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Ego, Jealousy, Catnip: Tuna and the Rock Cats Struggle With Success

Mar 11, 2011 – 8:17 AM
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Dave Thier

Dave Thier Contributor

NEW ORLEANS -- At a certain point, waiting in line to see Tuna and the Rock Cats at the Spellcaster Maritime Ball in the New Orleans Bywater district, it becomes clear that this isn't just another cute hipster band name. It hardly seems possible.

It's true. This is a cat band. This is an honest-to-god band made of cats.

Hundreds of giddy, incredulous viewers cram themselves into a dark, windowless room papered in glittery blue -- a remarkable attempt at a basement for a city with no basements. The roadies set up tiny instruments for what seemed like hours. Two words rise out of the excited chatter.

"Cat band?"

"Cat band?

"Cat band!"

Soon, the announcer tells us to quiet down. We could scare the cats. People in the front crouch on the hard basement floor as a roadie brings out plastic cat carriers. They are here. These are the Rock Cats. Their handler, Samantha Martin, warns us that they are not going to be very loud.

It hasn't been an easy road to the top for Tuna and the Rock Cats. Martin assembled them almost six years ago after a failed attempt at a fowl band (bird flu) and dalliances with rats. After years of practice and small shows on the local Chicago circuit, they hit the big time, touring across the country and mulling international dates. But fame comes with a price. The freewheeling early days of the cat band have morphed into a jealous brawl, and Martin strives to keep control.

Now the cats -- Tuna on cowbell, Dakota on drums, Pinky on guitar and Nue on keyboard -- are struggling to remember what made them what they are in the first place: an approximation of music.

The band began with a stage in the back of an RV, where curious onlookers could go in and see what a cat band sounded like. They made their way up playing the odd art gallery and pet expo.

Eventually, Martin was able to book a theater, and the Rock Cats exploded almost overnight. Shows booked weeks in advance. They had finally made it.

But conflict soon followed.

The Rock Cats' companion act, the Acro-Cats, all travel together with no problems. But the Rock Cats each need their own "kitty condos," or else Martin is afraid of what might happen. Pinky and Dakota used to be best friends, but their relationship has soured. Dakota has developed into a full-blown diva, sometimes abandoning her post and twirling around, showing off her long, gray fur to a fawning audience. This doesn't sit too well with Pinky -- a born professional, Pinky just wants to play the music. Now, if the two get too close, swats are inevitable.

Nue, the mild-mannered George Harrison of the band, tries to keep things peaceful. But over on the keyboard, she can only do so much.

Tuna, the original musical cat and the oldest band member, presides over the stage with fearsome severity. All the other cats are afraid of Tuna -- even Pinky.

"To be honest I'm a little terrified of her at times," Martin says. "But she's very serious about her job. When she's on her game, she's hitting that cowbell hard. But she'll swat anyone that comes near her. She's not a petting cat."

The cats require a diet that makes all-green M and M's seem reasonable. Pinky eats sushi-grade tuna, seared lightly on the outside and left raw on the inside. Dakota prefers steak -- medium rare. Pinky will only take Starkist tuna.

Nue settles for chicken.

Of course, their favorite treat isn't food at all. It's drugs. They sell catnip jars as merchandise, but Martin has to be sure to keep the lids on during a show or just the smell of the powder inside drives the band members wild.

"They do have some catnip addiction," she concedes.

Sometimes, the fights escalate beyond a few swats. Particularly when the tambourine-playing chicken is on stage.

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"Our backup keyboard player actually wants to eat the tambourine player," says Martin. "It's tough when you have band members that want to eat each other."

Martin is looking to expand, maybe incorporating more poultry, maracas, even a triangle. Tour dates are starting to book up fast, and the Rock Cats don't look like they'll be slowing down anytime soon.

In the meantime, Tuna and her band mates struggle with the realities of success. Those early days, playing in the back of an RV with no concern but the music, may be a distant memory, but if the Rock Cats can't keep their egos in check, they may find that the catnip and seared tuna don't last forever.
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