The genre-bending Cat are without a doubt one of the most fun live gigs I’ve ever been to. Impossible not to dance to, they enthuse fans with their uplifting mash-up of distinctive sounds. Singer/songwriter and percussionist Felix Riebl spoke with The Echo in the leadup to the double-header The Cat Empire are playing with Xavier Rudd.
After 10 years together as a band, how do you maintain the fire that keeps you being touted as one of the world’s great ‘party bands’?
It’s a combination of factors, I’m sure. But I remember the first time we all rehearsed together, something exceptional happened, a chemical reaction. It’s the stuff that binds bands, that unexplainable combustion, and while there are interesting topics to write about, and people from all over the world coming to our shows with the amount of energy they do, it’s lively as hell.
What is a ‘party band’ btw?
I don’t really like the expression party band; it seems to diminish the sense of reckless joy I get from writing and performing. I love music because it’s able to take a huge range of emotions and ideas and turn them into a moment of real movement that party doesn’t quite do justice to. Having said that, we’ve played hundreds and hundreds of festivals over the years, and we’ve celebrated dynamics and contrasts in our sound, and that’s been a huge part of our collective story. Maybe ‘party band’ translates to ‘festival band’.
What does it feel like to make people dance? Do you feel like the pied piper? Is it hard not to go nuts with the power?
When The Cat Empire was a trio, we often played in tiny, seated jazz clubs. I remember thinking to myself if only we could get them out of their seats. The first time it happened, it was such a rush, I can still recall the feeling; it was the bomb! The movement in the music is probably the most enjoyable thing. It’s not a power you can easily contain; when it’s good it just washes over you. I hope it’s something similar for the audience.
The only time I felt like the pied piper was in the early days of touring, when we led a group of very drunk comedians and circus performers up to Arthur’s Seat in the wee hours of Edinburgh… since then I haven’t thought about it like that.
The Cat Empire has always had that wild onstage feel like anything can happen… could it? Or are you more tightly choreographed in your playing than you let on?
We came from a place of real chaos. Like those early Edinburgh concerts I told you about, really anything could happen, and often did. Over the years we’ve swayed between order and chaos, sometimes closer to one or the other. Generally the best shows still have the tension that’s created by not knowing exactly what’s coming next, but also a show that has a good arc.
What’s the weirdest experience you’ve had touring and playing thus far?
Again, probably Edinburgh way back when. Images that come to mind are playing backing music to cut-mad comedians running onstage stark naked and screaming hilarious obscenities, starting at 3am each night and playing till 6am, chainsaw jugglers, sideways bagpipers, weird stalker fans showing their appreciation by throwing blood sausage onto the stage, stages full of people, us all sleeping on the floor of a single-room apartment, seeing only sunrise each day, living on warm beer and fried food. We were kids!
Your all-time standout show?
I’d probably have to say Royal Albert Hall in London. It was completely sold out and just one of those very special nights. I sang Miserere for the encore with my bother Max; that was a real moment for me personally.
Tell me about Rising with the Sun. How do you always mannage to create such euphoric music?
I’m not sure exactly. Again, it’s a combination of things, some collective and some very personal.
I feel as though the last two albums have been strong in that way though. As a songwriter, it’s been a bumper patch, the ideas have been coming thick and fast. And as a band, maybe we’ve learned not to get in the way of ourselves too much, to just let it happen. Whatever it is, we’ve experienced a bit of a renaissance these last few years.
How did you record Rising with the Sun?
For one thing we didn’t rehearse before we got into the studio. I had a collection of songs, and Harry had a few, and we wrote some in there. It meant the other musicians were hearing the songs as they were recording them, and that their early instincts for parts were often those we kept. In terms of the studio, we did it in Melbourne with Jan Skubiszewski at Way of the Eagle Studios. It’s a simple and familiar space.
What will you be playing at your Byron show?
Ah you know, a combination of the new and old. Hopefully a few surprises. We’re touring with Xavier and a mini-festival of bands, so fingers crossed there’s some chaotic group moments in there as well.
Byron has always had a huge fondness for The Cat Empire. We always felt that we knew you were cool before the rest of the world caught on. How do you feel about coming back to Byron?
Honestly, really excited. We recorded so much of our debut album up there; the place appears in songs; we’ve busked there; played almost every venue and festival, and the crowds have always been so up for it. It’s going to be great to get back. It’s a home away from home.
Saturday 4 February at Red Devil Park, Byron Bay (subject to DA approval).
Tickets from Ticketmaster www.ticketmaster.com.au.
Gates at 3pm and also featuring Sahara Beck, Ocean Alley and Harts before Xavier Rudd and Cat Empire hit the stage.