When I think about the most “American” artists — whatever that means — my consideration often gravitates toward authors like William Faulkner, whose emotional prose shaded a number of complex feelings in all of their bluntness, and photographers like William Eggleston, whose photography truly captured the decay of traditionalism and the prevalence of Southern melancholy. So, it’s probably no mistake that these artists hail from Mississippi, and Faulkner from Oxford proper, where his home is a tourist attraction.
So, whatever it is about Oxford that inspires people, it’s still there, and it’s given the Cats Purring musical collective — central to our exploration of Oxford, here — a firm turf on which to create music, their way, and thrive. A town once embedded in the steep, antiquated traditions of the South — fraternity row and Ole Miss football are as prominent as ever — people like indie pop musician Dent May are insistent on keeping the Southern voice intact while creating their own agenda and musical landscape to inspire others through. Or, maybe just the thought of Dent and a cluster in bands taking over a retired Boys and Girls club and converting it into a dude ranch was just too much to pass up. That’s a good look, too!
I talked to Fat Possum Records figurehead Steven Bevilaqua and Dent May, the man behind the Cats Purring collective, to get their impressions and thoughts about music and its relationship to Oxford. Both have spent some time in New York’s music scene, so their perspective can best attest to the strengths and weaknesses of both big scenes and little scenes, and how that tension might be reflected in the music.
Let’s get to Steven and Dent, mostly so I can yank myself off of the Oxford restaurants Yelp page. It all looks so damn good *looks at homemade PB&J sandwich disapprovingly*.
Steven Bevilaqua, Fat Possum Records
STEREOGUM: What made you move to Oxford? What’s the climate of the scene like, compared to the NYC/Brooklyn climate? What about Oxford is conducive to having a music scene?
BEVILAQUA: I was living in NY and ran out of money. So I came back here. It’s cheap, extremely livable and doesn’t take much to get around town. The only challenge here is you exhaust all of your resources pretty quickly. So that means a lot of drinking.
STEREOGUM: Oxford is a college town, I’m aware, and I know it has a pretty heavy frat dude element. Is that at odds with the music scene at all? Do you think the blossoming of an indie scene in Oxford is sort of a counter to the Southern frat rock/blues rock that originated in the area?
BEVILAQUA: I don’t know. We like to include everyone and make it clear that those folks are accepted, too. Usually when things crossover into getting love from the Greek scene, that means they’ve become a bit more successful. So that’s welcome news. Problem is that brings a lot more testosterone.
STEREOGUM: What are your favorite places to hang out? Where do you like to eat, drink, vibe out?
BEVILAQUA: Home, the Dude Ranch, the office, maybe a couple of the bars.
STEREOGUM: A little bit has been made of the Dude Ranch setup in places like Altered Zones. Has that worked out pretty good, in your estimation? What are shows like there? Do you think it’s been constructive to all the people that are living there?
BEVILAQUA: It’s definitely been constructive. The house really makes the vibe. It’s a huge space and it’s a fun house that’s made for partying. The events are pretty much the same as any other house show though. Some nights are fun, some nights are lame as shit. It is what it is.
STEREOGUM: I think it’s pretty well established, at least in my mind, that having a deep impact on people in a smaller community is more valuable than having a tiny/basically negligible impact on a big community. How do you feel about this? Do you think what you’re doing with Fat Possum is good for Oxford?
BEVILAQUA: It’s certainly not bad for Oxford but it’s not like community service. In fact i don’t think most people give a shit, to be honest. We do it selfishly. We’re just trying to entertain ourselves and get by.
STEREOGUM: What do you look for in new music?
BEVILAQUA: Good songs. That’s the only thing that survives in music.
STEREOGUM: You left NYC to return to Oxford. What were the mechanics of that decision? Why do you think it’s more important to do your own thing, rather than merely coexist within a thriving scene?
DENT: I was in film school at NYU, and everything about it just rubbed me the wrong way. I knew immediately that I belonged in Mississippi forever. I was lucky to grow up with a bunch of really talented friends down here, so it was kind of a no brainer. I couldn’t find any musicians to play with in New York! It’s like, let’s just make things pop off back home and make Mississippi a better place.
STEREOGUM: Tell me about Oxford a little. I did a Dead Gaze interview once where Cole described the town as sleepy. Is that a good or a bad thing, when it comes to making music?
DENT: It’s a small college town, so it’s kind of a blessing and a curse that not much goes on here. It’s great for making music, but certain cravings are left unfulfilled. When I moved to Oxford, I couldn’t really relate to any of the music. That’s why we started throwing house shows with touring bands all the time. We were bored.
STEREOGUM: I read about the Dude Ranch and Cats Purring earlier this year — how is all of that going? Has it become what you wanted it to be? Why or why not?
DENT: This has been an amazing year for us. We moved into the Dude Ranch in January, and we’ve hosted so many great bands — Jeff The Brotherhood, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Woods, Dirty Beaches, Prince Rama, Boy Friend, King Tuff, Gobble Gobble, etc. Ultimately, Cats Purring can be anything, and we want it to keep growing. We want to turn it in to a business one day, with proper music releases, video content, merchandise, and anything else we can imagine.
STEREOGUM: Where do you like to hang out in Oxford? What are your favorite places to play, or favorite places to hang out?
DENT: There’s a great book store called Square Books that’s been around since the ’70s. I worked there for a long time. For food and drinks, I like to go to Ajax Diner and City Grocery, but there’s a real shortage of places that weirdos can go and feel comfortable. The guys behind Fat Possum are opening a bar right around the corner from the Dude Ranch, though, so that’s about to change everything.
STEREOGUM: Outside of the Cats Purring dudes, who are some others you think are contributing to the Oxford scene, as a whole?
DENT: There’s a lot to be said about the literature scene. Faulkner was from here, and my absolute hero Barry Hannah passed away just last year. Barry had this punk attitude yet wrote the most beautiful sentences. That’s kind of what we all go for with our music. We make pop music, but there’s got to be something fucked up about it or else it’s boring. Square Books and Faulkner bring a lot of interesting people through the town. Look up the writer Michael Bible. He played drums on my first record and is writing really out there stuff.
STEREOGUM: Is there anything about Oxford’s environment that shows up in your music? Or in the Dent May aesthetic, how is that informed by Oxford?
DENT: Oxford influences my music in the sense that I want to go against what everyone else is doing here. I despise the stereotypical southern fried aesthetic that most “southern art” represents. I grew up thinking blues and country was the cheesiest music, because it’s all become so hokey. I feel like Cats Purring exists to stir shit up a bit and freak the super conservative people out. Cats Purring is a family, so that informs my music more than anything. We all have our own bands and collaborate with each other. My current live band features members of Dead Gaze, Gray Things, and Flight, and they all live at the Dude Ranch.
STEREOGUM: Do you think it has been easier for your music to get attention, or harder? Do you care?
DENT: None of us care about breaking into the music industry in the traditional sense. With the Internet, you can live anywhere, and all that matters is the quality of what you do. Our rent is cheaper than you could believe, so success for us is self sustainability. We have a big Internet presence, largely so we can catalog ourselves. For example, we have hundreds of images on our Tumblr. I don’t care who sees it now, or even who hears my music now, but I know that in twenty years it will be valuable to someone. I hope that the spirit of Cats Purring carries on in Mississippi forever.
STEREOGUM: It seems like, at least in the indie rock vein, between your stuff and Fat Possum, there’s a ton of cool stuff going on in Oxford. Do you see that trend continuing? Why or why not? What else is going on that’s exciting that people might not know about?
DENT: The cool thing about a college town is there are constantly younger, cooler kids moving in to town, and a bunch of them seem to be starting bands. Sure, there’s a darker side to Oxford. A lot of historic homes have been torn down to build shitty corporate condos, and sometimes the frat scene at Ole Miss creates a bit of a post-apocalyptic vibe on the weekend. Thankfully people are reacting to that in a positive way, with creativity, so I think Oxford is going to be an exciting place to live for a really long time.
CATS PURRING: SOME HISTORY AND CONTEXT FROM A MISSISSIPPI NATIVE
While I was tracking down Steven and Dent for their portion of Area Codes, I couldn’t help but think that I hadn’t, first off, spoken to a woman yet, and second, I was speaking to a concentration of folks that might not represent the majority of the indie scene in Oxford. A couple of thoughts from my friend Jessi Baker, who grew up and Jackson and spent a lot of time interacting with Oxford’s music scene before moving to New York to work in music PR.
STEREOGUM: You’re from Jackson, so I know you didn’t grow up in Oxford. But what was your experience there like?
JESSI: My parents weren’t very big college football people, but growing up as a kid, going to Oxford was like the biggest thing ever. Going to the Grove in cocktail dresses. It was pretty concentrated and can be a bit incestuous. The sorority girls often referred to the Cats Purring group as the “tiny pants” group because they all wore tiny pants and hung out together. It’s no coincidence that when the sorority girls started wearing vintage clothes, Cats Purring vibes were started reaching a larger audience.
STEREOGUM: You’ve spent some time at the Cats Purring house, at least early along. What was the most exciting thing about it.
JESSI: I feel like the foot traffic that could come through was the coolest part about it. A jam band called Zoogma used to live there, but the Cats Purring guys actually made something out of that dreamy space. People realized it was a cool space before they got there, though, looks like they’ve begun to help it reach it’s full potential.
STEREOGUM: A big overarching question I have in this series is, is it more culturally important to make a deep impact on a small group of people, or a tiny impact on a huge group of people. Do you think that Cats Purring guys could accomplish this no matter where they were?
JESSI: I don’t think this would be happening if the Dude Ranch was in New Jersey, no. Because it’s perfect. Mississippi has mystery.
STEREOGUM: Matthew from Fat Possum is building a house right around the dude ranch and the Fat Possum guys are also building a bar near there. Do you see that becoming a new place to be in Oxford?
JESSI: Absolutely. And if you build it, the physical space and the energy, the kids will come! I’m looking forward to continuing to watch this southern evolution. Without Cats Purring, I’m not sure it’d be possible.
STEREOGUM: I’d mentioned to you earlier that I didn’t talk to any women involved with the Oxford scene. Why is that?
JESSI: There may be a lack of women in the bands or working in the forefront with official titles, however the ladies do play a large roll in Cats Purring with huge amounts of support and inspiration for the bands and everyone involved whether it be starring in the videos, dancing and singing their hearts out at shows, or by spreading Cats Purring’s soon-to-be-legacy by word of mouth. A lot of them move to NYC if they have careers geared towards music or the arts, but there are a few ladies that keep the Cats Purring heart beating in Oxford.
Bass Drum Of Death “Young Pros” (Live On Newtown Radio)
Dead Gaze – “This Big World”
QUICK HIT ON THE MODERN OXFORD LIT SCENE
I asked Michael to blurb the Oxford scene, as he saw it. Here’s what he wrote:
I feel like there is a lot of hand-wringing about the past in Oxford (a typical Southern response, maybe). But I think Cats Purring is about what’s next. The future. Thinking about Faulkner will ruin you. You can’t compete with that. Never. So you just put it out of the workshop and plow on to the next thing. I look more to Barry Hannah, my hero. He somehow put feedback into his writing. Electricity. An experimental Southern writer, which is rare. He was about the future. You can’t try and conquer society with art, there should be no politics or history in it, just try and make someone’s day. This is what I try and do and I think the Cats Purring bands, too. Cats Purring is for the most part ignored by the older Oxford crowd. Not sure why, exactly, but some are taking notice. Same with the lit mag I started with my friend David Swider called Kitty Snacks. I once overheard two “respected” older literary types talking about another lit mag that used to be in town and one said, “Sounds like two guys in their basement with a photocopier.” They were hating but I thought, I wish there was more of that. I like that the Dude Ranch is on the shady edge of town. I like that Kitty Snacks is a little left of center. Oxford, and Mississippi in general, could use a couple more guys in their basements being weird.
I think one of the best parts of being involved with Cats Purring is when it comes to music, I don’t have to do anything. I just sit back and the music comes to me. When I lived with Dent and Steven they played music all day everyday. Weird stuff. Everything from Bollywood to German minimalism to late ’90s R&B to classic country. Stuff I would’ve never sought out on my own. All the guys push music on me and I eat it up. I like to think that from the lit end of Cats Purring it works the same way. There is an exchange that happens, perhaps some influence.
At the end of the day we’re a bunch of friends trying to do good work and push things along. Mississippi can still be a pretty close-minded place. You get yelled at sometimes from frat boys out of Hummers. But you have to love the hate. Part of being an artist is being despised. Barry Hannah walked around Oxford with a bandana around his neck and Faulkner pranced around like he was British aristocracy. They were both despised by the locals. I will gladly join their ranks. And there are still genuine freaks down here, which I like. I gladly join their ranks, too. It’s my little town with it’s dumb beautiful co-eds and a horrible football team and cheap rent. I love it here.
View AREA CODES: Oxford, MS in a larger map
NOTE: I’m aware that the main image was almost certainly taken in Starkville. I’m happy to crowd-source this one; I felt like an image of Archie Manning or the front of Faulkner’s house was totally played out.