Cat Empire breaks out party 'Shoes' for US tour
"When I was growing up and imagining what I would love in a band, it was basically to get in a caravan and go away and play," says Cat Empire leader Felix Riebl. "Somehow that early romantic idea has come true. Because almost everything we've done, we've done because we thought it would be an adventure."
The adventure began in 1999 when percussionist-vocalist Riebl, keyboardist Ollie McGill, and double bassist Ryan Monro formed a jazz combo in their hometown of Melbourne while still in their late teens. Cat Empire eventually expanded to include six members -- adding vocalist, trumpeter, and co-songwriter Harry Angus, drummer Will Hull-Brown, and turntablist Jamshid Khadiwala -- and as many, if not more, styles.
The band hit the road hard, repeatedly touring the world and going to any festival that was open to their infectious, party-starting mix of percolating ska, hepcat jazz, Southern soul, classic pop, and playful hip-hop. They played everywhere, from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland to Bonnaroo in rural Tennessee last summer. And as festivalgoers dispersed to their hometowns, buzz began to spread.
When Cat Empire plays the Paradise on Sunday, the band will finally have an actual CD to promote. ("Two Shoes" was just released in the United States; it's been out in Australia for more than a year.) "It's really strange," says Riebl, on the phone from Melbourne. "You've got to win fans over just by playing night after night at festivals, so we're used to the word of mouth, I suppose. We're only just getting used to releasing CDs in the world, which is a whole different thing."
Recording "Two Shoes" was a continuation of the band's adventure, as Cat Empire headed to Cuba and hammered out the 11 tracks in the famed EGREM Studios.
But the Afro-Cuban sound is only one element of Cat Empire's mosaic, and Riebl said it was a "hoot" luring well-known Cuban horn players out of their comfort zones to play Stax-style raveups like "Lullabye" and bouncy ska bleats on the first single, "Sly."
"They were just giggling the whole time," says Riebl. "They were really into it."
While "Two Shoes" has a distinctly upbeat atmosphere, it's not only party music that Cat Empire is interested in. The songs are just as likely to be filled with sharp antiwar metaphors as celebrations of beautiful girls. The band's grab bag of sounds and ideas, says Riebl, is distinctly Australian, and something he and the other band members take great pride in.
Although he calls it "weird and postmodern" to put it this way, Riebl believes what makes the band so distinctly Aussie is the fact that Melbourne's bustling music scene is teeming with foreigners.
"You get an extraordinary wealth of just weeknight music around town," says Riebl of the stewpot of musicians imported from Europe and South America. "It's not segregated at all, it's more inclusive, and we're really proud of that kind of upbringing. It's such a romantic upbringing for music, we thought we'd try to champion it as best we could."
Their homeland has chosen to champion the band right back. "Two Shoes" has gone double platinum, and the band was given the prestigious task of penning and performing the theme to the 2006 Commonwealth Games. The group won an ARIA -- the Australian Grammy equivalent -- this year.
Though it's hard to predict how well such an offbeat group might do on the US charts, Superfly Productions cofounder Jonathan Mayers , who co-produces Bonnaroo and booked the band, sees the Empire building. "Within my world, it's so much more about the live show, and I think they're going to have a really solid touring career," he says.
Dana Marshall, music director for WBOS -- which has "Sly" in regular rotation -- agrees. "I don't think they're ever going to be mainstream like the Fray or something like that, but I will tell you that a lot of people have called and asked questions about the band." Marshall saw the group last year and was bowled over. "The energy is absolutely remarkable," she says. "They just have a blast onstage."
That joy is summed up in the album's title track, in which Riebl theorizes that all one needs in life is love, food, and music -- and two shoes for dancing to that music. "We found the best thing we could do was to play, and that's how we could give back and find our own enjoyment," he says. " 'Two Shoes' is a tribute to that simplicity in life."
Cat Empire plays the Paradise Sunday night. Tickets are $17. Call 617-931-2000 or go to ticketmaster.com.