Harry James Angus knows all about blending cultures. As a member of popular band Cat Empire, he’s mixed rock, pop, soul, funk, jazz and a series of other musical styles from all over the world into a delightful musical concoction that has seen audiences flock the band’s performances.
In his parallel career as jazzman extraordinaire, he’s also known to mix things up and not stay stuck in any musical dogma; now the trumpet-playing-singer has put two more ingredients in his cauldron: gospel and Greek mythology.
His latest album, ‘Struggle with Glory’ is a collection of jazz-and-soul infused gospel songs, recounting the life and times of ancient Greek gods, demigods and heroes.
“A lot of weird ideas pop into my head all the time,” he says, laughing, “and this was one of them. I knew straight away that this was really going to work. I’ve always loved American gospel music, but I always felt a little bit uncomfortable playing this music that’s really owned by African-Americans and imitating it; it felt like a Blues Brothers kind of thing, and while it’s really fun to go out and do an imitation of John Belushi doing an imitation of an African-American preacher, it is not authentic.
“Because gospel music is based on Bible stories; they have this archetypal thing, where the lyrics are really simple and they are telling a story and have a deep message behind them. So I was looking for something that has the weight of the Bible, but comes from another place.”
He found it, while reading Greek mythology stories to his six-year-old son. “That’s when it hit me that these stories are perfect, you can fit the story in a few lines, but it has something more than just a story.”
Seemingly worlds apart, to his mind, gospel and Greek mythology have more similarities than differences. “They both have, at their roots, something that is really fundamental to human culture; the oral tradition,” he says. “You take something like the Iliad or the Odyssey and people just remembered them for centuries before anyone ever wrote them down.
“This shows the amazing ability that the human brain has to remember information if it’s put into music or poetry. Gospel music is similar; it’s a different aspect of the oral tradition, it’s the call and response thing that puts people into a trance, but it’s also not unlike the Greek chorus in theatre that comes in and offers commentary on the action. It’s all connected. In the end, it’s all a celebration of the oral tradition,” he says summing up the outlook of the album, which he describes as “jazz and soul with beautiful vocal harmonies and lots of vocal shenanigans.”
The first song that he started working on, when he set his mind to it, told the story of Theseus and Minotaur, not coincidentally the first Greek myth that he remembers hearing.
“When I was a kid, we used to drive to Adelaide three or four times a year to visit my father’s family and we had a few cassettes with stories and one of them was Theseus and the Minotaur and we listened to it over and over again. What’s really interesting about the story is that from a modern perspective, it raises a ‘nature versus nurture’ type of question: was the Minotaur born a monster, or was he [turned] into a monster because they threw him into a dungeon as soon as he was born?
“In previous times, the answer would be that he was born a monster, because there are monsters in the world. But I call him ‘child in the dark’, because he was a child when they threw him in the dungeon. There’s the great little apocrypha to the story, when Theseus kills the Minotaur, King Minos thought that it was Theseus who was killed because he heard a human scream, and that’s how he came into the realisation of the human nature of his son.
“To me, this is a story about masculinity and a story about a cycle of fear and anger and rejection that fathers pass on to their sons that perpetuates bad things in society, like sexual abuse and violence. I see the Minotaur as a classic example of a child who wasn’t given the tools to be a good person in life – regardless of the fact that he had the head of a bull.”
This kind of reading of the ancient myths – possibly deriving from his literature studies at university (he distinctly cites a subject, ‘Religion and History in Literature’, as an influence) permeates the whole album, he tries to put Greek mythology within a modern context.
“One of my favourite things about this project so far is that when I’m playing the songs, I explain the story before and people are really listening, they sense that these stories are really important,” he explains.
“We live in a time when a lot of ideologies are changing. People often see these stories and say that they are old fashioned, they don’t sit with modern values. Take feminism, for instance, which is more part of people’s consciousness, at the moment, or things like gay rights or equal opportunities.
“When you look at stories from the Greek mythology and the Bible, women really cop it a lot of the time; they get kidnapped, raped, they’re forced into marriage, even the powerful goddess of love, Aphrodite, is also forced into marriage with Hephaestus, even if she’s really in love with Mars. Obviously this is a reflection of their times, but I believe that these stories have still great value to people’s psyches.
“I’m a big supporter of the society we’re moving towards to, which is more egalitarian, more inclusive, where women and men are equal but Bible stories and stories from mythology are there for a reason, they teach us a way to understand the horror of life. At times life can be really, really hard and you have to have a set of beliefs that lets you survive. So these stories tell us that the world is cruel, but they also teach us how to survive the cruelty of the world.”
Is this why he’s been reading Greek mythology to his son? To prepare him for the horrors of life? He laughs at the suggestion but his response is positive. “Yes. I really believe that if all our stories are nice and moralistic, and talk about sharing and getting along and of people being nice to each other all the time, this is an idealistic view of the world. There are really bad people and there are bad things out there, and these wonderful, colourful stories teach us how to live in the real world.”
Which is pretty much what gospel music is all about. “The great thing about gospel is that it’s really really simple, in a way but it has to have a lot of thought to make it good,” he says.
“You need really good musicians, great singers and strong, archetypal lyrics. There’s something about that energy. Being a jazz musician, I’ve always been interested in things like improvisation and certain music just has that energy about it, that just gets people into a zone, it elevates the room a little bit. I don’t know what it is, but I do think that it has to do with how simple it is. Because you get these great jazz musicians who can play anything, they can play a million notes a second but when you tell them to just play something really simple over and over again, but give it all the energy that they put into more complicated music, they struggle, because you have to take all the ego out of it.
“Some musicians get so good that they get too good for the music that the people like and they have to create more complicated music that shows how good they are, but the complicated music often is not that good.”
As for how this particular album fits in with all his other projects, the trumpeter/guitarist/singer-songwriter doesn’t seem to be concerned. “If I could run one thread through my career with the Cat Empire and the other things, I’ve always been interested in doing jazz or improvised music but doing it with a twist and I suppose that this is another version of that. It’s the simplest version. There are no big fireworks, it’s more about the lyrics and the song.”
And it’s not a one-off project, either: “Because the songs were so simple to write, I think I’m going to just keep writing them,” he says. “And when I’m finished with Greek mythology maybe I’ll go to Sumer or get some Aboriginal myths. Who knows? There are so many stories out there.”
‘Struggle with Glory’ is out now on Vitamin Records. Digital albums are available from iTunes and Google Play.