The Bamboos aren’t a Melbourne institution, like complaining about the bad coffee in other towns is, but they are getting close. And much like the majority of baristas serving up your short mac are kiwi ex-pats, so is The Bamboos founding member and bandleader, guitarist Lance Ferguson. But hey, when did someone not being from Australia stop us claiming them? A world-renowned funk outfit, The Bamboos are turning ten, and marking the occasion with a blow-out gig at The Prince, playing songs from their full back-catalogue, but it has been a long journey. “Everything has changed so much over the last 10 years but the original concept for me was very simple and straightforward,” Lance says of the original plan for the band. “I wanted to put a four-piece instrumental band together to play the music of The Meters mixed with a bit Blue Note stuff, and maybe write some originals in that vein. Really just go and play some gigs.”
‘Just playing some gigs’ has led to a decade of shows, recording four albums and countless singles, playing Australia’s biggest festivals, tours of Europe, and their songs features on TV shows such as Greys Anatomy, Ugly Betty, Underbelly and Packed To The Rafters. Not that you could tell this from chatting to Lance; he’s so relaxed about the success of his band that he doesn’t even take credit. “We have been lucky to work with a really proactive indie label in England,” he says of his music ending up on America’s highest rating TV shows.
“They have been just great in putting our music out there around they world, without a promo budget behind it, so hats off to them.”
The Bamboos have grown a lot in the last decade, both in physical numbers – they’re now an eight-piece outfit – but sonically as well. “For the first half of the last 10 years, if you were to separate it out, on the first two albums and maybe some of the third, I was really trying to nail that old school sound and trying to make records that sounded like they were from that time,” Lance explains of his vision for the band. “Writing songs that, compositionally, were in that range, say between 1968 through 1973, that golden age of funk and soul.
“But there just came a time in the last five years where I saw a lot of the other bands in that scene churning out the same kind of stuff and I thought to myself ‘I want The Bamboos to be more than that.’ I want us to have our own scene, away from being pigeonholed into a sub-genre or underground scene.”
The scene was dubbed ‘Deep Funk’, the name of a club night in London and suddenly it became the journalists’ name of choice for their genre. “I never liked that name anyway and I always found it quite limiting,” Lance ruminates. “So at some point I guess I got jack of just churning out stuff that was blatantly retro and decided The Bamboos should have a life of its own and should be making music that was relevant and current to the present day.”
That included adding a full-time vocalist. “We had Alice Russel guesting on the first record on a couple of tracks, but when Kylie Auldist joined it kind of ushered in a new era of the band,” Lance figures. “I started thinking about writing songs more than your classic two or three chord funk groove. So having Kylie come on board was a benchmark of change in the band.
“The sound of the band now, compared to when we were first doing stuff, I think there are a lot more influences coming through now, like psychedelic rock and hip-hop has always been big for us. For me now, especially on the last record, 4, and the new record I am working on now, I am thinking about The Bamboos signature sound rather than the genre so much.”
The longevity of the band owes a lot to Lance’s vision and determination. Seeing that The Bamboos have had around 18 former members, it seems that schooling Melbourne musicians could be a part-time job. He has also been careful to keep The Bamboos away from cheap fame and musical flash-in-the-pan trends. “The way I see it, is that a whole group of bands came up in the late ‘90s and 2000, like The Dap Kings and The New Masters, and us,” he says. “And as that underground scene bubbled away and DJs became aware of it, I think then you had (record-producer Mark) Ronson come in and say ‘That stuff is cool, I am gonna utilise some of these musicians and this scene,’ and made that album with Amy Winehouse.
“So people became aware of the underground scene by it being blown-up, and Duffy and Winehouse albums were the two biggest things. They were more straight up soul than funk, but to me they are both very related, it was that old school sound that really came through. It really opened up the mainstream’s ears to us but then the trend sort of fizzed out, as any trend does, so for bands like us who had been doing that for the whole time anyway, it was important not to be sucked into it.
“It was then I thought ‘I don’t want The Bamboos to be part of this, I want us to stand on our own’; The Bamboos have more to us than that.”
THE BAMBOOS will be making a packed Prince Bandroom strut, side step and sweat this Friday January 14. Support from Electric Empire. Tickets from princebandroom.com.au, moshtix.com.au, The Prince public bar and 1300 GET TIX. THE BAMBOOS’ latest album, 4 , is out now.