Meet the ex-rocker that made Grumpy Cat the rock star of the cat world

Lyndsey Parker
Editor-in-Chief, Music

Grumpy Cat, the internet-famous feline who died last week at age 7, was without a doubt the rock star of the cat community. But she rose to fame because of another, human rock star: Ben Lashes, ex-frontman of the Seattle pop-punk band the Lashes. While his former bandmate, Erik Howk, went on to success as the guitarist of Portugal. The Man, Lashes left the music world behind to become a full-time professional “meme manager” — and as a result, Grumpy went on to make the whole world smile with her famous frown.

“I just helped facilitate. She made herself her own rock star,” Lashes, whom Mashable once called “The Man Who Made Grumpy Cat Rich,” humbly stresses.

“Music is hard,” says Lashes, and as a result, many musicians eventually shift to second-act careers or take side jobs. (“Uber driver, Lyft driver, Postmates driver,” Lashes suggests wryly.) But Lashes may have the most unusual, and certainly one of the most lucrative, career-transition stories. He actually “stumbled into” his Grumpy gig, and he eventually built a reported $100 million kitty empire. But it was the “O.G. internet kitty,” the blue-shirted, piano-playing Keyboard Cat, that made it all possible.

Ben Lashes had spent a decade touring with the Lashes (who released The Stupid Stupid EP on Lookout! Records in 2004 and Get It on Columbia in 2006), and was working a day job at the music distributor CD Baby, when he got a call from a family friend, comedian and artist Charlie Schmidt: “Hey, your dad told me to call you. I made a video called ‘Keyboard Cat.’" The lo-fi ‘80s video, of Schmidt’s striped orange cat Fatso playing a synthesizer, had gone viral after Schmidt uploaded it to YouTube in 2007, and Schmidt didn’t know how to handle the unprecedented situation.

The Lashes (Ben Lashes, center) in 2006. (Photo: Columbia Records)

“He filmed it in his garage, or his basement, in 1984. He bought a Beta camera like the week that they came out to market. To me, he’s kind of like a rock ‘n’ roll, Andy Warhol-meets-Pee-wee Herman artist of all genres. He actually went viral in the ‘90s on Jay Leno's show. He put up plexiglass over his nose and lip-synced to the song from The Love Boat and stuff,” says Lashes. “In '84, right after he got the camera, he filmed [Fatso], all alone, and really he just put it at the end of his acting reel or art reel that he would send around. It was kind of a passed around, you know, pre-YouTube, when people would trade VHS tapes. I know back on tour I used to get VHS tapes and DVDs. It was one of those kinds of videos that no one really knew where it came from. It would pop up places. So then he finally put it up on YouTube, and after a number of months of it laying kind of dormant with a couple thousand views, all of a sudden it took off. A blogger named Brad O’Farrell actually found it, made up the idea that Keyboard Cat was going to play off fails around the world. …[O’Farrell] started compiling those and sent the first video to YouTube, and it took off at a big speed.”

That’s where Lashes came in, after Schmidt rang him up. “I was like, I saw it on The Soup, you're probably rolling in dough!’ And he was like, ‘No, everybody's stealing it! I don't know what's going on!’ I was like, "Well, that's not right. This is like you woke up with a hit song on the radio, you own your masters and you already have your fans. That's all the hardest stuff to get in Hollywood! Now the windows are there — open for you to either screw it all up and do dumb stuff, or keep making fans happy and keep creating new content that they're already into.’”

Schmidt later adopted another orange tabby, Bento (named after Ben), which he used to create new Keyboard Cat videos until Bento's death in 2018. “I tried to get him another manager. I called agencies and stuff and I was like, ‘I know this cat that's got a blue shirt and plays the piano. He's got a million eyeballs on it. You're gonna love it!” And they were just, like, hanging up on me,” Lashes recalls. “I was incoming from the punk rock world and all that kind of stuff, so I was like, ‘Well, we're gonna do it on our own.’ My mantra was ‘respect the cat.’ Just because it's a cat on YouTube doesn't mean we should treat it with any less respect than any other celebrity that did something weird.”

Lashes took his experience promoting, marketing, and booking his band, and dealing with the legal side of the music business, and applied all that to the cat world. “For once, I guess, punk rock paid off!” he quips. He founded his own agency, A Weird Movie, and made Keyboard Cat a success. Keyboard Cat 2.0, aka Bento, even once played the halftime show for Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl. But that was nothing compared to the stardom that Lashes’s next client would achieve, starting in 2012.

Ben Lashes and Grumpy Cat at South by Southwest. (Photo: Ben Lashes)

“I kept seeing Grumpy Cat on the internet and was like, ‘Man, this just won't go away,’” Lashes recalls. Grumpy, also known as Tardar Sauce, had become an overnight sensation a month and a half earlier after Bryan Bundesen, the brother of Grumpy’s owner Tabatha Bundesen, had posted a photograph of her on Reddit. “I just kept becoming more and more of a fan. I was like, ‘I have to get to the bottom of where's this coming from.’ And so, I sent an email out to the owners of [Grumpy’s] YouTube channel. I just found the email of the YouTube channel and [Bryan] wrote me back. And so we talked on the phone, and I told them my philosophy about respecting cats.”

Two weeks later, Lashes flew out to New York to meet the Bundesens in person for Grumpy Cat’s first appearance on The Today Show. He admits that he was worried that the rumors that Grumpy’s permanent scowl was just a Photoshop illusion might be true. “I had never seen her before, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope that we hadn't all been duped by the internet.’ … Then I met her outside of the Hilton Times Square right after she checked in, and Tabby [Tabatha] was holding her. There's an X-factor, when it's like a Muppet but in real life, you know? It was like the Beatles playing for the first time ever. It was all of that wrapped into one. And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it's not a lie. Grumpy Cat is the truth.’”

It was then that Lashes decided to leave music and focus entirely on his burgeoning cat career. “Cats were paying more than songs were,” he chuckles. “I had to end up leaving my job at the music place, because I was staying up all night working on what I was really passionate about, seeing that this isn't going to go away and was only going to get bigger and bigger.”

Over the course of Grumpy’s career, she met countless celebrities, but the amusing thing was they always seemed starstruck by her. “I would say she's the biggest celebrity of us all, of anyone on Earth,” Lashes laughs. “She transcended all people everywhere. It didn't matter if you are the most famous, rich person; there's still something that resonates with Grumpy Cat. ... Another thing is that she was never impressed by celebrities. And for celebrities, that's kind of refreshing. It's like, ‘I've been looking for somebody to give me some tough love!’”

HOLLYWOOD, CA - APRIL 24: Judge Jennifer Lopez and Grumpy Cat backstage at FOX's "American Idol XIII" Top 6 to 5 Live Elimination Show on April 24, 2014 in Hollywood, California. (Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FOX via Getty Images)

Lashes’s fondest celebrity-encounter memory is when Grumpy went on American Idol Season 13 and was fawned over by judge Jennifer Lopez. “[The show] actually called Grumpy back the next day and asked for her to come on a second time. I don't know if that's ever been done in the history of Idol. They said that they had such an increase in ratings because of Grumpy Cat on the show. They called it the ‘Grumpy Bump.’ They almost made her a host, I think. It was really close.”

Lashes, who says he loved Grumpy like his own pet and spent more time with her “than I think I've spent with any of my family over the last seven years,” and the Bundesens are, of course, still grieving Grumpy’s untimely death, the result of complications from a UTI. But the outpouring of support from thousands of fans has helped. “Seeing all those people posting their photos and making art, different tributes and everything, that has been truly amazing to see [Grumpy’s] effect on the world. I know that it would make Grumpy smile,” says Lashes.

As for Lashes’s next career move, he has no intentions of returning to the music business, nor does he plan to take on any new cat clients. “I've had lots of cat people come to me over time, but I'm very passionate about Grumpy and her character and keeping her legend as it should be,” he says. During her lifetime, Grumpy sold millions of comic books, children’s books, plush toys, calendars, fragrances, sneakers, lottery tickets, et al (she currently has 1,082 merchandise items for sale in her online shop), and she even starred in her own Lifetime TV Christmas special with Aubrey Plaza. And thanks to Lashes’s passion, she will continue to posthumously rock the world, via a cartoon series and movie sequel in development with Plaza, as well as other projects.

“Grumpy is going to outlive all of us, I think, in the end,” proclaims Lashes. “No one's going to forget her. Grumpy forever.”

Audio of this conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app, on Volume channel 106.

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