Tiger! Tiger!

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait:
Tiger! Tiger! Takes It by the Tail

You get a pretty good indication early on, if you spend much time around them, that the five members of Tiger! Tiger! are first and foremost great friends. Having spent so much time intermingling in like-minded Atlanta bands, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that they’d gravitate toward and bond with one another.

“I think we all have similar aesthetics. I mean, I know we all like different stuff too, but I also think the way you communicate with people that you play with is really important,” says Buffi Aguero, whose storied history in Atlanta’s music scene extends backwards more than two decades to scrappy outfits such as Scene Reamer; since the dawn of the 1990s she’s held up the steady, uncluttered backbeat in the indefatigable Subsonics, whose seventh album is expected later this fall.

Tiger! Tiger! bassist Susanne Gibboney and organist Sam Leyja both played in the Vendettas, the group Buffi fronted from 1994 to 2000. Leyja, who didn’t know how to play an instrument prior to Aguero wrangling him into the lineup for that band (and played with one finger for their first gig), continued on with Buffi in her short-lived but exquisite ensemble White Lights in the early ‘00s.

Following stints in bands including Pineal Ventana and Go-Devils, lead guitarist/saxophonist Shane Pringle has been with Tiger! Tiger! (so named after a Grace Braun song) since their first show in December ’03, when they opened for Rocket From the Tombs at the Echo Lounge. Drummer Mario Colangelo, a relative newbie compared to the others (he joined Tiger! Tiger! in 2005-ish), fits right in, his hyperactive sense of humor sparking ongoing bursts of laughter during our recent group gathering at a table outside of the EARL. “We have hilarious fun,” he underscores.

So their camaraderie is the glue, but their music is the justification. You could call ‘em garage rock, as many have, but that so woefully undervalues their work it’s bordering on a bad joke. They pull from and blend a myriad of sounds and places, to where you’ll feel the bone-dry dusty heat of a relentless desert sun here, a cold stare on some misty European street there, or then again the sex-charged sweat of delinquent dance party under the gutters somewhere else altogether. They’ve never been the hippest band in town but as such they’ve avoided most of the trendy ups and downs with which such crowns are saddled, and instead have simply pushed determinedly forward, always writing and creating and expanding their canvas, getting better and better with each successive stroke.

Their third and latest album, Cut Them Where They Bleed (Chicken Ranch Records), is a triumph of boldness and range. Recorded and mixed by Curt Wells and Jeff Bakos, the album was a drawn-out, two-year ordeal in the making, but though they’ve cooked up fine recordings before, on this one they’ve nailed it. They’ve grown comfortable enough that Pringle, for instance, might not even play on a particular track, save for a solo. On the other hand, there’s more of him on this record than ever – it’s certainly more of a guitar album than they’ve ever made, and he rips it up. They all do, truthfully. And as the visionary of the group, Buffi shines, her vivid, observant lyrics telling stories both poignant and strange, her snarly, streetwise delivery enunciated with deliberate precision and, occasionally, newfound tenderness.

“I like the idea of stuff that’s more character driven,” she tells me. “I feel like if it’s personal, it’s almost always terrible. You can get invested in aspects of characters, so I think every song is about you, whether you want it to be or not, because it’s that aspect of that character that you relate to. But I feel like whenever I try to write about a specific experience that I had, it always sounds corny and bad, and forced and weird.” A graphic designer by trade who does most of Chicken Ranch’s covers, she adds that “I feel that way about art, too – it’s easier to design for someone else than myself.”

The cover of Cut Them Where They Bleed is a work of art itself. Literally. Desiring something a little classier for this cover, they used a painting by Savannah’s John Baizley, whose pieces have gone from gracing album covers for (mostly) metal bands (including his own, Baroness) to the walls of high-end galleries and a spread in a recent issue of art mag Juxtapoz.

Gibboney, who joined Tiger! Tiger! in 2005, replacing original bassist Deisha Oliver, first approached Baizley with the album cover idea. “I told him, ‘I’m not certain that we can afford you,’ but he said, ‘I love to do work for friends and people whose music I admire.’ His timeframe is really tight – he’s doing so many projects, and he’s in a really big touring band. But I met with him, and originally the album was going to be called Judith – that song is about Judith and Holofernes. And he said, ‘Oh, that’s fantastic – I’m working on a series that I call Nefarious Women, famous women that possibly have been looked down upon by society. Notorious women.’ So the girl on our cover, I think she was intended to be Medusa. He had these three different [paintings of] women, and this was not the Judith but he felt like this was the image that was going to work best with it. And I thought it was really great. Ultimately, I guess it’s going to come out as part of a three-piece art piece with that series that he’s doing. We’ve already tricked some people into buying the album just so they could have this thing. This woman came to our release party and was like, ‘I don’t have a record player, but this picture is just so beautiful…’”

A visual artist in his own right, Leyja is an animator for Turner Studios. As part of an internal art project, everyone in his department recently submitted ideas for short films to showcase Turner Studios animation at film festivals worldwide. Leyja proposed an animated video for “Gin With Sailors,” a sparse standout track from Cut Them Where They Bleed, one that Gibboney accurately describes as “delicious.” And the suits at Turner picked his pitch as the one to greenlight. “It’s probably about three-quarters of the way done,” Leyja says of the mini-film, which he’s directing and animating with the rest of his crew. “We’re getting pulled off it because of big jobs coming in, but we’ll be able to jump on and off it for the rest of this year… It’s gonna be about four minutes long, and three and a half of that is hand-drawn animation. And there’s a dream sequence in it that’s gonna be 3-D animation.” Should be nice.

With the members all working long-held day (and night) jobs (Susanne’s been at Junkman’s Daughter in Little Five for 24 years, Shane co-owns the EARL, and as for Mario, flirting with every woman he encounters and drumming for half the city’s bands takes some major time management), touring can sometimes be a challenge to schedule. But as Sam emphasizes, “We travel really well – we’re great on the road,” and a series of summer dates with Peelander-Z is in the works. They’re also hoping to make it to Spain, a country they’ve already visited twice. “They play us on national radio and stuff there,” Aguero points out, somewhat incredulously.

“They just love American rock ‘n’ roll there,” Pringle adds. “Every other person in Madrid has a Ramones shirt on and Chuck Taylor high tops. It’s a real rock ‘n’ roll town. I think it’s because they weren’t allowed to listen to rock ‘n’ roll under Franco, maybe? They like a lot of good music. And us.”

It’s also the place that provides the bulk of their “road stories.” They might not seem like the wildest bunch, but somehow Spain brings it out of them. “I’m not kidding, I’ve thrown up more in Spain than I’ve thrown up in my life,” observes Susanne. Buffi got thrown out of a drinkery in Madrid after rolling around on the bar. Shane and Mario once got in a scuffle that woke up the rest of the hotel. Shane accidentally tumbled down a hill on his birthday, and got mugged by hookers while completely trashed another time. The cops laughed at him. And the sordid tales keep coming…

“Spain is the New Orleans of Europe,” Pringle posits, with all the good points and bad points that suggests.

At this juncture, they’re used to it all, though. They encounter new fans and friendly, familiar faces most everywhere they travel. Their years of hard work and patience pay off when a great show caps the night, their merch box a little lighter as it’s carried out to the van.

“There’s always a lot of back stories in towns. Weirdos,” observes Colangelo. “It’s just like here, you go in the Star Bar and it’s the same bunch of weirdos and survivors going, ‘Hey, I used to see you at the Point…’ Every town, there’s that same bunch of weirdos, but at least in this band, Buffi and Sam and Susanne have played at these places, with the Vendettas or some other band, and they’re like, ‘Remember this town? That guy?’ And sometimes that person will be at the show.”

You should be at their next one. I know I will be.

Photo by Karla Jean Davis.