Greetings From the Cat Empire
The Cat Empire may have been a wonderful new discovery to those who attended its Thursday night show at last year’s Bonnaroo, but the Australian sextet — Ollie McGill (keyboard and backing vocals), Ryan Monro (bass and backing vocals), Harry James Angus (trumpet and vocals), Will Hull-Brown (drums) and Jamshid "Jumps" Khadiwhala (decks, percussion) — are music veterans who have performed around the world and released seven albums in their homeland. The members’ penchant for travel led to recording their second full-length, Two Shoes, in the same studio in Cuba that’s played host to Nat King Cole, Jack DeJohnette and Buena Vista Social Club.
While available in Australia since 2005, Two Shoes finally came out on a U.S. label last February. Just like the band's live experience, the songs seamlessly combine a host of rhythmic styles including ska, reggae, r&b, hip-hop, funk, pop, jazz, salsa, meringue, Eastern European
I had the chance to talk with one of its founders, vocalist/percussionist Felix Riebl, the day the band was scheduled to fly home after its latest series of concert dates. It took place the afternoon after it U.S. final performance, a segment on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson." The Cat Empire will begin an extended U.S. summer tour on June 28 in Atlanta. With infectious energy, unbeatable grooves plus strong songwriting and musicianship, this is a band not to be missed when they get anywhere near you.
JPG: I saw you on Craig Ferguson last night. Nice performance of “Sly.”
Felix Riebl: Yes. That was fun, the very last job of this tour.
JPG: To my eyes there was a slight look of Let’s do this thing and then we can finally relax.’ Still, it went off well.
FR: A band like ours, we travel so much. When I was a kid, all I dreamed about was being in a caravan and traveling. It’s sort of come true, but a tour bus instead. In the last month we’ve covered Germany and the UK and America, and it’s all a bit of a whirlwind. When you get to the very last thing, especially when it’s on TV, it’s so surreal the whole thing. It’s still fun.
JPG: Apparently, David Letterman and/or his people must like you a lot since you appeared not only on his show but on Ferguson’s, which is part of Letterman’s production company. He and the “Late Show” band director Paul Shaffer raved about you.
FR: We had a ball on Letterman. We were having a really good time. It took me a long time to get in touch with his humor. Australian and British humor are quite linked and it is very different to American humor, and it’s taken me awhile to catch on to it. But now I’m into it. He’s a really, really, funny guy.
JPG: The Cat Empire’s been touring the U.S. since 2003, but with these television appearances they really seem to ratchet things up.
FR: Oh, absolutely. What I said before, I didn’t mean we’re tired and wanted to take a break. I just mean, it’s been such a whirlwind. And when you’re on TV, it’s a bit exposed. It’ s such a bizarre thing, the music industry, but this trip has been huge for us. We had Letterman. We had Ferguson. All the shows were pretty much sold out. After all this time traveling around, testing the waters in the States I finally feel we’re starting to make a few waves.
JPG: My first experience seeing you was in 2005 at Cleveland’s House of Blues. Then, I made it a major point to see you at Bonnaroo. That was my photo of Harry Angus in the Bonnaroo Beacon.
FR: That was great. Bonnaroo was a huge, huge thing for us because after Bonnaroo we got together with Velour (the group’s U.S. label). Lots of people got to know us at Bonnaroo. It was probably one of my most favorite shows I’ve done in the U.S. so far.
JPG: Did you have a clue what you were getting into when you took that gig?
FR: Well, not really. We’ve done a lot of festivals in Australia and stuff like that. Festivals have always been the place where the band really shines because if we can be put in a context in front of a lot of people who don’t know the band, it’s almost my favorite gig because the band’s got a good way of doing that. It works, and Bonnaroo was like that, but in a really big way. It was great, so nice to be in front of a group of people and to watch a room grow, be half full when you start and then finish with people way up next to the tent. Actually, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I soon found out.
JPG: Seeing bands like Sonic Youth and Tortoise play there. It’s fun to see their reaction after the first song’s over. Probably any preconceptions that they’re facing a laidback neo-hippie crowd are dropped by the thought that Wow! They get it.’
FR: Yeah, I know. It’s like there’s so many different crowds at festivals. Bonnaroo’s not really a hippie crowd. It’s more like a true festival crowd, like they’re really responsive to music. And they’ve got as much rock inclination as they do other inclinations in music, and that’s really cool cause it makes for a really powerful room when you play it. It means there’s responsive sections as well as solos as well as songs.
JPG: I think it says something about the growth of the jamband scene where so many diverse interests in music are being embraced.
FR: Yeah, I noticed that. We’re in a funny position cause we’re not really a jamband as such in the old kind of Grateful Dead way. It seems like there’s been a really happy love/marriage between that and rock, which is really cool because it gives it a bit more muscle and a bit more grit. And it’s also got that generosity that a jamband crowd has as well. It’s really cool to play to.
JPG: Did that performance last June influence the crowds who come to your shows?
FR: Yeah, absolutely. Felt straight away that there was a big jump up once we played Bonnaroo. And a lot of people got into the band because of it.
JPG: Since the jamband scene and Bonnaroo present a marriage of different musical styles, I guess that’s a nice segue to The Cat Empire’s sound.
FR: It’s really hard to explain how it all came about. It’s not as if we sat down one day and said we want to combine all these things. Melbourne, it’s a big melting pot as a city. There’s so much going on. It’s really got an extraordinary quality of music there.
Also, the musicians there, the ones we grew up with, they’re kind of, for want of a better word, they’re like jazz punks. They’re very good. They know their music very well, but they’ve got a lot of attitude. And growing up in a city, which is as diverse as that and has musicians that have got that much character about them, you get a real freedom about the way you’re playing. So, we pretty much just got together and we’re very different guys. I was really into the Latin thing. I was really into the Eastern thing. Ollie [McGill] was into the real jazz thing. Ryan [Monro] brought a real rock quality and Jamshid [“Jumps” Khadiwhala] brought hip-hop. He grew up in a hip-hop culture there. And then somehow, I wrote songs and our songs started but it came very naturally after that, taking on all those different characters in em.
JPG: Going back in the band’s history, you started out as threesome, you on percussion, Ollie on keyboards and Ryan on double bass, as The Jazz Cat.
FR: Oh yeah, man. That’s very early days.
JPG: The early, early days. Were you in high school or just starting college or?
FR: No, no, no, no, we were, I mean, the thing about the band is we’ve always done gigs. Pretty much the only other job I’ve ever had is laboring, but that was just my own aside from when I wasn’t doing shows. None of us went to high school together, but since we were maybe 16/17 we started doing gigs. So, we’d meet each other literally on the stage.
The way things worked is you’d get booked for a gig and then you’d meet the people you were playing with that night, and you’d do a show. So, I knew Ollie. The two of us started the band. I’ve known him since we were 12 or 13. We did our first gig together when we were, I don’t know, maybe 13 or 14 and we’ve been playing together in random various things after that. Everyone else I met when I was 17/18 and we were just playing around town together.
JPG: Was this part of that whole jazz punk scene from Melbourne?
FR: Yeah, pretty much, when I say jazz punk I don’t mean jazz music and punk music. I mean guys who can play who’ve got a real attitude.
Melbourne is a really cool city to grow up in because there’s enough competitive edge to really be ambitious about your music, but there’s also a lot of generosity in the oldest generations and that’s something that we’re also going to pass down as we grow up. When I got to meet Harry [Angus] we used to go into this illegal Mafia bar called the Zed Bar. We finished at our gig about 11 and then we’d knock on the window with the older guys playing and then we’d come and sit in with the band. And from about 12 until about 9 the next morning there’d be a lock up with all the best guys playing. And that’s how we’d get our practice, like seven or eight hours, three or four days a week late at night. We got that kind of trial by fire introduction to the music scene and it was really handy.
It was a golden time. We’re 18 and playing at this bar and it was really romanticized. Music was fantastic and it was great.
JPG: Learning your craft during those times at the Zed Bar. Was that how The Cat Empire got things together?
FR: When we first became a sextet that was a huge influence, yeah. It was one of the biggest ones because when you’re playing really late at night and you’re drinking and it’s a big party, all of a sudden musical styles starts to become less and less of an issue. It becomes much more about the spirit of the music than it does about what you’re actually playing. When we started doing our own shows, which were also late at night, after festivals or after the circus, it had that same energy, which we’d been able to experience at the bar. It’s interesting to tell it 'cause I never really thought about it. Now, finally, I can have a proper answer when people ask me in an interview.
JPG: So, I take it the combination of styles, at least the first few gigs, they clashed and it took awhile to smooth out the rough edges.
FR: Absolutely. Exactly right.
JPG: Looking at your debut album (_The Cat Empire_ has only been released in Australia.), the majority is written by you. Did you have a form of the song and then everyone brought something into the mix?
FR: What I did then is, like all those sounds are in your head. Everyone in the band got their own thing and then, naturally, when playing you learn things from each other, stuff like that.
As far as what I said about the city and the musicians and things like that when you’ve grown up like that, you have an idea for a song, Wouldn’t it be cool for this kind of a rhythm or this kind of a thing?’ Then you write a story around it, the lyrics, or you find your hook and then everything else seems to fall in naturally. For the first album, for instance, what I brought to the band was like you bring a chart. It has the chords, the melody, the basic arrangement. After that, the character of the six musicians really turned it into a true Cat Empire song.
JPG: On Two Shoes, the songwriting is split up a little bit more, is that because others became more comfortable bringing things up?
FR: I suppose so, yeah. We had a lot of songs floating around and that was that. Harry started writing some more. We started writing some songs together. Every time we’d go to a soundcheck or something like that, we’d always record a gig and the middle section would always go out, someone would improvise something. It sounded sort of cool and then from within one song another song would grow. Everyone’s growing more confident in this band, so they’re gonna start bringing new ideas and I think what we gain by that in the future.
JPG: Those two albums have been released in Australia in 2003 and 2005, how has it been for you playing a lot of the same songs again and again?
FR: We’ve been throwing in some new tunes and when we tour again do some nice covers. It’s nice when you do a cover of a song because you can listen for a moment to someone else’s song. Consequently, you know your own material so well it’s hard to have that kind of objectivity to it. When you’re playing someone else’s song, and you love it, it’s just for a moment onstage you kind of relax and let the song play itself, and you can enjoy it as much as the crowd does. I think that’s really cool.
We’ll probably bring some new stuff as well. I think it’s important to keep things interesting, especially with a loyal fan base that expect a lot from the shows. We try and deliver that, of course.
JPG: But, as musicians playing the same material for so many years, does it get difficult?
FR: Yeah, absolutely it does. It’s really challenging because this band requires so much energy. It’s so different and it’s got such a strange instrumentation, it requires everyone always to be thinking pretty creatively and always being really committed to the show. That takes a lot of energy from everyone. And if you don’t have stuff that sparks that kind of creativity, like new material or sections or different songs, then it makes it harder. It gets pretty draining to tour. So, we really have to think about it a lot to keep the shows fresh.
When we first started every night was completely different and that’s how we grew up. We played a lot of jazz clubs when we were younger and every night the song would be different. If it was the keys solo the one night, it was the bass solo the next night or it’d be a drum thing the next night. It’d be something completely different and that’s how we did it at places like the Edinburgh Festival and Adelaide Festival when it was a really revolving late night experience.
And then when you get up on bigger stages and you start touring a lot, you start to work on sections that really work. If you’re at a festival and it works, it’s great to play it. So, we’re trying to find a combination now with just something between the two of those. Sometimes it’s nice to play a song, you know the album length and just make it a song, and sometimes it’s nice to go on an exciting solo somewhere, sometimes to do a section that you’ve done before because you can really nail it and it has a certain reaction. We’re coming up with a formula, which is part improvised and different every night and part worked on sections and part just songs. It’s starting to work out. I mean, you always improve and some nights are better than others.
JPG: Going back to when you first played the U.S. They were dates in California in 2003. What inspired you to come all that way because you didn’t have an American label then or anyone who knew you?
FR: (slight laugh) I don’t know. I’ve done a lot of things like that. It’s like I said before, when I was a kid, I thought that would be the coolest thing to play every night and to be like a magic caravan that went around, and somehow even though you’ve got to be careful for what you wish for, cause the band’s gone on some funny places on whims. We went to Cuba pretty much cause we wanted to go to Cuba to check it out. Who would have thought to make a record there? We came to America cause we thought we’d check it out and do some gigs. We’ve been all over Europe. We’ve been to places which are completely bizarre and played in venues which are completely bizarre as well purely because I think that’s what the music’s about, to some degree. If we write about that kind of stuff and that sort of festivity and sense of adventure then somehow it was for us, put our money where our mouth was. And it really worked out for us.
It was something about Cat Empire in the early days that we always did the thing that most people would just say, I wouldn’t have the courage,’ and didn’t actually do it. We always had that little bit of extra spark, take a chance and go for it. I think that’s really worked out for us.
We’ve just done a tour of Germany and the U.K. and never released a record in either of those places. And the shows are much bigger than the States in those two places as well. It’s amazing! I’m not even sure how it works anymore. I think it’s got to do with the world getting smaller; the word of mouth thing has always worked for us. We’ve always been a live band and we’ve always been a band that people have talked about and come to shows with. Pretty loyal fans. It’s bizarre that we’ve never released CDs in these areas, and we can do really big tours now. That’s just how it is. I suppose it’s a bit of a cult following.
JPG: You mentioned traveling to Cuba, which is where you recorded Two Shoes. For Americans, it seems like such an exotic mysterious place because, technically, we’re not allowed to go there. How was it for you?
FR: It was pretty hard to get there, actually. We thought it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but there was a lot of stuff. We were in customs for like six hours. Getting our stuff over there was so hard because they don’t have the kind of systems that most people do, transport systems and postal systems and everything. Just getting our instruments there was a huge ordeal. When we were there it was really amazing. It’s a helluva a place and I’m so glad I got to go there. I’m not sure what’s going to happen to Cuba in the next 10-20 years. I think we got to see it in a pretty pure form. We met a lot of musicians. We got to play in that famous old studio. For me it was worth every cent and every piece of blood.
The ambition was to make a record, which was really stripped back, and really kind of earthy and almost a bit, I suppose, just raw sounding. So, we demo-ed them and we arranged them pretty well. We just went over there and invented a few things. We did a few bits and pieces. I think for the next one we’ll do, which we’re going to do this year sometime, we’re going to go back to having a couple of the songs pretty much done. A lot of em we’re really gonna go to town on and we’re going to write a few of em in the studio. We’re going to do lots of different stuff.
JPG: Now, why is it that on the U.S. version of “Two Shoes” the ballad Miserere” is replaced by “The Chariot Song” from your debut?
FR: Well, it’s a funny one. That’s one of my favorite songs. I really enjoy that song. It’s strange because The Cat Empire can play almost every style of music, it’s almost renowned for how much different stuff it puts in there, but that’s one song that didn’t really work with the band at first. We played it live a few times and it was just too quiet to perform at shows. The crowd’s at a certain level and we couldn’t perform that song because no one could hear us. And it’s one of those songseven the band had a lot of trouble playing it. So, after we released it in Australia, we thought that “The Chariot Song,” being a huge anthem for the band, is one that’s been a real workhorse for us in terms of the set and a really good song. Put that in instead. I think “Miserere” is something this band will come back to later in life.
JPG: Do you think it’s a matter that live there’s such energy and adrenalin flowing that to do something that quiet
FR: That’s what it is. It’s the sort of song you have to play for a much quieter crowd and you’d have to put it in a set early with that sort of listening approach. If you expect people to dance and go nuts, if you start an album with “Sly,” and then halfway through you’ve got “Miserere” it’s just too much of a contrast. And so we thought, for America, we’d take it out and that would become the “Two Shoes” album.
JPG: Although that kind of ruins it for a song such as “Miserere,” is their an inherent desire with the music of The Cat Empire to produce an upbeat feeling, your method of changing the world even if it’s just for an hour or two?
FR: I’m always really tentative to answer this question because I think people can often say it’s really happy music. The music’s lively; I think that’s the best way to explain it. We really felt alive in those days. We still do. It was a big adventure to play in this band. It was different music. It had different characters in it.
But having said that it’s always been an honest band. Probably the best achievement we’ve done is being able to play music which is different and also make people feel happy when we play it or feel festive, feel lively. It’s something, which is missing in a lot of music somehow. It doesn’t have to be in all music, and if you knew my tastes in music, I don’t listen to that much happy music.
I remember playing in the early days, the feeling I got from music was that kind of liveliness and I think that one of the achievements of the band is being able to transfer that liveliness to the audience. Let an audience, perhaps, experience what you experience while you’re playing music. I think that’s something that the Cat Empire really represents.