The Cat Empire has been ‘stealing sounds’ from other cultures for years

The Cat Empire // Supplied
The Cat Empire w/ Neal Francis
Mar. 14 (7 pm)
Winspear Centre

In recent years the core songwriter of Afro-world fusion band The Cat Empire, Felix Reibl, has followed a certain ethos when writing lyrics—stop making too much sense. Lyrics for him are all about feel and are sometimes not even fully realized.

“In the beginning, I tried to write songs about something specific and had a sort of logic to them, but I’ve tried to really defeat that,” Reibl says. “It’s much more fun that way because then people find their own interpretations.”

One of Reibl’s favourite songs, “Oscar Wilde”—found on the band’s latest album Stolen Diamonds—begins with a fragmented childhood memory of him chasing his dog in rural Victoria, Australia, but then morphs into a jumpy, good-natured song about joy.

“With this band, I love writing songs that I don’t understand very well,” he says. “‘Oscar Wilde’ came together for me when I was in Paris. I was walking around with my daughter who would only sleep in a baby Bjorn, and I remember being at a traffic light and this really crazy reggaeton music whizzed by in a car nearby,” he says.

But why is the song called “Oscar Wilde”? Reibl doesn’t fully understand why, even though he wrote it.

“I visited Oscar Wilde’s grave in Paris and now that I think about it, that must be the connection. You know that grave in Paris with all the lipstick kiss marks on it? I guess that’s where it came from.”Almost all of The Cat Empire’s songs start with a short, melodic line and when Reibl writes his lyrics, they begin in a gibberish that he then forms into words. Sometimes the gibberish turns into English and other times, Reibl asks his international friends to find words in other languages.

This is why a few songs like “La Siréne,” featuring Eloise Mignon on lead French vocals, and “Sola,” featuring Reibl singing in Spanish, make their way onto the album.

“We’re a very Australian band in a lot of ways, but we just steal things from all over the world and we have since we were teenagers and we take a lot of joy in that,” Reibl says. “Many bands from overseas try to learn English because it’s the most popular language, but I think we’re trying to reverse that a bit.”

Musically, Stolen Diamonds is The Cat Empire’s most international sounding album, borrowing sounds from cumbia rhythms, afro-beat lines, and reggae-style vocals—to name a few.

“There has always been this interesting paradox in the band,” Reibl says. “I feel we are very Australian and have a very Australian attitude, but we’ve been influenced by so many different places as well”

Reibl also points out that Stolen Diamonds is easily The Cat Empire’s most musically complex album to date. The band basically learned every song within two to three hours of recording it without rehearsing.

“I would bring in a batch of songs or Harry [James Angus, vocalist and horns] and the band would learn them as we recorded them. We wanted to keep that rawness and make something dynamic in a short space of time,” Reibl says. “I know that Harry wrote very extensive and challenging parts for the horn section. The horns and really everyone in the band is really playing hard to the best of their ability.”

This aspect also makes The Cat Empire a marvel to watch live. The band has always focused on live performances and on creating its own atmosphere.  

“I think there has been an unspoken agreement with the band since our beginning and that is that we want to make music that will leap out of the studio, write stuff that is very exuberant and complex, and bring the audience into it,” Reibl says. “The audience is a member of the band when we play live.”

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