(by Michael Azerrad)
Some people write great songs about larger-than-life things; on their new album If a Band Plays in the Woods…? The Philistines Jr. write about things that are exactly the same size as life: litterbug neighbors, unruly pets, broken cable service. "Write about what you know," explains Philistines mainman Peter Katis. "So I write about my brothers and writing songs and home life and recording our band and other people's bands." But the feat here is that it all adds up to something moving, inspiring, and maybe even a little profound. And you can hum along with it too.
The Philistines Jr. are brothers Peter and Tarquin Katis along with drummer Adam Pierce (Mice Parade) and an ever-expanding extended musical family. There's a good reason why the album title asks, if a band plays in the woods, do they exist? The Philistines Jr. have been playing in the woods of suburban Connecticut for 20 years, making charming, smart, even visionary music that has never seemed to catch a break. It's not for nothing that the band titled one early EP The Continuing Struggle of… "We got a great review in the Trouser Press Record Guide," Peter recalls. "And when the NY Press reviewed the book, they wrote 'And marvel at all the space given to struggling nobodies Philistines Jr.' Ouch. We've always had an underdog mentality."
Actually, in recent years Peter has gained some fame as an in-demand producer, having produced acclaimed records for Interpol, the National, Jónsi (of Sigur Ros), Frightened Rabbit, Tokyo Police Club, Mates of State, the Swell Season, Fanfarlo, Jukebox the Ghost and many others. No wonder the album sounds so gorgeous. But it's also the reason the record took so long to make. As Peter notes, "If you work on a record three days a year, it takes about ten years!" Peter wrote all the songs (along with Tarquin) and plays most of the instruments on the album — and no, that's not a fat lady singing on the exquisite title track, it's session ace Rob Schwimmer on the Theremin (and piano).
As with most Philistines Jr. albums, the music mixes rock instrumentation, vibraphone and glockenspiel, and electronic sounds like a half-broken sequencer, a cheap Casio keyboard, or the legendary Dewanatron, here played by its co-inventor Leon Dewan. In keeping with the lyrical themes, the sound is quietly radical — listen to the subtle but epic shift from keyboards to guitars on the majestic "B." "When I appreciate things for being weird," says Peter, "they're not obviously weird."
The album's ominous opening, with its definitively spooky strings, sounds like the part in an old horror movie where the ghoul is about to pounce on an unususpecting victim; it quickly gives way to a sun-lit, Xanax-fueled waltz about how the cable TV doesn't work and the band isn't going anywhere. But that specific, even pedestrian imagery swells out into something universal — every day, everybody feels the same way about something. Or as Peter sings, "the theme stays the same/ with the notes and words rearranged."
The guy who's frustrated by people honking their horns ("The Bus Stop Song") is the same guy who doles out heartfelt wisdom to his child ("Tarquin's Half-Assed Mission Statement"); he's the same guy who indulges in a Walter Mittyesque fantasy ("If I Did Nothing But Train for Two Years, I Bet I Could Be in the Olympics") and he's the same guy who reels in horror and disgust at burgeoning neo-McCarthyism ("Working Title: The Mob"), and feels relieved when his brother doesn't have to go off to war ("My Brother Tom, the Green Beret"). He's a guy who cares a lot, and when he starts to think people suck, his bitterness is mixed with a generous dose of melancholy. "These days, I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be happy," Peter says. "And many times I've figured out the secret of happiness — but then the next day it's gone. You've got to keep rediscovering it. And that idea is in the record, even in the instrumentals. It doesn't have to be a song with words to get that idea across."
Maybe you'll hear echoes of the pretty and finely wrought songcraft of Sufjan Stevens or the wistful, digital-flavored yearning of the Postal Service, but the fact is, Peter has never really delved into either of those. If a Band Plays in the Woods…? stems more from the Cars' sleek pop, '60s exotica like Martin Denny, the dramatic juxtapositions of soundtrack maestro Bernard Herrmann, New Order, the spartan sorrow of Erik Satie, the righteous power of Fugazi, the plainspoken musings of Jonathan Richman. Years ago, Peter absorbed Pet Sounds and that's in there too. "The Beach Boys are often overtly playful but with a very heavy underlying melancholy," he says. "Which I think is very much what our band is. To me, sadness in a song means power and beauty — not a crushing sadness, but a hopeful sadness." Which is why a song called "Hell No, We Won't Go" can sound forlorn, or why Katis can sing words as defiant as "All day, all night/We'll stay and fight" and make them sound resigned.
There's probably a little of the Who's rock opera Quadrophenia in there too. See, the Philistines often make what can loosely be called concept albums, like 1995's The Sinking of the SS Danehower, which suggested an analogy between a sunken submarine and the band's lack of success. "I've always found it fun to make records that aren't random collections of songs," Peter says. "We've always reworked musical or lyrical themes and extended them across the album. If you've got a good idea, why waste it on just one song?"
Here, it's the motif which goes, "Hey, hey, it's the end of the world again/ Here we are, just waiting for everything to end" — it's funny how one can take something like excessive car honking as a harbinger of the downfall of civilization. And each time that theme comes around again, it has a different resonance. In "Tarquin's Half-assed Mission Statement," it has a moving ring of mortality. But that "again" is key — the truth is, there have been plenty of times when a lot of people were convinced the end was nigh, and yet the world has gone on. By the end of the album, the theme seems to suggest that we all depend on a little drama to keep life interesting.
What does Peter hope people feel when the last song on the album is over? "I hope it makes them kind of sad," he says. "But it's all right to be sad. Life is sad and life is hard. But it's also really good."
And finally, to quote a voiceover by Peter and Tarquin's dad on a previous record: "...and so the Philistines Jr. continue to write songs only about themselves, further alienating their listeners and annoying their friends."
(from ten years ago)
The PHILISTINES Jr. are brothers Peter & Tarquin Katis and drummer Adam Pierce. With a reputation as No-Fi home studio recording wizards, they have been recording and releasing their unique brand of experimental pop music since 1990...on their own TARQUIN RECORDS label (also on Dot Dot Dash and on LISSY’S and SHIVER in the U.K.). All their releases have charted on numerous college radio stations across North America(their last L.P. spending several months on CMJ’s Top 200) and enjoyed frequent air play by dj John Peel on his B.B.C. Radio 1 program. Their 7" single(The Sci-Fi Song/Moon River) on LISSY’S was Single of the Week on the Steve LeMacq show on B.B.C. 1 radio in June ‘95 and earned a spot on Britain’s Indie Charts. Upon hearing their first 12", John Peel telephoned the band "just to say how much he liked the record" and to invite them to record a Peel Session in London for the B.B.C. The PHILISTINES Jr. have since completed three Peel Sessions and U.K. tours. Touring the U.S., they have played with such bands as MERCURY REV, YO LA TENGO, STEREOLAB, LUNA, CAKE, FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE, KING MISSILE and JONATHAN RICHMAN. The band pursues numerous side projects that include THE ZAMBONIS, THE HAPPIEST GUYS IN THE WORLD, JAMES KOCHALKA SUPERSTAR, and THE PORK GUYS. Long time drummer, Adam Pierce, is busy with MICE PARADE, THE DYLAN GROUP and THE SWIRLIES. A cd re-issue of their early 12" and 7"s and an assortment of unreleased material is due out this Fall. The rest of 2002 will be spent promoting their new L.P. "Analog Vs. Digital" or "We Don’t Get The Respect We Deserve In Today’s Scientific Community."
SPIN Magazine 12/01
"The Philistines Jr. ANALOG VS. DIGITAL 52 tracks of pure, unadorned beauty."
The Philistines Jr. - Analog vs. Digital (CD, Tarquin, Pop)
Wow. We feel ashamed to admit that we had never heard of The Philistines Jr.
until now. This band is right up our alley. It is also (apparently) an obscure
delight among reviewers of underground music. Bandleader Peter Katis is a true
mastermind in the world of home recording. The music here is rather difficult
to describe. Katis and friends dabble in oddball lo-fi pop, instrumental,
experimental, and soundtrack-sounding material....and the amazing thing is...it
all WORKS. There are some folks out there who may be put off by the low fidelity
nature of these recordings (Katis apparently prefers recording on analog equipment),
but those folks are going to be missing out...as there are plenty of great gems
scattered throughout this mind-bending collection of fifty-two tracks. Yes, you
read that right...this disc features 52 (!!!) compositions...
The Philadelphia Weekly Editor's Pick 12/01
Given the quantity of songs on their latest release (52 total), their penchant
for brevity and their poindexterish sense of humor, it's easy to be cynical about
the Philistines Jr. The Katis brothers (Tarquin and Peter) are two more grinning
graduates of the school of home recording, which grants them license to pound out
two-minute compositions with titles like "We Don't Get the Respect We Deserve in
Today's Scientific Community." And under ordinary circumstances, this cleverness
would relegate Analog Vs. Digital to background music for discussions about experience
points. But combine a measure of patience with a suspension of prejudice, and the
myriad charms of the Katis' Casio-driven anti-fi rise like a time-lapse daybreak.
"At Least You Had the War" floats and sways like a feather on a gust of wind and
"The Unreliable Narrator" sounds like an organ grinder wheezing out a Tom Waits
cover. And though their music is "smart," the Philistines never trip into the trappings
of Mensa rock. Take as Exhibit A AvD's title track. It's a masterpiece of ebb and flow--
Tarquin and Peter's vocals drifting across a simple four-note melody line. It isn't until
the third or fourth pass that it becomes clear that it's actually a meta-song, and that
the Philistines are singing about writing the song that you're sitting there humming
along to. It's the unobtrusiveness that's the Philistines' trump card. Their meek vocals
and muted synths make Russian history sound like "Autumn Sweater."
Estranged Dead Kennedy Jello Biafra once sang I like short songs, and here are
68 nuggets that might make the old crank smile. The Philistines Jr. offers 52(!)
on an album that's like an enormous assorted chocolates box with no scary fillings.
After loading the first eighteen tracks with enchanting abstract instrumentals and
pop ditties driven by cheery, quirky vocals, the group enters the "solos" section
of the disc, which divides one epic jam into fifteen-second segments devoted to each
instrument. The bass, guitar, trumpet, clarinet, sax, trombone, flute, drums and
turntables all get close-ups in a song that remains so cohesive that anyone who
wasn't watching the track numbers tick away wouldn't notice the gimmick.
The Trouser Press Guide To 90's Rock Fifth Edition 1997
"Hey, what are you guys doing down there?" "Oh nothing, mom, just
recording one of the sweetest, most adorable and sublimely
accomplished dinkypop albums of 1995." Connecticut brothers
Peter (vocals, guitar, organ, drums) and Tarquin (bass, vocals)
Katis are, with drummer Adam Pierce, Philistines Jr. Their stock in
trade is simple, gentle songs of surreal whimsy that spin tunefully
like Brian Wilson's mildest dreams while evincing the outlandish
basement-brewed conceptual wizardry of pioneering British
producer Joe Meek. All of this is accomplished in voices with the
fresh-scrubbed wholesomeness of 4-H Clubbers. Rudimentary,
perhaps, but hardly naive. Unlike most pop auters aiming to whip
up confectionery masterpieces, the Philistines Jr. neatly balance
guitar and rudimentary organ for an irresistable, joyful pop sound
that is neither raw jangle nor synthesizer flash. Using toy piano as
an accent and strikingly clear sound as an asset, The sinking of
the S.S. Danehower...is a small masterpiece. Even the
instrumentals are memorable. With equally sparkling music, the
five-song Continuing Struggle is delightfully direct, offering
engaging random-access autobiographical lyrics as a
bonus...Mom and Dad Katis get in the act for "145 Old Mill Road"
(the family's address in Greenwich); the latter parental unit points
out that it's not too late for the brothers to apply to medical school.
One hopes they haven't taken his advice.
Flipside 3/96 (regarding The Sinking Of The S.S. Danehower)
"A programmatic, atmospheric masterpiece! I really got into this
recording because the texture just kicks my ass... Where do they
come up with this material? There is no doubt that this is one of
the best new finds I've come across in a long time." (regarding
Kas Tos Dumus Kupinaj? 7")"No comparisons come to mind, they
are different, clever and fresh...Another impressive release from a
band who's sound is so hard to peg. What more can I say?
These guys have got IT."
"...On top of all this, producer/singer/guitarist Peter
Katis has masterminded a deeply DIY sound in his basement
studio without being even remotely lo-fi. Tons of bands have
misread the lessons of Knox, Callaci, Barlow, and so on, trying to
use sub-competence as a kind of badge of something to say. The
Philistines Jr., on the contrary, are interested in doing it exactly
their own way, and "their way" is a meticulous layering of
syncopated percussion, living room organ for that underwater feel,
and harmonic shifts carried by brother Tarquin's bass beneath an
undertow of guitar obbligatos...this is an inspiring document of
how far you can get by being miles from anything."
"Wow! This is music of such complexity and beauty
it's astounding. The Philistines Jr. are the only young pop band I
can think of that can really hold their own against the old masters
of classical music...exuberant and dangerous...I swear, people in
the future will look back at The Philistines Jr. and say 'man, that's
cool' the same way people today look back at Esquival. This
album is a freakin' masterpiece. On a scale of one to ten I give it
The Music Paper 12/95
"There are no attempts at any
recognizable format on this disc, just sincere, eclectic
AJAX Records Catalog #23 3/97
basement-pop geniuses...the music here is what's great...layered,
evocative guitar pop embellished heavily with keyboards of all
stripe, reminiscent of Pavement circa Watery Domestic and James
McNew's Dump stuff, albeit with a nerdy/in-jokey twist (which is not
offputting at all). They obviously took the time to craft this record
(no lo-fi copout here), and the results are totally worth it. A true
sleeper, and one of 1995's best albums.
Steve Albini Thinks We Suck Fanzine #8 10/96
"I really don't know
how to describe these guys, except to say that they're as fun and
as wacky as The Flaming Lips, but with a more gently
skewed pop sense. How can I describe a band that manages to
write sincere, even affecting songs about their favorite T.V. shows
and the sinking of their friends' boat? All I can say is that this is a
fantastic album, and I can't recommend it enough."
Gallery of Sound GAZETTE 12/95
"Melodic and textural, The
Sinking of The S.S. Danehower is a thoroughly satisfying musical
experience. Multidimensional, The Philistines Jr. offer
humor and beauty in one very interesting package."
David Garland WNYC (Spinning On Air) 12/95
really liked this album. Great sounds, nice recording, good feel...I
want to listen to it more."
Irwin Chusid WFMU 12/95
"I was very, very, very, very, very, very,
very, very impressed. A most unique album."
Sound Views 12/95
"Alternately dirgy and
production...delivered in a confident, distinctly un-angsty manner.
The Sinking of The S.S. Danehower conveys a supra-literal,
compelling theme...Let's hope they keep it up."
Melody Maker 8/15/92
"Sugar sweet satire! They laugh at
themselves because they know they're bloody funny. ...these boys
have musical substance to bolster
their wit. They parody their peers and yet better them. And what's
ironic is that this is just the sort of band Nirvana would love to be
right now. They're spanking new,
fresh as sea air, and sublimely indifferent to the evils of the
Melody Maker 6/4/94
"The Continuing Struggle of The Philistines
Jr., the superb new mini-album from Connecticut's satirical
princes of understated angst."
John Peel, B.B.C. 1 (regarding Greenwich, CT)
such a good LP...a band I think you'll want to hear more from,
"...an interesting and intelligent band." 1/96
"They are a real thing..."
Lime Lizard U.K. 6/92
"Are The Philistines Jr. the future of rock 'n'
roll? I most certainly hope they are."
Cargo Record Distributors (regarding Greenwich, CT)
"The underground pop record of the year."
"What?? You haven't heard of these guys??? A true
shame. Go buy this and play it for your friends. They'll all want to
Splatter Effect (regarding The Continuing Struggle...)
"This is some honest music...If a band like R.E.M. could really just lighten up,
they might make a record this cool. This one is a definite diamond
in the rough."
Fairfield County Weekly 12/23/93
"...this Greenwich trio is so far out
in front they're about to lap the pack. (The Continuing Struggle...)
takes you into their world-
their house even-for an intimate, touching, rocking, silly, smart,
crafty, catchy look at their part of the universe...best album of the