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DARREL HIGHAM & SLIM JIM PHANTOM: THE KATMEN COMETH – INTERVIEW BY PAUL HASTINGS
 
Katmen are a British rockabilly band who were formed in 2007 by Darrel Higham, a  hugely respected Rockabilly guitarist (who is now probably now best known for playing in Imelda May's band, who is also his wife) and Slim Jim Phantom of the legendary Stray Cats. The line up is then completed by Imelda May's bassist Al Gare. The band have just released a great new CD called "The Kat Men Cometh" which is on the Decca label. They are currently in the middle of a UK tour to promote this release. Fortunately, both Darrel and Jim were able to answer a few questions from Paul Hastings ahead of their gig at the Hare and Hounds in Birmingham.

PAUL: Tell me a bit about the recording process for the new album "The Kat Men Cometh"

DARREL: Well I gave Jim a call to say I had time to do some touring as my wife (Imelda May) was pregnant and that work would be slowing down. Jim had actually previously called me out of the blue when we first formed Kat Men. As I have my own recording studio at home, I invited Jim over to stay for a week and record an album. It then really just took off from there, I was really happy when Imelda's team offered to become involved.  Their manager took us on and so did Decca records and it all snow balled from there.

PAUL: How did you go about choosing the songs, as, unusually, there are no co-written songs between you and Jim

DARREL: I had about six or seven of my own songs hanging around which is unusual as I don't really tend to write unless I have a reason for them. We had also recorded a lot of covers together but I felt we needed some more songs as the album did not really feel eclectic enough. So, I asked Jim if he had any songs which were a little different. He then came up with some great songs such as "So Far From You" which is a nice blues song and "Are You With Me" which has a Creedence Clear Water sound that I love. He also gave us "Every Time I See You It Makes Me Smile " which is just a happy upbeat rock n roll song.Although lots of the songs really changed in the mixing done by Andy Wright and Gavin Goldsberg. "When The Drinks Dried Up" started off like Vince Taylor's "Brand New Cadillac" but it changed in to a funky rock n roll song which has ended up being one of my favourites on the album.

PAUL: One of my favourite tracks is the first single "We Need Elvis Back", which suggests we need the king to return to save the music scene, is that really how you feel?

DARREL: I thought my music taste would broaden as I got older but really it hasn't. I have always loved Rockabilly.In the early 80's I probably took more notice of pop stuff, I didn't buy it because there was lots of new Rockabilly bands around. However, I suppose I just stopped listening to it at all. Now it's a lot more style over substance and is more contrived. It tends to be based on personality because the technology is now there to make virtually anybody sound like they can sing.

PAUL: What about any new Rockabilly bands?

DARREL: I really like the Caezars, who have got the right attitude and are also really nice people. Over all my time in the music industry, I have learnt that the genuine nice people do get on, especially away from the commercial pop side. The band are supporting us during all of this tour and have an album coming out which also has backing vocals done by Imelda. It will come out on a record label called Ambassador which I co-own. Again that  was something I worked a lot on when I had more spare time, but now I am hard at work again so can't personally contribute, but the facilities are there to get stuff put out.

PAUL : What's the position with Kat Men, are they a full time band or more of a side project?

DARREL: If it can build up to a really good gigging band that would be great. We just wanted a gigging band when we first started with Imelda and this is in the same place. With Imelda it got to the point where we gigged constantly for four years which was too much and we wouldn't want to do that again. Kat Men were around before Imelda took off but when that exploded I concentrated on supporting her and being a guitarist. Kat Men are more straight forward Rockabilly and I am now the front man. I enjoy the front man side but I still see myself as really a guitarist.

PAUL: Do you think there is the chance for a bigger Rockabilly scene to develop, we have seen some bands like Imelda and JD McPherson have some success and even the hairstyle is becoming trendy again?

DARREL: In the early 80's there was more of clan feel with people being in a gang, not just rockabilly but also Punk, Goths, New Romantics. That's not so important now as everything is available at the the touch of a button and everything is so accessible, which is a good thing. I used to enjoy going to a record store but at least it is good to see vinyl coming back and things like the record shop day, so it is great to see there is still an interest. I suppose nowadays people aren't so interested in all the dressing up that goes with the scene. Although Imelda has always welcomed anyone to her shows who enjoys the music and not just rockabilly fans and we have the same approach.You are always going to get people who want to dress up and be fully part of the scene, I got in to the rockabilly scene when I was just 11. There are still Rockabilly clubs and it is important to have that underground club scene, and long may they continue, but you will need some bands to have that main stream success to introduce new people.

PAUL: What does the short term future hold for Kat Men?

DARREL: We are going to continuing touring and already have the rest of the tour here in the  UK and will then be heading off to Europe, including Holland and Spain. The backing of Decca should see more single releases and their help will be incredible. I know people have strong feelings about major labels but if they can get behind a band it can be incredible for the whole scene and may help to develop other bands.

PAUL: When I was listening to the new CD in the car my wife gave the one line review "Is this Elvis or just another band who sounds like him?" How do you feel about that, is it a compliment or an insult?

DARREL: (with a rueful smile) I think its wonderful, even though I don't actually sound anything like Elvis - I wish. He has been a great direct and indirect influence on me. Not only with his own songs but also the way he influenced the likes of Eddie Cochran.

At this point Darrel left us to go and prepare for the upcoming gig and we were joined by the legend that is Slim Jim Phantom from the great Stray Cats. Jim was keen to point out he didn't want to deal with any intense questioning like he had just heard but would love to answer a few questions!

PAUL: On the CD a number of the songs you contribute were co-written with your fellow Stray Cat, Lee Rocker, how did that happen:

JIM: I just told him that I was going to do a new Kat Men album and we then just did all the songwriting over the phone. It was a really straight forward process where I have been writing stuff since I was 12. We would just knock ideas back and forth and get it done.

PAUL: How quick can you write something?

JIM: Pretty much on demand, we could probably write something in a few hours, definitely get it all done in a day. It is just a case of saying we need to get a certain sound, then change a few chords, send it back, decided we have to then build a bridge and then we have got a song. It doesn't always mean they're good ones though!

PAUL: How does it compare playing smaller venues like the Hare and Hounds here in Birmingham where both you and Darrel have played stadiums and festivals?

JIM: It's actually harder in the small places to play. In a stadium its easier to make a grand gesture, you just wave your arm and it looks like a huge movement. In a small place the audience are looking you right in the eye. Its different and not everyone can do both, some are great in a stadium but can't do it in a club and some are the other way round.

PAUL: Who do you think was the best person you have seen make that transition from club to Stadium?

JIM: Probably Springsteen, yes definitely Bruce.

PAUL: I asked Darrel whether Kat Men were a side project or main band, how do you see it?

JIM: I think it's the call of youth, if you think you can make that decision. I am just a drummer and I go where I am wanted to play, that might be Setzer asking me to join him in a stadium but right now it's here! This is great at the moment, we have the current tour and then next week we are recording The Jools Holland Show. That will be great as I have known Jools since the 80's and he is a great musician. That's where being old is good, I have had time to meet some really great people.

PAUL: What about the Stay Cats, you reformed a while ago are we likely to hear more from them?

JIM: Yeah, they are likely to play again. I think given it some time and then bringing it back works, as it's an event. Not sure it would be the same doing it all the time, people like the fact that its an event and they still want to come so that's cool.

PAUL: Any chance of new material?

JIM: Who fucking knows, shit you wouldn't ask Bill Wyman that, I don't know! As I said I am just a drummer, I answer when they call - I say yes to everything!!!

And with that its a shake of the hands and he swaggers out of the room to get ready for what turns out to be a fantastic gig. Darrel and Jim are two contrasting characters with the former having a relaxed and really engaging character which perfectly off sets the more manic approach of his partner in crime. It is not surprising to see that they have created a fantastic CD in "The Kat Men Cometh" and have created a must see live act.

Interview by Paul Hastings

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