We chat to The Cat Empire’s Felix Riebl about his fascinating side-project, Spinifex Gum

We chat to The Cat Empire’s Felix Riebl about his fascinating side-project, Spinifex Gum

Words by Benjamin Lamb

Spinifex Gum will perform as part of Live at the Bowl on Friday January 8.

Spinifex Gum began as a musical collaboration between The Cat Empire’s Ollie McGill and Felix Riebl with the Marliya Choir. Following an invitation to Western Australia’s Pilbara region and an encounter with a group of wonderful vocalists, Spinifex Gum was born.

“I was invited to go the Pilbara and meet this group of young singers, who would go on to become the Marliya Choir, and front Spinifex Gum,” Riebl says.

In a year where there’s been so little on the live music front, 2021 is going to start with a bang when Spinifex Gum take the stage as a part of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl’s ‘Live at the Bowl’ concert series. This run of shows has materialised as part of a joint effort from Arts Centre Melbourne and the City of Melbourne to rejuvenate the local live music industry.

The passion and musicality behind Spinifex Gum makes them the perfect addition to a series also set to welcome performances from Sampa The Great, Hannah Gadsby, Busby Marou, Missy Higgins, Ocean Alley and so many more.

“It’s a very immersive experience, you can enjoy it just as much sitting down as you can standing up, they’ll (Marliya Choir) suit the space really well,” Riebl says.

“The show is very unique, it’s one of the most impressive and beautiful projects I’ve ever been involved in, and it’s probably one of the most moving performances I’ve ever been associated with.”

Spinifex Gum isn’t your average classical choir – McGill and Riebl want to turn stereotypes on their head.

“It sits in a really interesting space artistically, it’s really heavy beats, combined with this really youthful, punchy, powerful energy,” Riebl continues. “We wanted to reinvent what a choir does with this project, so all the singers on stage have individual microphones, so you can hear every word, it’s an incredibly powerful wall of sound.

“Ollie and I wanted to turn the cliché of that choir – ‘the Qantas choir’ – on its head in a way, we wanted to create a sound where you could hear every word, and where the collective voices could become one and let us say things that no one could so easily say on our own.”

Riebl adds that the group’s recent success playing venues like Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney Opera House and the Sidney Myer Musical Bowl to come, can be attributed to their hard work and dedication to the craft.

“The choir and project took on a life of its own. They started to put in extra time, in terms of weeknights, school holidays were often spent recording. It’s been driven by a love of commitment from these young women in the choir to make it happen.”

The message and passion behind the group’s music will be highlighted to the audience at the Bowl, especially after the race conflicts across the world earlier this year.

The Marliya Choir sing of racial injustices while also exploring other heavy topics, but you will leave the performance feeling uplifted and hopeful.

“They sing about things that might be too difficult or too unbearable for anyone to hear from one person,” Riebl continues. “But when you hear it from this collective, you can hear things that are often very challenging and very sad, but you’re left with this feeling of great optimism and renewal.”

Coming from a non-indigenous background, Riebl hasn’t experienced vilification first hand, but through his extensive work with Aboriginal communities, and immense exposure to systemic racism events in the news, he’s developed a means to empathise with current world events.

“Spinifex Gum has been quite a remarkable project for me because I’ve been able to write from my perspective, whereas the members of Marliya are singing it from their perspective.

“It makes the group a place where we can protest and have many different viewpoints,” he says.

Through a vast lineup of collaborators from many different backgrounds, opinions converge to make an extraordinary live show. Riebl explains how his influence impacts the group’s live experience.

“I think my experience with The Cat Empire, having performed at festivals around the world with them, and having performed live a lot. I bring a lot of that understanding to the project.

“That feeling you get in band when you perform a good festival set, and you feel like you’ve got the audience is a very particular thing, and I really wanted to be able to translate that experience to the young women in Marliya,” Riebl says.

With performances at WOMADelaide and Live at the Bowl, Spinifex Gum is quickly becoming a mainstay of the Aussie festival lineup.

“I didn’t want it to be like, ‘Ok, we’re playing at a classical show’, or wherever you’d expect a choir to be. I wanted them to be able to move an audience at a festival,” Riebl concludes.

“To make that the first gig of 2021, at the Bowl, in summer, with those wonderful singers, it’s gonna be fantastic.”

Spinifex Gum perform for Live at the Bowl on Friday January 8. Grab your tickets here and check out the rest of the program here.

Never miss a story. Sign up to Beat’s newsletter and you’ll be served fresh music, arts, food and culture stories three times a week.