Interview with the Cat Empire: Feral Funk-Masters

Undoubtedly, the only thing The Cat Empire has in relation to felines is in the band’s name, instigated by an illustration from percussionist/vocalist Felix Riebl’s younger brother of the furry creatures toting guns and sporting hats. Somehow, the inspiration of the image clicked with the new project founding members Riebl, Oliver McGill, and Ryan Monro had in mind in 1999— a musical mix of sounds that would blur the lines between genres and create a band proficient in jazz, rock, ska, indie, reggae and Latin melodies. It was a concoction in itself as creative and wonderful, yet as strange and ludicrous, as the picture itself.

These groovy cats don’t scratch up the kind of domesticated tunes for lazily laying in the sunshine. Their dance-inducing music is fierce and untamed, and pits such instruments as the trumpet, keyboard, bass and drums against each other, and each one stands out and holds its own ground in the instrumental hubbub. With the addition of three more band members— trumpet/vocalist Harry James Angus, drummer Will Hull-Brown and percussionist Jamshid Khadiwhala in 2001—the Australian-bred band had become complete and was able to play such gigs as the Melbourne Festival and the Matrix in San Francisco.

Providing the financial backing for their initial recording, The Cat Empire released their self-titled debut album in 2003. Yet, who would have thought that a mere year later, the band’s record would gain the attention of executives at EMI Virgin Records—who subsequently signed a deal with the group—and that the album would reach platinum status (eventually receiving double platinum honors)? Not bad for the self starters, whose second album in 2005, Two Shoes, also won critics over, a record that added another multi-platinum accomplishment to the band’s already impressive resume.

Between endless touring and countless TV appearances (including the Late Show with David Letterman), The Cat Empire was able to release two more albums between 2006 and 2007, Cities and So Many Nights. After a short hiatus from publishing new material, the band has recently come back with a vengeance with the release of their new album, Cinema, in June. The Cat Empire is currently on a tour that will reach New York City’s Webster Hall on July 30 to promote the new material.

Angus recently spoke to The Aquarian Weekly about the band’s tour, new album, and The Cat Empire’s impending change in musical direction.

For those who might not be familiar with the band, what, in your opinion, is The Cat Empire?

Well, that’s very difficult because it’s always changing and it’s not what it used to be and it probably won’t be what it is now. Basically, it’s a group of musicians who are all into different kinds of music and into different sounds and kind of make a sound together. But we always try to make something you can dance to.

I know the band’s name comes from a picture Felix’s younger brother drew, and you joined the band two years after it formed. Have you ever seen it? Because I tried to find it and I can’t.

Yes, I have. It’s just a picture of some cats. It’s not particularly impressive, just some cats. [laughs]

Where is the picture now?

Um, I don’t know. It’s probably on Felix’s mom’s fridge or something. [laughs]

Do you think the band’s name fits its sound?

No, not at all. It’s just a name, you know? It’s just like you’ve got to think of a name. It’s really hard work actually. Like, we go through this every time we release a new album, trying to think of a name for days and days and days. Eventually, something just sticks.

So let’s get into the new album, Cinema. Before its release in June, a leaked copy sold on eBay for $200. Did you ever find out who leaked it or who purchased it?

We found out who purchased it. It was a fan of ours who runs this kind of blog. So he was kind of a mega fan. But he wasn’t the kind of person who would just put it up on those programs were everyone could download it for free. He was a serious fan. [laughs] He got it like seven days before he could have just bought it in the shop anyway. So yeah, it’s amazing dedication. But we never found out who leaked it. But it would have been just like a journalist or, you know, someone who wanted to make some cash, I guess.

Were you shocked or insulted that it went for $200?

I was pretty flattered! I thought that was pretty good. But then I heard about all these other bands who have had leaks and they sold for like thousands of dollars, and then I didn’t feel like we were so amazingly in demand anymore. But yeah, no, it’s kind of flattering that someone’s willing to pay that much money to hear your music a week earlier than anyone else, you know?

You were quoted as saying that the new album was a collaborative effort by the band, which was a first. Why the change and how were you able to accomplish this?

I think the main reason for the change is just—I think we realized that we constantly had this thing going on where people would come up to us and say, ‘Oh, your live show is so much better than your records.’ That’s much better than the other way around. I’d much rather have my live show be better than my records than have my records be so much better than my live shows, because that probably means you can’t play. Yeah, this time, man, we just thought, ‘There’s something missing.’ Every time we go into the studio, there’s something missing in the energy that we’re creating. The thing that happens on stage is all of us kind of creating this music together and finding these kinds of musical moments, and we just wanted to do that in the studio. And it worked fine. You just got to be open to everyone else’s ideas and also open to someone telling you your ideas suck, basically.

But being that there are six members to the band, I’m sure there are creative differences as far as where a song should go musically.

Oh yeah. [laughs] I could tell our keyboard player what to play, but he’d probably come up with something better himself because he’s the keyboard player and he’s amazing. But it’s kind of like a process of letting go and not letting your own ego get in the way of making the best music.

Lyrics-wise, the songs on this album are a lot darker than in previous releases. Why is that so?

When you write a song, you just kind of write whatever you’re thinking about. I don’t think many people say, ‘I’m going to start writing darker songs now.’ I think it’s just whatever you’ve been thinking about or whatever ideas you have in your head. Maybe it has to do with just being a bit older and a bit more mature. Maybe it’s just being sick of the kind of subject matter that we’ve been writing about in the past. I guess it is darker. But having said that, it’s nowhere near as dark as most bands. I mean, we’re still chirpy in the scheme of things.

The Cat Empire usually covers so many different musical genres. But in this album, that doesn’t seem to be so much the case.

One thing we tried to do on this record was to get away from that aspect of the band. We felt like we were a bit sick of that, that every song would be a different genre, you know? We wanted to kind of get away from that almost kind of world travel guide where one song’s from Eastern Europe, and one song’s from America. We wanted to kind of use all those elements, but to not make it such an obvious shift from genre to genre. And so, we didn’t think so much about the genres on this record. It was more just the basic elements: rhythm, harmony, melody, and to let the instruments do what they will.

And what do you think comes out of that as far as with the music in this album?

Referencing different genres is fun, but it can also be like falling into a cliché sometimes. It’s very easy to make, especially when you’ve got trumpets and percussion and a DJ in your band. It’s very easy for us to make a song sound like it’s got this flavor or that flavor. It’s almost like a cop-out. It’s harder to make a song work not so simply, like reminiscent of any particular genre. It’s just a song that sounds like us. I guess that’s where we are trying to head to. We’re trying to make music that sounds like us more than like the things we’re referencing.

So you’re creating more of a signature sound now?

Yeah. I don’t know what it’s going to be, and I don’t think we’re 100 percent there yet, but I think we’re heading in a direction. I don’t even know what direction it is. But I think we’re heading towards something.

The album has received mixed reviews from some, some of whom say the band’s preoccupation with side projects may have downgraded the new material. What do you say to that?

We’ve never really released an album without people saying that they hate it and they think it’s different. I mean, it’s just the nature of doing something new. People are always attached to what they love, and they think that anything that’s different from that is basically a shame. We’re on a very different page now. We’re very inspired creatively, and we’re heading towards a different road. I think whenever you do something new, you get that initial wave of criticism, and then people kind of get back into it, or they don’t and that’s fine, too. But as far as the side projects, I completely disagree with that. We’ve always been involved in side projects for 10 years. We’re all musicians who play in a number of bands, constantly kind of growing creatively and learning from other people. I think people probably don’t have a very good awareness of that. They’re only aware of the one or two side projects that they’ve heard of, whereas there’s so much that we draw on. But if they don’t like it, they don’t like it.

You’re currently on tour to support the new album. How’s that going?

It’s in its early days still. We’ve been mainly in Canada. We played a beautiful show last night. Was it last night? No, the night before in Quebec, which was just amazing —massive crowd, beautiful summer’s evening outside. The music has been really good.

For those who’ve never experienced one of your shows, what do you get live versus recorded material? I know you guys consider yourselves more of a live band and have even released a few live albums.

The spontaneity that happens live. So many of the musicians in the band come from a jazz background, and the songs tend to stretch out over a tour and become much longer. They just evolve, and they just become so different than what they were on the record. There’s a certain energy that has to do with a room full of people that is very different from what you try to create when you make a record for people to listen to. It’s more of a physical thing, not very much like a mental thing. We’re not trying to be pleasant, and we’re not trying to make something you can hum along to. We’re just trying to make something that is going to give you a physical reaction.

Catch The Cat Empire at Webster Hall in NYC on July 30 and at Music Hall Of Williamsburg July 31.