The Cat Empire formed in 1999 and have since been touring the world with their unique and eclectic scope of jazz-inspired pop/latin/funk/hip-hop fusion party music. The band released their 6th album Rising With The Sun in March of this year, on their own label, and they play in Ottawa on July 28th at the Algonquin Commons Theatre.
This interview is also being broadcast on CHUO 89.1FM Thursday July 28th at 2:00PM. It will be streamed live online here and archived here.
I spoke with Harry James Angus, lead trumpet player and vocalist in the group, and asked how they continue to be inspired and keep things fresh for themselves.
HJA: Over the years, what we’re trying to do has changed a little bit. Back in the day we were really interested in a lot of different music from around the world and our basic way of doing things was for one song to copy the music of Eastern Europe, then for another song we’d copy the music of Cuba. It was really fun and we got a reputation for being a band that does everything, but after a while we started to feel like we’re just kind of borrowing from everyone else without really being a part of the traditions that we were borrowing from. So the last two records in particular, we’ve tried to find a way to make music that sounds like it comes from everywhere, but doesn’t necessarily delve too deeply into one tradition or another; that is just like a big parade of sounds from around the world. In a sense, what we’ve done is actually focussed more on what I suppose you’d call “nuts and bolts songwriting”, like just melody, lyrics, rhythm and chords, but then around that we’ve just tried to make it really colourful and explosive and interesting, drawing on whatever ideas seem to fit. I would say that We’re not drawing heavily on anything particularly, it’s just the sound.
AC: Does this sound come more naturally at this point?
HJA: Yeah the last two records, which we did with the same producer, have been a really fun process because a lot of the songs grew out of just playing in the studio and getting a rhythm that feels good and creating songs quite spontaneously. Whereas in the past we always kind of rehearsed up before going into the studio. We’re really trying to capture more of the chaotic energy that you get in our live shows and I suppose that kind of helps.
AC: So if you’re trying to capture more of a live sound on record, what can you offer in your current shows that isn’t on this new record? I mean if you’re trying to capture the live sound you’ve established over the last number of years, is there more of a challenge to make the live show even more explosive and colourful?
HJA: It’s a really slippery concept trying to capture your live energy. I don’t think it’s as simple as doing what you do live, on a record. Because often what you do live, when you try to put it on a record, it just doesn’t have the same power to it. Making a record for us has always been a quest to recreate the chaotic energy of the live show, but I suppose in a more palatable setting because our live show’s often devolve into pretty serious chaos, so that’s always been a challenge for us. Everyone has their own idea of what a produced record sounds like. The last two records we’ve done, most of the playing has been almost completely live but I think to a lot of people, it would appear to be a more heavily produced record than what we’ve done in the past, but thats just because we spent more time being creative with what things actually sound like in mixing When it comes to the live show, we’ve never really changed or thought about it too much, we just try and play our songs and try and leave room for spontaneity and thats what we’ve always done.
AC: Yeah one thing I tell people when I try to sell them on coming to your shows, I’ll tell them “They’ll take a 3 minute song and make it 9 or 10 minutes!” and that’s kind of the chaos you’re talking about.
HJA: Yeah that’s right. W’ve never tried to do that on a record. and we’ve had this plan that we’ll make this record as short and concise and mainstream as possible, and then people come to the show and hear the keys do a 15 minute atonal solo and maybe they’ve never seen that kind of thing before but we’ve kind of tricked them into it. I often get this feeling that people who are big fans of our records and our song-writing, who come to our concerts for the first time and maybe that kind of thing isn’t to their taste, and maybe the opposite as well; I think someone people come to our show who’ve heard out record and thought maybe it wasn’t for them, and them when we go deep into that more intense kind of improvised thing, that really resonates with them. So, you know, it’s a complicated band that way because you cant pin it down. I can’t really terll you what the music is, and you you listen to the record and you dont know necessarily what the live shows gonna be like, and vice versa.
AC: I’m sure you get this question here and there, but what kind of band are you?
HJA: I just say we’re a party band. At the end of the day, I believe that all the principles that were at play in early jazz music, are the same principles that we’re using. Which is about improvisation, but also about kind of harnessing energy and building energy with the crowd. Creating something where it’s not just the band doing the thing they rehearsed that’s really cool and they do the same thing every night. but kinda using the crowd as a wave you’re surfing. You have to read it and you have guess when to do certain things. If it works, then it’s awesome and when it doesn’t, the crowd is like “well at least they tried.” I feel like often if we don’t have the right kind of crowd, we can kind of fall flat because we rely on the crowd so much. It’s when people come to see us who have had the experience before, they bring it and without that energy coming from the crowd, we can kinda suck.
A sweltering Saturday afternoon, with crowds that were much more manageable than on Friday, made for a great day 4 of RBC Bluesfest. Save for a bewildering set from Allie X, everything I caught on the day was pretty captivating.
Shakey Graves performing at the RBC Bluesfest in Ottawa on Saturday, July 11, 2015. ~ RBC Bluesfest Press Images, Photo: Scott Penner
Shakey Graves beamed with charisma and perfectly captured an Austin, Texas, vibe during his set in the early evening at the Canadian Stage. Indie-folk rock in the vein of Tallest Man on Earth with some blues sprinkled in, he even controlled some of the driving percussion with his own feet and a suitcase drum. He engaged the crowd and spoke of songwriting as a teenager, when everyone feels like they already know it all. For those in the audience who didn’t already know Shakey Graves, he surely left a lasting impression.
Nas performing at the RBC Bluesfest in Ottawa on Saturday, July 11, 2015. ~ RBC Bluesfest Press Images, Photo: Scott Penner
Hip hop legend Nas showed that he still has it when he rocked the Claridge Homes Stage performing hits from his career that spans more than a decade. Shouting out cassette tapes and former peers like A Tribe Called Quest and Boogie Down Productions, it was refreshing to see someone still commanding the stage so many years later. Opening with the energy of “The Don”, his set lost absolutely no momentum moving forward. Gems like “Halftime” and “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” had intro medleys that made them sound fresh and new. Though a veteran, Nas shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Alvvays performing at the RBC Bluesfest in Ottawa on Saturday, July 11, 2015. ~ RBC Bluesfest Press Images, Photo: Mark Horton
Toronto’s Alvvays have gone from playing venues like Ottawa’s Zaphod Beeblebrox to the largest music festival in the world, Glastonbury, in only the span of a year. This meteoric rise is likely based on the strength of their eponymous debut, and their infectious single “Archie Marry Me”. Their dreamy brand of indie pop, and the floating voice of lead singer Molly Rankin perfectly gelled with the fading day in Ottawa. “Adult Diversion” and “Ones Who Love You” join aforementioned “Archie” as highlights of the set.
Iggy Azalea performs at the RBC Bluesfest in Ottawa on Saturday, July 11th, 2015. ~ RBC Bluesfest Press Images
The interesting thing about having Iggy Azalea headline the day after Kanye West is that they’re both pretty polarizing figures. While Kanye West alienates some with his persona, no one can question his music. Iggy Azalea on the other hand poses some interesting questions when it comes to her place in hip hop and popular music overall. Having a hip hop icon like Nas basically open for her only serves to further that scrutiny. Despite all this, if you view Iggy Azalea as a pop artist (like how one would view Vanilla Ice in the early ’90s), then there’s not much that you can fault her for. She is dynamic, attractive, and knows how to work a crowd. She was engaging with choreography and her hits like “Fancy” and “Work” had everyone bouncing. Though her set clocked in at less than an hour, she worked hard on that stage. If you can get past her almost-offensive Southern US affectations, then you might even say that she’s a star. Looking around at the smiles in the crowd of mostly young females, I’m sure they’d say as much.
Fast Romantics are a band that do one thing really well — making great music. That skill set of theirs has been turning heads since the band’s genesis in 2008. They’ve worked with legendary Canadian producer and engineer Howard Redekopp (The New Pornographers, Tegan and Sara, Metric, Mother Mother… the list goes on) on two out of their three albums. They’ve been accepted by our southern neighbours, and even had the chance to play at a temporarily reconstructed CBGB in New York City before the bastards shut it down for good. As their raw sound and substantive lyrical content of their new album Afterlife Blues demonstrate, Fast Romantics are in the business of creating music that people connect with. After having just wrapped up a six-week North American tour, the band plays at Black Sheep Inn on Thursday, Dec. 19, along with Sam Cash & the Romantic Dogs. So with all this romance going down, it’d be a shame for anyone to miss out. Check out our interview with drummer Alan Reain below.
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