Meet And Greet: Cougar

Cougar want to be clear: In choosing their moniker, the last thing the Midwestern instrumentalists wanted was for people to think of older divorcées hunting for young men.

Actually, even though they’re still in the process of making their mark – Cougar’s second LP, Patriot (Counter), dropped in September – the band originated before the animal’s name got co-opted by junk culture.

“It’s a nice-sounding word,” David Henzie-Skogen explained to me shortly before Patriot‘s release. “It’s a good-looking word. It’s kind of just a collection of circles.”

Cougar also arrived at the name “before there were a lot of bands that we noticed had animal names. And I guess now, eh, we’re another band with an animal name.

“But whatever,” the drummer continued, starting to laugh. “We joke that Cougar can take most of those animals.”

Hearing Cougar, you’ll be inclined to agree: Their focused, punchy songs are something fierce. Name-dropping critics usually liken them to Slint or 65daysofstatic, but it’s with Auetchre, Fugazi and Aphex Twin – and, even more so, Four Tet – that the men of Cougar see eye to eye.

“This sounds ridiculous and pretentious, [but] we have more in common with Philip Glass than with Mogwai,” Henzie-Skogen chuckled.

The common bond between the members of Cougar – also in the fold are bassist Todd Hill, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Aaron Sleator, and guitarists Trent Johnson and Dan Venne – was forged in Madison, where all five guys studied in some capacity. They were all college-age at the time, and according to Henzie-Skogen, out of the gate they had a “unifying idea of the sound we wanted to create.”

That sound was – and still is – based more on composition than improvisation. And that approach manifests itself on the concise, taut Patriot.

“We wanted to write music that was as intellectually satisfying as improvised music was but was based around hooks, essentially the way pop music is,” he elaborated. “I don’t believe we even ever talked about it to that degree. … We would sit around and talk about the music we liked, but rarely did it have anything to do with bands that are set up the way our band is. None of us listen to a lot of bands like Mogwai or Godspeed or Battles or what have you.”

Once they became blood brothers, basement jamming ensued, and Cougar’s sound materialized. They eventually recorded their first record, 2006’s Law (Layered Music), with some dude named John McEntire. And since then, they’ve been … clawing their way to the top, ba-dum-bum.

In all seriousness, though, a whole lot has happened in the life of Cougar since those basement-jamming days. The bandmembers are now spread out over the map – Venne is in New York, Sleator in Austin, Hill in Chicago. For a band that values the art of composition more than just about anything else, those long distances have made songwriting a lot more, well, interesting.

“The three people that play the guitar tend to do the bulk of the writing, and I do the bulk of arranging,” Henzie-Skogen spelled out. “It almost always starts with one of the guitar players having a very simple idea that’s very short. And we’ll throw ideas, these really short little pieces, around over e-mail and decide which ones are captivating.

“Then I’ll start working on what I’m hearing percussion-wise and just build it from there. We e-mail these tracks [back and forth], and I’m the one with the studio, so I’m kind of in charge of arranging the songs and editing the songs.”

That’s right: A band with five members really can make music piecemeal like that, thanks to those oh-so-modern wonders of technology. One or two times, all the members of Cougar convened and recorded together in Madison. But generally “it’s pretty individual,” said Henzie-Skogen, who, throughout the interview, also voiced his respect for sample-based solo artists. “There’s nothing on [Patriot] where all five of us were recording at once.”

Imagine that: A band that assembles itself physically almost exclusively when it’s on the road.

“We’re kind of into doing anything that feels right,” Henzie-Skogen said. “And we don’t have any rules about what the band can and can’t do.”

For more on Cougar, check out their installments in the Bad Penny’s “Day Job” and “Cover Me” series.

Go here to check out Double Dagger’s edition of “Meet and Greet.”

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