The Cat Empire’s music is both as playful and grand as its name. Since forming in 1999, the Melbourne…born group has earned a reputation in its native country of Australia by means of intricate fusion of ska, rock, Latin, and jazz. But they’re anything but a local band. Thanks to their devoted worldwide fan base, The Empire’s first two albums reached double platinum, and with three (and a half) albums under their belt, they show no signs of slowing down. And that says a lot, considering how lively they get on stage.
Somewhat fresh off their latest release Live on Earth, the guys were in New York for the last leg of their North American tour. The Inflatable Ferret’s James Passarelli met up with lead singer and songwriter Felix Riebl at the Nokia Theatre in Time Square to talk about the band’s experiences across the globe and their progress on their upcoming 2010 release.
Inflatable Ferret: I assume you’ve played in New York before.
Felix Riebl: Yeah, we’ve played about four times.
FR: We started at the Lion’s Den and then we went to the Bowery Ballroom and we did two shows there. And last time we were here we were at the Summer Stage, which was great. We played with the Brazilian Girls.
IF: Oh cool. That was, what, a couple years ago?
FR: I think so, yeah. A couple years ago.
IF: And what do you think is the coolest venue you’ve ever played in?
FR: In the whole world?
FR: Oh that’s really tough. There are a few that come to mind. I can’t say there’s one absolute favorite. We’re the kind of band that’s played in a whole range of places. We’ve played everywhere from small jazz clubs to big rock festivals, and they’re both great for different reasons. I think my three favorites are…one’s the Shepherd’s Bush in London. I really enjoy that room. It’s like playing at the opera or something like that. It’s four levels high, and you can be very intimate but also kind of grand. The other one is probably the Metropolis in Montreal, which is kind of the same way. Oh God, I could keep on going actually. We had a lot of fun playing the Bowery in last time we were in New York. We were on the David Letterman show and then went to the Bowery afterwards. It was just one of those really great nights when everyone was just buzzing. And really, any number of outdoor festivals – playing to 60,000 people and they’ve all got their hands in the air.
IF: Yeah, you guys have played at a ton of festivals.
FR: Yeah, we’ve kind of made our reputation playing at festivals.
IF: So, you have four albums out right? If you count Cities, which is kind of like a –
FR: It’s like a half album. We did the Commonwealth Games, which, for Americans, is like the Olympics for all the countries in the Commonwealth. So, that was huge. We did the music for the opening ceremony while the athletes came out. So we were in the middle of this stadium surrounded by 100,000 people and the athletes in front of us. That was a trip. But we had all this music that was a bit tongue-in-cheek but also trying to represent a Melbourne sound but with a really international flavor based on the continents that were walking out. So, we had this material floating around and we put lyrics to that. I supposed it was more of a project than an album.
IF: You mentioned that you’re a live band. I think some of your best stuff comes off your live albums and your b-sides like Tapes, Breaks, and Outtakes.
FR: Yeah, of course. We’ve got a whole lot of those actually. And we just released Live on Earth, which is a live CD based on six years of touring. And that came out this year. So, that was a pretty important release for us.
IF: Obviously your music contains so many different elements, but I think some of the songs epitomize a certain genre. Do you guys ever write songs with a particular genre in mind?
FR: Absolutely. Talking about playing at festivals, we’re all real music lovers, and we also have very diverse tastes. And because all the guys in the band can really play we’re able to go to a lot of different places. We recorded in Cuba and played with some Cuban musicians and then playing in the rock festivals. The first time we heard Sly & Robbie play, for example, was at the Blues and Rock Festival in Byron Bay. And we were all just backstage studying, having the best time. Because when music is that good and that pure you can’t help but learn, and so in some ways this band’s like a big sponge. I’ve written quite a few of the songs, and if I would have gone and listened to something like that I’d put kind of a dub flavor to it, and then you can actually write songs imagining playing them at a festival. So, you do say, “yeah, I’m going to study this and I’m going to try to take the best bits of what I’ve heard and create something out of it.” And then when it goes through the chemistry of the band, it takes on its own unique feeling. So, yeah, some songs are real project songs that are focused on a particular genre.
IF: You touched on it a little bit with Cities, but in general, do you think there’s anything distinctly Australian about your music?
FR: I just think the fact that we are Australian. I don’t think there’s much culturally about our music, except maybe the fact that Melbourne’s a very multi-cultural city. We all have different backgrounds and grew up in really diverse neighborhoods. And there’s also a tradition in Melbourne of trying to play dynamically and with a lot of energy – the musicians there are very good. And they’re really good about embracing other musicians and making them part of something, so I think that’s got a lot to do with where we come from. But having said that, no. One of the things I love about music is that it doesn’t really matter where you’re from. A musician is a musician, and that makes me pretty happy.
IF: You seem like a really laid back band and kind of a band for the fans. Do you find it hard to stay connected with fans on a personal level with your growing popularity?
FR: I think we’re really lucky because we seem to have generated really loyal fans, and our audiences every night are really great, lively audiences. I think that’s partly because on the stage, our show relies on that interaction, where they don’t know quite what to expect, and they find themselves involved in something. So that’s really important for me as a performer, and the other stuff has to do with trying to manage that relationship, and that’s something that I’m no expert at. I try to concentrate on the music and give as much as I can when I perform. I think that’s my role as a songwriter and a musician. I think that’s what’s great about The Cat Empire as a whole thing – the management, the endeavor on stage, the unexpectedness of the whole project in that audiences can’t say they’re going to a rock concert, they can’t say they’re going to a jazz concert, or a world music concert – everyone’s a bit out of place, including us on stage. And that out-of-place-ness kind of makes everyone forget who they are for a while.
IF: You guys have an album out in 2010, right?
FR: Yeah, we’re writing it at the moment. And we’re going to record it in probably March in Australia. So, it should come out June or July internationally.
IF: How far are into the writing process are you?
FR: Relatively far. Maybe halfway. We’re going to play one new song tonight, and that’s been my favorite part of the show for this whole tour. If that’s any indication of the songs that are going to be on it, then I’m really excited about the new album. It’s simpler and more melodic and involves the crowd singing along in some bits, which I really love. And I think I’ve got maybe four or five good songs to write.
IF: And what record label are you guys on right now?
FR: We’re on Velour in the States. And we’re on Indica in Canada. To be honest, you’re probably asking the wrong person about that. We’ve worked with EMI in Australia, and we’ve had a great relationship with them. So, those three labels have been our main ones so far. And for this next album, I think we’re in the process of deciding who it will come out with.
IF: I won’t ask you to bash on any particular record label, but have you had any bad experiences with a label?
FR: Not at all. They’ve all been positive. I think it’s because we have a very in-house way of working. We choose our labels based on relationships in the first place, and I think that’s the only way it could work with a band like us. So, we haven’t had any horror stories with the record label taking over. I think we’re a band that wears our success and failures on our own shoulders.
IF: Besides the new album, what are your plans for next year? Are you going to be touring a lot?
FR: Yeah, we’re going to tour the album next year. We’re at a good stage in the band because we really put a lot of energy into our tours. So, we decide to tour for shorter sections than we used to just to maintain the vitality of the band. Like, tonight’s the last night of the tour, and I’m feeling pretty tired. I’m going to get myself up somehow. And I feel like the band really is what it is – a one of a kind thing based on the chemistry of the guys in the band. And our approach to songwriting is based on a lot of strange instrumentation. And so when we’re on the road – that’s Cat Empire time. And I’m writing other songs as well, and that’s really important to get some perspective in your life – to write songs that are personal to you. And then to be able to embrace The Cat Empire for what it is, which is something expansive and part of a collective.
For more photos of The Cat Empire, click here.
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