An Interview with Tyson Meade
of the Chainsaw Kittens
Year band began: 1989
Band members: Tyson Meade (vocals, guitar), Trent Bell (guitar), Matt Johnson (bass), Eric Harmon (drums)
Based in: Norman, Oklahoma
Type of music: Pop/rock
Record label: Scratchie
Web site: www.telepath.com/shade/zen_kitty.html
Funny how the world works. For some reason, second rate bands and artists seem to fly to the top of the charts in the United States...while the cream of the crop seems to be doomed to relative obscurity.
If there's any band that is a good example of this, it most certainly is The Chainsaw Kittens. This Oklahoma band has been producing exceptional power pop music for years now...yet thus far they have only achieved limited success. On an artistic level, however, this band is one of the most successful bands in the world. Why? Mainly because the band writes great songs.
I felt certain that the band's last CD on Scratchie Records (Oklahoma Speedway) was going to expand their popularity by a hundred fold. Songs like "Dorothy's Last Fling," "Heart Catch Thump," "Tongue Trick," "Bones In My Teeth," "Mouthful of Glass," "Bicyclehead," and particularly "Waltz Across Debris" are not only mind-boggling tunes...they get increasingly better with repeated listenings. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised when the record didn't fare too well...except among a small handful of informed reviewers and, of course, the band's extremely devoted fans.
We interviewed Tyson Meade on June 17, 1997. Tyson is the lead vocalist for the band, and writes most of the music...along with co-writer Trent Bell. He was born in Bartlesville, Oklahoma (the youngest of 5 children) and is now 34 years old. His father was an architect and his mom was a nurse. Both are now retired. Tyson is planning on finishing college after The Chainsaw Kittens complete their next full-length CD, due out early 1998.
What are the most important things you learned from your parents?
I think probably the most important thing that my mom ever told me was to be nice to people. That was the one thing that she really drilled into my head early is to always try to be nice...if people are nice, to be nice back or whatever. My dad taught me a lot of things...he taught me how to be good with money I guess, for the most part...to be frugal...because he always knew how to stretch a dollar and stuff. I do go out to eat a lot, but other than that I can hang onto money for a long time...
That's so funny. I'm probably one of the cheapest people in the world but eating out is my big downfall...
Yeah, me too. The Kittens just don't really make a lot of money so I just have to know how to stretch what we make.
Do you have pets?
I have one fish. It seems to be pretty healthy. It's a beta. I'm looking at it as we speak. I have a Sylvester cat that a friend of mine won in one of those "claw machines", you know, that looks over the tank at it.
Does it have a name?
Yeah. I named it Nureyev...like the ballet guy...because when I first got it the current was so strong that it looked like it was doing water ballet.
What was the most difficult time of your life?
Hmmm...the most difficult... I would say when the Kittens were first forming. I mean, we've never sold a million records but...that was way before the industry realized that stuff that wasn't Whitesnake and Skid Row...stuff that just, you know, guys playing music without a bunch of pandering to groupies...would actually sell. Nirvana only had "Bleach Out" and they hadn't sold a million records or anything and The Smashing Pumpkins weren't around...and of course Bush wasn't around. I think at some point we more or less had some sort of influence... Alternative meant like Guadalcanal Diary and stuff that I really hated... I wanted to make a change in the music and it was really kind of scary because I didn't know if anybody would take us seriously or if we'd get signed or whatever. We pretty much immediately got signed to Mammoth. We got together in January of 1989 and the first thing we did was we practiced for a month and then we made a demo. People were like "Oh, so you can play clubs?" And I was like, "No...so we can get a record contract. We'll play clubs probably and stuff but the main thing to do this demo is to get some sort of record contract." A month later we started talking to Mammoth. Everyone at the company really loved us and stuff...
That's the way it ought to work...
Yeah. We were really lucky in that way, and we've been really unlucky in other ways. We've watched as other bands that opened for us have sold millions of records. Weezer opened for us when they first put out their record. They actually even got stiffed by the club. And Everclear opened for us at one point, the Toadies opened for us at one point...
It's always frustrating for me when the best music out there just doesn't sell. Have the Chainsaw Kittens CDs been released in England?
Just like what happened with the band Sparks after they were virtually ignored in the United States, I bet if your music was released in England it would be an instant success...
Basically Mercury, our mother label, just doesn't give a fuck about us. They lied to us . I mean just totally lied. I'm friends with the guys in the Counting Crows, and we were supposed to do a tour with them in Europe...and our record was going to be out there... They just were doing it out of the goodness of their hearts because they're really great guys...and we were getting all ready for the record to come out there and then out of nowhere Mercury goes "Oh by the way...we're not putting your record in England and so you can't go over and tour there." Mammoth tried to do everything in their power to promote us, they just couldn't get us on radio for some reason. When we played in New York or L.A. there would be a ton of distributors and all that kind of stuff there to watch us...
I think Oklahoma Speedway is your best album ever.
I think it's overall the best album. All of our albums are kind of like if I had kids...because they take that same amount of time as a kid being born. You work on it and you work on it and then it's finally out and then you just kind of see how it grows. Our music to me...I think it's spontaneous but I view it as something that hopefully will be long lasting too, you know. It's kind of like any of the stuff I loved, I can listen to it now the same way that I listened to it when I was 12 or 13...the really great Bowie records, or the Sparks records, or the Iggy records, or the New York Dolls or whoever. A lot of those records never really sold that much but I think looking back on 'em people go "Those were really great records, you know..."
Do you think that things and people are replaceable?
Replaceable? Like within a band?
In the big scheme of things...friends, whatever.
I think that you're always gonna meet new and different people and hopefully form great friendships, but I don't think you can ever replace anybody that's been before. Within the band, for instance, we've went through a lot of changes. I love this incarnation of the band, but I still love all the guys that made it what it was when they were in it, you know.
No bitter feelings?
No, not really...because everybody always left for a reason. I get along with all the past members pretty well.
That's a good thing.
I just don't like having weirdness or enemies.
I'm the same way. What matters to you in life?
Being happy and making other people happy too. I think that's the thing that really matters the most. Accepting people as they are, and if I disagree philosophically with somebody sometimes it's easier just not to be around that person. Here in Oklahoma there's a lot of Bible thumping going on. The Bible thumping is so loud that sometimes the people can't even be good people because they kind of fall into a hypocrisy, you know. That is kind of upsetting, but I think for me...just being happy and knowing that every once in a while I'm gonna mess up, but for the most part I try to do the right thing all the time.
What doesn't matter to you?
I guess what doesn't really matter to me is gossip, for one thing. I've had a lot of extended family members talk about me behind my back...
I bet you sure have, doing what you're doing and living in Oklahoma!
Another family member will talk about it like I should really be upset, and I'm like "Well, you know, I don't give a fuck. That person that said it in the family can't even keep a job anyway!" It's that kind of thing. There's a lot of finger pointing, and I just try to ignore it. That, for the most part, I try not to let matter.
That's interesting. I think you're smart to handle it that way.
I just have to look at my success or whatever... Some people would say I've gone pretty far with what I'm doing, and some people would say I haven't sold a million records so I'm a failure. I've just been able to do what I set out to do and that is to make records. And when I made records I never in my wildest dreams did I even think I'd sell a lot of records anyway...and that wasn't really the point of making records. The Smashing Pumpkins set out to sell millions of records. That's why they formed. It'd be nice to make a little more money or whatever, but it's never been the reason for our existence or whatever...
I think that the best music being made isn't made to make money, but out of a basic desire to create something good.
Yeah. To me music has always been communication. I never was the most popular kid in class. So I don't really care to be the most popular band in the world either.
I think it would actually be a pain in the ass.
Yeah. My friend Adam in the Counting Crows, who is like the nicest guy, has tons of people coming up to him going "Oh, you're my favorite band...you're my favorite band." And it's like, "Well, is it because I've sold millions of records?" There's that question now...
Right. People are brainwashed. Is it because the stuff is good or is it because it's all over the place?
Yeah, yeah. People will come up to him on the street and go "Oh, give me a hug! I love you!" He's like, "You know, I don't even think you know my name. I think you just know that I'm in a really famous band." That would be frustrating. I know that every Kitten fan isn't a Kitten fan to be hip. We've touched something in them, and I guess that really means a lot to me too...
I think that, especially with the lyrics, you touch an emotional chord in people...
One of the other reason I've done this is to contribute to the music society or whatever... When I was a kid, listening to Patti Smith or whatever, I was like "Someday I'll be able to do what she does for me to somebody." And maybe at some point the Kittens will have a hit and when we do, it'll be really great. But I'm not holding my breath for that day. When we do finally have a hit, we'll also probably also lose a little bit of the intimacy that we've had up until now.
Sure. At this point, I only really enjoy bands in small clubs. When you get into the large environment, there's really no communication.
I definitely don't go to big shows.
It's all money at that point. Raking in money instead of people communicating.
That would be really frustrating to be a huge band that played to thousands of people every night. It seems like at that point it's nothing more than going to a Batman and Robin movie. It's like a big business. It loses some of its appeal. The communication element is totally lost. It's fine to go and be entertained or whatever, but at that point it is just being entertained the same way you would be by a big Hollywood movie.
Do you think laws are important, Tyson?
There are some that are just common sense. I think people, for the most part, shouldn't drink a whole lot and drive. I think each person knows how much they can drink... I mean, to be going down the wrong way on an Interstate and hit a family....I don't know how anyone could live with themselves after doing something like that. I think laws should be more like common sense. If you mess up, you get punished. But there are so many people that absolutely have no common sense. So I guess for those people, we have to have laws.
That's a good explanation. Laws are for people who don't have common sense.
But then stuff like smoking marijuana. I don't think that warrants being against the law. All it's gonna do is make you lazy for the most part. I think a lot of people have gone through phases where they were really into marijuana. I know I did, and I'm not so much now. That just seems kind of silly that our prison systems or court systems are so crowded because of stupid laws like those. I think that laws in general are important.
Do you ever lie?
When I was a kid I don't think I ever lied. The music industry has kind of turned me into a liar. It's the worst industry. I've yet to meet an honest person who has much power in the industry. I think industry people lie more than lawyers and politicians. Politicians are choir boys in comparison.
At least you're not jaded.
(Laughter.) But I love it, too. At the same time, it's like "Well, nobody's holding a gun to my head to make music." But there are so many good parts about it...like meeting the good people and stuff. Knowing that bands like the Counting Crows are really good people. Before I actually met them, I thought they were just another band that Hollywood churned out. They're one of those bands that just struck a chord in a ton of people, but I don't think they set out to make money. Adam just loves people like Ricki Lee Jones and Van Morrison...
I'd like to say that it doesn't matter what kind of person makes the music, but I'd definitely have to say that personalities have a huge impact on me. If someone is a jerk, it's very easy to just dismiss their music instantly.
I'm exactly that way. If I meet somebody and they're just really rude, I think "Man, I can't believe I wasted my time on them."
It's hard to separate people from what they're doing, because people are what they do.
That's so true.
What would you prefer to be doing most of the time?
I actually like touring quite a bit. I do a lot of gardening. And I do a lot of painting. I'm about to have an art show here in Norman at this Italian restaurant. When I get frustrated with music, I start painting. And I do sculptures. I've been working a lot with cement lately, of all things. My paintings are pretty much abstract. My sculptures, I do a lot of faces and stuff...kind of insane lawn art, I guess.
Do you think things are getting better or worse?
I think for the most part it seems like things are definitely getting better. There seems to be more compassion about things than when I was growing up, but in other ways there is also a sadness that our natural resources are getting vastly depleted. About anywhere you go you have to drink bottled water because the water is so bad. Even in Norman. I drink our water here some, but it's really not the same water I remember from being a kid. In my hometown the water there is really bad now too. I don't know if I didn't know any better or what, but I thought it was a lot better when I was a kid. The surprising thing, of all places, New York has really good water.
Do you have everything you need?
I guess I probably do. I would like to have more, but I think everybody always wants more. When I start whining to myself about not living in the best house...surprisingly I'm in love with the BMW Z3 sports car. Since I don't have one of those I get kind of whiny. I think about that and then I'll see somebody in a wheelchair and I'll be like, "You know...I don't have anything to complain about. I'm really healthy. I have all my teeth. I don't even wear glasses."
That's lucky. Do you own a chainsaw?
You know, I don't. I grew up out in the country in Bartlesville and we had one when I was growing up because we would cut our own wood, you know...
So you used to use one?
I don't think my dad trusted me with it. I got to pile up the wood, but I didn't actually really get to cut it. He thought I'd cut my leg off or something, I think. This was when I was about 12 or 13 or something...
I had one opportunity to use a chainsaw. It felt really good mowing through stuff...
Yeah. Now that I'm grown up I think I could be trusted with a chainsaw and not cut my leg off, hopefully.
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