Interview: The Cat Empire

With a fantastically upbeat, wonderfully danceable, new album out next month, Australian pioneers of all things ska-funk-jazz, The Cat Empire, are back; and I couldn’t be happier.

Creating their own unique brand of energy-filled party anthems for over thirteen years now, the band are returning with their 6th album, Rising With The Sun, and a very welcome tour of the UK. I caught up with keys player Ollie McGill to talk inspiration, touring and Indian Food…

Hi Ollie, how are you? And what are you up to at the moment?
Hi there! I’m very well thank you. We have just gotten back from India where we played a one off show at a winery (didn’t know you could make wine in India! It’s not quite Australian standard though). It was a great little trip and I’ve probably put on 5 kilos – I am a big fan of Indian food, and believe it or not, the Indian food is REALLY GOOD in India!

I’ve been a huge fan of yours ever since first hearing ‘Days Like These’ back in 2003 (my dad was out working in Australia and brought back your first album for me) – I just instantly fell in love with your infectious energy and funky, skankable tunes! Now, 13 years later, with your 6th album Rising With The Sun set for release, how would you say your sound has evolved or developed?
I like to think that in a sense, we have done a full circle. We started out writing tunes about our experiences as a band on the road, singing about beaches and parties etc. Then we started to try to develop the music to something we considered to be more mature. In turn the music was darker and perhaps more introspective (relatively speaking). We have been through all the usual rigmarole of being in a band, going from loving each other as brothers to hating each other’s guts at times, and the music has reflected everything. Now, we are getting along really well and the music is feeling great. We have been having a lot of fun jamming and the last couple of albums have been really fun to make, mainly focusing on bringing back the party atmosphere of the first 2 albums. But it still somehow feels more mature, I think.

You must all be pretty close after playing together for so long, and tours with so many of you travelling together must be pretty fun! Do you find that touring’s a different experience for you now to when you first started out?
Similarly to the music and the relationships in the band, I think we have done a full circle in regards to touring as well. We started off loving every moment of being on the road, going from height to height with every new place that we visited. Then, as we started to try to set up a more solid base at home in Australia, the touring started to interfere (I think I can speak for the whole band). It was a much bigger challenge to maintain enthusiasm for being on the road and eventually all of us at some point or other started to resent it a little bit. At one point, we decided we had to take a break, and when we decided to get back on the road, we condensed the time spent on the road to a point that we were all happy with. In the last couple of years, I feel that we have started to really get back into the spirit of touring and the relationships amongst the band have restrengthened dramatically. We are certainly a much more well oiled machine in this day and age, and the level of comfort has increased, which certainly helps.

And you’ve got a big UK tour coming up next month (I’m very excited about seeing you for the 4th time!) – are you all set and ready to go?
To be honest, I haven’t really thought about it. I never give the tours much thought leading up to them. We have an incredible management team that makes sure everything is in place – really, we are able to rock up to the airport knowing everything is going to be smooth sailing. That isn’t to say I am not excited to get back on the road. We will be playing the new material from Rising With The Sun, so that’s something to be excited about. We might have a few rehearsals beforehand…

And, don’t suppose you’re coming back in the summer for any festivals?
No plans to come back this summer. We will be coming back to Europe in October to tour the album, with dates being announced soon.

You’ve toured extensively over the world throughout your career including at The Royal Albert Hall and at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games – is there a particular show that sticks out in your mind as being a highlight?
You certainly mentioned two of the really big ones! I will never forget playing at the Montreal Jazz Festival about 10 years ago, when we played on a stage in the middle of Rue Saint-Catherine, the audience going all the way back up the street, over the horizon. It was reported that there were roughly 70,000 people at that show.

You’ve said that you used the sound of your last album, Steal The Light, as a starting point when recording Rising With The Sun. What are generally your main inspirations when writing songs? All your songs have a wonderful rhythm and unique energy – is this danceability of your music always high on the agenda when writing?
We consider the danceability of our music to be a hugely important factor. When a song makes people dance, it is so much fun to play it, and the room just shakes. I already mentioned that we have tried to rekindle the vibe from our first two records with these last two. I think we were quite successful with this endeavour on Steal The Light, so that is what we have tried to keep alive throughout this album. I think we have passed with flying colours!

Although your sound is completely original and impossible to pigeon-hole into any one genre, what musical styles and artists have particularly influenced you?
I think the reason for our style of music being so un-pigeon-hole-able is that each member of the band is into a different style. We all have our own individual sources of inspiration and we each bring something different to the table. I am listening mostly to contemporary jazz and progressive rock, Felix has recently been hugely inspired by songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon, and Jumps has been on a musical journey based on the vinyl he has collected whilst travelling. Most of his collection is Afro beat and South American funk (to be very general). I won’t go through all the members, but all of us are as diverse and as much a contribution to the band as each other.

The artwork for your new album is said to be inspired by a traditional Mexican design, known as ‘Ojos De Dios’ (Eye of God) – what gave you the idea to use this kind of design?
We always knew that we wanted this album cover to be particularly colourful. To me the music on Rising With The Sun is more colourful than any other album we have made. We went through quite a few designs, all completely different, before we decided on this one. It just felt right. There is no deeper spiritual meaning or cultural reference as far as I know.

And you’ve included pictures of over 3,500 fans on the inside of the cover – it must have been pretty great seeing the faces of all these people who love your music!
I am going to be honest here, I haven’t seen it yet either! I am excited to see it too. It should be quite a spectacle.

Thank you so much for answering our questions, looking forward to seeing you in London on the 15th April!
See you there!

Rising With The Sun is out 4 March. And make sure you catch The Cat Empire live when they’re over here:

30 March – Concorde 2, Brighton (Sold Out)
31 March – Pyramid Centre, Portsmouth
1 April – The Pavillion, Bath
2 April – The Institute, Birmingham
3 April – Tramshed, Cardiff
6 April – O2 Ritzy, Manchester
7 April – O2 Academy, Leeds
8 April – O2 ABC, Glasgow
9 April – Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh
12 April – The Junction, Cambridge
13 April – The Waterfront, Norwich
15 April – Hammersmith Apollo, London

Mari Lane

Mari Lane

Editor, London. Likes: Kathleen Hanna, 6Music, live music in the sunshine. Dislikes: Sexism, pineapples, the misuse of apostrophes.