Hello, Hello: A yarn with The Cat Empire

By Trish O’Loughlin

A lot has changed over the past 10 years: prescription glasses have become cool, mobile phones are one app away from dispensing gold nuggets and shooting out fairies, and Miley Cyrus has taken all her clothes off to go play on a construction site (or something like that). But for Melbourne-based jazz-and-ska band The Cat Empire, the last decade has meant six internationally-acclaimed albums, almost 1,000 live performances, and a shower of shiny platinum-plated accolades.

Midway through their biggest tour to date, the band has barely smelt the eucalyptus trees before entering performance mode again Down Under, beginning right here in little ol’ Adelaide. I sat down with trumpeter and vocalist Harry James Angus, to chat about the band’s resurrection of their genre-mashing, percussion-bashing, keyboard-thrashing style.

“We’ve kind of come full circle,” Harry explains when I ask him about the The Cat Empire’s newest album, Steal the Light. “We’ve come back to that energy that was in the first two records where I think it was more about just being a party band and not taking ourselves too seriously and basically just writing music for people to dance to.”

And it seems this is what the people want to hear: The Cat Empire’s sixth album has soared to international success as the band pounces from North America to South America, Montreal to London, Amsterdam to Barcelona, in a seam-busting world tour. But while Steal the Light reflects their earlier jazz-infused beats, Harry says their sound has definitely matured.

“It’s not the same as it was 10 years ago, but something is the same that went missing for a little while. I think it’s something to do with not wanting to be Leonard Cohen,” Harry muses as he settles into his chair in the cosy dressing room at Thebarton Theatre. “It doesn’t matter if it’s not the most poetic or the most mind-blowing song in the world, it’s just gotta have a good beat and have its heart in the right place.”

In producing Steal the Light, The Cat Empire gained a newfound sense of liberation: the band cut the strings with its record label. While Harry calls the move to independent territory a “practical decision”, he says it also “feels completely different”.

“It’s something to do with just being in charge of your own shit, and it makes you feel somehow more creatively solid; like you’re backing yourself, you’re backing your own ideas.

“Even though it’s just a little change, there’s something symbolic about it, and it’s resonated so much with our fans.”

One thing that hasn’t changed so much for these cool Cats is their flair for improvisation—an element that really breathes life into the band’s performances.

“When we started, that was all we did because we hadn’t written any songs yet,” Harry enthuses. “It wasn’t like people came to the show and wanted to hear a certain song off a certain album that they really liked; it was just like people came to party, so we just played and they danced and it was wild.

“The challenge really has been to keep that initial flavour—that flavour of spontaneity and unexpectedness.”

When you’re performing the same show five nights a week in 70 different cities across the globe, that challenge inevitably becomes pretty tough. But somehow, this eclectic collection of musicians still manages to surprise not only their audience, but themselves, night after night after night.

“Sometimes if you drive home from work and you get home and realise that you can’t remember a single moment of your drive home, you haven’t had a single conscious thought, you’ve just been on autopilot the whole time,” Harry tells me, gesturing fervently. “I think people get like that on stage too—a lot of bands—and the reason we’re known for having a good live show is because we never went there. We’ve always kept the improv.

“Sometimes I can’t even remember what song we’re doing!” he continues, laughing. “And it’s like, ‘How are we going to finish this song? How are we going to get back to the arrangement?’ That’s the fun bit… It’s easy to keep the energy up when you don’t know what’s going to happen and when there’s a surprise waiting for you every night.”

With this kind of approach towards performing, it’s no wonder throngs of fans lose themselves in the band’s infectious, impulse-driven vibes.

“I think people come to our show and they see those moments in the set where we’re all looking at each other and laughing and we’re like, ‘What’s going on? Where is this going to end up?’ And it’s a really exciting feeling; people love to see that communication between musicians.

“It’s nice just to react rather than to push it,” he says, smiling.

After this the conversation winds up—but not before one last vital question.

“Cats or dogs?”

He laughs: “For me personally? Definitely dogs.”

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