Twelve months ago, The Bamboos resurfaced from an uncharacteristically long recess to deliver LP number eight, Night Time People.
Determined to avoid a similar lull, the Melbourne band are back with another new record, By Special Arrangement, which consists of orchestral reimaginations of several old songs and a few covers.
With any album that’s made up of reworked songs from a band’s back catalogue, you’re inclined to scrutinise whether the end product vindicates the exercise. For example, there are numerous acoustic reboots that have really just been promotional trivialities. But as The Bamboos leader Lance Ferguson explains, cynicism was absent from the development of By Special Arrangement.
“A couple of years ago we thought, ‘what if we put on something maybe at somewhere like the Recital Centre, something based around that sort of venue – which is very different from where we usually play – and do a bunch of arrangements of some of our songs and a few covers and things like that?’ It never really got off the ground and then we ended up abandoning the live thing and going, ‘Hey why don’t we just make this idea into a record?’”
Some major examples of orchestral and symphonic rock and pop albums are Metallica’s S&M, Kiss Symphony, Hilltop Hoods’ two Restrung albums and Portishead’s Roseland NYC Live. For their part, The Bamboos were eager to pay homage to celebrated soul arrangers and performers such as Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield.
The band’s in-house trumpeter Ross Irwin took charge of the project, overseeing all of the new arrangements.
“He’s been in the band a long time and I’ve just watched him grow and develop over all this time,” says Ferguson. “I know that him and I share some favourites in the world of arrangement and orchestration – people like Lalo Schifrin and Charles Stepney and people like that. So he’s definitely bringing a lot of those influences in.”
The album doesn’t utilise a full orchestra, but rather a string ensemble. As a result, far from stealing the spotlight, the orchestral arrangements illuminate the strength of the songwriting and the featured vocalists.
“Ross came in and was let off the leash,” says Ferguson. “Usually he writes stuff around the songs I write and fills in spaces and teases out elements. This time, he was left to basically interpret the songs himself. We did sit around and talk about moods and outlines and feels of things, but he really went away and [wrote freely]. Once we had these amazing arrangements and orchestrations done, it was then that these incredible vocalists came in.”
Megan Washington returns for ‘Eliza’ and Tim Rogers for ‘I Got Burned’, both from 2012’s Medicine Man. Dan Sultan makes his first appearance on a Bamboos record, taking the lead on ‘I Never’, which was originally performed by Daniel Merriweather. They all sound great, as does Bamboos mainstay Kylie Auldist, who sings across the rest of the record.
“It was definitely amazing to work with Dan Sultan because I’ve wanted to get in the studio with him for years,” Ferguson says. “Obviously vocalists of that calibre and strong personalities with strong musical visions of their own, they’re the ones who really bring these to life.”
Ferguson is a serious songwriter and Bamboos records are loaded with pop songs, but the pep and momentum provided by the rhythm section is such a big part of the band’s sound. Across By Special Arrangement, however, the songs’ original rhythmic heft is almost entirely abandoned.
“I want people to see a different side of The Bamboos and see that, yes we generally aim our shows at people dancing and it’s a high energy thing, but I also want people to know the stuff underneath some of those songs has more to it as well. Which is not at all to undermine the importance of just dancing and having a good time.”
By Special Arrangement is out now via BMG. The Bamboos will launch the album at Melbourne Recital Centre with special guest Tim Rogers on Thursday August 15.