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Friday, July 20, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Night Watch / Tom Scanlon

Actual Tigers finally roar: on album and at Showbox

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R.I.P., Willis (1995-2001).

Tim Seely and company have buried one of the most curious bands in Seattle pop history. The Willis story goes like this: When Seely and his pals John Low and Max Perry were still in high school, they started playing around Seattle clubs, quickly drawing a big following. After releasing a self-produced debut album, the three teenagers were signed by Capitol Records in 1997 — Capitol perhaps thinking it had the next Dave Matthews Band on its hands.

Music brief, Seattle newspaper, August 1997: Seattle eclectic-pop band Willis, recently signed to Capitol Records, will begin work on its first album for the label this month. ... Capitol will likely release the album next spring, but a date hasn't been set.

Well, the release didn't quite happen "next spring." Nor the next spring. Nor the next. ...

Though Capitol did help Willis get a song ("Standing By") on the "Never Been Kissed" soundtrack, the past three years were frustrating for the young Seattle band — so anxious to get things going, but constantly butting heads with Capitol for approval of its first big-label debut.

After Capitol put Willis on a smaller subsidiary, NettwerkAmerica, Willis decided to try a new name; too many other bands had Willis in the name, or a band member named Willis, Seely explains. Plus, Seely wanted to signify a new direction.

"In many ways," the soft-spoken singer says, "it's a new band." The main personnel change: Eric Gardner, a Los Angeles-based drummer, has replaced Willis drummer Diarmuid Cullen (who left the group to study jazz).

For weeks, Seely and his buddies tossed new band names around, with nothing sticking. Then, during a trip to San Francisco, they ran into David Berman, a poet and Silver Jews member. Ex-Willis members told Berman the name problem, hoping he could come up with something. He said he would think about it.

A few weeks later came a postcard from Berman: "the Actual Tigers."

The artists formerly known as Willis decided to go with it: "We were kind of going for something different, something no one else would have ... Our label wasn't sure what to think of it," Seely said.

This is a very big week for the Actual Tigers. "Gravelled and Green," that album Willis/Actual Tigers have been working on for four years, was finally released this week. And tonight, Actual Tigers play the Showbox (9 p.m., $12.50).

It's a nice, easygoing album, with Seely often sounding like a young Paul Simon, with a splash of Pavement. The Showbox concert, Seely says, will have most of the songs from the long-awaited album — which Willis had been playing for the past two years at shows. On top of that, there will be three or four new Actual Tigers songs, and perhaps a cover of the Cars' "Drive."

This is only the third Actual Tigers show, following EMP and Crocodile dates. The Showbox is almost guaranteed to be packed, as the Actual Tigers are actually opening for Texas artist Chris Whitley, who mixes blues-rock and trip-hop on his new album, "Rocket House" (which features guests DJ Logic and Dave Matthews).

Other shows

The Showbox has two other big shows this week.

Power pop veterans Cheap Trick advise everyone to surrender on Tuesday (8 p.m., $20).

Then Liverpool post-punk veterans Echo and the Bunnymen, still led by Ian McCulloch after all these years, bring their new album "Flowers" to the Showbox on Wednesday (9 p.m., $20).

Advance tickets for the Showbox are handled by www.fastixx.com.

New hip-hop dance night: Sundays at Pioneer Square's Catwalk (10 p.m., $10). The show is run by Guest Entertainment, which had been doing a similar production at Paradise, until a disagreement with that club. At Catwalk, Funkdaddy and Rocafella will spin funk and hip-hop.

• Billy Bragg talks about blue-collar English things at EMP's Sky Church Thursday (8 p.m., $20, 206-770-2702).

Tom Scanlon can be reached at 206-464-3891 or tscanlon@seattletimes.com.

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