“I’ve seen a lot of this country over all of my years of touring,” says Felix Riebl, singer-songwriter, composer, multi-instrumentalist and frontman of veteran funk-pop collective The Cat Empire. “I’ve visited all the big cities, a lot of small towns and my fair share of indigenous communities through it. None of it was anything like the Pilbara.”
The Pilbara region is found to the north of Western Australia. Its population is just shy of 50,000 people, and the area covers some of the oldest rock foundations on the face of the earth – and that’s not just a superlative. The place has a history to it; an ancient history.
It’s rare in life that a project finds you.
Riebl originally came to the area back in 2014, after being asked to travel there to write music for the Gondwana Indigenous Children’s Choir. And not only did he go there, he kept coming back – Riebl developed a fascination with the area, and was ready to go well above and beyond the call of duty in order to bring the sounds of the area back over to the east coast with him.
“It’s rare in life that a project finds you,” he says. “I went there with a very open mind, walking around with a field recorder. I kept doing the same thing over several trips, and I became really interested in the sounds that were coming out of the place. Ollie [McGill, The Cat Empire’s keyboardist] and I found all these moments in those recordings when we were listening back to them, while we were out on tour with The Cat Empire. We ended up sampling those moments and programming them into some drum machines. The album revealed itself in that way to us. It was a wild production idea – making these gnarly, industrial beats and putting this teenage choir over the top of it. It just kept on giving – the more we did, the more exciting it became.”
The album is the self-titled debut release by Riebl and McGill under the moniker of Spinifex Gum. Pieced together over the better part of three-and-a-half years, the record predominantly features the voices of a group Riebl assembled himself from the aforementioned Gondwana Indigenous Children’s Choir. Naming the choir Marliya, Riebl wrote songs that were reflective of the Pilbara’s people, its plights and their stories. “I can honestly say that this is the most exciting album that I’ve been involved in – artistically, socially, politically,” he says.
“It happened because the music took us there, if that makes sense. When I’m writing for The Cat Empire or for a solo record, I know the confines within which I’m working. That’s not to say those albums can’t sound fresh – but you have a pretty clear idea of what you’re doing and what you’re working with. With Spinifex Gum, I was confronting aspects of Australia and a side of Australia that I hadn’t really seen before. It took me into a community that I felt incredibly grateful to be a part of. It’s a really broad, ambitious album that gave me an entirely different outlook.”
Joining Riebl, McGill and Marliya on Spinifex Gum are three very different guests, but three musicians that nevertheless perfeclty fit the vision of what the album and its songs are attempting to convey. They are Midnight Oil frontman and former Labor minister Peter Garrett; Shepparton rapper and one half of A.B. Original, Briggs; and indigenous blues singer Emma Donovan.
With this album, we wanted to make music that’s uplifting, exciting and political – all at the same time.
Having put together the songs with each of those players in mind, Riebl now expresses his gratitude that they all said yes to getting involved; the project might well have collapsed had they not. “I’ve met Peter a few times previously, so I reached out to his management to pitch him the track,” says Riebl of Garrett, who sings on the song ‘Malungungu’.
“When I’d written this song, I started to wonder who would best fit the character. Peter immediately came to mind, and I thought, ‘Why not?’ The worst he could do was say no. Thankfully, though, he loved the track. He came and did his bit, and he’s even in the music video. It’s just as much his song now as it is ours. As for someone like Briggs, he is someone that has been more outspoken than anyone in regards to the disproportionate rate of indigenous youth that are incarcerated. Through his work and through his music, he’s become a real advocate for the cause. He got right behind it when he heard the track, ‘Locked Up’ – I think the whole thing really appealed to him.”
With Donovan sealing the deal on a thrilling cover of Tom Waits’ ‘Make It Rain’, Spinifex Gum is unquestionably one of the most unique records to be released this year – not just within Australia, but on a global scale. That’s not something that’s lost on Riebl – he speaks of Spinifex Gum with the most revered of tones, and is well aware that this is far more than just a side-project. “With this album, we wanted to make music that’s uplifting, exciting and political – all at the same time,” he says.
“It’s been a lot of work, but I definitely think we’ll make more albums. Whether that’s in a totally different place or not, I’m not sure yet. I can certainly say, though, that we’re interested enough and invested enough in it to do it.”
Spinifex Gum is out now through Universal Music Australia.
Read more about Riebl via our interview with him here.