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‘It was crazy times’: Jake Mason on burning up the charts

Dan Webb
Cookin’ On 3 Burners are an ARIA Award nominated Hammond organ trio from Melbourne, Australia. In 2016, French DJ Kungs released a remix of their song “This Girl”, which accumulated hundreds of millions of streams and shot up to number one on the charts in many European countries. Their latest album, Lab Experiments Vol. 2 was released on October 26.

First up I’d like to talk about “This Girl”. Can you take us back a decade and describe how the original song came about?
Sure, well it would have been 2008 and we were working on material for the Soul Messin’ album. And funny enough “This Girl” was an idea – only an idea back at that stage, but we were really struggling to kinda find a chorus for it. And it nearly didn’t make it on that Soul Messin’ album. Then we had a couple of goes at it and sort of at the 11th hour managed to find something that we were happy with… looking back, it was quite a chance I s’pose that it actually made it on there, because there were many incarnations of it we weren’t really that happy with.

And how did the remix come about?
So obviously that record and that single got a good amount of I guess, you know, people receptive to it. The single was quite a sought after 7″, especially the original pressings going for crazy prices on Discogs and eBay and stuff. So it definitely had its own little moment and through that I think it kind of imprinted a bit on the internet. It was in a few places and DJs were playing it. So come to 2016 Valentin Brunel, AKA Kungs was I guess hunting around on the internet for stuff to remix and came across that on YouTube. Someone had put up a – I mean I’m not quite sure which version he clicked on, there’s a bunch of different versions of that up on YouTube. He got in touch with us and said ‘I really like the track, would you be up for a remix?’ and we were like ‘sure’, you know, not really thinking too much about it. And he came back with a bit of a rough and it sounded pretty good. It wasn’t really causing flashing lights or anything… especially us being deeply entrenched in the funk and soul world, you know, it’s fair to say that we’re not really super across the whole EDM dance world either. For me at least, it’s not the genre that I listen to a lot of. So I mean it was cool, but it wasn’t something which I took a whole lot of notice of. And then fast-forwarding to release, all of a sudden we start to take note when it started to rush up the charts of March 2016 – actually sorry, yeah, 2016. So we would have been contacted in late 2015. So it took six months to kind of go through the process. And then yeah, it started to really gain some momentum and yeah, it was crazy times (laughs).

This new fresh kind of approach of grabbing this retro/organic thing and mixing it with the EDM sound just seemed to really resonate with people…

You must have been surprised by that.
Oh, totally! Yeah I mean, absolutely, we were blown away. I remember texting the other guys in the band going ‘are you guys watching the charts, what’s going on here?’. I remember this one particular night where we all were just like madly texting each other. It was pretty exciting and pretty surreal actually because obviously it’s a song that was quite old to us, you know, but a lot of people hadn’t heard it, and so this new fresh kind of approach of grabbing this retro/organic thing and mixing it with the EDM sound just seemed to really resonate with people and it’s summery flavour and all of that kind of stuff. So it was I guess pretty good timing for that as well.

One of the co-writers of that song, Lance Ferguson was in your band for a long time. Why’d he leave?
So he actually left twice (laughs). Cookin’ On 3 Burners pretty much started off in 1997, we were all uni buddies. And around about 2000 Lance left to do another project and we did an album with Matt Kirsch, a great Melbourne guitar player. And then a couple years down the track Lance came back and from sort of 2002 I s’pose til about 2014, that was the solid lineup with our main guests sort of being Fallon Williams and Kylie Auldist. And then in 2014 The Bamboos, which is Lance’s sort of main project, really started to gear up a couple of notches and he literally just didn’t have a lot of spare hours in the day and we’re all sort of starting families and stuff like that. So between the bands and kids, there just wasn’t enough time to give all the projects a lot of time, you know (laughs). So it was a tricky decision. And especially because both bands are kind of similar in genre, it was a good idea to give it a rest, you know. And that’s kind of how that happened. I mean, but I still very much love his playing and he’s a top dude so there’s no hard feelings or anything, it’s just kinda literally a matter of hours in the day.

Cookin’ On 3 Burners performing live with Kylie Auldist (photo provided)

For the casual observer, there are similarities in your band and The Bamboos, as you just touched on. Both bands appear to have taken an intentional and conscious step towards the realm of mainstream pop in recent years. Is the Melbourne funk/soul scene dead?
(Laughs) Wow. So look, personally yeah I’d say The Bamboos have definitely stepped away from that kind of real gritty, dirty funk and soul thing to something which is a little more popular. Maybe a little more on the Triple J tip. Whereas I think Cookin’ On 3 Burners still, I mean, while we’ve had that great success with the “This Girl” remix and stuff, I wouldn’t say that we’ve changed our songwriting style. We’re still pretty ingrained in that kind of dirty funk, breakbeat sort of world. Maybe it’s the fact that the breakbeat world has actually kind of increased in popularity too, you know. Especially with the huge amount of sampling of breaks and that whole sort of culture over the past 20 years has definitely increased. We’ve been kind of lucky, we’ve rolled with that increase in popularity. So I wouldn’t say we’ve turned pop, our songwriting styles are still pretty much as they were 20 years ago, or 15 years ago (laughs).

I’d say The Bamboos have definitely stepped away from that kind of real gritty, dirty funk and soul thing to something which is a little more popular.

And then the second part of your question… I guess one of the things is when you’re a band and you’ve established yourself and you find that kind of gritty soul genre which Melbourne has been really famous for, for the past – well 20 years really, you find yourself in that sort of zone. And then I guess from personal experience, you go well how can we put a new spin on this? Cos we don’t want to just Xerox the best James Brown groove and put some different vocals on top, you know. So I guess a lot of the time this kind of development is due to people putting a new spin on it or getting influenced by other bands and how they’ve put a new spin on it. So I guess it’s always an ever-changing landscape. But as far as the Melbourne soul scene, it still feels pretty buoyant. I mean there’s quite a few generations of soul bands – early days Bamboos, Cookin’ On 3 Burners, Deep Street Soul and a few of those other ones and then a whole bunch of the younger guys coming through, and now they’re really well established. And then there’s another wave. So I think there’s quite a wave coming through, whether they’re all entrenched and just do the funk and soul thing in an original way, I’d say no. But that’s kind of good I think. I think it kind of breathes new life in, using that sound as a springboard and that influence as a springboard but putting a new twist on it. Otherwise it would really be just Xeroxing everything.

A titan of the soul world, Aretha Franklin passed away recently. Do you have a favourite song or album of hers?
Yeah man. There’s so many great Aretha Franklin songs, it’s hard to pick a favourite. Before she passed away I was actually quite entrenched in an Aretha Franklin bender, listening to a lot of her back catalogue. But if I had to pick one, there’s a great version of “Somewhere” with Phil Woods, which has got a string section and her playing piano I’m pretty sure. It’s really good. So that’d be one which I’d definitely put a big bow on the top (laughs).

I’m aware that you mostly record in your home studio. Can you describe your workspace and process to our readers?
Cookin’ On 3 Burners – we always record at least the rhythm section live, or the trio is always recorded live. And that’s always in the one room. We’re pretty close together, it’s not a huge space. But we still have separation with some baffles and a bunch of things. Everything’s mic’d up live and we don’t record to a click, so it’s always sort of an organic approach. And most of the time, I mean it’s all kind of very vintage instruments. The Hammond organ’s a 60s Hammond organ, it’s a 60s drum kit, and (laughs) 60s guitar amp and 60s guitar as well. So yeah, it’s pretty 60s. But those instruments tend to sound pretty good. And that all gets fed through a bunch of gear, some preamps and some compressors and all sorts of stuff into a tape machine. Which usually has got about 22 minutes of time on it. So we tend to do two, three takes of a song and then we’ll go and bounce that down into our digital world and take it from there. So it’s good, the tape kind of gives us this restriction in that we can’t have heaps and heaps of takes because we run out of tape and then we have to go and dump it down. It’s good, it just kind of gives you that little extra edge for the performance… and then after that we’ll add a bunch of overdubs, and if it’s a vocal tune we’ll add vocals later and BVs and percussion and stuff like that.

Cookin’ On 3 Burners in 2018 (from left) Ivan Khatchoyan, Jake Mason, Dan West

Given most people are familiar with you in a keyboardist/composer role, I’m sure not many people would be aware that you teach, let alone play, saxophone. What first attracted you to that particular instrument?
I was in high school and the saxophone just seemed a whole lot cooler than playing the piano (laughs). And you know, in the kind of secondary school world the piano is quite a loner kinda instrument. I mean there are some spots for piano in the bands, but there’s heaps more spots being a saxophone player. So just from integrating that into the school music program, that probably drew me to it as well and I loved the sound of it. And then when I went off to do my main study on the saxophone as well. I still do play quite a bit of saxophone but not tend to do it live, just lots of stuff in the studio or all bits and pieces. But it’s a good sort of double to have so to speak, because you get to have this feel and understanding of the lead world or where the vocalist sits in the picture, and then playing the organ, which is really kind of entrenched in the rhythm section, you get that kind of rhythm section feel as well. So it’s good to have that – it’s the best of both worlds really.

The most rewarding thing about teaching is passing on information or skills and someone really getting that and taking it and making great music themselves.

What’s the most rewarding thing about teaching?
The most rewarding thing about teaching is passing on information or skills and someone really getting that and taking it and making great music themselves, you know. So you’ve had a part of helping them to understand of a concept or do something and then they go off and use that tool and make a great piece of music or have a music career or whatever it might be. So I guess that’s the best job and also just having interaction with other people and talking about music. That’s always really important to have this sort of good feel and good vibes.

Which instrument would you recommend to beginners, and at what age should someone start learning how to play?
Yeah that’s a tricky one. I don’t know if I’ve really got an educated answer on that. There’s plenty of my generation that were given recorders at primary school. I don’t know if everyone playing the recorder was a great idea or not (laughs). Look, I think the best thing is to kinda have instruments and a piano at least accessible to kids. And the really keen ones will seek it out and once there’s some good kinda interest shown there, I think then yeah, great. Get some lessons or get some help in kind of developing something. But the best way for kids to learn is to get amongst that stuff themselves. And probably you know, five or six years old is a good time for them to start experimenting. And then once they’ve got the bug, it’s just a matter of guiding them in the right direction.

If you could collaborate with any artist, in any medium, past or present, who would it be and what would you ideally create?
Wow. The goal posts are wide open. Look, looking back, probably just from – oh, how would I say this, like – you know, someone like James Brown, who has just contributed so much to the funk and soul world, to have collaborated with him. Or you know, in a hypothetical situation, to collaborate with someone like that. The amount of knowledge that you would gain just from being in the same room as someone like him, for a day in the studio, would be just amazing I reckon. So I’d say in a hypothetical situation, a jam with James Brown would be seriously cool.