The members of Katër Mass joke about an ongoing internal debate over who is the "most punk" person in the band. The obvious winner, at least on the surface, is Patrick Goral, the skinny, tattooed, pink-haired, Food not Bombs-volunteering drummer who professes an undying love for "mid-'90s Epitaph" and is currently cradling a 40.
On paper, the group's other three members, steeped in academia, are not very punk. Frontman Tim Gill, a Cleveland, OH native with a pronounced Midwestern accent, is pursuing a doctoral degree in sociology at UGA; bassist Nick Gomez, a former high-school teacher, is doing the same in math education. Guitarist Phil Lewin, who played with Gomez in the local hardcore band Reeks of Failure and whom Gill met through the UGA sociology department, is currently interviewing for a job at a university in South Florida. ("Apparently, there are a lot of Marxist professors down there," explains Gill.)
But look closer, and you might be surprised. Like Propagandhi, the Canadian group it cites as a major influence (Gill and Lewin co-wrote a chapter on that band for a book titled The Art of Social Critique), Katër Mass' smart, strident music strikes a balance between pummeling post-hardcore and classic-rock melody; likewise, its lyrics, courtesy mostly of Gill (and occasionally of Lewin and Gomez), weigh the political against the personal, exposing the former's role in the latter and vice versa.
If an affinity for Marxism and an obsession with personal politics is not enough to convince you of Katër Mass' cred, carve out 26 minutes for the band's new album, Circles. A no-filler, no-nonsense work recorded with Cinemechanica drummer Mike Albanese at his Espresso Machine Studio, the record is visceral, engaging and inspiring in the way all great punk rock is; stylistically, it fits in with that specific strain of 1990s post-hardcore that valued sentiment as much as aggression. (See also: Hot Water Music, Small Brown Bike, a slew of other three-word bands.)
But don't call it emo. "The song content is not entirely happy," admits Gill. "But the music we try to keep [upbeat]." Indeed, there is a resolutely buoyant edge to Katër Mass; even when the lyrics convey despondence, the music remains designed for maximum fist-pumping pleasure. Of those lyrics: Gill will turn 30 this year, and his songs often revolve around the philosophical anguish that comes with transitioning from youth to adulthood.
"I've been in college for like, 11 years now," he says. "I've been in this kind of limbic state between having summers off and staying out late, and becoming this expert in U.S. foreign policy, where I'm supposed to be professional and a good citizen and go to bed early." That inner tension leads to a sort of existential fear, he says. "I think a lot about, 'What is life gonna be like when I'm a professor? Is all the punk stuff gonna go away? Am I going to feel immediately gratified the way I feel by playing music?'"
It also provides Katër Mass' music with the push-and-pull that makes it so captivating. On "Airport Deli," Gill recounts youthful hijinks with a decidedly grown-up voice, both reveling in nostalgia and cursing it for haunting his psyche. Musically, the song shifts from understated, palm-muted verse to full-bore, four-chord power chorus and back again, three minutes of proud pop-punk ephemera.
The track also features a playful, wah-wah-heavy outro, which illustrates another of the group's passions: good, old-fashioned goofs. Gill and Lewin share a particular affinity. "We could go on quoting Longmont Potion Castle for hours, just screwing with each other," says Gill, referring to the infamous, L.A.-based, prank-calling surrealist whose subjects are often left more confused than angry. In fact, in its spare time, Katër Mass, whose members average nearly three decades on Earth (Goral, who will soon turn 25, is the baby of the group) enjoys sitting around together making prank calls. One running gag involves posing as a record label and inviting bands to contribute "two-and-a-half songs" to a "digital six-and-a-half-inch split."
Segments of another bit that found the band calling Flagpole music columnist Gordon Lamb made its way onto Circles. "We got the sense that he could be riled up," says Gill. "And we knew he loved Athens." In the bit, Gill, posing as the frontman of another band, refers to Athens as a "dinky little shit town" and promises to come through on tour to show locals how it's done. Lamb is first incredulous, before finally exploding in anger.
"That was the deciding factor in [including it on the album]," says Gomez. "He's defending Athens [in a way] any one of us would if someone attacked the town."
But though its members obviously love their adopted home, whether or not Katër Mass fits into a punk "scene"—whether such a scene even exists in Athens—is a trickier question. The band, which acknowledges its debt to Athens-born DIY-circuit heroes like Nana Grizol and Hot New Mexicans, as well as its camaraderie with more recent Classic City groups like Gripe and Harsh Words, exchanges knowing glances when the subject is brought up.
"There are definitely punk bands that play, and people that try to make things happen," Gill says. Still, says Goral, "I used to do a lot of house shows… and I'd have to get a keg to get people to come. Or there would be the same two locals playing with every touring band." Goral also cites a recent Caledonia show, where a high-profile touring punk act "played to no one."
Of course, Katër Mass seems to exist primarily for its members' own edification, punk rock therapy for restless minds. Gill, for one, says he will continue to ply the trade until it no longer makes sense to do so. "Playing music—you can't do that forever," he says. "There's gonna come a point where no one wants to see a 40-year-old playing the same fuckin' four chords."
"What about Milo?" Goral asks, referring to the bespectacled biochemist frontman of canonized punk band Descendents. "He went to college."
"That's true. There are outliers," replies Gill. "But, sadly, I feel like I'm at this point in my life where punk rock is waning and declining, and I'm reflecting on that."
"I'm in the complete opposite mode," laughs Goral. "[I'm] coming to the realization of, 'This is what I do now. This is it.' And it's terrifying: 'Yeah, dad, I'm gonna make $10,000 a year forever.'"
A beat passes before Gomez, smiling at Gill, jumps in. "See, that's why he's more punk than you."
WHO: Katër Mass, Harsh Words, Pale Prophet, Karbomb
WHERE: Caledonia Lounge
WHEN: Saturday, Mar. 29, 9:30 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $5 (21+), $7 (18–20)