Why did The Cat Empire, Australian festival darlings, call it quits?

Three metres excessive above the Byron Bay mud, aspect stage is chaos. Not simply darkish and loud however confused by shifting shards of sunshine and shadow thrown from spotlights and flittering silhouettes.

Voices test microphones, horns play frantic scales over a cacophony of anticipation from the Bluesfest crowd heaving under. Musicians, crew and households bristling with babies morph into group images, hugging and laughing and shouting in ears as technicians scramble.

Frontman Felix Riebl is most animated, leaping and stretching like a prizefighter. Ollie McGill is the least fazed. Oblivious to the crashing tides of emotion, he’s walked straight on stage to heat up on the piano and must be referred to as again for the final pre-show photograph.

The Cat Empire take a final bow at Bluesfest.

The Cat Empire take a ultimate bow at Bluesfest.Credit:Dara Munnis

Suddenly, there’s simply eight guys and the remainder of us. They huddle shut as Riebl, at all times the chief, shouts who-knows-what instruction or encouragement. It’s intense, most likely knowledgeable as a lot by adrenaline as something that wants be stated. After 20 years, everybody is aware of their locations. Now, kaboom, off they run to seek out them. The roar hits the pink. The lights fan up and the final ever Cat Empire present begins.

Last ever? Sort of. Riebl and McGill have exhibits booked within the US in October, with a brand new Cat Empire line-up TBA, together with horn gamers Ross Irwin and Kieran Conrau. But anybody who has adopted the world-conquering journey of this outstanding band is aware of it may by no means be the identical. Then once more, it hasn’t been the identical for a while.

Rewind 4 hours. Jamshid Khadiwala, turntablist DJ Jumps, is behind a 12-seater van hurtling down the wet Pacific Highway, considered one of a number of autos carrying the huge Empire entourage from Gold Coast resort to Bluesfest web site.

“We’ve been talking for years about a certain ending,” he says. “We wanted to do a big world tour and that was going to be the farewell… It’s hugely disappointing that we couldn’t do it. Disappointing for us, the agents we’ve worked with all over the world, but no one more than the fans. We all deserve that, and it makes me sad that we haven’t been able to deliver.”

 Will Hull-Brown, Felix Riebl side stage at Bluesfest.

Will Hull-Brown, Felix Riebl aspect stage at Bluesfest. Credit:Dara Munnis

Of the six unique members, Jumps is the man who wears his feelings closest to the floor. This band has been “everything, really; my whole life,” he says. He was “a f—ing wreck” after the final present with bassist Ryan Munro, who bowed out in March 2020 because of travel-related nervousness: considered one of numerous pandemic blows.

“Not being able to play Sydney, that’s massive,” he says. “Not being able to play Perth. Let alone London, Spain, Amsterdam…” he stops wanting naming all 33 nations the place the band has offered 5 million tickets over eight albums.

But the vote to separate was unanimous, proper?

“No, no, it wasn’t like that at all,” he says. “It was just people deciding individually. And obviously, certain things set other things in motion. I can’t speak for everyone else. But I wouldn’t have thought about it if certain people hadn’t said, ‘I think it’s time for me to peace out’.”

Prominent amongst them could be Harry Angus. The band’s trumpet participant and second singer has at all times been a towering presence, a formidable musician and songwriter, a sardonic foil to Riebl’s open-armed ringmaster. The followers adore him. Those who know his many solo tasks have additionally observed his gradual fade from the Empire highlight.

Backstage within the Bluesfest headliners’ inexperienced room, he’s surrounded by his spouse, singer Emily Lubitz, and three younger sons. Drummer Will Hull-Brown is drumming on his lap as his spouse wrangles 4 extra boys, together with twins. McGill’s third daughter is a babe in arms. Riebl’s two youngsters are off-site. Karen the bookkeeper has flown in from Glasgow; former label head Chris from America.

“A big reason driving my decision [to leave] is I’m a bit superstitious about inspiration,” Angus says, grinning the grin of a person completely amused by the vicissitudes of life. “I did feel like maybe a few years ago, I wasn’t getting that anymore but I thought, ‘Don’t give up your day job’… But then when the time felt natural, I think I was emotionally very prepared.”

Is everybody blissful about Riebl and McGill persevering with with out them?

“You know, to be completely honest, when we started the process of disbanding, I think everyone felt really kindly towards each other. And then as the details become more apparent—” that grin once more “—there’s been a bit more conflict and argy-bargy.

Harry Angus, Felix Riebl (top), Will Hull-Brown and Ollie McGill (middle) and DJ Jumps and Ryan Munro (bottom) in 2003.

Harry Angus, Felix Riebl (top), Will Hull-Brown and Ollie McGill (middle) and DJ Jumps and Ryan Munro (bottom) in 2003.

“But it’s a big group of people and people walk away from things differently. It’s like, how do you leave a relationship? Some people are gonna have hurt feelings. Somebody’s gonna want to have it out: grievances from fifteen years ago. Other people are gonna walk away and never look back. I think that’s me. Some people are gonna want to celebrate. I think we’re all up for that. Especially tonight.”

Just earlier than showtime, the band comes collectively for the primary time in a young ceremony to honour supervisor Correne Wilkie. Her steerage and stamina in steering this fiercely impartial operation — equal consideration to worldwide licensing trivia and journey preparations for half a dozen households — can’t be overstated.

Pianist Ollie McGill, drummer Will Hull-Brown, Harry Angus, manager Correne Wilkie, frontman Felix Riebl and DJ Jumps pre-show at Bluesfest.

Pianist Ollie McGill, drummer Will Hull-Brown, Harry Angus, supervisor Correne Wilkie, frontman Felix Riebl and DJ Jumps pre-show at Bluesfest. Credit:Dara Munnis

Hull-Brown, “the heart of the band,” as Riebl will introduce him on stage, leads the presentation of a framed black-and-white {photograph} from their early days. They all appear like youngsters themselves, eyes alight in the beginning of an unbelievable journey that ends right here. It’s vastly important that Wilkie, after two consuming many years, has additionally opted out of the following Imperial section. There are some tears. But largely laughter.

“Walking in five!” shouts a highway supervisor named Hoss. The rain has let up. In teams of twos and threes and extra, carrying horns and cameras and youngsters, the lengthy entourage begins the muddy trek to the stage.

Fans have flown in from all over the world for this. Leo’s first gig was in Edinburgh 17 years in the past along with his mate Jasper. He’s seen the Cat Empire in six cities. Tonight, they’ve travelled from San Francisco. “This Canadian is coming from Stockholm,” one Instagrammer posts. “We are coming for our honeymoon!” says one other from the UK.

Despite the challenges of jamming 20 years into 90 minutes, it’s unlikely anybody is disenchanted. Riebl has loaded the setlist with extra Harry songs than typical however crowd-pleasing is the important thing, starting with the jubilant manifesto of How To Explain (“music is the language of us all”) and climaxing with the Hottest 100 smash of ’03, Hello.

Felix Riebl works the Bluesfest crowd.

Felix Riebl works the Bluesfest crowd.Credit:Dara Munnis

Daggers Drawn is perhaps the musical spotlight: an Angus epic that loops in solo flights from most members of the band. “OK so we’re a party band, dance band, world music, whatever,” Hull-Brown displays later. “One thing I’m proud of is the fact that we sort of tricked people into listening to jazz. in the middle section of a song, we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

We do know that the present will finish with the swinging ska euphoria of Chariot. First, the emotional frontman has many individuals to thank on behalf of his “band of brothers”, so the midnight curfew comes and goes. “How long does this song go for?” a Bluesfest wrangler shouts at Andie, the band’s stage supervisor of 16 years. “Between seven and fourteen minutes,” he replies.

The Bluefest crowd.

The Bluefest crowd.Credit:Dara Munnis

The ultimate bows are an encore unto themselves. Side stage, there are extra tears, extra hugs and images, and rather more drained youngsters. As stragglers file off into the mud, Angus makes a late return. How was it for him?

“Fun. Just another show,” he grins. “It just happened to be the last one.” He heads again to the empty stage. “I left my trumpet behind.”

There is not any official after-party. Emotions are prone to be too broadly blended, Wilkie confided earlier, and certain sufficient, again on the resort, most of us quietly disappear. Ollie McGill is the one unique member to reply bassist Yuri Pavlinov’s WhatsApp occasion name round 2am.

“That was one of my favourite gigs we’ve done in a long time,” the piano participant says over a blaring Beach Boys playlist in room 6206. “It was loose, but all the bits were there. I felt like I could really play tonight. Everyone was on fire…”

Bluesfest was the final gig for the current iteration of the Cat Empire.

Bluesfest was the ultimate gig for the present iteration of the Cat Empire.Credit:Dana Munis

In some methods, McGill is the band’s purest musician; the man who simply lives to play. He’s not too long ago taken, in his downtime, to taking part in in wedding ceremony bands round his new residence within the NSW southern highlands.

“There’s no greater feeling than when it’s good on stage,” he says. “In the moment, in the zone, playing… I mean, when it’s good, we feel like we’re the best f—ing musicians on the planet. We’re not,” he laughs, “but we feel like that. Pure euphoria. That’s the thing that I cherish. That’s the thing I’ll hold onto.”

Childhood pals, McGill and Riebl have been taking part in collectively lengthy earlier than the Cat Empire. “We’re really starting to find our feet moving forward, which is exciting,” he says. “It was very worrying there for a while when we didn’t have a lot of foundation. It felt like the carpet had been ripped out from under our feet. But I’m confident. Yeah. It’s gonna work.”

It’s just a few days earlier than I meet up with Riebl, strolling by means of the Bluesfest gates along with his associate Eloise, his son sloshing in gumboots and his daughter on his again. There’s a subtext to our dialog. Something about these harm emotions others have talked about, and the disappointment that comes with all that happiness.

But after 20 years of crossing paths like this, there’s additionally an unstated understanding about how individuals develop, how youngsters change lives, how inventive paths evolve and diverge. Ever because the Beatles break up, individuals have wished to gossip in regards to the grievances that made it finish, whereas the true story is the love that made it final.

“Look, we started off as a band of teenagers,” Riebl says. “You know, talented musicians, but fairly happy-go-lucky guys who wanted to see where it went. None of us expected it to go where it did.

“To have made it this far, to have made that many albums and to have more-or-less the same team getting to this 20-year point … that took an enormous amount of commitment, at times sacrifice, at times real grit, and at times sheer joy, which is the thing to remember because the crowd shared that with us.”


He remembers a narrative he advised us two nights in the past, of being a teen trying up on the Bluesfest stage and dreaming that someday, simply as soon as, he’d prefer to play up there. That one got here true, half a dozen occasions. Now, he says, “I’ve started dreaming about what else might be possible.”

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