When I spoke to Harry James Angus the trumpet player and singer of The Cat Empire he was sitting outside the Harold Holt Memorial swimming pool in Melbourne. Like most of us Harry prefers the beach but according to him “in Melbourne there’s not really that much swimming to be done on the beach.”
Of course, in Victoria there is Cheviot Beach, named after the SS Cheviot which sank, resulting in the loss of thirty-five lives. It is also the infamous beach where Australia’s seventeenth Prime Minister Harold Holt went for a swim and never came back. If I had increased Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War – he coined the famous slogan “All the way with LBJ!” – I too might have left our shores without warning.
On the other hand, Harry has no political inclinations nor does he intend to depart the music scene. He isn’t Bono and he isn’t Nina Simone. The last time I interviewed The Cat Empire (Grok Magazine Issue #1 2009 pg. 24-25) their front man and percussionist Felix Riebl was keen to promote environmental stability. He had recently written the lyrics to “No Longer There,” a somber song which asks listeners to reflect on what sort of legacy future generations will inherit as a result of environmental “negligence.” Harry, however, is “not such a big believer in the artist’s responsibility to spread messages as Felix is. I mean, I really respect that he is really trying to make a difference with that stuff but I guess where I come from is that you’ve just got to try and make beautiful music or good music at least and then the rest will just come, you know? You don’t have to put it into your music. You can just do it.”
That is exactly what he hopes he will continue to do with The Cat Empire. “We’re really happy where we are, writing music, doing a record every couple of years, and touring. We still tour all the time. That’s our life.” Nevertheless, fame is an evil Harry wishes to avoid. “It’s not real. It’s weird. I don’t know why but it seems like the more famous you are the more messed up your life becomes, the more twisted your personality becomes, and the more out of touch you become emotionally. There are exceptions to the rule but it just seems to happen to so many people. A celebrity, it’s a weird thing to be. There’s just something not right about it.” Thankfully for him, he “hardly ever” gets recognised in public.
“I’m not a TV personality. If you’re on TV that’s when you get recognised all the time. Thank god, I’m not famous. I can definitely say that from the small experiences of fame that I’ve had I would definitely not want to be any more famous.” Harry confesses that he has met some “crazy fans.” “Some of them are great. You can’t believe how dedicated they are to the band, you know, people who kind of follow you around the world and come to all your shows and know everything about you. That’s kind of crazy. And then there’s the other end of the spectrum people who are actually crazy who you know want to kill you and say that you stole all their songs and they actually wrote all the songs that you’ve written I mean, that’s actually a really common thing. Heaps of artists have people that have the delusion that the artist has stolen all their songs. It’s quite common. We’ve had a few of those.”
But death threats and deluded fans have not deterred Harry from performing. “I love Freo. [It’s] always a good gig; good people and it’s a nice place to be. We usually play at the Arts Centre which is a beautiful venue but there are heaps of good venues; the Fly by Night and all that. Yeah, it’s a good place to be.” He is looking forward to performing in Fremantle later this year for the Blues ‘N’ Roots Festival. “[It] should be good.” For Harry, performing in front of large audiences “feels good” but he has “no idea” what songs they will do. “It’s too early to say. We usually write the set list about half an hour before we go on stage.” He does not have a preference for any particular venue. “I like, you know, little rooms, and I like big rooms and I like festivals and I like jazz clubs. You can’t tell what’s gonna make a gig good or bad. It can be anything. You can’t predict it. Sometimes you have a good gig in a small room and sometimes you have a terrible gig in a small room. The same for a festival stage playing for ten thousand people.” However, Harry does believe that “you’ve gotta keep your head straight and keep your ego in check. Remember that you’re up there because you enjoy playing music [and] not because you want to impress anyone or any of that stuff. Once you get your head around it it’s fun.” Like Felix, Harry believes that “the best advice” for young and upcoming musicians “is to make the music that you believe in. Don’t try and be smart and make music that you think is gonna be successful or people want to hear or that’s cool at the moment. The only way you can be creative is by writing music that is yours and yours alone.”
On stage, “lots of things have happened that are musically interesting to me,” Harry declares. For Harry, “really exciting or really beautiful or really crazy” musical moments are the highlight of a gig. “Then there’s all the weird stuff that happens on stage. You know, people running on stage naked, and stage divers having really dumb accidents, landing on their head. That’s always pretty full on.” Then, particularly when they tour overseas, there are “people dressed as kangaroos.” “The first time we saw it we thought it was amazing but now we’re probably just a bit over it. But, you know, it’s still nice.” Harry is a firm believer that “whatever happens backstage stays backstage” but on stage “heaps of stuff happens, we’ve seen our keyboard player throw a chair at everyone on the side of stage cause he was kind of a little over excited and didn’t know what he was doing!” So there is a lot that can happen at a Cat Empire concert.
He recommends you see them live. “That’s where it’s at. I like both [recording and performing] but I think live music is the real deal. These days everyone glorifies studio recordings, the process where you go into a room and create these amazing sonic landscapes, where you create ‘art’ but the word ‘recording’ really just means to record an event and the event is a musical performance. The best bands are getting in there and recording what they do live anyway.”
All in all, despite the death threats, deluded fans, and fans dressed as kangaroos, Harry is grateful that he is able to perform with his mates as a part of The Cat Empire. “We’re quite lucky,” he admits. So grab your tickets for the West Coast Blues ‘N’ Roots Festival at Fremantle Park on 17 April 2011 to see The Cat Empire live. Who knows, you might see a streeker, a fan dressed as a kangaroo, or even get a chair thrown at you if the keyboard player gets a little too excited.
Words by Jake Dennis