JEFF the Brotherhood, Infinity Cat Recordings and a decade-long ride from the indie trenches to the majors (and back) 

Cat Skills

Cat Skills

Page 2 of 3

On a recent afternoon, the I-Cat house is a hive of activity. Piles of promo CDs, scraps from recently cut record sleeves and other evidence of hand assembly occupy a table in the kitchen where Heavy Cream singer Jessica McFarland is hanging out. Ian Bush, a 20-year-old intern from Appleton, Wis., and a distant relative of Sugarland singer Kristian Bush, has just arrived. "I've only been here two weeks, and I haven't done the same thing twice," he says, "which is pretty sweet."

Ale Delgado is Infinity Cat's social media coordinator — i.e., the main tweeter and Facebook updater — and de facto webmaster. A 21-year-old Belmont music business major originally from Cincinnati, Delgado decided she had to work at Infinity Cat after talking to a former intern who said he'd spent an entire day spray-painting old cassettes. "That pretty much made the decision," she says. Delgado also runs the milkshake truck Moovers and Shakers in the summer with fellow Bruin Hayden Coleman.

"It's like hanging out with your family, but better than your regular family," Halle Ballard says of the loose, fun vibe the label has cultivated. "And [Bob] stocks up the fridge with mini ice cream things."

At 18, Ballard is somehow both the label's youngest employee and its longest tenured non-Orrall, though she likens working at Infinity Cat to being adopted. Headed to Belmont in the fall to join Delgado and Bush as a music business major, the Nashville native has been at the label for five years, ever since taking an internship on a whim, after a friend who had signed up for it turned out to be too young.

These days, Ballard is also the lead singer in Art Circus, one of Bob's projects and a vehicle for his more whimsical pop songwriting. (The Art Circus album Apples and Oranges is out on Infinity Cat's sister label, Plastic 350.) And she designed the newest Infinity Cat T-shirt, now in its second printing. This is not a particularly hectic day, but it's busy enough that when local photographer Emily Quirk calls to see if there's any work she can do to pick up a few hours' pay, Bob gives the green light.

"When I first started here, I'd do like three orders every couple days or something, and the rest of the time I would just hang out and watch Bob write songs," Delgado says. "And all of a sudden I remember I came in one day and there were so many orders, and there was nobody else working at the time so I had to do them all myself. It was crazy. We blew up really fast, pretty much out of nowhere."

Or maybe not out of nowhere, exactly. On Delgado's first day of work, JEFF the Brotherhood had just finished recording their sixth album, We Are the Champions. "It was just cool because I got to see that whole thing happen," she says. By "that whole thing" Delgado means JTB's signing a deal with Warner Music Group, through which Champions is distributed by the conglomerate's sizable Alternative Distribution Alliance. She also means that thing where the preorder link for Champions went live and almost immediately crashed the Infinity Cat website — which led to that thing where the site finally came back online, but a glitch in the system made it impossible to limit the number of orders, so they ended up selling almost 300 more than they had planned for. "And people can still buy it — it's really weird," Delgado says. "We should probably fix that."

Champions was JEFF the Brotherhood's first album with Warner, though you could be forgiven for not noticing that aspect of the release. Warner sent out no official press release, and there is no Warner logo on the album sleeve. Aside from a catalog number on the spine, there is no evidence that Champions has anything to do with Warner at all. In fact, even as the final details of the deal were being ironed out, Infinity Cat pre-emptively released Champions themselves, and the band took a limited edition clear vinyl version with them on the road.

"The album was done," Jake recalls matter-of-factly. "Things were moving too slowly for us."

It was a gutsy move (or suicidal, depending on your viewpoint) to potentially jeopardize an unusually sweet and artist-friendly deal with one of the world's biggest label groups. But Jake and Jamin are no strangers to following their gut. Besides, they didn't need a record deal. They already had one — with themselves.

In the end, everything worked out, and future albums — including the new Hypnotic Nights, due July 17 (see review on p. 33) — will be released under the Warner/Independent Label Group umbrella. The band demanded full creative control, and they got it.

"Labels have been after them for years," Riddle says. "But they waited for a deal that made sense." As someone who's tracked the band's progress, Riddle admires the approach they've taken — not signing to a larger indie, not taking on too many support roles for better-known acts. "If you're gonna build a big house, you've got to build the foundation right," Riddle says. "They've been very diligent and taken the right steps. They are ready to be a big band."

A highly sought-after band on its roster inking a deal in the record-label big leagues and seemingly poised to become stars? Infinity Cat has been here before.

Not far from the railroad tracks that run just beyond the Nashville Sounds' guitar-shaped scoreboard, and a stone's throw from the Infinity Cat house, sits another notable, if unassuming, property: producer Roger Moutenot's studio.

It was here that Moutenot, who's worked with the likes of Sleater-Kinney, Paula Cole and Yo La Tengo, served as recording engineer for Infinity Cat's 17th title, an EP released in 2005 called Damn Damn Leash — seven minutes and 25 seconds of unhinged punk 'n' roll that blew out of the speakers like a tornado with a mile-wide sneer. It introduced Nashville, and later the world, to Be Your Own Pet, one of the most compelling and polarizing bands ever to call Music City home.

You can't really talk about Infinity Cat without talking about Be Your Own Pet. You also can't really talk to Jake and Jamin about Be Your Own Pet, a band they're both happy to leave in the past — or at least their roles in it. Jake had already left BYOP, and the country (for a year abroad in Iceland), by the time those first seminal tracks were recorded. But it's Jamin lashing the drums behind Jemina Pearl's snarled vibrato and Jonas Stein's careening guitar stabs.

It was a band made up of kids whose parents had served in Music Row's trenches, in one capacity or another. But the BYOP kids weren't your typical sign-me-up-for-corporate-band-camp types eager to be fitted with whatever haircut was selling best that week. "Everyone in that band is so talented, and so smart," Riddle remembers thinking. "They're hard-working, unusual in all the best ways — you just knew that whatever happened, they would have interesting careers." They were destined to blow up, and everyone knew it.

"They would have been the American Arctic Monkeys," Riddle says.

At the time, Riddle worked for Rough Trade, which later released Damn Damn Leash in the U.K. He would eventually put it in the hands of legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel, who quickly played it on his show, conferring it with his estimable approval. Britain's taste-making music press picked up the drumbeat, and major U.S. publications followed suit.

From that point on, it's hard to overstate the fervor — both laudatory and hostile — that surrounded this group of preternaturally charismatic teenagers for the short time their flame burned impossibly bright. The band became a beacon for those hoping to awaken interest in Nashville's non-country music scene, and a resentment magnet for those who saw the band as proof of everything wrong with contemporary music's youth obsession and trend-chasing ways.

"Then the majors came calling, and it got weird," Bob Orrall recalls. At one point, as label headhunters took turns courting the young band over fancy expense-account dinners, Bob saw a familiar face: Seymour Stein, the A&R rep who had tried to recruit him to Sire Records 25 years before. "Do you know you're trying to sign my son?" he asked, the layers of his life suddenly collapsing around him.

Eventually it was on to XL Recordings for the young rockers, and their faces on magazine covers, their names on music blogs and all the attendant pressure to play the major-label game. In the middle of it all, with everyone's star seemingly on the fast-track to fame, Jamin quit the band.

"It wasn't what he signed up for," Bob says.

Riddle remembers watching the teenage band as it buckled under the pressure — including battles with their label about turning down the Warped Tour, which the band members saw as cheesy but was expected of young, punkish bands trying to make it big. Riddle saw BYOP's penultimate show at the Reading Festival in England, where he says he could just feel the band ripping apart at the seams, a memory that still resonates with him. "It is so stressful, and it freaks you out," he says. "Going from just being a normal kid to being a rock star — and they were — it is a big leap."

Be Your Own Pet may have burned up on re-entry, but everyone has gone on to do interesting things. Guitarist Jonas Stein made Turbo Fruits his main gig, and Riddle eventually signed them to Serpents and Snakes. Stein also started the seafaring indie-rock festival The Bruise Cruise with booking agent Michelle Cable. Jemina Pearl and drummer John Eatherley teamed up for an album on Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace imprint, and Pearl now plays in the heavy-blues outfit Ultras S/C. Nathan Vasquez has continued to play with the criminally underappreciated Deluxin' and other projects. Eventually Jamin wound up with a bigger record deal than the one his dad called him crazy for walking away from — though that isn't the reason he left.

In some ways they were just another young band that couldn't keep it together, but they were also much more than that. As Riddle puts it: "You can still track the influence of that group of kids throughout the whole Nashville scene today."

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