The rise and rise of Melbourne’s soul scene

With Melbourne’s Soul scene undergoing a renaissance, TOM MANN caught up with The Bamboos’ Lance Ferguson, PJ Hunter of Deep Street Soul and young gun Liam McGorry from Saskwatch to find out how Melbourne became Soulsville, AUS.

Australia: a rock and roll country

Little more than a year ago Melbourne’s Chet Faker was just another bearded dude making beats in his garage; now he’s signed to Downtown Records, home to Santigold, Spank Rock and Gnarls Barkley. Melbourne’s Clairy Browne & the Bangin’ Rackettes have also broken in the States, cashing in on the success of an appearance in an American Heineken advertisement to tour the US for the first time selling out shows in Los Angeles and New York City before touring in Japan and Europe. Hiatus Kaiyote have been keeping busy in the past year touring overseas and winning praise from the likes of Erykah Badu, Questlove, Jazzy Jeff, Pharoahe Monch, Jean Grae, and Flying Lotus. Then there’s a parade of other Melbourne soul acts including Saskwatch, Axolotl, Electric Empire and The Bombay Royale that have been filling the city’s live venues and filling the shelves of Melbourne’s soul Mecca – Northside Records – with their new releases.

Despite the international attention and solid live following, The Bamboos guitarist and bandleader Lance Ferguson says that soul music has faced an uphill battle in Australia. “Yes, of course there’s commercial R ‘n’ B and hip-hop is black music but as for soul it can be a battle,” he says. “Australia is traditionally a rock and roll country [with] no great history of appreciation of black music.”

“Australia [has] no great history of appreciation of black music”

Ferguson and his Bamboos have been taking the Melbourne soul message to the world for over a decade, but when they started out just over 10 years ago the local scene was at a low point. When he started the band there were club nights going where you could hear soul music but there really weren’t many bands playing that kind of music. “The whole acid-jazz thing happened in the ‘90s and when that petered out there was a drought period in the mid to late ‘90s when electronic music was huge but there wasn’t much going on in the scene with live soulful music [in Australia],” he explains. “I was checking out what was going on in New York and London with the burgeoning Deep Funk scene and that was a real catalyst for the Bamboos coming to action.”

Without much of a local audience for their sound in Australia, The Bamboos released their records overseas through English label Tru Thoughts, home to other soul revalivalists like Quantic, Alice Russell, and Hot 8 Brass Band. That tide of soul acts heading overseas is turning says Ferguson, with bands now able to find bigger crowds at home than overseas. “Bands go over there and tour and get on some really good festivals – Electric Empire are doing Japan and played at Glastonbury – but other bands will just play in small soul and funk clubs around England,” Ferguson says. “Whereas here they can play at Falls Festival to much bigger crowds. Now there’s a massive audience in Australia for this sound.”

The Bamboos break through

Picking up on Ferguson’s history of the scene, PJ Hunter – manager and bass player with Deep Street Soul (and all round soul historian) – also notes that around the start of the new century there was a resurgence in the funk/soul scene across the northern hemisphere with a slew of bands laying down’60s style soul sounds. In the UK there was The New Master Sounds and Speedometer; in Germany there was the Whitefield Brothers and the Poets of Rhythm; in Japan there was Osaka Monorail; and in the States there was Breakestra and The Dap-Kings. Here in Australia we had The Bamboos. All these acts were, in Hunter’s words, “laying down a super heavy groove, but more importantly they were laying it down with an emphasis on capturing the sounds and production of the era … it looked, smelled & sounded authentic”.

While Ferguson deflects praise, Hunter is quick to credit The Bamboos work in breaking the ground for the current strength of Melbourne’s soul scene, citing them and Cookin’ on Three Burners as a “massive” influence. He and Deep Street Soul drummer Ago had thought about putting together a group in 2001 but dismissed the idea as they didn’t think it was possible to record something that sounded like it was made in 1968, but seeing and hearing what Ferguson’s bands were delivering in the middle of the decade convinced them to give it a go. According to Hunter, the international success of The Bamboos inspired bands like his to start playing their own brand of funk and soul music, as they helped to create an audience and an avenue to release records.

“There’s a massive audience in Australia for this sound.”

The Bamboos have been able to break through to stations like Triple M and Nova with a couple of tracks from their new album Medicine Man, but few soul acts have picked up significant support from Australian radio and triple j’s vaunted Unearthed programme doesn’t even include “soul” as a category of emerging, local music. Ferguson denies that he pursued that crossover success. “That wasn’t a conscious choice when I was choosing who to work with at all. I try to put all that stuff out of my head when I’m actually making the music. Then obviously labels do their thing and get radio pluggers,” he explained. “I’m very weary and cautious of approaching that way of thinking about music because it feels like more of a commercial choice than a creative choice. But clearly having Tim Rogers or Aloe Blacc on a track does do things in commercial radio world. It certainly didn’t hurt.”

The Soul of Melbourne

While Lance Ferguson features on six tracks on the new The Soul Of Melbourne compilation – playing with The Bamboos, Kylie Auldist, Cookin On Three Burners, Menagerie and The Mighty Show-Stoppers – the compilation is far from a solo showcase, with cuts from Chet Faker, Saskwatch, Hiatus Kaiyote, Clairy Browne, Cactus Channel and six other Melbourne acts in the mix.

Ferguson co-curated the compilation with Chris Gill, the host of Triple R’s Get Down and boss of the fledgling Northside Records label and record store on Gertrude Street in Collingwood. The Bamboos’ leader is fiercely progressive in his tastes, but with Gill – “a real champion of the old school sound of funk” – he has helped compile an inclusive compilation that shows off the best of the many different sounds that have emerged in Melbourne’s soul scene. “Our criteria for the tracks was the tracks had to export quality,” Ferguson says. “18 tracks is a lot of tracks, but we had to cut out a lot of stuff that we wanted to put on.”

The Melbourne sound

While it may make the task of compiling a representation of the scene a much harder job, Ferguson says that there’s not really a “Melbourne sound” and that’s the way it should be. “It’s interesting listening to the compilation and trying to draw parallels. There are people mining so many different areas of “sonic space”. There are people doing the old school soul sound like Saskwatch, Cactus Channel – and to an extent – The Bamboos. Then there’s the contemporary flavours like Axelotal and Chet Faker. The sounds on the compilation are truly eclectic,” Ferguson says. “It’s not about whether each individual band is retro or not retro it’s about the scene itself. The scene is progressive even if some of the bands in it are mining a sound that is retro; Clairy Brown, for instance, is very much in that ‘60s and ‘70s R’n’B sound, yet the scene as a whole is very progressive.” Saskwatch band leader Liam McGorry agrees, suggesting that Melbourne’s broad range of amazing bands and artists such as King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Dynamo, and The Harpoons – “not stereotypically soul in genre terms, but all the same, all influenced by soul music” – also help to push the city’s soul music in new and interesting directions.

Greg Boraman, label manager at Freestyle Records (home to Melbourne-based acts including Deep Street Soul and Cookin’ On Three Burners), says that from a Northern Hemisphere perspective it seems that Melbourne is one of those places that has a close knit network of like minded musicians. He suggests that you could make comparisons to US cities like Philadelphia or Detroit – places that become synonymous with certain genres and sounds. “Healthy little city-based scenes do popup over the years,” says Boraman. “And the fact that Melbourne now has a compilation album highlighting what a hot bed of creative soul and funk bands it is, just reinforces that.”

“The high quality funk/soul/ R’n’B /Afrobeat being churned out of this city at the moment is extraordinary on a global scale”

However, Deep Street Soul’s PJ Hunter notes that defined regional soul sounds like Motown, Stax and “to a lesser extent” Philly were recorded in one particular studio and so the development of a particular sound was inevitable. However the Melbourne bands record in different studios using different engineers and put their own particular spin on the style. For Hunter the trait that unites the groups that feature on the compilation, and in the wider Melbourne scene, is simply their quality. “What you can say is that the quantity of high quality funk/soul/R’n’B /Afrobeat being churned out of this city at the moment is extraordinary on a global scale,” Hunter boasts. “In 10 to 20 years time when we look back, I have no doubt that it will be acknowledged as such.” His own band’s work has led the growing list of Melbourne soul acts picking up ecstatic reviews overseas with Wayne Kramer of the legendary MC5 raving about Deep Street Soul’s cover of the classic ‘Kick Out The Jams,’ claiming that their take on the track is “the greatest version of the song ever recorded” – even topping the attempt released by Rage Against the Machine.

The SLAM Rally proved just how much live music means to Melbourne and that passion has helped fuel the success of the soul scene. While Ferguson says that he and Chris Gill are keen to celebrate other soul scenes on future compilations he notes that Melbourne historically has been the biggest live scene across all genres and home to more live venues – way more – than any other city in Australia. “It’s an incubator for a lot of things to happen and for bands to experiment and build things up, not only in the soul genre but in a lot of genres,” Ferguson modestly explains before directing attention to the importance of DJs and club nights in mentoring the scene. Hunter also notes the presence of DJs like Vince Peach, Chris Gill, Ennio Styles, Jumps, Manchild, Pierre Baroni, Mohair Slim and Miss Goldie spinning old soul tunes at Cherry Bar’s long running Thursday soul night, the Soul-A-Go-Go parties and on air at RRR and PBS. Those DJs have been a huge influence on the younger acts with bands like Saskwatch – McGorry credits six years of visits to the venue’s Soul Night and being able to see bands like Little Red and The Bamboos play week in, week out, as an important inspiration.

The second generation of soul

Ferguson has also acted as a mentor and inspiration to younger acts such as The Cactus Channel and Axelotol, whose lead singer Ella Thompson is now a regular fixture in The Bamboos live shows. He singles out The Cactus Channel’s guitar player and bandleader David Thore as a young musician with great talent and focus as a bandleader and on the business side as well. “A kid like that coming up now is really impressive to someone like me who was making it up as I went along when I was starting out,” Ferguson says. “I’m very happy to take on that mentor role. If I’ve got something that is useful then I’m happy to share it.”

While the renaissance of the Melbourne scene has been developing for many years, Ferguson says that the last year and a half has really exploded with the bands finally breaking through to wider recognition. “While this wave of the soul music renaissance was happening in Melbourne we wanted to document it,” Ferguson says. “It’s a historical document of stuff that’s going on that’s really exciting. Also a compilation like this had never been done before and we felt the scene really should be documented like this. With these things you can never really please everyone with them. It’s a lot of hard work putting something like this together but I’m really proud of what we’ve done – and more importantly – what the scene is doing.”

The Soul of Melbourne is out now through Northside Records