When a band tours incessantly, individual shows can get lost in a shuffle of airports, continental breakfasts, and sweat, but The Cat Empire’s Felix Riebl can’t say the same about their time in Montreal.
“The first time we went to Canada, we played in Montreal to a room full of people who knew all the words,” recalled Riebl. “A few years later, we played the main stage at the Jazz Festival, and it was one of the biggest audiences we had ever played for. So Montreal is a very special point in our tour. We’ve made lasting friendships there, and everyone in the band is looking forward to those shows.”
The Cat sextet truly feeds off of their tours. Trumpeter and vocalist Harry James Angus, drummer Will Hull-Brown, DJ Jamshid Khadiwhala, keyboardist and back-up vocalist Ollie McGill, bassist Ryan Monro, and vocalist Riebl are each established musicians in their own right, but together they jive, jam, and soak up the sounds of their surroundings.
“We got into this cycle where we would tour, then make albums about the excitement and pressure of the tour,” explained Riebl. “Our music is about the spirit of travelling, while being open-minded.”
There are many terms one could use to describe The Cat Empire, and jazzy-Australian-ska-reggae’d Afro pop is what first comes to mind. Yet the band claims no one “sound” is intentional, and they don’t wish to be defined by genre or continent. The result is a feel-good, toe-tapping, sing-a-long, groovin’ escape.
“I don’t think it matters that we’re from Australia, or from anywhere else,” explained Riebl. “We’re not active cultural ambassadors, we’re musicians. We play together, and that’s our sound.”
Their live shows first hypnotized dancehall audiences into a frenzy over a decade ago in their homeland Australia. In time, they gathered an immense international following through word-of-mouth, playing over a hundred shows a year and sliding unscathed under mainstream media’s radar, retaining underground status.
Five albums and over 800 shows later, The Cat Empire is finishing its 10th anniversary tour in dedication to the fans that greased their wheels.
The band first began as an academic instrumental experiment in 1999 with McGill, Riebl and Monro meeting on stage as part of the Jazz Cat, a nine-piece outfit from different Melbourne schools. That same year, they got together and formed The Cat Empire, which began as a trio, but became much larger with the addition of Angus, Hull-Brown and Khadiwhala in 2001.
They gigged around Melbourne, from playing shows just to pay rent, to headlining local festivals.
“I remember after one of our biggest shows, saying ‘I wish I could do this every night’,” recalled Riebl. “And then, that’s kind of what happened. It was a wondrous moment.”
They established a strong Australian fanbase, toured the American west coast, and played a sixteen-show stint at Edinburgh Festival before their 2003 debut studio album The Cat Empire went platinum in under five months.
“The whole experience took us by surprise,” said Riebl. “Even after a successful album, we were never quite sure where it all came from. When you’re playing live for an audience, it becomes real, and you know where you stand. [The success] can be quite alienating, but it was a hell of a ride.”
The Cat Empire “effect” isn’t entirely captured in recordings alone. After experiencing them live, and watching the band and crowd feed off each other’s euphoria, one understands how concertgoers become rabid hype machines.
“It’s really a question of atmosphere,” Riebl guessed. “It’s the combination of the audience and the music, and what that does to a room.”
The Cat Empire are playing back-to-back shows at Metropolis (59 Ste-Catherine St. E.) on March 30 and 31. Tickets are $39.20 in advance.