To The Uncharted Zone and Back with the Anomalous Phil Thomas Katt
The producer behind the most bizarre music videos around.
The internet’s a wild place. And at times, it may be hard to guess what the next comet of success will be. It was even harder five years ago. In 2009, the song “Without You” by Mark Gormley took YouTube by storm. The video appeared on G4TV’s Attack of the Show, and offers poured in for him to appear on different talk shows to play his song, which he declined. The song is straight out of The Uncharted Zone, a channel on YouTube dedicated to some of the strangest, most beautiful videos you could ever see. Each video has a certain gravitas to them, making each more unique than the next. Really, the videos speak for themselves, and no amount of hypespeak will do them justice. The mastermind behind all of these videos is none other than Phil Thomas Katt. A musician himself, Phil has been playing since the late 70s and has been dedicated to putting out music, helping out other artists, and producing their music videos. The Uncharted Zone compound is responsible for production, both music and video wise, and they put out a show on public access tv in the gulf coast area. We had a chat with Mr. Katt to discuss his life, the birth of The Uncharted Zone, and how to fake your own death.
Noisey: Right when one of your videos starts, you always have some really great adjective like “The Godfather of Chillwave, Phil Thomas Katt.” What’s your favorite descriptor that you’ve come up with?
Phil Thomas Katt: That’s a tough one to figure out, which is my favorite. I probably have a few I really like, I like “The Unhinged Phil Thomas Katt,” and “The Space Happy Phil Thomas Katt” seems to be popular. Really, the one I used most when I first started doing these in the early days was “The Eccentric Phil Thomas Katt.” But there’s been thousands. [Laughs]
How do you come up with them?
It varies. I started doing them when I was doing a thing called “Kattline,” which was an answering machine I did back in the 80s which I somehow got a huge teenage following to. And I just started doing it to be unusual, cause that’s what got attention. The kids in the afternoons after school would want these crazy messages, so different and unusual adjectives got their attention. Through the years when I worked in radio, I’d have fans send them into me sometimes. And I’d use some of them if I liked them. But for the most part, it’s how I’m feeling, or my current emotions so to speak, or what the song has made me felt.
So you landed your first job at WFTW, right? How exciting was it to land that job?
It was really cool. I was going through the era where I was applying for jobs, and my dad was very good friends with the manager over at the local television station here. And I just wanted to do some broadcasts, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I knew I was a musician and I kind of liked the idea of working in radio because I could play my records that way. But I got an opportunity that day when the television station called me, and then five minutes later, a radio station in Fort Walton that I hadn’t even applied at called me. I was referred to by a different station in Pensacola to them. But I went out there and I decided even though the television station paid six cents more per hour, I’d go with with the radio station because that’s where my goals were.
What’s one thing you wish you could’ve told yourself when you were starting out?
Oh, this one’s easy. When Kattline was taking off, and I was getting super well-known around the region here, and radio stations were taking notice, and the most popular radio station in the area was a Mobile, AL station. They wanted to hire me for their evening shift, which would have been perfect because that’s who was listening to that top-40 bubble gum station. And they were such a huge station that they were able to break records, start playing a record and it would break the top 40. They were a very powerful station. The program director really dug what I was doing on Kattline and all that, and we talked a few times, and I just didn’t take the job. I don’t know what it was, maybe I didn’t want to drive 60 miles to Mobile every day or something. That was probably my biggest mistake in radio because I think I could’ve moved forward. Hell, (the program director) is working up at Nashville at CMT now and she worked at a New York station for a while too.
You kind of touched on Kattline, and it came about when you had a lot more experience with radio. What sort of led you to start it?
It was kind of accidental, as are most things I’ve considered major successes in my career. [Laughs] I just had an answering machine, and started doing silly, crazy messages. All sorts of variations of things, which is where the adjectives came from too, because it allowed me to express myself into whatever character I was trying to play on the phone or over the message. And they were different, unique, maybe slightly controversial because I had some church groups try to take me off the line because they thought I was a bad influence. [Laughs] But I prevailed, and stayed on the phonelines. And it was getting so popular, with newspaper articles and other radio stations calling that I decided to release Nine Lives on cassette solely with the promotion of Kattline.
And didn’t you fake your own death on Kattline?
[Laughs] Yep. What it was, as Kattline was emerging, people didn’t know what the heck it was. “Who is this guy, he sounds crazy, what’s he doing?” Even the sheriff’s department called to ask what it was. I knew that the popularity of this was becoming so enormous locally that if I wanted to sell a cassette, I probably could with this. I finished two or three songs, and had a bunch of others that were previously 45” singles, and they made up Nine Lives. As it got really really popular, I decided to release the album. And so I wanted to do a publicity stunt, and had a guy do a message that said: “The following message was requested to be played by Phil Thomas Katt.” Then it was me coming in there saying “Hi, I’m Phil Thomas Katt, I’m sorry I can’t come to the phone right now but I’m dead.” And a lot of these crazy kids were believing it, calling and giving their condolences and crying. It was wild! It went on all night, people giving their condolences to PTK’s demise. Then the next morning I put a brand new message that said, “Guess you forgot, Katts have nine lives. And you can have Nine Lives too, at your local record store!” and they did. I sold a bunch of copies.
Did you get any backlash for it?
Yes I did, because my image seemed a little dark. Plus, at the time, my number was 476-6666 and they hated that. [Laughs] That was an accident, I didn’t ask for it and it cost more to get rid of it than to keep it. Yeah, a lot of backlash. One in particular on Christmas Eve I ran a message that said: “Hi, Phil Thomas Katt here, Santa Claus said he had a terrible headache and asked me to make the rounds for him. So leave your doors and windows unlocked tonight so I can get in.” That didn’t go over so well. [Laughs] Sheriff’s Department called me to ask what my intentions were, and I said, “Well, it’s Christmas Eve man, I’m just gonna sit at the house and watch some TV.” But things smoothed over there, and they understood I was a musician. But yeah, a lot of backlash, and people wanted to remove this “bad influence.”
So how did The Uncharted Zone start?
I’d worked in radio for a long time, and had a really kushy job at one of the stations here, and it started after I had left. The main reason I left was because I was kind of doing an Uncharted Zone there too. I started UZ on Kattline, but had permission from the station to play some of the local artists. And during that era, a lot of these stations were gobbling up different stations, and changing this and that. One of those gobbles wanted to not have any local music, and I didn’t really care for that. So I started the TV show just by buying airtime, and going out to the different clubs or wherever and started billing the stuff. Then we sort of blew up. [Laughs]
Why The Uncharted Zone for a name?
Here’s basically what it was. I was just a local singer here, just like anybody else. Then Kattline started to emerge as a popular phenomenon here along the Gulf Coast. And so I started promoting my music on it, and realized the impact it made. So I wanted to help other artists achieve this. I gained a somewhat expertise on promotion, so I started inviting other artists to send me their music, and call it the “Uncharted Zone” because these were artists who weren’t charted on the top ten.
How would you describe your video production style or aesthetic?
Well, that’s kind of hard to explain, and it’s sort of evolved. I will admit I have a sort of style, I’ve had people call it the “PTK edit,” and for whatever that is. [Laughs] I have a certain way I put these things together, but it definitely varies from project to project. Sometimes I have a slight storyline going on with the video, and others where it’s just random craziness I guess you could say. I don’t really know how to answer the question! [Laughs]
One of my recent favorites was Ricky Whitley’s Satellite Song. What was the genesis of that video, and how did you meet him?
Many years ago when I was working in radio, my friend Tommy Robinetti and I one friday night, he was doing remote for some place called “LA Getaway.” So we went out there, and Ricky Whitley was playing and I introduced myself to him. He was aware of who I was, because he was a UZ listener. He gave me two or three of my CDs and I started playing them on the station. When I left for television, I wanted Ricky on because I thought his songs were very cool and unique. The one I was diggin was “Psycho Mama.”
One of the songs I was sort of surprised to see was “Tim Westwood Ho!” by Lay It On The Line. They’re kind of a hardcore band, so it was a little jarring to see them on the Top Videos of 2013. How’d that one come about?
These were guys in England, and they were a pretty popular band from what I understood, and they wanted to be on UZ and do a video. Of course, they were way over there and we were way over here so it made it a little hard to shoot a video. So they shot some of the footage over there, and sent it to me over the internet, and I utilized some of my footage. The video was trying to tell a story about a yacht race that I didn’t really know a lot about, it’s more of an England story that they know over there. So I put the video together and wow, it shocked me, it went to #1. But they had a huge following as well so that helped things.
My favorite video at the moment on the channel is “Competition,” by you.
[Laughs] Well thank you.
Listening to a lot of your discography, like you said, you work with a lot of genres. It sounds super contemporary, and you call yourself the “Godfather of Chillwave” and it sounds right at home with that kind of genre.
Actually that song I wrote back in my teens. And when I used to play it in live shows when I was gigging around just acoustically. And I always liked the song, so I retweaked the song when I was working on Declawed. And I was super happy about the sound, because the song’s talking about a recording session with some girl you got in your studio that you’re working with. It’s also a statement saying “hey we’re here for music. We’re not here to have a competition, we’re here to make art. Doesn’t matter who’s number one, who’s better or worse. This is art, baby, that’s it.”
What’s your favorite video that you’ve made of your own, and of someone else?
From other artists, I like Cast Spells’ Pioneer Scalps. He’s from Chicago and his record company solicited us to have us to his video. They worked up to have Horatio Sanz, one of the Saturday Night Live alumni appear in the video like he was performing the song. I enjoyed putting it together with all of them, and seeing a Saturday Night Live alum enjoy UZ. They gave me high praise on the video, and that’s probably my favorite.
From my own, I really like Enterprise Room. It’s like a time machine. Takes me back to a time when the adventures were real.
I don’t think we can not talk about this one. How did you meet Mark Gromley?
Well, Mark just called me up out of the blue. He had been seeing some of the music videos and wanted to do some himself. He came over with a cassette, and we did some songs. All he had was seven songs recorded at different eras in time. Some in the 80s, some in the 70s. And we just had them all done over a couple years or so.
What was it like when Without You got huge?
It was a surprise. I didn’t have a clue something like that would happen with UZ, I was just making videos and having fun. I will say this, it was very encouraging when it happened. And it gave me the feeling that it’s never too late to pursue a music career. If someone like Mark Gormley, at his age can have a hit, pretty much anybody can. All it’s gotta be is a good song.
I remember when it was being covered originally, it was inspiring to see this idea of no matter who you are, everyone’s capable of getting this much attention and coverage.
If the song moves you, and I do know the hit songs are moving, and if it moves enough people, it’s going to be a hit. Or go viral, whatever you want to call it. And that is an eye-opener for every artist. Everybody through the years through their 40s, 50s, 60s, it doesn’t really matter. If they write a good song and do a good performance, they have a chance to make it. Whereas before the internet, I don’t think they ever could.
John Hill is on Twitter but he can't answer his @ replies because he's dead - @johnxhill
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