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Interview: The Cat Empire

Gabriella Swerling catches up with The Cat Empire’s fiery lead singer, Felix Riebl, on their world tour and doesn’t expect to find a tame pussycat.

I have always wanted Felix Riebl to invite me to his bedroom. Never did I expect it would actually happen, but more of that later.

As I wait for the band to finish their sound check, I can hear Felix huskily purring the opening lines to ‘The Rhythm’ into the microphone:

“…And my knees were shaking and my jaw was dropping and my eyes were squinting and my smile was growing and my pants were bulging and my hands were sweating and my chest was beating so I cry, ‘excuse me, what is the secret to your soul?’”

I am sat with The Cat Empire’s lead vocalist in his tour bus outside The Ritz in Manchester. My idea of a tour bus comprises of Baby Spice sat on a swing and sucking a lollypop in The Spice Girls film so I am somewhat taken aback by this leather-clad version, illuminated by serene blue spotlights.

Felix is not quite the wildcat Aussie I expected to meet. His stage persona, heading up the carnival-esque The Cat Empire, portrays him as a snake-hipped groover and party-starter. I quickly discover a distinction between this character and the surprisingly geeky man before me as our interview casually dissolves into a really good chat.

“There are times when all I would do is discover the night. I went out more or less after shows all the time and met people from the show and went out with them. I just wanted to discover as many amazing places at night time as possible.

“But at the moment – it’s probably because we’re returning to a lot of cities I’ve been to – I don’t feel the same overwhelming drive to go out and explore. In fact, I’ve just been reading a lot and that’s been really nice to kind of be more of a home-buddy on the road for these last few months.”

Make no mistake though, after over a decade of being in the business, The Cat Empire still go at it like no others. There will always be an excess of demand and love from their fans each night to refresh their set again and again.

“Every time I’m in a good performance, or every time I write a song that I feel has got potential, I sort of go back to a place, like a dream, like a forgotten dream that’s very familiar.

“After that, it kind of becomes a series of press release statements which don’t really ring true to what the genuine experience is.”

The next ten minutes drift away as we chat writing, Chekhov, Rory Kinnear, St Belvoir Theatre, The National Theatre and Hamlet before realising I should probably get back to the interview questions.

What does he think it is about The Cat Empire that has meant they’ve stayed around for so long?

“I think the first thing that comes to mind is the crowds, they’re really generous and that live outing is really at the heart of The Cat Empire experience.

“Secondly, it’s been a remarkable project – in so far as its diversity. So we have very different and talented musicians in the band and we’ve been able to play, for instance, a jazz club one night and a big rock festival the next.

“So that’s really kept us on our toes and kept an interest when perhaps it would have been time to finish.”

Their levels of exhaustion are matched by those of excitement, yet The Cat Empire’s music is notoriously difficult to categorise by genre.

“How do I explain it? Oh, Christ,” Felix says, bursting out laughing. “It’s a funny one. There’s a song that’s, you know, verging on sentimental, but I still quite like it. It’s the last song on the new album [All Night Loud] and there’s a line that says: ‘and voices, like devotion flew/Across the sea from me to you/In music that I still cannot describe.’”

“At the risk of sounding on the edge of sentimentality, I think that the unexplainable nature of the band in so far as it’s difficult to categorise in itself is quite good for us and it’s a great experience for people to come and see because they’re often disarmed.”

“I think part of the reason for that is that people don’t really know how to explain the band. So they don’t really know how to become a group of – a type of people or category of people to follow the band and so I’m reluctant these days after over a decade to…”

- to have to explain himself. This is the very essence of The Cat Empire. Its authenticity is based on experience, rather than definition. The act of definition itself destroys what the band are trying to create in the beautiful, poetic instance.

Felix sits for a moment, lost in how to disentangle the unintelligible and finally comes to with his answer: “I think the only way for me to enjoy this band is to celebrate that fact as opposed to struggle against it.”

He starts laughing again when I point out that the fact it doesn’t make sense, to which he replies “yeah, yeah, good – as with all things!”

I forget that this mild, sensitive and softly-spoken dreamer is the front man of The Cat Empire. He is Peter Pan-esque – not so much in that he refuses to grow up, but he has a childlike, burning curiosity to know and see and do. He’s been in the business for over a decade now. It’s long enough to have been run through the entire industrial machine and come out knowing what he likes and what he doesn’t.

“There’s a kind of action once a song has been finished. You have to release it because otherwise you get stuck. You don’t want to keep them close for too long – you’ve got to let them out and get rid of them. They’re like little animals – you don’t want to be stuck at home with 50 cats! You’ve got to let them out into the world”

The adoring crowds he plays to revel in hedonistic mosh-pits, natural and chemical highs from the feel-good vibes of his music. But the man behind it all is enjoying the silence in between the spaces. His words are loaded, pregnant with something I can’t quite figure out but there is a deep sensitivity in him that is utterly compelling.

“I think I wake up in the morning and am more inclined to write songs that aren’t for The Cat Empire. So it’s when I’m thinking about the fans the most, that it is almost a theatrical process.”

He confesses that he made a concerted effort to will the songs out for Steal The Light. What with the pressure of a recording date set and a commitment to release an album with an ever-expectant audience, he didn’t really have a choice. This removal of the organic process of song writing doesn’t seem to be his cup of tea at all.

“Yeah, I mean it’s a really fine line with having deadlines which force you to actually get the work finished. I met someone really smart and they said ‘its people that can finish that do things’ and it really kind of rung true when I was younger. I think the act of finishing an album is very difficult – it’s a notoriously hard thing to do.”

He wrote Steal The Light  in Greece when the austerity riots were in full swing and then relocated to New Orleans to absorb the jazz scene.

“That was a great time because it really reminded me a lot of The Cat Empire’s roots in so far as music culture. You know the heavy drinking, dawn-witnessing, play-your-heart-out kind of music culture that I absolutely loved when I was a late teenager and all that stuff was kind of starting. It kind of brought back a simple love of that temporary lifestyle and so I think I drew a lot from that as well as an experience.

“And then, of course, I came home to Melbourne and the truth about song writing is that it’s done in a quiet room somewhere when you get the chance.”

The Cat Empire headed straight for Glasgow after playing in Manchester. Tired at the thought of such a long trip, I innocently ask if there are beds on this tour bus-thingy.

“yeah, I’ll show you if you like?”

And so Felix Riebl gave me a tour of his tour bus and invited me to his bedroom. That he shares with the band and crew and team. The rows and rows of bunks make for a summer camp vibe with bags of records stuffed into a corner of the ‘chill-room’. I listen to Felix reel off about his latest musical influences, Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Brel, obsessing over the idiosyncrasies of their lyrics, inhaling their detail and planning his next creative coup.

- Gabriella Swerling

For more information, and to catch The Cat Empire on their world tour (which you definitely should) click here.

One Comment on “Interview: The Cat Empire”

  • Clemens November 8th, 2013 4:25 pm

    Thanks for this great interview/whatever!!

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