Sometimes even the most primitive music relies on careful, deliberate construction. Take, for example, Toronto-based blues punks catl. A guitar-and-drums outfit with nary a chorus pedal, kick drum, or even a cymbal in sight, catl. are the very definition of stripped-down rock'n'roll. Hemmed in by their own design, guitarist Jamie Fleming and drummer Sarah Kirkpatrick force themselves to innovate, to find new ways to make their rudimentary set-up feel grand and expansive. Without a bass, without an organ, without much more than a pounding backbeat and a vintage guitar, catl. can pull dancers to their feet, shake a sweaty room silly, and convince you that maybe another tequila before last call isn't such a bad idea after all.
"We're just not that fussy," explains Kirkpatrick with a shrug. Certainly there's nothing "fussy" about her drum kit: a snare and a single floor tom is all there is. "I inherited this snare from my father [currently drumming with the reunited Luke & the Apostles]. It's a '64 Ludwig! And this spindly stand was his too. And then I just have this floor tom, which is a vintage Beverley. I don't know anything else about it. But it looks great!"
"We don't have any cymbals," adds Fleming. "Our music is dirge-y, repetitive blues music. If it's a steady beat, hammering on the two and the four, which is what Sarah does, allows me to change chords whenever I want. We added this half carved up tambourine [attached to the top of the snare drum] which is an idea we took from the Gories, a '90s garage rock band."
"So every time you hit the snare," adds Sarah enthusiastically, "it gives you a little something extra. How many sounds can you make with two drums? That's the challenge."
Conversation turns to the old records lying around their funky front room. When I arrived, a post-war blues compilation had been pouring out of the stereo. It's clear that, to Fleming, the lack of options those old masters had was a key part of what made their music work. "How did they make that sound?" he asks himself. "How did they get it to sound so catchy with so little going on? They're playing on half-assed gear, but… It's the way they play, and the way they work their gear."
Perhaps the most high tech aspect of catl. instrumentation is their careful approach to getting the vocals to carry just the right classic effect. "We have two vocal amps," Fleming tells me. "A Fender Blues Junior, which I sing through, and the Ampeg Reverberocket 2, which is a mid-'60s tube amp. We recently added a little analogue delay, a slapback on the vocals. A bit more of a rock'n'roll element. An MXR Carbon Copy. A lot of the sound guys complain about the sound of our vocals. They're like: 'Why don't you want it to sound better?' But this is the sound!"
Ultimately catl.'s "sound" is defined by Fleming's fuzzy, growling guitar. A gorgeous mess, his late '40s Gretsch Electromatic is battle-scarred and weathered; it's a touring bluesman's dream axe. "I've been playing this guitar for a good 20 years now," he tells me with genuine pride. Pointing to the solitary pickup, he gets almost giddy. "Before Gretsch started making their own pickups, they used these DeArmond pickups. DeArmond was actually a bomb-making company in World War II, but they made pickups as well. Bombs and pickups. And it's the Bo Diddley pickup. It's got that really fat sound that crosses over the sonic spectrum. That's what throws all the bass on our records, in our sound.
"It's essentially this guitar," Fleming concludes, "with its archtop, this pickup, and this mid-'70s Fender Twin amp. I don't use any pedals. That's the sound: Just the guitar, straight into the amp. Keeping it as simple as possible, trying to create dynamics by playing guitar, rather than jumping on a bunch of pedals. Just one pickup, and the tone knob on the guitar's not even connected." There's literally a hole where the knob used to be. "Yeah, the wire fell apart because it was so old, and I just never replaced it."
When I suggest that catl.'s minimalism might be a response to other rather more elaborate Toronto acts, Fleming demurs. "No, it's not a statement about what people are doing. We've never been a part of that scene, and we don't care what other people are doing, to be honest. We're just doing our own thing. We're never thinking: 'Let's get a bass player! Let's get a keyboard player!' Just working with what we have, being limited, is the challenge." "It's also easier when there's less people," adds Kirkpatrick, playfully. "Because we can tour in our car."
catl.'s fourth record, This Shakin' House, comes out on April 29.