Exclusive interview: The Cat Empire

With their unique blend of ska, salsa and jazz, Australia’s The Cat Empire are a hard lot to pigeonhole – and that’s just the way they like it.

Formed in Melbourne over a decade ago, they took the local club scene by storm back home – but it was right here in Edinburgh, in 2002, where things really took off for them.

Having set out on their first overseas tours, the band ended up at the Edinburgh Fringe, where they played 16 successive gigs between 3 and 5am at the Late’n’Live show.

The six-piece eclectic powerhouse have so far released six albums and have sold more than half a million records in Australia alone – each one going multi-platinum.

Their latest release is Rising With The Sun – a collection of 11 brand new tracks that’s has been rapturously received by fans and critics alike.

The Cat Empire’s latest 12-date tour includes a few extra cities being added to the band’s usual UK sojourn – including the return trip to Edinburgh, where an epic 16-night stint at the Edinburgh Festival all those years ago sparked a long European love affair for the band’s ability to turn every gig into one huge party.

Ahead of their visit to the Queen’s Hall on Saturday night, AAA Edinburgh caught up with The Cat Empire’s Harry James Angus for a chat.

The Cat Empire have been around since 1999 – how did the band form?

The band grew out of a loose collective of jazz musicians playing together in Melbourne. First a trio, then a four-piece band, then five, then six, then eight… 75 per cent of our live show was just made up on the spot in the early days, and we’ve tried to hold onto that spirit of improvisation as much as possible, although these days I guess we play a lot more songs that we know how they’re going to end.

cat1You’ve been around for a long time – what are a few of the biggest highlights that stick out you, and why?

To be honest, my favourites were the early days… the familiar faces in the crowds at home, the excitement of doing everything for the first time and finding your own crazy people in each new town. All our success has been great, and we’ve played to some huge crowds… but I’m still trying to hold onto that early feeling because our music was born out of that chaos and freedom… we’re not a stadium show.

You worked again with Jan Skubiszeweski on the just-released Rising With The Sun, but the record sounds different to Steal The Light. Did you work in the same way together as before, or did you set out to try something different?

You think so? I think set against all our other records they sound by far the most similar. However, the songwriting process was different in that it was a lot more spontaneous this time round.

One of the tracks on the album is Bataclan. You’ve played that venue many times before, so the events must have really scared you?

It was sad because we have looked out at a lot of smiling faces in that room, just like so many other bands have. But essentially that theatre is similar to thousands of other venues around the world, with the same kinds of bands playing in them and the same kind of punters in the crowd… so it’s not scary. It’s just f*cked.

How much are thinking of your live show when making an album? Or is that something that comes later?

A fair bit. We have to know it’s going to make people dance and we have to know we’re not going to get sick of playing it over and over again. But usually when we start performing a song live, it begins to evolve and grow to survive in the wild anyway. Some of our old songs are almost unrecognisable now from how we recorded them a decade ago.

Do you still get nervous playing live?

Sometimes.

What about playing the newer songs – do you worry they won’t go down as well as some of the older ones?

Sometimes I worry about that but not too much. I try not to think about it. I’m only interested in playing stuff that I’m interested in playing. Hopefully there is some overlap between what interests us and what interests our audience. If people really hated something I’m sure we wouldn’t enjoy playing it that much either.

You’re coming back to Edinburgh. Are you looking forward to returning?

Yep, it’s a great town. Whole town smells like Vegemite.

The band played 16 shows at the Late And Live slot at the Edinburgh Fringe? What are you memories of that?

In a way, those shows were what forged us as a live band. Starting at 3 every morning and playing past sunrise, dealing with all kinds of stage invaders, drunken comedians, bagpipers and other distinguished guests, looking at each other and thinking ‘what the hell are we going to play next?’ and then just making stuff up on the spot. It was like boot camp for everything we have done since.

The 3am-5am slot you guys did must have meant playing to some pretty inebriated crowds. What was the craziest thing that happened?

We were the least crazy thing around. We were just the soundtrack to a lot of off-duty comedians, circus performers and penis puppeteers. People were wrapping themselves head to toe in bubble wrap and wrestling on the stage. The whole audience tried to dance around the room without touching the floor. Bagpipers kept coming out of nowhere in full kilt at full tilt. It was fun.

I’m guessing that – as you would at a festival – you were playing in front of a lot of people every night who didn’t know your music?

Yes. Easiest people to please, people who don’t know your music.

The Cat Empire, Queen’s Hall, Clerk Street, Saturday 9 April, doors 6.30pm,  £25, 0131-668 2019