An unassuming quintet of electronic musicians bearing roots in Madison became one of the city's most renowned musical exports over the last year. They are Cougar, and their debut album Law is poised to make an impression in upcoming months, as it is finally getting a "proper" U.S. release more than a year after splashing down in Europe. Their layered and urgent brand of instrumental rock has already attracted quite a bit of notice, though, at least among serious followers of new music.
The album was cited in the 2006 year-end list of albums and shows created Steve Manley, the co-owner of B-Side Records on State Street. He said Cougar's music bears "surprising layers of texture, with melodic segments that have a very organic flow." Those comments were only the latest in a year of praise from bloggers and other musicians.
Trailblazing music blogger Steve Marchese gave high praise to Law last November, right around the time the album was listed in the best-ofs on an online magazine and British dance-rockers Maximo Park hailed it as one of their favorites of the year. More than a year ago, Irish music writer Sinead Gleeson was giving it props as a potential favorite. Law has subsequently been extolled by more listeners, who have praised it as stirring and delicate.
Even today, Cougar was profiled by City Pages in the Twin Cities, the weekly paper's writer describing Law as a "curious beast."
"By all means, buy this album," urged Isthmus music writer Tom Laskin in a recent review that notes the growing praise for Law. "But make sure to hear the band live, too," he continued. "They'll give your esthetic sense a heck of a workout and shake your rockist foundations, too."
Cougar embarked upon their U.S. release tour this week, their first night in La Crosse followed by fifteen consecutive nights taking them around the Midwest (and a one-night jaunt to New York) before the whirlwind arrives on the West Coast. On the eve of their opening show, Cougar multi-instrumentalist Aaron Sleator answered a few questions about the group's building momemntum.
The Daily Page: You kicked off the tour on Tuesday, and are hitting Madison on Monday, Jan. 29. It looks to be busy, with performances every night for two weeks. What should people going to your show expect to see?
Sleator:The shows are going to be great. There are two supporting groups on pretty much every date. David put a lot of work into finding groups that really make quality music.
I'm particularly excited for the High Noon Saloon show because it'll be the first time I've seen The Optimistic. I love their record. Louka Patenaude (the man behind The Optimistic) is a ridiculously talented guitar player and songwriter.
Cougar will be playing songs from the record and debuting some new ideas we've been sending each other over email. We worried about being able to write new songs because we all live in different cities now, but we were able to put some solid material together in a relatively short amount of time.
I've heard that Law is getting re-released in the U.S. on Feb. 20. Would you explain what exactly is happening?
The U.S. release is not a re-release. This will be the first time the record is formally distributed across the country. B-Side has been nice enough to allow us to sell the record at their store.
Someone commented to me that instrumental "post-rock" music has already seen its heyday when I was telling them they should listen to Cougar. What's your take on the status of pop, indie, and popular indie music as it stands in 2007, particularly in terms of the ongoing changes in music distribution and popularization. Where does Cougar fit into this?
I think the state of indie music is incredibly healthy. There are a great number of bands making unique music.
The Internet is so vital to having any sort of popular presence. MySpace is essential in allowing us to find support groups, new influences and people with similar tastes wherever they may be. I love the fact that I can wake up everyday and see who's coming through town, read a review, then listen to their songs on MySpace.
Popular music has been going down the dumps for a long time now. There are some people like Jay-Z or Jack White that you can trust to make quality records, but I think the major label popular music scene can be rather depressing at times. I'm not sure if it's a case of too many cooks in the kitchen or what, but I know that with any sort of art, advances come from small groups of people on the fringes. By the time new sounds or ideas become mainstream they tend to be watered down. Sometimes that's okay, but most of the time it's just boring.
The album has received acclaim not only from music bloggers and publications, but from other bands too. How do you think this helps word of your music get out there more?
I think words of praise from other musicians are powerful. Everybody loves to be recognized by his or her peers, plain and simple. It's a great way to get turned on the music you've never heard, and it's fun to learn how records can be influenced by the work of other groups. I know that when a group I respect mentions music they like, I'm much more likely to seek it out.
What's next for Cougar?
What's next? Well, I imagine we'll be working on new songs and touring again. It takes awhile for new ideas to become streamlined enough to be consider it record-worthy, so I'll be excited to get back in our studio.
It took about a year to record Law because we were figuring out how to work the studio and tried out a lot of different ideas to shape the tone of the record. The next record might be recorded in a shorter amount of time. Maybe. After that we'll probably go get something to eat and make fun of each other.