On the Trail to Catfish Haven

George Hunter lived in Catfish Haven for only three years as a child, but the time he spent in this tiny trailer park in the middle of nowhere branded him as a restless adventurer forever. The little boy emerged from “pumpkin patches [and] ponds,” out of childhood wonder in rural southern Missouri, and into the sprawling mundane suburbia of Chicago where he discovered garage bands and skateboarding. Sixteen years later, Hunter and his two friends would become Catfish Haven, the band. With a loud rhythm section and yearning vocals, they recall the days in the trailer park and everything good about life.

When he was 14, Hunter started playing in bands and eventually met future bandmates Miguel Castillo, bass, and Ryan Farnham, drums. He learned to play quickly out of necessity because a friend’s band needed a bassist. Then when the guitarist left, he learned to play guitar. But nothing was serious until age 20 when he got his first acoustic guitar.

“I just holed myself up in my room and started writing songs,” Hunter said.

Hunter then approached Castillo and Farnham. In a matter of weeks after forming the band in 2001, Catfish Haven recorded 16 songs, seven of which made it onto their first EP, Good Friends. The band released only about a thousand copies of the EP, Hunter estimates, but the ball had already started rolling. “We just kept pushing our sound and we’ve since recorded probably four or five demos of newer material,” he says.

Their dedication paid off. At one point the band couldn’t attract an audience but miraculously they caught the attention of Indiana music label Secretly Canadian. With the label backing them, Catfish Haven finally managed to release their new EP, Please Come Back, on Jan. 24 of this year. Songs from Please Come Back, memorable for Hunter’s soulful voice and the wild parade of Farnham’s drumming, have even appeared on the radio in the United Kingdom on the Captain America Radio Show and on the BBC-6 Music channel.

Hunter is relentless about bringing back optimistic and meaningful music.

“I think if I’m writing a song and then pouring everything I have into it, I’d rather it be positive than negative,”he said.

Hunter goes on to say more than once that he loves love songs and chuckles nervously. It’s surprising to hear Hunter, a man with a deep raspy voice, say this, but he is sincere about it.

The tracks on Please Come Back push aside the tired standard of love songs; they’re dignified, nostalgic, and brief, rather than droning and moaning. “I don’t mind waiting / Baby let me love again / Don’t you let me down again” (Madelin).

With lyrics that prove there’s more than one way to say “I love you” and with music inspired by Hunter’s father’s collection of classic rock, funk, soul and country, the band has a tender unchecked sound. Hunter is satisfied with having only three people in the band and just a few sentences of lyrics per song. Catfish Haven is as big as it needs to be.

“I love the raw, just, backbone, the rhythm section and just the vocals. And I mean, if you can work with that, [and] you’ve got a song, what else do you need?”

It took the band four years to get to where they are today.

“We’ve got a whole team behind us now,” said Hunter.

At one point, only their parents and girlfriends came to their shows, and life for Catfish Haven was desperate.

“When we first started out [playing], we had one acoustic guitar. And if I broke [a] string, everybody would have to stand there and watch me change my string on stage.”

Now with the upcoming release party of Please Come Back in Chicago on Feb. 4, the band will start touring the Midwest and the East Coast through winter and the West Coast through the spring. In the summer, they hope to play shows in Europe and return in time to release their first full-length album, Tell Me, in the fall.

“This is what we’ve been waiting for,” says Hunter.

Put down what you’re listening to. Catfish Haven is what you’ve been waiting for.

Catfish Haven and Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin play at the Canopy Club on Friday, Feb. 3 at 708 South Goodwin, Urbana. Doors open 11 p.m., show starts at midnight. Tickets are $6.

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