Interview: Greg Hart of Cats in Space

Cats in Space return with their new studio album – the expansive and immersive double album ‘Kickstart The Sun’ – on 29 July 2022. A real labour of love for Cats producer/guitarist and principal songwriter Greg Hart, and Greg was on hand to talk to us about the lengthy creative process surrounding the album and why he feels that it features some of the best material that the Cats have created.

The aptly-named new album ‘Kickstart The Sun’ is almost upon us, how are you feeling? Are you nervous? Excited? Both?!

There have been a lot of problems with the release of the record, so at the minute we are more stressed out than anything. With the worldwide issues with the production of vinyl – and the fact that ‘Kickstart The Sun’ is a double album – we have had to switch suppliers for the vinyl. The pressers we have now are the best at what they do, they do all the Queen stuff, all the big boys, but they came back to us and said that because one of the vinyl versions was in a specific colour then they needed us to double the order to get it done. We had no option but to do it, so that was one thing, then we had a printing issue with the sleeves which delayed everything by two weeks, and we have hundreds and hundreds of bundles to make up. We have a team of people to do it for us, and we’ve had them on hold for two weeks. Honestly, it’s bedlam! So, yes I am very stressed out with it, but, I am excited as well because I know what we are sitting on. It is as deluxe as it gets, the vinyl is a gatefold with inners sleeves, and a lyric booklet and the CD is triple gatefold with a lyric booklet. It looks amazing.

Was the plan always to create a double album?

No! [Laughs] There’s another hornet’s nest! After our last album ‘Atlantis’ came out in 2020, there was the Christmas lockdown and the tour was getting moved, and then in January 2021 – as daft as it sounds I’m working a year, or eighteen months in advance, and the minute an album comes out, I’m already planning the release of the next album – I phoned up the pressing plant and said…”I know we have ages of time, but just to humour me how long a lead time do you need for vinyl? For our next album?” And he replied…”…about eight months”. He said that his advice would be to book it in as soon as possible and then asked how far down we were with the album…and I said…”I’ve not even started it!” So February 2021, I’m at home literally for a month frantically writing, and I said to our engineer Ian Caple that we had to smash out another album so we’ll keep it nice and simple. But then I started to think that I wanted to write some B-sides for the singles, so the plan was to write sixteen songs and see how it goes. The way that I was writing, and Damien [Edwards, Cats in Space vocalist] was putting stuff in, and Steevi [Bacon, Cats in Space drummer] was putting lyrics in, meant that in March 2021 I went into the studio with Ian for six, seven months solid. Apart from our tour, and some festival appearances, I was in the studio.

So in the end it was such a huge piece of work, and all the songs were threading together that I thought that this was not going to fit on one album, and of course, the title track ‘Kickstart The Sun’ I had in three movements, and then with ‘Bootleg Bandoleros’ at eight minutes long, it would not fit. I could not chop off some of the songs that I had, so we just said “Fuck it, let’s do a double album and really go for it”. And the minute I said that I knew there was going to be so much more work involved. I wrestled with it for months and was still trying to chop it down to a single album even as late as last Summer. So this time last year even as all the songs were getting ready to go to RAK Studios to be recorded, I was sitting there thinking that I needed to cut the number of songs down…and I just couldn’t do it. We played all the demos in rough order, and it just made sense. So this will be our ‘Exile on Main Street’, our ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’, or our ‘Physical Graffiti’…and it will be the only time we do it…so we went for it.

It certainly doesn’t feel like a 60+ minute album and it is easily digested in one sitting, it works better when it is tackled as one complete body of work from start to finish…

That’s the vibe that I got from it, after tracks nine and ten, ‘Kickstart The Sun’, and ‘A Big Balloon’, well that is really where an album should end, and I was thinking…” Am I bored?”…I was a bit exhausted with it, especially with ‘King Of Stars’ being the front song. That was a big worry for such a long time. I mean, that is a huge ask, for someone to put on a new album and the first real track is hitting seven minutes! I played the album to my girlfriend who is a fan of bands like Muse, and she said that it just works, it’s like ‘War of The Worlds’…but she knew that ‘Bootleg Bandoleros’ was at the back, see. It will be interesting to see when people hear the album for the first time if they do wander a bit. Or do they sit it out? Because once the last track starts…they will go…” Oh, that’s why!”…and it all makes sense because it goes into the reprise of ‘Kickstart The Sun’. If I’m going to blow my trumpet about anything then it will be the fact that we got that right, and we made a fully cyclable album. Yeah, you can go and have a cup of tea after ‘Charlie’s Ego’ if you want to have a break, and then the second part begins, it’s almost like going to a theatre, and because we are quite a theatrical band I thought it would be quite cool if we have a break after ‘Charlie’s Ego’ – the fun song – and people would think what could kick-off side-three, and then ‘Kickstart The Sun’ comes in, and for me, that’s the second-best song that we’ve done, after ‘Bootleg Bandoleros’. When you make a big statement like making a double album, then it has to be the fucking best, otherwise, you have just done two albums of averageness… which I hope to God people don’t think it is!

“Average” would not be a word used when describing ‘Kickstart The Sun’, it flows seamlessly like a Pete Townshend album, like ‘Tommy’ or ‘Quadrophenia’, immersive albums that you can put on and block out what is going on around you…

Townshend’s ‘Quadrophenia’ is never too far away from us. When Damien first joined the band and I played him the songs from ‘Atlantis’, he said “Your music is quite Quadrophenic!”. And that’s a lovely word! “Quadrophenic” – The Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ is the greatest rock song ever written as far as I’m concerned, and I’ve gone to that well so many times for Cats in Space…it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Everything that I love about music is in that song and in a funny sort of way maybe I am being a bit Pete Townshend-y in the fact that you have got to give someone something that makes them sit up and take notice. There are so many bands and albums out there, that you are just one of millions, and you have to try and say to the listener “ You need to listen to Cats in Space”. You have to make yourself stick out, and Pete Townshend was in a field of his own.

Earlier you touched on how you thought that ‘Kickstart The Sun’ and ‘Bootleg Bandoleros’ were the two best ever songs that Cats in Space have done; for you personally, how do you know when a song is that good? Does it trigger something in you? Do your arm hairs stand on end?!

To be fair, if you can love your own music, and wallow around in your own ego – which I am a master at! – then that tells me everything that I need to know. If I want to play a particular Cats in Space song as much as I want to play ‘March of The Black Queen’ by Queen, then for me personally that means that I’ve validated that song. I stand by every song that we’ve ever done, it might not be for everybody and there are some songs where the production was not how I envisaged it, but very few songs go above and beyond what you thought in your heard when you wrote it. ‘Bootleg Bandoleros’ for instance, I could see the entire scape of that eight-minute song in my head, and it took me ages to try and get it into a format where I could then record a demo of it…and explain to people what the fuck was going on! That one was originally going to be something else, it wasn’t going to be ‘Bootleg Bandoleros’, and then Steevi send me these words for what was going to be ‘King Of Stars’ and I just started scatting his words over the melody for ‘Bootleg Bandoleros’, and the minute that I did that I thought “I’ve got this whole song in my head now”. I was thinking ‘War of The Worlds’ ‘Forever Autumn’, I was thinking Kansas, I was thinking Thin Lizzy, I was thinking Boston. All these little bits came into my head, and I knew the minute that I put the demo down…I said to Ian Caple “This is going to be a biggie…this is going to be the best that we’ve ever done”. We both knew it. You just know. And that’s when you know that you have something special. The intro to ‘Bootleg Bandeleros’ is still my favourite thing that I’ve ever done…and the guitar solo where we increase the volume, and with the backing vocals…I said to Ian Caple that I thought the front end was a bit light, and he said “Wait until you hear the middle bit, that will make the hairs on your neck stand up…”, and then he played me it and I was like “Ah, mate, this is brilliant!”. The songs take a long time, we don’t just knock them out; this one took about ten days to record, and maybe a week to mix.

Is there a quintessential Cats in Space sound?

Certain songs that we do, have a sound that you know that you are going to go to, and that’s when I know that we have something special. We have a set sound that we use now that we didn’t have in the past because on your first few albums you are trying to replicate other bands. Now, well we can say that those are our influences, but the songs sound like Cats in Space because we use certain sounds like a dulcimer, a harpsichord, and certain bells – tubular bells. We use all that John Barry kind of stuff, and if you use all those on a certain song, and it’s right for the song, then it usually becomes a special song…‘Poke The Witch’ being one, ‘Bootleg Bandoleros’ is one, ‘Fifty-One Pillow Bed’ funny enough is one because I think the guitars on that are really nice.’Mad Hatters Tea Party’ is the seminal Cats in Space song because of the sounds, but on this album, with every song I was going “Fucking hell, this is really good!”…this is a different-level Cats in Space”…and financially it is as well because we have doubled everything!.

With you being so involved with the album, did you ever find yourself having to take a step back and walk away?

I am my own worst enemy when it comes to worrying about putting yourself up on the rack with yet another album. I’m thinking that people will say…” Surely they can’t keep writing albums of that calibre? They’ve got to write a duffer at some point…they’ve got to do their ‘Hot Space’ [Queen’s infamous “disco” album] eventually!”...and I don’t want that to happen. I want to make albums where people say…” Fucking hell, I can’t believe your new album…you’ve done it again”, and I really try hard to make that a thing. Until the album is complete, I cannot put it down. You live and breathe it for some time, and I would like to say that I’m sick to death of it now, but funny enough I played it in the car a few days ago, from start to finish, and I thought…” This is good”, and I’m not finding too many faults with it which is also something that I’m a bugger for!

One of the many enjoyable aspects of the album is that you use a real brass and horn section, courtesy of Jack Birchwood, rather than just using electronic samples…

Yes! That was a huge difference. Jack plays everything; trumpets, horns, real French horns…and I love French horns, that triumphant cry off of a mountain! I find it so cinematic, and using real horns on a track, creates a cinematic vibe, it doesn’t matter if you use the most up-to-date and expensive technology, if you use a computer then it doesn’t move air. When you are physically recording a live instrument then there is air, and that’s the difference. I said to Jack to play where I intended him to play but if he felt anywhere else needed it, then to play. He sent me back the part for ‘Bootleg Bandoleros’ where it comes back in for the chorus just after the guitar solo, and there is a triumphant melody just after the vocal, that he does on the trumpet, and that was absolutely pant-wettingly good! Again, it was another level up…I mean, you are probably going to ask about B.J. Cole as well, but Jack is like your typical brass player, they like a drink and love a laugh, and they are incredibly attached to their music. He’ll be with us again, trust me.

You mentioned B.J. Cole who plays pedal steel guitar on the album, that’s such a strong, emotive instrument…

Oh, tell me about it! I’ve wanted pedal steel since the first albums, and what Ian Caple is brilliant at doing is…he has this almost naive thing of saying “ Well if you want it, go get so-and-so…we’ll just contact him” and then he’ll be showing me whoever it is Wikipedia page and I’m thinking…”…no way am I approaching them, they’ve played with everybody!”. And Ian will say “Well, they’ll either say fuck off, not interested, or they’ll be too expensive”. And Ian suggested we contacted B.J. and this is really bad, but I didn’t know who he was! And then Ian pointed out that he had played with everybody; he had played on [Elton John’s] ‘Tiny Dancer’ and then Ian got B.J.’s Wikipedia page up and scrolled through everything that he played on…and then I was like “Oh God, shoot me now!”.

We contacted him and asked if he would be interested in playing. He said he would, in passing I said that as well as all the other artists he had played with, he had played on ‘No Regrets’ by The Walker Brothers which is one of my all-time favourite songs. I mentioned that we had done a version of it, with previous vocalist Paul Manzi. He checked out our version and came back and said it was fantastic, so I cheekily said “I’d love to revisit that song with pedal steel…”, and he said that if we did a deal for the three songs that he plays on then he would chuck in ‘No Regrets’ for free! So I emailed Ian and said, “You are not going to believe what I just pulled off!”. I didn’t want to listen to what B.J. had done with our version of ‘No Regrets’ until the album was done. So once it was done, we were sitting around one day and I said “I need to listen to what he has done with ‘No Regrets’”…and the minute that pedal steel came in on the intro I was like “Fucking hell!” that was such a moment that I knew then that I had to re-do the song. No disrespect to Paul Manzi as I still say that pound-for-pound that was his best vocal performance for Cats in Space, but I’ve got to use that track. No way can I not use it. We’re going to do the full monty on it, and make it massive. I’m going to get Jack in on the horns, get real strings on it, and Damien has already re-done the vocals…and his vocals on it are astonishing.

And all of that just came from a speculative email, just shows you…

As Del Boy would say…”He who dares!”

You mentioned earlier about ‘Charlie’s Ego’ being a fun song, what’s that one about?

It’s based on someone from the ‘70s who in this day and age still feel that their face should be on TV. One of those people who were famous for a while and in 2020 are still trading off their success in 1978. It’s like when you see posters up in theatres for Pantomimes and it will have maybe one half-decent person, and then everyone else below it you are thinking “ Who the fuck are they?!” And it will list what they used to be in, like “Charlie from Emmerdale Farm”…and you are like “Eh? It was 1976 that he was in that!”. And they are still trading off it in 2020! So it’s a bit of a cheeky poke at a guy who doesn’t accept the fact that maybe his face doesn’t belong on TV anymore.

There are so many of those around!

Yes, and of course we have the wonderful Julie Maguire saying at the end “C’mon Charlie…”, you know, like calling him in! The actual song was originally called ‘The Continuing Saga of Charlie’s Ego’ and I was going to make it a two-parter but that was too long a title. And I have a funny feeling that this one is going to be a big song, it’s a good ‘un this one. To be fair, I think there is a bit of “Charlie’s Ego” in all of us, there certainly is in me. I’m nearly sixty, and I still think that I’m twenty-five and valid in the music business! To some people I am, but to some, I’m too old and too grey!

 

‘Kickstart The Sun’ is available July 29th, more information, here.

Interview – Dave

Promo images – Carriage Return Media Services

Live images – Dave Jamieson

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