The Cat Empire Bringing Flavours of the World to Bluesfest
One of the most danceable outfits in the lineup, The Cat Empire make a welcome return to Bluesfest 2021 with their infectious, genre-embracing anthems and a world-class, awe-inspiring show. Last week Seven caught up with co-founder, band leader and principal songwriter, Felix Riebl, from his lockdown hidey hole in Melbourne.
How’s lockdown in Melbourne today?
It’s grey this morning, but actually, the weather’s been great. It’s been really one of the nice things about this new lockdown, but today it’s grey.
I wanted to ask you about your two new songs Going to Live and Great Beauty. Going to Live is just such a lovely, positive name, but it’s actually quite a melancholy song, or am I getting the wrong impression?
It kind of is, I guess. I mean, I think melancholia, and defiance, and liveliness are often fairly closely attached to each other. Especially when it comes to songwriting. Going to Live is, for me, really hopeful – it comes from a place of exhaustion, I guess. That one I wrote with a friend of mine from Barcelona, Cristina Recio Lafuente. I just had to come back to Melbourne with The Cat Empire after our cancelled tour – it was right when the corona madness was just starting up. We were in the middle of a tour in Europe and we got a crowded flight home and had to go into isolation.
I spent a lot of time at the piano and I sort of tried to take the energy of what would have been a heavy time performing live and put it into some songwriting.
This was one that came out quite naturally – the image that launched it for me was nostalgic for Spain, especially because they were one of the really heavily suffering countries at that stage. Christina was telling me about how, in the evenings, they would go out to the roofs of their houses, or apartment blocks or onto their balconies, and there were songs that they’d all sing – the whole neighbourhood. I found that really moving as a thought, that at least for a few minutes in the day, they would celebrate life, celebrate being together. And what’s really at the heart of the song is, you know, despite oppressions and depressing things, there’s a real defiance to live that is very ongoing in people. And that’s something we celebrate in singing – and Going to Live is an ode to that.
Tell me about the other track, Great Beauty, is it about the call to prayer?
Yeah – Harry and I had a day off at the beginning of a tour in Istanbul. And it was just really beautiful hearing [the prayers] and it was quite a musical moment because it’s a call and response from one singer in one mosque to another singer in another mosque.
I sort of took that idea to be more esoteric and emphasised. To me it speaks to a calling to something that’s lively, and perhaps the calling back to stage, or a yearning for being for being back in that place as a wonder of color, people, collisions – of all those things – going to a place that, to me, is sacred I suppose, without trying to overstate the case. There is a kind of a reverence that I have for being in that collective space with people, whether that be a faith, or a live musical performance – I often think that they involve very similar commitments.
Co-founding member, Ryan Monro (bass and backing vocals), retired from the band in March 2021 – often the bass is the spine to the band’s backbone – do you think the sound of the band has changed?
We played with Yuri Pavlinov on the new tracks. We went to the studio and recorded a few songs, and there’s going to be a few more songs coming out over the next period. It was actually really nice to have a new energy man. And of course, it’s different. Because you’re right, bass and drums really define so much of a band’s identity, and not a lot of people realise that, especially people who don’t play in bands, I guess. Yes, it’s different. I would say that Yuri plays with a bit more movement, and probably a few more notes, which, to me, gave it a lot of energy and I really love that – which is taking nothing away from Ryan, because he’s played on all my solo records as well, he’s got amazing ears, he is an incredible bass player, too. We really celebrated Ryan leaving; it was time for him to go, he didn’t want to be touring anymore. It didn’t feel like a compromise, it just felt like a new energy.
It sounds like you’re going have plenty of new music for your Bluesfest set?
Yeah, it’s great to have some new material to play. The festival is going to be such a great celebration. I really think everyone is going to be so into it. There will absolutely be some older songs as well – that’s really part of the set at the moment; creating the best interplay between what’s really established in people’s lives, and has a certain nostalgia, mixed with stuff that brings some fresh energy into that. I think most bands aim for that.
This is our 15th Blues Festival performance, or something like that. We’ve built a career performing live. Having had an international career, this is really one of our favourite festivals to play. So we can’t wait to get up there.
Live music is an essential part of our lives. It’s also for the audience as well, but I love musicians and the teams around them – we live and breathe this stuff, so I can’t wait to celebrate that.
Bluesfest is set for the first weekend in October.
Tix from www.bluesfest.com.au