The Sound and the Furry: An Interview with Alfra Martini, Creator of The Kitten Covers
Alfra Martini is a musician, runs a record label, sells vintage posters, freelances as a designer, and – like Walter Benjamin’s famous Angel, but of Parody instead of History – may very well be there at the end of the internet. In other words, Alfra is also responsible for The Kitten Covers: a website which, if you have not seen it, is both exactly what it sounds like and exactly as cool as you think it is. Her “kittenized” album covers have since gone viral with good reason, about which she was kind enough to speak with Humor in America.
David B. Olsen: A common observation that seems to frame discussions of your work is that these images were kind of inevitable. Like it’s almost weird that it has taken us so long as a culture to add kittens to famous album covers. My favorite assessment of your work comes from a short piece in New York Magazine online: “It’s a new blog in which the subjects of iconic album covers are replaced with kittens. So, basically, that’s a wrap, Internet!” What combination of cosmic forces did it take, therefore, for The Kitten Covers to come about through you?
Alfra Martini: It’s funny that for some, The Kitten Covers seem to signify the end to the internet. As if to say, all our advances in information sharing have culminated into this final point. Like the punchline to a long drawn out narrative, our ambitions for advanced global communication have produced this ultimate monstrous phenomenon: Rock n Roll Kittens!! It’s like a kittenized Planet of the Apes moment where Charlton Heston freaks out realizing human technological progress has led to it’s destruction: “We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” Hahaha. Kittens Rule!
But the truth is anthropomorphism is as old as humanity itself and animal parodies have been used forever. Also, parodying classic album art is nothing new to the internet. Sleeveface, Lego Albums, and Album Tacos had all been around before The Kitten Covers. And though I don’t spend a massive amount of time on the internet, I do run a record label (All Hands Electric) and am a musician myself. Pair that with my love of vinyl records, cover art, and music iconography in general, and throw in a dash of my graphic design interests… I had, of course, been exposed to these viral images in the past so had an idea of this type of humor.
But how The Kitten Covers came to being more specifically: I was staying home from my day job as a vintage poster dealer, recuperating from a cold and feeling a little restless in bed. Lucky for me, I always have something to do for the record label, regardless of whether I can get out of bed or not, and as we are a very independent DIY outfit, I started researching alternative methods for record distribution on my laptop, i.e. checking out stores who might be interested in carrying our stuff. It’s not the most effective thing, but you have to start somewhere, and I wasn’t about to waste my time sneezing all day. Sifting through online catalog after catalog, well, you revisit some iconic album covers and, if you are like me, you get distracted by the graphic decisions and the exaggerated style of rock iconography.
It was then that a vision popped into my head: David Bowie as a kitten. I don’t know how or why. Perhaps it’s because I’m a huge Bowie fan and have an Aladdin Sane tote bag I use and see everyday – or perhaps it was because my little calico cat was sleeping at my feet, as she usually does when I’m in bed – or maybe it was the Theraflu – but it was a very clear image and the thought made me laugh. The die was cast. I had to see it in real life.
In hindsight, the image speaks loads to the current state of things, but at the time I wasn’t thinking meme, or blog, lol cats, or body of work. I was just thinking David Bowie as a kitten… I must see David Bowie as a kitten. Could I do it? Did I have the photoshopping skills? I abandoned my “work task”, crawled out of bed, and started up the desktop. The rest is mainly just technical.
After it was done… I giggled. It looked pretty close to my initial vision. And I was thinking, maybe I should do another, so started on the New Order cover, which is such a serious looking image to start with and the idea of using a kitten… just seemed so absurd. And then came Nevermind, because how iconic and bizarre is that cover already? And what’s more ludicrous than a kitten swimming underwater? Theoretically they all seemed so ridiculous and yet endearing. It was then that my boyfriend came home and saw what I was doing and was like: “WTF?? Are you okay? Do you have a fever or something?” Haha. But he couldn’t deny the eeriness of the David Meowie and suggested that I do a few more and start a Tumblr page, as he heard it had been good for photo blogs. Honestly, I was just going to show a few friends to get a laugh… who knew that I was planning the demise of the internet? Heh.
David: So if there are already a handful of album-parodying sites, then there are basically a million sites that take cats and, well, play with them: I Can Has Cheezburger and the legions of other unofficial (?) Lolcats, Stuff On My Cat, Cats Where They Do Not Belong, plus there’s always the standing cat, keyboard cat, ninja cat, and Nyan Cat. Clearly the number of cat-based internet memes radically outstrips that of other animals – like dogs, for example, which I hear are very popular in real life. Is there something inherently funnier about cats? Or is it simply easier to make cats the butt of a joke, which would thereby preserve the kind of dignity that we have historically afforded our canine companions?
Alfra: I’ve thought about this for awhile. I love dogs too. I’ve always been a fan of Dog’s Playing Poker. It’s a classic image and is actually, conceptually, very similar to The Kitten Covers. I had, at one point, considered incorporating puppies. But the more I researched puppy images, the more I realized that dogs tend to always look a little sad. I don’t know why, but they do. Must be those sad puppy eyes. And to anthropomorphize a cat is undeniably really funny. It may be that they are extremely expressive and diverse, so their body language and faces can be humanized very easily. Stereotypically cats are suppose to be aloof and dignified, so ribbing them is much more rewarding. To make the covers, I have to look at internet kittens a lot. And I mean a lot… it’s almost obscene and sometimes I think my eyes are going to fall out of my head from cuteness overload. I had a friend tell me that I will probably live longer because of it – hahaha – and another friend claims that there are just as many cats on the web as there is porn –hahaha – but I don’t doubt it. There are so many sites dedicated to cats… it’s like Ancient Egypt all over again. And the weird thing is they never seem to get un-cute. I mean, you would think that I’d be desensitized to a cute kitten by now, but nope: I still awww and probably say “I want to get another kitten” about once a day. But I’ve always liked cats, so maybe it’s not totally surprising. There are some people who dislike cats, and probably can’t understand all the attention they get on the internet, and I imagine there are some people who consider The Kitten Covers like little abominations. But most people can’t resist cute, cuddly, fuzzy, little kittens. I mean, come on, they are like cartoons.
David: Now that you mention it, I think that cat-people and tattoo-people are really similar in this respect: that frequent and often unstoppable urge, “I want to get another one!” Like, there will always be ways to make room for another kitten or tattoo. But maybe I’m just looking for a connection between kittens and rock ‘n roll iconography. Your designs seem to have branched out in terms of musical genre, though, and the artists who have now been kittenized are amazingly, awesomely diverse – from Bing Crosby to Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Is there something specific that you look for or that you just happen to see in the original album covers that lends itself to your decision to use it? And conversely, are there any original covers that are allergic to cats? That is, are there pieces you’ve tried to create that clearly just would not work?
Alfra: Many of The Kitten Cover decisions are thanks to my boyfriend, Zachary Cale, who is himself a musician and collector of vinyl records. He’s got loads of albums and kind of serves as my curator when I get blocked. We both have a diverse taste in music and an eclectic history when it comes to our collection. I grew up listening to Bing Crosby albums, and who doesn’t love ODB? Basically any cover can be kittenized. It’s more a matter of which artists I consider keystones in music history. And then of course the technical difficulty influences the choices quite a bit. The more people on the cover, the harder and longer the cover will take. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would take hours on hours, so I’ve avoided it.
Covers with unusual perspectives are a challenge, because kitten photos are usually taken either from above or head on, and though you can manipulate a pose to some extent, it’s never as good if you find the perfect pose. I’d really like to do NWA’s Straight Outta Compton but it’s difficult finding photos of kittens taken from that worms eye angle. Covers that are more graphic or painterly rather than photographic are tricky too, as I’ve got to render a graphic style on top of adding a kitten. And covers with very busy backgrounds are also avoided, as I have to first carefully erase foreground elements and recreate missing backgrounds before kittenizing on top of them. But nothing is impossible. It’s just a matter of time and determination. Since my free time is scarce, I do however get burned out if I’ve been working on a cover for more than two hours and don’t see an end in sight.
David: Given the rapid and pretty high-profile popularity of the site – which has been picked up by the Time newsfeed, CBS News, and so on – are the stakes somehow higher now? Like, this is a thing now! Is it less funny or fun knowing that there are people literally waiting for the next batch of covers? Do you feel a little like the musicians whose work you are adapting? As though you get that classic mid-career crisis: should my work evolve and experiment on the next album, or just stick with the successful formula that sells records?
Alfra: Haha. Again, I had no idea how popular these would get. So it did freak me out big time when they went viral. First I just kept waiting for cease and desist notices from the record labels. And then I would get really depressed to see the images swiped and put on sites writhe with crappy advertising (which I really hate). And then I was obsessed with anything critical written about them. I remember a comment string on an Australian site that was enraged at the un-news worthy content of the article. And I kept thinking… ya, of course this is not news, it’s humor for pete sakes. All of this made me nervous to do more, but it was like an addiction and the more followers I got the more kitten-crazed I would get. To the point where I was having nightmares about kittens. Seriously. Kitten zombies? WTF? And tons of emails with requests and images and praise and people wanting prints and t-shirts. It was really weird and overwhelming. And Zach would just keep saying, “Stop posting… it’s making you crazy… don’t let the hype bully you into doing what you don’t want.”
And I remember being kind of irritated that The Kitten Covers would end up on sites without any reference to the original source, and bloggers would refer to the creator as “whoever” or “he.” It was really odd. But it gave me a new insight to the way the internet works. The lack of depth and fact checking, and its similarity to urban lore and gossip spreading. Very strange. But the anonymity gave me a little comfort too, because in the end all internet fads have their decline… falling into yesterdays hype. Now it’s fun again, because I think the initial peak has ended, and I don’t feel so much pressure. I still like to use diverse genres of music, so I may broaden that a bit… maybe Kitten Classical albums, Soundtracks, World Music, Contemporary Gems, and such are in order. As for my approach, there’s not too much to it. As Buzzfeed penned: “Step 1: take the cover art from a recognizable album. Step 2: insert kitten”… and voila! I think my technique has gotten better though. Maybe one day, interest will get so nil, or I’ll have done all the covers I think worthy, and I’ll just stop. That happens to musicians too.
David: And, okay, speaking very theoretically and with a kind of unnecessarily abstract speculation… Is there some kind of structural, even spiritual similarity between cats and album covers – either in the way we see them, interact with them, relate to them, appreciate them, etc?
I guess to me, cats are maybe weirdly like album covers in that they can pretty much exist in your apartment unseen. You know? My records are usually stacked/shelved flush against each other, their faces shielded from sight. And cats… I mean, who knows where they are half the time?! I was wondering if you have any thoughts about why The Kitten Covers seem so natural, organic, and obvious – that is, why they work so well?
Alfra: Hmmm, this is an interesting thought, but I don’t think the success comes from a similarity between cats and records. Though there is definitely something here which emphasizes the physicality of a record filtered through the medium of ultra eerie kitten-y verity.
More accurately, I think The Kitten Covers work as parody because the similarity and differences between cats (specifically kittens) and musical icons. I mean how many creatures are pampered and adored as much as kittens and rockstars? And how many creatures have such big hair? As I said before, kittens are like cartoons, but oddly so are many musicians!! But conversely, where kittens are cute, cuddly and innocent, rockstars are badass, sexy, and infamous… so Kitten Rock Stars? Hahaha… That’s one loaded statement wouldn’t you say?
David: Finally, you mentioned that you have a cat of your own, and so I have to ask: does it have a cool rock-star-style name, or something dainty and embarrassing, like “Patches”? (Or something human and embarrassing, like “Steve”?) Also, looking back, I suppose it should come as no surprise that I named my first kitten after one of the artists whose cover you’ve already kittenized. There’s that inevitability again.
Alfra: She’s called Lois. It’s not ultra rock star… but has a connection to music. When we found her, she was a wreck, scrounging around the trash cans outside our apartment. She was just a little speck of a thing, totally malnourished, so tiny that she fit in the palm of your hand, practically blind from eye infection and with a belly full of worms. But she came to me when I said “come here”… so what could I do? We brought her home and John Lee Hooker was on the turntable. It was a gnarly album, a 1970 reissue on King Records called “Moanin’ And Stompin’ Blues,” old and scratched up, with pop and hiss, and ancient noises that make you feel you are in the bayou. On the back of the jacket was a list of tracks, and next to each track name the publishing line repeated over and over… Lois, Lois, Lois… along with BMI and Hooker’s publishing name “Texas Slim.” I suppose Lois refers to the Lois Music Publishing Company, which was owned by King Records, but there doesn’t seem to be much info about it anywhere. Anyhow, Zach saw the name and suggested we call her Lois, because it seemed like a tough name, and you’d have to be a tough little kitten to get as far along as she had on the streets of Brooklyn. Coincidentally she seems to love albums, er… well, loves to scratch at them (much to the chagrin of Zachary and myself). Perhaps one day I will make her a rockstar and put her on one of the kitten covers… hmm come to think of it, I’m actually a little surprised that I haven’t already.