It didn't take long for The Cat Empire to conquer the world with the help of Correne Wilkie
LIKE most life-changing events, it happened without warning. Correne Wilkie, refreshed from an overseas holiday, was about to start work in her dream job in an advertising agency.
On the Saturday, she received a call from a young musician she had met a few years before.
She knew he was talented. At 16, he had a jazz trio. In her then job, organising youth events and doing charity fundraisers, she had asked the trio to play at some events.
On the phone, the percussionist, then 19, said the band had grown to become a six-piece and they were playing on Sunday night. Wilkie was the only person he knew who knew anything about marketing; would she come down and have a look?
"I said, 'I can come for a little while, I'm starting a new job on Monday'," Wilkie says. "But the friend who was with me at that gig says that night I fell into a trance that I've never come out of."
The band was a collection of fresh-faced young Melbourne jazzers called The Cat Empire, led by Felix Riebl, the percussionist who had moved up front to become the band's singer.
"They were jammed in the corner of a room in St Kilda, and there were about 40 or 50 of their friends in there going completely wild," Wilkie recalls, laughing.
"I was transfixed. The next day I was driving in to this ad agency to tell them I didn't want their job and my mother was talking me through it on the phone. I was saying, 'Am I completely crazy?' Thankfully I have a liberal mother. She was saying, 'Just go for it!'."
Wilkie wasn't crazy. She was right.
She went to meet The Cat Empire.
"I wish I had a video of that first meeting. Felix was living in a pub, they were hanging in hammocks at the time. I said 'I'll work for you for three months without pay and let's just see what we can achieve'."
Wilkie and The Cat Empire haven't stopped working since.
It's an unusual story. The Cat Empire aren't really a rock band - they were bemused to be nominated for an ARIA Award in the rock category - yet consistently play to big audiences around Australia and on tour overseas.
In an age in which record sales have declined, their albums still sell - as will their fourth studio album, Cinema, which was released yesterday.
The Cat Empire have become a model for a successful group, frequently playing more than 100 shows a year.
In Amsterdam last year, the band clocked up its 700th show.
Having never worked in the music industry previously, Wilkie has been there every step of the way, forging a reputation as one of the sharpest band managers in the country.
"When the band started we did the old-fashioned phone tree," Wilkie says. "If we had a gig we made a pact to ring 10 people each and ask them to ask 10 people each. It soon became Melbourne folklore that we had this ability to mobilise crowds."
But that was repeated wherever The Cat Empire played, and no one in the band was getting on the phone to mobilise a crowd when they started touring internationally in 2002.
"You hear the phrase 'word of mouth' bandied around, but what exactly is that?" Wilkie says.
"The Cat Empire is the living example of something like that happening naturally, without any marketing budget or record company agenda.
"It would blow me away when we played cities like Munich or Paris or Montreal - places where we were yet to release a record, where there had never been a press article. We would turn up and play 1500-2000 seat venues, and the only way those people knew about us was through people sharing our music with others."
The members of The Cat Empire have always known their music travels well, often hearing stories about people who had heard their music in surprising places. How did it happen?
Wilkie thinks that the band's early tours up and down the east coast of Australia playing in tourist towns was the beginning, with backpackers discovering the band and taking the music home as a souvenir of Australia.
The band has become a festival favourite around the world, playing at major musical celebrations such as Bonnaroo (US), Rock am Ring (Germany) and before the biggest audience of their lives, 300,000 people at the Montreal Jazz Festival.
"As they tour around the world they consistently double their crowds every time they pass through," Wilkie says.
"I think what explains their longevity is that every time they take the stage they blow people away."
People see what Wilkie did on that Sunday night nine years ago, and tell a friend.
The band has the same line-up as that night in St Kilda: Riebl, trumpeter-vocalist Harry Angus, keys player Ollie McGill, bassist Ryan Monro, drummer Will Hull-Brown and Jamshid "Jumps" Khadiwala on turntable.
McGill was there in the original trio, The Jazz Cat, a band set up by McGill's piano teacher, Steve Sedergreen. A touring band playing on huge stages was not the future that he imagined.
"I think all my heroes were Melbourne jazz players who struggled to make a living," McGill says. "My aspirations were all musical, not thinking about how many people would come to see my shows."
Adamant The Cat Empire is a jazz band, not a rock band, McGill has been fascinated by reading Mick Wall's biography of Led Zeppelin.
"Those guys were as jazz as any band I've ever heard of, the way they improvised," he says.
He even sees the parallels between Led Zeppelin and The Cat Empire.
"It's what we do, too; cross the genres, take the best bits of one genre and place it in another arena. We've done that for our whole career," he says.
The band's relationships haven't been without their dramas, and he credits Wilkie with getting them through the tough passages.
"She is almost like a psychologist, helping us open up, to communicate. It's such a help to have someone like that. We all have so much respect for each other, although we don't hang out a lot outside of gigs these days. We need the time apart," he says.
He's certain the band is playing better than ever.
"A large part of playing music is learning to relax, and that's a bloody hard thing to do in front of 2000 people," he says.
"When I started, I was wrestling the piano. There was a lot of nervous energy there, and a lot of it was expelled through my facial expressions and my feet going crazy. People kind of dug that but the result on the piano was a big ball of dissonance.
"Now I've learnt to play with more space and sink into the groove. You can say the same for the whole band."
(via Couriermail)Very interesting article.
(Thanks to Caleb for linking it on FB)