Chan Benicki started releasing music online under the name Porch Cat while in college. What began as a solo singer-songwriter project has since expanded to include multi-instrumentalist Emily Ayden.
With their latest self-titled album Porch Cat (out Nov. 22, 2018), the band is embracing a more pop-punk sound, favoring distorted guitars and programmed drums over the soft acoustic instruments of Porch Cat’s early releases. But the Bellingham, WA based band is still rooted in Benicki’s intimate and powerful songwriting, which touches upon topics such as relationships, defining your own identity, and living with chronic illness.
I spoke with Chan and Emily on the phone to learn more about the evolution of their sound, their latest album, and more.
Could you both talk a little bit about your musical backgrounds? When did you both start playing and writing music?
Chan Benicki: I grew up listening to the Beach Boys with my dad, so I was always interested in music. When I was in elementary school I joined the school choir and I did that for a few years. And then I started doing musical theater. In between that I picked up playing guitar and I started writing songs, and then I kind of got distracted by the theater stuff while I was in high school. When I got to college I needed an outlet again for being creative and musical, so I started writing songs again.
Is that when Porch Cat got started, when you were writing songs in college?
How did you both meet and start playing music together? Did Porch Cat start as a solo project?
Chan: I started it as a solo project, and I released two albums I think. Then our mutual friend Jordan introduced us, because Emily was looking for people to be in a country band. We were doing covers and stuff like that.
Emily Ayden: We used to both be in a string band with a Johnny Cash song.
Chan: So we started playing music together and I asked everyone who was involved in that to play in some Porch Cat stuff, and we’ve been playing together ever since. We’ve definitely changed our genres since then, but you can go back and hear some of the string band stuff in our early recordings.
What is your background in folk and country? Was that something that you grew up listening to?
Emily: Not really. I discovered Bob Dylan at some point in high school. I feel like I just wanted a break from doing loud punk-rock stuff, which I had been doing for a few years. So I started doing this little research project into learning about folk and country music by learning the songs and just immersed myself in it for a little while.
I know that some of the early Porch Cat recordings have instruments like banjo and mandolin — was that something that you got other musicians to help out with?
Chan: Our friend that we mentioned earlier played banjo with us. We’ve had a few different versions — but it’s always been consistently me and Emily, and then whoever is available. Right now we’re playing with a drummer, which is really fun.
What was that transition to more pop-punk and electric and fuzzy elements — how did that progression happen?
Chan: If you listen to the albums Bedroom Artist and Bad Victim, which came before this last one that we released, it’s almost like half-and-half folk-y acoustic songs and fuzzy dream pop sort of things. I think I just started gravitating towards writing songs that leaned more into an alternative or grunge or pop-punk style. Sometimes I feel like I’m just trying to live my middle school dreams of being Green Day.
I can definitely relate to that. Do you feel like the evolution of your sound is moving from folk into more of a pop-punk sound, or do you view both of those genres as existing simultaneously in Porch Cat’s sound now?
Chan: I think right now we’re definitely moving toward doing just the electric stuff. Our shows are generally all electric, but we have been playing some acoustic shows lately. I think as far as our next album, or our next recordings, we’re going to be trying to have a live drummer, the drummer that we’re currently playing with, we’re going to try to have her on an album with us, and just write more songs in that more punk sort of [sound].
What was your process for approaching your newest album, Porch Cat? Did it feel different going into it with more of a pop-punk aesthetic; did you approach it differently than your previous albums?
Chan: As far as writing the songs on the album, it was very similar to how I’ve written songs in the past. It’s still a low-fi album, but I feel like we were trying to get a more crisp sound than we had in the past, where I liked to have a lot of atmosphere in the past. This time we did a lot of directly inputting the instruments and recording that way, as opposed to recording in the room. It was a little bit different than past albums that we’ve done. All of the songs have programmed drums, except for one or two. I think that was the most programmed drums that we’ve had on an album.
Emily: We’ve done that a couple times before on some of the past albums. I feel like there was a progression where the recordings sounded very much like folk songs, where there is the folk influence with raw instrumentation under it. I decided to take one of the songs — I think it was “Tell Me” — one time, to try to make it into the biggest, most ridiculous rock song that I could with the recording that Chan had done, trying to help contribute in that way.
Chan: Yeah, I think we used a lot more guitar tracks on this album too, than we had in the past, which was really fun.
Do you do most of the production, Emily, when you’re recording, like adding drum tracks and stuff like that?
Emily: It kind of varies, but on this album I feel like I did a lot. I put drum tracks and recorded all of the guitar tracks, and tried to help with the mixing.
Chan: I feel like you were more involved in this album than in the past albums. It felt more like we went at it collaboratively, which, I really enjoy doing that.
Emily: Working together to recreate versions of arrangements that we’ve been playing live in the past couple years. Before I played guitar I played drums in the lineup before this and we had another guitar player. I tried to recreate the drum parts that I was playing, but with the programming. So there’s kind of a combination of programmed drums, 808s and stuff like that added that sounds big and synthetic, but I still tried to give it the live rock band feel.
When you’re playing those songs live do they have an acoustic drum kit with them?
Yeah that’s kind of fun to have both versions of it, where maybe you wrote these songs and performed them one way, and then reimagined them when recording them, and then as you’re playing them you’re constantly rewriting and reimagining them.
Chan: Yeah definitely. Especially with our drummer that we’re playing with right now, it’s a really fun dynamic to figure out how to make these songs work live, and how fast they need to be or how slow they need to be. It’s been a really fun thing to do. She’s heard all of the recordings that we’ve released, so it’s fun to see what she comes up with, taking inspiration from the drum tracks that Emily made.
The album opens with “Reclaim,” which, like a lot of your songs, is very open about its subject material. The line that just hit me over the head was, “When you lose your sense of self you become somebody else.” Could you talk a little bit about where that song came from?
Chan: While I was in college I feel like I had a couple experiences being in emotionally abusive relationships. It left me feeling like I didn’t know who I was anymore. I feel like especially with really focusing on making music after those experiences, I feel like it’s just been a project of trying to take back what maybe I feel like I lost.
Do you feel like that process happens when you’re writing a song, and then how does that translate to performing it live? That’s definitely a really empowering experience to literally be writing your own narrative — is that scary to go and perform that in front of other people, or does that feel empowering to open yourself up in that way?
Chan: I find it very empowering. It literally makes me feel like I have power over something that I didn’t feel like I had power over. Especially when we’re playing with people who are familiar with our songs, or even, a lot of times during a specific song people will cheer or shout when I scream — I love that — being able to feel the people in the room being supportive and maybe relating, and just being a witness to something that could be personal, but I’m choosing to share it. It’s validating.
For sure. And I feel like through that process you’re also giving people in the audience who maybe are experiencing similar things, or their own struggles, you’re also giving them that visceral experience of screaming along with you or cheering; they’re also getting that same sense of empowerment through that sense of community and being there.
Chan: That drew me towards going toward a more rock sound, just because it’s so easy to lose yourself in loud music and shout along and not feel so self-conscious about it.
Are there any bands or songs that come to mind when you need to get something off your chest, that you always put on?
Chan: This is a kind of obscure band, but I really like listening to Ramshackle Glory, and another project from the same artist, Wingnut Dishwashers Union, I think those albums inspired me to write songs that people could scream along to. Those are the albums that I usually put on. Also, we both really love Jeff Rosenstock.
Emily: I always like listening to Jeff when I need to be cheered up. I also listen to Reviver when I’m in a bad mood; they always pick me up. Their music is so cathartic and energetic.
In a lot of your music, not just this album in general, you’re very open about your experiences with chronic illness. Is that something also that you feel like gives you power from talking about it and being open about it, or how did you find the strength to be so open about your experiences?
Chan: I’ve experienced chronic pain and various symptoms my entire life, and never really had experiences going to doctors and figuring out what was wrong. Eventually, after you’re just bounced around from different doctors and told that there’s nothing that they can tell is wrong, it feels like those things aren’t valid anymore. I think after just experiencing not knowing what was going on with my own body, it’s been a way to take back power that you’re often not given when you’re in medical situations. I feel like doctors, a lot of time, there’s a power dynamic that makes it easy to feel like you’re being silenced or not believed. I think just being able to say, “This is real. I’m really experiencing this, and other people are experiencing this too.” I think that is something that’s been really helpful to me.
I’ve never been to the Pacific Northwest, so I don’t know too much about the music scene there. Could you give me a little background on where you’re from and what the music scene is like?
Chan: We are currently living in Bellingham [Washington] and that’s where we formed. It’s a pretty small town; we live kind of in a college town, so we do like to drive down to Seattle for shows, just because Bellingham can get sick of us pretty easily, because we play too much. I think it’s a pretty supportive place for people who don’t necessarily have experience being in bands. This is the first time that I’ve really been in a band, and I felt like Bellingham was good at making me feel like I could do it.
Are there any specific types of venues or spaces that you like to play in particular?
Chan: My favorite venue in Bellingham is probably the Alternative Library. There is something really fun about playing in a library that has very unconventional books, and is in a church. It’s wheelchair accessible, which is something that I really appreciate, and is not common enough, especially in DIY spaces, to have accessibility in that way.