Cat Valley realized they were doing something right when they saw some dudes walk out of one of their shows.
The Bellingham punk band’s discography includes tunes that take to task cat-calling, anti-choice protestors, the discomforts that come with the monthly shedding of the uterine lining, and misogynistic men in the music scene. Songs are one-part riot grrrl scream-along and one-part guitar shred-fest, and their live shows can be cathartic dance parties. For most people, anyway.
“It’s wild, it’s really wild,” said guitarist and vocalist Whitney Flinn. “You’re talking about stuff that is literally some of the most basic stuff. ‘Hey, people don’t like it when you sexualize them or talk down to them.’ Very basic human rights concepts. But [when] we play this song ‘Womanizer,’ there’s just this change, especially dudes, having this moment of realization. ‘Wait a second, are they talking about me?’ It is so crazy! Then we have people come to our shows like, ‘F yeah! We love your stuff!’ And they’re excited to romp and thrash and move around.”
Cat Valley was formed in 2016 after Flinn met fellow guitarist and vocalist Abbey Hegge at a show where they both performed solo sets. Flinn’s rousing finger-picking style inspired by years of harp playing made Hegge cry; Hegge’s story-driven personal lyrics and soprano voice made Flinn cry. They decided to get together and jam.
As Cat Valley—rounded out with bassist Kristen Stanovich and drummer Melanie Sehman—they still find inspiration in personal experiences, but there’s also strength in numbers.
“The stuff that we write together as Cat Valley is very topical and very, like, ‘I feel this way about this thing so we’re going to write about this thing together,’” said Flinn. “It’s like together power!”
That bond has been especially appreciated in Bellingham’s music scene, which felt segregated when Cat Valley first started playing shows. Bands cycle in and out more often than other cities, they say, because it’s a college town; it’s “very rotation,” Flinn said. “Every four years there’s a crop of new bands, which can be very exciting but is also pretty volatile if you’re a townie band like we are. … There were not many femme or nonbinary-fronted projects. I think the majority of the scene really was, like, dude bands.”
“And people wouldn’t include us in conversations at shows,” added Hegge. “Dude bands would be talking about their technique or their gear or whatever, and [it was like] we weren’t there. Or I’d even try to say something and they’d ignore whatever I said and keep talking about their Zvex Fuzz Factory, which, by the way, I think sounds like shit.”
Earlier material, like 2018’s self-titled EP, has biting political and social commentary, but more often than not there’s a noticeable effort to make it funny, or at least a little fun. On Bingo Queen, released on September 15, they’ve hedged away from using comedy as a cushion.
On the pro-choice anthem “My Body,” which they first released as a fundraiser for the National Network of Abortion Funds, Flinn’s voice starts out angry and evolves into unfuckwithable fury as she yells out, “You think you own me / You think you own the whole fucking world / I’m so sick of you controlling everything that I do / I’m disposable, deplorable there’s nothing left to do / I’m just a babymaker, birth canal / That’s all I am to you!”
The chorus is the whole band—and the whole audience, when the song is played live—screaming out, “My body! My choice!” over and over again with a passion fueled by generations of gendered oppression.
In “Imposter,” which leans more dark and gritty grunge than other Cat Valley songs, Flinn lays bare her struggles with imposter syndrome and her feelings of worthlessness: “Choke it down or I’ll just choke / I’m just the punchline of your stupid joke.”
“I would say that the humor is kind of a defense mechanism or a safety tactic, and as we’ve been a band longer and also just become more comfortable with each other, that’s how we’ve been able to write songs like ‘It’s Over’ and ‘Imposter,’” said Hegge.
“That song is really great to play because it’s kind of like, the beginning is talking about how it feels and the chorus is, ‘I’m a fucking imposter,’” said Flinn. “Then at the end, I take this crazy solo…”
“It’s a shred fest,” said Hegge. “It’s almost like an instrumental ‘fuck you.’”
“It’s the longest breakdown that we have recorded so far, and that’s why it’s so cool, it’s like, “Eh, fuck you. I don’t want to feel this way. I do belong here, I am good enough to be here, so here’s this!”
Aside from finding strength in one another's vulnerability and growth, Cat Valley also find inspiration in fellow Pacific Northwest bands such as Rat Queen, Nonbinary Girlfriend, Queen Chimera, King Youngblood ("We love their riffs"), and Spoonbenders, and contemporary guitar shredders such as Sleater-Kinney, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Screaming Females.
“Screaming Females are a huge guitar influence,” said Hegge, laughing. “All my octave riffs, I learned how to do that from covering their songs. And I play octave riffs in like three of the songs.”
But not all influences are obvious. After discussing the killer guitar solo on "Imposter," Hegge turned to Flinn and asked, “Didn’t you say [when you wrote] the riff from ‘Imposter,’ you were learning a Creed song?”
“Maybe,” Flinn said with a laugh and perhaps even a little embarrassment.
“We both did the She Shreds #1riffaday challenge, and I remember Whitney posting this super cool riff…” said Hegge. Audible sarcasm dripped off the words “super” and “cool.”
“Was it Creed?”
“I thought you made a joke about Creed? About learning a Creed song, and then you moved on to jamming out ‘Imposter.’”
Flinn sighed through a laugh. “Oh, no.”
Hey, maybe that means the dude bros will like it after all.
Cat Valley celebrate the release of Bingo Queen at the Rabbit Box Theatre Saturday, September 16, 8-11 pm, $15-$18, all ages.
Bingo Queen is available on Bandcamp here.