“Music has kind of been a godsend.”
It’s a sentimentality shared by many, particularly in the wake of a global pandemic. But for The Cat Empire’s Felix Riebl, music has been both the catharsis and celebration he needed.
The band shocked fans when, in 2021, they announced their decision to disband after 20 years together, with original members Will Hull-Brown, Jamshid Khadiwhala, and Harry James Angus departing the band in December of that year. Bassist Ryan Monro had already left several months earlier.
While the music industry reeled from the effects of COVID-19, and The Cat Empire struggled with the logistics of farewelling departing members during intermittent lockdowns and restrictions, Riebl was facing personal tragedy at home: his younger brother, Max, was dying from an incurable brain cancer at the age of 30.
“For me this is a deeply spiritual album,” Riebl says of the band’s new release, Where the Angels Fall. “This album was great relief and joy, but it was also kind of survival for me, at an emotional level, I guess.”
When it came time to name the album, a lyric from the track “Thunder Rumbles” seemed the most fitting.
“Looking through at what it was going to be called, Where the Angels Fall seemed to be true to all of that: it’s got reference to spirits and it’s got reference to the devil and it’s got reference to the artwork and the space that we were in and the time,” Riebl explains. “It’s also funny because when you break down the words it’s just ‘WTAF’.”
The band has welcomed newcomers Grace Barbé on bass, Neda Rahmani on percussion, Lazaro Numa on trumpet, and percussion and former touring member Danny Farrugia on drums.
For Rahmani, the decision to join The Cat Empire was an obvious one. A long-time friend and fan of the band, it was a joy to play with them now after previously playing multiple stages beside them.
“I’ve been there for their landmark moments as a fan and a friend in the audience just seeing what their latest releases are, and I’ve had such a great appreciation for their artwork, their choices, their collaborations, their writing – so it was picking up the phone from an old friend, but also a logical move, and made creative sense to me – I didn’t need to deliberate over it for a second,” Rahmani laughs. “I guess that’s just every artist’s dream, for their friends to understand them, to see them; to see how you perform or how you relate to your community, and to feel like you could join their family.”
For Riebl, it was never about “replacing” the original band members.
“You don’t maintain or uphold the spirit of a band by just replacing members like for like and saying we’ll try to copy what they did – you can’t, it would always be second-best,” he says. “If you want to keep the spirit of a band alive, you have to bring in people who are going to play to their strengths and do what they can do.”
It was exciting, he continues, to get to the stage of recording with the new members and realise it was going to work.
“Because nerves are also really important,” he adds. “Doubts and all those sorts of things are really important, because if you didn’t have them then you wouldn’t have skin in the game. Whereas with this, it was a genuine challenge and a genuine leap of faith to try and see how this was going to happen.”
In many ways, Riebl is treating Where the Angels Fall as a type of debut: this is The Cat Empire 2.0, if you will. And, funnily enough, it has been produced by Andy Baldwin – the same engineer behind the band’s self-titled debut album in 2003.
“In some ways it was a return to the spirit of what The Cat Empire is: we want this to be like the first album – not in terms of sound, we’ve developed a lot as musicians – but in terms of intent and that overflow; that spirit and that sense of surprise that comes with a really good Cat Empire recording,” Riebl says. “And with Andy, it was really nice to bookend those two moments, those two debuts in a way. That’s how I’m thinking of it.”
The band took a different approach to recording this album, using a chaotic community music hub in the heart of Melbourne to create something with a life of its own.
“We chose to go to a community music space because we didn’t want it to feel isolated,” Riebl reveals. “We didn’t want to go to a dark studio and go, this is just our world, and this is how it is. We kind of wanted to be spilling out onto the street – that’s how the album feels to me, it feels like it overflows, it leaves the speakers and goes genuinely out into the world.”
Riebl says there was something about the space, which housed composer Peter Sculthorpe’s piano, along with century-old marching band uniforms and even a gong, which brought out a playful childishness in the band.
“We were kind of like kids going into that first music space, like let’s try on this hat, and let’s go hit that gong over there,” he happily recalls. “So, there was something foundational about the whole experience, like what was that thing that made you go back to that room full of instruments? What was that thing that piqued your interest when you were a kid? And returning to that space to tap into that childishness was a lot of fun, if nothing else.”
Having orchestras and bands rehearsing in the space – along with a myriad of percussionists and musicians brought in by Rahmani and the other band members – resulted in a mammoth 75 musicians playing on Where the Angels Fall.
Riebl says from early pre-production, he and [Ollie] McGill wanted this to be “the most Cat Empire album” they had ever made.
“So, instead of layering up three horns a few times to get a nine-horn sound, we’d get nine horn players in there to play it, so you get the personality of that,” he explains. “Instead of getting a string quartet, we got a 10-piece symphonic string section. We just went over the top with everything – that was our mode: let’s go over the top with every sound and every song and treat each song as a world unto itself. It was wild. It’s by far the most fun I’ve ever had making an album.”
Riebl speaks fondly of what he calls “danger” on an album, or the inability to figure out exactly what is going on sonically.
“You think about Dr. John’s Gris-Gris or something like that, and you go, ‘What the hell is happening in that to make that sound?’” he laughs. “I think that this album for us has a bit of that quality. Even having had months of distance from it and listening back to it, it’s like, ‘What did we do there?’ You forget.”
The mystery, he adds, is so important.
“If you want to create something that has a true sense of celebration to it, it has to navigate a lot of different spaces: it has to be dangerous – you have to be able to sing about great sadness on the same record as singing about something absolutely stupid,” Riebl says. “All of it goes together to create a sense of overflow: it’s not a glass half empty or glass half full view of the world, it’s overflow. That’s what The Cat Empire does well when it’s doing its thing.”
That juxtaposition of light and shade is highlighted on Riebl’s favourite track on the album, a song he wrote for his brother called “Be With You Again”.
“It’s such a sad song, and I had a lot of tears recording the vocal for that song – and tears of companionship, in a way; they weren’t altogether bad,” he says. “But for The Cat Empire, how do you write something that’s a lament, essentially, and still give it that sense of life celebration, or life affirmation?”
The answer, in this case, was taking almost hymn-like chords and adding a Samba Reggae rhythm to create an underlying celebration.
“For me that speaks a lot to what The Cat Empire can do, or what I can do with The Cat Empire, and that’s not to say that we should be afraid of those feelings,” Riebl adds. “Because we’ve already performed that song live, and it’s very moving, not just because it’s about me – it’s about everyone in the space who, in the face of something impossible or terrible or irreconcilable, is able to still find occasional cause to see life or be in life or to celebrate what it is to be alive.”
Riebl explains that he felt closest to his brother on stage or in the studio.
“And I really don’t mean that in an affected way, I just mean actually I feel like I can have a conversation with the dead when I’m in the movement of music,” he says. “You can be with the dead who you miss or who you love in the space of movement, for me, and that’s what the band can do. And I have become critically aware of that in the past year.”
That makes what the band does – particularly on an international level – even more special, he says.
“For the deeper celebration, which is grief, terror, joy, everything in between: it all gets thrown in together, in terms of what a human experience is,” Riebl explains. “What it is to be amongst one another, and what it is to be faced with the quiet challenge of your own life. And the band just makes cause to celebrate that or makes cause to allow for those few hours of departure, whenever we get a chance to play together.”
From grief and loss to joy and love, The Cat Empire is embracing all of it right now, and there is one thing Riebl almost cringes to hear himself say out loud.
“Part of the reason why I’ve been so excited about what’s happened is that you don’t often get a chance to fall in love twice. I think I was about 19 when Ollie and I officially put The Cat Empire together with Ryan on bass, and it was a trio that grew and everyone I met in the early days was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing, I’ve got to be in it’ – and the chemistry happened. Now I have the opportunity to have that a second time and re-discover that genuine love for a project and through new eyes, through new people, through fresh energy and talent.”
And while making this album, Riebl realised the band is only just scratching the surface of where it could go.
“For me, having The Cat Empire come back and realise how creative a band it is, and how expansive it can be, we can pretty much choose any musical style and it can become Cat Empire. Any rabbit hole we want to go down, or any place in the world we want to get to and be influenced by we can, and that’s one of the beauties of this band: it’s not pigeonholed,” he says. “So purely from a musician’s perspective and an outlook for a career and imagining becoming genuinely happy old people on stage together – not that we’re old now, but I can see that. This album was kind of a launch pad to my falling in love with music all over again.”
Now, Riebl says, it’s just a matter of putting in the work and enjoying the ride.
“That’s all you can do, especially these days. You can’t take anything for granted, I think that’s something we’ve learned collectively. Especially in the music world, but probably in the broader sense, too,” he says. “I appreciate that feeling of making every night count – that’s important to me now. Whereas once maybe it was about an ambition to get somewhere or to create a legacy, now it’s really to enjoy the ride as much as we can and to be as true musically… and be as childish musically as we possibly can be.”
The Cat Empire 2023 Australian Tour
Tickets available via thecatempire.com
Friday, September 15th
Enmore Theatre, Sydney, NSW
Friday, September 22nd
Fortitude Music Hall, Brisbane, QLD
Saturday, September 23rd
The Green Room, Byron Bay, NSW
Friday, September 29th
Hindley Street Music Hall, Adelaide, SA
Thursday, October 5th (NEW SHOW)
The Forum, Melbourne, VIC
Friday, October 6th (SOLD OUT)
The Forum, Melbourne, VIC