“What we need now is a piece of string,” says Mike Spalla.
The California record producer/sound engineer/one-man band is here to promote his latest album, and one of his recording stars is currently hiding under his hotel bed. This string business is actually the good news. When we entered the room for a one-on-one with Mia, his vocalist, the room was empty and the windows were wide open, the curtains flapping in the wind, beckoning to the street below. There was no Mia. One cannot express fully the utter dread that passed between us at that shocking moment.
Mia, you see, is a cat. And Spalla is the driving force behind the Christmas phenomenon known as the Jingle Cats, nine or so frisky felines who lend their distinctive meows to classic holiday tunes. Their second album, Here Comes Santa Claws—the follow-up to last year’s wildly successful Meowy Christmas—is about to be released. But first we need to lure Mia from her hiding place.
The photographer produces a light-meter strap, which Spalla pronounces serviceable. (String is a proven tool in Spalla’s arsenal for getting proper recording response. That and dangling chunks of turkey in front of his artists. It’s rumored that Quincy Jones also used this technique during the Thriller sessions.)
The string works and Mia appears, purring as if she hadn’t just pulled a spoiled-star stunt. Spalla scoops her up and begins fussing over her like a proud parent.
“She’s really good, she’s a good meower,” he says softly. “She’s got that little purr kinda beginning sound.”
Sort of a Kenny Rogers rasp? “Yeah,” he agrees matter-of-factly. “We invented a new word for it. We call it “twirdling.’ ”
Spalla is not insane. He’s that rare individual who has a vision and sees it through to fruition. He was just a bored drone in his father’s post-production business, doing sound mixing and video editing for such projects as Alex Winter’s short-lived MTV series, The Idiot Box. His wife was the breadwinner, with a flourishing career designing movie posters. “She had a career and I had, basically, nothing,” Spalla says, puffing on a cigarette. “I was working for my dad.”
Then he hit on the idea of recording his cats, kind of an homage to Don Charles and His Barking Dogs’ “Jingle Bells” disc from nearly 30 years ago. Spalla’s initial effort won a radio contest and garnered such enthusiastic response that he quickly made 1,000 dubs and sold them all.
Many would have stopped right there. A few laughs, a few bucks, end of story. Not Spalla. He quit his job. For the next year, he spent up to 14 hours a day, almost every day, painstakingly teasing his cats—15 now, with a dog in the mix—into making noise for his microphone. He recorded thousands of meows and stored them in his digital recording equipment.
“I listened to what note the cat was meowing and I put the key of the song so that it was meowing the first note of “Jingle Bells.” Then I found three meows that were the same pitch and I chopped them into it.” The process is quite effective. One almost imagines that, yes, those cats are singing “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”
“I’m stretching the boundaries of cat singing to the limits,” Spalla notes. “People just think it’s novelty and, OK, because it’s novelty you just spend one week on it. But I’ve already dedicated years to this thing.” He doesn’t seem ready to stop, either.
Spalla’s is the classic story of the triumph of American ingenuity—though in this case one might substitute “goofiness” for triumph and “marketing fads” for ingenuity. But one can’t help warming to the soft-spoken, friendly guy.
“The basic thing is we’re trying to entertain people,” he says. “It doesn’t cost money to do that, we’re just doing stuff that’s silly.” “Silly” is a word Spalla uses often. It fits.
The actual musical tracks are basic, laid-back, just slightly corny arrangements that add to the record’s undeniable charm. While Spalla isn’t Lindsey Buckingham, he’s got a certain touch. “Everything is with a twist,” he says. “ “White Christmas’ is boogie-woogie.”
“Cats are real spontaneous,” he continues, offering insight into animal recording techniques. “So I try to make the music spontaneous. Like, catlike. Cats jumping and maybe singing the wrong note here. Just to make it funny. I’m not thinking hard, I’m just trying to humor people.”
Generally keeping cat hours, Spalla would sometimes return to a song in the morning after an all-night session only to find that the cats had changed the mix by walking around on the fader bars. “Sometimes it actually sounded better,” Spalla generously acknowledges.
He also ceded creative control in some cases. Spalla judged the songs by whether or not the cats sat around on the speakers and listened with him. (The cats apparently weren’t happy with their version of “Feliz Navidad.”)
Spalla’s wife stood by her man and is now a full-time co-conspirator, producing nicely morphed cat art forrecord covers and posters and buttons and stickers and T-shirts. You can call an 800 number and order it all.
As Meowy Christmas inches toward gold-record status, it would seem to be a shoo-in for a Grammy. However, the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) board “couldn’t figure out a category—so to speak—for us,” says Bobbi Cowan, Spalla’s gleeful PR woman. Cowan reveals that “all of the members of NARAS who come up with the nominees love this album. They play it at their meetings and try to determine what to do with it.”
The Christmas record market is fiercely competitive. And while Spalla may feel he has “the first cat album of all time,” there are other beasts muzzling in at the trough. For instance, there’s a pig album, Oinky Christmas. But Spalla is neither impressed nor threatened. “Everything I’ve heard has been laughable,” he says without irony.
A deal with Purina may allow Spalla to broaden his musical range beyond the merely seasonal. This reporter suggests that the cats would be likely candidates should Frank Sinatra decide to record Duets III.
“Anything could happen at this point,” Spalla solemnly agrees.