art or bad music, you just haven’t found the right audience. It might be a small audience, but you never know. For each person it’s about how much you want to work for it. How much you want to find your audience. How much you want to find those people who like your music. However much time you want to put into it.”
There are many artists in Tucson now who want to work for it, find those people, put in the time. Brittany Katter is one of those. It’s a good time to live in this town.