Sometimes you discover a band that get right under your skin and someone who’s playing speaks to you in a new and exciting way. I couldn’t believe despite being a huge festival band for the best part of 16 years I was unable to find an interview with Will Hull-Brown, so I went and tracked him down for a chat.
For people who don’t know The Cat Empire, how would you describe yourselves, as it’s quite hard to pin you down now?
Very hard! For us in the band, we’ve been doing it for 16 years now and none have come up with a clear answer of what the band is. I think the longer we’ve been in it the more confusing it is for us even.
It’s so diverse I don’t know how to pigeonhole it because we’re not rock, we’re not jazz, we’re not soul, we’re not ska; we’re just blend of all that stuff because that stuff has influenced us over the years.
I guess our main game is going to a concert and providing an energetic live sensation for the crowd that people can dance to. A festival; I could describe it as a festival perhaps.
You do have a real hardcore fanbase that will travel miles to see you because of that festival vibe. Even in videos online, that feeling is palpable!
It was quite apparent to me when we started the band in 2001.
Ryan would have a double bass so there would be that jazz element of a double bass, but he loved a lot of grunge stuff, rock stuff, jazz stuff. There’d be Harry who would have a trumpet so there’d be that natural jazz and kind of latin influence, Felix would be on percussion, Jumps would be on the decks so you have that kind of a hip hop thing and so all these elements came together and was exciting for us all.
I think a lot of the sound or a big part of it is purely the blend of the actual instruments that are in the band.
The band are over in the UK in November on tour but you’re not actually going to be playing, I believe Danny Farrugia is stepping in for you?
Absolutely! Very lucky to have him on board. It’s one of those awkward situations where your dep might be better than you.
You don’t want your fill in to be better than you but having said that, it’s kinda good for the rest of the guys because they can rely on him and you know that someone’s doing a good job for you. So that’s good.
And you know as a friend he isn’t going to try and steal your throne!
During live shows you often take a song and do an extended version where the band get to take a solo. Do you just pick a song and think “it’s great but live it can become something else entirely”?
Yeah, pretty much.
Live has always been our thing and then we have the challenge of making a record and thinking “oh, what do we do”. We have to make a song the record company want to sell, so what do they want, three and a half minutes or something.
It actually felt really alien to us to record an album.
I think we eventually got a really good mix of that live energy with the tightness of an album in the more recent albums, but certainly live we can just stretch out, do whatever and feed off the crowd and give Ollie keyboard solos. He’ll play keyboard solos until the cows come home, you just can’t stop him
One of the things I really like about your playing is how during a keyboard solo you’ll just lock it down and hold the groove. There is a live video of Daggers Drawn where you’re keeping pretty much the same groove going for about 14 minutes. As great as chops are, that is far more impressive to me!
That’s very good of you to say. I think we try and do that and as I’ve gotten older I have appreciated locking down into a groove and having that rhythm section being the engine room and just driving that train.
Its a different kind of energy, this simmering energy when you can hold something down, purely if you can hold energy to it and do it for long enough it builds a tension and a different type of energy than you know; chops and getting busier and stuff.
I don’t have the worlds best chops anyway so I couldn’t go too crazy but I think it’s a lot more fun when you can just like, lay it down and once you get into that hypnotic kind of thing the whole band gets in a zone and it’s really cool.
With Jumps mixing live, does that present any challenges with time keeping? Do you use clicks at any point to keep things together?
There’s two parts to this answer I think.
Firstly, we’ve always been conscious of keeping the live gig as free as possible. It’s much more practical for the band to lock into the time of the drums, rather than the band locking in to Jumps’ parts. If we have any technical problems with the sounds, or Jumps’ computer or turntable/mixer, and that’s what you rely on for time, then you’re stuffed. Everyone can still hear acoustic drums if the sound cuts out!
Secondly, Jumps has most of his parts broken up into shorter phrases, so that he’s actually ‘playing’ the samples more, as opposed to just hitting the button and letting it go for the full sample. This is great because it means that if we push the tempo a bit more on any given night, he can adjust by playing the parts of the sample in time with us. This doesn’t mean that i don’t listen to him, it’s quite the contrary. I like to have Jumps really clear in my mix because his samples give a good tempo reference, and it’s another key element of the song.
Do you practise a lot? I found a quote where you talk about only being able to practise in your parents basement on a practise pad!
When I was a lot younger I was definitely a lot more focused, I had a lot more time.
It’s that thing of when you’re growing up, especially in your teenage years that you’re very influenced by things, you tend to absorb things and you latch onto things and your enthusiasm is so big.
I started about nine or ten and school is such a regimented kind of thing and of course I couldn’t play when I was in the classroom, so I would practice in the mornings before I’d go to school. I did half an hour or 45 minutes on the pad and then when I got home I’d play on the kit. That was a bit of a theme in high school.
In recent years I haven’t had nearly as much time to practise, I have four young boys and I think they probably do more practise than I do. I do more kind of daddy time I suppose.
I definitely did do a lot of practise when I was younger and I had some great teachers as well, Darren Farrugia who did a stint in the UK recently; but he’s one of Australias’ well known drummers, along with Danny, and I also had a great teacher all through high school, Paul Matcott. He showed me all sorts of stuff so there was plenty of information and plenty of learning to do and I find at that young age you’re ripe for learning and just want to keep doing it.
Of course the best thing is when you can get out and do the gigs and play so once the band got together we’d do at least 100 gigs a year, that keeps your skills up
It’s kind of like sport, the best way to be fit is to get the match fitness you know, to actually do the gigs and we would regularly play for two and half, to three hours, especially in the early days. You lose a lot of sweat in those gigs!
It was 2003, early days from the first album we released and it was just a fun kind of party song that Felix wrote when he was about 16. He would have parties with his mates and they’d sit around the piano and sing this Hello Hello kind of thing and kind of rapping stuff and making up words in between and it turned into a thing,
It still seems to be one of the most popular tunes from that first album, along with The Chariot.
We went through a stage where we got pretty sick of playing it and I don’t think we touched it for about two years, but we play it a bit more now.
Speaking of older songs and albums, is there anything you look back on with particular fondness or are especially proud of?
Two Shoes, the second album, that was the one we did in Cuba and sometimes when I hear stuff from it,what I really appreciate is that I can really hear the sound of that room that we recorded in.
It’s a big timber kind of dance hall, the same room they recorded the Buena Vista Social Club in, that famous recording. That’s why we went there because we loved the sound of that room.
There are some songs on there Protons, Neutrons, Electrons and Sol Y Sombra where it’s more “roomy” and it shoots me straight back to that place. I can feel the room and the vibe and stuff and we kind of achieved what we set out to do there and capture the sound of the room.
I like all the albums for different reasons, the first album to me just captures the whole enthusiasm of the early days of the band, that young energy.
Andy Baldwin, our engineer on the first one, he’s such a character and put all these flavours in the recording and it sounds like all the food he cooks ya know, amazing flavours, sweet and sour and everything.
I feel like that first record, everything was chucked into it and I can kind of hear it.
I actually wanted to talk a bit about the second album, because for me it felt like that was where you got a bit of a new direction as a band and the afro-cuban influences, soca and mambo and so on really started to click.
I think you’re right and being over in Cuba and when you’re in that environment around Cuban musicians and percussion and brass, it influences you on the spot and it becomes about the rhythm. You’re right, the soca kind of thing; Harry wrote In My Pocket and he’s like, “I want, you know, dum, kah dum, kah” and that’s become a bit of a theme since then in a lot of our stuff, a bit of a go to.
I don’t play it super traditionally, we kinda do our own thing with it but it’s got that foundation of that bouncy kind of beat.
We did probably a lot of rehearsing for that first album I suppose, compared to other albums. We’re generally quite a lazy band in terms of rehearsals I’ve gotta say.
I remember rehearsing with Felix, he’d have a cajon kind of box thing that he got made, with all these different things on it and we would just practise the beats, what to do in certain bits, in the chorus and the verse and I remember working out stuff; maybe to the point of too much. Some of the stuff I can hear on there and feel we could have been a bit more free.
There is a point where if you rehearse too much you kind of get locked into that and you feel like you’ve got to do it. It works for some stuff but it’s not always good and I think generally we’ve kept it pretty free with a lot of what we do as I think what we do best is the improvised kind of thing.
But from Two Shoes we’ve just grown from there and I think that Cuban and African influence has always been there.
Did you do any extra study on Afro-Cuban styles before or even after recording Two Shoes?
Not really, no! *laughs*
To be honest, I’ve always been a bit hesitant to bring in stuff that is quite traditional; for example rhumbas, and clave’s, different Brazilian rhythms. I was sort of wary to try and emulate the because I thought was going to set myself up for failure and mass critique from people hearing it going “hey he’s trying to do that, but that’s not how it is”. I always try to keep it just my own thing and the band kind of thing.
I think it’s obvious that we have those influences but I’m mainly personally influenced by a lot or rock stuff and grunge stuff!
When I was growing up I was listening to The Police a lot and Dire Straits and then the grunge stuff from Seattle through the 90’s and Chili Peppers and stuff. I try and give it a little bit of that kind of thing, mixed in with a bit of jazz and stuff.
I think it’s the same with the other guys, no-one tried to be too traditional but you can hear the flavours.
Knowing a few Aussie guys; it feels to me like you’ve taken the latin vibe and done it in a laid back, very Aussie way and it works because it’s not trying to be Buena Vista Social Club; it’s bunch of guys, writing fun tunes and using that as a kind of template.
And you know it give you the freedom to go places, you know we might be in the middle of a swinging tune, or a reggae tune and then in the middle section Harry might just cut the band and start improvising with vocals and then bring us in. We might look at each other and do a meat and potatoes, four on the floor, just lay it down rock kind of thing, me and Ryan the bass player.
It’s kind of cool not being pigeonholed as you can just do whatever you want really! I wouldn’t say we can do any particular style amazingly or anything. We dabble here and there but we don’t take ourselves too seriously so its kind of fun for the audience as well.
Is there anyone in particular who you look up to and draw inspiration from or any bands you’re really enjoying right now?
I recently got put onto August Greene, kind of a supergroup trio, with that rapper Common, along with Robert Glasper & Karriem Riggins.
They released an album this year.
The sounds, the beats, the mood, it’s all just so creative. Karriem’s drum parts in particular are so unique. Most of it is really light, jazzy playing, but it also seems really thought out and considered. There’s some wicked bendy time stuff going on as well!. Get on it!
Moving on to the new music; I think you guys are doing what many bands are doing now and are releasing tracks more regularly rather than as a full album?
I’m sort of struggling to keep up with how quickly music is changing for the consumer.
I was born I ’82 and when I was a kid records had just gone to tape, so I grew up with tapes and then CD’s, then mini-disc and MP3’s and then online. It’s hard to keep up with but we have a great manager who is very on top off it all and she has to talk us through how we’re doing it.
Gone are the days when the album comes out and you rush to the shop and buy the CD, take it home, sit down and listen to it from start to finish, looking at he booklet. I used to love doing that when I was a kid, but people have shorter attention spans now and there are so many distractions, so I think you’ve got to do it in those bite sized chunks.
A lot of people are streaming stuff, making libraries to listen to with their mates or at work, so if you can give them song they can add it to their library.
I think if you can’t be them you gotta join them. I’d love to just record a CD and put it out and stuff but you’ve kinda gotta go where the demand is and that seems to be the online stuff.
It takes a little bit of the pressure of I suppose, you don’t have to get the whole album done at once! We’re still mastering some stuff and getting some film clips edited and the couple of tracks that were ready first, we’ve put them out already.
It’s kinda cool, it gives you social media content which doesn’t come naturally to me or the rest of the guys in the band, but we’re trying.
There are really young bands today who are all over it, because they grew up with it. They’re in that world and they know how to do it but it’s still kind of foreign to us, we’re like “we’re not posting enough stuff, we’re not posting enough stuff”.
I noticed with the new tunes, of which there are two at this point, both have 360 videos; is that a bit of a theme for the new tracks?
Yeah, that’ll continue. Some of the action going on in the room and the lights and things will change a bit. It’s just one of those things where it’s like new album, let’s come up with a new idea.
We’ve done a lot of film clips in the traditional way I suppose, where you outsource it to someone and give them a song, they have their idea and there’s something unique but I just wonder how much relevance do film clips have now. I suppose it’s just something else to add to the package, you know not just the music but something to go with it.
I’ll be honest we also had very limited time; some of us guys live in different parts of Australia now and we had to take the opportunity to get us all together and do something. We found this amazing location in Melbourne and one of our friends had the idea to do a 360 so we thought “let’s do it”.
There’ll be a few more in that sort of style but yeah, I feel like video is not super important, I want people to listen to the tune you know.
It’s been really good, we were with Virgin who run EMI for ten years, from the first album.
That was awesome, it’s all about the people you work with and the people at EMI were great and a pleasure to work with but after ten years we thought maybe we could do it on our own and Steal the Light was the first album we put out as an independent, then Rising with the Sun and now Stolen Diamonds.
It’s cool. I mean it’s a lot more work, especially on the management side of things because we have to employ people to market the album and stuff and do all the ground work, but you know you get that control of making the decisions yourself and you don’t have to give a whole chunk of money to a record label, which helps as well!
Especially given the way music has changed with streaming.
Absolutely, you get such a tiny percent of what is played on Spotify, but of course the numbers are bigger because people will play it over and over again, but it just shows how important it is to sell tickets now.
I think that’s why you see so many bands getting back on the road because it’s the only way to make proper money now, unless you’re a massive pop star who can sell enough albums and stuff.
I think we’re finding all this social media stuff and selling some albums is a tool to get the word out there so you can get people to the shows, because that’s the way to make money.
If you can’t sell tickets you might be in a bit of strife!
Having flicked through videos and things online, I noticed you recorded a bunch of live material which is available on streaming services.
There was the Forumin Melbourne, and some other ones from around the place.
One of the big gigs we did the last few years was the Royal Albert Hall, I know it was filmed and everything, I’m not sure if it’s up but I remember it being just an amazing show, an amazing venue.
It’s a cool thing to be able to give to fans but it’s sometimes hard to know if putting out live stuff is good or not because the whole idea of live is that is captures what’s happening then and now and it’s for the moment. Looking back on it, does it have the same kind of edge as when you’re there? I’m not sure but I know the fans appreciate it, so it’s good!
I wanted to talk about drums, specifically I noticed you have a couple of old kits!
I do, I have a couple of old kits. On that Cuba trip I played a 1964 Ludwig, sort of the same drum kit as Ringo Starr.
I remember during that year we were in London and on Denmark Street was a shop called Andy’s Drums, I’m not sure if it’s there anymore, but it was downstairs in a basement kind of thing.
But we knew this Cuba recording was coming up and we’re like “hey, we’re in London, if we want to get some gear let’s go and find something, because there’ll be something cool here”, because there’s more vintage stuff there than in Australia.
So I went down and saw this kit and it looked great and sounded great. I also bought a 1949 Slingerland Radio King snare drum, a deep one, 6.5 or 7” I think. I went and found some cases and shipped that straight to Cuba, so when I got to Cuba it was there. I remember unpacking that in Cuba and playing it first time on that album.
I’ve still got that kit and it’s taken a bit of a beating; I’ve taken it on the road in Australia and it’s kinda warped and scratched and it’s pretty out of shape but it’s had a lot of use and it still sounds good.
It’s warm and thuddy; you can’t get any bright tones out of that thing.
I have, not always but I like the kinda of Ambassador X kind of thing, with a dot; somewhere between the single ply and double ply. I’ve always sort of changed stuff up but most of the time it’s coated heads I suppose.
I’ve got this 1973 Rogers kit, and I love this kit; it sounds really cool with clear black CS Dot heads on it. I also play Zildjian cymbals, and use Vic Firth sticks and Remo heads.
I did sort of have a Premier endorsement because I won a drum competition when I was young and the prize was an endorsement. A Premier was my first set of drums, when I was ten my mum and dad bought me a Premier kit for my birthday and I still have that as my practise kit.
A few years later though and I didn’t want the drum endorsement, I just wanted to try different stuff and on the road most of the time we just get all the same backline from the same companies and it’s usually a Yamaha kit. They’re really consistent, you sort of know what you’re going to get, the hardware is always good and the drums, if you can put a good head on and tune it, they usually sound pretty good.
The Cat Empire are currently on tour around Europe and in the UK this month.
Interview by Rob Crisp