Fresh Produce: The Cat Empire Strikes Back
Felix Riebl and Andy Baldwin discuss the experience of recording a joyous, free-wheeling album in a community hall.
Artist: The Cat Empire
Album: Where The Angels Fall
The eclectic sounds of The Cat Empire emerged from a once esoteric Fitzroy — a suburb whose eccentrically grotty Brunswick St bars nurtured a hazy melting-pot of vibrant musical culture during the 1990s. With their 1999 inception stemming from a world-music resurgence that was radiating through local scenes at the time, the band quickly drew a following both locally and overseas.
The musical collective had a fluctuating roster of regular and guest contributors, but at its core were several founding members. Now, almost a quarter of a century later, the remaining originals re-assemble with a new band of artists. But rather than the usually fluid role-call of talent, the perennial Felix Riebl (singer/principal songwriter), and Ollie McGill (keys/backing vocals) decided to solidify the ensemble’s membership and lock down a line-up of key musicians and percussionists. They were joined by another seasoned member, Ross ‘Rosco’ Irwin (trumpets/musical arrangements) as they went back into the studio to record their ninth studio album, ‘Where Angels Fall’.
Recorded entirely in a community music hall in Brunswick, The Cat Empire has once again entrusted production duties to longtime collaborator Andy Baldwin. Andy has been on the scene since the early days, having produced several of the band’s albums — including the 2002 self-titled debut. He and Felix sat down with AudioTechnology recently to discuss the making of the new album.
When asked about the band’s current incarnation Felix begins by saying: “When we came to record the album, I wanted to think about The Cat Empire more as a community of musicians than just a like-for-like replacement of band members. The reason we wanted this for the next chapter of The Cat Empire — for what this album means — was because it was really important for us to treat every song like a world of its own, and so we brought in a lot of musicians to create and reflect that.”
In previous recording sessions they would have tracked with three or four horn players in a room, and then if a bigger sound was required these would be doubled in the tracking to achieve a denser mix. “The space we’d chosen to work in allowed us to make a clear decision: no doubling things where we could help it. We just needed to book more musicians!”
MERRI-BEK CITY BAND ROOM
The ‘space’ that Felix is referring to is the Merri-bek City Band Room, otherwise known as the Cross Street Music Hall. This Brunswick community hall has been home to the Merri-bek City Band since 1882, and today provides creative music spaces for rehearsals and recording — as well as a music library that offers a selection of instruments from around the world. And there’s even a saxophone repair workshop tucked away in there. Felix goes on to say: “We made an album in the EGRAM studios in Havana back in the day because we’d heard the Afro-Cuban All Stars and the ‘Buena Vista’ sound that was coming out of there. That studio had a beautiful roominess something we were trying to recapture in the Merri-bek City Band Room.”
The MBC Band Room in its current iteration was set up by long-time friend-of-the-band Phil Noy, so it was a logical choice to make. “He’s performed with us in the past, and just happens to be a wonderful audio engineer and musical tinkerer in his own right,” continues Felix. “He has the place set up with a huge range of mics, and other odds and ends, so I was really drawn to the idea of working in a community hall like this. It’s full of old instruments, and there were rooms that were still under construction. That kind of unfinished character had a real charm to it.”
Felix says he wanted to make an album that was more ‘Cat Empire’ than anything they’d done before. He shares, “To give a bit of context about the space: we’d written some songs that overflowed without necessarily being as predictable, and so wanted a studio that would bring in a lot of diverse influences and musicians. Which is why we chose a place that wasn’t a traditional studio.”
During the tracking of several songs Felix and Andy took advantage of the larger spaces by bringing in groups such as the Horns Of Leroy. Felix explains, “We were able to track eight horns together in the one room — so compared to the usual four, it made quite a difference.” The same thing goes for the recording of string sections: “You can get a quartet in, or you can get in 10 strings for more of a symphonic sound. That room seemed to fit those bigger sounds really well, which was why it was a conscious decision to have more musicians involved in this — to achieve this richer, more ‘rustic’ sound.”
While they may have been making an album from a sonic perspective, others were onsite busily contributing in other ways — Felix explains how the album artwork was being created there too. “There was a photography studio in another room, so often there’d be an intermingling between the artists and musicians. There was an ‘integrated’ workshop kind of vibe which had a great feel, in terms of all the personalities there. It felt like we were making an album on all fronts.”
As the music hall was a public space Felix and co. would often encounter other bands and musicians who had hired rooms out in the evenings. He says, “We were using the space in the midst of so many other things happening. We were in the big room during the day, but overnight there’d be community bands rehearsing, so we’d quickly pack things down and then go and meet the bands. Then we’d clear out and head into Phil’s workshop space. While we were working out the back they’d be holding all these underground jazz gigs, or big-band rehearsals — even African drumming classes.” All of this made for a deeper musical experience, with Felix adding, “We’d be tracking with all of that going on, and with Phil repairing his saxophones behind us in the control room. There was a very tangible kind of atmosphere in there, with nothing pretentious about it. I really think you can feel that on the album.”
It’s cool to have restrictions put on you.
PUSH IT TO THE LIMITATIONS
Having access to two very different-sized rooms within the hall meant that Andy and Felix could allocate particular uses to each space. According to Andy, “The big ‘main’ room sounded so beautiful, and we used that to get a range of huge, spacious sounds. There’s also the much smaller, tighter-sounding Library room. This is a little space behind Phil’s saxophone repair ‘lab’.” These two options meant that the production could be moved around as the need arose. Andy continues, “It was funny, actually… When we first got into the hall we set up the drums in the spacious main room where Phil had his Allen & Heath digital mixer installed. This had more inputs than we’d ever need. We recorded some drums in there and it sounded great, but then we moved the kit into the Library room to try that out too. We set up the same kit with the same mics, and everybody was immediately struck, saying, ‘No, this is where we record the drums!’”
This meant that the group ended up recording all of the the band tracks in a much smaller room, which was a room that also happened to be limited to the 16 input channels of an old iZ Technology Radar that Phil had installed in there. “It was fiddly but we had to make do, but thankfully Phil’s production suggestions ended up being brilliant.”
Felix picks up here, explaining, “We didn’t have enough channels to capture the grand piano in stereo on the live takes, instead we opted for one really nice mic and went with the mono sound.” In this input-poor scenario, the slimmed down approach that yielded favourable results was to mic up the grand piano with a single 1940s RCA MI-6203 ribbon microphone, which captured a rich, mono signal. “Phil’s mono piano technique was such a great revelation in the end,” shares Andy. “It ended up sounding incredible, and is something I’ve started using on other projects.”
The practical and physical limitations very much added character to the album’s production and overall sound. Felix expands on this, sharing, “We had a lot of musicians join us, but we also had a limited number channels due to the desk we had access to. As a result, we were making all these interesting mic choices.” Continuing along the narrative of working with restrictions, Felix goes on to say, “We didn’t have much playback. We wanted to record live vocals while we were doing takes for the songs, but I was about 25 metres away. To ensure I could hear what Andy was saying we extended some cables to hook up a talkback monitor for me — which was one of those old Gorilla practice amps sitting out in the hall.”
In the spirit of ‘going with the flow’, Felix, Andy, and the crew decided against the convenience and flexibility of DAWs to expand their input count — instead allowing the limitations to guide their methodology. Andy explains: “We were constrained to Phil’s Radar system. I mean, there were other options — like Ollie’s Pro Tools system — but the Radar was set up so we just ran with it and it was great. It’s cool to have restrictions put on you. And the basic approach to tracking was Ollie on the piano in the main room with lines running up to him. Then Felix was in a smaller booth Phil had built off the main room, meaning he was able to see Ollie from there.
Allowing the spaces to inform things, they’d often use smaller rooms that were off the main rooms as reverberant antechambers. Andy elaborates: “I threw a Neumann U47 down in a little hallway off the main room to capture the sound of a trumpet. I just love when there are little rooms that can accentuate the main room sounds.”
As far as live miking the core band when working with a 16 channel system, Andy says it was tight. He placed two mics on Felix — a Neumann TLM67 and a Shure SM7; the drum kit had 12 mics around it; and the bass guitar had a single mic on the cab, and a DI. “Phil’s mate Matt had this collection of incredible mics he loaned us for the session,” he shares. “There was a pair of Neumann U89s, a U47, and we had this lovely old Neumann TLM67 from Olympic Studios that Freddy Mercury had sung into!”
Andy’s approach to recording drums is simple, and based around the placement of a single microphone. He explains, “When I’m recording I’ll have a dedicated microphone pointing between the kick and snare, aimed over the top of the kick. Often I’ll base the whole drum sound around that mic. I like to do that at the recording stage because with that in the drummer’s monitor mix they really tend to play into it.”
Phil’s microphone collection was also deployed during the recording sessions. This included a handful of Sennheiser MD408 mics that were used on drums and vocals. Andy explains that, “Phil has his own amazing mic collection, of course. There were some 408s we used on all the toms, and he had a bunch of old Calrec microphones we used on the 10-piece string section.” Having the luxury of overdubs, they chose to use individual microphones on the string and brass sections, as well as having a few room mic options up their sleeves also. “We had the U89 and U47 as room options too.”
Andy talks about how he decided to approach capturing the vocals too, as he explains, “We loved the mic we used for the ‘mono ribbon mic’ technique for the piano so much that we also used it on some vocals with it too — it was great for that. We also did a vocal duet with two of the 408 mics — in fact, because of the 408s I didn’t use a single SM57 on this whole album, and that’s an absolute first!”
Given the controlled chaos of the studio, the equipment selections and production choices made throughout the process seems like they’d require some trial and error to steer things in a pleasing way. The decision making was actually quite a fluid process thanks to Phil’s understanding of how his gear interacted with the environment. Andy sheds some light on this, explaining, “This might all sound a bit impromptu, but to Phil’s credit he actually recommended a lot of these choices — he’s brilliant.” He continues, “He’s got this little attic in his lab that he’d head up into and bring something new down to introduce to a song when the need arose. He had a lot to add to the experience.” One such suggestion was to swap out the band’s bass for a vintage Japanese 3/4-scale bass, which ended up being used in a song. Felix reiterates by saying: “Phil was the heart and sole of that place. He’s the one who knows that space, so without him on site navigating, it would have been near impossible to have the kind of success we did.”
As Andy is based in Los Angeles these days, he didn’t have a local home studio to to resort to — to ransack for gear as the project required. Travelling light, he packed a few carefully selected tools, including a pedalboard he’d built to house some of this selection. “I brought a bunch of little things, because there was only so much I could take on my flight from LA to Melbourne. The main thing I brought was my 500-Series lunchbox, which I mainly used for the vocal chain,” he informs us. “And then I built a pedalboard with a patchbay under it. I used this on everything from the Cuban tres guitar, to the drums, to vocals — all sorts of stuff.” He also brought some extra mics, including a Telefunken M80 GOLD, and says “I brought my M80 because singers love it… it’s gold.”
But back to that portable pedalboard for a moment. Andy explains his approach, and how he had it set up for a high degree of flexibility, stating, “I wired a patchbay into the pedalboard, and there’s a stereo Radial re-amp box that connects straight to my main patchbay. This means I can set up two separate signal flows, or go stereo to the pedals that support stereo inputs.” He continues, “I use the pedalboard on many other things — vocals, piano, bass, and so on. And I’ll pretty much always use it with the dedicated drum mic — where I’ll use it as the main monitoring sound, or just something to sweeten up the clean sound a bit.”
Sitting on top of the board are an Electro Harmonix Micro Synth, the Adrenalinn beat-synced filter effects processor, a polyphonic octave generator, some overdrive pedal options, and a handful of other delays and modulation effect pedals. These are all routed through the patchbay, ready for quick patching in the studio. “The patchbay channels are all normalled, so that I can go through everything or change the order, which makes it super flexible. In a mix situation anything is up for grabs,” Andy adds.
You’re not overthinking it, or saying ‘we’ll fix this in the mix’ because it’s sounding kind of great from the beginning, so you’re happy to just leave it there.
On an initial listen through, one of the first things you’ll likely notice is the diversity of sounds and moods across the record. But the same can be said of the structures at the song level. This may seem like a complicated or daunting goal to write and mix towards, but they enacted quite a simple method to achieve it. Rather than orchestrating this at the song-writing stage, or trying to wrangle it in post-production, they instead chose to record multiple versions of each song, and chopped and changed sections to create the desired flow.
Andy gives an example of this, sharing, “On the song ‘Deeper’ we recorded two very different sounding versions of the song. We recorded them right next to each other, but in different rooms, and with totally different drum and bass setups. We then cut up the sections and spliced the two versions together.”
A fun little sub-task undertaken in the studio was to create their own samples. Rather than sourcing existing samples to create a deeper narrative and sense of texture they decided to develop their own custom-made samples to insert into songs to augment the atmosphere. Andy explains, “This was something that I really enjoyed working on. We’d talked about using samples on the album but ended up recording our own. We had Neda and Grace sing in their own languages — in Portuguese and Creole — and it sounded so brilliant. It actually ended up sounding just like old samples, except that we made them!”
HIRED FOR SOUND
So, besides the key members, there were clearly a few extra people who’d been brought on board to contribute — as well as an extended role-call of guest performers who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. There were string and brass ensembles, vocalists, and various percussion groups enlisted to participate in the project. As Felix reflects on the process, he comments, “I think there’s something like 40-odd guest musicians on this album — and that’s not counting The Heidelberg Wind Symphony who we got in one night because they just happened to be rehearsing there at the same time. We also worked with a large string section for a few songs, and on others we worked with a Brazilian percussion marching ensemble. Other songs had a bunch of West African percussionists too!”
Felix discusses how the venue and this crew were able to contribute to the sense of occasion on the recording. “There’s a real sweet spot. You’ve found the space, you’ve written the songs, and the people involved are all at the right moment in their lives to be able to be present — and that’s what brings this sense of purpose to the album,” he says. “And that was certainly the case here. Those things just came together, which meant we were able to enjoy the social and creative experience without second-guessing many decisions.” He continues, “You’re not focussing on whether the song’s right, or if you need to rewrite things. You’re not even stressed thinking, ‘oh, we only have 16 channels, but we need 18 for drums alone’. It is how it is, we’ve done the preparation, this is a moment in time, and we’re all giving each other confidence here. So, even though the space was chaotic, and there was a lot to organise, it all felt really good.”
When you take all of this into consideration, you quickly realise that all of this must have been quite the project to pull together. Felix comments: “The recording of this album happened supremely naturally, and that’s a testament to Rosco’s arrangements, the electronic pre-production Ollie did, and the songwriting in the first place — and the quality of the musicians too, of course. So we were coming into these really good spaces to begin with.”
The writing of the album happened during a strange and shifting time for live music. The landscape had already changed so drastically from when they first started playing together all those years ago, but add a pandemic into the mix and the concept has become so distorted that it’s now unrecognisable. Felix wanted to create an album that called back to those earlier, simpler times — to acknowledge the people and places who had directly and indirectly helped the band to find its meaning. Felix had these thoughts to share about his motivations. “This album rose from a time that was quite difficult for the music world. The world that we as The Cat Empire grew up in was a very vibrant one. Melbourne was such an incredible city to be a part of, back when Ollie, Ross, Danny, Uriel and myself came through. There was such a diversity of music, bands, and musicians who had let us sit in on gigs that ranged from amazing, dingy rock gigs to incredible jazz, latin and cuban shows. All these musicians were living and performing in Melbourne, so we wanted to make an album that celebrated that vibrancy. The decision to bring in lots of those musicians and have them play as part of the band was an intent we had early on in the process.”
Felix’s final thoughts have him reflecting on the overall project, and how successful he feels the process was, saying, “Of all the albums I’ve made, I feel that this one has been the most fun. We wanted to create something that overflowed and felt really alive, with a lot of different musicians involved and we chose a really unique space to do that in. Andy was the perfect engineer for that because he embraces all of those things. It was a wonderful experience.” He and the band were able to produce a warm hug of an album that both embraces the past and has hopes for the future — and was done so in a manner that sounds like it was the cat’s pyjamas.