Journey To The Treasure House: Talking Road Trips With Cats Eyes

As Cats Eyes release their sumptuous second album, Luke Turner speaks to Faris Badwan and Rachel Zeffira about a journey through Canadian wildfires to a place of strange rocks and honesty

When teenagers leave school in the remote Canadian town where Cat’s Eyes’ Rachel Zeffira spent her formative years, they climb a mountain high above it to spray their name on the rocks before disappearing out into the world. "It’s a weird, weird place," Zeffira says of Trail, population 7000, home to one of the largest lead smelting plants in the world. As a child she remembers swimming in the Columbia River as polluted industrial waste was pumped in upstream. Most people don’t leave the British Columbia town, but some end up as prodigies – Rachel went to school with one of the most valuable baseball players in the major league, there are Olympic gold medal winners, and others are successful in politics or the military. Yet there’s another element that perhaps connects more with our expectations of the remoter cities of the north American continent. "There was one girl in my class whose parents were brother and sister, so you get that side, and on the other you get these unbelievable engineers and so on," she explains.

The town where, as Zeffira sings in the haunting ‘Everything Moves Towards The Sun’, "there’s not much to see… and the mountains start at the end of my street" looms large over Treasure House, the second Cat’s Eyes album and follow-up to award-winning soundtrack for Peter Strickland’s The Duke Of Burgundy. The record’s 11 songs are stops on "an imaginary journey that then actually happened" when she took her Cat’s Eyes partner Faris Badwan on an epic road trip from Vancouver to visit her youthful haunts.

"Rachel has always written about that place, even the tree in her front garden, so it was about me retracing her steps," Badwan explains. On the way, they’d frequently travel for hours without seeing another car. As they drove, huge forest fires burned a huge area and they passed through a blackened, apocalyptic landscape shrouded in smoke, with helicopters clattering overhead en-route to dump water on the flames. "It was like Faris entering the Twilight Zone," says Zeffira. When she took Badwan on a climb to visit the rocks where her schoolfriends had spray-painted their names, they found a huge bear blocking their path and were forced to beat a retreat. Her brother’s best friend signed his name on the mountain, then fell off and died. "He wrote his name to be immortal," says Zeffira, explaining how her obsession with this place where high school nicknames and dates fade against the elements made it into album track ‘Names On The Mountains’.

Memories and how they play into our lives shapes the album, which is "about having a secret past", according to Zeffira. It ought silence those whose main interest in the Cat’s Eyes seemed to be about whether the pair were an item. But was there really ever much to hide from the indie gossipers? "We’ve always just written about our lives," says Badwan. "The first record documented the start of our relationship." Rachel continues, "this it’s more like a diary." In conversation the pair almost finish each other’s sentences. "You know they say that twins have a language? I sometimes feel like we have that," Zeffira says. Although the process of writing Treasure House might have been a long one, delayed by their work on The Duke Of Burgundy, it was made easier by this almost telepathic connection that meant compromises could come easily. Faris, meanwhile, credits his partner with being able to unravel the secrets of his mind, finding songs there. "Rachel’s main talent, that she’s best at out of everything, is solving problems and getting inside people’s heads, in every way – even if it’s just to wind them up."

Once again working with producer Steve Osbourne, sessions got underway directly after the completion of their self-titled debut album. There was a regular parade of musicians coming and going, with input from brass musicians, a lot of drummers and Rachel’s collection of harmonicas that cluttered up the Cat’s Eyes home. Both Badwan and Zeffira say that after the discipline of the soundtrack work returning to music where everything is "too open, you have to set your own rules" as Rachel puts it, was really tough.

According to Badwan, Cat’s Eyes’ songs are slippery creatures that could in theory be recorded in any style. "It’s tricky because they’ll go from sounding like an ’80s pop song to some acoustic or piano thing – most of the songs we’ve tried a few different ways," he explains. "With our two records and the soundtrack, the music doesn’t sound good until it’s done, and until that point you just get really worried because it sounds rubbish, it’s such a fine balance. You spend ages hearing this thing sound terrible and then suddenly it clicks and it’s done." For Treasure House this happened when Cat’s Eyes decamped to the Eve Studio in Stockport, a secret, converted house packed with synths, theramins and its own echo chamber.  They were always careful to keep the simplicity of the songs at the heart of the record. "Sometimes the most throwaway things say more about you than someone trying to say something really poetic," Badwan says. Zeffira adds: "Why make something complicated just for the sake of it?" Then again, Treasure House sees her returning to some of the more operatic vocal techniques she’d been missing, giving the album a tension that continues to exist from her somewhat difficult relationship with the conservatoire from whence she came. A self-taught musician, she was a self-confessed terrible student, and is as frustrated by the snobbery of the classical world as she is by people she knows in bands complaining that musicians in an orchestra are only playing other people’s pieces. With Faris Badwan in Cat’s Eyes she seems to have found something of a happy medium.

The result? An album of bold and bucolic pop songs, driving rhythms that flutter like sunbeams through the burnt trees of Cat’s Eyes’ epic journey through the Canadian wilderness, flickering piano and, in ‘Be Careful Where You Park Your Car’, a journey back to their initial concept of the group as a pastiche of ’60s songs. ‘Standoff’, rattling and psychedelic, "is still a journey into the past, just somebody else’s past." For the past is where the best stories lie, and every town has its secrets, all those fading names up on the rocks above Trail were sprayed in vivid colours in a moment before someone’s future and its joy and tragedy, triumph and loss. Treasure House is exploration, over landscape, through minds, into love, the places where the truths are found or, as Badwan puts it, "it’s about finally being honest".

Cats Eyes’ new LP Treasure House is out now. They play The Lexington, London on Tuesday 13th June

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