Cat Empire - Feline Good
Friday, 14 September 2007
The Melbourne ensemble’s self-funded debut clocked up double-platinum sales after, having courted a national following, they signed to EMI. Against the odds, they repeated the feat with 2005’s Two Shoes, which entered the charts in the top spot.
Now The Cat Empire are back to consolidate their status with So Many Nights.
The group’s broad appeal is attributable to their openness to anything from jazz-fusion to funk and ska as they defy Australia’s stale pub-rock tradition. Indeed, they even have a resident DJ, Jamshid “Jumps” Khadiwala.
Unlike emo bands, there’s no stereotypical Cat Empire listener – and that’s how keysman Oliver “Ollie” McGill digs it.
“The thing that we pride ourselves on is that the people who listen to our music are all different types,” he says.
The outfit’s current single, No Longer There – aired at Splendour In The Grass – may have a country twang, but their roots are in jazz. More than his cohorts, McGill is still attached to jazz. He gigs in up to five bands (“or something like that”) on Melbourne’s circuit when his schedule allows. And, unsurprisingly, McGill chills out to improvised music.
“I play jazz as often as I can,” he says. “It never comes out sounding exactly like jazz – I don’t play a lot of swing stuff these days – but I’ve got other bands which are purely improvised. They’ll be on an acoustic piano, which definitely gives them more of a jazzy feel.”
It was an adoration of Afro-Cuban grooves that motivated The Cat Empire to cut Two Shoes in Havana. Nevertheless, for So Many Nights, they stayed home – before journeying to the US.
Between LPs, the six-piece played the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. They released the ensuing lowkey “soundtrack” Cities, which won an ARIA for Best World Music Album. Lately, trumpeter Harry Angus conceived a brilliant LP with J-Skub, aka Jan Skubiszewski, as Jackson Jackson. McGill regards So Many Nights as a composite of The Cat Empire’s past outings.
“It has been a process over the course of the last three albums getting to the level that we’re at now,” he says.
“The first album, we were young – the songs were a lot younger in feel – and so we used a heavy level of production, working with a nutcase called Andy Baldwyn, who just went all-out with it. There’s still a fair amount of live playing on it, but there was also an element that was pieced together – and that’s one approach to making an album.
“The second album, we rebelled against that and went totally live – fled to Cuba. We had bugger-all in terms of facilities, so we had no choice but to lay it down live. And that was another approach to making an album. Then, actually, an album which is not talked about so often, Cities, we decided to record in the comfort of our own homes after being in Cuba – where, as amazing as it was, it was very difficult.
“This album, we looked at all the other albums and tried to put them together, in a way.
“We’ve got a slightly higher level of production than Two Shoes, but not quite so much as the first album.”
The Cat Empire loved vibing in Malibu with veteran producer John Porter, who counts among his credits Roxy Music, The Smiths and Missy Higgins. McGill praises his “subtle” manner.
“He’s not one of those producers who comes in and goes, ‘Right, this is the way it’s gonna be – we’re gonna completely turn everything upside down’,” he says. “He’s not a demanding producer.”
Had Porter been “full-on”, McGill imagines friction with frontman Felix Riebl.
“I, for one, know that Felix, who considers himself to be a bit of a producer, couldn’t work with someone who was gonna just totally run the show,” he says.
If Riebl is a frustrated producer, why spend money on an outsider-
“That’s a good question!” McGill ponders. “Felix takes on a little too much. If you can take the job of production off Felix’s shoulders, then he can focus more on songwriting and he can focus more on his own performance – and he can have a better time in the studio, which makes us all have a better time in the studio. It makes Felix better to be around. It makes everything much more smooth and fun – and, of course, that’s what the band is all about: having fun.”
The Cat Empire’s international profile is growing. They have performed at major festivals like Glastonbury as well as on big US chat programs, including Letterman. They’re again bound for Europe in November.
“If you can make it overseas, then you should do it,” McGill says. ”You should give it all you’ve got because it’s an amazing opportunity, if nothing else, just to travel and see the world – we get paid for it as opposed to most people, who have to fork out ridiculous amounts of money to do it.
“Having a worldwide fanbase is really beneficial towards selling albums and having longevity as a band – and, hopefully, that’ll help us out for the rest of our careers.”
Prior to touring Scandinavia, The Cat Empire will hit Sydney. They’re always keen for a challenge. The band are preparing for an ambitious eight-show season at The Metro in an attempt to break a record set by You Am I over a decade ago. It’s touted on The Cat Empire Website as a “week-long circus”.
“The story is a bit cheeky, actually,” McGill laughs. “Our management has a lot of audacity!” However, the public response has allayed any anxiety. And, McGill reveals, they’re canvassing the possibility of a ninth date...
WHO: The Cat Empire
WHAT: So Many Nights
WHEN: Out now through EMI