The Bamboos bandleader, guitarist and composer speaks to us on a scratchy line, on a dusty road somewhere outside of Melbourne, following a week of recording in the countryside. Lance Ferguson‘s Machines Always Win project has just dropped a second album, Runner, and this past week he’s launched reissues label Pacific Theatre Encore.
You recently received APRA recognition for a billion streams of “This Girl”. Have you been surprised by the song’s success?
Well, yeah absolutely. I mean, this was a song that basically three college buddies, you know, the Hammond organ trio wrote, you know? When was this? Back in 2008, I think it was. And we always really liked that song. And it had a level of attention given to it in I guess the underground soul world, especially that UK scene. And it was always a favourite with Cookin’ on 3 Burners as a live track, but after Kungs did that remix, I mean, he twisted the song into something that obviously connected with the whole younger generation. But look, when he sent that remix through I remember hearing that thinking, “Look, this is not necessarily my cup of tea,” but we approved it and it was in such a completely different world musically than the original version – but we were cool with approving that remix… But then when it started charting and things went kind of gangbusters after that. I mean the whole level of success that it had was completely, um, you know, we didn’t see that coming at all and it’s been outrageous.
You’re incredibly prolific and you obviously have a lot of projects on the fly. How do you stay inspired?
Well, yeah, I do have a lot of projects on the boil at any one time, but I feel like I’ve managed to maintain this feeling of really wanting to make each – I guess I’d look upon it as album projects. I mean, making records is really my favourite thing to do in the world, and I’m just always looking to make the next record from that particular project some kind of improvement on what came before it. And I guess in trying to maintain that quest – I’m not by any means saying I achieve it – but the intent is there to try and improve things, whether it’s the production or the song writing or. There are many layers to the skill set involved in putting a record together. So I’m always just trying to push things forward, relative to my own level of being able to accomplish stuff. So I feel like it’s just that quest for trying to make things better every time that keeps me inspired.
The fact is, if you crunch the numbers… it’s highly, highly, highly unlikely that we are the only sentient life that sprung up in this huge universe.
On the topic of inspiration, I understand you’ve drawn inspiration from human space exploration on this new record, Runner. Do you think we’re alone in the universe?
Um, I mean, you know, I read all those books, like Carl Sagan books and the like, and you know, the fact is, if you crunch the numbers, which I haven’t personally done – but I’ve read about it, and you know, things like the Drake equation suggest it’s highly, highly, highly unlikely that we are the only sentient life that sprung up in this huge universe. And you know, I’m very much someone who looks for the evidence of things and obviously we haven’t uncovered that yet. But just in terms of the numbers (of solar systems and galaxies), it’s highly unlikely that we’re alone. I follow that line of thought on that. I mean, whether or not an intelligent civilisation has actually made that break into becoming a type three civilisation and travelled around the stars, it’s just a whole other area of discussion, it’s just a whole another area of discussion and the distances involved are so incomprehensible that you know, it beggars belief really. But look, I guess I’m saying personally my line of thought follows that we um, most probably are not alone in the universe.
Following from on from that, still in the realm of philosophy, I guess, have you thought much about the concept of “infinity” and do you think there might be an edge to the universe?
Um, well, you know. I tried to read A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. I mean, it’s up on my book shelf. I’ve read it a couple of times and I think I wrapped my head around just one concept he was on about, which I – (laughs) I felt quite satisfied with that, because it’s heavy stuff. Um, I mean, look I’m no scientist, I’m a musician, but I’m fascinated with this stuff. But the whole idea of space time being curved, similar to the idea that if you walk around the Earth, you don’t get to the end but come back to where you started. That blows my mind… I mean, just the idea of infinity itself, you can’t really even imagine that… I guess I spend a fair bit of my spare time reading stuff from people who are far, far, far smarter than me, who ask these questions and try to come up with something that could explain this stuff. That’s a whole area I love so much reading about.
Well onto a completely different topic – how would you describe your relationship with John Castle and the synergy which comes with working with someone so closely over such a sustained period of time?
Yeah, yeah, well I’m on my way to John’s house as we speak. Um, John Castle, I’m lucky to count as one of my best friends. And he’s such an immensely skilled individual, not only musically but you know, he builds his own microphones and preamps himself, his whole front room is like an electronics workshop. So this guy is very, very smart, very clever and I guess our relationship started with the initial Bamboos recording which was done around like, the year 2000. But I had been into his studio a bit before that with a few other different bands. But yeah, I think we have a closeness, you know, a rapport and are certainly able to communicate very openly about stuff. For me, one of the great things about John Castle is… that he could easily just go, “This is not working. We have to change this.” And I really do trust him when instances like that arise and… I guess the personal bond you know, reinforces our music relationship as well. At the end of the day, I think it’s about being able to communicate freely and openly and not having any sort of fear of doing that, and I I always hope the music speaks for itself.
I felt like I kind of took that direction as far as I really could take it with The Bamboos without turning the band into something completely different… I felt that I sort of pushed it to the edge.
In a 2012 interview you said it wouldn’t keep you happy as a musician or as a creative artist to keep putting out funk records as The Bamboos. You’ve since released at least two funk/soul records, in Rare Groove Spectrum (2019) and Black Feeling Vol. 3 (2015). I guess the obvious question is, if it doesn’t make you happy, why do you keep doing it?
Uh yeah, true story. Well you know what, I feel like there’s been sort of a musical – I mean, I don’t want to call it a circle, but The Bamboos obviously came out of that whole deep funk scene and that whole sound. And I guess I felt after doing two or three albums fairly firmly rooted in that I felt the limitations of that at the time in terms of maybe a songwriting sensibility. I felt like I wanted to bring more colours in – I guess the other influences of music I was also into. And I guess I tried to bring those into The Bamboos, which was potentially a questionable thing to do. I know that some of our fans who were sort of more on the purist side of funk and soul certainly weren’t necessarily into some of those – well I don’t know if they’re musical experiments, it’s just the direction we were going in at the time. I’m talking about bringing in, you know, psychedelic elements, some indie sort of influence as well potentially. I felt like I kind of took that direction as far as I really could take it with The Bamboos without turning the band into something completely different. I feel like even when we went out on a little bit of a tangent, it was still rooted in some kind or somehow ‘Bamboos sound’, whatever that means. But I felt that I sort of pushed it to the edge. With the last couple of albums, perhaps the strings album (By Special Arrangement, 2019) I feel we’ve pulled it back a little bit more into the world of soul/funk. But I would say that the new album that we’re basically kind of just mixing and just doing the finishing touches on now, brings it a bit further back into the original ‘Bamboos sound’. And it just feels natural and right. It doesn’t – none of this has really been forced. It just feels like, um, it feels like the natural progression. So it feels like yes, we have to come full circle. I hate to use that cliché but, thinking back to, you know, the quote you mentioned of me in 2012 saying I wouldn’t like to continue making funk and soul records with The Bamboos. It’s actually quite interesting to hear that again, because at that point I was definitely feeling like I wanted to push the sound of the band in different areas. And now I feel much more comfortable in coming back the other way. So it is quite interesting for me to hear that.
A question I’ve been dying to ask you for years – why do so many Bamboos songs have a two-bar drum break?
Oh my gosh! This is (laughs). This is something Graeme (Pogson), our drummer said to me the other day. He said, “After every second chorus, you always put in a little two-bar or one-bar drum break before the second verse.” It’s just – I don’t know, it’s just – maybe I do employ that technique compositionally too much. It just sort of feels like you need a limit moment, a moment to catch your breath after the, I guess the, you know, there’s sort of an arc of tension before a chorus happens and then after that release… let’s kind of catch our musical breath before we dive in again. That’s the only thing I can – I’ve never really even thought about that too much. But I guess everyone has their own clichés and their own things they do all the time then.
The Bamboos celebrate 20 years together next year – I understand you’ve been in the studio working on a new album. How long do you envisage the band staying together? What’s your end goal?
Well look, it’s 20 years next year and we’ve got a studio album coming out and stuff. It is quite a special year in terms of the commemoration of those things, but coming back to one of your earlier questions, I feel like I’m always trying to make that perfect Bamboos album and you know, for the most part, I feel like every record we’ve done I’ve gone “this is the best effort and result we could have achieved at the time”. I really try and go all out and we do our best. But I feel, I guess I feel like if that ever disappeared, you know, maybe we wouldn’t make another album. But I can’t see that, I guess method or, or way of thinking stopping within myself, so as long as everyone in the band is is on board we’ll be doing it. I mean we just went up to a country house for a week, something we’ve talked about for so many – it’s almost two decades we’ve talked about doing this kind of classic thing of a band going up to a country house and you know, doing takes at 2:00 AM in the morning and all the cliché things. But we actually did that and it was such a blast and the camaraderie with everyone and yeah, just the unity of everyone dedicating themselves to this task of recording this record was so refreshing and uplifting and positive. It feels like the personal dynamic in The Bamboos that has never ever been stronger and deeper and with that going on, I mean, I feel like that fuels so much of the album you know, I really hope it comes across when you hear this record. But yeah, I feel like the band is in such a good place that I can’t see us thinking about hanging our hats up anytime soon.
You hosted Sky High on Double J from 2014 to 2017 and you were kind enough to play one of my tracks a couple of times, so thanks for that. I’m just wondering why the show ended, was it a decision from upper management or did you leave on your own accord?
I did that show for three and a half years. And it was such a lot of fun and the thing I most enjoyed about it was really supporting a lot of local music and I’m glad to have contributed to that. It was great to be able to play music on the national broadcaster even though it’s a digital station. To give another outlet for, I guess, for want of a better term, soulful Australian music… Community radio does such a fantastic job of that. But it felt important and special to me to be able to present that kind of music and show on the national broadcaster, I didn’t treat that lightly. But at the end of the day I had to make a call, because it kind of – you know, well I guess my priorities were always going to be making records and I felt that I was spending a little more time and I guess mental energy on that rather than making music. So after three and a half years I had to kind of regrettably make the call to finish. I’d love to be able to do everything and do it all, but it just felt like I wanted to spend more time making music.
The Australian soul music scene here, I mean it’s blown wide open now and it is a thing. And I feel like many artists get caught in the cracks between blues and roots… it’d be nice for the wider public to see, or have exposure to these artists who do get sidelined.
If you could change one thing about the local scene or the Australian music industry more broadly, what would it be?
Well I would – look, award ceremonies are sort of at the opposite the end of the spectrum of things that concern me – I mean, that award you mentioned earlier, that’s the first music award with my name on it I’ve ever received in my life. So yes it was special to me, but I hope that it’s clear by now that I don’t make music to attend award ceremonies in general. But if I could change one thing, I would add into the ARIA Awards some sort of R&B or soul category. Because I just feel like the whole Australian soul music scene here, I mean it’s blown wide open now and it is a thing. And I feel like many artists get caught in the cracks between blues and roots and urban… I mean, blues and roots is a lot of different things, and urban is most often hip hop and commercial R&B. But I feel like if there was ‘Soul’ or you know, ‘Traditional R&B/Soul’, whatever you want to call the category, I believe that a lot of artists would get the recognition that they deserve. Again, people aren’t making music for awards, but it’d be nice for the wider public to see, or have exposure to these artists who often do get sidelined. The Music Victoria/Age EG Awards have a ‘Soul/Funk/R&B/Gospel’ category and I think that’s just such a great addition to recognising this music. With bands like Hiatus Kaiyote getting Grammy nominations it’s time to recognise the wealth of stuff we have in our own backyard.
If you could collaborate with any artist in any medium, who would it be and what would you create?
Oh, that’s a good one! Um… I mean, there are a lot of vocalists around and I have worked with many fantastic vocalists in my time. But I mean there’s people out there that I would certainly love to work on music with. People like, I don’t know, people like Curtis Harding and Leon Bridges and Michael Kiwanuka spring to mind, just off the top of my head. But in terms of just an all ’round great musician I’d love to collaborate with – Kevin Parker of Tame Impala is such a genius of music. If I ever got the opportunity – you know, a purely hypothetical thing to work with any artist, I would love to work with him because I highly rate him.