The Cat Empire Is Back [& Bigger Than Ever]
Back In Australia, Fresh From Europe
After 15 years in the music game, The Cat Empire are more exuberant than ever. They are fresh from a summer in Europe, and armed with an album’s worth of new material (being released single by single each month, until the full album drop in 2019), and ready to dance their way around Australia once again, including three back-to-back shows at the Triffid from the 20th September. We caught up with frontman Felix Riebl to discuss all things Empire.
Hi Felix! How are you?
I’m well, thank you.
Excited to get back out on tour?
Yeah, I’m excited about having some new material to play.
Are there any songs in particular you’re looking forward to playing? I bet the crowd is going to go nuts for the new stuff.
We just came from a tour in Europe and that was a really good testing ground for some of the stuff. I think we’ve made an album that’s really conducive to playing live. That’s a really big thing for us because we’re such a live band, so when you make an album that sort of plays itself on stage it just makes your job so much easier. I feel like this new album is very much like that. Summer in Europe was fantastic so we’re very excited to bring it to Australia.
How was the recording process for the new album? You described “Rising With The Sun” as a more spontaneous, adhoc production - was it similar with the new release?
We’ve just gotten lazy, recently [laughs]. The more we’ve played live, we just know each other’s playing so well that we rehearse less and less. So, with “Rising With the Sun” we went into the studio without having done any pre-production rehearsing.
I had written songs, and Harry had written some songs as well so with this album we did that sort of in the same way. None of the band had really heard or practised the material before we were actually in the studio so they would get to know a song on the day they recorded it, which when it works can be a really good technique. I think you have to really trust the musicians you’re with to say each other’s instincts as a band are going to be really good ones and, also, our producer Jan Skubiszewski has got great intuition as well, so I think that it worked quite well just to get that total spontaneity the first time you perform a song. Having said that, I spent months and months writing a lot of the songs before they got to the studio, so a lot of work had been done from a song writing perspective.
So what can we expect sonically from the album, apart from being a great live show?
It’s “overflowing”, that’s the way I can explain it. The Cat Empire sound has always been pretty full, you know? So there’s a lot of layers and excitement in the recording and production. I think that’s where we’re at as a band. People, ourselves included, want The Cat Empire show to be something that we can all lose ourselves in so we try to be as excessive as we can with the songs and the recordings, and imagining where they’re going to be, which is, in our case more recently is summer festivals in Spain, Germany and France and things like that and when you imagine the music there then you kind of do everything you can in the studio to realise it and that’s what we’ve tried to do with this album.
Like grabbing the influences of being a touring band playing those kinds of shows and using them as inspiration, in a way?
Yeah, kind of, yeah. Just having the fans that I can write for, and really imagine all the stages we’ve been on. It really helps to grow your process because there’s a kind of pre-existing imagination of what it might be and that’s come from fifteen years of festival stages, I guess. That memory of what that sounds, feels and looks like really informs a lot of the songwriting. Not all the time, because there are some more meditative and darker moments on this album but just overall, that’s been the case. Something chaotic and colourful, exuberant.
That’s exactly what an audience wants on a festival stage.
And that’s the key, you know, you have to ask yourself why you keep doing it. You know, I’m no longer in my early twenties [laughs] so, you know, why would you do it? And I think that the answer for me is the audience come with a sense of occasion, you know. It’s an extremely generous and unique collection of people who come to Cat Empire shows, they really bring a lot of the anticipation with them and as a band, that’s a good feeling. It’s an addictive feeling and so, I suppose, we reached a point where we thought let’s play to The Cat Empire’s strengths and since working with Jan [Skubiszewski, producer] on “Steal the Light”, we’ve really been on that tip and it probably led to a bit of a renaissance for the band.
It seems to have paid off! You’re putting out one single a month before releasing the new album in 2019 - that’s an interesting choice in the age of instant streaming and surprise album releases. What was the thinking behind that?
[laughs] I don’t really know. I keep on quoting Paul Keating saying “I wanna do you slowly” [laughs]. I think of it as prolonging the inevitable [laughs].
Sometimes it’s good to make people wait.
It’s also kind of nice because we’re touring different areas at different times, we’re releasing songs sort of coinciding a bit with the part of the world we’re at. We’ve got songs in French, Spanish coming up. I don’t know, I suppose it’s just a way of saying that the whole album thing has been reinvented anyway, and through digital streaming now it’s not all about the album or what single makes the album, you know. It used to be what fit onto a vinyl, then a CD and now it can be as short or as long as you want it to be. So, I suppose we’re just trying to think of a way to release music in a more interesting way for us at this point in time.
Doing it The Cat Empire way.
Yeah, we’ve always tried to do that in our own way. Sometimes we’ve failed, sometimes it’s been alright [laughs].
I’d say you’ve been pretty successful so far haha. So you’re about to go out on an Australian tour, and you said you were recently in Europe, is there a difference between a home crowd and an international crowd?
Yeah there is, there’s a lot of differences but then, it’s one of those things, on some level it’s really about getting to that place where you’re not objectifying the night or the audience and that usually happens once you’ve counted in the first song and get underway. But when you stand back from it, I suppose I’m more nervous in front of a home crowd, I feel like everyone feels that way about being “home”. There’s more expectation, or something like that. Which is probably just personal and whatever but it’s always been easier playing countries where they don’t speak the same language as you because you just feel like, you can get away with more [laughs].
Whereas in Australia I know there are people who liked us when we started out, you know, and they keep coming to the shows. There’s a lot of history for them. There’s a lot of people in Australia who have seen us, you know, eight to ten times. They've seen you that many times you want to try to make sure that the bar is set really high, and you give them a good night. And for yourself too, because that’s part of why you do it. So at times, feels like more pressure but at the same time there’s also more pride attached to it, in a way.
Sort of a hometown hero feeling?
[laughs] Something like that, yeah.
I’m sure as touring musicians days off are rare and magical - what do you guys like to do on your days off on tour?
It depends what part of a tour it is. At the beginning of a tour is generally spent doing really interesting things, like going out to a gallery or going out to some interesting part of the city we’re in or walking around listening to music. At the end of the tour, generally for me, I’m in total energy preservation. It’s just like a day doing nothing is really useful to recharge. Especially when you're overseas and doing a show every night pretty much, you start to get into this very strange headspace of preserving your energy and your whole life just revolves around the show that night, so everything else is just sort of, funny, half-dream like wandering about, or just relaxing. But that’s at the end of the tour, when you’re sort of strung out.
I’m often playing better at the end of a tour because I’m just so focused on that energy preservation that you kind of just give everything that night and you can pass into oblivion after the show and just not be awake until the next day when you get back on stage and are lively as hell.
Kind of like a daily meditation on getting through the show that night.
Exactly, that’s it. In a sense, it’s an interesting life because you tend to sacrifice eighteen hours for the sake of two. But that’s really worthwhile, so we keep on doing it. It’s a strange way of living. Very intense for those two hours, exciting, then very banal for the rest.
Speaking of strange and exciting, what’s your craziest touring experience? Weirdest fan encounter?
Ah, jeez, there’s been a lot! We’re a band that’s been together for, what, sixteen years now and we’re a band that’s been on tour for most of that [laughs]. Picking out one is hard. There was a guy who got up on stage, I think one of the first festivals we ever did together as a band. He got on stage and started juggling chainsaws. That was pretty good. Some bloody carnie from the show next door or something like that. I think everyone just felt they had the rights for a free-for-all on our stage, we were the band that all the other performers would come to after their shows. That whole three week patch we were playing every night, from something like two until five in the morning, it was just full of a lot of very strange performers, jumping up on stage, we had people do like, naked comedic wrestling. You know, just weird stuff. Really, kind of like [laughs] the sort of stuff you’d imagine would happen at the end of festival to a band like us playing as 19 year olds.
Haha, sounds exactly right.
[laughs] I think we’ve got a bit of a different sound now, a different approach. But in those days it was really funny.
Do you have a favourite place to play, favourite venue?
There’s a lot, it’s impossible to say there’s one favourite venue. London is a great town for me, because it’s got so many great theatres and I think we’ve played most of them. We're doing the Roundhouse, two nights at the Roundhouse and I think that’ll cap it off. We started at Shepherd’s Bush, played the Royal Albert Hall, that was a very magical show for me. We did Brixton Academy and Hammersmith Apollo, and now the Roundhouse. They’re all, in their own right, magnificent venues with great histories so that’s always been a really great touring town. Paris, the Bataclan, and Le Trianon, really fantastic theatres, history and a lot of spirit in their walls.
I don't know, I could keep on going. Quebec, in Canada, Montreal, Quebec City have always been stunning places for us. Probably the loudest, most raucous audience in the world for us. Madrid is fantastic. Germany. As soon I say one place another comes to mind so, yeah, there’s not one favourite place but I think as a band because you’re on tour and touring itself is quite lonely because you’re always leaving, and each night, in an ironic way, you feel this great sense of home for a small amount of time, with your audience and with the venue itself. It’s like, even though you’re only there for a night, you might come back next year or whenever, it’s still home of one sort or another. It feels like a great attachment to that, because of the loneliness of moving around all the time. There’s this real warmth that comes with great theatres and you feel like an affinity with all the ghosts that have been there before, all the other bands. It may sound a bit romantic but I think the delirium of being on tour is what it is. You tend to emotionally engage in those sorts of things, or I do anyway.
I guess every venue becomes a sanctuary for the night that you’re there.
Well, not every venue. Some venues are total shitholes and you can’t wait to get out of them [laughs]. There have been a lot of places like that as well but I’m talking about the places that have that sense of, that have the ghosts. The ones that say “keep the fire burning”. It’s good to play live music, they kind of remind you of that. Good venues have that kind of atmosphere.
You guys have a reputation for being the fun party band with the great live show, but you’re also politically aware - you’ve been involved in activism with the ASRC and you did Sounds for the Reef, how important is that to you as a band?
It’s important, yeah. It’s important I think to always let the music do the talking, that’s the starting point for anyone really. But then why not weigh in on things you care about? You know, there was a great period in Australian music where a lot of bands were what you’d call “political” bands and they were proud of it. They were singing protest songs and they were engaged in something and it also made for great art, you know. Not being political for the sake of ticking a box, being political for the sake of putting your heart somewhere. I look up to that period of Australian music, I look up to Midnight Oil, Paul Kelly, the people who had something to say and did it in a really authentic way. The politics and the art weren’t separated, they were part of the same moment.
In that sense, the things that we’ve tried to do as a band and the things that have worked for us have been when that happens, when we feel like “yeah we’re doing something authentic here”. With the ASRC it was important that perform with some of the musicians there, doing something that was playing to our strengths I suppose. And I’m getting Spinifex going [Spinifex Gum, Felix and Cat Empire bandmate Ollie McGill’s side project, featuring Marliya of Gondwana Choirs, Briggs, Emma Donovan and others] which is a project that, you know, we’ve sung about deeply political things but again in line with the strength of the art and the music as opposed to being separate from it. It’s important because I’m an artist first and foremost, and I’m involved in things that have to ring true.
Things that make sense for you.
That make sense in an artistic way. It’s not, you know, this equals that but what intuitively feels right and when politics can be integrated into that pursuit, then you get something that’s really powerful. If you just put it on top like an extra thing, it often feels like it’s lost.
You’re taking Odette on tour with you, which is awesome because she’s incredible.
It’s exciting that Odette is coming on tour, I’ve been listening to her music and I think that she’ll perform to a really interesting crowd coming with us. It’s going to be fun.
Are there any other upcoming Aussie acts you’d recommend?
I’ve been listening to a lot of music lately. Kaiit is pretty cool, she’s great. She’s young but she’s got a sound. I’ve been working with Briggs through Spinifex Gum and I think what he’s been doing both with A.B Original and as a solo artist has been phenomenal the last year or two. Emma Donovan, again, working with her, I just went back to her music and really, really love it. I mean there’s a lot more but it’s hard to reel them off because it’s like a continuous playlist.
What is your life philosophy?
[laughs] I’ll let the music do the talking. I don’t know. I’m a musician, I don’t have a life philosophy. I like writing songs and not having a philosophy.
Describe yourself in five words.
Oh I can’t do these kinds of questions, I’m sorry [laughs]. “I don’t know how to describe myself”, is that five words?
What’s your favourite place in Brisbane?
It’s funny because most of my experience of Brisbane has been more or less the Valley [laughs]. I’m not sure if it’s my favourite place or my least favourite place but it’s the place we’ve made most of our music. So I suppose the Valley, and Kangaroo Point. That’s where we started as a band in Brisbane, for better or worse [laughs].
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About the Author
A cat fancier, Real Housewives obsessive and proud Taurus, when not hibernating with her cat, Georgia is likely to be found shopping for records, continuing her quest to find Brisbane’s best jalapeño popper or in her natural environment, a poorly lit dive bar taking iPhone photos of the graffiti in the bathroom.