There’s nothing like a bit of warmth from Down Under to get the party started in summer-starved Quebec. On tour to promote their latest album, Steal the Light, The Cat Empire brings its signature fusion style to Montreal, Sherbrooke, and Quebec City to kick off spring with unbeatable beats, great lyrics, and an irresistable Afro-Cuban-Caribbean-Spanish-reggae-ska-hip-hop-jazz-rock feel.
I got a chance to chat with frontman Felix Riebl before the band left Australia. We talked about Steal the Light, how the Empire’s style has evolved, and why the band loves Montreal so much.
Nancy Berman (NB): Tell me about Steal the Light and your upcoming tour.
Felix Riebl (FR): We haven’t been to North America for over a year so we’d really like to celebrate the new album over there. In terms of albums that translate well from studio to stage Steal the Light works really well so we’re excited about this tour.
NB: On the new album you can still hear the Cuban and Spanish and other influences that were so obvious on Two Shoes, but they seem more seamlessly integrated on Steal the Light, a little less raw than on Two Shoes.
FR: There was something about taking really obvious fragments of other styles and combining them all in a song. But now we’ve done a lot of concerts; the songs are like instruments, where the grains of wood change and adapt to how you play. Now we don’t have as many obvious influences — they’re more amalgamated into our own personal style. I feel more and more that we’re sounding like us. Having said that, on Steal the Light there’s something on it we love about the rough strange Caribbean rhythms. They sound like Caribbean disco albums from the ‘70s. We’ve managed to capture some of that energy — not the specific style, but rather the intent behind it. We’ve found some rougher sounds, stranger hooks. There’s a bit of that wildness in the new album.
NB: How has your style evolved?
FR: Cities was so layered; we worked for a year on that album, traveled around a lot, focused a lot on detail and production. With Two Shoes we wanted to do something really raw, so we went to Cuba and recorded it in an old shoe factory. So by the time we got to Steal the Light, we had learned so much from so many different people. It was great working on Steal the Light. We really like the level of production, and it sounds great live. We did add some touches in the studio like layered horns and double vocals, which give it a more grand, ethereal feeling.
NB: Do you usually set out to go in a certain cultural direction with a song, or does it evolve organically?
FR: It changes as we work on it. I like to go for atmosphere, and to start with a good chorus. For the verses, as long as we have a rough melody to begin with, that’s enough. Then the band jams, plays for a while till we stumble across verses that work.
We used to start with more realized ideas, with songs that we finished ahead of time, like on Two Shoes. But now I’m more interested in the gaps, the fragments, the parts that aren’t done, that’s where something interesting emerges. I like to start with simple melodies that practically play themselves, and then strange things emerge from the group once we start jamming. There are no rules but between the two extremes (having concrete ideas and leaving things up to chance) good things emerge.
NB: Do you start with the lyrics or the music?
FR: When I’m lucky I start with lyrics. But usually they’re the hardest part. You can’t write a lot and edit it back; lyrics are hard to come by. When they come it’s great. Usually I start with a hook, a turn, a harmony I find interesting, hopefully a chorus with lyrics or even just a set of syllables that will eventually turn into a lyric.
NB: Who composes?
FR: I do most of the composition. Eric’s done a lot. We have some group compositions, like Sleep Won’t Sleep. We’ve gone through a real transformation. With a group of talented musicians with great chemistry between them, usually they bastardize my original ideas and most of the time they improve them!
NB: You’re in the studio now. What are you working on?
FR: We’re keeping an open mind musically. We’ve recorded seven songs. Everyone’s on the same page in the studio but we’ll have to see. We’ll be making an album over the next year with a 2016 release.
NB: Do you like playing in Quebec?
FR: We’re really excited to be back in Quebec. We have a lot of friends there, but more than that we have a great following, really exuberant. So we can avoid the trap that you can fall into on tour — repetition. Because people in Quebec and especially Montreal really love us.
Truer words were never spoken. So listen to your corazón, and get your tickets ASAP.
Cat Empire plays Metropolis on April 10 and 11 at 8:30pm, Tickets $34.50-44 at Metropolis.