by / October 28th, 2010 /

Top Story: Interview with The Cat Empire’s Ollie McGill

The Cat Empire are a jazz, funk & ska infused band from Melbourne, Australia. Formed nine years ago they have a reputation for incendiary live performances and though they just played their 800th show in the UK, tomorrow night’s gig (October 29th) in The Academy, Dublin is their first ever visit to Ireland.

Earlier in the year State caught up with keyboardist, Ollie McGill, at the Calgary Folk Music Festival in Canada of all places.

You’re not exactly folk music but you’re here playing at the Calgary Folk Music Festival. How do you pick and choose your festivals and why are you playing this one?
We’ve played in Calgary many times before but this is the first time we’ve done the folk festival. It’s been nice though, I’ve actually gotten to spend a bit of time here this time. Usually we just do our show and leave but because of the way this festival works, we’ve got three performances so we’ve got a bit of time to see the place and suss out the vibe.

Does that kind of system suit you? Do you enjoy doing the workshop gigs in addition to your usual set?
We love the workshops. It’s always been in our nature to jam and it’s exciting meeting new musicians. It’s a very spontaneous event and it can be a bit hit and miss depending on who you get paired up with. I felt that the workshops really took on a new level once everybody started to understand how it works. It starts off really rigid with each band taking turns but gradually, as it goes on, they all starts to become one. Some people aren’t as willing to mix with others, but it’s kind of the etiquette of jamming and you have to be intuitive to what’s going on.

I wanted to ask you about your touring habits. You’ve been together a long time, are you tired of touring?
Well, we’ve been together nine years and touring from quite early on. There was a lot of regular gigs in one location. We’d build up a crowd, playing maybe once every fortnight. We’d start out at a venue and be getting next to no-one and eventually build it up to, maybe, three hundred people or something like that. Then we’d move to a bigger venue and do the same thing, build that up to, like, a thousand people.

One of our most important achievements was a gig that we did in Melbourne, where we’re from, at a place called the Metro. It’s about 2,200 capacity or something like that and we managed to fill it before we had released a record. For me, that was really great, it was by no means our biggest crowd but the fact that we managed to fill that without releasing a record was purely down to word-of-mouth and that’s how we’ve always worked.

Could you tell us about your now legendary residencies at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a few years ago?
Well, that’s a similar thing to what we’ve been talking about. We went to Edinburgh and played as part of what’s called The Late & Live Show at a venue called The Gilded Balloon. We had 15 nights in a row booked and it was right after a comedy show. It was a bit of a shitty slot because, y’know, the people came to see the comedy and as soon as the band started everybody left. So, for the first few shows we were thinking “What have we gotten ourselves into?” We were playing night in, night out, starting at about 2am and we wouldn’t finish until the sun had come up. But we built it and built it and eventually, the comedy crowd would leave and we’d bring our own crowd. By the end, there would be queues down this spiral staircase to get in and, again, that was another career highlight.

What about your reputation for playing long sets in the early days?
If we have a reputation for that, it stems from those Edinburgh shows. I recall playing for in excess of three hours and our setlist was everything we had. There was a compére there called Daniel Kitson who would be doing random comedy and we’d be trying to provide background music. I remember this one night where he had organised a wrestling match, except the catch was they were all wearing bubble wrap, and there we were playing in the background. But after those shows, we thought we should try to cut it down and try to present something a little more concise.

Speaking of being concise, is there an effort on your new album, Cinema, to be more focused and tighten things up?
I mean, yes and no. In many ways we wanted to go back to what the essence of what we were all about which involved going back to a lot of the styles we used to use. But as a result, because the band has matured a lot, our effort to go back to our original vibe created something totally new. I think that it’s tighter in the sense that the music is not just a mish-mash of styles as it used to be, but its own sound. It’s something people can identify with a little more. The songs do happen to be a lot shorter but I think that’s made up for with the epic production on some of the tracks. We were working with a really good producer. We’ve never worked with the same producer twice and I think that’s helped keep us fresh. It’s important for us to evolve.

You’re doing some extensive touring in Canada and the U.S. on this leg of the tour. How did things work out here?
Canada’s a funny story actually. We had toured the States before – we were lucky enough to have this guy who flew us to the States for a corporate gig, all expenses paid, so that got us over and then we just kept coming back as a result of that. But America has always been a little tricky for us. I suppose it’s such a big country and they’re kind of into their own thing, so it can be hard to have an effect. But if you can make it, even in a niche sense in the States, it can be great for you. We haven’t done badly there but Canada is a different story.

We never went to Canada, I suppose we weren’t aware of any kind of following. But we went up to play a show in Vermont; it was quite a small show. There was about thirty or forty Americans there and they were loving it, but a few songs in, all these Quebecois came in, all these guys from Montréal that had driven across the border, and suddenly it was a packed event. So that’s how we found about the following in Canada and, I mean, they had all burnt the CD so it was slightly illegal but it worked for us.

That sounds similar to how your Irish following began. You’re coming to Ireland for the first time in October, how aware of your following in Ireland and other places in Europe are you?
It says a lot that we’re actually doing these gigs. We don’t mess around with our touring these days. We try to tour as efficiently as possible. Willy, our drummer, just had a baby and I’ve got a baby on the way in January. I’ll be back home by then but I only found out after all this touring was set in stone, so I’m quite lucky. We only go to places if it’s really worth it for us. But I can’t say anything until we’ve actually been there. But the music spreads like that, often on burnt CDs, dare I say it.
Part of the awareness of The Cat Empire in Ireland stems from young Irish people on one-year visas in Australian cities, but also from airplay on stations like Triple J that is popular around the world.

Yeah, we get played on Triple J and on Nova, so that helps a lot. Triple J is actually one of the biggest stations in the world, in terms of the area that it covers. It’s one of the few stations that covers the whole nation.

Melbourne is rumoured to be quite a good city for music. Did you find it a conducive environment to grow in and play live?
Well, you know, it depends who you ask, but I’m from Melbourne so yes, definitely. There’s a lot of venues to play, it’s quite easy to get a gig so there’s a lot of new music and there’s a lot of great musos as well. I suppose people migrate to Melbourne. I mean, I think Melbourne is like New York in terms of its scene. It’s got a jazz scene, alternative music scene, all kinds of stuff.

Is that responsible for the eclectic sound of your music? Did you come together as a band through the music network in the city?
Yes, it influenced us, of course. We all met through music. I met Felix when I was 13 when we needed to put a band together. My piano teacher at the time was a keen educator and he loved getting young guys together to play music. In this instance he gathered a bunch of guys, all from different high schools around Melbourne, to form a band. And that was kind of an early version of the band called The Jazz Cat, but it was an educational project. We got together once a week and rehearsed and then eventually we got a gig on another night of the week at a jazz club. We started writing our own stuff and The Cat Empire eventually formed as a more focused version of that band. So, we met through music and, yeah, Melbourne helped a lot in that.