Erik Phillips is used to being alone. The 22-year old behind the bedroom project Cat Be Damned, Phillips leaves little doubt of his artistic introversion while discussing his recent cassette, Daydreams in a Roach Motel, released last month on Joy Void. “I’ve always been super antisocial. Always been using the internet. I’ve never had many friends. So everything is better with the internet. And with music that happens to be particularly beneficial.” It feels like an uncommon inversion – isolation being generative – in these late days of solipsism, obsequiousness, and self-promotion. Sometimes Erik Phillips sounds like he could be the last person on Earth.
And this powerful, almost imperial aloneness, resounds through Phillips’ music: little keyboard songs in the spirit of Elliot Smith, discussing modern loneliness, modern connection. Phillips confronts tension between solitude and sociability with a wry temperament. On the opening track, “parking on the freeway” from previous cassette, all his empty show, he sings, “The friends I make myself/I don’t talk to them/I bought myself a phone/So I can hang up on all of them again.” He makes his music the same way, remarking, “I do it all myself. I write all the songs. I play everything. There’s never been a good music scene or whatever.” The quiet brilliance of Daydreams in a Roach Motel is, perhaps, an outgrowth of this emptiness.
Phillips created Cat Be Damned from absence, out of musical failures. Growing up in Fredericksburg, Virginia, playing piano, he struggled to see music as anything more than an academic pursuit, something you practiced for your lessons. There was no music scene; no college radio bands coming through town. When I ask him about early influences, he lists the obvious and credible footnotes for a bedroom artist: Elliot Smith, the Neil Young records he heard on his parents’ stereo, discovering Modest Mouse in high school.
He also credits nu-metal. “I still love Korn. They’re one of my favorite bands,” he says. It’s a surprising beginning for an artist generating the brittle and lilting arrangements as the ones that appear on Daydreams … . But Phillips is remarkably uninterested in seeming cool. “The first song I ever really liked was Papa Roach’s “Blood Brothers” from Tony Hawk Pro Skater Two. My only friend in middle school was like, ‘you need to listen to this song. It talks about murdering people’, and I was, like, ‘that’s, uh, funny.’ It’s a terrible origin story for my music.” The unaffected honesty and sardonic humor from Phillips is part of his charm, a bit of earnest charisma behind all his self-professed solitude.
As he moved onto college at Virginia Commonwealth University, Phillips began to make sense out of the many musical influences colliding in his upbringing. He laughs about his pre-Cat Be Damned false starts. “Modest Mouse is one of my favorite bands. I thought I could be like Modest Mouse, too, and I realized I could not at all. My old drummer, his favorite band was Say Anything, which is fine, and our band sounded like me trying to sing Modest Mouse and him trying to play Say Anything drums, and it didn’t come out like either of the two.” His humor, his self-assessment, is unflinching. “I made really awful music back then,” he says, adding, “All my music was terrible, and I took it all off the internet a few months ago.” He returns to this period later, as if further emphasis was needed, saying, not laughing this time, “None of it worked.”
But in early 2015, Phillips began experimenting with what creations could come from stripping away the noise. Inspired by other bedroom, DIY-pop he heard from bands like Elvis Depressedly – whom he later befriended over the internet – and his friend George Gould’s work as Bulldog Eyes, Phillips inverted his ambitions. Alex G, the patron saint of the bedroom composer, played a major, if unknowing, role. “I almost quit doing music because I was like, this is all bad. And then I heard DSU by Alex G. And then I did some songs ripping off Alex G, and instead of playing guitar I played keyboards on them.” Listening to the woozy, heartsick keyboard progressions of a song like “Boy Eats Flowers” reveals the Alex G footnote in stark relief. The song, like so many of Alex G’s compositions, breathes – rising and falling with obvious, if muted, human effort.
It can be hard being quiet. Phillips calls his work as Cat Be Damned as a process in being “softer”. “I’m trying to get soft,” he jokes with a sarcastic firmness, as if recognizing the usual connotations between effort and volume. Trying is loud; soft is something else. But not for Cat Be Damned and Erik Phillips. “Hearing Elliot Smith made me realize being soft could be cool.” The woozy and beautiful, “Wet Matches” easily could slide into Smith’s catalog without being noticed, a testament to Phillips’ commitment to his place in the Legacy of Soft.
But despite making connections with other bedroom musicians over the internet, Phillips still operates in a vacuum in Richmond. “Richmond’s really big into hardcore. And that’s cool, but that’s obviously not what I do. Not many people come out to my shows here, and I don’t care if they come.” He plays his live material without a band – just Phillips and his guitar. He jokes, maybe a little seriously, about not liking loading gear in and out of venues. Then, more seriously, he turns philosophical about absence. “It makes me work harder, to make sure I’m doing things well, not just being loud.”
Daydreams in a Roach Motel is a lonely landmark. Phillips is one in an emerging group of artists that operate in post-scene scene, connecting largely online. Phillips says with a cool distance, “I’ve never really cared about any scene I was near. The internet is more important than anything physical.” I don’t totally believe him this time; he’s incredibly gregarious on the phone, and, for a few minutes, it’s hard to picture him as a fantastic loner, interacting with his peers at digital distance. Then again, we’re talking as two strangers over FaceTime audio. We are brief internet friends, too. We hang up, and Erik Phillips recedes again into the fabric of zeros and ones where he’s making a home.