by Ryan Meehan
The musical landscape, while certainly a vast and complex one, strewn with pebbles, boulders, monoliths and mountains, is generally a well-ordered place. Bands stay within their borders, and the music matches the hair, and everybody knows what tribe you belong to. But every now and then, a band has to ask themselves, ‘Who am I?’ The Cat Empire have been asking themselves this question for over a decade. But when your whole musical concept is about transcending genre, and when a large portion of your performance is constructed out of pure improvised energy, it can be hard to know what to call the music you are creating. In the early years, and after their first major release, the band found themselves, more often than not, being reduced to a series of slashes. The jazz/reggae/funk/latin/gypsy/hip hop tag grew longer and longer, but it was an apt description. The band would jump from one genre to the next, many times within a single song, it didn’t matter what it was, as long as people were dancing. For over a decade now, and through various recordings, The Cat Empire have carved themselves out a unique place in the musical firmament, as a band with no guitars, with no easily definable style and no corresponding haircut, but a band that can step onto any stage in the world and make the crowd move. More than move, in fact. Make the crowd lose themselves in a frenzy. But the question of what to call their music is as difficult to answer today as it was ten years ago. The long line of slashes just doesn’t cut it anymore, and the music has grown out of its ‘multi-genre’ concept into something wilder, a spontaneous explosion of melody and rhythm that contains many flavours, but is undeniably a new country. Always changing, always exploring the boundaries of their mutable and uncertain identity, the band seem to have reached some kind of event horizon on their new album. But clearly, as always, this music is for dancing. The rhythm is front and centre, a beat that belongs to no single nation. Sometimes in music there occurs a raucousness of sound that turns off our thinking brain and leads us into the depths of our dancing body, where forgotten creatures stir in the dark places of the imagination. It is this feeling that The Cat Empire have harnessed so well on their new record, a feeling of beautiful chaos, of ancient ritual and glorious colour, all caught up in the magic of the beat. There will never be a single word to identify this music, but the essence has been there all along. If you go back to the very beginnings of the band, on an early demo, it is there in the lyrics to The Night That Never End…
Oh how the gods look down and frown
At those who never stood and said
‘My name is no-one’
And went a little mad….
I am delighted to have drummer Will Hull-Brown of The Cat Empire my guest today in 7 questions.
RM: Where did the idea for the name of the band come from; and how many of you guys are actually cat owners?
WH-B: It’s funny but only one of us in the band owns a cat, and would you believe it, I’m actually allergic to cats!! The name though goes all the way back to about 1999 when Felix’s little brother came home from school with a drawing of gangster cats with guns and crowns and named the picture ‘The Cat Empire.’
RM: Who is responsible for the cover art on “Steal the Light”; and how long did it take for them to complete that incredible piece of artwork?
WH-B: This was done by Graeme Base, a well-known children’s author and illustrator here in Australia (and other parts of the world I think). We grew up on his books – Animalia, The Eleventh Hour etc. His artwork is inspired, and the style, with jungle animals was a perfect fit to the new material, so we just contacted him to see what would happen. It turned out that his whole family were big fans of the band and he jumped at the opportunity, so we were wrapped!
RM: What is the biggest difference between the material that appears on that record as opposed to the music that you are currently working on which will eventually become the next album? What do you hope to do musically on this record that you haven’t had the chance to explore on your previous discs?
WH-B: I’ve yet to hear Felix and Harry’s ideas for the new album, but we have talked many times as a band about continuing the vibe of Steal the Light and expanding on it with new songs. I imagine it will be strong rhythmically, very dance-able, and have some killer horn lines!
RM: How would you briefly summarize the drum setup are you currently using, cymbals included? What has been the most significant change that you’ve made to your drum kit since the self-titled album came out in 2003?
WH-B: My set-up is, and always has been quite basic. It’s not the sort of kit you see metal drummers play, where you need a truck to move it around! It’s a 4-piece kit (bass drum, snare drum, rack tom and floor tom) which is similar to what you would’ve seen Ringo Star play. I have 2 X crash cymbals, a ride cymbal and hi-hats. The only thing i’ve added in the past year is a cowbell and jam block because these sounds featured a bit on Steal The Light.
RM: Does jumping genres in the middle of songs tend to make the songwriting process very difficult when it comes to deciding which way the flow of the song will go next? How often do the band members disagree when it comes to a transition and you know you are headed in a different direction with the next portion of the track?
WH-B: When we learn new tunes in the rehearsal room, it’s usually pretty clear when something’s not working or gelling. This can often be because of the genre-jumping thing you are talking about. We often try 5 different feels if we’re looking for the right groove for a verse, chorus or middle section. We don’t always nail it in the rehearsal room though, sometimes the best sections come from the live shows where we might spontaneously go into something that inspires us!
RM: What is the highest number of people that you’ve ever had on stage performing with you at one point in time? As a percussionist, how do you go about managing that kind of madness in a live setting?
WH-B: We’ve had a few occasions and festivals where we had upwards of 20 people on stage! There were actually 2 other bands on stage with us. It’s pretty hectic, especially for the sound guys, but you just have to use your ears and learn when to play, and more importantly when not to play!
RM: You’re a sports fan, and a big fan of Australian Rules Football…We do a lot of NFL coverage on this website, so I feel I have to ask: What changes would you make to the current game play of the National Football League that would make it more appealing to the rest of the world?
WH-B: Hmmmm…get rid of the body armour! Ha ha…I say that because I’m used to Australian Rules where there’s no protective gear. But seriously, I don’t know if I would change anything. The best thing about it is that it’s YOUR game. We already have enough sports that’s are global – soccer, basketball, golf etc.
RM: Out of all of the strange things that have happened to the band in all your years of touring, which instance was the most bizarre; and how would you best describe that situation to someone such as myself who was not present? Would you have handled it differently if you had the opportunity relive that moment again?
WH-B: I remember when we played Glastonbury for the first time about 6 years ago. We’d heard about the mud and the hippies and the drugs, but nothing quite prepared us for our eventual arrival. We came to site in a Splitter Van and took a long winding muddy track THROUGH the festival site itself to get to our stage. There was all manner of bizarre things to see out the windows – art props and sculptures that looked like they were from Apocalypse Now Redux, people dressed up in the weirdest outfits, and the most amount of mud you’ve ever seen. Suddenly, in front of our van as we were trying to navigate through the chaos, the crowd parted and formed a kind of tunnel. Then they burst out into song! They all passionately sang ‘Can’t take My Eyes Off You’ by Frankie Valli. So we proceeded through their musical tunnel in fits of laughter. It was quite the welcoming!
RM: What’s up next for you guys in the remainder of 2015 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
WH-B: It’s going to be quite a big year for us in 2015. Record a new album, and do 3 overseas tour. April – Canada and USA with a show in Hawaii on the way home which is a first! June/July – Europe & UK festival run, and October we’re back in Europe/UK to do a run of club shows. A big highlight for us will be doing the Royal Albert Hall in London in June!
Official Website: http://thecatempire.com/
The Cat Empire on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/thecatempire
The Cat Empire on Twitter: https://twitter.com/thecatempire
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