I’ve fallen into a black hole looked like your heart
felt like my soul
Now I got nowhere to go
from this side out looks like the end of the world
How do you take the image of a black hole and make it positive? According to Elizabeth McCullough, aka Alpha Cat, “When I wrote that song I’d just read how astronomers had determined that you could actually escape a black hole, but only by going all the way through and out the other side. And that leads to all this worm hole and time travel theory, where not only do you avoid annihilation, but you arrive at a place you might never have reached otherwise. It’s an amazing metaphor for transformation, and ultimately hopeful. That’s why the end of the song is: you gotta go deeper it’s the only way out.
Alpha Cat started as a band, and morphed into a collective. In the mid-90’s McCullough, a photographer who had begun writing songs on her own, ran into some old acquaintances. One was James Mastro, whom she had photographed while he was in the Bongos. She asked if he would listen to some of her 4-track demos. He happened to be in the market for pix for his new project the Health & Happiness Show, which at that time included former Television guitarist Richard Lloyd. McCullough and Lloyd got to talking, and Lloyd agreed to play on the first studio demo of McCullough’s songs. The Mastro connection also led to a friendship with Television bassist Fred Smith, who agreed to produce a new demo, and ended up co-producing two Alpha Cat CDs.
That “demo” became 1999’s EP Real Boy. With only 150 copies sent to college radio stations, Real Boy ended up in the CMJ National Add Charts not once, but twice, receiving more airplay adds than such formidable and widely distributed offerings as Beck’s Midnight Vultures, and Metallica’s S&M. It went on to spend six weeks in the national airplay charts, unusual for an EP. At that point McCullough decided it was time to let the photography go and focus on music.
The follow up to Real Boy, October 2001’s Pearl Harbor, was, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, unfortunately timed. With an image of a bomb and the sound effects of a glass building falling down, the CD was eerily prescient. It was not well received initially, for obvious reasons. Upon rerelease in February 2002, it did much better, receiving significant airplay on college radio, and winning a couple “best of” awards that year.
With the Alpha Cat song “Pearl Harbor,” it’ becomes apparent how longtime visual artist McCullough’s previous passion has informed her current love. Without an understanding of how equally light and its absence form the world we see before us, it’s difficult to imagine McCullough having had the vocabulary to describe that world musically. “It occurred to me that this place was called Pearl Harbor before it was bombed, and that it must be because literally, there were pearls in the harbor. I tried to imagine what it might take to get back to where that place was about treasure, rather than destruction.”
In 2005, following the ending of an unfortunate romantic entanglement, McCullough decided to move to L.A. to work with drummer Jason Harrison Smith. Smith had gigged with Alpha Cat several times in Los Angeles over the previous years, and was immensely receptive to her music. Recording began on the album Venus Smile in April of 2006, and 15 instrumental tracks were completed with the help of engineer and co-producer Jon Mattox, guitarist Doug Pettibone (Lucinda Williams, John Mayer), bassist Reggie McBride, (Elton John), and of course, Jason Smith on drums and co-production.
Seven vocal tracks were completed as well, but by July, McCullough fell into her very own real life black hole, losing her voice and experiencing a profound emotional and psychological breakdown. She was unable to complete the record.
Years of depression, hospitalizations and treatment, including a round of ECT (much less frightening than in the old Cuckoo’s Nest film) followed with no result. But in 2013 an experimental treatment yielded some relief from the devastating suicidality and paralysis that had plagued her, and she attempted a return to music. She booked the first of two gigs in London at the legendary
12 Bar Club, where she had performed successfully in previous years. However, her perceived betrayal by both her heart and her music, rehearsals and the prospect of returning to the stage brought extreme anxiety and fear. She began to drink to cope. Two gigs at the 12 Bar were virtually unattended, a sense of hopelessness set in again, and the drinking continued.
Fortunately, the following year McCullough decided to revisit the Venus Smile recordings that actually had been completed. She enlisted popular Miami DJ and engineer Brett (Cosmo) Thorngren to do mixes of the songs, with encouraging results. And as it turned out, she had found a new champion in Thorngren. But it wasn’t until early 2019, with newfound sobriety and the retreat of long held fears, that she began to listen to those mixes anew, and began to appreciate them and realize that maybe there was something in this music after all. And then, in early June, McCullough experienced an epiphany, and she decided to put out those very songs as an LP. And old and new connections began to fall into place, seemingly magically, to help her achieve this. The result is the new record Thatched Roof Glass House. At long last, her journey through the worm hole seems to be complete.
The Waitresses Chris Butler, who is known for such 80’s dark-happy hits as I Know What Boys Like and Christmas Wrapping, wrote a review of an early London show for Britain’s “Get Rhythm” magazine. In it he described Alpha Cat’s work as “funny, intense and surprisingly beautiful, ‘how the fuck do you steer this thing called life’, songs.” How much truer now than then.
Influences: Dionne Warwick, Bob Newhart, the Beatles, Carole King, Motown, Led Zeppelin, Monty Python, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Tom Petty, the Cure, the Police, Prince, the Pretenders, Beck, Nirvana, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Alpha Cat Discography: Real Boy; Pearl Harbor
Compilations: Sharp Cuts, Shuteye Records, 2003; Hurry Home Early: The Songs of Warren Zevon 2005; Females on Fire (Vol. 1, 2005); Young, Single and Angry, Soundtrack 2008
Film: Swimming (2002); Young, Single and Angry (2008)
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