We chat to Lance Ferguson, leader of one of the Antipodes' biggest funk/soul exports, as they prepare to release album #8…
Formed in Melbourne in 2000 and led by New Zealander Lance Ferguson, The Bamboos first came to iDJ's attention in the early 00s. Back then, they were signed to Tru Thoughts, and they were just one of a wave of 'new old' funk bands that also included the likes of Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, Speedometer, The Perceptions, Lack Of Afro, The Haggis Horns and many more.
And like a lot of those bands - they've never really gone away. They may not have troubled the charts overmuch (though their 2015 album The Rules Of Attraction, a collaboration with Tim Rogers from Aussie rock band You Am I, did go Top 40 down under), they may not be household names, but that whole soul/funk revival scene is very live-oriented and as a result, bands like The Bamboos are often able to carve out a following - and hence a viable career - for themselves on the gig and festival circuit.
You couldn't accuse The Bamboos of getting stuck in a rut, either. Where their early material stuck fairly rigidly to a raw, roots-y funk template, later albums have seen them adopting a somewhat smoother, more soul-oriented approach - even veering towards pop territory at times. Now, we're told, their forthcoming album Night Time People will embrace the best of both musical worlds.
So with the trailer single Lit Up out now, and as it's been over a decade since they featured in our Bubblin' Under pages, we figured a catch-up with main man Lance Ferguson was well overdue…
It's been a long time since we last spoke - and you've released quite a few albums in that time, haven't you?
"I dunno, I think it's fairly similar to most bands - we've got an album cycle where we probably release an album every year and half to two years."
But every 18 months is still pretty prolific…
"Well, luckily, I've always just been really excited about making a new record with this band! And I've also had a bee in my bonnet about making each album better than the last on, and that keeps me hungry to keep going, because every time I think I'm going to make the perfect Bamboos album this time around. There's no such thing as objectivity in this game, of course, but I think this new album is... some things crystallised for us in the writing process, and I'd say it's one of our strongest records for sure."
Many songwriters say that your best song is always the last one you wrote. Would you agree?
"Yeah, I guess that's true. I've recently been asked to be a judge of the Vanda & Young Songwriting Competition here in Australia, which was a great honour, so I've been looking at people's lyrics and listening to their songs and judging them, basically, which is something I try and avoid! And listening to all these songs got me thinking about my own music, and in terms of what you're saying... it's such an all-encompassing scenario, when you're writing an album, that I just get so caught up in it and put everything into it. So yeah, that's very much the case with stuff I'm working on at that time, I'll think it's the best thing I've done because I'm right there in the moment, putting my all into it. And I'd certainly never want to get into a situation where it's not that - life's too short to let that happen.
"Sometimes I get put into situations where I'm writing with complete strangers, through my publishers, and that can be amazing or not so amazing. But you've got to be on that bleeding edge and be really excited about what you're doing… or at least try to be."
So is Night Time People the best Bamboos album to date, then?
"Well, I feel like it is! We started out coming from this place of doing the whole funk and deep funk thing that was going on. Then the band sort of evolved and the songwriting came to the fore a bit more, and the influence from straight-up soul music, because those are just amazing pop songs, and you can add more colour into the composition than you can when you're dealing with just one- or two-chord funk tunes. And so we sort of went out in that direction for a while, but I think with this record we've got the best of both worlds. It's sort of brought back some of that earlier Bamboos sound, but I think the songs are also some of the strongest we've written as well.
"We got the chance to test them out on the road recently, basically playing to huge crowds that had never heard any of our stuff, so it was interesting to gauge the reactions of thousands of new ears and see what connected."
Ah, yes - you toured with Robbie Williams, didn't you? How was that?
"We did, we did seven shows, and it was a wild ride! As I said, we were testing out our new songs, but of course in reality ALL our songs were new to that audience. That was actually really interesting. We played one show to 20,000 people, and all the rest were 10,000-15,000, so that was a great experience because we've never really done that before. It's kind of unnerving the first time, because all you can see from where you are on stage is darkness. So you've really got to reach out into that darkness, and then you realise there's actually more people out there than you've ever played in front of before, which is a strange disconnect!
"But yeah, we were honoured that he asked us to tour with him, and we found that people did actually turn up early and listen to us. And Robbie himself: they've got this whole well-oiled operation going on behind the scenes so I wasn't sure what the whole deal would be, would he just show up in a fleet of black SUVs at the last minute? But no, the first night in Brisbane he was there watching from backstage, and he was just the loveliest, most down-to-earth guy you could meet. It was refreshing to meet someone like that who's got such a huge profile and is just so normal."
Your own profile recently had a bit of a boost as well, with the Tim Rogers album going Top 40…
"Yeah, well Tim is very much a rock 'n' roll icon of Australia, so the connection with a much wider audience was inevitable. We'd worked on a single song together a couple of albums back, and that was the catalyst for doing a full album. He's a wonderful musician and lyricist, and an all-round good guy."
What expectations does that place upon Night Time People, though - from yourselves, from the public and from your label?
"Well, we're putting this out through our own label, which operates under a licensing agreement with BMG, so no worries there. I think the difference here is, the Tim Rogers album was quite Australia-centric, because Tim's a household name here, so the campaign for that one was very Australia-focused. But with this album we're looking at touring and promoting it in the US, the UK and Europe so it's got a bit more of a machine behind it.
"Coming back to the collaborative thing vs the brand proper, it was important for us at this time to make an album in-house, if you will, and feature our amazing singer Kylie Audist. It's important to be able go out on the road and give people what they hear on the album, rather than having different vocalists and stuff, people filling in for someone. So with this album, as basic as it sounds, being able to record it together and then go out and play it together was important for us."
Speaking of which, as well as being frontman of The Bamboos, you also make music as Lanu, and as Lance Ferguson. So how does that work: are songs written/recorded for specific projects, or do you just make music and worry about what name it goes out under later?
"There's a bit of a grey area. There's definitely times when I'm making music where I'm really just throwing shit at the wall without any particular project in mind: I'll just come into the studio and make music without thinking about which box it may end up in. That happens a bit so I end up with folders full of ideas and sketches.
"Then when a full album project does come along, I'll pull out some of those sketches and see if they'll fit. For me it's just about finding a few songs that work well together. If I can find three or four songs that have a thread that runs between them, I can flesh that out and build other songs around them to complete an album. Once I find those three or four songs, I know what direction the album's going to go in."
But does everything start with you - ie, are you the primary composer and songwriter in the group?
"Yes, I am, but Kyle has an input into the lyric-writing as well. On this album, there's four or five songs I wrote entirely myself, other times I'll come up with an instrumental and Kyle and I will work out a melody and lyrics together. But it's always a collaboration, I never just send her a track and say "write something over this."
"And one of the cool things I really love doing is getting the whole band involved, which we did on two or three songs on this album. That whole process can get a little more complex when there's more people involved - I mean, we're a nine-piece band, and I find a lot of songwriting is about decision-making, so the more people are involved in making those decisions, the more complex that interaction can be! So we don't always work like that, and I find it usually works best when people have something to go on, so even then it comes back to me finding those first three or four songs."
There's an old saying about a camel being a horse designed by a committee - does that apply to songwriting as well?
"Ha! I'd never heard that expression before, that's fantastic! But like I said, songwriting is a decision-making process. You can struggle with that on your own as well, of course, so I do like having two or three people in the room where you can go, 'Is this shit?', or where you can encourage someone else who's doubting their own ideas.
"So it's not a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, necessarily... but it can take a lot longer, and if someone has a strong creative agenda there's generally a lot of compromise has to happen. But I think music has to be the winner at the end of the day, so you've got to let what the song needs come first, and never mind anyone's ego or any of that other stuff."
You're also a very popular live/festival band. But why are there so many live funk/soul bands around, do you think? It almost seems the number of bands is out of proportion to the music's commercial success…
"That's a great question! I was just thinking about this lately, and I think one thing is the 'retro' tag is attached to a band too easily. You know, when that scene started coming through, with Keb Darge doing his Deep Funk thing at Madame Jo-Jo's in the late 90s and stuff like that, that was 20 years ago... and 20 years is longer than it was from then to when the music first came out! So I think that's proof that this style of music really is just timeless, and for me the 'retro' moniker needs to be ditched. It can be quite a barbed comment in the press, and it's quite dismissive. If a band sounds like Depeche Mode or The Stooges, no one calls *that 'retro'."
Or jazz - no one says they're going to see a retro jazz band, they just say they're going to see a jazz band...
"Exactly! I think we need to put that term to bed. But also, I think musicians get involved in this music because it's almost one of the classic genres. Just like musicians study jazz at conservatoriums, funk and soul is a timeless, classical form of music. And when these large bands come together - because it is often a music-centric sort of thing, it's not like three guys getting together in a power trio, you'll have horn players and stuff so it's got that DNA in it of being a musician's music - they're often able to tour around the world. They may not be topping the charts but they can do really well on the touring circuit. The Dap Kings just toured non-stop for a long time.
"So even though they're not chart acts like Rihanna or whoever, there's enough love for the music that people do buy the records. People buy Bamboos records, so we're able to keep making them, and we're able to keep that album cycle going, with enough expectation from fans for the next record and enough interest that we can take it out on tour and fill a room. It's not Justin Timberlake territory, but it's enough for us to keep doing what we're doing.
"For me, the process of doing this is the reward and I just want to keep doing it. I've been doing this band my whole life more or less, 18-20 years it is now, and I look back at those two decades and think, this is who we are, this is what we do and I can't really see any reason for us to stop doing it."
Does it speak, as well, to a fundamental human need for live music you can dance to?
"Absolutely. We play at a lot of festivals, as you said, so quite often I'll have to come up with something about 'what to expect from a Bamboos gig?', for the festival programme and stuff. And I try and spin it as many ways as possible, but really I just want people to feel something, and most of all I want to make them dance. To me, the music we make is intrinsically dance music, and I think there's infinite beauty in that intention."
Absolutely! But what if it didn't work any more... what would you be doing if you weren't doing this, do you think?
"Well, I had a close shave with nearly becoming a chef. I did this one-night trial for an apprencticeship kinda thing when I was about 17, and I got the job. But I was already playing guitar by then, and I literally had to make the decision over night, and much to the chagrin of my Mum and my big sister, the next morning I said, 'I'm very sorry, but I really want to be a guitar player'. They thought I was crazy, but I'm very glad I became a musician instead of a chef."
Any plans to go back to it at any point, maybe - are you a closet foodie with a dream of opening his own restaurant?
"You know what? If this all comes to an end, like if I got RSI or something and couldn't play any more, I'd love to own a little bar and DJ in it every night. That's what I'd like to do."
Finally, what else is going on with you right now that iDJ readers need to know about?
"We're coming to the UK in... well, it was meant to be May but now it's going to be October. And we're heading to the States in August, and the album's out in June so we're just gearing up to play a whole bunch of live shows. In fact I think we've got more live gigs booked for 2018 than in any other year previously, so we're really looking forward to that."
Words: Russell Deeks
Lit Up is out now on Pacific Theatre/BMG. Night Time People will be out on 8 June