"When I was in the seventh, eighth grade I used to listen to Hall & Oates for hours and hours. I did. I'd lock myself in my room, and listen to Hall & Oates. I'd call DJs in the middle of the night — can you play "Sara Smile'? I wrote a song about John Oates once, but it was equal; I liked them both."
At some point during an interview with Pinellas dirt-pop threesome Big Kitty at Oldsmar's Apple Rehearsal Studios, singer/guitarist Daphne Brulee insists that she's not obsessed with pop music. That's a lie. This is the same woman who wrote about bands while attending college at Auburn, primarily so she could talk to her heroes. She finds a way to wedge The Jam and The Pretenders into any conversation, subject be damned. She once painted a wavelike visual representation of a Let's Active song on her dorm-room door. And her five or six years' worth of four-track hard-candy gems are getting a fresh makeover, club play and some new catalog additions, courtesy of bassist Allan Hoekstra and new drummer Steve Haun.
Big Kitty's sunny but substantial tunes are a study in classic pop songwriting. Deceptively simple, innately catchy and delivered with just enough fuzz-toned edge, they betray years of, if not strictly analyzing, then certainly soaking up more well-crafted rock 'n' roll
than a CBGB's bar-rag. Such a deft major-key touch didn't come purely by osmosis, however; prior to Big Kitty's origins in the winter of 2000, Brulee was a dedicated closet songsmith.
"I had written these songs on a four-track at my house through the years," she says. "I kind of got the idea in my head a long time ago about the basic structure of songs ... so I started from that framework, but the ideas for each part would come together in different ways. I was really relaxed, but I still had a sense of urgency because it was my favorite thing to do."
She eventually entered the band dynamic by way of a few supporting roles. Like most writers who put themselves in the position of backing others, Brulee found the experience a little jarring and not a little frustrating. It wasn't long before she began playing her material with some helpful but less than dedicated friends, and waiting for the classified ads to pan out.
"A guy actually called and said he could do voices like the guy from Police Academy," she remembers with a laugh, "like that was gonna be the asset."
Transplanted Oklahoman Hoekstra was intrigued by their Bass Player Wanted listing and checked out their second show at the always-entertaining Dave's Aqua Lounge.
"The songs were good, but I could tell that the drummer and bass player weren't doing too much," he says. "I could kind of hear a lot of things that I would like to play."
The fledgling outfit handed out nametags at its earliest gigs; Hoekstra bailed before the set's end for fear of being discovered as "that guy who answered the ad." He auditioned soon after, impressing Brulee by both learning the covers mentioned in the listing, and exhibiting some serious skill; his roaming, melodic style is tailor-made for filling out a hooky three-piece. Hoekstra's tenure in Big Kitty signaled the beginning of a truly collaborative process.
"I used to be really possessive, I guess, of my songs," says Brulee. "Working by myself for so long, I didn't know what it was like to collaborate on things, and now I feel like we're going to be writing together, which is a big deal."
"When you hear the tapes Daphne did, four, five, 10 years ago, you hear a lot of the songs, and you can hear how they changed," adds Hoekstra. "And from the time that I started playing, until now, with Steve, they've changed even more."
The extroverted Haun, who was the original drummer for St. Pete punk institution Car Bomb Driver, recently replaced ex-Big Kitty skinsman (and former Weekly Planet music critic) Robert Mortellaro. He found the gig after responding to a classified for a different band, Bay area garage-rock up-and-comers Crippled Masters. The Masters had already found a drummer and tipped Haun to Big Kitty. An outgoing character, Haun immediately began contributing ideas to further develop the band's tunes.
"Not to change the music, she's a great writer, definitely," he says. "Just little things that one person can't — you can only hear your own shit so many different ways by yourself."
"He has really good intuitive instincts about how to make the songs sound better, fuller," says Brulee.
Throughout the interview, the notion of Big Kitty's emergence as a cohesive songwriting unit underscores much of the discussion. Brulee, the former home-recording army of one, states that the band "really feels like a team now," emphasizing Haun and Hoekstra's creative input. And indeed, new songs like "Amazing Disgrace" display a heightened sense of dynamics and rhythmic shift, thankfully without sacrificing their enviable ability to make easy, somehow intangibly Californian three- and four-chord romps so compelling.
They can preach unity and democracy and bandhood until their lungs explode, however, and lots of folks are still going to focus on Brulee as the moody chick up front with the almost-ragged voice. She was a vocalist before she ever picked up a guitar and wrote a song, and her endeavors to "de-prettify" her voice — it only worked a little — imply more than a little desire to separate herself from those who do the emoting but not the creating.
"There is still that mentality where, when people find out you're in a band, they automatically think you're just the singer," she says. "I never thought of it until I actually was in a band. I sort of had to reconcile the fact that I do like to sing, actually sing, not yell. I do like to have a little bit of the softness. I like the balance."
Still, she and her two bandmates seem largely and refreshingly unconscious of the vagaries surrounding the (non)fact of her gender. When asked if she's considered the various pros and cons regarding how to present herself as a woman fronting a rock band that delivers songs easily good enough to render the concept irrelevant, Brulee verbally meanders for a bit before saying perhaps the best thing she possibly could: "Ideally, I'd rather just be considered a good band. Relying on that other stuff ... wearing a miniskirt or whatever, it just doesn't really seem to fit us," she says. "I just want to try to write a song that gives me chills, regardless of whether it's written by a man or a woman."
Music critic Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or e-mail him at [email protected].