Cat Temper: Synthwave prowls and growls

Interview by Rupert Bottenberg

Now that we’re fully living in the era envisioned by the cyberpunky, sci-fi arcade games, cartoons, and movies of the 1980s, it’s only appropriate that the kitsch/cool of that decade gets a reboot. Alongside chiptunes and horror disco, the synthwave movement salutes the electronic sounds (and neon-soaked visuals) of yesterday’s future. Cat Temper, aka Mike Langlie of Boston, transcends the clichés while honouring the iconography, tosses in a dash of hair-metal excess, and adds a thematic hook that will have fans of furry felines purring. PAN M 360 got Langlie to cough up a few hairballs following the recent release of Cat Temper’s latest album, Feralyzed.

Genres and styles : Synthwave

Additional Information

PAN M 360: Feralyzed is in keeping with the previous Cat Temper releases – straight-up synthwave. The first album’s song titles alone are perfectly archetypal of the genre – “Dark Matrix”, “Vector Blade”, “Toxigon”. That said, you manage to find a constant reservoir of fresh and interesting ideas within that particular style. What’s your perspective on synthwave?

Mike Langlie: I grew up in the 1980s and enjoyed the music that inspired the synthwave movement firsthand. Being a synth-pop fan back then was not the least bit cool – at least not in my small town – so I’m thrilled to see it finally getting appreciation and respect.

I also started playing music in the ’80s. The artists that influenced me then continue to do so to this day. I’m making the music I’ve always enjoyed hearing and playing, rather than approaching it from a nostalgic angle or trying to fit a formula. Other influences over the decades creep in as well, so I don’t consider my work to be “true” synthwave. It crosses over enough that the scene takes notice.

PAN M 360: Your earlier project, the “toytronic” explorations of Twink, had a cute lil’ bunny as its mascot. It was very kawaii, as the Japanese would say. Cat Temper’s totem beast is of course feline. Why the cat, for this body of work? Are you, by the way, a member in good standing of the Cat Fancy demographic?

Mike Langlie: My toy instrument project Twink was a sonic amusement park of hyper happy tunes. One review described it as “the sound of Lisa Frank on acid.” After doing that for so long, I was ready to change direction. I returned to my electro-punk roots of earlier bands, dialing up the snark and distortion. Cat Temper jumps between accessible and aggressive, so it seemed fitting to embody a mischievous feline persona. And yes, I’m 100 percent a crazy cat person!

PAN M 360: You followed Cat Temper’s debut, Purring for Vengeance, with Henry, an alternate soundtrack to David Lynch’s early masterpiece of midnight cinema, Eraserhead. What was that detour all about?

Mike Langlie: I’ve been a huge David Lynch fan since I was as a kid. Another thing I enjoy is alternate scores for classic movies. Eraserhead‘s sparse soundtrack struck me as an opportunity to combine those two loves. It was a fun challenge to focus on scenes as individual music videos while maintaining consistent threads. The acting and pacing in Eraserhead is so alien compared to normal films. Figuring out each scene’s rhythms and dynamics forced me to break my usual writing habits in ways I never would have thought of otherwise. I watched the film literally hundreds of times over the year I worked on the album, and though I know it inside and out, I still don’t feel any closer to explaining it! 

Henry, named after the main character, is the release I’ve worked on the hardest and which has the smallest potential audience. I realize the hubris of replacing Lynch’s brilliant sound design, but one motivation was to help make the film more accessible to people who wouldn’t normally give it a chance.

PAN M 360: The third Cat Temper release, Digital Soul, had a distinct theme as well, a man-versus-machine chess game with existential implications. What’s the story there?

Mike Langlie: Making Henry was so fun that I wanted to try another alternate soundtrack. I settled on a quirky indie mockumentary from 2013 called Computer Chess, about nerds at an early 1980s AI conference. It has a wry sense of humour and strangeness reminiscent of Eraserhead, also filmed in black and white, and the minimal score left room for my own music. However, a few scenes in, I felt like it wasn’t working and decided to turn what I started into its own album. I ran with the theme and created my own sci-fi story of man versus machine, to guide the songs’ flow and tone. The soundtrack work of people like John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream, and Giorgio Moroder gave a lot of inspiration.

PAN M 360: With the two most recent albums, Something Whiskered This Way Comes and now Feralyzed, you seem to have given in to temptation, and titled every track with a cat-related play on words. Do you think you can come up with more, or has that cat used up its nine lives?

Mike Langlie: As a graphic designer, I appreciate the importance of branding, so it was a natural decision to maximize the cat theme. The puns on titles of classic metal songs and albums is also my way of paying tribute to some unlikely influences in my synth-heavy music. I keep a notebook of ideas, but admit it’s getting harder to come up with new titles, especially seeing more cat-oriented bands popping up. By the way, my favourite of those is a death-metal duo called Litterbox Massacre.

PAN M 360: With Twink, and now Cat Temper as well, you maintain a strong design aspect for your productions, top-notch graphic work and illustration, always in perfect keeping with the theme. However, with Cat Temper, you’ve opened the door to other illustrators for the artwork.

Mike Langlie: I did a lot of musical collaborations with Twink and so far, Cat Temper has been a solo project. I miss the fresh and surprising perspective another person can provide, and wanted to see how others would treat my stuff visually for a change. Also, my creative time is more limited these days and handing over the cover duties frees me up for more music. All the artists took their own unique directions, which I think illustrates each release perfectly. They hint at the overused graphical tropes of synthwave while doing something fresh for the genre.

Above: Quinnzel Kills’ artwork for “Feralyzed

PAN M 360: For the edification and gratification of the synth geeks in our readership, could you rattle off a list of the gear involved for Cat Temper?

Mike Langlie: I’ve sold off most of my physical gear over the years and work almost entirely with Reason on my laptop. It’s a collection of synths, drum machines, sequencers and effects, with a fun interface. Some of the toy keyboards I’ve collected also pop up here and there. Over the past year, I acquired some new hardware that I plan to use on future albums, including a bunch of little Pocket Operators by Teenage Engineering, Korg Volca FM, which is a mini DX7 clone, Bass Station II, and Roland JU-06A. I’ll never part with my first instruments, a Casio CZ-101 and Mattel Synsonics toy drum machine.

PAN M 360: What does the future hold for Cat Temper, on the other side of Feralyzed? Where would you like to take this project next?

Mike Langlie: Two more albums are just about ready for release later this year. The first one has a bit more growl than previous albums. The second is collaborations with different vocalists for each song. Everyone wrote their own fantastic cat-themed lyrics and I can’t wait to set it free into the world!

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