Philly's Catbite are ska ambassadors for our collective new normal - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Amid a sea of indie darlings and punk mainstays, ska is having a moment of its own, mostly thanks to Gen Z-ers discovering the genre for the first time online. For Catbite, a Philly four-piece ska-punk band comprised of singer-keyboardist Brit Luna, singer-guitarist Tim Hildebrand, drummer Chris Pires and bassist Ben Parry, the band couldn’t be more ecstatic, even if they’re hesitant to call it a “wave.” 

Luna, Hildebrand and Pires joined me virtually on a Zoom call, because it’s 2021 and “accessibility is the future, baybeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” The internet has helped connect fans with bands, artists with reporters and the world with new things over the last year and a half.

“People’s attention is being brought back to this and people are being introduced and reintroduced to the genre,” Hildebrand said. “And their introduction is how it’s like positive messages, a lot of things focusing on mental health, gender identities. It’s just good and catchy, and there’s a bunch of really good bands doing it.” 

Part of the band’s success has come from the community that’s grown from such a niche genre, thanks to Jer Hunter (of Skatune Network) and the rise of Bad Time Records. Hildebrand added  that the genre’s popularity is “something that hasn’t been around since it was popular last in the 90s.”

The band first got acquainted with Skatune Network and Jer during their first mini-tour with We Are The Union and Kill Lincoln, where everyone quickly bonded.

Chris Pires of Catbite | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN | @racheldelsordo

For Pires, who’s been playing ska music since he was around 15 or 16 years old, watching everything explode into the world and gain traction through the different subgenres has been wild.

“When we started this band in 2018, if you were to tell me ‘fast forward three years and this is where we’re at,’ I would’ve been like ‘You’re crazy. There’s no way!’ We weren’t expecting this,” he said. “I don’t think anyone really was! But now that it is happening, I think we’re all super grateful for it and stoked to see where it goes, but also to continually bolster up the other bands, labels. Bolster just anybody who wants to be a part of this and keep putting out content and just trying to have people engage with us and anyone else involved.”

Which brings us back to the current day. Over the last year and a half, live music was completely stopped, leaving bands up to their own devices to promote themselves and their projects.

“I think lots of bands were able to kind of focus on social media,” singer Brit Luna said. “We’ve become friends with a lot of bands who aren’t in Philly. …. We can repost songs that they’ve written and so fans of us will become fans of them, and they do the same for us. It has been very community-focused.”

Tim Hildebrand of Catbite | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN | @racheldelsordo

Hildebrand added “The only way you could share stuff was through the internet, and the collaborations that might never have happened started happening. We were familiar with bands that were on our label or just like ska bands, but then the pandemic created all these collaborations where we would do stuff with them online.”

Focusing on getting content out instead of focusing on local, hometown shows became more of a priority. It’s also helped set things in motion for new collaborations as content started shifting to digital, online platforms.

“I never thought that would be a thing, but it is, and it just continues to support itself and grow,” said Pires.

After what seems like an eternity of livestreams, Facebook and Instagram Live sessions and Zoom calls, the discussion around opening shows to broader audiences has gotten more folks talking about it. It’s becoming more commonplace to bring shows to masses, in a time when music venues are slowly reopening at a time when the Delta variant has taken hold in the news cycle. 

In a time of so much uncertainty, one thing is for sure: the sold-out record release show for Nice One is set to take place on Friday at PhilaMOCA; ticketholders are required to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. And fans who can’t attend in person can watch a professional, multi-cam livestream on Skatune.

Ben Parry of Catbite | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN | @racheldelsordo

Over the course of the pandemic, Hildebrand realized that the idea of accessibility was coming up in a lot of interviews. Pires noted that there were a lot of things he never took into account that prevented people from attending shows: like geographical factors, handicapped accessibility factors and all-ages factors.

“Seeing how our friends in different parts of the world can see our stuff [is great] and we’ve gotten so many new fans from across the world during the pandemic because of us broadcasting stuff out, so why stop this now?”

The band has teamed up with “the video guy of Philadelphia,” Bob Sweeney to livestream Nice One’s release to the entire world with a four-camera setup that will rotate between different camera angles. It won’t just be a livestream where viewers sit in front of their devices and watch the band perform on the stage. Mike Sosinski, founder of Bad Time Records, will virtually “host” the event, along with a preshow where the band will feature pre-recorded interviews and other surprises. The band is putting their entire energy into it, because as Hildebrand puts it, “it’s not just about the live show; it’s about the virtual show too.”

Afterwards, the livestream will undergo some edits and be available for the world to watch over and over again on YouTube.

It took a period of around four months for the band to write and record new material – material that in a normal year, the band would “demo” by performing new songs in front of fans to gauge their reaction. They didn’t get that luxury, so they’ll be debuting a lot of new material during the record release show. 

The first “post-pandemic” show the band played was in Delaware at the Shady Grove Music Festival. Hildebrand thought it was weird to write out a setlist, because the band as a whole had seven original songs and three cover songs going into the pandemic. Now, they have around 16 original songs and 15 cover songs under their belts, mostly because they were performing a lot of covers during the pandemic.

Only three songs from the record have been released to the public so far, and the reaction has been fairly positive. All of the band members are excited to actually go out and perform their new stuff to fans. 

“When I put on this record, I feel like I’m looking forward to playing every song off this record for one reason or another,” said Pires, a veteran of the scene, who normally doesn’t like going back and listening to things he’s played on.”There’s a lot of variants in the songs that we’re playing, whether that’s major-y and happy and poppy, or minor-y and thrash-y or slow or somewhere in between. I just want to play all of them.”

Brit Luna of Catbite | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN | @racheldelsordo

Brit Luna is excited to perform “Creepin’,” because it’s a fun ska-punk song that people seemed to enjoy when they heard it live. “One of my favorite things is seeing people get up and dance and move,” she said. “That’s one that was fun to play and I’m really excited to play it for our record release and see how everyone reacts to it.”  

One of the songs on the record has special meaning to Luna, who grew up listening to Selena Quintanilla: a cover of “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.”

“I am Hispanic; I’m half-Peruvian,” she said. “I’m very white-passing as a half-Latina person, and it’s an identity that I very much am and feel that I am. I just wanted to show people that side of me. I don’t write Spanish music, but what better way to show that than to do a Selena cover?”

Talking about her identity and wanting to bring that to a broader audience  is important to Luna. 

“When I was little and looking up to Selena, that was someone [who] I was like ‘I could be her! I could be a performer!” she said.’ “I think people might have no idea who she is, and hopefully they’ll be introduced to her and look into her and get into her music. Maybe even listen to other cumbia artists that they might not have ever listened to before!”

The Mexican and Latinx ska scene is large, but gets overlooked by a lot of white and American ska fans. That’s something else that all the members of Catbite are hoping to introduce to a broader audience.

“Our friend Esteban [Flores] who played keys on most of this record, he’s Mexican and he lives in Portland now, but he’s from Los Angeles and he’s been our bridge to the Latino ska scene,” Hildebrand said. “With doing this cover, it’s kind of…in a way attempting to bridge the gap between U.S. ska and Mexican ska. And introduce people in the Mexican ska community to us, and let people know that ska can be in Spanish.” 

Catbite | photo by Rachel Del Sordo for WXPN | @racheldelsordo

What’s up ahead for the band after their big record release show? Fest! The band was originally asked to perform at Fest in 2020, but then the pandemic hit. They were also asked if they’d like to perform a No Doubt cover set, which got pushed to this year. 

“I don’t think we’ve put it out into the ether, though, that it’s going to be a No Doubt cover set, but it’s going to be strictly songs from Tragic Kingdom; that’s it,” said Pires, or as Hildebrand puts it, “the bops.”

The band learned a lot from their first trek to Fest in 2019. They’ve booked their hotel in advance, have plans to check in a day early to avoid any potential chaos, and they touted the importance of putting together lists of bands they’d like to see, and to make sure that they’re checking them twice.

For Pires, “I’ve always looked forward to going, but the thing I learned very quickly the first night is that if there’s a band you want to see that’s not playing the main stage, you need to get your ass there a half an hour or so earlier, because if there’s bands that people really want to see, they get there early. And there are smaller clubs and there will be lines out the doors of people waiting to get in. Our labelmates Kill Lincoln were doing a Catch-22 cover set and I was like ‘Oh yeah, let’s go walk over and watch Catch-22!’ And like as soon as we got there we were like ‘there’s no way we’re getting into this place.’” 

But they’re going in prepared: spare hand sanitizer and towelettes, an agenda, and an incredibly fun new album that will cement their status as the ska champions of 2021. 

Catbite will play a sold-out all-ages album release party Friday, August 6th at PhilaMOCA with The Best of the Worst and Froggy. The show will be broadcast on a free YouTube livestream via Skatune Network; watch at YouTube, listen to the album Nice One below, and grab a vinyl edition of the record via Bad Time Records.

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