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By Madeleine Gray on October 30, 2017 in People

Felix Riebl, photo by Nick Rieve

Singer-songwriter Felix Riebl is the founder and co-frontman of global music phenomenon, The Cat Empire. Ahead of headlining SummerSalt festival at Bondi Beach on Sunday, November 26, Riebl talks to The Beast about his childhood influences, the perils of stage euphoria, and what can be achieved when politics and music collide.

Whereabouts did you grow up?
I was born in Sydney, and my father was a European doctor who had to redo his medical, so we moved around the country for a bit, but I grew up in Melbourne and in central Victoria as well.

Also, my father’s side of the family is from Austria and they’re spread around Europe, so I spent a good amount of time over there growing up as well. I suppose in relation to music, my uncle’s quite a famous concert viola player and is now a professor in Salzburg, and his friends and cousins were also playing the Vienna Philharmonic, so I had a really interesting childhood experience sitting around that orchestra and seeing that world.

And what were your musical influences growing up?
I used to go out and try to sneak into clubs, and we’d listen to a lot of jazz and the kind of music that was around Melbourne at the time. At home, the music we listened to around the kitchen bench was sort of ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s rock music. As we got older, we used to sit in with bands – mostly jazz bands – and they had a really distinct sound. They had a lot of attitude.

You started playing music professionally very young, first in a jazz outfit, Jazz Cat, put together by jazz musician and teacher Steve Sedergreen, featuring different school-age musicians from around Melbourne. Was this around the same time you were sneaking into jazz clubs? I suppose so, it was around that time. Steve’s band got put together when we were about 17.

And what that band did was introduce us [the current members of The Cat Empire] to each other. Most people have to wait until uni, or after uni, before they meet their community. We all came from totally different parts of Melbourne and went to different schools, but we were sort of put together in a room as very, very young musicians, and it really gave us that sense of new friends and a new tribe to be part of.

Directly from Steve’s school compilation band came The Cat Empire trio, with Ollie and Ryan, and then The Cat Empire as a six piece came fairly soon after that.

The Cat Empire has clear Spanish and African influences – how did that come about, and do you think that an Australian band starting today would necessarily be able to take and use those cultural influences?
You know, it’s funny isn’t it? In terms of how it happened, it was a live music thing. I grew up with these two worlds of music. In our household, which was very musical, there was the classical thing. Now, my younger brother and sister are both classical musicians. But, on the other side, like I said, there was this real rock aspect to our musical upbringing.

And so I felt like those two worlds were prescribed onto me. Whereas the time I found something that I was just totally mesmerised by, which was my own thing, was when I heard Ernest Ranglin’s album, In Search of the Lost Rhythm, which Ollie showed me when we were young. And then it was the Afro-Cuban All Stars and the Buena Vista Social Club. It really rooted with me, and I couldn’t believe it. But, at the same time, we were also going to places around Fitzroy, sneaking into the Night Cat, seeing Chilean musicians who put great salsa bands together too, and then lots of great African bands in Melbourne. It just gave me an idea to write songs in a very, very different context.

I think in terms of whether a band today would be inspired and use music like that, it’s hard to say. In some ways, bands today have access to so much more music. They can listen to a real obscure album from 1969 with a click on YouTube if they want. At the same time, the access to all that music gives it less weight.

When we discovered an album when we were teenagers we kind of still treasured it, you would just listen to it back to front. And I think, in terms of that sort of weight with music, it’s great for starting bands because you don’t have too many different influences banging you; you just start, often by copying. Then slowly by slowly, with enough failures, you start to come into a sound that’s very surprising. I don’t know, The Cat Empire is a really bizarre band, it always has been.

The Cat Empire is often touted as a perpetually touring festival band. Do you see it that way?
Well, we’ve got that reputation, and I suppose it’s fairly well earned. It’s maybe not as extreme as everyone makes out, but we did tour a lot from the start. It was one of those bands that as soon as we were in a room together – the six of us – something kind of happened. It was really exciting to be a part of; there really was a genuine chemistry, and after our first gig it seemed to be easier to bring it to life in a live space.

After a while, we started writing songs to recreate the feeling that we had at a really good live show. I always thought, “What song could I write now that would give me that feeling of being live on stage?” Whether that’s an audience singing something back or whether that’s a way to hear a musician in a band do something that’s really unique to them, it’s kind of a machine unto itself. It kind of fed it’s own movement forward, I suppose.

And what does that special, transformative gig energy feel like when you are on stage?
Is it totally different to experiencing music from the audience? I suppose so. I love being on stage, I love being in the audience as well sometimes, but the stage is the best. It isn’t always like that, but I think that’s something very precious that you’re seeking; it’s the moment where you can really forget yourself or lose yourself.

I think that when you’ve had it good, you want more success all the time. It’s harder to get. People say – and I don’t know if I actually like the metaphor – that it’s a bit addictive or it’s like a drug. You’re always chasing the first thing. You tend to kind of ruin yourself to get there. Touring and that lifestyle, it’s exciting and then after a while you realise that you’re only doing it for those two hours on stage each night and everything else is kind of a vacuous area.

That’s a big realisation to come to, when did you begin to feel like that?
I think it’s a strange one, because it’s easy as a performer to become objective in your own life and to start reviewing your own music and where you are. But the experience of playing live is an entirely subjective one. Forgetting who you are in the moment is a great relief. I think a lot of performers suffer because they create a world that they suffer in, so that they can only alleviate it by doing this thing that they do that created the suffering in the first place, you know?

Then you do interviews, then you do albums, then you place yourself in a scene or a musical context. But really, I think the thing that you’re going for as a performer is that moment of release. The thing you suffer also feeds you, but the joy of it is an elusive and wonderful thing.

And have you had moments where you’ve been snapped out of a gig experience – where something mundane or unexpected has pinched you out of the zone?
Well yeah, that’s a constant thing. This state that I was just describing certainly isn’t the whole show necessarily. In a great show, maybe it is. But it’s often just a few moments, and that’s never enough. For instance, if a show isn’t going well and you feel like you need to change the set list or something, then you have to for a moment become quite objective within the situation and think, “Is this working?”

Does that necessary objectivity come from you being the “frontman,” as it were?
I mean, there are two singers in The Cat Empire, so in terms of writing a lot of the early songs and putting the band together, I could be called the frontman. I think the more time I’ve spent in the band, the more I’ve come to realise that it’s kind of a chaotic collective, and whenever I’ve thought of myself as the frontman, I haven’t really been particularly happy in the band.

I’ve really just concentrated on doing what the band does well, which for me is playing percussion and sort of letting it go into the cast that it wants to, while still trying to find a semblance of an arc for the show. That’s when I’ve been the happiest.

So the usual “jealous band members” clichés don’t apply?
I think everyone in life is jealous of another person. I think that we all think insane thoughts. I wish that people would admit that more often, you know? We all live privately chaotic and difficult lives. One of the things music has taught me, is to do the opposite of trying to suppress those things. I love music not because it’s ‘happy’ – it’s not. It’s like trying to distinguish between the words ‘happy’ and ‘joyful’. To me, happiness is like tea and scones, or a day at the beach. Joy is the whole bloody parade. It involves all of the emotions that we so fearfully try to hide away from in society. Music is able to take all of those things and turn them into something exciting.

I suppose it’s well documented that bands don’t last over ten years, but that’s a fairly good innings for bands because they’re asked to grapple with that level of intensity for so long. That’s very difficult in a normal way of going about things.

In January this year you released a beautiful song, Miss Dhu, that you co-recorded with Aboriginal girls’ choir, Marliya. Can you tell us about that?
That’s nice, I’m so glad you said that because that’s from a project called Spinifex Gum that I’ve been working on for about three years with Ollie from the band. That album is about to come out. We just did a track with Briggs, and then mostly it’s just this choir, Marliya. They’re a bunch of teenage Aboriginal and Torres Strait singers from North Queensland, and they’re just an amazing group of singers to work with. It’s quite honestly just about the most exciting album I’ve ever worked on, just because it’s been so unpredictable and so unexpected.

How did you start working with the Marliya girls?
Through the Gondwana Indigenous Children’s Choir. I know Lyn Williams, who conducts them really well. She’s someone who I really respect, and she asked me to do a song-cycle for that choir and it worked out that I went to the Pilbara, and it’s such a fascinating place that instead of going once, I ended up going about five times. I just got very involved in that world, and the concert that we did went so well that we decided to turn it into an album.

Plus it’s so nice working with teenagers. They bring something really exuberant and unpredictable to the proceedings, which can sometimes be crazy but can also really just keep you on your toes in a way that’s fantastic for creativity.

And for people who don’t know about Miss Dhu, can you explain what happened to her and why you wanted to write about her story?
Yes, all of that started on one of my trips to the Pilbara. I was not far from South Headland where Miss Dhu died. She was a 22 year-old Aboriginal woman who was locked up for unpaid fines, complained of chest pains and was called a junkie and then died of septicaemia three days after having been totally neglected by the police and medical staff. No policemen or medical staff members were arrested. It was an example of the worst kind of institutional racism that exists in this country, and has existed for a long time.

It was just something that I didn’t feel I could leave there without writing about it. I tried to write about it in the most direct way possible. I looked at the court transcripts, talked with her family and community, and got as many facts as I could. Then we got a lot of support from NITV and SBS and a lot of people in her community who came together to make the video clip.

I wanted to make sure that this wasn’t considered an “Indigenous issue,” as it’s so often phrased, but an Australian one. I’m not an Indigenous song writer, but I’ve been able to spend time in communities and have a lot of friends from those places, and I think it’s too often framed as an ‘us and them’ kind of a context and it’s not. It really questions who we are as Australians and what we stand for as a country and as a society if we’re willing to let the things happen that happened to Miss Dhu. It’s blood on who we are as a country.

How do you think of music as political activism more generally, and how does music work to change minds or bring people together?
What I would say about my approach to anything political in terms of music, is that the art always has to come first. If the song doesn’t resonate, then no matter what you’re saying it’s not going to move people.

Then if the song is good, it’s just about being as bold as possible. Then you have to leave it up to the society that’s listening to it to do what they will with it. People are a lot more intelligent than we give them credit for in so many facets of society. I think it’s patronising to say that if you write a song directly as a call to action that people will do something, but obviously music does change the way people feel – especially now music goes straight into your brain through headphones.

And people respond to music differently dependent on the context they’re listening in. For example, you’re going to be headlining SummerSalt Festival at Bondi Beach on Sunday, November 26; how does the musical charge change when you are outside amongst the elements?
The shows we’ve done before with Xavier Rudd have been just so much fun because we really were two live bands playing in a lovely place. That kind of easiness and relaxed vibe is a big part of why I’m really excited to get back to Bondi. I’m not just saying that to stroke the tour or things like that. SummerSalt is going to be two bands that have been associated with summer for such a long time, playing music at Bondi Beach.

The place is really special to me too. I love Bronte, I spent a whole summer there once. In fact, our title track of Rising With the Sun has a lost verse that didn’t make the album that’s dedicated to the gully behind Bronte. We used to go down there every morning at like five or six. I loved the walk from Bronte to Bondi. It’s one of the most beautiful experiences. I think Sydney people are just so colourful and suit the band so well. A lot would have to go wrong for SummerSalt to be a bad show.

And what’s next for you? I saw you just got a $30,000 grant from the Australia Council, which is pretty amazing.
Oh, yeah, that’s for the follow up to Miss Dhu. The money is to develop a live show with the Marliya choir, and it’s an 18-piece choir so you can imagine flying 18 kids from camps around the country. Check out Spinifex Gum on socials, really, it’s only just launched and they’ve got like 10 likes on their Facebook or whatever, but it’s going to be a really, really exciting release.

Who are your role models in and outside of the industry?
John Porter. He’s an English producer who did a lot of the Smiths and BB King and a lot of amazing bands. He’s been a great influence in my life and really brought me back to just enjoying the music when I was taking it far too seriously.

Out of the industry, I suppose my daughter is my role model. She’s six months old and she’s a big influence on my life. Not just because she’s a baby but because witnessing a language-less form of that much energy is an exceptional experience.

What do you hope for your future?
I want to be working on music or artistic projects that I find really enthralling. I feel exceptionally interested in life when I’m working on something I find interesting. I have a beautiful family that I’m very happy with and, artistically, I want to be as outrageous as I possibly can be moving forward.

For more information about SummerSalt, and to purchase tickets to see The Cat Empire and Xavier Rudd perform live at the festival in Bondi on Sunday, November 26, please visit the SummerSalt festival website at