The Cat Empire

The Cat Empire is neither feline nor an empire, but with a frisky new full-length that debuted last week at No. 49 on the Top Heatseekers chart, world domination may not yet be out of the question.

The Cat Empire is neither feline nor an empire, but with a frisky new full-length that debuted last week at No. 49 on the Top Heatseekers chart, world domination may not yet be out of the question.

The Cat Empire actually got its start as a rather non-intimidating trio. Consisting only of Rhodes piano, timbales and double bass, the Melbourne, Australia-based group mostly played jazz clubs when they began. But the three young fellows making the music -- Ollie McGill, Felix Riebel and Ryan Monro, then only 19 -- spent their post-show nights jamming at dusk till dawn parties with musicians of countless stripes and up-for-it revelers, and after about a year the Cat Empire realized it was ready to expand.

"We wanted to make people dance," says Riebel, and the addition of Harry James Angus on trumpet and vocals and Will Hull-Brown on drums started the band down that path. "Then 'Jumps' [né Jamshid Khadiwala] brought in a turntable and samples and he changed the whole environment. People did start dancing."

Mashing up hip-hop and be-bop with soul, ska, R&B, rock, a little reggae and a strong dose of Latin rhythm, the band's reputation as a scorching live act quickly spread. They went from playing to a few drunken friends to playing for "three or four thousand people without having an album out," says Reibel. "We were giving people a memorable experience, and that's what it's really all about."

The Cat Empire's U.S. label rep, Sean Hoess, observes, "The band really got off the ground like the Dave Matthews Band did -- building a tour base. They were reaching fans directly. It was only once they had a following that they started to make records and turn to radio."

The band's first album, released in Australia and the U.K. in 2003, went gold in its home country in just two months, and the shows kept getting bigger. Invited to several prominent festivals after the disc's release, the year culminated with the group headlining the Melbourne New Year's Eve celebrations at Federation Square, an event Riebel still refers to as a "highlight" of the Cat Empire's career: "We played for 200,000 people, and having started with only 15 people in a room somewhere, it was amazing to reach that point. It was an adventure."

April 2005 saw the release of follow-up "Two Shoes," which went straight to No. 1 on the Australian charts. But the band didn't get a deal in the U.S. until about a year later, when New York-based indie Velour Recordings signed them "strictly on the strength of the record," according to Hoess. "We hadn't seen them play at that point, but we knew their reputation. That was enough for us."

The Cat Empire had already performed extensively in America, but 2006 marked a turning point when a stop at the Bonnaroo festival drew raves: "That really jumpstarted everything for them here," says Hoess. "They started playing their set to only 200 people, but closed it out in front of 1,500. The audience — and the press — came away pretty stunned."

"Two Shoes" finally saw stateside release in February 2007, and an appearance on David Letterman on Feb. 13 helped get the word out. On March 1 the band hits the Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson, and it gets back on the U.S. festival circuit in July.

Velour is pushing the first single from "Two Shoes" primarily to triple A stations here in the U.S., but also to "more alternative" alternative stations. "Not the ones that lean toward emo, but the ones that will play Beck or Gnarls Barkley," explains Hoess.

"But the funny thing," Hoess adds, "is that while all of us went into this approaching the Cat Empire as an alternative act, the fact is, they're really a mainstream band. They are drawing fans from all walks of life to their shows."

Riebel attributes that broad appeal to the times. "I hate to put it this way, but I do think we're living in a 'global village' at this point, at least as far as music goes. Our generation wasn't brought up with one dominant style, and the Cat Empire has really just taken from all the different types of music we love and thrown it into this giant melting pot. We just add our personal experience and we're off."