By Sean Moeller
For a man who can pile-drive a song right into the thick walls of your corazon, who can shake the wings off of ceiling fans when his from-the-toes rasp cooks up to its full powers and who stomps the devil out of stages with the bludgeoning heels of his well-worn cowboy boots, Catfish Haven singer George Hunter is a softie. He takes his girlfriend out to sushi and an Al Green concert for their anniversary. He begs for forgiveness in his songs, treats a girl beautifully in his songs and romances those girls to death in his songs.
A great ballad can break him. He's almost in tears by the end of Toussaint McCall's "Nothing Takes The Place Of You" from John Water's "Hairspray," overcome with the simple sentiment of it. He's a romantic in a way that Joe Willie Namath never was, without the ruler-length shag carpeting in his bachelor pad and grossly strong/half-drunk come-on lines. He's a romantic in the way that Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and The Four Tops were romantics, putting their intentions into their purest form, like cane sugar and comb honey. Hunter's words come welling out of him with the force of water blasting from a fire hose and yet, all of what he's singing about holds a quiet moment quality that's never dissolute and often feels like a glassy pond or lake, serene and untouched.
Catfish Haven, a trio of good-for-everything Chicagoans, are one of those bands that if you tell your friend about them, they'll tell five more people and it's mainly because everything Hunter, bassist Miguel Castillo and drummer Ryan Farnham do is centered around an undying passion to make meaningful and memorable music that reaches the inside of you and frequently pulls up a chair for hours or days or weeks or lifetimes. Hunter's in this for life, never thinking about a plan B if his records - the most recent, the "Please Come Back" EP out on Secretly Canadian, with a full-length to follow in September - don't get heard.
"I really don't think about it not working," he said. "I always tell myself that I'm going to die trying. I've always had a dream of doing a crooner thing. Not like what Frank Sinatra did, but something where I'd write these angelic pop songs that are just perfect. I'd have my Price Is Right microphone and I'd just be walking around singing. I definitely try to get that fucking feeling into the songs, but we also try to wake up the neighbors every time we play too.
"I love slow ballads. Those are my things. I could write slow ballad after slow ballad after slow ballad, but the rest of the band won't let me."
Hunter has a history of going through musical projects like someone with a stuffy nose might go through tissues.
"I started my first band when I was 14 and I was playing bass. I guess between us, we've probably all played in about 20 bands. I'll start a band, play in it for two months, write six songs and be done with it. If I discover a new sound and I want to emulate it, I just do it. Catfish Haven has been the first project I've been totally happy with," Hunter said. "I used to play in hardcore bands, but my true love is sweet pop ballads. That's what I love about music is the unbelievable hooks. It's those songs that just bring you to tears…a song that just does something to you emotionally. Music's the one thing I've never had to think about. Everything else in life you have to think about, but with music, it's all just kind of flowing from me right now. It definitely makes me feel whole. It makes me…I guess I just want to make a difference. It's not like being a fucking humanitarian but…It's really hard to explain why you love a song. It's always nice to hear something new. I definitely dig the beautiful things."
He met Castillo as the two were playing in the Chicago scene and Farnham came into the fold shortly after, when they looked to fill out the band.
"I met Miguel when he threw one of these festivals at his house, with his parents out of town," Hunter said. "It was like a 20-band, two-day thing. It wasn't like a real festival. It was one of those things where the bands played for five kids and the other bands. He had a TV-watching basement, where the bands played, and there was a big metal pole in the middle of the room that blocked the view of the band. If you weren't in the front row, you couldn't see anything. One of the bands that played was The Rapture. They were on Sub Pop, but nobody knew who they were yet. They were just a band that would play in a kid's basement.
"We got along really well and Ryan was the resident awesome drummer in the area. He was about to go to Berklee (College of Music). This was probably the late 90s. We'd always bumped into each other at shows. We talked him into not going to Berklee and doing the band instead."
The three parts of Catfish Haven fit together like a bottle and a cork, meant for one another, but still building up a gleeful tension because of their union. Hunter is a stubby, bearded showman with an affinity for his uncle's old Vietnam War-era camouflage jacket and a blue Chicago Bears hoodie, not to mention an honest to goodness crush on the voice of Sam Cooke. Castillo is just as hairy and a dervish on stage, flailing about with no concern for those with cell phone cameras. I'm afraid all they'll ever be able to send their friends at home will be tiny photos of a blur. And Farnham is the solid, salt of the earth bro who pulls everything together, wearing his poor sticks down to dangerously splintered toothpicks.
"I feel like this is my barbershop quartet. Everyone has their part. We don't have another songwriter in the band and I'll never have another songwriter in my band," Hunter said. "I consider myself a singer second and a songwriter first. It's all meat and potatoes to me. A song could bring you to your knees if you want it to. I'm just trying to be as honest as possible. It would be nice to make an impact, but you can't rape a song. You can't do too much to it. I think that less is more. We could have a guitar solo in every song, but will it just sound like we're lazy? These are the things I wrestle with all the time. I think that as long as we keep pushing…
"We've had a fourth member of the band before. We've added a guitarist, but we've had to send people packing. It's just not in our future to be a four-piece. It's not in my interest. I'm a big fan of if you play an instrument, you play that instrument only. I'd even be a little weird about someone singing backup. It's like do it or fucking don't. If we get stuck on a part, it's probably because the part sucks. It's that fucking simple. It's just not worth it. You start teasing the songs and breaking up the parts and it gets bad. I could listen to Creedence (Clearwater Revival) and never hear a solo and I'd be perfectly happy. I love that raw dog, back porch feel."
That raw dog feel carries over into the band's living habits when on tour. When they were out on the road with Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin for three weeks in February, SSLYBY drummer Philip Dickey mentioned that he hadn't seen them in different clothes for the duration of the tour. Hunter heard that their mates were worried.
"We wondered what they thought," he said with a laugh. "Some guy told us that they were worried about us, like we were struggling.
"I travel light as hell man. I bring another shirt in case my one gets totally fucked. It's not like we're filthy animals. I just don't have the time or patience to go out and get a wardrobe. It's not like we're natural disaster victims. We just don't give a shit. That army jacket that I have was my uncle's. He used to work on missiles. I had that jacket when I was 10 years old, when it didn't fit me at all. I kind of like the faux, homeless, street hustler look."
Almost as much as he like slow ballads.