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Dressed in a homemade catfish costume (originally fabricated for Halloween), complemented by metal-tipped snakeskin shoes, Catfish John made his debut appearance that night as Flathead's unofficial mascot. For the non-fishermen out there, flathead cats are the largest species found here in Arizona, and the trio of guitarist and vocalist Greg Swanholm, bass man Alex Otto, and drummer/vocalist Vince Ramirez share Rupp's affection for the ugly beasts.
John Rupp's affinity for catfish tends toward the fanatical. One of his calves is tattooed with a monstrous, ugly catfish biting at a hunk of chicken liver, done in the style of traditional Japanese koi fish tattoos. For a long time, he kept a swamp-caught tailless catfish he'd caught on one of our urban desert fishing adventures in a tank in his dining room. He's an artist as well, and lately catfish have been the muse for his bright cartoonish paintings, some of which he throws the name Flathead on and brings to the band's shows with him.
A couple Sundays ago I sat down at Casey Moore's in Tempe with the Flathead boys to discuss the recent rerelease of the band's first two albums (1995's self-titled LP and 1999's Play the Good One) onto one disc they've named New Old Stock. I had watched them play to a bursting-full Yucca Tap Room the night before, where, with the help of the opening band the Bindle Stiffs, they broke the one-night's take record for the Yucca, as well as scoring a financial personal best for the band, which is nearing its 13th year of existence.
Flathead is playing the Yucca again this Friday the 13th, which causes us to launch into a discussion about whether Catfish John will make an in-character appearance -- Friday the 13th being the closest thing to Halloween you can get. He didn't show the night before, but the band members are hopeful they haven't seen the last of his onstage antics. The body portion of the costume, which was made of egg-crate foam, was ditched in a Dumpster on a drunken walk home from the bar one evening, so if Catfish John's to make another appearance, he's got some sewing to do.
Even without Rupp's help, Flathead is an entertainment powerhouse in its own right, with a rockabilly flavor laid over traditional bluegrass picking. It's all there on New Old Stock, but the reissues don't reflect the addition of Otto's groove-master bass playing. Besides Swanholm and Ramirez, Flathead's had a revolving cast of bassists, including Shannon White of Heather Rae and Her Moonshine Boys, Kevin Daly of Grave Danger, and Ruth Wilson. Otto came in a year ago; the other two call his bass plucking style "where Motown meets the hoedown."
A few nights after the triumphant Yucca show, Rupp and I are over at Ramirez's house watching the trio run through some of the songs they'll be recording for a new album this summer. These new ones, like "One Man Party," "Full Time Job," and "Hated the Road," are classic roadhouse yarns, driven by Swanholm's left-handed picking, his twangy cadence blending with Ramirez's harmonies while Otto tickles a groove out of his bass strings. Watching Flathead play has its similarities to dropping a line and waiting for a cat to bite -- it's best enjoyed with a couple Budweisers and maybe a joint.
While New Old Stock doesn't feature any of Catfish John's artistic interpretations of Pylodictis olivaris, hit up any of Flathead's upcoming shows and you're likely to see one -- I have a framed Flathead sticker by Rupp sitting in my office.
Swanholm's dad Fred, now passed away, was as passionate about the ass-ugly fish as Rupp is, and retired to Roosevelt Lake to pursue his hobby more than a decade ago, which would eventually inspire Swanholm and Ramirez's christening of their band.
With some friends, Fred was fishing with a live bluegill as bait, fins chopped off, in a hole near where the Salt River meets Roosevelt Lake, when his braided line got caught on a stick. According to Swanholm, "The old guys go, 'Fred, I think you're gonna have to go in for that one,' so he goes in, gets up to the stick and grabs it for balance. He's waist deep, and doesn't know how big the fish is down there. The catfish freaks out and started going around, and it tied him up to the stick, like, 'I got you!' So he's holding onto the stick, and the stick breaks. He goes down in the water, so he just crawls into shore and drags the fish with him."
The flathead cat was 48 and a half pounds, not a record, but a monster for sure, and thanks to the fish and Fred (who were both featured on Flathead's first tee shirt), Flathead the band was born and continues to be amongst the state's premier roots, bluegrass and country acts.
If you've missed Flathead or Catfish John up to this point, you shouldn't miss the show at the Yucca this Friday the 13th. "Anybody who dresses up as a catfish gets in for free," Ramirez says with a smirk, before noting that at the Yucca there's no cover charge.