Exploring “Empire Records” // The Chainsaw Kittens

I was watching “Empire Records” one day recently when, for the first time, I started taking notice of the innumerable stickers, posters, CD’s, and cardboard stand-ups that riddle the entire movie set. It suddenly occurred to me that the movie is little more than a boundless, abandoned warehouse of obscure pop culture references.

Though I’ve seen it dozens of times and probably should have picked up on this earlier, I suppose that when I was young I just thought these background adornments displayed the names of fake bands, or that songs like “Sugar High” only existed within the confines of some sort of movie vacuum. And let’s be honest: to a ten year-old, “obscure” and “imaginary” have all but synonymous meanings.

I started looking in the background at posters to see if I recognized anything. I immediately caught one pretty obvious reference staring me right in the face: Ethan Embry wearing a jersey with “Chainsaw Kittens” on it. It sounded vaguely familiar, so I Wikipedia’d it:

The Chainsaw Kittens were a part of the American alternative rock scene…For various reasons, primary among them a pronounced lack of major label support, the Kittens saw little commercial success. However, they have since gained recognition in such sources as Allmusic and the Trouser Press as one of the best groups of their era.

Fair enough. I read a little further and found out that the band spent the majority of its career on Mammoth Records – a defunct nineties indie label known for putting out records by Fu Manchu, Juliana Hatfield, the Melvins, and New Orleans legends Dash Rip Rock and Dirty Dozen Brass Band – before moving on to Scratchie Records, founded by James Iha, D’arcy Wretzky and one guy from Fountains of Wayne.

I was able to track down a couple of their albums. What I found in their early work, namely 1992’s Flipped Out in Singapore, was straightforward, almost prototypical, alternative rock: sleekly-recorded drums, jangly guitar solos, and a relatively unique falsetto singer combining to form a sound so barefaced and direct that it was utterly devoid of any gimmickry or studio bells and whistles. “High in High School” combines the best (or worst, depending on where you’re coming from) cock rock elements of Guns N’ Roses, Sense Field, and Everclear, a perfect song for joyriding in your parents’ car without their permission. Hearing it makes me genuinely wish that non-teens could still get that kind of thrill without drugs.

However, 1994’s Pop Heiress (see “Loneliest China Place”) and 1996’s Chainsaw Kittens (“King Monkey Smoke”) found the band working towards a more dynamic indie rock sound. Though it’s unclear what spurred central member Tyson Meade’s shifting tastes, the Kittens’ later material contains some of their best music, as they delve heavily into the burgeoning college rock movement, utilizing Pavement-esque drums, noisy guitars, and an array of strings and synths.

In 2000, the Chainsaw Kittens essentially called it quits (with the exception of the occasional one-off performance in their home state of Nebraska), and its members have since been unable to make any waves in the national music world. Nevertheless, in the end somehow it all works, not just as an artifact 90s independent rock, but more importantly as an interesting career for a kick ass rock band that, though born of an ego and greed-driven glamrock world of million-selling records and international tours, seemingly never aspired to such.

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2 thoughts on “Exploring “Empire Records” // The Chainsaw Kittens

  1. Enjoyed this. Some context:

    Flipped Out in Singapore was produced by Butch Vig in 1992 right after he finished L7’s Bricks Are Heavy–that accounts for the straight-forward grunge rock churn. Though the band’s previous album, 1990’s Violent Religion, doesn’t rock nearly as hard, it offers a purer take on Tyson Meade’s vision circa the early 1990s. Here’s the band around that time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_9qUXYN6gA

    On tour for Flipped Out, owing to some personality conflicts, all but one member of the band mutinied; the rhythm section went on to form the competent but uninteresting For Love Not Lisa. Meade could easily have quit or tried to assemble a replica of the old band but, instead, moved forward into the uncharted territory of the sound inside his head.

    The last several Kittens albums are so good because they don’t really sound like anything else–there are Pavement or Britpop touches, and the musical DNA of the Beatles, Cheap Trick, and T. Rex, among others, can clearly be heard–but it’s a music largely out of time and place.

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