Longevity is hard to achieve in any field. Bankers, bakers and plumbers burn out, but no business grinds quite as hard as the music business. The Cat Empire are a phenomenon in this respect- 2013 sees the band’s 12th anniversary, 12 years which have seen the industry morph and accelerate beyond anything this group of long-haired teenagers could have predicted back in their bedrooms in 1999, but 12 years which have seen renewed success for the ska/jazz/reggae outfit. The man driving them has been Felix Riebl, a softly spoken, velvety man from Melbourne. We caught up with him in the wake of an all-encompassing tour of the Americas for a chat.
We first interviewed The Cat Empire back in 2011 and there’ve been quite a few changes since then. You’ve produced some solo work in that time- how was that received within the band?
Very well, actually. There was a point, years before then, when it might have been contentious, but The Cat Empire has been around for a long time and its a very specific project now which can be very theatrical, like stepping into character, so the solo project for me was about something much more personal. Having that outlet, being able to write songs like that, is very important, and it kind of enabled the new Cat Empire album to be quite a free-spirited album- we made it because we wanted to make it, not because we were obliged to make it- and us having had more personal outlets helped that a lot.
So it’s like stepping out of this theatrical character which I guess can get tiring.
It’s incredibly tiring. The Cat Empire requires an enormous amount of output- the music is energetic, the shows are long and you often leave the stage sweating. It’s difficult to bring a festival to a room each night if that’s not how you’re feeling. It requires you to be big and ring out your soul, especially when you’re doing a lot of shows in a row. On the flip side, we have an incredible and very diverse audience that is continuously generous which makes the difference.
Well variety is one of the cornerstones of the band, isn’t it? Your audience, for example- Car Song seems aimed at quite a young demographic, but then in other songs you’re referencing drugs. You’ve got albums where there’s a strong Western influence, and then on the other hand there’s the album you made in Cuba which is very Latin in style. Is your variety a conscious effort or is it organic?
It’s very organic. I’ve often struggled with coming to grips with how diverse it is but, somehow it happens, and it happens very naturally. I was watching the Senna documentary, and he speaks about pure racing, when there was no money involved, and I identified with that. I think of the first time that we went to the Edinburgh Festival as our moment of pure racing. We played very late at night, 3 till 6, and being part of that carnival atmosphere, with sword swallowers and gypsy musicians and drunken bagpipers, was our moment when we were at our most diverse, in those late hours.
So I’d like to talk about your songwriting- how heavily do you, as the frontman and singer, dominate the process? And is that an organic process, in a drunken room with a lot of wailing and strumming, or is it more mathematical?
The songs that I sing I generally write, and in the early days I wrote quite a few of the songs that Harry sings as well. Basically I go away and write a song and that’s a very private thing for me, I’m not very good at collaborative writing. But I’ll write the song so that it exists, bring in the form and then the band really changes it from there.
Of all these songs… Which is your least favourite?
That’s tricky… There are quite a few. On the last tour we more of less retired a couple of songs and one of them was Days Like These. I don’t hate the song but it doesn’t really mean much to me. Hello would be the obvious song to say but strangely I don’t hate it. I get very sick of it and I get upset when people assume that to be the band’s sound or whatever. It’s kind of an annoying song if you hear it too often. It was a lot of fun to play when we started out and I guess it meant something to me when I wrote it as a 19 year old. So yes, there are a few songs I’ve written where I wish we’d had a producer who would have culled a few more songs. We’re a lot more cull happy these days which I think is a good thing. Beanie is another one i don’t really like much, 145 we never play, it just feels dated to me, whereas there are other songs that are very old that I still like. I like the lyrics in How To Explain, I enjoy singing Two Shoes, and The Chariot’s another one, if I look at the verses now I might feel they were a bit obvious but I like the chorus.
It’s interesting what you say about Hello. I think a lot of people know you guys primarily for that song because its received so much airtime. Do you get a lot of fans who come just for one song?
No, actually, were very lucky like that. I’m not exposed to a lot of that, I’m sure it happens outside of my consciousness and I’m sure it would drive me crazy, but we have fans that really know a lot of our materiel and they dig quite deep. At our first show in Brazil the other day the crowd knew the words to everything and we played quite a lot of rare stuff as well. It’s a definite relief that we have a fan base that appreciate our catalogue and Hello isn’t the song they enjoy the most, actually. Some nights we play it some night we don’t. I was at Wally’s (Gotye) show in San Francisco and it was strange because people seemed to be so disinterested and when he played that song, everyone just put their phones up in the air and then went back to chatting. I feel that in this singles driven market it’s easy for people to get over attached to songs and it’s a real relief when you can be in situations with people who know your whole back catalogue and respond to the whole set.
A lot of your songs seem to hark towards a very liberal stance, both politically and behaviorally. Does that reflect in the in the band members?
There’s no way I could sit here and say we’re a liberal band or not. We’ve written things that seem to tell people what to do and I really don’t like that feeling. Those songs that tell people what to do fail. We have any number of different views in the band, and the songs don’t come from a political place, and they don’t come from a philosophical place, they come from imagination, and in the last few years of my life I’ve really come to learn that. I could definitely never hope to speak for the whole band politically.
How about on a personal level?
I’ve got no idea… The word liberal in Australia is very conservative. I vote for the greens. In terms of my stance on ‘life’, I really try not to tell people what to do. I think humans are really interesting creatures and I think on some level we’re really destructive and on others really fantastic and innovative, and that’s about the best that I can do- make music within that.
So keep politics out of music?
I think politics can exist in music, but they exist separately. i’m thinking of political bands, and the two that come to mind are Rage Against The Machine and Bob Marley and The Wailers, and neither of those two bands ever told me what to do. They presented me with a spirit of something, they created an atmosphere. It’s kind of sickening when musicians dictate. It’s more like show don’t tell.
We’ve spoken about the single based market, and the new platforms that have arisen in the last decade, and for me you guys are interesting because you’ve ridden the change. The Cat Empire were emerging in the late 90′s when the internet didn’t feature strongly in a band’s fortunes. You’re now quite internet friendly as a band, so at what point did you start thinking ‘we need to be in every nook and cranny’?
I think that’s been more recent, and probably since we’ve gone independent. Making this album we realised that we were a bit sluggish with the internet stuff and social media especially so we sort of made a conscious effort. I feel like most of us in the band are still in analogue, you know? And we still have that attachment to the physical side of the music – we grew up with that ritual of going to the store, spending 10 dollars on an album and listen to the album start to finish whilst reading the lyrics. But it did put us at a disadvantage when the whole digital thing took off. I still feel as if its a bit foreign to me, I have a Facebook page and I’m mildly involved but its still something I have to consciously make an effort for.
Obviously one of the major drawbacks to the new culture is piracy. You guys are a popular band, you’re going to be exposed to piracy.. How do you feel when you hear that people are stealing your music?
We’ve never sat down as a band and talked about it. I’ve taken a fairly passive position. I don’t mean to cop out of the argument but I’ve always been quite detached from how that’s happening. We’re in a position in this band to pay our way through live shows. I remember paying my rent from gigging,and we are used to doing shows for money, and it’s kind of a craft for me now. As a band we’ve always mad the majority of our income from shows. That’s not to say it justifies piracy. I think it would be great if there was a solid medium but I don’t think that’s Spotify, for me that’s a very flawed model. I think it’s important that there is a way for bands to be payed for their music.
That’s quite a unique viewpoint amongst musicians- quite a few get very angry about piracy which is strange in a way because in the current market, piracy can help a band. People are freely downloading the music, and they’re much more likely to hear it.
That’s definitely a large part of it. If we can bridge the gap between where it’s at now and where it was when record sales reigned supreme, it would probably be quite a good medium because you could justify the extra publicity. In some ways there’s an advantage to it because it does give bands the opportunity to use their creativity- think about the videos that people are making now. Despite the austerity, they’re actually quite creative, and they can reach a lot of people simply through good ideas without their having to be a huge body of corporate finance behind them. However it is also nice for musicians to be paid for their work.
The most searching question of the interview coming up Felix- in the Cat Empire, whose got the best looking mother?
…I don’t think I’m gonna answer that. Anyway I go I’m trapped.. There’s not really any ‘hot mums’ that stand out…So I’m not gonna say anyone’s. I could mention some of the guys wives, but that would also get me into a lot of trouble.
Interesting. Felix Riebl, you’ve been Felix Riebl, until next time.