Vivian Wang

Fantastic Cat Is… Fun

Four guys. Some songs. Live concerts. Feline heads. 

Who is Fantastic Cat?

Here’s what we have been able to ascertain thus far: Four musicians make up Fantastic Cat and three of them singer-songwriter types while one is a member of a band called Hollis Brown. In that order, we find Anthony D’Amato, Brian Dunne, Don DiLego, and the guy from the band, Mike Montali. This alternative/country rock/pop band could be reasonably dubbed a “supergroup,” which Rolling Stone has done in its infinite wisdom. But to them, or at least in the framework of Mike Montali’s reasoning, Fantastic Cat is “a really low pressure and just fun thing.”

Fun is a word used quite a bit when you speak to Fantastic Cat, which I did with one half of the group this week. Anthony and Mike recount fun on stage (they all play every instrument available to them, switching from song-to-song sans fanfare), in their music videos (always clever and hilarious), and in their songwriting, which is playfully convoluted fun (that word again) excursions into the unknown. They frame the band as their playground – musically, visually, philosophically. 

Montali notes, “The whole thing kind of came about because I think we all were looking for a bit of an escape from what we were used to.”

This tribal mélange is displayed in true creative camaraderie on two albums – their plucky, diverse and singable debut, The Best of Fantastic Cat (because one assumes this was the best they could do at the time, which is damn good), and the new one coming out this week, Now That’s What I Call Fantastic Cat (another clever pun… you figure it out). The former is a get-to-know-ya exercise in resurrecting the best of the Bakersfield country-rock flavor of the late sixties to early seventies while the latter has transformed a disparate unit of voices into one singular yawp! “This record is the first time it feels to me like, ‘Oh, this is an album of Fantastic Cat songs,” muses D’Amato. “These are songs that wouldn’t exist in any of our solo catalogs in this form. These are songs that could only exist as Fantastic Cat.”

Formed in 2019, they hit the ground running with a sound and a look all their own, and “own” is another word to throw around liberally, because these guys are all-in on the cat thing. Photographed wearing giant cat heads based on their personalities there’s a distinct image here, dare one say a developed myth. A recent popular tee shirt, “Fantastic Cat – Folk Rock for Pussies” is just one example. 

Cat heads. Cat puns. Fantastic.

D’Amato considers the band name: “We just said, ‘Let’s not overthink it.’”

Because, you know, that’s no fun. 

So, there they were, a supergroup-to-be waiting for their drinks in an East Village bar, D’Amato setting the scene: “We agreed that when the waitress comes back with our drinks, let’s just ask her if we were a band, what would our band name be? And without even thinking, she just went, ‘Fantastic Cat,’ and we were like, ‘Alright, we’re not gonna do better than that. That’s it.’”

Sad, but true post-script: No one remembers the waitress’ name.

This casual, blasé, some might say devil-may-care attitude has exponentially added to the fun part of Fantastic Cat. Montali explains their conjoining as if unavoidable serendipity: “I met Don when he produced a few of the Hollis Brown records and I knew Anthony for years from the New York scene and Don knew Anthony independently of me and Anthony knew Brian and we were kind of throwing around the idea of just getting together with people in the New York City rock scene for a week where we could kind of escape from, you know, the normal way of making music that we were used to and just doing something for fun.”


Once fashioned, the waitress-dubbed foursome cobbled together arrangements for contrasting song ideas from all the songwriter types and made a recording that started to become… fun.

Then, well, 2020 happened. That’s when the fun stopped for all of us. “Everybody was off the road, nobody was putting out records, and we remembered that recording thing we did,” D’Amato recalls. “And we said, ‘Why don’t we go back to that and maybe we’ll put out a couple of songs just for the fun of it (did someone say fun?) and do a live stream or something like that.’ And that got a really great reaction. One of the songs (“Nobody’s Coming to Get You”) got played on the radio (ancient method of music sourcing), and that led to a record deal (Blue Rose Music). And all of a sudden it was, ‘Oh, okay, we’ve got a real band on our hands’.”

It took until 2022 for the debut album to drop. The music industry – not always so fun – takes time. The band played, though, and played some more. This included their first national TV debut on CBS Saturday Morning (they’re slated to reprise this feat on the morning of June 8), while selling out headline dates around the US and Europe, and a performance at the Sundance Film Festival; all of it capped off by getting a song on the Paramount+ series Tulsa King. Along the way, they recorded stellar covers of Warren Zevon’s touching “Keep Me In Your Heart” and the Paul McCartney and Wings classic, “Band on the Run,” during which the whole instrument-swapping thing happens inside the song!

Now that’s fun.

Fantastic Cat – Office Holiday Party – Bowery Ballroom, NYC / Photo by Vivian Wang

“Swapping instruments live was not something we went into this project envisioning,” says D’Amato. “It simply grew out of the necessity of going to play a live show with four people and having at least four parts to cover on the songs, but going into this new record, we kind of realized that that was a strength of ours, because none of us are totally trained drummers. I guess essentially our limitations on certain instruments proved to be an asset because we kept things simple and raw and primal in a way that we love about other artists.”

Those other artists made me think of primarily the Band, the 1960s five-headed harmony-addled, musically organic unit that turned popular music on its head and made everyone including yours truly who watched their legendary The Last Waltz concert film want to get in a room with like-minded souls and play music as a unifying consecration. This is why Counting Crows is my favorite band and how, incidentally, I met many of these guys through my professional and personal association with its lead singer, Adam Duritz, our podcast, Underwater Sunshine, and a music fest of the same name, which Fantastic Cat headlined in late 2022. It is precisely why it makes sense that Adam sings on their new single, “So Glad You Made It” (an early Rod Stewart homage for the ages), the video for which is coming on June 7 along with the new album and a record release gig at Brooklyn Made.

Ok, so enough of concepts and band names and rock star associations, what about the music, you ask?

The PR kit sent to me this week describes it this way: “A bewildering blend of stepdad rock and in-law country destined to solidify their status as your least favorite songwriter’s favorite songwriters.”

My turn: Fantastic Cat is roots rock with honeyed harmonies and just enough recognizable hooks to be pop in a pinch. Everyone contributes tunes and they all sing, and sing well. Even though they handle various instrument chores – getting back to the Band/Counting Crows paradigm – they do so in the service of the songs, which are wonderfully crafted, expertly performed, and slickly produced. The band brings it, and always with a tinge of dark humor mixed with ennui. Take the opening track of Now That’s What I Call Fantastic Cat, “Oh, Man” a poppy sing-a-long adorned by pathetic tales of miscues and happenstance landing its protagonists in dutch time and again. Then there’s the honky tonk meandering through existential confusion of “I Don’t Know Why,” the Motown-ish ditty excuse-fest, “All My Fault,” and the boozy “Hammer and the Nail” that provides just enough sleaze to slide neatly into side two of Exile on Main St.

Perhaps my favorite song on the album, “Sometimes Your Heroes Let You Down,” provides further insight into the collaborative fun of Fantastic Cat. Birthed in a hotel room in Asbury Park – Brian Dunne stumming along on an acoustic guitar, while Montali and D’Amato lounged on a nearby couch – it caught a wave of inspiration. Montali explains: “We were just like, ‘No, cut this. Let’s go to this, then let’s do this’ and after an hour the song really came together, and I think reflected the spirit of the band where everybody puts either a lyric in or a key change or just something that we all feel into the songwriting. But it is also a support type of thing, because we always say whoever started writing the song gets the tie break vote.”

Looks like all this fun and escape and all-hands-on-deck composing has gripped Fantastic Cat enough to take this collective further down the road, and that’s good news for fans of real, toughly sweet music made from a place of true joy, and those of us who cherish a little “fuck it” in our DNA.

“Our take is, “Well, let’s just go for it, take a chance and not be afraid to let it out there and have the craziest idea win,” Montali concludes. “And that’s not an easy thing to do, right? Because sometimes you get in your head like, ‘I don’t know, man, can we do this?’ It’s been a valuable lesson for me, every time we’ve just said, ‘Fuck it’ and taken that chance, something good has come of it. I know I’ve learned to have the attitude to not be so precious and embrace stuff that makes you laugh and that you like, and if you just do it then it becomes contagious.”

And damn fun.