Athens’ Kilkenny Cats prep for their first show since 1991

‘I think we’re ready,’ says frontman Tom Cheek of the band’s upcoming appearance at AthFest.
A 2023 photo of Athens-formed band Kilkenny Cats holding a copy of their "Hands Down" album on Barber Street in Athens. Left to right: Sean O'Brien, Tom Cheek, Allen Wagner and Keith Landers. Courtesy of Karen Allison / Propeller Sound Recordings.



A 2023 photo of Athens-formed band Kilkenny Cats holding a copy of their "Hands Down" album on Barber Street in Athens. Left to right: Sean O'Brien, Tom Cheek, Allen Wagner and Keith Landers. Courtesy of Karen Allison / Propeller Sound Recordings.

“It’s funny, I’ve never even been to AthFest and now we’re headlining one of the three main stages on Saturday night,” said Tom Cheek of Kilkenny Cats.

Formed in 1983, the band had already peaked and splintered by the time the annual festival began in 1997. Now in its 26th year, the event boasts over 140 acts as it celebrates Athens’ thriving artistic culture, including a diverse slate of local and national musicians and a colorful palette of visual artists.

Currently based in New Orleans and staying in Athens for a week to rehearse, Cheek, 62, recently spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on a variety of topics. The conversation often returned to the drastic changes in the town and its iconic music scene. “It’s been amazing to sort of soak it all in again,” he laughed. “We were here last fall as we were getting the reissue ready and it’s even busier around here now.”

The reissue he referenced is a newly remastered and repacked edition of the Kilkenny Cats’ 1986 full-length debut, “Hands Down,” distributed by Propeller Sound Recordings.

An archival photograph of Athens band Kilkenny Cats, circa 1986. 
Left to right: Sean O'Brien, Tom Cheek, Allen Wagner and Keith Landers. 
File/Texas Hotel Records.

Credit: Courtesy of Texas Hotel Recor

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Credit: Courtesy of Texas Hotel Recor

“When I moved here in 1980 or so, rent was super cheap and the music scene was so small,” Cheek recalls. He became friends with a number of local musicians. eventually forming Is/Ought Gap in 1981 with like-minded pop/punk explorer Bryan Cook, later of Time Toy. Busy Athens label Happy Happy Birthday To Me released that band’s archival LP in April.

The success of the album and subsequent live show encouraged Cheek and the other Cats — including guitarist Keith Landers, bassist Sean O’Brien and drummer Allen Wagner — to push forward with plans to revive their own band for a new generation of listeners.

The task was a bit daunting at first, he said. “A couple of us had continued playing after Kilkenny, but you never know what will happen when you get back together. But since ‘Hands Down’ was coming out, we decided to try and see if we were even physically able to do it anymore. I was glad that it all came together rather quickly — because, like a lot of the Athens bands, we are just intuitive when we play.” He paused for a moment before adding, “But it does feel kind of weird to be playing our first show since 1991. I think we’re ready.”

The process of getting the band’s music back on the market has been in the works since the peak of the pandemic, he explained. “When I got the stimulus check, I was determined to spend it on something for the arts. I eventually decided to get our entire catalog remastered and ready to be heard again.” Jason NeSmith at Chase Park Transduction did the honors and the results sound remarkably modern. “It’s wild how fresh it sounds after all these years,” said Cheek.

He noted that the Kilkenny Cats’ modest public output, including their debut full-length, originally released by Coyote Records and an EP called “Hammer,” via Texas Hotel, is overshadowed by “a ton” of unreleased tracks. “We recorded a bunch of material before and after the first album. Often, we’d just put it aside because our sound was changing so much as we played more. I think some of it might have been inspired by the scene, too. Everything changed and I guess we did, too. Maybe we had to adapt to what was happening around us. The culture was changing so much around here — especially between 1983 and 1986 — it was almost a whole different band at times. But it’s all been remastered and we’re going to revisit it soon. We’ll be playing at least one of those songs in our set at AthFest, because we’re looking at that show as a sort of retrospective of where we were then — as seen from where we are now.”

He described the group’s earliest efforts as “really aggressive and punk, but with a Southern gothic edge to it. Then, even as we gradually got a little more melodic, I don’t think we ever lost the punk side of it. But we had sort of evolved between records, so we wanted to make them sound like what we were doing at the time. It was also important to us to keep it raw and immediate, but with a little bit of a dark side to it. That’s why I’m really glad to see the lyrics finally printed in the ‘Hands Down’ package. Even though they were written in the ‘80s, they weirdly reflect what’s going on right now. I don’t think I ever intended that when I was in my 20s, but here we are. Sometimes I think, ‘Who was that guy? Was that really me?’.”

Casual music fans may remember the Kilkenny Cats as one of the featured performers in the 1987 documentary, “Athens, GA. – Inside/Out.” “People still mention that movie, all these years later,” concluded Cheek. “I’ve heard it inspired bands from all over the country and I know it’s still screened and discussed all over the place. I don’t think any of us knew it at the time, but it became one of the most recognized ‘faces’ of the town because it was like a little snapshot of what was going on back then. Everything is different now of course, but as the music changes, we’re still excited to be part of the creative process of Athens.”



June 21-23. Kilkenny Cats will headline the Hull Street Stage at 8:20 p.m. June 22. There are both free and ticketed events. Club crawl passes are $35; VIP passes $75-$150. The AthFest Main Stage area is on Washington Street at Pulaski Street, in front of the 40 Watt Club at 285 W. Washington St., Athens. For club crawl tickets and schedule information, call 706-548-1973 or visit