Some Cat From Japan is a new super group that explores the music of Jimi Hendrix. The group includes bass player Ron Johnson (KDTU, Brett Dennen) guitarist Scott Metzger (RANA, Particle, American Babies, Serena Jean Band, Bustle in Your Hedgerow), guitarist Will Bernard (Stanton Moore trio, Will Bernard trio, T.J. Kirk), keyboard player and vocalist Nigel Hall (Soulive, Eric Krasno’s Chapter 2, Lettuce, the Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi band), and drummer Eric Bolivar (Bonerama, KDTU, Pimps of Joytime, Anders Osborne.).
The original concept for the band came about seemingly randomly in December of 2009 when Johnson, Bernard, and Bolivar were all home (in The San Francisco Bay Area) for the winter holidays. For the past few years, Alex Andreas from the Boom Boom Room has asked the musicians to put together a band for a special holiday show. “The repertoire [for that show],” explains Johnson, “is usually a bunch of boogaloo tunes. But last year we decided to do something different to give it a little more focus. We chose Hendrix and everyone was into it.” For the gig, Johnson named the group “Some Cat From Japan,” a nod to David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” which is rumored to be about Hendrix.
A month later, Howie Schnee, of New York’s Sullivan Hall was looking to book an open night and contacted Johnson about putting together a band. Bernard and Bolivar were available, so Johnson decided to bring back Some Cat From Japan. To round out the show, he added Scott Metzger as a second guitar and recent Maine transplant Nigel Hall to sing and play keyboards. Save for a brief pre-show session in Sullivan Hall’s basement, this version of the band wasn’t able to rehearse. Still, what might have been a cold-bowl-of-oatmeal type show for less-seasoned musicians, actually galvanized the new lineup. “The chemistry was unreal,” says Johnson “Just big ears where everybody was listening.” Afterwards, he thought, ”Hey, we might have something here…”
In talking to Bernard and Metzger, I am quickly reminded that Hendrix’ influence hasn’t waned with serious musicians. “When I first started playing guitar,” says Bernard, “he was my absolute favorite guitar player, so I listened to all his stuff a million times. Coming back to it now is really fun—just being older and being able to figure out all of the little details more easily. It’s basically just “Oh, that’s what that was.” Metzger adds,“It’s a prerequisite if you’re going to be a serious guitar player to go through a massive Hendrix phase.”
What strikes me as interesting about the guitar players in this band is that for a Hendrix inspired group, neither of them sound much like Hendrix. I totally stick my foot in my mouth—and show how little I know about the two guitarists’ influences—when I tell Will Bernard that I can’t hear much Hendrix in his playing. “To me, it’s in everything I do—especially a lot of the funk soloing. I think of songs from Band of Gypsies like “Who Knows,” and the way that the band just lays into this pocket. Hendrix just milks the melodic and rhythmic aspects of it. To me he’s just a totally funk guitar player playing at his best.” He adds with a friendly laugh,” I could play you some stuff!”
The band’s approach to the Hendrix catalog is refreshingly scholarly. “What I think makes it interesting is that we can play some of the other parts on the albums that the audience might not have heard live before,” says Bernard. “We can theoretically recreate the sound of the later albums, which is sort of what our goal is—trying to focus on later period stuff.” “It’s just becoming obvious to us” adds Metzger, “that the later period music is what we’re all really interested in. We were over here the other day listening to the album Cry of Love it and I had forgotten that it’s a really involved record. There’s a lot of arrangement stuff going on, stuff that lends itself really well to two guitars, or six.”
Johnson elaborates on how this is what makes Some Cat From Japan different from other groups that cover Hendrix,”you’ll hear people play “Purple Haze” and blah blah blah, but you don’t hear anyone playing “Easy Rider” and “Astro Man” and stuff like that.” He continues,” That may be what separates us from the pack. And it’s an education, going back and listening to one of those twenty guitar parts. It’s like “wow, that’s ridiculous.” It’s a well that keeps on giving.”
For Eric Bolivar, the only member of the group who isn’t Brooklyn-based, band rehearsal time is almost non-existent. This doesn’t seem to be a huge problem for him, though. His feeling is that, “It keeps you on your toes—but I love doing it.” One of his more interesting regular gigs—and one of his inspirations to move to New Orleans is playing with Anders Osborne. Playing with Anders and other New Orleans musicians who don’t always rehearse has been a great preperation for gigs like Some Cat From Japan. “Before moving to New Orleans, I had been in these bands in New York and California that rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed before playing one gig. Sometimes it’s amazing how things down here get pulled off. It can just be a hodge-podge no rehearsal kind of thing and somehow the show is amazing.”
Portland, Maine native Nigel Hall moved to Brooklyn just a few months ago. “Up in Portland, it’s like nothing is going on, but while I’m in Brooklyn, man, every minute is taken up with work. I’m still catching up on it all.” Was he concerned with the addition of keyboards to Hendrix’s music? ”I honestly feel kind of disrespectful to Hendrix because I’m playing keys on his stuff in the first place” he says. “I don’t want people to be like “who is this guy playing keyboards when there are no keyboards?” Overall, Hall employs a more is less approach, ”You just have to be a good enough musician to listen and know where it needs to be. For me, it’s like cooking: little pinches of salt and pepper here and there.”
Nigel, whose connection to the catalog comes from his father (a big Hendrix fan and a musician himself) enjoys the interpretive approach of Some Cat From Japan,” If this was a thing where we were trying to play Hendrix’s music note for note, I wouldn’t do it. It’s one thing where you learn the parts and it’s another thing where you just vibe.” For Hall, this vibing may be the secret to playing Hendrix’s music in the first place,” He wrote it, but he didn’t say, you have to play this part and this part only. He was free in his mind and his environment. And that’s really the best way to play Hendrix: to show other people that you are free too.”
[Some Cat From Japan opens for Galactic on 6.3 at Brooklyn Bowl, plays the Hard Rock Hotel in Baltimore, MD on 7.24, and is on the 2011 Jam Cruise]