A few months ago during Catfish Haven’s set at The Basement, sweat was streaming down singer/guitarist George Hunter’s neck. Long strands of straight, brown hair hid much of his unshaven face as he wailed into the microphone, his knees slightly bent, his eyes barely open as he assaulted his acoustic guitar. Later that night, it was hard to believe the guy walking around the club with the ponytail and thick, black glasses was the same person. It was like he was the Clark Kent of indie rock.
Chicago’s Catfish Haven play swampy, soulful acoustic rock with a superb rhythm section. Hunter, along with bassist Miguel Castillo and drummer Ryan Farnham, synthesize vintage elements—old-school tools that never stopped working in the first place—into an intense, shoe-tapping juggernaut. Their music is invested in a long-gone history, played by kids who came of age in punk rock bands. What Uncle Tupelo did with country, Catfish Haven attempt with soul.
“More and more I’ve been delving into old R&B and soul, even a lot of old country arrangements, and just old rock ’n’ roll,” says Hunter. “There are so many great old tunes that have unbelievable production and there’s really nothing to it. It’s just really simple, get-under-your-skin beats and feelings.”
It’s an apt description of Catfish Haven’s music, whose breed of earnestness—wholly un-ironic and disarmingly naked—is refreshing because it’s not self-involved or self-serious. The band’s subject matter is an acknowledgement that sometimes being human means feeling despair, often because of love. Who can’t relate to the sentiment, “I want you, baby, to come back” or “All I need is you?” That straightforward songwriting style recalls a bygone era of falling to pieces and eyes that cry.
“I really dig tunes that can speak to every single person,” says Hunter. “It’s not so personal to the point where you’re singing about what you ate for breakfast and what street you’re gonna walk down that day. I guess it’s cool to take a listener on that trip with you, but then I think it’s also cool to let the listener interpret their own thing.”
Catfish Haven pull the whole thing off because of Hunter’s vocal style. Though it’s not as skillful or awe-inspiring as, say, Van Morrison or Otis Redding, the beauty here is in the effort. And oh, what an effort it is. Hunter’s a white kid who grew up in a trailer park—Catfish Haven, in Missouri—interpreting the masters from his own flawed, desperate place. The result is arresting and thoroughly rock ’n’ roll.
Hunter plays only acoustic guitar and turns up real loud, which does multiple things for the band’s sound. It defines a distinct, immediately recognizable aesthetic for the group that allows the rhythm section to assume a more muscular role. Castillo’s bass lines duel for prominence with Hunter’s rich, melodic strumming, while Farnham mauls his kit in sharp, insistent bursts.
“I used to play electric in punk and hardcore bands when I was a kid,” Hunter says, “but I’ve been playing acoustic guitar since I was about 21 years old. I’m 28 now. Ever since I started playing, I just never really looked back. Something about the electric...it just doesn’t have the same set of lungs as an acoustic.”
Catfish Haven’s first full-length, Tell Me, released Sept. 12 by Secretly Canadian, showcases even more of that down-home soul influence than their debut EP. This is partially a result of increased resources—they were able to bring in a horn section and backup singers to fill out the sound. Those elements have a delightful incongruence with the wily acoustic aesthetic of the trio.
The raw power of Hunter’s voice is reeled in a bit on the record, but the ramshackle energy remains. “I just want to sound like a band, not like a studio recording,” he says. “It makes it feel a little bit more human. We track all the instruments live.” The chorus of the title track features sweet, soaring harmonies and swells with raucous barroom energy. The rustic handclaps are a reminder of the care taken not to neuter the band’s unassuming power.
That power is never more striking than onstage. This is music meant to be played live—sweaty, raw and exuberant—for an appreciative audience, eager to see what happens when the hair is let down and the glasses come off.