The Cat Empire mark 20 years of ska, jazz and other far-flung influences with a new LP on the way. The band chats ahead of its sell-out show in Castlemaine.

By Ben Cameron

The appeal of genre-blending The Cat Empire has extended to all corners of the globe over nearly two decades, even the Romanian beach community.
While the ska-loving sextet, best known for hits Hello, The Chariot and Two Shoes, have become synonymous for building strong bridges with their fans, one song in particular – which was never officially released – inspired a ceremonial following in Romania, long before the band ever set foot in the country.
A live version of lesser-known tune, The Lost Song, became a “cult hit”, founding member Felix Riebl tells Bendigo Magazine, where it was custom for the locals to blast the song each morning for a dose of Romanian joie de vivre.
“It’s a summer destination for Romanians, I didn’t even know they had beaches in Romania,” Felix says with a laugh.
“A live version of that song got out… well before we’d ever been to Romania… and became something of a cult hit there.
“It was bigger than any other song we’d released on radio in other parts of the country.
“Things like that happen with The Cat Empire all the time, and it’s something you can’t really explain… that have kept this band going for so long and made us a genuine travelling article.”
Mythical, magical, well-travelled, and now, in perhaps a tribute to the success of multiculturalism in Australia, The Cat Empire have become one of our most iconic, modern day acts.
While the nation, at least musically, was once defined by the white boy rock of The Angels, Cold Chisel, Midnight Oil to Powderfinger, The Cat Empire have shaken up that narrow minded perception since the turn of the century.
“(We take) influences from music from all over the world… but we’ve become known for being very Australian,” Felix says.
“I couldn’t explain the music to anyone (early on).
“We’ve been able to really be a kind of a chameleon… (create) an identity we can’t explain that is still nevertheless very much part of Australia.
“I’m proud of that because I don’t know how it happened exactly.
“There’s not a formula… it’s remained intuitive at its best and annoying at its worst, but it’s alive.”
With a new LP set to drop next year, Felix is proud to be part of an “interesting collective” of artists reshaping our identity.
“It’s changing the country as we speak,” he says.
“I don’t want to settle on a definition of Australia that we’re told, I don’t want to follow that cliché.
“I feel when cultures and countries are too quick to define themselves based on a set of clichés, they start to deaden up a bit.
“We need to keep on reimagining what Australia is. Music’s a great way to excite that idea.”
Closing in on 20 years of their infectious mix of ska, jazz and other far-flung influences, Felix is actually surprised they’re still packing out halls.
“I mean this in the best way but nobody expected The Cat Empire to go for this long,” he says.
“It reached a point where everything that came next was a real surprise.
“We realised that young ambition, then after that everything after was a surprise.”
Felix says there were always grand plans for the band, though.
“I was very ambitious,” he says.
“I really wanted to get it overseas and to make the most of it.
“At the beginning we just wanted to burn really bright, play everywhere we could.”
But then youthful exuberance gave way to mature introspection.
“(Then) it’s been like: how is that sense of youth going to translate into something that’s more ongoing?
“The band had to keep that energy, that youthfulness, while not becoming a pastiche of itself.
“That was the challenge.”
Another mid-career test was reclaiming their “intuitive spark”, which began to elude them after years of heavy touring.
Felix says the past two albums – Rising with the Sun and Steal the Light – recaptured the vibe.
“We had to rediscover what it was that made the experience of playing and recording in this band special,” he says.
“When you mature musically… you want to keep that sense of surprise and movement; keep the unhinged nature of the band alive while still developing as musicians.”
The 37-year-old says performing to different crowds, disparate cultures – with particular success in Germany, France and Spain – has also shaped his sense of self.
“Overseas travel has really grounded us in the country that we’re from,” he says.
“To hear 10,000 people (in Madrid) sing back something that’s got an Australian-ism to it, it’s kind of bizarre.
“The music might have been influenced by a Spanish sound in the first place.”
While some musicians get wrapped up in what Felix describes as the “rational” side of the industry – album sales, chart figures and social media followers – Felix cares more for the “irrational” realm.
“(To) create a sense of some unexplainable community,” he says.
“An impossible collection of people all thrown into one room together, that’s the stuff that’s addictive thing in the end.
“That’s the stuff that keeps you feeling on edge in a really good way.”
The Cat Empire plays the Theatre Royal in Castlemaine on September 9.