Deep South DIY: The Cats Purring Collective

[Dent May in Oxford, MS; December 2010]

By Marissa A. Ross

MP3: Dent May: "Eastover Wives"

MP3: Bass Drum of Death: "He's So Fine"

MP3: Dead Gaze: "Take Me Home or I Die Alone"

A little over a year ago, out of nowhere really, there were murmurs on the internet of a mysterious entity by the name of "Cats Purring." It started making regular appearances on my Twitter feed, usually accompanied by a curious comment or TwitPic from Mississippi singer/songwriter Dent May. I started digging around to see what all the commotion was about, and discovered that "Cats Purring" had not only its own Twitter, but also a website and a Tumblr. Through a constant stream of media-- from animated GIFs to photos of raucous house parties-- it quickly became clear that a number of the South's most prolific DIY bands had come together to form a sort of musical Megazord. ON A DUDE RANCH.

I talked with Dent May about Cats Purring over iChat a few weeks ago. For those of you who have somehow gone this long without hearing about Dent May, here’s a clue: he rules. This silk-voiced Oxford crooner won't be confined to any single genre. His 2009 debut LP on Paw Tracks features his incredible ukulele skills, while his side projects tap everything from hip-hop to his country roots. To a non-native, one of the most distinctive things about Dent is his passionate yet unconventional Southern pride. After spending a whole hour "with" May, I still maintain that Cats Purring is a Megazord. I can’t say that I remember "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" in its entirety, but I know that the Megazord consisted of, like, all five of the Rangers coming together in their respective Zords to form one huge Power Ranger ready to kick ass and make shit right in the world.

So yeah, Cats Purring, basically.

[The Cats Purring Dude Ranch; December 2010]

Cats Purring had humble beginnings, evolving from a curious inside joke between members of the Oxford area's burgeoning independent music scene. “The original idea came from a conversation about what would make the ultimate album cover, and we decided it'd be a shitload of cats, all purring,” May remembers. “It's been incubating for a while, and it's more telling of our friendship than anything else. It really is like a family, and it's been this way for a while. It's just, now we have a website.” Between Bass Drum of Death, Dead Gaze, Flight, Junk Culture, Tommy Toussaint, Pink Priest, and May himself, the crew of long-time pals are having a grand old time building the Northern Mississippi DIY arts scene from the bottom up.

"Cats Purring is intended to be vague," says May. "It really could be anything, but it's mostly just to make Missisippi a better place, and to show some love to the people who are making creative and weird things down here." For now, the crew is focusing mainly on organizing shows, while jointly promoting locally grown music on the Cats Purring blog. "It can be anything," he admits. I'd just love for there to be better art here, and we just want to encourage that.”

According to Dent, the musical climate in Mississippi is pretty much what you might expect, but feel slightly guilty about expecting: thick with country twang and hackneyed blues. “A lot of [local] bands are influenced by that. It's mostly a nostalgia thing, or just something for tourists to see when they come on their blues tours. There's a lot of pretty generic blues-rock bar music, so we've specifically tried to bring more experimental stuff though that kind of weirds people out. There've been a few shows where people were pretty uncomfortable, and those are always my favorite. I just want to shake people out of their comfort zones.”

[Bass Drum of Death's John Barrett at the Cats Purring Dude Ranch; January 2011]

Cats Purring has done just that, aided by a steady influx of talent from all over the country. We’re talking the likes of Real Estate, Gary War, Julian Lynch, Velvet Davenport, Tennis, and Vivian Girls. But that is only the beginning. After a slew of shows at Dent's former residence in Taylor, Mississippi-- "The Cats Purring Teen Wing"-- the collective relocated to a 5,000 square foot former Boys & Girls Club in Oxford with a swimming pool and an enormous deck-- "kind of a redneck version of a '70s disco pad or something," says Dent, who moved in last month with Cole Furlow from Dead Gaze and Thomas Cooper from Gray Things. "It needs quite a bit of work, but we're going to throw shows to raise the money."

And that starts right away, with a calendar of upcoming shows featuring the likes of Sic Alps, G-Side, Gobble Gobble, A Place To Bury Strangers, and Woodsman alongside the bands in the Cats Purring collective. An appearance at the Dude Ranch by Prince Rama, Jeff the Brotherhood, King Tuff, and Amen Dunes on March 12 is already being hailed as a North Mississippi pre-party to SXSW.

The Cats Purring crusade becomes even nobler when we take into account the Mississippi social climate, which doesn’t exactly sound like the most welcoming side of "weird." "Sometimes it's hard living in Mississippi, because there are a lot of conservative people who aren't very receptive to anything out of the norm," Dent explains. "We all grew up being heckled by rednecks, and that still happens. Dudes yelling "Faggot!" out of pickup trucks, and that kind of thing.”

Not that May and the gang would ever let that get them down. May is by far one of the most optimistic people I’ve ever had the chance of meeting, the kind of raconteur who ends every one his stories on a positive note: “On the other hand, this kind of close-mindedness is what drives us to do Cats Purring. In a way, Mississippi's weakness is its strength. Those of us who stuck around want to change shit. We want those dudes yelling "Faggot" to come hang with us, because I'm pretty sure we can all be friends.”

[Dead Gaze's Jimmy Cajoleas and Flight's Steven Bevilaqua at the Cats Purring Dude Ranch; February 2011]

The collective's long-term goal is to start releasing records-- hopefully by this summer, though Cats Purring artists aren't the kind to rush things. "I never want to think about the album cycle culture," says May. "Being like, 'Oh, time to make an album because the label wants an album!' It's more about always producing and having a constant stream of being. 'Only do it when you want to do it,' I say."

Maybe it's because I live in a town full of transplants, but it's so inspiring to see people coming together to nuture their hometown into a hub for independent culture. "It's hard to explain, but I don't think I'll ever live anywhere besides Mississippi," Dent admits. It's not like he's never lived anywhere else; May attended NYU for three semesters, close to Brooklyn and everything else we music nerds consider holy. But it's telling that he chose to go back home: "It's really important to me to go hard and make things happen here. I just want to be ambitious and release as much good music as I can, however we can. We’re down for any and all media forms that we can accomplish. Posters, flags, temporary tattoos. There are no limitations."

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