photographs by Matthew Schreffler
Have you ever heard a jam so layered, so textured, that you feel like it is telling you something? Although you know it is based on improvisation, you’ll notice how seamless and oriented it is that you cannot help but think each note was composed. The message you are receiving, unique to everyone listening, rings out so pure it almost feels like the jam has words. Moments like these remind me why jam music will always be my favorite, and I experienced one of these coveted moments recently with Catullus.
Made up of members Andrew Meehan (guitar/vocals), Chris Bailey (bass/vocals), Jeremy Worthington (drums), and Kevin Smethers (keys/vocals), Catullus has emerged as a force in Philly’s thriving Jamtronica community and has struck out its path across the East Coast. While its grooves will make you dance with a smile plastered on your face, Catullus offers a significant depth that reminds me this scene isn’t all “untz.”
Over the years, the band has gone through several iterations with members before landing on its current lineup.
“We started playing music separately when we weren’t in the same crowd of people, but when I went away to college [Bailey’s] band would play in our hometown and my parents would always tell me ‘Bailey’s band [formerly the Tragics] is fucking killing it.’ This was back in the Myspace days. When I came home for good I started jamming with them and then joined the group,” Meehan said. Meehan and Bailey, who are childhood friends, have been the constant in Catullus.
Once it was clear that Meehan and Bailey were clicking, they decided to form their own group.
“We wanted to call it Catalyst,” Bailey added, “You know, we’re the catalyst of good times and dancing… but that was taken. We still really liked the sound of it… One day our friend came to us and asked, ‘What about this ancient Roman poet named Catullus?’”
The depth I spoke about earlier isn’t just because their group is named after an ancient and influential poet, or that they’ve written a collection of songs based on the Odyssey, or that their lyrics are insightful and imaginative, even though it all helps. The heart of the measure comes with their innate ability to groove in and out of tones and modes, resulting in the glorious reality that even two shows with the same exact setlist sound remarkably different.
“It’s so beautifully free-formed, so open. When we talk about improvisation-based jam bands, we see them in the scene all over the place. This is one of the first bands I’ve worked with in which every time we play a song, it is so vastly different from the time before,” Smethers said.
Worthington, the veteran of many projects, added that “everyone here knows how to play their instruments, and everyone here has played in multiple bands before. I’ve been in so many and they’ve all been improvisational-based, or jazz-based, or funk, or something. Once you’ve been in all those kinds of bands, and once you get with other musicians who are able to do that and do it well, it makes it easier. Everyone in this band knows how to improvise and knows how to listen and put their ears on. When everyone is listening to everyone else, that’s when we’re able to play dynamically or switch directions on a dime. That’s where the depth comes from.”
While Catullus has had its share of members, ups, downs, and everything in between, it seems that this bunch has fully hit a stride together. I asked each member what they thought the most important thing they as individuals can do to help a jam—almost all at once they said the same thing: listening. The same page is where they make their musical home, as Meehan put it, “I think it’s because of the listening and creativity. People can get lost in a jam and fall back on just knowing how to play scales, but if you don’t listen, it doesn’t work. Music is a conversation.”
Catullus is currently in the thick of a fall tour expanding over Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Most recently announced, Catullus will be raging the Boom Room in Philaelphia November 29th, 2019.
Even if you are not able to catch any of these, they have never been long from the stage and are showing no signs of slowing. In addition to building their own style and reputation, Catullus has served as direct support for some of the premier acts in the jam world including Dopapod, Electron, Papadosio, and Lotus. In order to see far we all must stand on the shoulders of giants,but it seems Catullus is experiencing a growth spurt of its own.