What is arguably Australia’s biggest new band is coming to the U.S. in February, playing to 400 people here, 800 people there.
To some, that will sound modest. To others, it will prove The Cat Empire is building in the U.S. The band averaged about 200 people during its first visit.
The Cat Empire has all the earmarks of a can’t-lose stock pick. Like Ozomatli, the six-piece has a high-energy live show that is more like a dance party with horns. Its music is strongly tinged with reggae and ska, along with Latin and jazz influences.
There’s also a cool story for the media: The Cat Empire’s last album, Two Shoes, was recorded in Havana, Cuba, at the same studio where Buena Vista Social Club recorded. Not only that, but the guy who twisted the knobs was Jerry Boys, who recorded Buena Vista and has The Beatles on his resume. The U.S. is the last territory for The Cat Empire to conquer. The band plays to about 1,500 people in Canada and is a perennial headliner at Australian festivals, playing to 10,000. After the quick jaunt to the U.S., the band’s off to Europe, where it will headline three nights at Shepherds Bush Empire in London. “Shepherds Bush is great for us because the band’s a bit more theatrical, but it also has a rock aesthetic,” Cat frontman Felix Riebl told Pollstar. “A place like that is excellent because you can play with a lot of dynamics and get into the theatricality of it. It’s three or four levels high, so the audience is very close. It’s one of our favorites.” The band has been to America three times and Riebl said this fourth visit is the most important one yet because it coincides with the U.S. debut of Two Shoes. “We’ve got [‘The Late Show With David Letterman’] on February 13th with the record coming out on the sixth of Feb, and we’re really keen to start making it in America,” Riebl said. “We’ve done a lot of road trips so far; we’ve got a cult following but now we’re ready to go over there and give it a shot.” The band’s U.S. agent, Jordan Burger, learned of the band at a wedding reception in Cleveland. He got to talking with the groom’s sister. When she realized Burger was the R.A. for Australian band Something For Kate, she told him about her favorite band in the whole world and how she wanted the band to play in the U.S. “She gave me her CD and I listened to it over and over again on the way home,” Burger told Pollstar. “When I got home I looked up The Cat Empire and saw they had just won some ARIA awards, and had been nominated for a lot of them.” Next, Burger called up a friend who was in college and had studied in Australia. She told him every student on her floor was a huge fan and begged him to bring the band to the U.S. Burger called the band’s manager, Corenne Wilkie, and learned the band was planning on playing at a friend’s wedding in California’s Napa Valley in May 2005.
“She asked that, while they were here, would I be interested in setting up shows in San Francisco, L.A., Boston, D.C., and see if they had a fan base,” he said.
Most of the shows sold out.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Velour Music Group’s Sean Hoess told Pollstar. “The Australian community is so dedicated that literally everywhere you go in the United States, every Australian in the entire city will come out to see them. … The audience is such a crazy mixture. It’s very evenly men and women, and people just dancing their asses off. It’s also interesting just seeing the passion of the Australians and how that was infectious to the American fans showing up for the first time.”
Velour co-manages the band and is its stateside record label, with Jeff Krasno handling management duties and Hoess handling the record side. The company got wind of The Cat Empire through one of its publicists, Nick Bailey, who handles press for a lot of the company’s artists, like Sonya Kitchell.
Velour got in touch with Wilkie and it turned out they were a perfect match. Velour believes in a grassroots approach to artist development, and Wilkie has been known to book the band in random outdoor locations and parks, bringing in production and creating a scene, Hoess said.
According to Riebl, Wilkie didn’t have any background in the music business when she took on the role of manager. Instead, she ran a charity group for underprivileged youths.
“She was running an excellent, successful campaign for it, so I think she adapted into the music world quite easily,” the singer/percussionist said. “I suppose, for a band like us, which has always done things quite differently in the industry, it was quite handy having a manager that came from a different perspective, who didn’t do things the way you would expect.”
The Cat Empire leaves the U.S. to tour Europe, Canada, Asia and South America. It returns to the States in July.