I think it’s safe to say that everyone loves (or should love) The Cat Empire. Their infectious blend of salsa, ska and hip hop is enough to get even the laziest feet moving.
While on their epic 10th Anniversary Tour of Europe, I spoke on the phone to Felix Riebl about new album vibes, solo releases, the UK and mindless wandering.
It’s clear that these guys love to perform, despite all the ‘vacuous spaces’ that seem to occupy most touring schedules. Hopefully this means that the band will be around for everyone to enjoy for many years to come.
What’s it like to be back in the UK?
The enthusiasm of the crowds all over the UK, in Bristol in particular, have grown and have been very enthusiastic, and I think for a band like us to play to such a warm and powerful response each night really keeps us on our toes musically and gives us a lot of scope to play the sort of music we want to play.
Do you find it weird being so far from home but still so popular?
I always kinda pinch myself. I remember starting out as a teenager, being at the end of an alley before one of the first jazz gigs we did and calling up all my old school friends to try and get people in the room, and I’ve never forgotten that feeling. Playing to a full house is a great feeling and I take time to really remember that. I spose it stepped up a level in London, we played the Brixton Academy and the Shepherds Bush Empire 2 nights in a row, that’s a lot of people and we’re on the other side of the world. It’s really surprising, and quite humbling as well.
Don’t you feel a bit silly sacrificing a beautiful Australian summer for England in October?
Nah, I love it here at the moment! We’ve generally been pretty lucky with winters in the band, we’d usually miss them out to come and play European festivals, and we often work from one summer to the next, from the States to Europe then back to Australia, so we’ve had our share of sunshine! I’m honestly really enjoying the turning weather and the darkness of it all!
What can we expect coming up from you or The Cat Empire? Any plans to tour with your solo album?
I will tour with it, I’m not sure when I’ll get over here with it, at some stage I will, but I think what’s coming up for us is a lot of writing, a lot of recording. I think what’s one of the most exciting things about The Cat Empire at the moment is that, after 10 years, we’ve been through a lot and we’ve kind of come out the other end in a very good space and we tour for the right reasons and we intend on making another album for the right reasons. There’s a lot of energy and experience in the band now to do that, so within the next year or so we should record again. And personally, I’m writing music for a lot of different things, I’m composing for films and solo albums. I’d like to spend more time in Europe and just write as much as I can in the next few years, think that’s the basic plan.
Look forward to hearing it! Do you write when you’re on the road?
I do a bit at the moment, I’m trying to write on the road but it’s a funny one, that. Sometimes it comes really naturally and sometimes you tend to kind of hibernate during the day and prepare for the show. It depends where you are on the tour. I have to at the moment, I’ve got some songs I’d like to finish so I’m trying to do that at the moment.
What’s it like being on the road with Eagle Worm, are they mates from back home?
Yeah, they’re a Melbourne group, they’ve been great fun to travel with. They are like a really classic, good times rock n roll band.
Been throwing TVs out of windows then?
Nah, they’re on a budget! I’m sure they’ll work their way up to it.
How long are you touring for?
About 5 weeks all up I think. Just over a month.
Do you ever find it hard to keep the momentum and enthusiasm up with so many gigs lined up?
Yeah, of course. It’s a constant challenge really. I think were pretty lucky with the amount of energy we get from the audience, they really put it up to the band each night. It’s a really extreme kind of lifestyle; you preserve all your energy to do 2 hours on stage each night. There’s a lot of travelling and a lot of quite vacuous spaces. You live in a very parallel world each day, so it’s tough to try and stay focussed enough and to try and enjoy yourself enough to make the experience worthwhile. It’s been a challenge over the years to work out different ways of doing that, but in the end the central focus is always the music, and that’s always quite natural and spontaneous each night, and there’s enough interest there to keep it pretty exciting.
Do you have any traditions when you’re on the road or try and get out and about in the places you’re visiting?
I have in the past. Walking is a big thing for me; I enjoy listening to music and walking. I find the pace of the world at walking speed suits me really well. Instead of just living in band rooms and busses and stages it’s important to see things in the outside world. It’s also to try and recharge. I find the batteries are recharged by listening to music and sometimes reading and getting to know a few people. Getting outside the bubble, I spose. The bubble, which is more or less the tour bus, hotel rooms, back stages and performing, so I like to meet people and get out sometimes.
You seem like a band that picks up influences from wherever you go. Can you listen to a song and then associate that track with a certain time and place?
Absolutely. The band is sort of like a monster that picks up and engulfs all the things it hears. All the members have quite different tastes, and we pick lots of things up. It all sort of comes out through whatever songs we put together. I think that’s probably one of the things I love about this band most of all and the reason why it has so much international appeal is because we’ve always been scavengers for exciting sounds, I spose. We’ve been able to play at a lot of festivals and a diverse range of venues, from jazz clubs to big rock festivals, so there’s been a lot that we’ve picked up along the way, and I think in many ways that’s why we are excited to start making a new album because I feel like that level of musical intake mixed with the experience that you get over 10 years, of playing together and writing songs, having written enough bad songs to know what sounds like a good song. I’d really love to make an album that’s just very international sounding and takes in all the sounds we’ve heard.
Your one of the few bands I can think of that doesn’t use guitars, have you ever considered getting a guitarist on board?
I’ve been tempted, I have to say. I don’t think we would ever turn into a guitar heavy band, but I have been tempted a few times to get a guitarist on board. It seems to be one of the characteristics of the band now, that we don’t have guitars, so I’m not sure, maybe we’ll look into it for the next album. There are enough people travelling at the moment, 8 on stage so we travel with 12 on the bus. It’s a lot of people to travel with, and you want to be very careful about adding anyone else to the mix.
So, a ballpark guess on new material?
Who knows, sometimes they happen quickly and sometimes they don’t. I’m determined not to make an album that we have to produce to a deadline cos we feel the necessity to have it released. We’re touring and writing music because we’re enjoying it and because the bands in a good spot, and so when the songs are ready they’ll be ready. I remember our first album took a long time, we started off with 22 or 24 songs and brought it down to 12 I think. 12 or 13. I think I’d like to take the same approach, make sure every track is gonna be really right.
Good things come to those who wait!
Yeah, I think so. I’m always amazed overseas because the band hasn’t had much radio play over here at all, no commercial radio but the music’s spread through word of mouth. I think that happened with the first couple of albums, people had brought them into their groups of friends. We’ve got a very loyal, passionate following through that kind of album mentality, which I think is quite rare these days. I think there really aren’t that many dedicated album fans left any more, and I think that combined with the live show has allowed the band to have quite a unique position. It’s been really major in the bands success, and I have to be honoured with an album that I feel is really, really quality.
The diversity of your music really helps bring people in as well
Yeah, it’s rare and it’s a fantastic thing to look at the audience. We’ve never been a particularly fashionable band, so far as our audience has never been one type of person. It’s a mixture of everything, tonight we might be completely surprised by a younger audience or an older audience or everyone in between and the oldest are usually quite old and the youngest are usually quite young. There’s something disarming about an old fashioned sense of commitment to playing each night in a way that allows people to come on board
You play with a lot of improvisation and musical freedom in your shows. Do you find playing at different festivals and venues alters the way you play?
Yeah, I suppose so. We put more emphasis on some things. I suppose with festivals they are usually on a big outdoor stage so you have to make the sounds and ideas simpler and more direct for it to carry across, especially without amplified guitars which often fill up that space so for rock festivals its often more rhythmic, the solos are punchier and a bit shorter, but at a jazz festival or in a jazz club its all about bringing the audience in, songs can stretch out and things like that.’
Changing your style to fit the gig is a pretty unusual attribute
Yeah I think so. I think it’s pretty unique like that, to be able to take a jazz mentality into an environment where people want to dance. It’s all very theatrical as well. I’ve never played in a band like this before and I don’t think I ever will, it’s great to be a part of it.
Well, as long as you keep coming back to the UK!
Yeah, with this tour we’ve been playing lots of older stuff, so I think the next time we’re back we’ll have some new music.
I’ll be there! Thanks for talking to me today, good luck with the rest of the tour.
Thanks! Come say Hi when we’re next in town.
Will caught up with Felix in advance of their O2 Academy show on 23rd October. To see his gig review click here: /2011/11/04/the-cat-empire/