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March 23, 1995 * Vol. 5, No. 6
Torture Kitty scratches up some punk-pop
by Laura Atkinson
If you haven't heard of Knoxville's young urban punksters Torture Kitty,
you will. These guys are gonna be bigger than the Beatles. You think the
British Invasion turned America's youth into a frenzied mob of sexually
charged pop 'n' roll renegades? Well, the Kitty Invasion will have the kids
running wild in the streets, smashing their R.E.M. collections against VW
bus bumpers and screaming "Torture me!" It'll be phenomenal, it'll
be colossal, it'll well, OK, it'll probably never happen. It's punk rock,
and those Torture Kitty boys don't want to be that serious about it.
Not that they don't give a damn. "If we didn't practice, we'd suck,"
vocalist John Sewell says half-jokingly at the end of a recent session,
cajoling the other guys to agree on the next time they'll jam. Although
Sewell and guitarist Greg Swift have been playing together for two years
as Torture Kitty, it wasn't until they pulled together the current line-up,
with Randall Brown on bass and most-recent addition Robert Noe smashing
the skins, that folks starting coming to their shows in any crowd-size numbers.
"Since Robert started playing with the band (about three months ago)
people come see us Robert's the popular guy," says Sewell, alluding
especially to Noe's friendly connections with another local band, Superdrag
(you may have heard of them?), who have helped spread the word to budding
adults that Torture Kitty has evolved into a mighty fine heavy pop-punk
"This new punk thing, like 15- to 18-year-old kids, they're the ones
that primarily like us and we like them too," Sewell says. "They're
not so cool that they can't jump around and stuff yet." Yeah, Torture
Kitty honestly wants you to have a good time. "I wanna see them flip
out, do somersaults," Swift says wryly.
Besides Noe, who'd played drums only with his father in a country band called
Southern Mixture before Torture Kitty, the guys had all been in other bands
in townmost of which didn't have a lot of staying power. Sewell, "The
Artist Formerly Known as Swifty," will tell you he was in a lot of
bands "that did anything to be popular," and that there was a
time in his young life when he was pretty messed up. He got it together,
though, and when Torture Kitty started he had a new attitude, which included
showing up for practice remembering what he'd done the night before.
"When we (John and Greg) first started out we didn't know what we wanted
to do," says Sewell. "We tried to be, quote, kind of alternative,
end of quote, but it didn't work"
"Alternative to a sharp stick in your eye," Swift interjects.
"Yeah, we started off being a hardcore band, and then we decided to
make it more pop," Sewell says, "and the poppier it gets the more
we like it, but we don't want it to end up being like Weezer or something.
And it wouldn't anyway, because we don't have we couldn't pull it off if
They do pull off some cool entertainment without posturing, foregoing combat
boots for Converse high tops and writing music that, although by all means
full of punk rock attitude, is much more catchy than confrontational. "I
try to make well-crafted songs these days," says Sewell, and Swift's
and Brown's guitar and bass licks venture much farther up and down the scales
than most of the three-chord punk wunderkinds on the charts these days.
Noe's emphatic drumming style rounds out their sound with an enthusiastic
"This should bring a tear to every eye," declared Sewell during
a recent show, before launching into "Every Day Is Another Soap Opera,"
a lyrically despairing song he penned while thinking of an old friend, though
it hints at Sewell's former lifestyle. "There came a time in my life
when I had to stop destroying myself so I can be an asshole for you guys
"My motivations are different. Now I play because I like music, instead
of to get laid or to get drugs or to get drunk," says Sewell. "I
was talking with Johnny Puke (of Cletus) about that, and he was going, 'Well
I'm in it for the beer and girls,' and I said, 'The beer and girls are over
and I still like the music.'
"The difference for me is sobriety, I suppose."
Perhaps sobriety has made the difference in Sewell's current lyrical bent,
which, with downright dance-around numbers like "Brand New Temptation"
("She's gone and pulled another stunt/my button's pushed") is
relatively light on angst.
"Punk rock is like '50s music to me now, it's like happy music. I don't
think of it as anger now, it's like, fun. I mean, it should be mildly perturbed
," he says, laughing. "A lot of the songs are self-mockery, really.
I act so stupid when we play 'cause I feel silly. I mean I feel silly, but
then a second later I feel cool too."
"This whole thing is like regaining my innocence for me," says
Sewell, "'cause the crowd is kids and I like kids, 'cause they're not
so jaded and it's fun instead of like I have to be some supercool guy."
The name Torture Kitty has on occasion belied the band's good time garage
punk sound. "I've heard people say they thought it was a girl heavy
metal band, I've heard people say it's sexist," says Sewell, who explains
it as originating from an odd little game he played with Swift's girlfriend's
cat involving an X-acto knife. "We don't really like the name that
much, but we've had it for so long that we're gonna keep it."
To hear them tell it, the Torture Kitty guys' lifestyles tend to belie a
stereotypical punk rock modus operandi. Sewell, an artist who won the local
Golden Staple Gun award for his fliers, is in the journalism program at
UT, puts together a fanzine called, appropriately, Kids Love It! and delivers
pizzas. Swift, the "Fabio" of the foursome (Sewell's teasing),
works construction. Noe is a graphic artist and screen printer, which means
the ink on Torture Kitty tees will be dry by the time you read this. And
Brown, a UT student, newspaper editor and 'Net-head, wants to get Kitty
info on the World Wide Web.
"Comparatively, (Randall's) the cerebral presence. He's much more mature
than this," Sewell jokes. "He goes home and listens to Nick Cave
and the Palace Brothers and tries to get it out of his system."
Now that "Teen Idol" is in regular rotation on New Rock 90 and
they've got a five-song demo Sewell's sending to just about anyone who might
listen, the next thing the band would like to get out of their collective
systems is a seven-inch. "Not like anyone'd buy it," quips Sewell,
and adds that Superdragger John Davis has offered to help record something.
They'd like more gigs out of town and have scheduled a "mini-tour"
in Nashville in May, when they'll hit at least a couple clubs with Fun Girls
from Mt. Pilot.
"Right now is the best part of a local band's career," says Sewell.
"After you play a little while and people start coming that's the very
best time, 'cause after that they get sick of whatever you've done or they
expect you to do more and you don't. This is the peak, probably. I mean
I hope for further peaks, but really this is the best time to be in a band,
when we're not a new band but people think we are."
© Metro Pulse