Of all the clichés in the music world, the singer-songwriter dude-with-an-acoustic-guitar shtick may be the most prevalent. On any given night, Chicagoans can subject themselves to the painfully earnest caterwauling of singer-songwriters at a number of venues. One such dude, George Hunter, seemed to become aware of the cliché early on, so he recruited longtime friends Miguel Castillo (bass) and Ryan Farnham (drums) to play with him in what became Catfish Haven. Because they grew up playing punk, they mostly avoid acoustic-rock conventions by channeling punk’s aggression and intensity. Few similar bands match the racket Catfish Haven makes, but few bands mix elements of folk, country, rock, and punk so well. Last summer, the group signed with indie label Secretly Canadian (home to Antony & The Johnsons, Damien Jurado, and Magnolia Electric Co.), which released the group’s second EP, Please Come Back, in late January. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Catfish Haven about their sound, their plans, and their attempts to avoid boring the shit out of audiences.
The A.V. Club: For people who grew up in the punk scene, Catfish Haven’s acoustic-guitar focus is a little unusual. How did that come together?
George Hunter: We’ve known each other for quite a while, and when we got together, I had already bought an acoustic about a year earlier. I was writing a bunch of songs in my bedroom, just taking time off from playing with anybody. I had been playing in bands since I was 14. But I had a batch of songs—I wanted to somehow translate that into a live show, but without boring the shit out of the audience, I guess.
AVC: You guys, particularly Miguel and Ryan, play really hard. Is that a conscious thing, like you want to sound aggressive even without a screeching electric guitar?
Miguel Castillo: I think we play louder than some bands, but I think since we don’t sing backups, and there is no lead guitar, sometimes we kind of play lead guitar on bass or play lead guitar on drums, filling it up that way. We grew up playing in punk bands, so we’ve always had to thrash a little bit.
Ryan Farnham: I think we all like stuff that’s sort of hard-hitting, and we give it our all when we play.
AVC: Catfish Haven’s sound isn’t easily classifiable; it isn’t country or folk or straight-up rock. When people ask you what the band sounds like, what do you say?
MG: People have said “Creedence Clearwater meets Nirvana” or “Otis Redding meets Nirvana”—we’ve gotten weird comparisons like that. [Laughs.] So that’s sort of what we say. It’s been weird, because we’ve been thrown in a lot of different places that we don’t necessarily fit.
AVC: Secretly Canadian distributed your self-released debut EP, Good Friends, and you’ve got another EP coming out now. Why not just do a full-length?
MG: The Good Friends EP didn’t happen until after we signed to Secretly Canadian, and the reason we did that was so we could tour last fall. You need a release out to tour, is what we were told. [Laughs.] So that was the reason we re-distributed Good Friends. But another reason we wanted to do an EP is to get it in the hands of the right people without the expectations you have with a full-length, or the pressure. Basically, it preps people for the full-length, which we just wrapped up recording in December.
AVC: What’s the plan for that?
GH: We were originally going to release it in April, but we were having trouble with deadlines as far as artwork and stuff like that, so we felt it was best to push it back [to fall] and give ourselves some room to breathe. We could just promote Please Come Back for a while, because we’re totally proud of that record, so we wouldn’t mind trying to get that out as much as possible. We feel it’s just as relevant as the full-length we just worked on.
AVC: Are you nervous that the songs will be really old and boring to you by the time the album comes out?
GH: Oh, they’ve been old to us for a while. [Laughs.] There is sentimental value with every single song we write, and in some way, shape, or form, every song holds its own in our eyes, so we don’t really have a problem playing old ones.
AVC: What’s been the toughest part of getting Catfish Haven established?
MG: It’s hard just getting people to pay attention, even trying to get the shows when we were trying to book them ourselves—just trying to get them to listen to the CD we sent, or even acknowledge they received it. You really just have to hang in there and try to get people to know you exist, you know? That’s probably the hardest thing: You’ve gotta be really patient.
AVC: You have a booking agent now, but it’s not like that automatically means huge shows with enraptured audiences.
MG: Like you said earlier, we don’t necessarily fit easily into categories. I think it’s a good thing overall, but it’s sometimes a disadvantage, like they can’t just throw you in. “Oh you sound like that band, so now you can play with that band.” Sometimes we encounter that, but in the long run I think it’s a good thing that we don’t fit exactly perfect. But when you’re starting out, sometimes it’s an obstacle.