Felix Riebl – A Cat Empire To Solo Empire

Instantly recognisable as the lead singer of one of this country’s most enigmatic live acts over the past decade, Felix Riebl of The Cat Empire talks to Music Feeds about what it means to undertake a solo adventure. Felix has had a musical upbringing that has prepared him for all that has come his way. From playing in a band who bridle the worlds of jazz, funk and an all out party vibe to something far more introspective, Felix Riebl talks about his most recent musical journey – going solo.

Music Feeds: You’ve had an interesting upbringing, one of European and Australian influence; your uncle played viola in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Who encouraged you into music?

Felix Riebl: Firstly, I feel it’s important to say that music is a deeply personal experience, and it will always be a mystery why, when, and how I fell into it.  I don’t think the obvious answer is ever the real one!  I just found myself there, and it’s been a great adventure following that love.  In more practical terms, I grew up in a house and family full of music.  We were all encouraged to take up instruments young, and I was lucky enough to have some amazing experiences, like sitting in the percussion section of the Vienna Philharmonic as they played an Opera, or huddled alone in a red library listening to Santana’s soul sacrifice (Woodstock) on repeat.  Formerly, my father had the European genes (he himself is tone deaf), and my mum encouraged us and made me practice.  I also owe so much to my teachers, especially percussion and piano.

MF: You refused to sing in the school choir, instead opting for percussion. When did you discover you wanted to sing?

FR: Deep down, there’s always been a part of me that longs to sing, though I was shy about it for a very long time.   Maybe that’s why I avoided the choir.  Even now, it’s a minor miracle that I find myself on stage singing for a career, especially now with Into the Rain, because it’s a very melodic and open album.

I opted for percussion early on because the movement was exciting, and rhythm came naturally.  The Cat Empire is a rhythmic band, and in many ways I learnt how to use my voice by making words percussive.

MF: The Cat Empire are synonymous with celebration, creating incredible rhythms without even using guitars. Now that you’re going at it alone, who have you enlisted to play beside you and what instruments will we be hearing?

FR: There will definitely be guitars!  I feel I’ve compensated for having been in an electric-guitarless band for so long by making this solo album, which at times sounds like a 70’s highway album.  In terms of a sound, the songs have a depth and pace to them that require the audience to come in, which is very different to The Cat Empire style show, which more or less blasts the audience out of their seats.  Underneath the moodiness of these solo songs, there is a lot of life and optimism as well, it’s just different.  The sessions making this album were some of the most enriching and positive musical experiences I’ve had.  The band for the upcoming tour are the guys who played on the album:  Danny Farrugia (drums), Ben Edgar (guitar), Ben Grayson (Organ), Ryan Monro (Bass).  We didn’t rehearse, the songs just played themselves.  I will play piano and sing.

MF: You’ve been schooled in music by playing for over a decade as a band, touring the world and meeting some incredible musicians. Is it true that in your downtime you’ve revisited the music theory from all those years ago at school?

FR: Yes, the journey I’ve had with The Cat Empire has been an amazing experience in discovering and continuing to learn about music.  We’ve played with so many incredible musicians from around the world.  I learnt more on stage and on the road than I ever did studying music!  Music theory was never my strong point.  I discovered harmony for myself at the piano, curious about what sounds would emerge next from my spread out fingers.  It was an exciting way to learn and gave my imagination access to the shapes and characters the sounds formed.  Yes, I did revisit more formal harmony a few years back.

It was interesting discovering textbook names for the things I’d given my own imaginary names to.  Over the next few years I will continue to slowly get my head around some more theory!  Though I will always favour songwriting, which more or less appeared in my life without an invitation or formal introduction and continues to be a hell of a surprise.

MF: It’s pretty obvious you love being behind the piano, writing songs. How’s it different now your long-time band members aren’t there behind you?

FR: It is something very new, sometimes daunting, sometimes exciting.  The Cat Empire is an accomplished live band, with a very dynamic chemistry.  My new songs are more about creating space and inviting the audience into that world.  I am very fortunate to be surrounded by great musicians in both line-ups. The generation of Melbourne musicians I’ve grown up with are some of the best musicians I could ever hope to play with.

MF: You’ve just celebrated 10 years playing live as The Cat Empire. Tell me about some of those early shows and how they’ve made you keep doing what you do.

FR: There was a point after one of our first shows downstairs at the Great Britain Hotel where I walked outside and made a point of thanking my favourite star.  There was just so much energy and life about the project early on, and travelling and making people dance was my priority as a 19 year old.  Performing: for me it’s about finding those fleeting beautiful moments, sometimes on stage, sometimes after a show, sometimes not until the next night.  The rest is being a professional and trying to stay afloat in the shaky travelling existence.  It was The Cat Empire that gave me my first such moment through music, and I’ve been chasing it ever since!  The 10 year celebration is about recognising our audience and our shared experiences.

MF: As a band you learnt to spread the buzz of your live show by word of mouth; is that an ethos you’ll still carry with you into your solo career?

FR: The Cat Empire’s word of mouth following was generated by a very different type of show, and mostly different songs.  I think these songs are much more meditative and personal, and I think the album opens up like a journey.  It offers closer listening to almost anything I recorded with The Cat Empire.  I hope that, over time, this album will come to live in people’s walls and memories, and that’s how it should be.

MF: Tell me about the recording of your solo debut Into The Rain. How have you approached this record; do you find making the decisions harder or easier in this new environment?

FR: Emotionally, it was much harder to write these songs, because the experiences they drew from were darker, more contradictory, and more painful.  Recording them was so much easier though!  Once they were written, the band just looked at the charts and they came out completely naturally.  We didn’t rehearse, we just met in the studio, and by the 3rd or 4th take the song would be done … sometimes with vocals as well.  The Cat Empire is much more difficult to record, but less stressful to write.  There are exceptions in both bands, but as a shape I think that’s a pretty accurate description.

MF: You’ve said Into The Rain encapsulates some of the darkest times of your life. Was escaping the frivolity of The Cat Empire necessary to be able to enjoy some kind of catharsis as a musician and for that matter as a person?

FR: Yes.  To be able to create a piece of work that let me go into the darkness, and out again was very important to me.  It wasn’t so much about escaping another project’s dynamic, it was more about recognising what was authentic to write at the time and following it.

MF: For fans of The Cat Empire, what are some of the new experiences they can expect to have when listening to this record?

FR: As I mentioned, this album exists in a very different space to any The Cat Empire album, and yet it’s still my strange voice singing the songs.  Maybe songs like Miserere, No Longer There, and Reasonably Fine are good reference points for fans who are thinking of giving it a listen.  They have some of that closer feeling about them.

MF: You talk about the two halves of your life up until now. One spent listening to classical music and early songwriters like Cohen and Nick Cave, and the other listening to 70s rock. What does Felix Riebl’s ‘voice’ sound like now that you’ve seemingly bridged those two sides of your musical personality?

FR: The only bridge that exists is an invisible one . . . or one that’s in ashes!  I started this interview with the statement that music is a mystery to me.  It’s one I love especially, because it doesn’t seek an explanation or definition.  I have listened to all those artists and styles mentioned above, and many more, and it’s true that my heritage and identity are divided.

It makes a neat press angle I suppose!  I could add to that list of divisions with plenty of other examples as well, which are far less symmetrical.  The true challenge I believe is to write songs that are authentic to me, and to live with the loose ends and contradictions that are part of being human. I love writing songs because they give me access to that mysterious companion, which probably manifests itself in a voice, and if I try to justify, bridge, or explain it too much I will forget to just listen.

Felix Riebl Into The Rain is out now through MGM

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