The sheer number of bands in Chicago makes it easy to get them confused, especially when so many sound alike. But there’s no confusing Cougars. Few bands outside the ska and world-music scenes have eight members, and no one else plays such potent, aggressive rock with as much debauched glee. A certain seediness hides in plain view in Cougars’ music, particularly in the lyrics and song titles (“Vegas Makes Her Fuck,” “Dick Dater,” “Someone Out There Has My Boner Picture,” etc.). Unsurprisingly, the music has attitude to match, combining two guitars, bass, saxophone, trumpet, keyboard, drums, and often-abrasive vocals to create a sound that loves straight-up rock ’n’ roll as much as thoughtful post-rock. Cougars are in fine, bludgeoning form on the new Pillow Talk, their second full-length for Go-Kart Records. Just before their record-release show, vocalist Matt Irie and guitarist John McClurg talked to The A.V. Club about songwriting, the thunderset, and genital grooming.
The A.V. Club: You recorded these songs nearly a year ago. What was the delay?
John McClurg: A lot of it had to do with Go-Kart’s distribution problems last year. For a while, they couldn’t put anything out.
AVC: Do the songs bore you now?
Matt Irie: We’ve thrown a new one into the mix—that spices it up. For the most part, the thunderset is pretty fresh for us.
AVC: The thunderset?
JM: The thunderset is a core of eight songs that we decide are the most rockingest to perform almost on a nightly basis. We will throw other hits into the mix occasionally, hits that easily incorporate themselves within the confines of a thunderset.
MI: But when it’s got to be a straight eight and out, it’s the thunderset.
AVC: Compared to your debut, Pillow Talk sounds a little more refined. Were you conscious of a change in sound?
JM: I don’t think we’ve ever sat down and said, “Okay, we’re going to make this switch,” or do anything that sounds particularly different. It was just how things evolved on this album, and we were constantly coming up with parts. People would say, “Can we get away with doing something like that?” And the answer was always “Hell yeah, why not?”
AVC: What’s your songwriting process like?
MI: A 30-pack of Old Style Light, a 15-pack of Old Style.
JM: And occasionally a splash of scotch, a splash of whiskey, about four hours in a small garage/recording studio twice a week. Basically just playing our instruments and writing riffs.
AVC: Also different from the debut are the lyrics, which you printed in the liner notes. Why did you do that this time?
MI: There’s a lot of space on the inside of the flat CD thing that nobody could really figure out what to do with, so we figured lyrics could fill that up pretty nicely.
JM: A lot of people don’t really know what you’re saying a lot of times. I think this time around, at least for me, it’s kind of funny to have people hear the stuff that comes out of this guy’s mouth.
MI: It’s a little strange, because the older I get, the more debased the lyrics become. [Laughs.] And this is the latest album, which goes along with that whole line of thought.
AVC: They don’t seem autobiographical.
MI: None of the lyrics are autobiographical. Basically what I do is, I kind of collect things that I say or that I hear from various places, and then I just write ’em down and compile them or make a collage that, by what I’m choosing, will create some sort of narrative or non-narrative that has a specific feeling. There’s some lyrics about my dog in there.
JM: Some lyrics about your boner in there.
MI: Plenty of lyrics about drugs, and, you know, how people groom their genitals. [Laughs.] None of it is malicious or anything, and in no way are we advocating for people to go out and do a bunch of drugs and drink a bunch of booze.
JM: Not that we do any of that.
MI: I think that we’re just playing rock ’n’ roll, singing about rock ’n’ roll stuff.
JM: I think a lot of people are relieved not to have to listen to some emo band rehashing lyrics that every other band has already performed. It’s been done too many times, and at this point it’s completely irrelevant to what we’re trying to do and who we are.
AVC: You’ve been touring for a few years now. Are people catching on?
MI: We packed the house in Billings, Montana, the second time played.
JM: It’s the capital of Cougarsville. It’s hilarious, the first time we went there—
MI: —we played with three severe metal bands.
JM: There were dudes in hunting gear outside, like literally people wearing hunting camo at this show. We thought we were going to get our asses kicked. Any time a band with horns gets on a stage after three brutal metal bands…
MI: It was Pantera sort of metal.
JM: It was metal from people that stopped buying new music in ’89—that kind of metal—and it was probably one of our better shows on tour. Everyone in the crowd just absolutely loved it.
AVC: It seems like Cougars would go over well with metal dudes.
JM: Surprisingly, we do. We’ve actually played with quite a few metal bands, at least, like, the heavy, stoner-rock bands.
MI: Still, Metal Blade hasn’t called.