Fictional Nonfiction, Justice Wing

⎇001JW: Amplifier Asks: Cheshire Kittens

As part of the special double-issue profiling the Cheshire Kittens — and representing Todd Chapman’s return to Amplifier as a writer — Amplifier asked the Kittens a few questions about their favorite songs across their career.


Amplifier Asks!™ The Cheshire Kittens: Your Favorites

G-Listening
(Lead Singer, Guitar, Rhythm Guitar)

Of All the Songs You’ve Written, What Are Your Favorites?

That’s always hard to answer. I’m probably my own harshest critic. I always feel like I could do better. A lot of the ones I like the most are because I like Zeph’s music so much. I think our best stuff comes from our closest collaborations. “Sadistic,” off Unmarked Grave — that’s probably the best song we ever wrote jointly. Probably the best thing I’m associated with. It’s so primal, so intense. In one sense, I think it’s our most universal song.

Of the songs I’m primarily responsible for? “Knock At The Door’s” probably the most personal. And “Searching the Sky” didn’t break out like I thought it would, and that makes me sad. I wrote that one for Pyre, which is why she’s got the lead on it. She’s such an amazing singer. Anyway, those, I guess.

What Are Your Favorite Songs By The Other Kittens?

God — there’s no way not to open with “Quarterhorse.” Allon-Zed’s forgotten more about music than I ever knew, and she just obliterated everyone’s expectations with that one. It’s such a gut-punch too — she probably conveyed the pain and struggle of parahumanity — of being expected to hold back, the sheer unfairness of always ‘being fair to the norms’ — better than anyone. Until ‘Quarterhorse,’ people pigeonholed us as a Bikini Kill knockoff. After that, they knew that like us or not, we weren’t cheap copies of anyone.

Whatever ends up with Esther? “Eight of Swords” is a damn good song. I’m proud to have sung it. She raised the stakes — really underscored what you risk as a revolutionary, no matter what form the revolution takes.

It’s not always easy to single out Zeph’s songs — I love all her stuff. But… I dunno. There’s nothing that screams Zephyr Lish more than “From Zero to C♫♬t in One Rejection.” We tried like fuck to get that on the radio, but we wouldn’t do a radio edit and there reached a point where the bleeps just broke the song. Still — it’s so awesome and so universal. Every woman I know’s had that experience, and Zeph just fucking nailed what goes through your head.What Songs Were The Most Fun?

God, there are a lot. I admit — I really like the funny ones that come out of spite. Back on Dark After Grey — the only album where we really had label interference? They wanted us to slut things up. Romance, sex… stuff like that. And we pretty much flipped them off with “What-fucking-ever,” but “That Guy — He Ain’t Bad” was just a blast to write. It’s such a fucking pure reverse-love song. The same with “Fuck You Uncle Ben (and Aunt May’s a Bitch)” — we all grew up with those alleged friends. ‘Oh, you have to be a superhero! It’s your fucking duty!’ But after we got famous, the pressure got insane. Esther in particular, because she’s a dragon, and Zeph with her speed. Redoing the song on the box set was so fucking cathartic. Bitty P threw in the line about how the prosahuman has the ‘power’ to work in soup kitchens and help the poor, so have fucking at it, and that nailed it to the wall.

Zephyr Lish
(Lead Guitar, Vocals, Rhythm Guitar, Other Instruments)

Of All the Songs You’ve Written, What Are Your Favorites?

Jesus. Who chooses? Alright. Well, you kinda have to divide those between ’things Tabby and I did’ and ‘things I mostly did but Tabby made them not suck.’ On the latter… it’s weird to say, but I actually really like “Between Ticks.” We spend a lot of time on the struggle in our music — sometimes it’s nice to just say ‘by the way? These powers rule.’ That song is me in the joy of speed.

On the Tabby/Lish Gestalt side of things? I get that “Sadistic’s” probably our best, but my favorite? Probably “Paragirl Down.” I mean, Paragirl’s death was such a shock to everyone… and just a few years later people were almost forgetting or treating it like just this thing. It was an honor to do our best to remember her and remind the world they’re still here because of her.

What Are Your Favorite Songs By The Other Kittens?

Okay, it’s so fucking obvious, but “Transparent” fucking rules. Tabby just opened a vein and let all that terrible baggage out. There’s so many others she’s done it’s hard to narrow them down. I’m her biggest fan, okay?

For the other guys? Alright. If you can’t fucking tell the truth about music, what good are you? Esther? When you read this? “Side of the Badge” is a fucking good song. There. I said it. Laugh it up. Allon-Zed’s so fucking good at everything she does… it’s hard to untangle who did what on the Grey Album, but the interwoven structure of the contrasting songs was all her, and I think it’s brilliant. So, call the whole fucking album that. Also, “Queenfisher’s” rad and “Quarterhorse” is just so fucking real. And I don’t think people realize how much of “Miss Match and Captain H” was Pyre’s. She doesn’t write nearly enough for us — she writes all the fucking time, in so many styles and genres… that bluesy, bouncy fun was just kind of awesome. I swear, one of these years we should just do a blues album.

What Songs Were The Most Fun?

Well, I already mentioned “Miss Match and Captain H.” I like the ones that are just a little absurd, too. Like “Penny Prestige (doesn’t like your tee shirt)” — it’s just so weirdly fun to sing about this comic book character judging this guy on everything. Beyond that — I love the silly, heavy collaboration ridiculous shit. “The Garfield Conspiracy,” “Drillbit P Gets To Sing Solo On This One,” “Burn Down Lake Woebegone” — and yes, motherfuckers, we know how the original’s spelled! All that kind of thing.

Allon-Zed
(Keyboards, Rhythm Guitar, Lead Guitar, Vocals)

Of All the Songs You’ve Written, What Are Your Favorites?

I presume you mean the songs I’ve written for and with the Cheshire Kittens. I do more songwriting as a proverbial hired gun for other acts than for the Kittens. I suppose it’s because I’m such in awe of G-Listening and Zephyr Lish’s sound and style. Still, the songs I do pitch to the band are usually very personal.

I’m most satisfied with my part of the Grey Album. I realize it’s likely the album our fans are least likely to put on their favorites list, though we got a tremendous response from so many of our fans. Still, it was such a challenge and it worked so well, I feel. That was also the closest I ever got to work with Esther and the first time I could work closely with Aileen, and that was heartening.

Beyond that? Probably “Whispervine” off of Denunciation. I recognize I’m a minority of one when I say that.

What Are Your Favorite Songs By The Other Kittens?

Well, that’s a broad list to try and pare down. “Another Basket of Bread” off of Transparent is underrated, I think. Tabitha and Zephyr create such a sense of awkwardness in it, and it’s such a human story — waiting to see if you’ve been stood up, feeling the eyes of the waitstaff on you. It’s so purely evocative. “I Like Christmas Too” is mostly Tabitha’s, and is just so sharp. So subversive. Esther’s “Eight of Swords” is really very good — it deserved its Grammy nomination. It was sheer bad luck it was up against “Paragirl Down.” On the other hand, “Paragirl Down” was one of Esther’s favorite songs as I recall. There is so much here to dig deep into.

Oh — “Annotations.” It’s easy to forget, which is odd, given it won awards. It’s got such a wistfulness to it, even though it’s so full of energy. Zephyr really outdid herself, and Tabitha’s lyrics are spot on. This is why I don’t pitch very many songs to the band.

What Songs Were The Most Fun?

Mm. If you’re asking which songs I had the most fun recording? Probably “Hazing the New Girl (Come On Aileen).” It was so completely unlike anything else we did, and we had so much fun recording it and leaving in the laughs and swears and whatnot. And it’s hard to not enjoy “the Garfield Conspiracy,” both its recording and its continuing evolution when we tour. I’m not one to giggle, but giggle I do.

Esther Jowls
(Percussion, Vocals)

Of All the Songs You’ve Written, What Are Your Favorites?

Well, my favorite? You haven’t heard it yet because they didn’t record it. But it’ll be on the demo and album, so you’ll get a chance. Of the stuff we recorded? I’m proud of all of them, and it’s easy to point at “Eight of Swords” since it was popular — though Cozy Tight doesn’t get enough credit for it, and fuck me but Zeph tightened the music like a fucking champ on it. But really… I gotta say “Firehouse Sale.” It was the first time they recorded one of mine, and I learned a ton. Tabby liked the concept and got excited, but she didn’t rewrite — she got me brainstorming, and Cozy really pushed me. It meant the fucking world to me.

What Are Your Favorite Songs By The Other Kittens?

I get frustrated at Tabby and Zeph because when they take on the establishment, they’re fucking brutal and it’s amazing, and I want to see so much more. “Just a Sling” was fearless. It said things Justice Wing needed to hear — and I’m saying that as someone who’s alive because a Justice Winger saved my life. “Denunciation’s” more of the same. I want more of that Cheshire Kittens. I hope we see it. “Letter to the Officer Assigned to my Case” is Tabby’s song more than most, and it’s brilliant. And as fucking sick as I get of Zeph? “Acrid Bikini” is the best fucking guitar playing on the planet, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Beyond that… I’ve mentioned it before — “Paragirl Down” hits me where I live. Allon-Zed — hey, “Quarterhorse” is just amazing, and “Status Quota” off Denunciation needs more attention. It blows my mind Zed prefers “Whispervine” on that album — “Status Quota’s” full of nuance and makes you sit up in the middle of the night suddenly getting it.

Finally, I’ve got a shared credit on “Chainpreyed” but I don’t count that as my song — that was Tabby, Zed, Pyre, and Cozy, and they did it for me and I’m grateful.

What Songs Were The Most Fun?

I know — I’m the fucking buzzkill. I think we can have plenty of fun and still make a fucking point. By the end of my time there, it was like we had to put a fucking Doctor Demento song on every LP. Drove me fucking nuts. But if you’re asking — I like “Fuck You Uncle Ben (and Aunt May’s a Bitch).” It says something that needs saying and is cathartic as fuck and is plenty fun, thank you. I tried to be game on shit like “Drillbit P Gets A Solo On This One,” but it feels like a waste.

Having said that… all right. I admit it. I fucking love “The Garfield Conspiracy.” It’s so fucking insane — coming up with these ridiculous ‘theories’ on James Garfield’s assassination, ranting and cutting in on each other, one-upping. It became a bus-thing for us. We’d be on the bus, coming up with new shit for the live shows in the next city — I never laughed as hard. Bitty P always came up with the best shit — if she wrote silly songs for the Kittens? I’d be fine with that.

Drillbit P
(Bass, Vocals, Rhythm Guitar, Tamborine)

Of All the Songs You’ve Written, What Are Your Favorites?

I don’t write songs, man. I throw in lines here and there. Stuff on “The Garfield Conspiracy” or “Fuck You Uncle Ben.” I guess Tabby used stuff I said or suggested on “Rainwashed Gully” off of Ghosts, and that was pretty boss, so… whatever. That.

What Are Your Favorite Songs By The Other Kittens?

Bless, man. There’s so much fucking good. I’m a musician first, so I love the meaty pieces. Playing the Grey album was amazing, especially live. The sad thing about doing a concept album was after that tour ended we stop playing the whole thing at once, and that’s sad. Allon-Zed always has crunchy shit to play. “Queenfisher,” man. I fucking love that one. Zeph’s pure fucking gold, a’course. Keeping up with her on “Acrid Bikini” or — fuck, man, Tabby and Zeph’s “Sadistic.” That won all the awards for a reason. Jesus fuck.

What Songs Were The Most Fun?

Okay, maybe it’s vain, but it’s a blast doing “Drillbit P Gets To Sing Solo On This One.” Especially with the bass solo section and the bit where everyone’s calling out rhymes for ‘song’ and shit. It’s up there with “The Garfield Conspiracy” for me. Honestly, I’d love to do more of those things where we each jump in and do a chunk of singing or shouting or something and then the next jumps in. It really brings out our personalities — and reminds people that a band’s like a chord. When we’re in tune, it’s cool.

Aileen Pyre
(Keyboards, Vocals, Fiddle, Accordion)

Of All the Songs You’ve Written, What Are Your Favorites?

I don’t really write for the Kittens — not because I wouldn’t, but I’m usually more working on composing. There’s only so many Etudes that the Kittens want to throw into their shows. But there’s stuff I contribute to. I helped with “Chainpreying” and that was such an intense experience. The Grey album was my best chance to work closely with Zed — I can only hope to get in her league someday. And I have a full writing credit with Tabby and Zeph on “Miss Match and Captain H.” I got to throw some good bluesy fun in there, and a lot of bounce.

What Are Your Favorite Songs By The Other Kittens?

Oh God. “Transparent” and “Bitterness and Harmony” got me through high school. I lived off the Transparent album for a while there. Tabby and Zeph are so amazing. Similarly? I may be the only one but I always liked “Antagony,” off Roundup. What it lacked in the experience and polish they got later on it makes up for in sheer raw edge. “Quarterhorse” is one of the best songs I ever heard — Allon-Zed… what more can I say about her? And Esther’s “Eight of Swords” is just… it’s amazing is what it is.

But I have to mention another song — off of Angrier Than Wet. People remember “Eight of Swords” and of course “Paragon Down” from that album, but for me… Tabby and I talked a lot and she and Zeph went over a lot of my experiences and the things that meant the most to me growing up. That included the whole story of Dynamo Girl — AKA Leather. And they wrote “Stars-and-Chevrons” for me, more or less. And if you look at Angrier Than Wet, you have a real theme on the first half. “Unfortunate Teller” being the bad luck fortune teller portending dark times. Then “Eight of Swords” about the cost of standing up. Then “Paragon Down” about such incredible sacrifice. And then right after that, “Stars-and-Chevrons,” about someone who almost sacrificed as much but got no credit for it, and what happened after. They all fit together so well — that’s Cozy at work, of course. Just amazing stuff.

Finally, Tabby wrote “Searching the Sky” for me to sing. It’s about looking up at the stars and wondering where my father might be. It was the sweetest thing and I can’t ever thank her enough.

What Songs Were The Most Fun?

There’s so much fun here. I loved “The Garfield Conspiracy” like everyone else, and “Penny Prestige (doesn’t like your tee shirt)” is so — it’s just a blast. But what was the most fun…

I admit it, as arrogant as it sounds. “Hazing the New Chick (Come On Aileen)” was pure uncut delight. I mean, first off — we were singing a Celtic Folk New Wave classic from 1982 — the antithesis of almost everything the Kittens ever did. And playing fiddle and accordion and banjo was a blast, and the fact that it was all about embarrassing me and all of us laughing — it made me feel like I was right where I belong. And the song itself is actually pretty poignant — on the one level, it’s about a poor guy who’s been overly repressed, very Irish Catholic body shaming and stuff. Dexy’s Midnight Runners had some good stuff in their day.

Which doesn’t change the fact that the very first time my mother got to hear me singing on a real national album, it was in a song everyone immediately assumes involves a target. Me. I’m supposedly the target. Thanks, guys. Thank you so fucking much.

 

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