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New EP: Peter Cat – The Magus

Cover art for The Magus. Peter Cat stands at a table adorned with leather-bound books, an ornate perfume bottle, and a Venetian mask, gazing off to the side as he holds a candle over the flame of another.

Peter Cat arrived on my radar in 2020 with the release of The Saccharine Underground, a fine debut LP falling somewhere in the gap between what I guess you’d call art-rock and art-pop. What I liked most about that record (aside from the sheer quality of the tunes – many of which are inexorably burnt into my temporal lobe) was the sense that songs could go off in a variety of directions from any one minute to the next. In Graham Neil Gillespie, here was an artist with the technical skill and knack for writing great pop melodies, but also one always acutely aware of how ridiculous it all is. And so it was a real delight to download new EP The Magus last week and discover that the ludicrousness has been turned all the way up. Indeed, anybody exposed to Melon Dating Simulator!! in January who found themselves beguiled by its resolutely peculiar charms will no doubt find a lot to love across the other three tracks here. Gone are the more straightforward guitar-centric arrangements of the debut – although I must say that I’m using the term ‘straightforward’ incredibly loosely here – and in their place are spindly, jazz-infused guitar lines, diseased ‘80s synths, crisp drum machines, unhinged vocals, and all manner of strange goodies. It is, of course, all rather brilliant too. 

Opening track Blue Raspberry is a wonderful mess of wonky synth hooks, skeletal Coxonesque guitar, and silky vocals at times almost tripping over themselves in a rush to deliver the next knockout line. It’s a nostalgic thing, capturing the terribly human trait of chasing something, someone, or some ideal that never existed in the first place – in this case the mythical blue raspberry. As is customary with Gillespie’s best tunes, just when you think you have it sussed out it sidesteps before launching into a falsetto-soaked final act. The Magus follows, and is probably the most experimental of the bunch. An odd beast to say the least too; an intriguing juxtaposition of electronic spoken word verses, pitch-shifted menace, and a pounding juggernaut of a chorus that – and I can’t believe I’m going to write this for the first time in my life – absolutely slaps. Obviously it’s one of the pieces most explicitly referencing the source material too – John Fowles’ 1965 novel of the same name – with Gillespie channeling the diabolical titular character with unhinged panache.

Melon Dating Simulator!! (don’t forget those exclamation marks) is basically the perfect pop song. Yes, its chorus of ‘I think that I’m in love with a melon‘ and post-apocalyptic setting places it firmly in the niche section of the pop classic aisle, but fuck, what a package it is, and I challenge anybody to listen to it once and not have the chorus stuck in their mind for days. In the same way that Neil Hannon’s My Imaginary Friend must be one of the only songs in the history of Western music to use the word ‘peripatetically’ – and I think pretty much exists solely to use it – I can confidently count on, well, zero fingers the number of times I’ve heard ‘cucurbitaceous’ in a pop song. Or life. Of course, in the Peter Cat universe it’s entirely to be expected, and delivered with such gleeful knowingness that it barely registers as it slips into your subconscious. Then you find yourself frantically Googling it at 3am on a school night, and writing about it on a blog that far fewer people than you’d like will ever read. Anyway, it’s a great song and feels like the perfect mix of all the things that made the debut LP great combined with the new, postmodern oddball pop chops that make up this release. I really love the almost-modular feel to how the pieces are bolted together, particularly as the song reaches its coda of ‘the stars are out tonight / because they’re rationing the light…‘ – which also serves as another reminder of Gillespie’s formidable lyrical wit and knack for wordplay.

That Melon… doesn’t have the privilege of being the best song on the EP is itself the surest sign of just how good the quality of what’s on offer here is. Indeed that particular accolade in my opinion goes to the closing number, Disappearing Act, which is the EP’s real lyrical and musical tour de force. Opening with a sparse arrangement of just piano and guitar, backed in places by some subtle synth strings, it puts Gillespie’s ornate baritone to excellent use as it winds its way through a series of surprising melodic twists across its hefty six-minute runtime. There’s not really a huge amount to say here that listening to the song once won’t tell you, if I’m honest. As the song moves into its final phase, the electronic backing and other flourishes from the preceding three tracks begin to swell, rising up as the veil lifts and Gillespie repeats the mantra ‘it’s not enough‘ over and over (think Hail to the Thief-era Thom Yorke piano ballads). It’s truly beautiful, almost overwhelmingly so, and much like that elusive blue raspberry, leaves you yearning for more.

So there you have it. It’s not likely to be to everyone’s taste, but if you like your pop music veering on the theatrical side, with weapons-grade hooks, and a big old dose of weird thrown in the mix for good measure, then this could be just what you need. With The Magus, Peter Cat has managed to raise an admittedly high bar even higher, and I’m sure I won’t be the only person eagerly awaiting whatever comes next.

A brief Q+A with Peter Cat

📸 @audreybizouernephoto

As you may have guessed, I’m very much a fan of the music of Peter Cat. I’m also an absolute glutton for hoovering up as much information as possible about music – well, art in general – that intrigues me, so naturally there was little chance I’d write about something like The Magus without putting a few questions forward. Fortunately I get the sense that Graham enjoys answering them almost as much as I like posing them, so do read on for some interesting musings on creativity, writing, recording, analogue gear, and the paralells between the protagonist of a 1965 postmodern literature classic and the softboi. And if that wasn’t enough, he’s also kindly sent over an illuminating track-by-track guide to the EP. So grab those headphones, open that malbec, and dive in.

• Obviously this is a set of songs that has a whole new sound and feel to the stuff on the first album. It’s exactly not like that record was full of straightforward stuff anyway, but The Magus is unashamedly odd for the most part, and very hard to pin down. Does that mean you approach writing in a different way now? Thinking about something like the title track in particular…

I’ve definitely felt a shift in how I’m approaching composition, compared to where I was at on The Saccharine Underground. It was initially borne out of necessity, in that the whole EP was written and recorded at the tail end of 2020, in my flat, during the winter lockdown. By that point it had been close to a year since I’d been in the same room as my (human) band; or indeed, as any band. So it didn’t seem to make much sense to write music with a view to performing it live, since at that historical juncture, the possibility of doing so seemed so remote.

So, I sat down at a desk with the particular bricolage of musical equipment I’d amassed at home – primarily drum machines, a few fizzy old synthesisers, and a 125-year-old upright piano – and asked: can I use this junk to chisel out a different version of Peter Cat? One that’s immediately a departure from The Saccharine Underground, but which is ultimately still recognisable as being the same project? And that’s where the more aspirational side came in, because the more music I wrote like that – all synthesised equipment, running straight into a computer – the more that I let the music lead me where it wanted to go, rather than me trying to force it into the verse-chorus, three-and-a-half-minute box. And it did feel quite liberating!

As you’ve picked up on, this is particularly the case on the title track. I got thinking about the Dadaist cut-up technique for that keyboard intro: I must have recorded around thirty little 4 or 5 second keyboard passages, all disconnected from one other, one night, then returned to it a week later to stitch the best of them together into a longer, more coherent passage. The parts weren’t initially linked to each other at all, but through the assembly process, they started to make some degree of sense. So in using this cut-up technique, I felt less immediately restricted by basic concepts like meter or key: restrictions I might have felt more was I writing in a more linear way, like just sitting with a guitar.

• Also, I’m really interested in the gear you’re using. I really love the kinda diseased quality to the synths (is that a DX7?), whatever drum machines you’re using, and the tone of your guitar… I mean, genuinely, how do I make my guitar sound like that?

Ah, one for the gear nerds! Yes, for my sins I am inextricably wedded to analog circuitry: it’s a fetish I picked up a long time ago and haven’t been able to shake since. There’s an argument that the sonic benefits are somewhat outweighed by the financial drawbacks, but that’s a discussion for another time. And you’re very close with the DX7! It’s actually a Yamaha TX81Z, which is the rackmount cousin of the DX7. It dates from 1987, and has developed quite the cult reputation, particularly because of its cracking bass presets. On ‘Blue Raspberry’ and ‘The Magus’ you hear the most famous one, called ‘Lately Bass’, which you can also find on Madonna’s ‘Express Yourself’, Orbital’s ‘Chime’ and (disputably) on the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme tune! My trusty Roland Juno-60 synthesiser and Roland TR-08 drum machine make up the bulk of the remaining sounds.

On the ‘diseased’ quality of the synths: part of it is that ineffable degradation and saturation of analog circuitry that people can spend their whole lives chasing! Although much of the credit in this case must go to the stupendously talented mix engineer who worked on the The Magus, Chris McCrory. The things that man can do with a simple chorus plugin are beyond me. He has this incredible ability to use saturation and modulation to wash things out just enough, creating a real atmosphere without ever crossing the line into gimmicky.

Guitar-wise, it’s really nothing too fancy – the same battered old Gibson SG I’ve had for fifteen years, running through my Dynacord ‘Twen’ valve amp (a mid-60’s German-made copy of a Fender Princeton: not too pricey and very slept on in my opinion) and mic’d up inside my walk-in wardrobe. That makes it sound like I was recording the EP in Kardashian-esque luxury, but my walk-in wardrobe is basically just a cupboard with a few coat hangers. But fortunately, it makes for an excellent recording room – even though there’s barely enough room to stand upright!

• How did the EP come about? Must admit, I’d never heard of the book but it’s now on its way to me. I think what’s really interesting is that musically you seem to be picking out hooks, riffs, and sounds from any point in the last 60-odd years, and it feels completely timeless because of it. For some reason I can’t get the work of Martin Kippenberger out of my head since listening through the whole thing for the first time, and it’s only occurred to me while aimlessly writing this question that basically it’s the same thing you’re doing. Albeit with songs about dating melons in the virtual realm…

Well, as the title might suggest, the whole thematic outlay of the thing was inspired by John Fowles’ novel, The Magus. I appreciate it’s a little on the nose to call the EP after the book, but the novel – which I tore through shortly before writing the record – was looming so large in the back of my mind that it only seemed fair to acknowledge its influence clearly.

It’s one of those books that hit me in a really deep place, because the narrator is a despicable character, but behaves in such a way that some people – and I mean heterosexual men, specifically – will recognise and uncomfortably identify with aspects of his personality. The narrator goes through life using his existential angst and emotional turmoil as a means of eliciting pity from the women he meets, and after initiating relationships with them, promptly breaks them off because he claims he’s too broken or unloveable to do them any justice. And of course, after dumping one, he’ll go through the same dance with the next. He creates this warped, misogynistic justification for his behaviour: because in his own eyes, he’s the victim (of the world, of institutions, of his father), he feels no qualms about using the women he meets for nothing more than his own gratification. He’s deceiving them, but he’s deceiving himself, too. Of course, he gets his comeuppance in the end, but I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet!

The book was written in 1965, but it quite quickly struck me how many parallels can be drawn between the narrator and our supposedly very modern figure of the ‘softboi’, whose “master plan…is to appear gentle, cute, pure and slightly alt in order to get in your pants” (that’s according to Urban Dictionary). That men still try to deceive themselves and others in this way, whether consciously or subconsciously, in the same way as we did 60 years ago. With Peter Cat, for some reason, I’ve always been drawn to writing from specious subject positions like this: people convinced they want one thing when they really want another, or convinced they’re doing something right when they’re really not.

I must admit, I am currently unfamiliar with Martin Kippenberger – so while you plough through Fowles’ book, I’ll get myself to a retrospective somewhere! I believe that’s what they call cultural exchange.

Peter Cat’s track-by-track guide to The Magus

Blue Raspberry

Inspired by the temperate, suburban summers of my youth, spent chowing down on blue raspberry flavour ice poles and wondering: where does one find these mythical blue raspberries? Where do they grow? Of course, the song is not about ice poles: they’re just a jumping-off point for exploring the idea of chasing something that doesn’t exist, and the amount of energy one can so wastefully expend in doing so.

The music began as a complete joke – trying to write the most TikTok-ky riff I possibly could, with a trap-rap 808 beat and a naff Mac DeMarco guitar tone. Completely to my own detriment, I ended up really liking it, and turned it into a song! I still don’t have a TikTok account though.

The Magus

I had the most fun writing this one. The only thing that happens twice is the chorus, but everything else is a one-off, and doesn’t repeat. Which on paper shouldn’t work, or at least, shouldn’t work as a pop song. But – and not to blow my own trumpet (or FM synthesised trumpet emulation) – I think it does. It’s my first baby step on the long road to writing something as good as ‘In Dreams’ by Roy Orbison – the best pop song ever written without a single repeating section.

Most of the song is drum machine and synthesiser based, but there’s a brief segment in the middle where I’ve used washed-out guitars, bass, drums and organ to recreate the sound of a lost Greek psychedelic rock record from the mid-60s. The words being sung in Greek are ελευθερία, or variations of – meaning ‘freedom’, the illusion of which is the theme of the song, really.

Melon Dating Simulator!!

This song is the black sheep of the EP, really, in that it doesn’t have the same kind of obvious connection to the themes I’ve been talking about as the rest of the songs do. But its role in this collection is to work as a positive counterpoint, without which the message of the EP might be too overwhelmingly negative. I imagine it as a idealistic vision of what a relationship can be, if you’re open and honest, and if you don’t engage in deceptive practises: one in which you and the other both acknowledge that you aren’t perfect and that you’ve done wrong in the past, but use that as a foundation to really see and know one another, and build on that, rather than just use that openness as a means of eliciting pity or sympathy.

Of course, it’s also a very daft song about being in love with a melon – and you can take it either way! Big shout-out to creator A. Hagen, whose Steam romance sim Superstorm Melon Date both inspired the imagery of the song and got me through a long few days recovering from Covid last year.

Disappearing Act

Unlike the other tracks, this one was written in a more conventional manner: sitting at a piano. Specifically, a 125-year-old Berlin-made upright I have in my third floor flat, that took six people a whole hour and a lot of sweat to lug up three flights of stairs! There’s a bit of a vaudevillian or cabaret feel to this one, I think; and a few theatrical asides littered throughout (“one more last deception until I deceive again,” for example). I really wanted the listener to feel that nudge-nudge-wink-wink quality of the narrator’s supposed contrition, and to hate them for it.

It ends with the pitch-shifted ‘Magus’ voice returning, and his furious, impotent realisation that the facade has been stripped away; his magic is gone, and he’s nothing more than a subject for study, with the object of his desire and lust wearing the lab coat.

You can find Peter Cat on Bandcamp, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

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