The jamchild of guitarists Dan Venne and Trent Johnson, drummer David Skogen, bass player Todd Hill, and electronicist Aaron Slater, Cougar crawled out of a cold Madison, Wisconsin, basement in 2003. The band’s epic-emergency post-rock stylings have since traveled across the country and overseas. In 2007, they toured the US and Europe with their debut album, Law, on the Layered Music label and have since signed with London-based Ninja Tune. Their work has been compared to Mogwai, Bjork, Mars Volta, Explosions in the Sky, and, in a memorable phrase, Time Out Chicago music writer Steve Dollar once admitted that he “tried resisting the temptation to deem this gang of mood merchants the Sons of Tortoise.” Clearly, the temptation was too great.
I spoke with Dan Venne just prior to Cougar’s fall 2009 European tour in support of their new album, Patriot. You can listen to the music and buy things at http://www.cougarsound.com. (In addition to the new album, I recommend the extremely cool Croatia tour poster.)
David Bowen: When does the tour for Patriot start?
Dan Venne: I’m leaving tomorrow night. I fly out at nine and the tour starts on the first of October. So we have two days in London to kind of get over the jet lag—make sure all the gear gets there on time—it’s kind of the general protocol whenever we go on Euro tour.
DB: Is this your third tour in Europe?
DV: It’s our fourth time overseas, though one of the times was just with Maximo Park for like a week and a half, just in the UK.
DB: Have you guys done a big US tour yet?
DV: We did one. When we released Law we did a US tour. It wasn’t really a proper tour in a sense. I think we did maybe 16 or 17 shows. It is way more difficult to tour the US—there is just less money involved. Very few concert promoters will guarantee you any money. Accommodations are pretty rough. And the distances—that’s probably the biggest thing. The distances between big cities are really tough. We did one drive, and this was a monster drive—we went from Lawrence, Kansas, to somewhere in Arizona in one day.
DV: You get really good at sleeping in weird positions.
DB: You just signed with Ninja Tune a while back. How’d that happen?
DV: We kind of got hooked up with them through a lawyer friend of ours. She has contacts. I can’t remember exactly, but it seems that for a fee she solicited several labels and acted as our front person and was able to get the record in people’s hands. A lot of labels said they liked it but Ninja was the first to really bite. We’re glad it worked out, especially since they were able to release the album in 2009.
DB: What sort of support does the label provide?
DV: The main thing is publicity—they’ve got their own publicist team. Before the record even came out in Europe we had reviews. At one point before it came out here we had more reviews international than we had during the whole campaign for Law. Their PR team is just ridiculous…they can get into all kinds of markets…we were featured on the front page of the alternative iTunes store in Japan for a week.
DV: It’s a small world after all.
DV: You can’t do that without a label, at least not unless you’re already a name and can fund a publicity team yourself. The label helps with legitimacy too—having a known label backing you makes it easier to deal with booking agencies. Certain media agencies pay more attention when you’re backed by a label they’ve heard of. The other thing is the access to advances. Our contract is for four albums, during which Ninja has options that no one else is entitled to, but if we thought it was in our best interest to do a small tour in Japan in a few months, and in order to pay expenses and make it worth the band’s while we might have to take money from the label in the form of an advance, say a couple of thousand or so. The label would do that for us. We still owe them the money—in terms of record sales, licensing fees. But that is pretty common if it is your first label.
DB: You played in several bands in Madison before you got together with Cougar and began flying around the world to promote your innovative brand of post-rock. Looking back on the experience, what does it take to get from point A to point B—or point C to point Q—wherever you feel you are now?
DV: You need to stick to it. You need to be professional. If you think you have a good thing going, then you need to try to book a tour and get promotion going. You should do a photo shoot with a professional photographer or at least a friend who has some really good gear. You need to look the part if you’re going to get the part. You of course need to sound the part, but that’s a different discussion.
DB: How did Cougar get its look together?
DV: One guy did the design for our albums and website and the other did the photography in Madison—Scott Pauli and Peter Streicher. Amazing artists. Right now I am working on a short film with them. We’ll try to break into the small film festival circuit if we can. Ninja Tunes might help us with the film, since it’s in their best interest to get it out there, too—we’re using Cougar tunes for the soundtrack.
DB: I’ve seen some of the film, and it seems to be making a political statement. Is Cougar’s music political?
DV: No, we don’t create any sort of intentional political context when we’re making music. The band is fairly united on a lot of political issues—we’re all fairly liberal—but that’s not our conscious aim with Cougar.
DB: The album is called Patriot.
DV: We thought it was a strong word, one with multiple layers of meaning.
DB: Aside from a certain aesthetic—the way Patriot looks, the way Cougar sounds—how does Cougar’s music make meaning? It’s instrumental, so there are no lyrics to explicate a particular narrative or position. The “epic-emergency rock” label that’s been applied to Cougar aside for the moment, one can hear the sense of urgency in the music. Where’s it coming from?
DV: I’m never really good at that question. I decided a long time ago that I wanted to make music that I want to hear. It’s a different approach when I do commercial music or TV music—I’m writing music that’s intended to help tell a story, whether for a commercial or a documentary. With Cougar, it isn’t like there’s a specific story we’re trying to tell. There is a common aesthetic, so I know when I have an idea whether it would be good to show to the band and maybe work into a song. But as far as underlying meaning, I personally have never gone there—I let other people do that however they want to with the music. I imagine that every person who listens to the music creates their own meaning, experiences their own emotions, as they listen.
DB: There’s a lot of intricacy to Cougar’s music. How does the band approach form and structure when it comes to song-writing?
DV: On Patriot—and even on Law—we really focused on where the hooks are. That’s the thing about sample-based music, like hip hop, and one reason why it is so powerful when it’s done well. In Cougar, the idea is that if a lick or a beat or a melody feels like something we want to hear again and again, that becomes a building block, a section. Maybe it becomes the whole song. The first track on Law just has that one riff [hums]. That’s a good example of an idea that we thought was cool, and from there we harmonized it into different parts, and at that point the form’s development becomes a fairly logical thing. At the same time, we have to be selective. I’ve got a shameful amount of stuff that I have to let go of, no matter how hard it is to pass on an idea.
DB: Did you say you had a song on an episode of CSI?
DV: Yeah—30 seconds of a track, over the footage of the crime lab or something. That’s the kind of thing that makes up a large chunk of the music industry—licensing and synch fees for TV shows or movies. It’s one place where people make some money in the music industry. We got our fingers crossed that in the next year or so somebody will use a Cougar song for a mainstream show or a movie. If it gets played, it can fund a tour, hire a publicist—make other things possible for the band.
DB: You guys write music without lyrics—it’s a choice about form, about texture. Is there something that’s more “pure” when the music doesn’t have language and words shaping it?
DV: Some people want lyrics—the personal connection of a frontman-vocalist, something for the audience to focus on. We’re definitely not making a statement about one route or the other, but we’ve chosen to focus on the instrumental hook.
DB: The other challenge is that the audience has a harder time figuring out which of you is Bono.
DV: I know—exactly.
DB: How did you guys come up with this “epic-emergency” label? It seems fitting—any time there’s a narrative component to the music or a track, there’s this connotation of authority, power. You sample a law lecture over one of the tracks.
DV: That’s definitely our aesthetic. I don’t think we made that decision consciously—it’s just sort of a group dynamic that works this way when we play together. I don’t remember how the “epic-emergency” label came about—I think it was a fun way for us to talk about what we were doing at the time. I don’t mind if people call what we do “post-rock,” but for me that term conjures up the idea of these long drones, slow builds with lots of reverb that doesn’t necessarily focus on hooks. The term “post-rock” felt like a pigeon hole. I don’t want to bad mouth those bands, but we focus on hooks. And it’s something fun to say—what’s more fun than an emergency?
DB: Everyone that’s any good has a vision, something unique—something that makes their work difficult to categorize quickly. But when we’re talking about genres, it seems that in a way we’re talking about conversations. What kind of conversation do you hope your music starts? What already-started conversations has it joined?
DV: I like when I can talk about structure—looking for sounds, melodies, chords. Ideas. The Hook. I’d be glad if an idea like “emergency-rock” could start a conversation about some of those elements.
DB: It comes down to interpretation. All art is shades of interpretation.
DB: Are there specific bands you’re talking to in a conversation like this?
DV: It was 1997 or 1998 when I was first introduced to Tortoise, and I was pretty blown away. I was like, “You can do something like that?” I don’t think the other guys in Cougar listen to stuff like that as much any more, just because interests have wandered elsewhere. There was an interview that Cougar did for Owl and Bear and we were asked to list our five most influential albums and I was the only one that talked about anything that would be considered post-rock, but I felt the need to give a nod to Tortoise for opening my mind to this particular landscape. The other guys were talking about Brazilian music, African percussion stuff.
DB: Are you taking deliberately from some of these other traditions? Brazilian, classical, tango, jazz?
DV: Sure—I think any musician who plays a lot has absorbed whole worlds of sounds and rhythms and forms and ideas. In Patriot there’s a lot more orchestration, and that’s my doing—I’m taking ideas from my classical background and weaving it into the dynamic we’ve already found together as a group. I’ve studied counterpoint, voice leadings, orchestration techniques. You’re going for a sound, and you’ll use all the tools at your disposal to find it. I usually only figure out how I got to an idea in retrospect, though. I’m not necessarily thinking about these things as I’m writing.
DB: This brings me to another process questions. You guys are all in different places.
DV: New York, Austin, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison.
DB: How does the group collaborate from such a distance? Could you describe the process that led to the writing of a particular song from the new album?
DV: Each song from Patriot has its own story. I probably wrote the most on “Rhinelander.” Basically, Aaron Slater had an idea and he posted it on a website where we all go to download ideas and listen to them—Aaron called this one “Balls.” I liked it—it had a cool beat, a rhythm that stuck in my head. So I spent some time with it and came up with the lick you hear at the beginning of the song, sent it around to the other guys, everyone else started weighing in. We added elements, took some out. I wrote another section and some more guitar parts. Then we were in England for a minute, and we stopped in this incredibly old church and a boys’ choir was singing. We all stopped to soak up the acoustics of this beautiful church, and a while later I started thinking about writing some choir parts. The guys liked it, but they had feedback—so slowly I kept cracking it. Eventually we had a friend in Chicago write some lyrics in Latin, and then another friend, a female vocalist, came on board to round out the vocal tone.
DB: How does the Latin translate?
DV: I have no idea, but I love how it sounds.
DB: Do you eventually end up in a studio together, once the ideas are ironed out?
DV: We did a lot of Patriot remotely. We did one marathon weekend here in New York with the guitar players. I brought them into the studio where I work and we powered through a lot of the tracks that we had written remotely. There were still some things that we needed to write together, and then we’d go into the studio and record for hours at a time. We mailed those files to David Skogen, the drummer, and he’d add his tracks. It allows each of us to have a little more room to do our thing, since it’s so expensive for everyone to be in the same studio at one time, and the money adds pressure to keep it moving.
DB: Sounds grueling.
DV: It’s hard. It sounds great now that we did it, but we all have butterflies in our stomachs about the upcoming tour. We did four-and-a-half days of rehearsal and a show, and tomorrow we’re going overseas to start the tour. It can be tough to bring the tracks together live when they were written remotely.
DB: Where do you guys come up with the titles for these tracks? You said “Rhinelander” started out as “Balls.”
DV: We stand in front of a whiteboard at the studio and shoot ideas around until something works.
DB: Of all the songs on the two albums so far, which one has the funniest story behind it?
DV: That’s easy: “Heavy into Jeff.”
DB: For some reason, I thought that was going to be the one.
DV: I’ve never even seen it, but it’s from a Saturday Night Live skit. Kevin Nealon is reviewing movies he’s recently watched, and his evaluation is just this list of emotional responses: “At first I didn’t like it, then I was confused, then I sort of liked it, and eventually I loved it—” After a while, he segues into some extremely explicit gay porn that he’s been watching, and he’s like, “At first I was confused, then I was ashamed, then I was a little curious, then I sort of liked it.” One of the movies he was reviewing was called Heavy into Jeff.
DB: Who wrote the hook for that one?
DV: That’s was Todd [Hill]’s. For a while, the working title was “Quadblaster.”
DB: Are you already talking about the next album?
DV: Yeah. I had an idea the other night and I recorded it. I keep listening to it. I’ll see the guys in a few days—I’ll pass it around. Before I push the idea further, I need to bounce it around the rest of the band and see if it’s strong enough. A lot of time, they’ll latch onto an idea I have that I’m not even that crazy about, and they’ll help develop it. One of my favorite tracks is “Appomattox.” Most of that track was written by Trent [Johnson], but the last section goes into these slow guitar chords that build up. We were sitting around listening to Trent’s hook and I was messing around with this piece of shit guitar, and I started coming up with the chords and the other guys were like, “We need to use that!” It wouldn’t have been something I would have thought to use.
DB: I love collaboration. I’m working on a graphic novel with some pals right now, and if I’m working by myself, I can be so self-critical it can be almost paralyzing. But if we sit down and start writing together, it becomes more like a jam session. We come up with ideas, and we both get immediate encouragement if it seems like it has promise. You’re working on some other projects, too, aren’t you?
DV: Still doing Hans Blix, the free-form improv trio here in Brooklyn. I’ve also gotten more serious about writing for television and film. I’m working on the independent film with Peter and Scott, and it has a very different tone than the stuff I do with Cougar—it’s funny. I like it. There’s maybe a story that comes out of a Cougar album, but if there is, I doubt it comes across as funny or ironic.
DB: If you had the opportunity to collaborate with another artist—a filmmaker, or a poet, say—what kind of artist would be compatible with Cougar’s vision?
DV: We joke about getting Thom Yorke. There’s a track floating around that I should send you—we did a track with the lead singer from Maximo Park, and it turned out like a dance tune. Really unlike typical Cougar stuff. It’s pretty awesome.
DB: What about directors?
DV: Michel Gondry, the director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, would be someone who I would say is compatible with Cougar’s vision. But if I were going to look for someone to film a Cougar tune that was already done, I think I’d want it to be more abstract, less narrative. Especially for the music that we’ve already written, I’d hate to try to force it into a story that it wasn’t made to tell. Maybe David Lynch? Someone who can move in fragments that multiply meaning.
DB: I think of that Decemberists album—The Hazards of Love.
DV: I haven’t heard it.
DB: It was interesting listening to the album several times, figuring out how the story is being told. It just seems like such a cool feat of the imagination—you could summarize the whole story in a few sentences, but the album breaks the narrative into many pieces, so that there are multiple narrators in different tracks, and you have to figure out how one character moves from one track to the next once the perspective has changed. And there are these recursive hooks and loops and phrases. It seemed like a really interesting way to approach making music. “Okay, we have this story—now how do we develop it with chords, melodies, rhythms?”
DV: I think that’d be really difficult for Cougar, actually. To work from a pre-existing idea. For us, it’s all about the hook, and whether we can work with it as a group, and if so, how we can develop and build it into the song. I think a pre-formed story might stifle us.
DB: How would you characterize the differences between Law and Patriot? Is there an evolution in the band’s sound from one to the other?
DV: It boils down to a technical thing—we’re better at producing music at this point. We’re more nuanced when it comes to production and engineering. There’s more orchestration, more ear candy. We went all over the map to a certain extent, but we were able to follow ideas in Patriot that we weren’t able to before because the technical limitations didn’t get in our way.
DB: Is it true that your next album will be a collection of honkey-tonk tunes?
DV: Absolutely true.
DB: You should call it Rawhide. It feels in the same vein as Law, Patriot—
DB: If you were really going to write a honky-tonk album, what would you call it?
DV: Pancho and David.
DB: Nice. Who’s Pancho?
DV: You’ll find out soon enough.