The rise and rise of the Cat Empire
Advertisement

The rise and rise of the Cat Empire

It's an Emily Bronte kind of day in Gisborne. A grey, late autumn gloom surrounds the wedge-tailed eagles circling a distant hill. It shivers across brown paddocks through a windbreak of trees and onto a leaf-strewn patio.

The atmosphere is as far from a long summer night in Rio as you can imagine. But the sound from behind a pair of sliding glass doors is doing its damnedest to book a flight out of here. Just audible inside, in a frantic parry of polyrhythms and stabbing horns, the Cat Empire's seventh album is under way.

"This band is very much a process of contrasts smashing up against each other," says Felix Riebl, the Melbourne jazz-funk party band's frontman, as he hugs a cup of coffee and a lamington beside the cold barbie.

Felix Riebl (third from right) and his Cat Empire bandmates have weathered changing times and musical fashions.

Felix Riebl (third from right) and his Cat Empire bandmates have weathered changing times and musical fashions.

Photo: Supplied

"I wrote a lot of my songs for this album over the last couple of years on tour, which is quite useful because the Cat Empire is a very time-and-place sort of feeling.

Advertisement

"When you're at the tail end of a tour and you really remember what it is to be inside this crazy thing you've created, it's good to write in that space because you come home and you can easily forget it," he grins.

"It's a totally different world."

For those of us in this world, it can be hard to comprehend the reality of the empire he alludes to. Even as we speak, in mid-May, 16 large theatre shows in September are ticking towards selling out across Australia.

But only the international hordes online can see the big picture: 30-odd dates looming in Europe to an average of 4000 fans per night, and 20-something more in North America come February.

Consider the expanded nine-man ensemble piecing together the album, and you begin to feel the weight of the machine gearing up to revisit its permanent summer upon the world.

Inside today is a skeleton crew, relatively speaking. Bassist Ryan Munro, keyboard player Ollie McGill and DJ Jumps are off-site. In the soundproof studio, trumpet player and co-vocalist Harry James Angus is leading the brass quartet through a slalom of rapid-fire overdubs.

"That felt good — until the last key change," offers producer Jan Skubiszewski, his sneakers on the console on this side of the glass. A mutual intake of breath, and away they go again.

In the wood-panelled control room, drummer Will Hull-Brown makes a note on the whiteboard grid listing 14 new songs in various states of completion: drums, bass, piano, keys, decks, percussion, horns… "That could be massive in Quebec," he mutters to nobody in particular.

He's only half joking. The Cat Empire's global appeal is, in part, a reflection of an exceptionally broad musical diet. The new album will feature songs in three languages and a palette of musical colours far beyond the black-and-white of the pop mainstream.

"It really is so refreshing working with them," Skubiszewski reflects on a break from recording. Having met the fledgling sextet while engineering their first album in the early 2000s, this is his third stint in the producer's chair.

"With so many artists, we're sort of force-fed what is popular culture, what is popular music, and somehow these boys from Melbourne, at a very young age, fell in love with jazz and fell in love with Cuban music and rhythms from the Caribbean and now that's turned to west Africa and … it's this huge melting pot.

"The success of it," he says, "is that they've somehow fused all of this into something that's really palatable to this audience that's not really out there searching for this kind of sound, but when they hear it they go, 'F---, I feel that'.

"I think that's one of the greatest things about this band. Fashion comes in and out and they've weathered that test a few times now, but the fact that they keep turning on these young audiences…" He raises his palms and spins his chair back to the coalface.

The silent party in this remarkable story is Correne Wilkie. Wrapped in a faux-fur lined coat, the band's manager of 18 years stands behind the producer's chair glued to her mobile phone, checking an unceasing stream of messages and social media analytics from around the world.

This isn’t a band, she jokes as she monitors swells of interests on a virtual globe in the palm of her hand, "it's a digital communications company". What's more, since the cunningly co-ordinated expiry of a number of record company deals in 2012, the stock has bounced back into strictly limited hands.

"This was when streaming was starting to pick up, downloads were dropping off, CDs were dropping off," she says. "I said to the guys, 'You know, we've got an opportunity to let all of these copyrights come back, manage them from here, become an independent label globally, and receive 100 per cent royalties on the back catalogue'."

Objections, it seems, were few.

"All of these labels had done such great work getting those albums out there, but now … that's the band's passive asset. That's their superannuation. And that catalogue still sells, because of the nature of the fan base."

That is as crucial to the picture as the Cat Empire's exceptional blend of showmanship and musical expertise. On the past couple of albums, it's been nurtured with ingenious packaging ideas. Physical copies of Steal The Light came with a poster thanking all 45,000 names on the database. Rising With the Sun upped the ante with headshots of every fan who could email a selfie.

"No matter how big this band gets," Wilkie says, "the fans still identify so strongly. We receive emails every day from people … 'I see you're going to be in Seattle on such-and-such a day. Come around for a barbecue!'

"I mean, who emails their favourite band and invites them around for a barbie? That's the kind of accessibility that the fans feel like they have. 'Why wouldn't they come?' And sometimes they do."

It's four months later, at the start of that very nearly sold-out Australian tour that kicked off in Hobart last night, and the global community is well and truly "mobilised", according to the latest Empirical press release.

In fittingly "unconventional" style, the completed album remains untitled even as its first songs — Ready Now, Stolen Diamonds, La Sirene — trickle out for streaming and downloading one by one, like a surprise gift on the first day of each month.

The first two have already clocked a combined one million streams and 75,000 YouTube views, spurring those 4000-seaters in Europe and the USA to keep on filling. The album will arrive in its own good time, probably in the new year, when several thousand collectors will shell out for a hard copy, regardless of their Spotify playlists.

"I'm amazed," is Riebl's economical assessment — not just of the band's popular success, but of the small miracle of six guys (plus) maintaining a healthy working relationship through all the creative struggles and real-life evolution that comes with 18 years together.

"People often talk about relationships like something you want to understand; silly terms like that," he says. "Music is about so much the opposite of that. It's about not understanding things, going with the movement.

"For me, you still wanna be surprised by an album and the world you create with it. That's how we work. The idea to release one song at a time is like … what's that Paul Keating quote? We want to do you slowly."

TOUR DATES

Saturday, September 8, Palais Theatre, Melbourne (sold out), supported by Odette (all ages)

Sunday, September 9, Theatre Royal Castlemaine (sold out)

Friday, September 14, Enmore Theatre, Sydney (sold out), supported by Odette (all ages)

Saturday, September 15, Enmore Theatre, Sydney (sold out), supported by Odette (all ages)

Sunday, September 16, UC Refectory, Canberra, supported by Odette (all ages)

Thursday, September 20, The Triffid, Brisbane (sold out), supported by Odette (18+)

Friday, September 21, The Triffid, Brisbane (sold out), supported by Odette (18+)

Saturday, September 22, The Triffid, Brisbane (sold out, all ages 2pm matinee)

Saturday, September 22, The Triffid, Brisbane (sold out), supported by Odette (18+)

Sunday, September 23, Night Quarter, Gold Coast, supported by Odette (all ages)

Saturday, September 29, One Tropical Day - Darwin NT, supported by Odette

Saturday, December 1, Inland Sea Of Sound, Bathurst, NSW

Friday, December 14, The Cat Empire Carnivale at Fremantle Arts Centre, Fremantle, with Odette, Grievous Bodily Calm, Lucy Peach & more to be announced (18+)

Saturday, December 15, The Cat Empire Carnivale at Fremantle Arts Centre, Fremantle, with Odette, Grievous Bodily Calm, Lucy Peach & more to be announced (18+)

Sunday, December 16, Caves House, Yallingup WA, supported by Odette