Lance Ferguson, leader of the celebrated Melbourne funk-soul collective, tells us all about their 10th LP, Hard Up.
Lance Ferguson has been leading The Bamboos for over 20 years. The New Zealand-born guitarist is one of just three Bamboos members to appear on each of the band’s studio LPs, dating back to 2006’s debut effort, Step It Up. He’s the band’s live-in producer and has co-written pretty much every Bamboos original to date.
But despite being the driving force behind one of the country’s premier funk and soul collectives, Ferguson rarely puts himself at the centre of the action. He makes it all happen, but doesn’t do so for the purposes of self-congratulation.
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The Melbourne outfit’s new album, Hard Up, is another example of Ferguson’s sly self-effacement. The songwriting reconnects with the classic Atlantic/Motown/Stax sounds that motored the band’s early years, while Ferguson’s production makes it sound as good as anything in The Bamboos catalogue.
But it’d be an injustice to describe it as Ferguson’s record. This is the sound of nine inspired individuals putting their long-established synergy towards making a lean and muscular funk-soul record that ranks among the best of The Bamboos’ career.
“We just want to raise the bar each time,” says Ferguson. “It’s not necessarily something that’s tangible to the listener, but as long as we feel like we’re raising the bar ourselves every time and achieve that within our own little world, that’s what keeps us going and excited about doing it.”
The Bamboos formed in Melbourne in the year 2000, quickly becoming regulars at Fitzroy funk, soul and R&B venue, The Night Cat. After a few years of personnel comings and goings, the lineup solidified around Ferguson, bass player Yuri Pavlinov and trumpeter Ross Irwin.
Kylie Auldist entered the picture around the time of album two, 2007’s Rawville, and her seismic, Sharon Jones-esque vocals have been indispensable ever since. Ella Thompson joined as co-lead vocalist for 2012’s Medicine Man and 2013’s psych-rock departure, Fever in the Road, while the band’s regularly employed guest vocalists, including Megan Washington, Tim Rogers and UK soul singer Alice Russell.
Auldist occupies centre stage for the majority of Hard Up, including on the effortless title track, the spiritual protest song ‘Power Without Greed’, and a dynamite cover of 1989 Italo house classic, ‘Ride on Time’. The album also includes three guest contributors, all newcomers to planet Bamboos.
Sydney-based singer-songwriter Ev Jones (of Jones Jnr.) takes the lead on ‘While You Sleep’. Jones and Ferguson first met while on a soul music exchange in Tokyo around 2014. “We really hit it off,” Ferguson says. “I love Jones Jnr. as well and I’m a big fan of his voice and we ended up getting in the studio and doing a few co-write sessions.”
“That was almost like a cold call, wish list type thing where I was like, ‘I love these guys and I’d really love to do something with them’,” says Ferguson. “I literally just reached out and sent them some instrumental ideas and ideas for songs. Fortunately they were into them and wanted to be a part of it, which was really great.”
The Bamboos put out their eighth LP, Night Time People, in mid-2018 and the orchestral, quasi-greatest hits record, By Special Arrangement, just over a year later. 2020 was supposed to be the band’s big anniversary year, but the planet clearly had other ideas.
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Fortunately, Ferguson’s workaholic propensity meant Hard Up was basically already done before the pandemic brought everything to a halt. It was recorded during a week-long stay at a country property in the Macedon Ranges town of Lancefield in late-2019. The band members were all hunkered down out there, with Ferguson and engineer John Castle pressing record whenever inspiration struck.
“John’s family friend had a property up in Lancefield. It’s a sprawling country holiday house with a barn and a couple of buildings and not set up for recording at all. So John and I went in a couple of days early and ran tens of kilometres of lines through the house connecting everything up,” Ferguson says.
Beyond the logistical challenges, the bucolic setting of the Hard Up recording sessions marked the realisation of a long-held dream for Ferguson.
“And the reality of it was even more fun than I imagined,” he says. “It was great just to have everyone focused and there ‘round the clock to do stuff. The process of that was really great and I would like to do it like that every time, really.”
The Bamboos’ new album, Hard Up, is out now via Pacific Theatre/BMG. Grab a copy here.