Letting The Cat Out Of The Bag
Francis Jones finds out what's next for acoustic outlaws Cat Malojian
LISTEN to Cat Malojian: Baby's Got It (4.3mb)
They are tune-toting musical highwaymen. Armed with acoustic guitar and banjo, Cat Malojian demand you stand and deliver your affections.
It all started innocently enough, the odd opportunist crime, 'playing at house parties'. But, ever so slowly, they have developed a career of it, forcing ever growing numbers of listeners to succumb to their quietly stunning songs.
Where it will all end, even the Cat Malojian two do not know. One thing’s for certain, equipped, as they are with tender country-folk, bluegrass, Americana and bar-hopping ballads, they will make willing victims of many more.
Stevie Scullion, vocals and guitar, recalls how these two partners in crime got together.
'I met Jonny (Toman, banjo, mandolin, piano) at Jordanstown University. We got the same train; started talking about music, swapping records. One day he told me he played the banjo, I told him I played guitar and started telling him about this genius banjo player from Lurgan I’d heard about.
'Before I finished the sentence I realised Jonny was that genius banjo player.'
The ever modest Toman is quick to intercede.
'He’s using the word 'genius' very loosely! When we started playing music together it was a very easy-going thing, just having a drink, playing at house parties. Stevie would start playing something and I would join in.'
The difference in their musical schooling – Toman, the banjo prodigy, playing as part of a distinctly musical family and Scullion, the garage-rocker, playing as part of an Oasis tribute band – helps account for the delightfully disparate nature of Cat Malojian’s repertoire.
They are musically tight-knit, bursting at the seams with energy and passion.
'A bit of diversity goes a long way, and diversity is what we’re aiming for,' confirms Scullion.
As such their tunes appeal to everyone from folk purists and the ever-burgeoning Americana crowd to those whose only genre preference is ‘accomplished’.
One obvious musical touchstone is Nick Drake. Emotionally, Cat Malojian are on a more life-affirming footing than the tragic tunesmith, but Drake’s influence is there both in the pristine finger-picking style and the delicately emotive voice of Scullion.
'Generally it’s that love of acoustic guitar that we share,' agrees Toman. 'Stevie had been listening to Nick Drake, he got me into that. The finger-picking manner of playing is something I can relate to.'
More than music, it is a friendship they share. Spend any amount of time in their company and it is clear that they inhabit the same head space.
'We both love having the craic,' confirms Scullion. 'I used to play this song called Sixteen Stone Momma. It was pure bluegrass, only I didn’t know that until we were at a party and Jonny started playing it too.
'We get on; I used to go round to Jonny’s house whilst he and his dad practiced. So really it was more of a friendship thing than any great plan to start a band.'
It may not have been their intention, but prompted by those close to them, Scullion and Toman realised that their music deserved greater attention.
'We played a few gigs round our hometown and family and friends were really positive,' recalls Toman. 'In a way they pushed us to pursue it, to take the music more seriously.'
They are increasingly confident in their abilities. Each live performance a fillip to their self belief, no longer does Scullion 'shake with nerves so badly that I often ended up headbutting the microphone'.
One indicator of the band’s growing sense of self assurance is evidenced by a shift in Scullion’s lyrical approach.
'With the older material I tended to disguise what I was really writing about it, to dress the emotions or the sentiments up in metaphor,' he observes, before sheepishly adding, 'I guess sometimes you get embarrassed. We had a song called Parsnips and Carrots which very obviously wasn’t about vegetables. Now though the writing is a lot more direct and strangely quite country.'
'Yeah, we’re gonna start wearing Gram Parsons style suits,' laughs Toman.
Cat Malojian are set to relesase We're Alright, a second EP of songs that sound utterly lived in: wild bluegrass rubbing shoulders with Neil Young style, acoustic rock-blues.
However, Cat Malojian have even greater ambitions. They have a debut album in the offing and have recruited just the man to help them execute their plan to perfection: Mud Wallace.
'Mud’s one of the most respected Irish producers and has worked with everyone from Therapy? to The Chieftains and Paul Brady,' states Scullion.
'He’s helping us take our recorded work to the level we want it to be at. We’re going to remix and re-record the material from the two EPs and release those together with four or five new songs as an album.
'We only got 1,000 copies of the EPs pressed so really they were a means to an end, helping us raise the finance for the full record.'
Despite their limited recorded output to date, Cat Malojian’s progress has not gone unnoticed. They’ve been garnering gushing reviews and, as Toman explains, have even had a song from their first EP, the titular Life Rolls On, picked up by Vodafone.
'We were contacted via MySpace by an advertising agency. They liked our stuff, and the song Life Rolls On in particular. They sent the song on a compilation CD to their clients and Vodafone said they wanted to use it.'
Although they’ve been together for several years, there is no doubting that the last twelve months have seen a definite upward shifting in gears and represent the band’s most significant period of achievement
'For me getting the record in my hand was a definite moment,' acknowledges Scullion. 'That was only a year ago. I knew then that if I died at least I had those four songs to my name. And also supporting John Martyn. Ok, we didn’t get to meet him - he was out the back enjoying the liquid refreshments - but it was an honour to be on the bill with him.'
Ask them what they want out of all this and Cat Malojian will reply with an honesty and lack of cynicism that is genuinely cheering. Yes, they’re ambitious, but should fortune elude them, their devotion to music will never waver.
'If it works out great and if not, well, no worries,' says Scullion. 'First and foremost I think about this as our legacy, we’ll do our best and know we’ve left something behind we can be proud of.'