Mr Cat And The Jackal: Playing acoustic, because they can

Mr Cat And The Jackal is a Stellenbosch performance group who mix theatre and music with an obsession for finding, making and playing old and obscure instruments.

Mr Cat And The Jackal: Playing acoustic, because they can

This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 05 – 06 February 2011.

Mr Cat And The Jackal are Gertjie Besselsen, JC Visser, Pierre-Arnold Theron, Jacques du Plessis and Johan Roos. Although their work owes as much to theatre as it does to any of the normal routes a young collective of musicians might take in forming a group, they are also a band. Usually, when listing band members, they are described by the instruments they play, but this is nigh impossible with the five Stellenbosch creators. Between them, they play what is literally a stage full of instruments, and part of the delight of their live show is watching them flit and dash from accordion to guitar, and from xylophone to found-object percussion. All this forms part of their latest show, which also incorporates shadow puppetry and carnival themes.

But first, the instruments. Besselsen laughs at that, then answers, “Since I was young, I was thinking of bands, but they always had weird percussion, made out of oil cans or lots of dustbins,” he says. “I also always wanted a xylophone in the band. Mr Cat And The Jackal didn’t start out as a structured idea, though, it started with flirting with different instruments and different sounds. We were all doing something similar – gathering instruments and getting more into figuring out how to play them – and how to play our other instruments in interesting ways.”

Mr Cat And The Jackal saw its genesis when Besselsen asked Du Plessis, who was then drummer in the short-lived Stellenbosch progressive rock band Nom De Plume, to assist with a theatre soundtrack he’d been asked to produce. “I asked him to help, and from there we just carried on recording,” he says, “We just asked musicians that we knew to play what we wanted and, at that stage, it was very simple stuff, with us playing guitars or whatever other things we needed. Now, this band line-up has been together for more than a year and they all have their input. It took a while to get everyone to understand what the concept was all about, and to understand how we needed to re-adapt our own theories. We know that, with our music, it’s not like we’re going to get on radio and TV overnight, or get a million YouTube views, but we have got to a nice point now, where everything is going up and up and up.”

Visser – who joined the initial ensemble a little later – shares a healthy interest in a wide range of sound-generating items. “It is a lot; a myriad of stuff,” he admits. “Actually, we have even more than what you see on stage. There will be something you find that has an interesting tone, so you’ll make plans for it. Or, maybe, it’ll never get used but, a year or two later, there’s an improvisation where you suddenly hear how it will work with a song, and you play it right then and there. But it’s not a gimmick thing – we don’t just put an instrument into a song without a reason. Think about the autoharp (which, just to further convolute matters, shares more with a zither than an actual harp): it’s got that beautiful dreamy tone that just sounds like it should be the beginning of a song. But you can’t use it live – it’s really hard to mic up, and even harder to equalise in the sound mix, so we can’t use it live – especially if it would only be for a three minute intro. But we’d still use that in our recordings.”

Visser’s point begs the obvious question in an era of increasingly affordable technology: why not just dump those sounds on a synthesiser or laptop, and use that instead of a van-load of delicate acoustic instruments that require delicacy and skill to play – and need to be tuned. “It would make things easier, but we have a rigourous stance against it,” he says. “We are not anti-technology, in fact it is something we are very much interested in, and we sometimes talk about a side project that just has synthesisers in it. But, with Mr Cat And The Jackal, we will stay as analogue and acoustic as possible. It might be different for the other guys, but for me it’s a three-way reason. Music sounds different on a real instrument – things always sound the same through a laptop. Then, you never know what’s going to happen – if you have the real instruments there, you are not limited. If something happens on stage that inspires you, or a free jam starts and you get an idea to play something, you can do it live, right there. The third reason is the entertainment value – it looks great and it sounds great having the real instruments.” He pauses and then adds, with a smile: “Or, maybe, the real reason is a fourth one. We don’t use laptops and digital things because, it’s simple: we don’t want to.”

With the band’s new CD, “Sins And Siren Songs” currently in production, the band are hosting an extravagant launch event for the album’s first single, and its accompanying video. “The first launch we had, at the Plaasteater at Hazendal at the end of 2009, had a kind of carnival atmosphere, and people loved it,” says Besselsen. “We had a couple of games and performance artists and the audience was so amped, so we want to build on that. With this launch, the idea of ‘sins’ and ‘siren songs’ is incorporated into the whole event, with stalls and games and performers throughout the whole of the Klein Libertas venue, not just on the stage. Our goal is always to properly entertain people from as soon as they get to the theatre grounds. There will be games and oddities, all with a fun element to them. There might even be stalls where you can buy interesting instruments that have been made… Also, our performance will be more theatrical, with things like shadow-puppetry courtesy of Yesterfang Moving Pictures incorporated into the show. We’ll also have the video, of course, and that is all about fire. A lot of fire. And a whole lot of fun. Imagine something like ‘The Last Supper’, but one that’s being held before the death of an electric house organ…”

“Sins And Siren Songs” is scheduled for release in March. The video for the first single, “The Devil Always Wants To Dance” is released at the groups carnival performance at the Klein Libertas Theatre on Friday 11 February (Du Toit St, Bergzicht Square, Stellenbosch, 021-8838164; doors open 6pm; tickets R50). More on and on MySpace, Facebook and Twitter,

This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 05 – 06 February 2011. Find out more on