In the early 2000s you’d have to arrive early at The Night Cat in Fitzroy to see The Bamboos on a Friday night. Lance Ferguson and his nine-piece band were the most professional outfit in town, playing three sets of hypnotically tight funk grooves every Friday. They were always dressed immaculately in dapper suits, clicking their heels in unison as Ferguson, the band’s founder and lead guitarist, controlled the crowd in the middle of the room.
More than a decade later, we speak to Ferguson following The Bamboos show at The Garden Party, musing on their latest album Medicine Man, collaborating with Aloe Blacc, Tim Rogers and Washington, and shaking the title of being Fitzroy’s best kept secret.
Nick Acquroff: In 2005, I stumbled into The Night Cat one night and saw a band called The Bamboos. It was a very different and magical experience, seeing a genuine funk/soul gig in Melbourne.
Lance Ferguson: The Night Cat is a great venue. It’s where the band started actually – we played our first show there in 2000. We always considered The Night Cat to be the spiritual home of the band, so I’m glad you saw us there.
NA: How many times do you think you’ve played there?
LF: We played there early on because they had monthly residencies. We were a four-piece instrumental band at that point, doing three sets on a Friday night. We played there regularly for a couple of years at the beginning and then always came back to do one-off shows once we had a few records out, because we just loved playing there.
NA: Can you tell us about your latest album Medicine Man?
LF: We’ve spent more time on Medicine Man than the other albums. We had a bit of money to play with and a bit of time for a change, and we really went to town in the studio. John Castle co-produced that album. It featured quite a few high-profile guests and looking back, it’s been our most successful record to date.
NA: Where was it recorded?
LF: All of The Bamboos records have been recorded at John Castle’s studios – they’re called The Shed Studios. It’s literally a shed in his backyard in Canterbury. He’s got magical golden ears and some really cool recording equipment in there. John and I have been really great friends for many years and I cant imagine anyone else doing a Bamboos record other than John Castles; he recorded our first 45 single that we put out, well over a decade ago now. He’s just another member of the band now.
NA: It’s amazing that in the same studio, with the same engineer and producer, you’ve managed to change your sound so significantly in the space of a decade.
LF: Clearly on Step It Up (the band’s debut album), we were really getting our heads deep into the sound of the bands we were listening to, trying to take it apart. I guess as time progressed and my song writing developed, I wanted to use different colours and not just stick to one production aesthetic. I think the last album is the most fully realised so far.
NA: I agree. I love how you guys are in exactly the same genre as you were 10 years ago, but it’s only in the latter half that your sound has become so commercially recognised.
LF: When we made that first record, it was just not recognised…well there were some places to play here but it was very underground at that point. I had become fascinated with the scene, specifically in London but also in America, with labels like Desco and Daptone records. I was listening to bands that were exploring that soul sound, but it was so marginalised and esoteric. Then as years progressed, high-profile pop acts kind of used that soul sound, and soul music has become normalised in the mainstream.
NA: How much of an impact has working with people like Megan Washington, Bobby Flynn, Aloe Blacc and Tim Rogers had on your audience and fan base?
LF: These people are really just my friends and I rope them in to playing music on my records (laughs). I played guitar in Washington’s band and still do from time to time. I remember when she first came to Melbourne and worked with John at The Shed. There is a scene of musical friends and crossovers with everyone. Washington is obviously really well known – her album was massive – and having someone like her on a track means that people who are into her, who haven’t heard of us, might be open to what we’re doing.
All the collaborations have evolved from a really natural place – from friendship – and they all seem very sincere and genuine.
NA: Can you tell us about your history in music? It sounds as though everyone in the band is classically trained. Is that the case?
LF: I’m a Kiwi, but I moved to Melbourne in the early 90s. I’m pretty much an Aussie now, at least when I go home they tell me as much. I shouldn’t really be talking about that actually (laughs).
I went to the Victorian College of the Arts and studied jazz guitar/improvisation. I worked my way through that course and then started playing around town as a session musician. I guess I was a musician more orientated towards blues, soul, funk and jazz. Eventually I formed a band and it was The Bamboos… Everyone in the band plays in other bands or has their own bands. But I just love playing with the best players.