"Alpha Cat- Elizabeth McCullough, aka Alpha Cat. Singer, songwriter, and always collaborator. Dedicated to telling the truth as I see it, which admittedly can be a bit wacky (I am an Aquarius after all.)"
Interview conducted on July 28, 2020 By Dan Locke
Singer/songwriter/producer Alpha Cat (aka Elizabeth McCullough) just released Live at Vox Pop, Brooklyn, NY July 21, 2005 as a $2 download, via alphacat.band with all proceeds being split between Bring Change to Mind, and the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation. Both of these charities focus on ending discrimination towards those seeking help with mental health issues.
What is your upbringing?
I was born in Detroit, and when I was about two my family moved to a small town in Florida, where we lived out in the country. I was raised in a very dysfunctional household, with an alcoholic mother and a father who didn’t treat her very well. So there were a lot of shouting matches between them, and my mother was (seemingly to me) constantly walking out the front door at night after these fights, threatening to never come back. I never knew in the morning whether I would have a mother or not. It was not a happy childhood, to say the least…
How did you discover music?
I guess my first memory is of my mother playing Dionne Warwick’s Greatest Hits on constant repeat on our stereo. She obviously loved it, as did my whole family. But I loved it the most!!
How did you start to write music?
I guess I started right out of college, but I didn’t write what I considered to be a good song until after I moved to Jersey City, around 1988.
How did you get your first guitar and do you still have it?
That memory is a little hazy. I remember two guitars: I had an electric guitar at one point in my teens that I could plug into my stereo and play along with my records. What I remember playing to was Led Zeppelin, and at the time I thought I was playing exactly what Jimmy Page was playing! In retrospect, I’m sure it sucked! But I don’t remember how or when I got that guitar. I did receive an acoustic guitar at around age 16 for Christmas, and that is what I wrote and played on until I started gigging with a band in New York in the late 90’s. That one I still have.
How was it to find the exact guitar which was stolen from you 10 years ago?
Well, whether it is the EXACT SAME guitar, I highly doubt! But it was the same make, model, and color of what was my all-time favorite gig guitar, and I literally searched for ten years to find it! For the last three years, I had a Google search page tab open in my browser for that guitar and refreshed it constantly. Whenever one would show up, either the person wouldn’t respond to my email, or when I went to the listing it was already sold. Towards the end, one metallic blue one popped up, which I considered buying, but as soon as I got to the listing, it was gone. Then some black ones started showing up, but I held out for the white one because I used to really like sometimes wearing all white on stage with this white guitar. I guess I always loved the idea of it being the antithesis of the image of the “rock star” in all black because to me it represented being about light rather than darkness.
What was your first performance like?
My first performance was a wedding gig down on the Jersey Shore. I was living in Cambridge, Mass. with three male roommates and one of them had been in bands before, so we would rehearse my songs in his bedroom. He somehow got us this gig, and enlisted a bass player and drummer he had worked with before, but I must stress that we had ZERO rehearsals. So similarly to when I went skydiving, everyone assumed that because I had never performed for an audience before, that I was the one who would choke. But when we played the first song, neither the drummer nor the bass player had any idea what they were doing, my friend who actually knew the songs DID choke, and I was the only one who kept it together. After we finished the song I heard someone from the audience say “that was the worst crap I’ve ever heard in my life!” But fate mercifully intervened when after beginning the second song, some drunk drove off the road in front of the house where we were playing and onto the beach, and then all these cop cars showed up with lights and sirens blazing, and that was the end of that. We promptly got the hell out of there! But I really only performed one other time to an audience of maybe 3-5 people at a tiny bar in Jersey City with my then husband (and for some reason a keyboard, which I really don’t play.) But when I started singing, this belting voice somehow came out, which I had no idea I had in me! Before that, friends had compared my voice to Nico’s, because it was so soft, but when that voice came out of me was when I realized that maybe I could do this after all. And that was it until I started doing open mics in NYC in the mid-90’s.
What was the title of your first original song? Did you record it?
Oh my god, I couldn’t possibly remember! And I’m certain it was not recorded!
How did you start the Alpha Cat band?
Short answer, I was in an astrology class with a guy who was also a drummer. I had been gigging as Meerkat with some other guys before that, but it was nothing official, even though most of them were actually the players on Real Boy. Anyway, this astrologer/drummer offered to start a band with me, and anyone who’s ever started a band knows that once you have a drummer, the rest is cake. So I put an ad in the Village Voice for guitar and bass players who might want to play in a “dark pop” band. Everything else was karma. Angela Babin and Lori Bingel answered the Voice ad, and we just clicked. And Derek Dragotis I met in a singing workshop I just happened to take one weekend. We hit it off, I loved his voice, (which is much better than mine!) and I asked him to sing harmonies in my band – and he was up for it.
How did Alpha Cat get its name?
I was designing the cover artwork for Real Boy with the intent of going under the name Meerkat. But it just didn’t look right. So I remembered one of my sisters’ mentioning the idea of the alpha dog, and obviously being a cat person, I chose to try alpha cat. I came up with a cool logo and it looked great to me. And then when I got the actual band together, it turned out to be three women and two men, so with the obvious femme association of cat (vs. dog), it made perfect sense! I also liked that it connoted female empowerment. (8/17/20 - Addition mine: and intuition over intellect - E.)
Tell me about your cats Fiona/Pedro?
Can’t talk about Fiona and Pedro without mentioning their predecessors. In Atlanta my first cat as an adult was a kitten, who I named Pamela (after Victoria Principal’s character in Dallas) because she was so unbelievably sweet. But on the way home from a visit with my parents in Savannah, with Pamela in the front seat, I got an Arby’s roast beef sandwich and gave her a bunch of the meat. She died that night, and I haven’t gone to an Arby’s since. Next kitten was Billy, who is represented both in image and voice on Pearl Harbor, and the smartest cat I have ever known until Pedro. He died at 17 after a year of fighting cancer. Meanwhile, when Billy was about 5, I got two kittens for my husband for his birthday, and one of them, Sally, who was too good for this world, died very young, but was survived by her sister Paula. After Billy died I realized that I had begun the pattern of having an heir and a spare, one older cat and one younger, so that when the older cat passed my devastation was lessened by having another cat left to love and comfort me. Then there was the yellow tabby kitten, who had escaped a feral family (I’m outta here! Got better places to be!) and was mewing in my backyard one rainy night. When I finally went out with a flashlight, he literally climbed a huge pile of construction rubble, got into my arms and started purring. I never wanted three cats, and was determined not to keep him, but every time he would do something really bad he would follow it with something so cute that I finally gave up, and his name at the vet was changed from “Stray” to Joey.
When Paula died in 2007 following my breakdown, I was especially heartbroken, and when I made the move to Manhattan decided that Joey needed a kitty companion, since he had always had at least one. One day I decided to go to Bide-a-Wee, a great shelter on NYC’s east side, with the intent of getting another kitten, but they didn’t have any. By that point the shelters had taken to naming their cats, so they suggested Pedro, who at one year old, was much less likely to be adopted because of his age. When I met him he had been hit by a car, had his jaw wired, and had some kind of respiratory disease. But when they put us in the “getting acquainted” room and I got him in my arms, he immediately head-butted me, and I was a goner. I couldn’t take him home for weeks, until the wires were removed and his illness cleared up, so I would actually visit him at the shelter regularly until the day I was able to take him home. This was still at the beginning of the worst period of my depression, so even though some of my family members thought it was stupid for me to get another cat, my therapist actually saw it as a good thing: a sign that I had somehow committed to living. So I credit Pedro in no small part with keeping me alive.
Then, not long after Joey passed, one month shy of 21 (!), I went to the ASPCA, again with the intent of getting a kitten, but there were no kittens to be had, only a shy little black and white two year old girl named Fiona, who unlike Pedro, did not warm to me at all. But they explained how because of her age and the fact that she was black she was most likely to be euthanized, and I couldn’t bear the thought of that. So after she came home with me she hid for a long time before eventually warming up and becoming very sweet (as well as quite eccentric.) But as I see it now, while Pedro helped keep me alive during the long years of my depression, Fiona (who is in my lap as I write) coming into my life marked the beginning of my healing. I don’t think I will ever get another kitten. But I do believe that when you are ready to get your perfect pet, they are ready and waiting for you! And I would only accept someone buying a cat from a breeder for health reasons like allergies. ADOPT, ADOPT, ADOPT!! You will not regret it! If you raise any animal with care and respect for their uniqueness, and simply love them, you will have an amazing animal. Because every single one of my cats have been unique and amazing in their own ways!
Your album Live at VOX Pop Brooklyn NY July 21, 2005, just got released. Why are you asking for only a $2 donation per download for it at the present time, with all of the money going to support mental health?
Well, we are four months into a global pandemic, with so many people having lost their jobs, struggling to put food on the table, or homeless, and now many more are in imminent danger of being evicted! I figured $2 was small enough that a lot more people could afford it, and it is actually $2 to make it easier to split exactly into two. There is of course the option to pay more, and some people have been very generous. And it is also possible to listen to the entire gig for free at least once, if you have no money, which is why the lyrics are right on the page below the download/play link. And mental health? After my lifetime of issues, decades of therapy, and three hospitalizations, I can’t say I’m an expert, but I do know an awful lot about these things. And it was pretty obvious to me from the very beginning of the pandemic that, as I say on the page, that this would a really become a THING.
What do you think is the mental health situation of the United States?
I think it is very clear, as reflected in the behavior and actions of our leaders, that we have found ourselves in a very sad state indeed. That does not mean that I don’t see the reason for hope.
How can the public help the doctors and nurses on the front line?
It’s very simple. By social distancing and wearing a damn mask! It’s not about you anymore, it’s about caring about others now. I quote TMZ’s Harvey Levin: “when it comes down to it, believe the scientists, not the politicians!” This is NOT A POLITICAL ISSUE, nor is it a limitation on ANYONE’S FREEDOM! Unless you consider it your right to endanger, and possibly kill, others! I was in NYC watching the news as they were using steam shovels to push huge pine boxes full of bodies into mass graves on Hart Island because they had run out of funeral parlors, morgues, then refrigerated shipping containers, then unrefrigerated shipping containers, to store the bodies of all the Covid dead. It is irrelevant how this virus got here. It is not irrelevant that an entity whose main platform for election was to build walls to keep people out. Well, guess what? No wall can keep out a virus.
Did the idea of the live album come about because you found your old Sony Minidisk Walkman from the early 2000s?
Well before the pandemic, I had already been made aware of and began donating to, Taraji P. Henson’s mental health initiative to assist the underserved black and brown communities in overcoming the stigma of seeking help for mental health problems. When I heard about Glenn Close’s Bring Change to Mind, which is dedicated to helping any and all overcome this stigma and to gain access to care, it became a no-brainer. I really only decided to sell it because I knew I couldn’t do enough on my own to help everyone who was going to need it. So listening to this live set off the minidisc recording, and realizing it was kind of fun, pretty good, and had songs in it that had yet to be released, I felt it would be nice to offer up something that had not yet been available.
Tell me about Thatched Roof Glass House?
It is seven tracks from the album I was making in LA in 2006 (Correction: 8/17/20 it was actually 2007), for a record to be called Venus Smile (the title song of which is included in the live set,) the only ones that had been completed, with vocals, before I had my breakdown that July. To this day I have NO memory of recording the six vocals that were done in LA. I’m honestly not even sure where they came from. Higher power perhaps?
What is your favorite track on the album?
I guess right now I would have to say the title track, because I think that while on the surface it is an upbeat kind of love song, it actually speaks in a deeper sense of what is going on in the world, where literal, social and ideological, ARCHAIC structures and shrines to hypocrisy are being torn down. The people in their glasshouses that have long been throwing stones at others, rather than looking at themselves, are finally being exposed in an exponentially more rapid fashion. The revolution is indeed now being televised!
How do you stay healthy while touring?
I’ve actually only TOURED once. All I remember about that is that I wouldn’t allow myself to eat cheese, despite the fact that I absolutely loved it, and brought along HUGE BLOCKS OF CHEESE for everyone else in the van to eat. I was aware that eating dairy affects your voice, so it was a noble sacrifice on my part!. I also carried some of those throat coat tablets to help keep my voice healthy. That did not stop me from getting food poisoning at one of the venues that was also a Japanese restaurant, where they fed us for free. I was on stage afterward literally holding back vomit, at which I was somehow successful. But that night especially, and the next few days, were NOT pretty, and luckily we had a couple of days’ break for me to recover for the next show! Other than that tour, I have also done a number of one-off shows in LA at various venues, and in London (UK) at the legendary 12 Bar Club. But I always had at least one other person with me in London, and in LA I would get together a band, do a few rehearsals, and gig as a band. Always my preference. And that’s how I met, and hit it off, with Jason Smith, the drummer (and co-producer) on Venus Smile and of course TRGH.
What are your feelings about streaming music in general?
As an artist, of course, it sucks that we get paid $0.0016 per stream, YouTube doesn’t pay you until you have 1000 subscribers, and the only people who seem to want actual CDs are radio stations, but I never got into music for the money. Because if you are doing that, you’re in it for the wrong reasons. And of course, there are plenty of people who did and have managed to become quite wealthy in the process. I just wish I saw fewer artists flaunting cash, cars, yachts, and mansions, and more giving back to the poor people who actually BOUGHT THEIR MUSIC. I know some do give back, but I mean, who needs multiple mansions or million dollar cars? Especially now? No one.
Digital vs. vinyl?
Of course, right now vinyl is being re-embraced by young people, but it is very expensive to press vinyl, and not feasible for anyone without major label backing. I still have a lot of vinyl myself, with a nearly new turntable and speakers that stopped working after a couple of plays, and I’m not about to go out right now and buy more gear when there are far more important things to do with my money. I can basically look up any artist or song and watch or listen to them on Youtube, and I have always had a three song rule: if I love at least three songs off an album, I will buy it. But the majority of music is digital, and that’s just the way it is. It does enable anyone with a phone or computer to listen to music that they might otherwise not have access to. And I see that as a good thing.
I noticed on your Facebook page you have Throwback Thursday. Which a lot of people do. They usually focus on themselves. But you are focusing on other artists. Have you had any feedback from the artists you post?
Let’s make something really clear. I LOVE music! The first thing I do in the morning is listen to music, and whenever I see or hear about an artist on the radio or any of my favorite shows, I make a note to check them out. If there is a song that I particularly like, I will post it. So what I post is only about my activities when I have something to announce, otherwise, it is just me sharing my tastes with people that seem to like my music. But to answer your question, no one famous has taken any notice of my posting about them. Why would they? But I do have relationships with a few of the people I’ve posted about, one of whom I’ve known for a while, a promising songwriter who as now goes by Freddy MerCovid, and has done several pointed Covid-related parodies, and so is doing really relevant work right now. Another artist, Jamal Hassan, I came upon randomly at a poetry slam in London last July, and we have agreed that the next song I write will be with one of his poems which just struck a very deep chord in me (and this is a first, writing music to someone else’s words) and we have consequently become close friends. And lastly, Adam and the Hellcats, another from the UK who I met on Facebook, and who was selling a song to benefit the NHS. Something I wanted to get behind. Only wish we had an equitable, reasonable, and affordable health care system in this country!
What are your feelings about the social uprising going on in the United States?
Well, as we see the issues of civil rights and actual, true, equality being embraced by people of ALL races, genders, nationalities, and sexual orientations; and people standing up for the rights of OTHERS, it gives me a lot of hope! That to me is a very healthy sign of the beginning of a true global revolution and a transformation for the better. Literally and figuratively we are witnessing the tearing down of structures that have in actuality been in place since the beginning of civilization. These particular structures were built upon the celebration of people whose legacies were built upon the societal enslavement of those considered “less than.” And it was, and has always been, only through the contributions of the immigrants and the slaves that the luxurious manner in which the wealthy, the “haves” lived, made possible. In this country, I particularly object to the statues of Columbus, who came upon an existing civilization, decided it was a beautiful country, and told the Native Americans that they didn’t kill to “Get out!” These statues could of course be put into context in museums, but I believe no longer have a place out in the world at large. I’m certainly not the first to point this out, but the Germans haven’t put up statues of Hitler!
What song from the past is in your mind right now? And what does that mean to you?
This answer is a bit embarrassing and more than a little revealing, not because they aren’t great songs, but because it shows where a significant part of my heart has been this year. So in chronological order: #1:Tom Petty’s “Crawling Back to You,” from his incredible Wildflowers album, which I remember listening to with an old boyfriend as we drove down the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to LA, and this drive is actually referred to in the song. #2: Nada Surf’s “Inside of Love” (the live version from bei tv noir,) which I first heard on a demo given to me by their drummer Ira Elliot when the band was on a break, and we were discussing the possibility of his becoming Alpha Cat’s drummer. That demo remains one of the most exquisite set of recordings I have ever heard, but unfortunately, my CD of it was damaged and I’ve received no response to my pleas for a replacement. When I heard what the producers did to that song in particular, once Nada Surf was back on a major label, I would go so far as to say that recording was such a perversion of the purity and vulnerability I had listened to incessantly on the demo, that it made me angry! And cemented my decision never to sign with a major label! Of course, the content of the song itself resonated with me then, and it still does today. #3: the Fray’s “Over My Head (Cable Car)” which I immediately purchased upon first hearing it, again, because of personal identification with it. And finally #4: Kacey Musgraves’ “Slow Burn” which can be seen as both a mantra for the times we are in now, as well as another romantic fantasy on my part…
How do you feel the Covid-19 virus is going to affect the music business going forward into the future?
That remains to be seen in the larger sense, but what I have seen already is a lot of creativity emerging, with videos shot on the cheap on cell phones, live streaming concerts that are accessible to a much larger audience than they ever could have been previously, and from which musicians can still make some money while keeping people safe. That’s just two example of ways in which I can see the music business changing permanently. And a way of giving artists who might not have the funds to promote to, and so reach, a larger audience despite the previous limitations; opportunities they would not otherwise have had. To me that’s all good!
What have you been doing with your self-quarantine?
Listed in order of importance: 1. Last July I discovered a group that looks at how the trauma and dysfunction that we experienced as children created defense mechanisms that we still use as adults, even though they no longer serve us. As a result, I have been able to identify and remove from my life, people, (some of whom have been in my life for thirty years,) whom I realized were simply reenacting the deeply damaging patterns of reward and abuse I suffered as a child. The beauty of this is that for every toxic person I let go of, a new, amazing, compassionate, and loving person appears to take their place! So, because of the pandemic, and being forced to communicate over the phone or through Zoom, I have been engaging in TONS of mutually supportive conversations, sometimes, actually USUALLY hours long! These have allowed me to heal and thrive in a way that I never imagined possible. So this has been a truly engaging and soul-enriching time for me.
2. Basically last July I realized that I have essentially been running my own label. I have had to find and hire the people essential in order to do this, learning, (making mistakes,) and making decisions as to HOW to do all this! This required a lot of catch-up on my part, and a of relearning how the business works NOW. This includes doing everything I can do myself, like building and maintaining my website, overseeing the mixing and mastering of TRGH and the live gig, hiring, directing and collaborating with all my video creators, and the creation and upkeep of my Youtube channel, as well as running my social media and the promotion process etc. the list goes on! And I have been able to integrate all the experience I gained from the promotions of my first two records, including attending many music business conferences and learning about music publishing. And of course, I’ve gained a lot of insight into what NOT to do, and THE CONSEQUENCES OF WORKING WITH THE WRONG PEOPLE! I feel extremely lucky to have finally found the RIGHT ones, and I can’t neglect giving shout outs to my friend and publicist Howard Wuelfling, and my mixing and mastering genius, I would even go so far as to say my musical husband (!) Brett Thorngren, who has become not only my biggest champion, but one of my closest friends.
Have you discovered or rediscovered any new hobbies?
I spend a lot of time researching and creating all my social media posts. So I don’t know if you could call it a hobby, but I’ve had to brush up on my research and writing skills that I initially really honed in graduate school.
Many artists are doing nightly concerts over either YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. What are you planning to do?
I’d like to do that eventually, but I’m not ready.
Do you think it will be possible to make a living doing concerts this way?
I think it is quite likely because there is a very significant advantage to this process: That you can reach a GLOBAL AUDIENCE, and you can still also charge less so that more people are able to actually see the concerts!
Live Nation is starting to do the first-ever U.S. drive-in concert series — LIVE FROM THE DRIVE-IN — This will bring fans a live music tailgating experience unlike any other, kicking off July 10-12 in Indianapolis, IN, Nashville, TN, and St. Louis, MO. Brad Paisley will headline performances in all three cities, marking the start of a much-anticipated return to in-person live events. Darius Rucker and Jon Pardi will also headline the series. Would be willing to do this kind of drive-in concert?
The short answer is yes. But I am not ready to do that yet. (8/17/20 - Revised opinion: These drive-in concerts have been an unmitigated disaster! No social distancing, few masks, and people storming the stage is not an invitation to an outbreak, it is a complete certainty! - E.)
For smaller bands who do not play large crowds, this is not really an issue. How do you see bands going back to smaller venues and doing things like play for the door, with no guarantees?
It’s been some time since I played small clubs, or any venues at all really. And I don’t know if I see going back to that myself. But for me, I always hated large concerts, because I was spoiled by being able to see bands I loved in small clubs. Again, I don’t know how this will play out, but I imagine that small clubs will eventually return because new bands will always need and want a place to play. At that level it is not about money, it’s about exposure.
In addition, at the present time for a band to go on tour from one state to another, they may need to self-quarantine for 14 days. How is that going to work?
I don’t see it happening, except for hugely successful acts whose labels can afford private planes. But even that doesn’t seem a good idea, or even workable.
With Social Distancing being the norm, do you feel that it may be the end of the music fest for the next couple of years?
What about Holographic concerts in our living room?
That idea was, and always will be to me, just too creepy! I’d rather watch a video of the performer whether or not they are still alive!
How do you see yourself in the next five years?
My ultimate plan is to expand my label, Aquamarine Records, for which there is already a trademark pending, in a way that will incorporate what I’ve learned through my time in the music business. In the sense of, DIY as much as possible, hiring and working with the people necessary for promotion in a very considered way, and giving the artists as much control over their process as possible, as well as fair and reasonable publishing deals and the opportunity to own their masters from the outset. Of course, I need at least some measure of success with Alpha Cat first in order to give the label legitimacy so that the people who we need to take notice will.
Anything you would like to say in closing?
I will say, that when the process of promoting this record began, I fully intended that my personal political views be completely invisible, because I felt that my music was written for everyone, not any one race, gender, political party, or sexual identification. Because the songs are about living life, and any of my sexual or personal lyrics are veiled behind metaphors. But when, at the outset of this global pandemic, wearing MASKS became politicized, I was totally inspired by a tweet from Kumail Nanjiani, writer of “the Big Sick” a movie which details his now-wife’s immune disease. He was getting trolled on social media for posting about the importance of social distancing, and he responded with, and I have to paraphrase, but it was essentially this: “My favorite person in the world is immunocompromised, and I will continue to post about this until I have ZERO followers left!” So that opened the floodgates for me. I still try to be sensitive, and to avoid polarizing comments when possible, but I am completely on board with his sentiment. What is happening right now is simply too important, too historic, for me not to attempt to expose people to certain realities that I feel are imperative that people be made aware of.
Alpha Cat Has Newfound Clarity for “Thatched Roof Glass House”Jacob Uitti / May 26, 2020
Elizabeth McCullough, also known as the New York City-based rock and roll artist, Alpha Cat, knew the moment she had to give up drinking. She was at a diner and had ordered a greasy cheddar cheese omelet. But as she waited there on the counter, she shook. Her body wanted a drink so badly that she could hardly sit in her chair. That’s it, McCullough thought, enough. And she hasn’t had a drink since. McCullough’s personal history is full of episodes like this: difficulties she’s had to navigate to find herself in safer waters. As such, the concept of freedom is central to the music of Alpha Cat, which is most evident in the latest music video for the single, “Thatched Roof Glass House,” from the 2019 album of the same name.
“I decided way back when I was in graduate school,” says McCullough, “that basically everything that occurs in life that you witness is a metaphor for what’s going on inside of your head. And with this song, that’s definitely the case.”
On the track, McCullough sings, “Can’t say I need more possessions / but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want more of you / don’t have to give up our freedom / but I think it’s all become clear / ‘cause when I say I’ll be right back / you say I’ll be right here.” Her lyrics demand personal space while at the same time, McCullough hopes, there will be someone to return to. To further drive this point home, the song’s music video ends with a glass house shattering. Even home isn’t safe, if it confines, McCullough seems to say.
“It’s kind of like the blueprint for an ideal relationship,” she says. “Where each person has their freedoms to be who they are but at the same time they can know that the other person is going to be there when they come back.”
The dichotomous balance between devotion and independence has perplexed people since the beginning of time. For McCullough, the issue is especially loaded. In 2003, she lost her father to a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. The event devastated McCullough, sending her into serious bouts of depression, suicidal ideation, drug use and creative inactivity. At the time, McCullough felt that her father was her guiding light – perhaps her only guiding light. The loss was severe.
“He was the only person in my life that I felt loved me unconditionally,” McCullough says. “He was someone who was always about logic and the intellect. I can remember one day at breakfast, him starting to cry and saying, ‘You don’t know what it’s like to lose your mind!’”
As Alpha Cat, McCullough recorded music in the late 90s. She had been in the middle of recording a new album, titled Venus Smile, in the mid-2000s when her life began to erode. Gigs she’d booked didn’t pan out. Music didn’t feel important. She lost her way. For 12 years, McCullough struggled with depression and its crippling effects. But with the help of friends and other musicians, McCullough eventually began to recover.
Part of that recovery meant revisiting the Venus Smile recordings, recorded many years prior. She found a talented engineer to help remix them. And, on August 21st, 2019, 16 years to the day after her father died, McCullough released the album, now titled, Thatched Roof Glass House.
“I had never not had a belief in the universe or myself or my passion,” McCullough says. “But when I had my breakdown, I lost all of it. There was nothing. I was dead.”
But now, she’s back. The seven-song album is infused with spirited, lively energy. McCullough sings with authority and grit, backed by crisp, clear instrumentation. “Mona Lisa in a Comic Book” is a trippy walk down a lucid dream sidewalk. “Mockingbird” chimes and flutters. And the record’s titular single hypnotizes with percussive acoustic rhythms as it delivers its message of the importance of love as intertwined, breathable freedoms.
“Recently, I found myself opening my heart again,” McCullough says.
McCullough, who got her first guitar at 16-years-old and “secretly” wrote songs, would later study painting and photography. With each, she depicted rock musicians, from locals on the east coast to larger-than-life depictions of Mick Jagger. Not thinking she, too, could one day be a musician, McCullough eventually got over that fear and started to record music. Through successes and failures, joys and sadness, McCullough has persevered. If at one time depression was an all consuming, subsuming black hole, the songwriter has finally found her way through to clearer space.
“With my songs,” McCullough says, “They can often feel like letters I’m writing to my future self. So, when the phrase, ‘Thatched Roof Glass House,’ popped into my head as I was writing, I understood immediately the obvious symbolism. I had to break down all of the walls.”
NO FLY ZONE
The carefully considered questions from Zelda Greystoke Smythe for No Fly Zone made it clear that she had really listened to the record, and were both fun and thought provoking.
Here is the full interview: From August 22, 2019
An Exclusive Interview With Alpha Cat
Posted on August 22, 2019 by Zelda Greystoke-Smythe
Like any other good cat, Alpha Cat has been blessed with 9 lives. She takes some time out from her busy schedule to field a few questions for our readers here at The No Fly Zone Magazine and discuss the past, present, and future, as well as what lies ahead in life for her and her music.
NFZ: In the entertainment business you’re professionally known as Alpha Cat.
What’s the story behind the name?
AC: Originally, my first groups’ name was Meerkat, because I had seen and photographed a meerkat at a zoo back in the day, and was a bit obsessed with them. So I was designing the package for Real Boy with that name in mind, because I had a really cool shot of one that I wanted to use. But as I worked on it I actually didn’t like the way the word looked, so I tried a few different things, and Alpha Cat looked cool. Then I got my first real band together, and ended up with a band with three girls and two boys, and it made a lot of sense, with the connotation of female empowerment, and also the priority I had grown to give to intuition, or you might say the yin energy, over the masculine or yang energy. You might guess from my terminology that I’m into some spiritual stuff, and you would be right.
NFZ: Over the years you’ve been both a professional photographer as well as a musician. How did those two artistic lines converge and cross for you?
AC: I actually started out photographing bands in Boston, because I loved music so much and just wanted to be around the people who made it. I couldn’t even begin to believe that I had any musical talent or right to be considered a musician, with no training, and my only musical background being that of a serious music fan. But I somewhat secretly began writing songs right out of college, and did one wedding gig in New Jersey with a couple of friends. The drummer didn’t even know the songs, and I was scared to death, and after the first song I heard one of the guests say, “that was the worst thing I’ve ever heard in my life!” Not encouraging. But after moving to the New York area, I eventually got up the guts to do an open mic, and then more, and eventually my guitar teacher at the time, Rich Feridun, volunteered to play gigs with me. That was a real jolt, that he would believe in the songs of an untrained musician enough to put himself out there with me. And then I started recording demos, and continued to try to get work in New York as a photographer. When I started getting calls for New York gigs for my music and the photography started drying up, it became kind of a no-brainer.
NFZ: You have a new album out called Thatched Roof Glass House. I understand that record’s been a long time in the making. Care to share the history of it with our readers?
AC: I went out to L.A. after Christmas in 2005, and started recording in early 2006. I had gigged in LA with the drummer, Jason Smith, a number of times, and had developed a great working relationship with him and a friendship. So I really wanted to make my next record with him. He was the source of my connections with the other musicians on the record, originally titled Venus Smile, and we got fifteen instrumental tracks and seven of the vocal tracks down, before I had a very serious breakdown, and were unable to complete the record. My father had died a few years before, and I had already started to fall into a depression, but was still functional at that point. Then the rather screwed up ending of a romantic situation kind of finished me off, and I found myself trying to lay down a vocal in the studio and unable to get a decent track. I broke down crying at that point and it was all downhill from there. So then years of treatment followed, suicidality, hospitalizations, ECT, you name it. No relief. Then in 2013 I started this then experimental ketamine infusion treatment, and finally started to feel good enough to book some gigs in London with my friend Chris Butler supporting me. But literally no one came, to two gigs, two years in a row, and I started to fall back on drinking to deal with the anxiety and disappointment. It wasn’t until early this year that I realized I needed to get sober. And I rapidly got better after that (which I could also explain astrologically, but I won’t get into it here). And then, after years of being urged to put out the finished songs as its own record, as opposed to putting out the full 15 song Venus Smile, and resisting, it suddenly became to seem like a good idea. I contacted Brett Thorngren, mixer, mastering engineer extraordinaire who had mixed the songs for me years previously, and he had just come across the tracks weeks before. He was totally onboard and excited, and that got me excited. So he remixed everything again, with fantastic results, and here we are. To this day I have no memory of recording five of those vocals. It’s been something of a miracle, the way everything and everyone has come together on this.
NFZ: You have an incredible line-up of musicians that worked with you on
Thatched Roof Glass House. Please tell us who they are, what they did your recording and what it was like to work with them.
AC: As I mentioned, I had worked with the drummer Jason Smith before, and he was extremely enthusiastic about and supportive of my songs. It was he who hooked me up with Doug Pettibone on guitar, and Reggie McBride on bass. I met Jon Mattox, who engineered the recordings, through a mutual friend. He was a drummer himself and an accomplished engineer in his own right, and really knew how to record the rhythm musicians in particular (as well as playing some drums and percussion on some of the tracks that will be completed later, for Venus Smile.) Doug had played for a long time with Lucinda Williams, who I adored, and Reggie I only knew had at one time worked for Elton John. Their musicianship, as far as my experience went, was unsurpassed. Doug showed up at the studio the first day with a literal truckload of guitars, and used most of them. At the time, I had started on Prozac, which made it very difficult for me to play the acoustic guitar, so I taught him all my parts, and he recorded most of them for me. Jason was particularly in love with a song called Wichita, which will end up now on the next record, but he insisted on bringing in this huge ass drum which he felt was absolutely necessary for the song. Total dedication! And Reggie was really quiet, so I didn’t get to know him well, but he absolutely nailed everything he did.
NFZ: The lyrics of you music appear to be about the dichotomies in life. Is that true?
AC: In some ways, but I would actually call it more of a dialectical approach (a term I learned in film class!) where two seemingly unrelated concepts come together to form an entirely new entity. I guess Mockingbird seems to be about dichotomy, but it’s actually more of a sarcastic, devil’s advocate way of saying we can’t, and shouldn’t, try to be anyone but who we are. And Mona Lisa in a Comic Book is really about people having much more potential than they believe or realize that they do.
NFZ: This is the third record you’ve released as Alpha Cat since the 1990s. Which one is your favorite and why?
AC: Well, I don’t have any children, but I imagine it is like having three children. You love them all equally in different ways and for different reasons. Real Boy was super exciting because it was my first, and the first time I got to see the potential in what could happen when collaborating with other people who were more accomplished and talented than I was. Plus, it was originally meant to be only a demo, and when it did so well on college radio that was a real shock and beyond gratifying. Pearl Harbor was the first record I recorded with a band that I had actually been playing the songs out with, and was basically a concept album, as well as my first full length. So I got to stretch out with it and try some ideas that I hadn’t had the chance to before. As for this one, it seems to be the reward that has come at the end of a very long, very dark period. And I have come back to the people and relationships that I have nurtured over the last years, and once I decided to do it, everything has seemed to fall magically in place.
NFZ: You’ve had many personal struggles over the years. How have these struggles influenced your music?
AC: Even though I went through my own personal hell, it seems to have added a depth and intensity that were hinted at in Pearl Harbor, but not yet fully realized. Plus, I have utilized and embraced a long time obsession that I have had with the use of metaphor that started with my creative photography in graduate school.
NFZ: Are you involved in any political causes or charitable actives? If so, which ones and what do they do, or hope to achieve?
AC: While I have very strong beliefs and opinions about everything from the current government, of which I am extremely far from being a fan, to the environmental crisis and the #MeToo movement, I don’t feel that that is what my work is about. So while I will certainly retweet posts that I agree with on occasions where I feel particularly strongly, I don’t want anything that I might have to say to be only accessible to either one side or the other. Because the songs are more about life and personal struggles which I believe to be applicable to more than just one party or gender or sexual identity. As for charity, I give to animal causes, Heifer International, where they give animals to people not to eat, but for milk. I like that. And a few others that I can’t recall at the moment.
NFZ: If you had the power to change anything in the entertainment industry, what would it be?
AC: I will just say that the approach that I personally am taking is to be fiercely independent and to not have my work be about me, but about the message that I am trying to convey. While marketing is essential to reach the audience, it is not about making money for me. I’m certainly not going to trademark or try to monetize my cats, for example. They are too precious to me. Nor will I ever take money for promoting something I particularly resonate with. I’m not sure I would ever do that any differently. I just don’t need money that badly. Nor do I have any intention of developing a fragrance, for example. I know nothing about it, and don’t know why anyone would buy a product simply because someone famous has put their name on it.
NFZ: Any particular artists you’d care to work with in the future?
AC: I’ve had to think about this a bit, and there is something I’d like to say before answering in specifics. I think that a good portion of the collaborations today are merely about expanding a fan base in order to make more money, and the result is a lot of weak, watered down work. While saying that, I will add that there are also some particularly successful ones, like what I’ve seen Halsey do recently, and pretty much anything Rihanna does with anyone, be it Eminem or Calvin Harris. So while I have never actually written a song with another person, that is, lyrics and melody, there are a few people with which I think it would be interesting to try. I really love a lot of Sia’s stuff, and Elastic Heart is one of those songs that I wish I had written. And I am a huge fan of Beck, in fact, when I wrote Black Hole, I consciously tried to adapt his style of writing in largely metaphorical terms, and it turned out to be a really good fit for me. And I have always been a sucker for an extremely well crafted pop song, so I wouldn’t say no to Justin Bieber, even though I strongly prefer the stuff he has written on his own to any of the collaborations he has put out. I adore Troye Sivan, both for his proud individuality and his songwriting. And I love me some Peter Gabriel. I just rediscovered Digging in the Dirt. Just brilliant!
NFZ: What is something about you that your fans don’t know and would probably be a surprise to them?
AC: That I have studied astrology for pretty much my entire adult life, and love doing people’s charts for them. It really allows me to tap into my intuitive side. And I have written a couple columns over the years as well.
NFZ: How can people follow and stay in touch with you?
AC: At this point my website is being revamped, so I’m not sure when it will be back online yet. So as of now, https://www.facebook.com/alphacatband is where I post any new music, videos or news, as well as stuff that I am particularly into, such as theater, comedy, other people’s music, and other stuff I come across, be it funny things I see in everyday life, or outings I found enjoyable. All that stuff is also posted on https://twitter.com/AlphaCatBand and https://www.instagram.com/alphacatband. And I have music and videos up on https://www.reverbnation.com/alphacat1, while the tracks for the new album are up for streaming on https://soundcloud.com/user-309827301, so people don’t have to buy them to listen to them unless they want to. There is also an Alpha Cat Youtube channel now with a couple of videos up, with more to come.
Thanks to Musique Magazine for this enjoyable interview, I actually learned something about myself in the process…
Here is the full interview: By Nick Gibson, Published on August 22, 2019
Interview with Multi-Talented Music Artist “Alpha Cat"
Elizabeth, please tell us about yourself and your alter ego, Alpha Cat.
Alter ego is a funny way of putting it! It was not my original intent to have one since that name came about when I was first working and recording with a band. It’s just that the bands kind of came and went and there were these records out that got a bit of attention, so the name stuck. Originally, my first groups’ name was Meerkat, because I had seen and photographed a meerkat at a zoo back in the day, and was a bit obsessed with them. So, I was designing the package for Real Boy with that name in mind, because I had a really cool shot of one that I wanted to use.
But as I worked on it I actually didn’t like the way the word looked, so I tried a few different things, and Alpha Cat looked cool. Then I got my first real band together, (as the record was already charting on college radio,) I ended up with a band with three girls and two boys, and it made a lot of sense, with the connotation of female empowerment, and also the priority I had grown to give to intuition, or you might say the yin energy, over the masculine or yang energy. You might guess from my terminology that I’m into some spiritual stuff, like the I Ching and astrology, and you would be right.
How long have you been involved professionally with music?
Well, I would use the term “professionally” loosely. When I first started gigging and recording, and when I first started to get airplay, I had a CD, but I didn’t even have a website or any way to sell it. And I booked our first Alpha Cat tour myself, with no experience or knowledge of really how to do any of it.
I just booked some gigs in towns where the record was charting, rented a van, and off we went. Needless to say, I did not end up in the black! I made some money off royalties from airplay and from a song I had in a film that ended up on TV ultimately, but I seriously lost money on the whole shebang. I financed the music with two mortgages and a line of credit on the house that I had owned with my ex-husband. And a job.
How did you get your start?
I guess it was that I started writing songs with my then-husband (playing guitar) and rehearsing with a Brit keyboard/bass player named Mick (no lie) and a drummer whose name I can’t recall who insisted on bringing a TV down to the basement where we rehearsed so that he could watch the Cosby Show during rehearsals. I was obviously not having it, and when my husband asked him not to do it, he actually called my husband “whipped!”
Who are some of the musicians you’ve worked with along the way?
While I haven’t been that lucky thus far in terms of monetary profit, because I got my start photographing bands and making friends with some of them, I have been very lucky to have made some connections with some pretty amazing musicians through them along the way. So, people that other people might know: Richard Lloyd and Fred Smith of Television, Matt Johnson, who was Jeff Buckley’s drummer, Doug Pettibone, who worked on this current record, just came off of a tour with John Mayer and had a longtime musical relationship with Lucinda Williams.
But I have to say I have an incredibly soft spot for Angela Babin (guitar), Lori Bingel (bass), and Derek Dragotis (backing vocals), who were in the original Alpha Cat, and are featured in the song Black Hole, for both their musicianship and their long term friendship. And of course, without Jason Smith, who hooked me up with the rest of the musicians on TRGH, this record would have never been made. And he is a phenomenal drummer who I feel privileged to have worked with and to call my friend.
You’ve released several CDs over the years. Could you tell a bit about each one?
Real Boy was originally recorded as a demo with Fred Smith. But we ended up liking it so much that I just thought, well let’s just throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. I found a promoter willing to work the record and having sent out 150 copies to the radio, it ended up beating Beck’s Midnite Vultures and Metallica’s S&M in the add charts for that week. And those two had obviously sent out quite a few more records than me. And it was well-reviewed.
Pearl Harbor was a bit of a concept album, based around the song of that name, which was written in response to a couple of soul-shocking events that had happened in my life, and the realization that Pearl Harbor must have been named that before it was bombed, because there were literally, pearls in the harbor. I tried to imagine what it might take to get back to a place where it became about treasure again, as opposed to destruction. So the CD is really about transformation through tragedy, which is a running theme for me.
And Thatched Roof Glass House was originally meant to be part of a much longer record called Venus Smile. For years, a few of my friends urged me to put these songs out as an EP, but I was adamant that I was not going to do it unless it was the full 15 songs I originally recorded. I just wasn’t willing. And then I was. But the songs on this are about relationships, both with romantic interests, and one about my mother, and there is a song I wrote about my experience on 9/11, which I think I may be forgiven for now that enough time has passed.
Do you have a follow-up record in the works that we can look forward to in the near future?
Well, to be honest, I’ve just relatively recently emerged from a really long time in a really dark place, where I had lost my voice and my ability to do music at all, so I’m going to take a bit of time to get those things back. But the plan as of now is to finish the remaining 8 tracks from Venus Smile, all of which require vocals, and then put that out. Date TBD.
When you’re writing a new song which comes first for you, the music or the lyrics?
I guess I originally started with just writing words, for years. It became a stream of consciousness kind of thing where the words started to create their own lyricality and meaning. So usually words first. That said, I had written the music for the song Pearl Harbor a year before the events that inspired the lyrics even took place. And then when the band had a gig on Pearl Harbor Day, I decided to write a song for it, and the words just came and fit perfectly with the music that had been sitting around all that time.
What’s your preferred process for recording; different musicians in the studio at different times to cut tracks, or getting them all together in the same room at the same time to work as together as an ensemble?
I seem to be most comfortable working one on one with the different musicians in the studio. Then I can make sure and get what I want from them while allowing them to shine in their own special talents. I’m a pretty easy producer and collaborator. But I’ve been very lucky in the people I have worked with.
Any upcoming performances scheduled?
To be determined.
Is there an Alpha Cat web site, or social media sites that our readers can go to check in on what you’re doing?
My website is in the process of being updated. So, the best place to keep up is the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/alphacatband), while there are music and a bio up on Reverbnation, music on Soundcloud, and a couple of videos on Youtube (https://youtu.be/Fyq_FghdFaU), with more to come. And of course, the obligatory Twitter (https://twitter.com/AlphaCatBand) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/alphacatband).