The Cat Empire: ‘We Feel Close to India in a Lot of Ways
Australian reggae/jazz rock band’s frontman Felix Riebl on their India debut, their upcoming “festive” album and singing in 20 languages on one song
You know the universal appealÂ of your music when you’reÂ playing at a Mormon weddingÂ one night and enthralling theÂ Communist Party of Italy the next. AustralianÂ jazz/Latin/reggae rock band The CatÂ Empire’s frontman Felix Riebl says over theÂ phone from Melbourne, “Those early daysÂ of the band ”“ we’d often be sleeping in theÂ same room, we would play a big festival oneÂ night and one night sleep in a bowling alleyÂ above a derelict pub. You realize that a certainÂ craziness is inherent in this world andÂ in this music that we’re making.”
The music remained consistent ever sinceÂ the band came together in 1999 and steadilyÂ began taking over festival stages in Australia,Â with hits such as “The Lost Song,” “TwoÂ Shoes” and more recently, “Brighter ThanÂ Gold,” off Steal the Light . With everythingÂ from the traveling World of Music,Â Arts and Dance [WOMAD] festival to aÂ packed show at London’s Royal Albert Hall lastÂ year in the bag, the six-memberÂ band makes their India debut at wine andÂ music festival SulaFest in Nashik, betweenÂ February 6th and 7th.
The band’s jump-around energy set toÂ even jumpier music is probably what hasÂ made them festival favorites across theÂ world. Like any other band that incorporatesÂ elements of reggae, Latin and funk,Â The Cat Empire have that reputation ofÂ being party-starters. But Riebl corrects usÂ when we classify The Cat Empire as a skaÂ band, saying that there’s much more it thanÂ any single genre. It’s no surprise their FacebookÂ page says “You name it!” under genre.Â He says about why the band’s music is a hitÂ at festivals, “I think our sound is very welcomingÂ in that way, very inclusive as a band.Â It also means that it can’t be described. A lotÂ of different people find something about itÂ they can enjoy.”
In an exclusive interview with ROLLINGÂ STONE India, Riebl talks about comingÂ to India, activism, the new Cat EmpireÂ album and why he sings in differentÂ languages.
You just finished recording withÂ the band a couple of days ago.Â What can you tell me about theÂ new album?
It’s a very festive album. I think it’s melodicallyÂ very strong. We recorded it in
the same place as Steal the Light. It takesÂ off from that sound. We tried a few newÂ things, but overall, we want the music toÂ be able to be performed at a festival andÂ take off in that context. That was kindaÂ our ambition ”“ in our songwriting andÂ performances. I think it’s achieved that.
When is it set to release?
I think March/April, that kind of time.
You also just released yourÂ own solo EP ”˜Lonely Truth’.Â What was it like managing bothÂ projects in terms of mind space?Â
My own music is quite different to theÂ Cat Empire’s, I don’t feel like there’s a crossoverÂ there. But it’s a busy time, to answerÂ your question. I love writing music, recordingÂ and releasing it. There just happens toÂ be a lot going on right now.
The Cat Empire is a very different animalÂ [compared to solo material] ”“ it’s percussive,Â lot of contrasting sounds that getÂ smashed together. It’s based around ourÂ live shows. And when I write for myself,Â it’s often more singular, more directÂ kind of songwriting, I suppose.
You guys toured with [MelbourneÂ indie pop duo] the Pierce BrothersÂ in Europe earlier this year, andÂ they’ve played in India. Do youÂ think India is very accessible toÂ Australians?
That’s great, they’re our friends. It’sÂ going to be our first time in India, we’veÂ never been. We feel close to it in a lot ofÂ ways. There’s a lot of Indian people in Australia,Â there’s the cricket and all of that. AÂ lot of Indian food here”¦ I’m very excited toÂ go there because I hope there’s a good crossoverÂ with the appreciation of music as well.
Is this going to be your first time inÂ the country, then? Jamshid [Khadiwala,Â turntablist] Â might have visitedÂ before.Â
People have visited India ”“ HarryÂ [Angus , vocalist and trumpeter]Â has been there several times. JamshidÂ has been several times as well.Â He’s got a lot of family in India. We’veÂ never been there as a band, though.
You mentioned in an interview thatÂ one of the songs on this new recordÂ has lyrics in 20 different languages.Â How did that happen?
I think I got very excited about musicÂ from other places and after a while, whenÂ I’m writing songs, I don’t want to understandÂ the songs too well. Even in English,Â lately, I’ve been trying to write in a way thatÂ the song is still mysterious. In that way,Â other languages can be really useful. ForÂ example, when I write a song in Spanish,Â I come up with a melody which is made ofÂ vowels from Norway. Vowels and syllablesÂ that are just gibberish in a way. And then, IÂ call up one of my Spanish friends and thenÂ we try to have fun singing and seeing whatÂ that sounds like in Spanish. I made a songÂ just like that.
The song that you referred to,Â was one where I took one word,Â which was ”˜compassion’, and IÂ found how it is pronounced in differentÂ languages. This was a songÂ called “Flags” about the nature ofÂ playing to an eclectic audience andÂ having an open mind to differentÂ people. We’ve a terrible situation inÂ Australia in terms of how we dealÂ with asylum seekers. We’re very involvedÂ with the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre,Â played with many musicians from differentÂ places. It’s a song that’s about the dynamicÂ differences within our culture hereÂ and trying to celebrate that, as opposed toÂ shutting it out.
Does that kind of thing ever getÂ people angry, since you’re mixingÂ up their language?
Yeah. I’m sure people have thought it before.Â I’ve never had a confrontation. But
I can’t pretend that I always get the pronunciationsÂ right. I do research andÂ speak to people, I try to get it right,Â but it’s not always right. I hope peopleÂ can see it in the spirit that it’s meant ”“Â which is more of a celebration rather thanÂ an appropriation, if that makes sense.
You mentioned working with AsylumÂ Seekers Resource Centre andÂ your songs have been used to fundÂ environmental causes. What inspiresÂ you to get into activism?
I don’t know if I’d call us activists, to beÂ honest. With respect to genuine activists,Â I think what we do is try to play musicÂ that brings people together. I think thatÂ achieves more for us as a band than anyÂ work that we do outside, I suppose.Â I’m inspired by great musiciansÂ and bands and they mayÂ have a lot of different beliefs, butÂ if they make great music, then IÂ really love them. I suppose I’mÂ more influenced by my favoriteÂ bands and artists than I amÂ particularly by one team of activistsÂ or something like that.
Harry mentioned in an earlier interviewÂ that in your early days,Â you played at a Mormon weddingÂ as well as for the Communist PartyÂ in Italy. What have been the weirdestÂ gigs for you?
I’d say the first night at the EdinburghÂ Festival years and years ago. Over 10 yearsÂ ago, we played the Edinburgh Festival. WeÂ were starting at about 3 am each night andÂ it was after the comedy. It was amazing,Â but it was stand-up comedy played to veryÂ demanding Scottish hecklers, really seasonedÂ people.
I think [English comedian] Daniel KitsonÂ was the MC for that night. He’d organizedÂ this musical duel between the comedians,Â so we went on stage and one of theÂ comedians ran out naked, covered in gafferÂ tape and the other one ran out doingÂ something else.
We were supposed to accompany thisÂ comedy duel ”“ it was so bizarre, but it reallyÂ stood out in my mind. That was pretty weird.Â Some of the world’s best comedians start outÂ in that place, it’s called Late ”˜n’ Live. We wereÂ the in-house band there for a month, justÂ some of the strangest stuff would happenÂ every night. It was amazing. In some ways,Â those early trips”¦ if we could cope with that,Â other shows would be easy in comparison.