‘A musician’s dream’: The Cat Empire revel in the grandeur of collaborating with the MSO

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‘A musician’s dream’: The Cat Empire revel in the grandeur of collaborating with the MSO

The Cat Empire
Words by Gabrielle Duykers

Embracing fresh faces and fusions of sound, The Cat Empire is basking in the glow of a new dawn, colouring outside genre lines and collaborating with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Amidst The Cat Empire’s transformative period, the musical cohort continues to radiate the same infectious joyful energy that has enchanted fans for decades.

It’s a trait co-founder and frontman Felix Riebl describes as the Empire’s “DNA” – something the band are eagerly preparing to bring to Hamer Hall in their upcoming collaboration with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Featuring world-class flamenco artists Richard Tedesco, Johnny Tedesco and Chantelle Cano the sold-out concert series will unite a cornucopia of talent for three transformative performances at the Arts Centre Melbourne across August 22, 23, and 24. 

The Cat Empire x MSO

  • The Cat Empire with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
  • Conducted by Vanessa Scammell
  • Dates: Thursday 22, Friday 23 and Saturday 24 August, 7.30pm (3 nights)
  • Venue: Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
  • Get tickets here

Keep up with the latest music news, features, festivals, interviews and reviews here.

Riebl describes the opportunity to work with such a host of musicians as a “rare treat”. 

“Part of the new chapter of The Cat Empire is really to explore some of these places that we haven’t been before,” he says. “The chance to orchestrate and to reinvent new and existing music with the band – I mean it’s a musician’s dream really.” 

In addition to some known favourites, attendees will be privy to unheard material from the band’s forthcoming album, set for release later this year. 

“There’s going to be some new music that will absolutely take off in an orchestral space like this,” Riebl says. “It’s very true to our roots as live musicians, but with a level of freedom and sophistication to it that’s just been so much fun to make.”

The Cat Empire’s classics have also been reworked for the performance. Likening his connection with music to a long-term romance, Riebl says he is always searching for ways to view the art form differently and spark intrigue.  

“It’s a way of staying in music and for music to keep on unfolding and getting better,” he says. “Reinventing an old song with an orchestra is a wonderful opportunity for that. It lets you hear something that allows you to glean new meaning from it. 

“It’s a new feeling that’s not possible otherwise.”

The pairing of popular artists with esteemed orchestras has become a growing trend in recent years. With familiar names like The Avalanches playing their debut album with The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in 2022, and Hiatus Kaiyote’s collaboration with Melbourne’s Dreamboat Orchestra earlier this year. But Riebl promises an authentic twist for the upcoming concert series. 

“It’s not going to feel like an orchestra tacked on to a band,” he assures. “We have the skill within our team to actually write really well for an orchestra and to celebrate that. We want to really make something unique, and that’s not just going to be The Cat Empire as you know it but something which is going to come alive with the orchestra and let the awe and power of an orchestra inhabit us.”

The setlist has been carefully curated with songs that will allow ample space for the orchestra to breathe and shine during the performance. 

“To find yourself with that sound acoustically right next to you is incredibly moving. So we’re going to try and do that justice for our own kicks as much as anything,” he said. 

From Spinifex Gum to The Cat Empire

While Riebl previously collaborated with the MSO on the Spinifex Gum Concerts back in 2022, this will be The Cat Empire’s first collaboration with a live orchestra. 

Working to harmoniously blend such an eclectic mix of sounds for the stage, he described the task as a “welcome challenge”. 

“All of those things require a sort of respect and an intuition around playing to each of the musician’s strengths,” Riebl says. “But it more or less sort of writes itself in terms of how it will flow and interact when you’re working with a really good creative team.”

The Cat Empire are renowned for their invigorating stage presence and live spontaneity. Melding this trademark style with the traditionally formal structures of an orchestra is sure to make for an interesting atmosphere. 

“I think one of the big challenges for us is how to maintain that percussive fire and energy that we’ve got, and find that beautiful meeting space between the time of an orchestra and the time of a rhythm section like ours,” Riebl says. “We want to make those two really dance together.”

In 2022, four of The Cat Empire’s original members retired from the group after more than 20 years together. Since then, the band has welcomed Seychelles vocalist/bassist Grace Barbe, drummer Daniel Farrugia, percussionist Neda Rahmani and Cuban-born trumpeter/vocalist Lazaro Numa to the group. The new additions join Riebl’s co-founder Ollie McGill, alongside the ”Empire Horns” Kieran Conrau and Roscoe James Irwin. 


Following the band’s reshuffling, Riebl recalls his relief upon realising The Cat Empire’s DNA was still well intact.

“I didn’t want to create a new band,” he says. “I wanted the spirit of The Cat Empire – in terms of what it can do to the atmosphere in a room and that sense of musical adventure and diversity that this band has always tried to carry – to still be very present and alive. It is a band that at its heart celebrates live music and celebrates people coming together.”

The next chapter for the group is focused on pushing a “new frontier” and allowing themselves to dabble in uncharted sonic territories. 

“All of the new members have brought a huge wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm so we’ve really been learning a lot and exploring a lot musically,” Riebl says. 

The latest iteration of the band released their first album Where The Angels Fall in August 2023. With 75 musicians and 49 instruments featured across the record, it references a breadth of global sounds. Afro-Cuban, flamenco, Brazilian, West African, reggae, dub, jazz, soul, rock, ’90s house, and classical notes are just a few of the genres woven throughout. 

As The Cat Empire work away on their new album, its first single – La Gracia – will be released on June 28. 

Dates and times

  • Thursday 22 August 2024: 7:30pm at Hamer Hall
  • Friday 23 August 2024: 7:30pm at Hamer Hall
  • Saturday 24 August 2024: 7:30pm at Hamer Hall


“There seems to be something happening that’s very natural and very dynamic and alive in this combination of musicians that is unique to us at the moment – with respect to all of the cultures that we’ve interacted with musically,” Riebl says. 

“We’re really leaning into not trying to be anything other than we are.”

After 20 years of being asked to describe The Cat Empire’s sound, Riebl concedes it is still something he struggles to do. This indefinable quality however, is one he cherishes.   

“The older I get now, I don’t want to spend my life in categories,” he says. “There’s so few freedoms allowed to us. I want to try and find a space where I can be as free as I can, and that’s a space where things aren’t so easily explained. Music doesn’t want to be too categorised. In its essential nature, it wants to find ways for combinations of people and their chemistry to let it create things that are new.”

Ahead of their stint at Hamer Hall, Riebl is excited to bring audiences a night of music and dance that is “moving, uplifting, and celebratory”. 

“I think there’s going to be a whole range of emotions,” he says. “It’s going to be bumping, it’s going to be vast and epic. We’re gonna try and make every moment just really explosive, sophisticated, and beautiful.”

For tickets and more information, head here

This article was made in partnership with the MSO.