Interview: Harry Angus of the Cat Empire

Originally published through Tone Deaf

The-Cate-Empire

The scene is Mt. Olympus, sometime way before the birth of Christ, and the Greek Gods are enjoying unchallenged supremacy. Down on flat ground, humankind are struggling to find the tools to survive.

Enter Prometheus: a trickster not exactly known for following the rules. He sneaks into Zeus’ territory, takes the God of Lightning’s divine fire, and passes it on to the mere mortals scraping by on Earth – sparking the beginning of civilisation, progress, and most importantly, the inspiration for naming the Cat Empire’s newest album Steal The Light.

Or that’s how trumpet player/vocalist Harry Angus interprets it anyway.

“I get a bit of a Prometheus vibe to it,” he muses. “Not the terrible movie that came out last year but the actual myth – Prometheus stole fire from the Gods, and he was pretty badly punished for it. It’s kind of cool.”

Prometheus himself was doomed to spend eternity with an eagle eating his liver, only for it to grow back the next day – but Steal the Light is guaranteed to be a much more cheerful affair.

It’s so upbeat, in fact, that Angus compares it to “a big parade.”

“It’s a party album… it’s very colourful, there’s lots of beats,” he enthuses. “[It’s] dancing kind of music. It’s probably the first album we’ve made in a long time where we’re into that whole side of things.”

“After 10 years I think we’re ready to embrace what I think we do best, which is also basically where we started out. It’s almost a process of coming full circle.”

You’ve heard the party sound that defined their first work as a band together. Their 2003 self-titled debut album featured many of their best songs; the raucous ‘Hello,’ the reflective ‘Days Like These,’ and the powerful ‘The Chariot.’

It’s genre-defying dance music made with real instruments – played by Angus, frontman Felix Riebl, keys-man Ollie McGill, bassist Ryan Munro, drummr Will Hull-Brown, and Jamshid ‘Jumps’ Khadiwala;  an impossible to resist swell of gratitude for the things that mean the most – friends, love, and wine.

The tastings of Steal the Light we’ve heard so far are similarly themed: joyous, warm-hearted, and in love with life. This is something that comes across in the album artwork, done by children’s illustrator Graeme Base; a treasured name to those who grew up with Animalia and The 11th Hour. 

“He did an album cover for us, with these cats,” Angus says. “We’ve never gone anywhere near the idea of actually having cats on an album cover for our band. We’ve always stayed well away from cat-related stuff. Apart from our band name, that’s the reason why. But he did this really cool cover, and the name (of the album) just seemed to fit the picture [which] came first.”

The Base album sleeve came about because Angus and co were fans of the illustrator’s work themselves. ”I mean we’re just the right age that we grew up with his books, when they were probably at the height of their popularity. So we’re all massive fans.”

For Graeme Base, the feeling was mutual; “His kids are into the whole jazz scene that we all came out of when we were teenagers,” Angus notes. “So there was a lot of connection there actually. His son’s been doing filming for a behind-the-scenes documentary for us and another one of his sons plays in a Melbourne band called Animaux. So it’s all connected, we’re all connected. It’s all worked out very nicely.”

As impressive as their recorded output – including Steal The Light – may be, they’re nothing compared to a Cat Empire live show. The band is among the best in Australia when it comes to showing an audience a good time – possibly among the best in the world. (Local fans can catch them come September.)

While there are plenty of acts who are worth the ticket price to see in concert, Angus says that what sets the Cat Empire apart is improvising.

“Every night has the potential to be totally unique and really different to the night before and the night after it,” he explains. “And that really adds up when you’re touring a lot and you’re playing gigs night after night.”

“You’re heading out into the unknown, you don’t know where the music’s going to take you,” he continues. “You’re looking at each other like ‘oh shit, is this going to work?’ If it does work – which it doesn’t always – but if it does, it feels really good. You can feel the energy, it’s spontaneous. That’s always been a big part of our live show.”

It’s an attitude that’s at odds with the often rigid, paranoid microcosm of the music industry – which, as musicians, the Cat Empire of course operate within. But Angus says that entire business will come and go; and let it, we don’t need it. Music, after all, is timeless.

“To me, as a musician, it’s reassuring – well, not for my finances,” he laughs. “Not for my mortgage. But it helps me to believe that music’s always been here, it’s always going to be there and it doesn’t matter whether people are buying it, or whether people are just making it in the street, or whether it’s all sloshing around on the internet, it’s always going to be there, it’s a fundamental part of human society.”

“I think that the way we look at music as almost inseparable from the music industry in the Western world is based on the way our society is structured, in this consumer capitalist style society,” he adds philosophically.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all, it’s just the way it is. So music reflects that structure, music reflects consumerism and capitalism and that’s how we look at music right now, as a product.”

“The music industry is just this tiny little blip on the radar of the history,” he concludes. “[The industry] has been around for maybe 80 years, max. Music’s been around since the dawn of human civilisation.”

Be that as it may, anyone struggling to make a career out of music will inevitably have to work within the system, and Angus is one of the few who has etched out a place for himself as that rare breed; a well-known, revered, paid musician. So he’s in a pretty good position to let the rest of us know how to get it done.

“My best advice for any musician is just to be themselves,” he says. “I think if you want to be an artist – especially the kind of artist that people know their name; who they are and what they do – the best thing you have to offer is something unique.”

“Everyone goes around trying to copy people that they love. That’s important too, that’s an important part of playing – just like great painters did studies of other great painters, that they can learn something technical from,” he continues.

“But when it comes to the creativity, you have to believe inside yourself, and ask yourself ‘what is my thing, that isn’t the same as what other people are doing? Not copied from my heroes. My thing,’” he adds. “I think the best chance any musician has of doing well is finding that thing for themselves.”

Living in the Lucky Country probably isn’t hurting either. Cat Empire songs are littered with fond references to their motherland, and in particular, Melbourne, where they started out. (Just listen to the wailing tribute in ‘The Crowd’: We’re going to sleep/On the St Ki-i-i-i-lda sands.”)

“When it comes to music, I truly believe that Melbourne is special,” Angus affirms. “Australia too. I think Melbourne has become the centre of a lot of it; we just have a killer music scene. There’s so much going on here.”

“I’ve travelled a lot now with the band, and I’ve seen some of the places that I’ve always dreamed of seeing – New York and things like that. And I got to New York and I saw some cool stuff but I also thought: there’s nothing really happening here that isn’t happening at home, and at home it seems more exciting.”

“I don’t know why, but I just think we’re a place in history where music’s just really good right now,” he ponders optimistically.

Harry Angus can thank himself, and the rest of the Cat Empire crew, for playing a part in that.

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