Cougar is a band again

The Madison-formed instrumental outfit returns for three shows, including an opening spot for Phox on November 7.

  Cougar is, from left to right: Todd Hill, Trent Johnson, David Henzie-Skogen, Aaron Sleator, and Dan Venne.

Cougar is, from left to right: Todd Hill, Trent Johnson, David Henzie-Skogen, Aaron Sleator, and Dan Venne.

It’s hard to believe that Cougar has been laying low for so long. Even as the band wrapped up its second album, 2009’s Patriot, for release on the respected British electronic label Ninja Tune, members were already trading ideas and parts for a third record, which is still in the works. (The band’s Facebook page declared the new album was on the “front burner”—but that was in Feburary 2013.) Cougar formed in Madison in 2003, but by the time its first album, Law, saw wide release in 2007, the members had already dispersed across five cities, with only drummer David Henzie-Skogen still in Madison, and staying pretty busy as also the leader and MC of Youngblood Brass Band and a music teacher at his alma mater, Oregon High School. This, and the other four members’ work lives, has kept Cougar from playing live for quite a while, so it’s a surprise that they’re back in November for three shows: Opening for Phox on November 5 in Champaign-Urbanaheadlining in Chicago on November 6, and opening for Phox again on November 7 at the Capitol Theater in Madison. (It's kind of an apt gesture on Phox's part to have Cougar along as openers, as Cougar and Youngblood have often booked adventurous Madison acts to open their own Madison shows.)

Fortunately, the band’s music lends itself well to the whole creation-by-email thing—Cougar makes clean, almost austere instrumental rock that has way more in common with beat-oriented electronic music and the textural experiments of Autechre than it does with the blistering crescendos of Explosions In The Sky or Mogwai. Guitarists Trent Johnson and Dan Venne favor elegantly twisting melodies and harmonically tense chords. Sometimes, on a song like Law’s “Your Excellency,” there’s a section of chunky riffs, but the band quickly returns to working its way down subtler, more meditative threads. Patriot was a more aggressive album than Law, with “Thundersnow” and “Heavy Into Jeff” hinting at Fugazi circa Red Medicine. But even on Patriot, big climactic payoffs weren't really the point, and the band left a lot of room for experimentation, incorporating a harp part on “Pelourinho” and an eerily beautiful choir (actually just two vocalists, multi-tracked) on “Rhinelander.”

Henzie-Skogen says he hopes the upcoming shows will spur the band to wrap up the third album for a spring 2016 release. As he wrapped up a tour with Youngblood Brass Band, Henzie-Skogen talked with me about how these shows began as a joke, and the changes Cougar has gone through over the past six years. You can also hear some of our interview above, in a segment produced by Dylan Brogan for the Tone Madison/WORT-FM podcast. Follow that on SoundCloud or iTunes.

Tone Madison: The show Cougar is doing with Phox is the first one you've played in Madison for quite a while. Can you catch us up on where everyone in Cougar is right now?

David Henzie-Skogen: Yeah, it has been a while. It's been, I don't know, four years, maybe closer to five. I do a lot of touring with Youngblood Brass Band and making the albums and managing the whatever. Todd Hill, the bass player, he's in Chicago, he's a working bass player just playing oodles of gigs all over the place. Aaron Sleator, the guy who plays guitar and does a lot of the electronic stuff and synths and all these things, he's in Austin, he's an architect. Dan Venne, the other guitar player, he's in New York and he is a commercial music producer, doing music for TV and film soundtracks and all this stuff. And then Trent Johnson is an attorney, and he lives in Milwaukee. So getting the band together can be a challenge. We have kind of a writing process that involves all of us using our home studios and such, but getting together to actually play dates and tour is an even bigger challenge. For a band where all of us have kind of other giant life things, we tend to only tour if there's a record coming out or a record just came out. It just so happens that it's taken us longer than we anticipated to complete the third record.

Tone Madison: You told me recently that when this Phox show came up, you just jokingly offered to have Cougar open for it, and that turned into you actually talking the other members into it?

David Henzie-Skogen: Yeah, basically it started as a joke. Monica [Martin, of Phox] asked me what band they should have open in Madison, and I just kind of laughed and said, "Ah, it'd be so great if Cougar could do it." And she's like, "What, maybe, could you guys?!" And I said, "Probably not. We haven't played a gig in a few years and have just been focusing on trying to finish the record." But then I thought about it and I was like, you know, it'd probably be a great way to get some momentum on to finish the record and get back to playing the music live. It's such nice music to play live—at least for us, it's incredibly satisfying music to play. Just physically remembering how good it feels to play the music I think would be a good thing for us, to kind of kick our butts into trying to get that record done in the next few months.

Tone Madison: And that's something that's been in progress for a while, with all the members working on it remotely and trading parts over email. How is the new stuff different from the previous two records?

David Henzie-Skogen: When the writing process is remote, there's some benefits and some serious drawbacks. The benefit is you can sit there and kind of really mull over all the stuff you're hearing, or what you want to hear, and you can also make an argument for the thing you want to hear, or argue for or against the things you're hearing. That can kind of spiral into never-ending discussions about where a song should go or what a song should feel like. I mean, one of the kind of binding principles of Cougar is that everyone has veto power and anyone can just say, "I don't like it enough." It's not always a majority-vote situation. It's kind of like any one band member doesn't think a part of a tune is essential, we'll can it. It can make those discussions really drawn-out, whereas when you're in a room writing material, you're kind of banging your heads together and the best idea wins, and someone concedes or someone goes, "Alright, let's try it."

So it takes longer, maybe but it also works for what we do. So much of what we do will be based around the germ of an idea, and then kind of built into a full song, sometimes based on a riff, but sometimes based on a vibe or a soundscape or whatever. It's challenging, and we still feel like we're most productive when we force each other to get together for four days and bang this stuff out. It's one of the other serious pitfalls—you're working on this demo version of a half-song and it sits there for six months, you start to only be able to hear that version of the song, and it starts to sound like that is the entire thing, and then you want to just kind of throw it away and start something new.

Tone Madison: Was there a time there after Patriot that you weren't writing stuff together, or has the tinkering and trading just sort of kept up steadily?

David Henzie-Skogen: It's kind of always ongoing. Even while Patriot was being finished, we had ideas circulating around. Since we all have studio experience, basically everyone in the band is an engineer to some degree. There's always stuff floating around, always sessions bouncing around, so I feel like even with albums being what they are, they tend to be little timepieces for us, where all the material sounds congruent and happened to be finished at the same time. A few years later, now we're at this point where there's so many kind of 30 percent-, 50 percent-, 60 percent-finished tunes, and we're just kind of trying to figure out what sounds like the type of sound you want to make and what sounds like it merits belonging on the next release of the band. Of course, the longer you go without releasing a thing, the more you feel like that thing should be a hallmark of what the band's been doing or, I don't know if necessarily a new sound, but you get in that trap of being like—if you're not doing constant output for a certain amount of time, you start kind of putting this imaginary pressure on yourself regarding the next thing you put out.

Tone Madison: And if everyone's an engineer/producer in addition to being a musician, that kind of adds a whole other layer of stuff that everyone gets to have an opinion about.

David Henzie-Skogen: Totally, and since all of us have that kind of studio experience of producing things top-to-bottom, the kinds of discussions we get into tend to be less about what the meat and potatoes is of a song and more about how the song should feel, how it should vibe, what kind of things it should create, and all of these things you tend to approach when you get to the production end of things or the post-production end of things. There's definitely a lot of different ways a song can not end up getting finished.

Tone Madison: Are you at the point where the third album is pretty close to complete, or is there still a ways to go?

David Henzie-Skogen: I think there's a ways to go, but I think we have enough songs that we enjoy that are complete enough to feel like there's a sound to the record that's emerged. There's enough material there that we feel like we're starting to hear the album in our heads. The challenging thing for us is just that everyone is going all the time, and I know for me personally, if I'm not touring three or four months out of the year with Youngblood, I'm teaching these drum line programs most of the rest of the year, and I'm always kind of thinking, "Well, I'll spend one night a week in the studio working on Cougar stuff," or whatever it is. But even if you're only able to get in there a few hours a week, it's not a ton of time when you're talking about what it takes to finish a record—at least for us, that's about a month's work of really concerted everyday work. So, yeah, it's coming along, and I think doing these shows is gonna revitalize, spark the fire, just enough to make us go, "Alright, let's set a deadline."

Tone Madison: As you get ready for these shows, do you have new things that you'll be playing live?

David Henzie-Skogen: It's unclear. The first thing we're gonna do is make sure we feel good about playing the old material that we want to play. Because our writing process is with everyone spread out, all of the new material we have has never been performed or played by any of us, other than just recording our parts for the studio. We have new tunes that are possible to perform. It's unclear to us if we're gonna feel like once we get together and start playing them, if they warrant airing them out live or if they're not complete enough to warrant it.

Tone Madison: Since you have some distance from both the first two records—Patriot was six years ago now—does that change the way you look at that material? Do you think some of it might mutate a bit in the process of getting ready for the live shows?

David Henzie-Skogen: Yeah, definitely. I mean, on a really basic level, I feel like the technology that everyone's working with is a little different than it was six years ago. I know that Sleator, the guy who does most of the sample-based stuff and electronic stuff, he's really stoked to kind of rebuild all of the samples and electronic things we used to use in a completely different way with wholly different equipment. And I think, selfishly, when we're kind of figuring out what we want to play, we're just kind of angling for the tunes that feel the best to play to us, where we just really miss playing a song, really miss hearing those first three guitar chords [from "Atlatl," the opening track on Law], really miss getting to this one section of a tune. I don't know if we have much of an ear for what people that are into Cougar like most or don't like about some of the tunes. But all we're kind of thinking of is, what would make us happy to sit down and play?

Tone Madison: Are there any particular songs that everyone in the group seems to feel particularly happy about getting back to playing live?

David Henzie-Skogen: Sure. I think the way that our first album starts feels so Cougar to us. I think we're all really looking forward to just kind of starting "Atlatl." I miss hearing those chords live. It's the first song on the first album and the first thing we did when we had this idea of making this type of music. So I feel like it's representative of a lot for us. At this point, that moment was 10 years ago. On Patriot, the tune that's called "Endings" is a really fun one to play.

The ones that are the most fun to play tend to, in my mind, tend to kind of open up into something that feels pretty victorious to us, but on the other hand, now that I'm thinking about it, when I think of the second track on the first record, it's all kind of upright bass and brushes on the drums and really delicate things. It's called "Strict Scrutiny." It's all really kind of acoustic string sounds, it's kind of weird, delicate percussion. That kind of stuff is really satisfying to play just because, from my perspective, all the rest of the guys in the band are such sensitive musicians that they can pull that kind of thing off and have it not seem like it's meant to be cloying or coming from this maybe more folk-based perspective. One of the things I always liked about the band is I felt like when Cougar uses delicate textures or pretty textures, we try to use them in a context that feels more informed by neoclassical music or electronic music, as opposed to the way that the instruments are typically approached in a band that has the instrumentation we have. As a drummer, I love being able to essentially play what feel to be like almost sample-based beats, but using all these really delicate, weird, interesting percussion textures to get there.

I'm also interested to see how much my personal ear has kind of changed since the last time we approached all that stuff, and if I will tend to play it differently or hear different things while trying to play it.

Tone Madison: Two years ago, you lost your friend Peter Streicher, who created the album art for the first two Cougar albums, and from talking to you earlier on, I know that his work was really important to the overall aesthetic of the band. Going into the next album, do you want to find a way to honor what he brought to the band, and have you talked about how you want to approach the art?

David Henzie-Skogen: That's actually something we hadn't started thinking about very much until we booked these few shows, and started thinking about the fact that the album might actually be completed kind of soon. Pete's photos, all the way back when we released Law in 2005, struck us as having this really cool marriage of natural organic elements and man-made elements, and there's this weird sense of of man-made geometry or even naturally occurring geometry, but it feels vaguely technological, and we felt it was such a cool visual representation of Cougar's aesthetic, where we're kind of taking all these synthetic or rock-band instruments and making this music that feels like it's coming from more of a sample-based place.

Pete was always basically part of a two-man team, the other guy being Scott Pauli, who was the graphic-design brains behind the thing, and Pete's photos were what we worked with. I'm sure that we'll be working with Scott and yeah, I think it will definitely be an attempt to memorialize, because Pete's work for us, everything we saw that he did, we were just like, "That's perfect, that's amazing." For a band doesn't care that much for press photos—nobody really cares what your faces look like when you're an instrumental band, right?—it's liberating in a way, because you can add so much more import to whatever visual aesthetic you're presenting, because it's so much more like visual art when there's no lead singer and no lyrics or whatever. That's, for me, why Autechre's artwork was always so mind-blowing—you're not worried about the persona of the guys or how they fit into the pop-culture or rock-star culture idiom, you're just looking at how amazingly representative of the sound the visual stuff is. Pete definitely did that for us, so, yeah, we're gonna have to figure that one out. It was a total shock and such a weird, tragic thing. We were all just totally blown away by it, but there's definitely going to be a lot of Pete Streicher thought, thinking on what Pete would maybe bring to the table, and maybe digging up some projects that he and Scott had kind of messed around with or worked with before his death.

Tone Madison: What else is coming up for you?

David Henzie-Skogen: I'm actually really looking forward to the next handful of months, because between teaching the drum line and drum corps and touring with Youngblood, I kind of feel like I haven't been home since May. I'm really looking forward to being home for a few months and trying to bang out the Cougar record, trying to finish a new Youngblood EP or record, and then the programs I teach have kind of expanded a lot in the last couple of years. That's a little more of a full-time responsibility. There's more of a national circuit that these programs are doing now, so whenever I'm gone for two months, I start to get to feel like I'm leaving my students out to dry, really hosing these 14-year-olds who are super into music and could use a little push. Just like the absentee father. I really gotta get back to these drum line teenagers. They're more excited about music than all my adult friends, and it keeps putting fuel on the fire for me to make stuff, because everything's still so new to them and they're still so stoked to be playing music, or when they find out about a band, or they're kind of in the hip-hop and they've never really dug, and they get a Run The Jewels record and they're just like, "Oh my god!" Those are really fun experiences to be part of.