Profiles – The Cat Empire’s Harry James Angus

This profile was written as an assignment for reporting arts and culture journalism. We had to attend a Fringe Festival or Melbourne International Arts Festival event 2010 then write about one of the artists or event. I chose to write about Harry Angus of the Cat Empire.

Harry James Angus Band perform at Red Bennies

Being in one successful band can be hard enough. Harry Angus, however, manages to juggle between four, five, or six. He’s involved in so many projects, it’s hard to keep track!

Born June 11 1982, Harry James Angus received a toy trumpet from his grandfather, a card attached to it read: ‘May he be a Harry James.’ The other Harry James is, in fact, his grandfather: renowned worldwide for his trumpet playing during World War II and his 1945 hit It’s Been A Long, Long Time.

Revered by jazz great, Miles Davis, Angus’ Grandfather was a trumpeter from the swing era. He was married to Hollywood pinup, Betty Grables; hired a young Frank Sinatra; and was right up there with all the well-known jazz musicians, yet we’ve hardly heard anything about him.

Angus started playing trumpet at the age of 12; when he started high school at McKinnon Secondary College. Since its inception in 1954, the school has gained a reputation for its successful instrumental music performance with over 50 per cent of its students participating in the program each year. The school prides itself on the fact that he attended the school. Former McKinnon Secondary student Edie Bronstein, 21, said the school always made sure everyone knew of his presence.

“The teachers used to mention it every now and then. They’d be like; you know that band The Cat Empire? The trumpet player, Harry Angus, he went to this school.” Bronstein said.

“Every year or two the school has a jazz night. Occasionally the viewers are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Harry Angus performing alongside the other musicians.” Bronstein continued.

After graduating in 2000, Angus furthered his knowledge and performance of jazz at the Victoria College of The Arts.

Whilst studying at VCA he joined the then, Melbourne three-piece band The Cat Empire. Original members Ollie McGill on keyboard, Felix Riebl on percussion/vocals, and Ryan Monro on double bass formed the band in 1999; have played together since 1993. Will Hull-Brown on drums, and Jamshid ‘Jumps’ Khadiwala on decks/percussion round up the bulk of the band. Ross Irwin and Kieran Conrau provide the harmonies with their empire horns section.

The band released their debut self-titled album in October 2003 through EMI, which later received platinum status. Before the album was released, they were playing all over the world, and at local events such as Byron Bay’s Easter Blues and Roots Festival. As well as contributing to the World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) festival in the UK and Singapore, they also played 16 nights of sold out shows in a row in the 3am-5am slots at the Edinburgh Festival in 2002.

Due to the popularity of their shows, the aim for this album was to recreate something energetic, vibrant, and alive, yet subtle and decisive. However, the band turned to simplicity. The Andy Baldwin co-produced and engineered album was recorded as live tracks over 8 months in Byron Bay over the summer, and in Melbourne studios, Baldwin’s house, and various other locations.

In the same year, three tracks off the album made it onto the much-revered Australia Day favourite, Triple J’s public voted Hottest 100 list. Hello (their highest charting single to date) went well, ranked #6, Days Like These ranked #37, and Chariot just crept in at #100. The Empire finished the year off with a bang with a New Years Eve performance at Federation Square playing in front of 150,000 people!

Whilst guest programming ABC RAGE in 2004 Riebl told viewers how it felt to play that NYE gig.

“To play there was wonderful – we were playing for the people, but also for the city itself. When I was younger, I spent so much time walking around that area, thinking of songs and all sorts of different things. That made it a really significant event for me,” Riebl said.

In 2005, the band released their sophomore release, Two Shoes. Recorded in Havana Cuba at the famous Estudio and produced by Jerry Boys (R.E.M, Buena Vista Social Club), Felix Riebl, and The Cat Empire in an old school manner. It took only 28 days to record the live album.

Produced in 2006, Cities is a tribute to Melbourne and the sounds the band discovered whilst travelling the world. Following on the next year was So Many Nights recorded at Melbourne’s Sing Sing Studios, and overdubbed in Malibu at a home studio while the boys were over there for a guest appearance on the Jay Leno show. Produced by John Porter (former Eric Clapton and Roxy Music guitarist) this was the first opportunity the boys recorded with a producer.

Unfortunately, not everything’s been smooth sailing for these cool cats. Despite the Empire’s biggest achievements, including a listing in BRW magazine’s annual list of top 50 Australian entertainment earners, and more than 500,000 album and DVDs sales – vanity, tour fatigue and frustration with his fellow band mates got the best of Angus, resulting in a departure from the group.

Angus told the Herald Sun in late June 2010, he felt angry with himself for what he did to his band. “I was over touring and I didn’t like the way the band was,”

“I wanted to quit. Being in the Cat Empire was defining me as a person and I didn’t want to be that person. I flipped out. I wanted to leave the band and be a different kind of artist.  I wanted to be more respected.” Angus said.

During the hiatus, Angus married local musician and Tinpan Orange vocalist/guitarist, Emily Lubitz. Just another one of those bands Angus has worked with in his extensive career producing their 2009 release, The Bottom Of The Lake.

During this period, he also formed electro folk hip-hop outfit Jackson Jackson, with hip-hop manager and filmmaker, Jan (pronounced yahn) Skubiszewski. Skubiszewski was the assistant engineer on The Cat Empire’s first album; in 2002, however, became friends when the pair met at a macadamia farm in Byron Bay a short while later.

With Angus on vocals, acoustic guitar and synth, Skubiszewski on electric/acoustic guitars, synth and beats, various Cat Empire members on keyboard, bass and guitars, and the Jackson Jackson 5 back up singers, it took four years for the band to release their debut album, The Fire Is On The Bird, in 2007. The album only took eight months to record whenever the fellows had time to fit in writing/producing/whatever else had to be done in their busy schedules!  It even scored an ARIA nomination and three Australian Urban Music Awards nominations too!

The following year, they released their sophomore album, Tools For Survival. Rather than winging it, this time ‘round the boys sat down and thought hard about the direction they wanted to take this album in. Angus says on the bands facebook page they wrote it with the band, choir, and rhythm in mind to construct ‘an indomitable sound’.

In 2009, Jackson Jackson had the privilege of playing as a drawcard act at the 2009 St Kilda Festival. Angus thanked the McKinnon contingent gathered at the front of the mosh pit. The feeling is mutual; there’s always at least one fellow McKinnon-ite somewhere near the front of the mosh at every single gig he plays!

After nine months away from the band, Angus was coaxed into touring Europe with the Empire clan. Ticket sales increased three-fold, encouraging the boys to heal their personal relationships resulting in better performances. It was then they felt they had to make another album.

Riebl told the Herald Sun in late June 2010, “A shift happened. We rediscovered the right spirit. It suddenly made sense to make another album.”

“The sound of this album is the development of a voice – which Riebl says has emerged from ten years playing together – that has developed into its own unique style of soul, dub, hip-hop and world music rolled up together,” Riebl said.

The result of this ‘reformation’ is Cinema, the Empire’s fifth release. Recorded at Sing Sing Studios and produced by local lad Steve Schram (Little Birdy, Sound Relief), and perfected at Melbourne’s Bakehouse Studios. In their 2010 issue, jmag said the album is sets an upbeat mood, yet the listener will hear an unknown element of darkness running throughout the release.

The band recently played their 800th show together at London’s Brixton Academy on their recent European tour.

Another band Angus is involved with is The Conglomerate.

The Conglomerate is a four-piece indie jazz quartet with Angus on vocals/trumpet/keyboard, fellow Empire member, Ollie McGill on piano/melodica, Jules Pascoe on bass and vocal, and Harry-Shaw Reynolds on percussion. The quartet has released two albums so far; the first, Go To The Beach was released through MGM Distribution in 2005. The second, Hold Your Breath, launched on 28 March 2008 at the Bennetts Lane Jazz Club, Melbourne City, is only available through purchase at the club when the band performs there.

Winner of the Fringe Festival best music event award for 2010, Harry Angus’ involvement in the festival came in the form of the Harry Angus Band presents It’s Been a Long, Long Time… The song his grandfather made famous in 1945.

The performance was held at Red Bennies on Chapel Street on the 23 and 24 of September. The Friday night performance was a relaxing start to the weekend with its hour-long covers of jazz classics. The atmosphere of the venue was calming; the large single room space of the burlesque club has been set up to replicate the traditional jazz clubs with its raised booth seating and mezzanine. The seating is located so no matter where you sit, you can see the stage. The audience where clanging away their glasses as they sipped wine whilst watching the performance.

Angus was joined on stage by Jules Pascoe, Darcy McMnulte, Matt Whitney and Tim Coghill; two-thirds of them from his high school band. Fittingly, the night started out with, you guessed it, Harry James’ world famous, It’s Been A Long, Long Time.

After every single song, Angus had to look at the set list to figure out what to play next. Unfortunately, he also stuffed up a couple of times, having to start the tune all over again. This seemed quite unprofessional for an artist who’s sold millions of records. However, he seemed to be enjoying himself closing his eyes and swaying his head from side to side in time to the music.

Before launching into Just A Gigolo, Angus jokingly told the audience to shush because they couldn’t hear themselves playing.

“Please be quiet for our next song. We’re not like AC/DC and we can’t hear ourselves playing,” he said.

About half way through, Lubitz joined in to sing two songs, one of them was As Time Goes By, which Lubitz said is the first song she taught herself.

Angus’ wife Emily Lubitz joined the lads on stage

“This is the first song I learned while I was alone, when I was 13. Let’s just hope I sing it better this time.”

And sing it well, she did. Her harmonious vocals were soothing and relaxing it was hard to take your eyes off her!

The performance finished off with homage to the AFL Grand Final that was on the following day. They played the St Kilda Saints theme song, followed by the Collingwood Magpies theme song. Little did they know the match would end in a draw!

Angus is currently on tour with The Cat Empire in the UK, but unfortunately just missed out on most popular artist award at the fifth annual Jagermeister Independent Music Awards.

If you live in Melbourne you can check out the band at Prince Bandroom, Fitzroy Street St Kilda on 11 November, for the launch of The Key of Sea album launch, alongside Melbourne reggae afro-beats outfit Blue King Brown, rockers Vasco Era, and more. Special guests artists will join each band on stage.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. A.z says:

    Thank you for this. I enjoyed reading up on the cat empire and more specifically Harry. I envy you, having lived in Melbourne with this group and gone to (what I can only guess) many shows.

    1. Thanks! Surprisingly i’ve only seen Cat Empire play twice. Another time I only caught a glimpse, but i’ve been to a few of his individual shows and gigs as Jackson Jackson.

  2. I can now say I’ve racked up the number of times I’ve seen this band to like 8-9 shows. I see them at least once a year so I’ve lost count!
    They are amazing

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