Fantastic Cat: Funky Felines On The Prowl

This supergroup of superb singer/songwriters finds a purr-fect combination

Fantastic Cat (Image: Shervin Lainez)

First things first. Although this supergroup of sorts that calls itself Fantastic Cat has just released its new album, The Very Best of Fantastic Cat, the name is a misnomer.

In fact, it’s the band’s debut disc, although in a very real sense, it does represent the best of what each of the four members have to offer. The participants — Anthony D’Amato, Don Dilego, Brian Dunne and Mike Montali (A.K.A. Hollis Brown) — are each accomplished singer/songwriters in their own right. And the songs, which are credited to the band as a whole, are robust, rocking and imbued with both energy and emotion. Indeed, the album finds them locked in sync, expressing a bonafide enthusiasm that remains intact throughout each of the album’s ten tracks. That’s especially evident on such tunes as the effusive “Fiona,” the tender take on “Ain’t This the Strangest Town,” the amplified exuberance of “The Gig,” the overtly engaging “Amigo”  and, in fact, every offering the new album has to offer. 

“Everyone’s put out a bunch of records, and we each have type A personalities,” Dilego explains, speaking from their van enroute to a gig in Seattle. “We’ve each run our own careers, but for me, it’s become such a pleasure to be in a situation where I’m only 25 percent responsible for whatever happens.”

Loitering Cats (Image: Shervin Lainez)

Naturally, the album title is a source of speculation. After all, it’s a wee bit early in the band’s collective career to pronounce it any sort of greatest hits. “Obviously, it was the best we could do,” Dilego maintains somewhat cryptically. 

Dilego says that the musicians were friends and touring partners prior to joining forces in the group, and that they had tossed around the idea of becoming a band well before the idea actually came to fruition.

“Ideas are one thing, but completing them is another, so we talked about it every once in a while, although it was Mike that provided the positive push to make it happen,” Dilego recalls. “He was like ‘Yeah, let’s do it. ‘So we finally just decided to stop goofing around and actually make it happen. I knew Anthony and had always admired his work, but knowing that we wanted to cover a bunch of instruments, we didn’t have anybody who kind of truly was like a guitar player. So Anthony suggested Brian. They had recently played a show together in New York City, so I said, ’That’s great. Let’s absolutely do that.’ I didn’t know much about Brian at the time, but we just we did it anyway. We talked about what we were going to do and how we were going to do it, while keeping in mind that the only way to do this was to have fun with it, with no kind of professional aspiration on the side other than to make some good music.”

That said, the name the band came up with also offers reason for scrutiny.

“We were talking about band names, and all agreeing that every single band name is pretty much done with rare exceptions,” Dilego muses. “There’s little or no chance of us coming up with a good one. We just had to accept whatever it is, and that it’s really going to be the music that defines us. So we kind of did a handshake deal. We were sitting around, having a beer and a bit to eat, and we agreed that when the waitress came back to take our orders, we’d just ask her suggestion for a band name. And that’s it. We’d have to agree that the first thing she said would be our band name no matter what. So when she came back, we said, ‘If you were to name this band, what would it be?’ And she didn’t really hesitate. She said, ‘Fantastic Cat.’ And we were like, ‘All right, that’s who we are!’ It’s a great marketing tool. We had a mural made for our Bowery Ballroom show, and I know that since she was working in the bars in the area, I kind of wonder if she ever walks by it and goes, ‘Wait a minute. I think that was my idea!’ I don’t know if we’ll be sued at some point, but I sure hope not.”

Given the fact that there are four fully capable songwriters in the band, it begs the question of how the composing process takes place, and who actually comes up with the initial ideas. Dilego said that early on, they decided to share the songwriting credits between them as opposed to specifying who wrote what. “We basically said, let’s make the record, and everyone should bring in a few songs,” he recalls. “Then we’ll sort of go around the room, start playing something, and pick something out and make it a song. And that’s really kind of how we did the entire record. I’d say that with the exception of maybe two songs in the album, the majority of them came about because someone had a genesis of an idea, maybe not an idea of the entire song, but one that we could flesh out with the arrangements and the instruments and make it complete.”

That said, he agreed that compromise needed to be considered. 

“We got lucky, and we didn’t stumble into these recordings. We didn’t get a hiccup where somebody sat in the corner and said, “Well, I’m just not moving or changing my opinion.’ It really happened fast, and everybody had equal input. People would say, ‘How about this idea’ or ‘Maybe this is a bad idea,’ but we didn’t really argue about it. I don’t think anyone walked away dissatisfied. At the time, we were just getting used to each other. So here we are, a year or two later, and we’ve been doing a bunch of shows, and we’re on the road together. Maybe with the next record, we’ll start stabbing each other. But it hasn’t happened yet. It seemed to gell pretty quickly, and we worked together really easily. I also think we were all sick of ourselves a little bit, having to be on top of everything for our own individual projects. So it was refreshing to be in a group where someone else is making decisions. That was especially nice for me,. I liked having other people say, ‘Well, did you think about doing this? Using this chord or changing this to that?’ It was nice to be able to bounce things off everyone else.”

Fantastic Cat The Very Best of Fantastic Cat, Blue Rose 2022

Given the synergy Dilego describes, they were also able to elevate their efforts as a result. “The person who would write each song welcomed that input from the band,” Dilego says. “No one came in and said, ‘Here’s my song, and I want you to play this and you have to play that. That’s why this was a really, really, really good thing. I use an obvious example, that being The Beatles. Lennon and McCartney were writing songs together all the time, but there was this massive competition between the two of them within a very, very compressed time period. They were great songwriters anyway, but they were pushing each other to be even greater songwriters with every song.”

He pauses, and acknowledges the other musicians sitting with him in the van who now appear to be razzing him to some degree.

“One of my bandmates is making fun of me and saying I’m comparing ourselves to The Beatles,” he groaned. “I’m not! I’m saying that when you have other people that you’re trying to impress, you maybe shine an extra spotlight on what you’re trying to do. By the way, can you please mention that Brian Dunne says he is both Lennon and McCartney?”

For now, the band plans to continue touring while also making plans for their next record. “We’ve been writing songs, and we’re talking about getting into the studio soon,” Dilego maintains. “We didn’t think about it with the first record, because there was no plan. We just kind of came together.  We will definitely be a little bit more evolved in our thought process for the next one.”

In the meantime, each member has an individual solo album in the works as well. 

“It’s been fun,” Dilego says. “Good things are happening. We’re very happy and we’re enjoying each other’s company and we’re having a blast playing shows. All of a sudden, we’re The Beatles.”

 

 

 

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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