Prairie Empire‘s songs evoke images of bearded men, thoughtful women, and lots of cats. No, wait! That’s the publicity photos. The chamber-folk band’s actual music sets a slightly different mood. In a Prairie Empire song, the feelings of fragility and tragic dignity suggest a summer evening spent in bed pining after some shy friend whose gChat light just lapsed to orange. Got that? Because their music sounds exactly like this, only with dulcimers.
I suppose what I’m trying to say that is their self-titled debut album (released June 10 on Trailer Fire Records) is very good. And it was really excellent to talk with Brittain Ashford, the band’s principal songwriter and singer, about a variety of things. But mostly cats. Because, you know, I’d feel a little awkward asking her about unrequited love.
Catster: So I know you got a new cat recently.
Brittain Ashford: How do you know that?
Catster’s fact-checking department is like The New Yorker‘s. It’s every bit as omniscient and cabal-ish. What is your new cat’s name?
I guess the fact-checkers aren’t that omniscient?
I’m just starting you off with some softballs. It’s an old journalism trick.
Her name is Princess Fifo. But we didn’t name her that! I had a friend who recently moved to L.A. and we took over his apartment, and the cat came with the unit.
Like a utility?
I guess you could say that. I did meet her before I agreed to take her. She seemed nice enough.
So how’s it working out with Princess Fifo?
Princess is not the most personable cat. She’s very fat. She’s a beautiful cat, but she’s not super friendly. Like, she’s not a lap cat. But she is a talker, though. When I come home from work, she’ll be in the kitchen: Meow! Meow! Meow! She wants to be fed and left alone. I’d like to get another cat and see how she takes to that.
I’m sure she will. You know, one of the first things I knew about you besides your music was your love of cats. And I always meant to ask you, why did you choose to cultivate this public image as a cat person? It doesn’t really help you project much in the way of mystique. It’s a far cry from owning the Elephant Man’s bones or shooting out TV sets.
Well, I’ve only cultivated it as much as a person can, which is not much at all. [Laughs] If we were to start from the beginning: My initials are BCAT, and my sister and best friend still call me that. And growing up I was always very fond of cats and my family always had cats and kittens. I always loved kittens, which I suppose is a dumb thing to say: “I love kittens!”
Well, it is not an untrue thing to say, just like “I love you” or “Ouch, that hurts.” Sincerity counts for something, too.
But who doesn’t love kittens?
Self-loathing kittens? Misanthropic kittens? Why are you asking me? This is your interview. Now, your band Prairie Empire is about to put out its debut album. I’m disappointed, as I heard the album was supposed to be called Kitten Teeth. How did you go from a person who merely loves kittens to a person who makes art about them?
In 2003, I was briefly living in Los Angeles. I wasn’t sure what I was doing with myself and I wasn’t that into music at the time. I was taking a hiatus from college. I started this website called Suicide Kittens in 2004. I started making these stuffed kittens in Los Angeles, but quickly moved back to Seattle.
Wow, those are amazing! I love how whimsically minimal they are.
They had their heyday, for sure. There was a period when they were being blogged about and people were buying them. I’m not actively making them anymore, but occasionally I’ll make one if someone asks. I still have piles of felt in my apartment, so I can always put one together.
Sounds like a threat! Well, a little after you started Suicide Kittens, you began to play music, too.
Yes, I hadn’t really played seriously before. But around this time I began to do that more. I put out one solo record. This was in 2008.
Which is how I learned about you. I profiled you for a Portland weekly. Now you play in this band, Prairie Empire, that has different line-ups for each coast. I’m looking at some press photos, and my intuition tells me one thing straight away: You work exclusively with cat people.
[Laughs] Oh, I don’t know. When I’m in Portland, the guys I play with have this delightful cat, Braveheart. And I don’t think anyone owns a dog.
Hmm. You say that as though it had never occurred to you before. As if the exclusion of dog people weren’t, in fact, your recruiting policy.
Well, my cellist here in New York is definitely a dog person. She owns a dog back home. Adam, my drummer here in Brooklyn, is violently allergic to cats. There was definitely a show we played in Massachusetts where afterwards we were sleeping on someone’s floor and they had four cats climbing on our faces. He was kind of losing his mind.
I don’t know, Brittain. I just don’t know. Those are a lot of details you’re throwing around. We’re going to have to send the cabal out to check the validity of all this. But now that we’ve opened up this subject — dog people versus cat people — I want to wrap up our chat by asking you why you’re a cat person.
I love dogs — don’t get me wrong. But for me, dogs just require so much work. I mean, you have to walk a dog three times a day. Also, a mean cat and a mean dog are two very different things. If a cat’s mean, it will just walk away from you. But a dog, well, you just have to make sure you’ve won their affection before you pet it. I don’t think a cat has ever caused anyone to need emergency plastic surgery.