The Na­tive Cats on their hard-boiled in­spi­ra­tion

As The Na­tive Cats, Ju­lian Teakle and Chloe Ali­son Es­cott make po­etic and un­usu­ally stripped-back mu­sic that riffs on gen­der and sex­u­al­ity by way of a James M. Cain pulp novel.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - By Andy Hazel.

“Life af­ter tran­si­tion­ing is the clos­est that you ever get to time travel, in a way.”

Chloe Ali­son Es­cott, The Na­tive Cats

Chloe Ali­son Es­cott and Ju­lian Teakle are sit­ting in a park in North Ho­bart. It’s a warm win­ter’s day, free of the wind and side­ways rain that typ­i­fies early Au­gust in Tas­ma­nia. They are sit­ting at a pic­nic ta­ble, speak­ing to me while cy­clists swish past and dogs ca­vort and par­ents talk as their chil­dren play nearby.

To­gether, Es­cott and Teakle are The Na­tive Cats, one of Aus­tralia’s most qui­etly re­mark­able bands. The pair demon­strate the truth of most Tas­ma­nian art, be­fore MONA and its at­ten­dant fes­ti­vals, sep­a­rate from those ex­cep­tions who find suc­cess on the main­land or over­seas: the mu­sic they make is for, and al­ways has been for, other Tas­ma­ni­ans.

“I’ve al­ways en­gaged with Ho­bart as more a psy­chic space, a psy­cho­log­i­cal space,” says Es­cott, push­ing her hair out of her eyes. “Pre-MONA there was a num­ber of re­ally de­ter­mined peo­ple mak­ing art, but Tas­ma­ni­ans out­side that com­mu­nity didn’t know that there was any­thing go­ing on. MONA has been able to suc­ceed be­cause of this arts com­mu­nity. It was al­ready hap­pen­ing and it was al­ready great.”

The Na­tive Cats’ fourth al­bum, John Sharp Toro, was re­leased ear­lier this year on the Syd­ney record la­bel R.I.P So­ci­ety. Its epi­logue, the EP Spiro Scratch, came out last week on Teakle’s own Rough Skies

Records, one of two he runs. Both Es­cott and Teakle are fix­tures of the city’s mu­sic scene. Their concert at this week­end’s Mered­ith Mu­sic Fes­ti­val in Vic­to­ria closes a trans­for­ma­tive year, al­though whether this qual­i­fies as a marker of suc­cess is hard to say.

Teakle and Es­cott think about what suc­cess means and share a glance. “More in­ter­est­ing things hap­pen to us,” Es­cott says.

“The more peo­ple hear your songs, and the more peo­ple love your songs, the more con­ver­sa­tions you get to have. And the bet­ter and more com­plex your songs are, the more in­ter­est­ing the con­ver­sa­tion.”

The Na­tive Cats’ songs are com­plex, but not im­me­di­ately so. Es­cott’s wry, in­tel­li­gent de­liv­ery sits over Teakle’s surg­ing, loop­ing bass riffs and rhythms that con­sist of just a bass drum and a snare. There is a rare joy in finding mu­sic this sim­ple and strange. Es­cott’s lyrics read like po­etry, with their odd com­bi­na­tions of im­agery and dec­la­ra­tion:

We are the­ory, we are con­cept

We are dark and de­lib­er­ate shapes on the walls of a her­itage home

We are fig­ures 1 and 2

Untested, un­proved, un­beaten, un­moved

They can’t do what we do

Some­times, Es­cott adds melod­ica to a song. More of­ten, a Nin­tendo DS hand­held game con­sole, trig­ger­ing a synth, which brings the dis­arm­ing fa­mil­iar­ity of a com­puter game into a new con­text. The oc­ca­sional voices of Claire McCarthy, Emma Mar­son and Lisa Rime are the only other ad­di­tions, but The Na­tive Cats are un­usual for what is ab­sent. No gui­tars, no key­boards, no crash­ing cym­bals or click­ing hi-hat. No fa­mil­iar song struc­tures, no as­pi­ra­tional ra­dio-ready pro­duc­tion, no needy at­tempts to wrest your at­ten­tion. Their mu­sic makes other bands seem over­bur­dened by com­par­i­son. It’s been this way since their for­ma­tion in 2008.

“To be­gin with, it was largely Ju­lian’s band that I was singing in,” Es­cott says. “That’s shifted and bal­anced quite a bit fur­ther in my favour now. A lot of that is from me gain­ing con­fi­dence in my own ideas. I just re­mem­ber not re­ally feel­ing like I could speak up in those first ses­sions.”

“You hadn’t been in a band be­fore,” Teakle adds. “Yeah. I didn’t re­ally have a strong idea about how I wanted it to sound,” Es­cott says. “The plan you had for us was The Na­tive Cats would be you and me but we would record these songs and draft in a band to play them. I don’t think there was ever a point where ei­ther of us said, ‘Let’s not do that’ – we just didn’t. I think lazi­ness has driven a lot of our cre­ative choices.”

Teakle agrees. “I suppose we haven’t got that spec­tre or ben­e­fit of in­dus­try pres­sure here,” he says. “Peo­ple are quite un­self­con­scious. They’re try­ing to cre­ate in­ter­est­ing art that stim­u­lates them and the peo­ple around them and of­ten that leads to the best mu­sic. The idea of suc­cess is still a com­mu­nally de­cided thing. It’s not be­cause some­body got on Rage or on

Triple J. That’s great, but it’s more watch­ing a band like All The Weathers and go­ing, ‘Holy crap, how good is this?’ ”

Af­ter re­leas­ing their de­but al­bum, Al­ways On, on the Ho­bart la­bel Con­sumer Pro­duc­tions, The Na­tive

Cats put out their sec­ond al­bum, Process Praise, through US la­bel Ride the Snake. It was ac­com­pa­nied by a North Amer­i­can tour and their most ac­claimed al­bum, Dal­las, in 2013. Each showed the band ex­plor­ing new ideas with the same spare in­stru­men­ta­tion, Es­cott’s voice and lyrics al­ways front and cen­tre, Teakle bring­ing a mo­men­tum that kept their songs veer­ing be­tween states of ten­sion and re­lease.

Teakle has been an in­te­gral part of the Ho­bart mu­sic scene since the mid-1990s, play­ing in many bands, help­ing oth­ers to re­lease mu­sic on cas­sette and poly­car­bon­ate vinyl, and at­tend­ing count­less con­certs, whether in pub, hall or liv­ing room. Sit­ting next to Es­cott, he has the sen­si­bil­ity of a man col­lect­ing sto­ries and ex­pe­ri­ences through kind­ness, open­ness and pa­tience.

“When you tour over­seas, peo­ple can take you a bit more se­ri­ously, but it doesn’t change how good you are or whether you were good in the first place,” he says. “I haven’t re­ally no­ticed any bit­ter­ness or jeal­ousy to our suc­cess, or not to our faces. We’ve been around so long I think we’re just kind of part of the fir­ma­ment.” He turns to Es­cott. “Do you think tour­ing Amer­ica helped us?”

“It def­i­nitely af­fected those songs we were play­ing at the time in a re­ally pos­i­tive way,” Es­cott says. “We recorded Dal­las two months af­ter we got back and we re­ally un­der­stood those songs bet­ter. It cer­tainly makes you re­assess what suc­cess is if you’ve done this thing that’s con­sid­ered to be one of the great­est iden­ti­fiers of suc­cess to peo­ple who haven’t been in bands. Some­times peo­ple just need to know that some­body else thought you were worth some­thing.”

“That’s a good quote,” Teakle says.

The mu­sic video for the band’s most re­cent sin­gle, “Nixon Ne­vada”, has a friend, Mick Davies, im­per­son­at­ing Teakle as he vis­its the sites of old Ho­bart mu­sic venues, some real, some fic­ti­tious, while Es­cott sings and dances in dif­fer­ent parts of the city. The past and fu­ture splice to­gether.

I tried for per­pet­ual mo­tion, a kind of end­less os­cil­la­tion

Shift­ing weight ’round an­cient pil­lars, Nixon Ne­vada We can go just where we like, we can do just what we please

We can leave un­sat­is­fied be­cause we’ve got new ways to live

“It was re­ally im­por­tant to me to put that video to­gether,” Es­cott says. “For peo­ple to see me be­ing con­fi­dent and fear­less, but also to get it on Rage so peo­ple who are not seek­ing us out hap­pen upon it by ac­ci­dent. I wanted to put some­thing strong out there, be­cause even as queer, gay, trans, what­ever ac­cep­tance grows, this is still a world that is hos­tile to­wards peo­ple finding these an­swers for them­selves.”

Es­cott spent a lot of time work­ing out the an­swer for her­self. While do­ing so, she came to af­firm her gen­der as a trans woman.

“I don’t know if you re­mem­ber,” she turns to Teakle, “at the most re­cent Syd­ney show I de­scribed my tran­si­tion as a re­ac­tion to how masc the mu­sic scene was get­ting, that just got a bit out of hand.” They both laugh. “But it’s kind of half ac­cu­rate,” she con­tin­ues. “All I re­ally knew for sure was that I wanted to di­min­ish the gen­eral masc vibes of our whole thing. I was just to­tally un­aware that tran­si­tion­ing was an op­tion for some­body like me.”

Teakle cred­its Tas­ma­nian ho­mo­phobes as hav­ing turned him into a queer ally long be­fore he was fa­mil­iar with the term. “I’m a cis white het guy, which pro­tects me from a lot of things in so­ci­ety. I got called a fag­got a lot grow­ing up, and it wasn’t hard to imag­ine how it would feel if I were re­ally gay. See­ing videos on Rage or hear­ing peo­ple on Triple J talk­ing openly about their sex­u­al­ity re­ally nor­malised it, made me look at the world around me and want to change it.”

John Sharp Toro was writ­ten in a pe­riod of de­nial, Es­cott says. A tran­si­tional time be­fore her tran­si­tion. “I knew some­thing was up. I was finding ex­pla­na­tions for things, and that’s what went into the lyrics. I’m hon­estly as­ton­ished that it holds up as well as it does. And I feel like part of the rea­son that it’s some­thing I’m proud to de­liver on stage to­day is be­cause I was afraid of be­ing di­rect about it. I ab­stracted it and made it cryptic on pur­pose by build­ing a con­cept al­bum around it.”

The char­ac­ter of John Sharp was cre­ated by

James M. Cain, the pi­o­neer of the hard-boiled de­tec­tive novel. Cain is best known for pen­ning noir se­ri­als that were adapted into films: The Post­man Al­ways Rings Twice, Mil­dred Pierce and Dou­ble In­dem­nity. In his book Ser­e­nade, Sharp, a fail­ing but tal­ented opera singer, falls for Mex­i­can sex worker Juana Montes, be­fore the man who gave him his first break re­turns into his life. Montes can see that Sharp has ro­man­tic feel­ings for the man be­cause, Cain writes, his voice grows weaker when he sings.

“It’s an ab­so­lute fact within the fic­tion of this book that any­thing out­side of full nor­ma­tive het­ero­sex­u­al­ity di­min­ishes your singing voice,” Es­cott says. “I am ab­so­lutely fas­ci­nated by this bizarre the­ory. All the songs on the al­bum were in­tended to be read as be­ing in the char­ac­ter of John Sharp.”

Es­cott cred­its an­other book with not only open­ing the door to tran­si­tion­ing but invit­ing her through. “De­nial be­came a lot harder to main­tain af­ter I read Ne­vada by Imo­gen Bin­nie,” she says. “It has a rep­u­ta­tion as a book you pick up, not know­ing much about it, then you read it and think, ‘Oh no, I’m trans.’ That’s when you know for sure that you are. And I thought, ‘I’ll give it a shot.’ And sure enough…”

Bin­nie’s 2013 novel is about Maria Grif­fiths, a woman in her late 20s liv­ing in New York City, five years on from tran­si­tion­ing. Grif­fiths’ life dis­in­te­grates when her girl­friend ends their re­la­tion­ship and she loses her job at a book­store. These events prompt her to take a road trip across the United States where she meets James, a man liv­ing alone in a small town, or­der­ing dresses on­line and strug­gling to un­der­stand his gen­der and sex­u­al­ity.

“Life af­ter tran­si­tion­ing is the clos­est that you ever get to time travel, in a way,” Es­cott says. “You try to be some­body that you wish was there in the past. You see peo­ple who re­mind you of your­self at a cer­tain time, so you think, ‘What’s the thing that I can say or do for this per­son?’

“It’s im­por­tant to me to be on stage look­ing and per­form­ing the way that I do, so peo­ple who aren’t fa­mil­iar with us don’t think that this is some nov­elty or drag act. So I just say my com­pletely or­di­nary le­gal names, ‘Hey, we’re The Na­tive Cats, my name is Chloe Ali­son Es­cott, nice to see you.’ If I’d seen that on stage years ago, it would have changed my life.”

That night, The Na­tive Cats play a concert to raise funds for op­po­si­tion to a pro­posal for a ca­ble car de­vel­op­ment on ku­nanyi / Mount Welling­ton. “I apol­o­gise for not hav­ing my usual ban­ter,” Es­cott says to a cheer­ing crowd mid­way through their set. “I was in­ter­viewed for a very long time in a park in North Ho­bart ear­lier and I feel I’ve shared enough of my­self for

• one day.”

ANDY HAZEL is a Mel­bournebased free­lance writer and jour­nal­ist. He is The Satur­day Pa­per’s edi­to­rial as­sis­tant.

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