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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

Anurag Tagat Jan 04, 2016
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Cat Empire at Royal Albert Hall

The Cat Empire at Royal Albert Hall. Photo courtesy of the artist.

You know the universal appeal of your music when you’re playing at a Mormon wedding one night and enthralling the Communist Party of Italy the next. Australian jazz/Latin/reggae rock band The Cat Empire’s frontman Felix Riebl says over the phone from Melbourne, “Those early days of the band ”“ we’d often be sleeping in the same room, we would play a big festival one night and one night sleep in a bowling alley above a derelict pub. You realize that a certain craziness is inherent in this world and in this music that we’re making.”

The music remained consistent ever since the band came together in 1999 and steadily began taking over festival stages in Australia, with hits such as “The Lost Song,” “Two Shoes” and more recently, “Brighter Than Gold,” off Steal the Light [2013]. With everything from the traveling World of Music, Arts and Dance [WOMAD] festival to a packed show at London’s Royal Albert Hall last year in the bag, the six-member band makes their India debut at wine and music festival SulaFest in Nashik, between February 6th and 7th.

The band’s jump-around energy set to even jumpier music is probably what has made them festival favorites across the world. Like any other band that incorporates elements of reggae, Latin and funk, The Cat Empire have that reputation of being party-starters. But Riebl corrects us when we classify The Cat Empire as a ska band, saying that there’s much more it than any single genre. It’s no surprise their Facebook page says “You name it!” under genre. He says about why the band’s music is a hit at festivals, “I think our sound is very welcoming in that way, very inclusive as a band. It also means that it can’t be described. A lot of different people find something about it they can enjoy.”

In an exclusive interview with ROLLING STONE India, Riebl talks about coming to India, activism, the new Cat Empire album and why he sings in different languages.

You just finished recording with the band a couple of days ago. What can you tell me about the new album?

It’s a very festive album. I think it’s melodically very strong. We recorded it in
the same place as Steal the Light. It takes off from that sound. We tried a few new things, but overall, we want the music to be able to be performed at a festival and take off in that context. That was kinda our ambition ”“ in our songwriting and performances. I think it’s achieved that.

When is it set to release?

I think March/April, that kind of time.

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You also just released your own solo EP ”˜Lonely Truth’. What was it like managing both projects in terms of mind space? 

My own music is quite different to the Cat Empire’s, I don’t feel like there’s a crossover there. But it’s a busy time, to answer your question. I love writing music, recording and releasing it. There just happens to be a lot going on right now.

The Cat Empire is a very different animal [compared to solo material] ”“ it’s percussive, lot of contrasting sounds that get smashed together. It’s based around our live shows. And when I write for myself, it’s often more singular, more direct kind of songwriting, I suppose.

You guys toured with [Melbourne indie pop duo] the Pierce Brothers in Europe earlier this year, and they’ve played in India. Do you think India is very accessible to Australians?

That’s great, they’re our friends. It’s going to be our first time in India, we’ve never been. We feel close to it in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of Indian people in Australia, there’s the cricket and all of that. A lot of Indian food here”¦ I’m very excited to go there because I hope there’s a good crossover with the appreciation of music as well.

Is this going to be your first time in the country, then? Jamshid [Khadiwala, turntablist]  might have visited before. 

People have visited India ”“ Harry [Angus , vocalist and trumpeter] has been there several times. Jamshid has been several times as well. He’s got a lot of family in India. We’ve never been there as a band, though.

You mentioned in an interview that one of the songs on this new record has lyrics in 20 different languages. How did that happen?

I think I got very excited about music from other places and after a while, when I’m writing songs, I don’t want to understand the songs too well. Even in English, lately, I’ve been trying to write in a way that the song is still mysterious. In that way, other languages can be really useful. For example, when I write a song in Spanish, I come up with a melody which is made of vowels from Norway. Vowels and syllables that are just gibberish in a way. And then, I call up one of my Spanish friends and then we try to have fun singing and seeing what that sounds like in Spanish. I made a song just like that.

The song that you referred to, was one where I took one word, which was ”˜compassion’, and I found how it is pronounced in different languages. This was a song called “Flags” about the nature of playing to an eclectic audience and having an open mind to different people. We’ve a terrible situation in Australia in terms of how we deal with asylum seekers. We’re very involved with the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, played with many musicians from different places. It’s a song that’s about the dynamic differences within our culture here and trying to celebrate that, as opposed to shutting it out.

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Does that kind of thing ever get people angry, since you’re mixing up their language?

Yeah. I’m sure people have thought it before. I’ve never had a confrontation. But
I can’t pretend that I always get the pronunciations right. I do research and speak to people, I try to get it right, but it’s not always right. I hope people can see it in the spirit that it’s meant ”“ which is more of a celebration rather than an appropriation, if that makes sense.

You mentioned working with Asylum Seekers Resource Centre and your songs have been used to fund environmental causes. What inspires you to get into activism?

I don’t know if I’d call us activists, to be honest. With respect to genuine activists, I think what we do is try to play music that brings people together. I think that achieves more for us as a band than any work that we do outside, I suppose. I’m inspired by great musicians and bands and they may have a lot of different beliefs, but if they make great music, then I really love them. I suppose I’m more influenced by my favorite bands and artists than I am particularly by one team of activists or something like that.

Harry mentioned in an earlier interview that in your early days, you played at a Mormon wedding as well as for the Communist Party in Italy. What have been the weirdest gigs for you?

I’d say the first night at the Edinburgh Festival years and years ago. Over 10 years ago, we played the Edinburgh Festival. We were starting at about 3 am each night and it was after the comedy. It was amazing, but it was stand-up comedy played to very demanding Scottish hecklers, really seasoned people.

I think [English comedian] Daniel Kitson was the MC for that night. He’d organized this musical duel between the comedians, so we went on stage and one of the comedians ran out naked, covered in gaffer tape and the other one ran out doing something else.

We were supposed to accompany this comedy duel ”“ it was so bizarre, but it really stood out in my mind. That was pretty weird. Some of the world’s best comedians start out in that place, it’s called Late ”˜n’ Live. We were the in-house band there for a month, just some of the strangest stuff would happen every night. It was amazing. In some ways, those early trips”¦ if we could cope with that, other shows would be easy in comparison.

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