Feralcats roam into Middleton

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MTT News's picture
Matt Geiger
The Feralcats, seen here in their “Donkey Hole” in Mount Vernon, will perform at the Club Tavern, 1915 Branch St., at 9 p.m. on Friday, May 29.

It’s a blustery Sunday evening in rural Mount Vernon, but the howling of the wind is no match for the countrified thump shaking the white stone walls of the “Donkey Hole.”

It’s a quintessential Wisconsin man cave, rigged with tap beer, neon signs, and even a circular tin of popcorn to act as a boisterous fire alarm if things ever get too hot. A place where blown up amplifiers and a bit of healthy tinnitus are all in a good night’s work.

But the barn wasn’t always this way. The place where the Feralcats currently hone their popular brand of honky tonk was formerly used to house burros – hence its name – and it required a thorough mucking in order to begin its transformation.

Today, the donkeys are gone. They have been replaced by four men in cowboy boots and paisley shirts, armed with requisite cups of cold ale and thermoses of piping hot coffee, for they are in this for the long haul. Any braying has been usurped by the harmonious sounds that fill bars, festival tents and beer gardens throughout the year whenever the Feralcats take the stage.

It all started in 2007 when bass player Kris Rugland and guitarist Doug Ross, who were in a bluegrass band together, were joined by drummer Jeff Lombardo for a gig.

Lombardo already had fond childhood memories of slumbering happily in a sleeping bag nearby while his father, a rock drummer in the 1970s, played.

“We were just killing time, and we started to play some more rock stuff,” Lombardo recalls of his first meeting with Rugland and Ross.

They liked what they heard, so the three got together and started playing Neil Young covers and other forms of “country grunge.”

It was around the period of a widely publicized proposal in Wisconsin that would have allowed the public to hunt cats, and Ross had felines on his mind. He liked their resilience – their ability to thrive in society or on the margins.

“There was something about the feral cat we liked,” he explains. “He can hang out on the farm or in the woods. Either way, he’s good.”

Lead guitarist Steve Malin later joined them, and together they evolved into a group that plays what Lombardo describes as “old country with a nice little punch in the mouth.”

His spurs jangling as he takes a seat behind his drum kit, Lombardo says the Feralcats play a style of music that “even if you don’t know it, you know it.”

“You are going to,” he adds, “tap your foot. You are going to sing along.”

About half of any set list is made up of covers, with the other half consisting of original compositions. Either way, it all starts in the Donkey Hole, where they engage in weekly marathon practice sessions together. There, like Clark Kent in a telephone booth, these four mild mannered, middle aged professionals shed the banalities of daily life and become something more.

“What happens in here is raw,” says Lombardo. “This is out-of-a-meat-grinder sausage.”

“And it’s spicy,” Ross chimes in. “We call it banter, the way we go back and forth, and over time we’ve gotten a little more professional. A little more dialed in.”

“We love to get together and play music,” he continues. “Here, at Marcine’s [bar in downtown Mount Vernon]. Anywhere. It doesn’t matter. We’re going to enjoy ourselves.”

They particularly enjoy what Malin calls “hard hitting honky tonk,” a style for which the recipe is: “play old country songs, but harder and faster,” according to Ross.

“It’s kind of the way a blues band approaches music,” explains Malin. “It’s that same basic framework.”

“I like that there’s freedom,” Ross agrees. “Steve can play what he wants. Jeff can play what he wants.”

For more information on upcoming performance dates, visit www.theferalcats.com.

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