Swampy but Smooth

Catfish Haven has released a pair of engaging EPs in the past three years, but its first full-length, the brand-new Tell Me, outstrips those samplers by a mile. Propelled by George Hunter’s beaten-dog wail and crackling acoustic guitar, the local trio have imagined a compelling indie-rock-folk-soul hybrid, and live they play with an intensity that hints at their hardcore roots.

Hunter, bassist Miguel Castillo, and drummer Ryan Farnham all grew up in Elgin. They got to know each other through the suburban punk and skateboarding scenes, playing in bands and hanging out at the same all-ages shows. But by the late 90s all three had graduated from high school and their tastes were expanding–instead of the thrash and hardcore they were weaned on, they’d started listening to classic soul and R & B. “I think we found in a lot of the older music the same emotion that drew us to punk,” Castillo says. “We’ve always been fans of emotion rather than the technical elements or musical style. The reason you love music in the first place is more basic than that. You always latch on to the stuff that makes you feel.”

“The real turning point was hearing What’s Going On in its entirety,” Hunter says. “That was pretty mind-blowing. Once I heard that, I just needed more. Looking through my dad’s records, he had an old Sam Cooke LP, and that really, really opened my eyes. Just the simplicity of the tunes, and yet how every single one of them was like a bona fide fucking jam. It was so effortless, but it was pure feeling.”

Hunter’s guitar playing in Catfish Haven had another inspiration, though. “I bought my first acoustic ’cause I listened to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel,” he says. “I was so blown away that an acoustic guitar could have that intensity about it.” He began writing and demoing material on his own in Elgin, but he soon reconnected with Farnham, who lived nearby, and Castillo, who had moved to the city. Dubbing themselves Catfish Haven–the name of a patch of land in southern Missouri where Hunter lived until he was five–they played their first show in April 2001 at Phyllis’ Musical Inn.

By the following year they had recorded 16 tracks at a friend’s home studio, and 7 of them became the band’s first EP, Good Friends. After failing to find a label, they put it out themselves in 2003 and sold it at shows. The songs only hinted at the band’s potential, but they were good enough to catch the ear of Matthew Johnson, owner of Mississippi blues-rawk label Fat Possum. By early 2005 Fat Possum had drawn up contracts and funded recording sessions, but once Johnson heard the finished second EP, he balked.

“He basically wanted me to go electric,” says Hunter. “He wanted me to sound a little dirtier, and I wasn’t really feeling it. We were pretty focused on what we were doing at that point, and we felt we’d reached the sound we wanted. Ultimately we didn’t see eye to eye and parted ways on that, but we still have a lot of respect for him and the label.”

The band eventually paid back the recording costs for the seven-song EP, Please Come Back, and Castillo began contacting other labels he thought might be interested in releasing it. Jonathan Cargill, head of Secretly Canadian, made the band an offer in May after catching their set in Bloomington, Indiana; their first release for the label was a reissue of Good Friends, which came out last September.

Cargill originally wanted to add a few more tracks to Please Come Back and release it as a full-length, but the band wanted to keep the songs it planned to record for Tell Me of a piece. “We worked six steady months, getting together every day and busting out these ten songs and trying to make it a really cohesive album,” Hunter says. “We wanted to make not just a collection of tunes but a record.”

In December the group set up shop at Bridgeport’s 4Deuces studio with engineer Graeme Gibson. Looking to broaden their sound, they brought in a host of additional musicians: ex-Boas keyboardist Jacob Smith, a horn trio of trumpeter Victor Garcia and saxophonists Greg Ward and Dave Rempis, and backup vocalists Tina Howell and Avery Young. (Former Wilco multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach also pitched in on tambourine.) “I wanted to try and flesh out the tracks,” Hunter says. “I dig epic tunes just as much as I dig intimate fireplace songs.” The work went quickly: the band laid down basic tracks in two days and finished the entire recording in less than two weeks.

Tell Me won’t do much for audiophiles. Like the band’s earlier discs it’s sonically simple, and despite the number of musicians it has a charmingly rickety, first-take feel. Their formative punk and soul influences run through the entire album, though cuts like the title track evoke the 70s white-boy gospel flavor of Grand Funk Railroad and early Doobie Brothers more than Marvin Gaye or Sam Cooke.

Catfish Haven is currently on the east coast; on Wednesday they’ll play Durty Nellie’s in Palatine as part of Little Steven’s Underground Garage tour and on the 16th they headline a CD-release show at Double Door. Like their recent set at Lollapalooza, the latter gig will feature an expanded nine-piece lineup. After that they’ll play a string of dates with labelmates Magnolia Electric Co., head to the west coast in October, hit Europe in November, then head back into the studio.

“We’ve been working on seven brand-new tunes–they’re kind of flowing right now,” says Hunter. “We’ve become so confident with what we’re doing. But at the same time we’re just trying to remain as honest with it as possible, just serving the tunes and not forgetting where the songs come from.”

A Silkworm Postmortem

As part of this weekend’s Touch and Go Records 25th anniversary celebration–see the Reader’s complete guide on page 2–Silkworm’s Tim Midgett and Andy Cohen are playing a short acoustic set as a tribute to drummer Michael Dahlquist, who died in a freak car accident in July 2005. Their appearance coincides with the release of An Idiot to Not Appreciate Your Time: The Songs of Silkworm, a two-CD tribute to their old band assembled by Isaac Turner, a fan from Kalamazoo, Michigan. The 29-track album, which includes covers by Steve Albini, MirrorAmerica, and the Kadane brothers (Bedhead, the New Year), among others, is being released in a onetime pressing of 1,000 copies; more info is available at silkwormtributerecord.com.

Meanwhile Chokes!, an EP of songs that Silkworm was working on at the time of Dahlquist’s death, comes out on the Austin label 12XU on October 24. The disc includes five originals plus a live cover of Bob Dylan’s “Spanish Harlem Incident” from 2001.

Catfish Haven

When: Wed 9/13, 9 PM

Where: Durty Nellie’s, 180 N. Smith, Palatine

Price: $20

Info: 847-358-9150

More: Opening for the Zombies, the Mooney Suzuki, the Woggles, and the Gore Gore Girls

When: Sat 9/16, 10 PM

Where: Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee

Price: $10

Info: 773-489-3160 or 312-559-1212

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.