ALMOST FAMOUS KITTENS WITH A WHIP
It’s the early ’90s and the college rock scene in Norman, Oklahoma is creating a constant buzz in and around Campus Corner. Abused telephone poles are riddled with staples as multiple handbills warn the public that the sounds of local bands such as Blemish, The Wake, Barnyard Slut, Ancient Chinese Penis and The Nixons will be saturating the ears of University of Oklahoma students and beyond. However, the one band that would serve as the quintessential symbol of college rock for the town was alarmingly titled The Chainsaw Kittens.
“With the band now as it is, we’re just gonna keep going and trying to push any kind of boundaries we can. And, you know, if I have to do it in a dress I will.”
This was Chainsaw Kittens singer Tyson Meade’s ambitious, yet somewhat bizarre mantra in 1992, shortly after the release of the band’s second album, Flipped Out
In Singapore. This very proclamation hinted at The Kittens’ unfortunate and senseless demise, despite Meade’s donning of a dress, which he often did during those early years.
According to a June 2002 feature on PopMatters.com, The Kittens were manifested after Meade’s previous band, Defenestration, went “out the window” after touring for their second release, Dali Does Windows. Meade moved back to Norman with no specific musical prospects on the horizon and took a job at indie music store Shadowplay Records, where future Kittens guitarist Trent Bell was a regular customer.
“Trent told me about these guys that had a band in high school that were about to kick out their singer and said they’d be perfect for my songs,” Meade said of the serendipity. The Chainsaw Kittens were birthed, and within a month they’d released a demo and were in negotiations with Mammoth Records.
The band would release three full-length albums and two EPs through Mammoth Records before signing to the major label Atlantic Records in 1994. This would be the only album The Kittens released on Atlantic Records. When Mammoth and Atlantic merged, The Chainsaw Kittens and Juliana Hatfield were considered the top contenders for widespread publicity, but then Atlantic reps discovered Collective Soul and Fountains of Wayne, turning their focus and money toward these groups instead.
“The Kittens never really had a big push at the major level, which is what it takes,” Meade explained. “Fountains of Wayne had Madonna’s management and a million-dollar record deal and were banking on being Weezer Jr. Collective Soul sold 125,000 copies on an indie in Florida before Atlantic picked them up, so basically
Atlantic just had to do follow-up work to make them successful. They owed most of their success to themselves.”
After the band’s glimpse of mainstream success with Atlantic came to a halt, Meade and company, who, along the way, had befriended The Smashing Pumpkins, signed to Scratchie Records, a label started by Pumpkins bassist D’Arcy Wretzky and guitarist James Iha. The Kittens were slated to release a 7″, an EP and four full-length albums under the Scratchie label.
Scratchie soon merged with Mercury Records and The Kittens released their self-titled album in 1996. But then the Atlantic Records experience came back to haunt the band. According to the PopMatters.com feature, groups such as Prodigy, Hanson and The Spice Girls were dominating the music scene, and suddenly the Mercury label dropped Scratchie’s band roster.
The Kittens then began to drift apart but reconvened for one last album, 2000’s The All American, released under the Chicago-based label Four Alarm Records. With no further aspirations of making it as a mainstream rock band, Meade went on to obtain a degree at the University of Oklahoma and now teaches English in Japan. Trent Bell runs a successful recording studio, Bell Labs, in Norman, and Matt Johnson and Eric Harmon started the band The American Boyfriends that has since gone by the wayside.
During the band’s frenetic existence of the ’90s, it opened for acts such as The Smashing Pumpkins, Iggy Pop and The Flaming Lips, but it was the show in which The
Kittens opened for Jane’s Addiction that sparked mega-fan Scott Smith’s Stepford Wife-like fascination with the band.
“Jane’s Addiction was playing at The Myriad in OKC, but they weren’t what made the show memorable. I like Jane’s Addiction but that was the night I fell in love with The Chainsaw Kittens,” Smith said.
“Guitars were wailing, drums pounding, and a bizarre shrieking was blaring from the stage. The insane hollering poured out of the mouth of a wild-eyed man covered in sweat, bleeding eyeliner, old lady jewelry, and a huge sweat and hairspray-covered mane that resembled lemon-yellow cotton candy. The energy of the over-the-top performance sent a surge of adrenaline through my body that can only be described as that feeling you get on a roller coaster just after the last click of the chain but just before the drop.”
Shortly thereafter, Smith would make the trek from Lawton to Norman to purchase Violent Religion, The Kittens’ ear-burning, cute, pop violent debut album.
With Tyson’s voice alternating between a smooth falsetto and a flesh-ripping scream faster than Sybil changed personalities, and the band’s catchy, yet disconcertingly decadent sound that would, according to a Kittens handbill, “make the blood swirl around in your ears,” Violent Religion is easily the most coveted CD in the band’s discography.
Having attending more than 20 Kittens shows, Smith said one performance replays itself in his memory. During a performance at The Hollywood Theatre in Norman (now the OU Law Library and election polling center), “Tyson performed the show in a drunken stupor. [He ended] with a climactic vomit session as the show closer.”
Despite the roughly seven years that have passed since the band’s last serenade, the band’s most devoted Zen Kitties still scratch and purr at its MySpace door. Boasting
nearly 1,000 “friends,” The Kittens’ page is riddled with praise, requests for a reunion tour and statements of utter devotion to the band.
“Flipped Out In Singapore is a goddamned piece of excellence that I still keep within arm’s reach. This masterpiece has been my drug of choice for 14 years now… definitely in my top five of all time,” posts “Waldo” on The Kittens page.
“Even after being attacked by Mark Metzger for stealing his beer off the stage, having Kevin McElhaney steal my girl and throw a punch at me, and watching Tyson vomit on-stage countless times, I still love these guys,” Kittens’ MySpace friend “Casio” unabashedly proclaims.
Though most of the band’s catalog is unfortunately out of print, new converts can find many Kittens’ albums listed inexpensively on eBay, and as well as in various indie record stores around the United States, the UK and Australia.