Punk-styled garage rock band El Zombi Gato named itself after a dead cat. But the name also seems apt because, when the band formed in late October 2008, the process was something akin to resurrecting a lost spirit. For some band members it had been at least five years—if not a decade—since they'd seriously played in a band. Guitarist Wendy Maltonic, for instance, played in a stoner rock group called Bolt Action back in Ohio, but that was before her 1999 move to Missoula. Bassist Millie Thompson hadn't played consistently since her band Sasshole broke up in 2005. And Scott Moore, drummer for Thee Hedons in the late '90s—during the heyday of Missoula's legendary, now-defunct punk rock venue Jay's Upstairs—wasn't even sure where parts of his drum set were anymore.
Frontman Dennis Lynch told Moore he had a drum kit and promised to scavenge some parts for him. The kit was collecting dust in Lynch's garage loft ever since his former band, Five in the Face, had broken up six years ago.
"I brought my kick drum down," Lynch says, "and it was full of garbage. It had an old wool blanket, a beer bottle and a whisky bottle in it. I was like, 'Well, I better clean it out for him.' But when I start cleaning it out, I see something weird in there. I pull it out and it's a dead cat. For all I know, it was in there while Five in the Face was still playing. It was completely mummified. And that's how we got our name."
El Zombi Gato sounds like a grimy, gang-vocal concoction of Zeke and Dead Moon, with the kind of sick and silly humor of old-school punk hooligans Schlong. They play songs about anything that makes them laugh including burritos, and they vent about Keno players who use their earnings to buy meth and, in general, people who do stupid things.
"I was hit by a drunk driver in December and we got a song out of that," says Thompson. "And the song 'Special Place,' that's about knowing that there's a special place waiting for the evil people in the world. And we all know there're plenty of them."
In many ways, El Zombi Gato can't escape being a novelty since most of the members have long standing reputations as musicians in the rock community. Lead guitarist Dan Strachan currently plays drums for the pop group Secret Powers, but is well known as the drummer for the longstanding band Oblio Joes. Keyboardist/saxophone player Mike Doerner also played in a band, Cicada, in the mid-90s.
And Jay's lore, though starting to fade, continues to be a topic of conversation (much to the chagrin of younger scenesters) for the band members and anyone who played or saw bands there. The floor of the smoky venue wobbled up and down under the weight of crowds, raucous bands downed flaming shots of booze and after-hours parties rocked into the wee hours of the morning seven days a week.
"I had a reputation there for years of being some dumb, fallen down drunk," says Lynch. "When Five in the Face practiced or played a show we'd get as drunk as we could. It was fun. But I did a lot of stupid things."
In the Golden Rose Bar on a Friday evening, Lynch, 41, and Thompson, 36, talk about getting old. It's only 8:30 p.m. and both say they feel like they're winding down for the night. At their last show at the Elk's Lodge, they played a punk rock version of the "Laverne & Shirley" theme song. Almost nobody knew it. But that didn't faze them.
"One of the cool things about our band is that we're old school," says Thompson, "because we've been around Missoula so long. But we're also old." She smiles. "And I think it's pretty bad ass."
Over the years, things have changed for both musicians. Thompson's been sober for eight years now and finds her songwriting abilities more focused. Lynch owns a tiling business. When El Zombi Gato practices, it isn't just centered on drinking. And, though they've only played a couple of shows, the band has written enough material and garnered enough praise to be chosen for Total Fest VIII this year, a highly competitive local rock festival that gets hundreds of applications from across the country.
"I want everything to sound good," Lynch says. "It's helped my vocal timing, not getting drunk, and it's made a big difference. Don't get me wrong. I still enjoy a drink. But I'm definitely not the Dennis I was 10 years ago."
When asked what became of the dead cat that inspired their name, Lynch proves his point.
"You know, 10 years ago, at Jay's, we probably would have made a banner out of it and hung it across the front of the drum kit," he says, laughing. "But seeing as we've gotten older and wiser, it went in the garbage."
El Zombi Gato plays the Palace Saturday, Aug. 8, at 9 PM with Noise Noise Noise, The Budgets, Birds Mile Home and Tyson Ballew. $5.