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Feature Interview: Nicky Bomba 'The Melbourne Ska Orchestra'

Melbourne Ska Orchestra

In honour of Melbourne Ska Orchestra—a thirty-odd piece ska and 2 tone band—and their self-titled album, AAA Backstage’s Navarone Farrell caught up with Nicky Bomba.

Touring with 30 members and the subsequent gear must be quite a feat…

It is, it’s a ramshackle train potentially falling off the tracks at any time, we have to keep it in check. It’s lots of fun, it’s like travelling with a circus. Backstage after the gig is always a party, and you think it’s would be a bit of a logistical nightmare, but we’ve got a really good manager and everyone’s really into the band, a lot of positive and professional energy.  People realise there’s lots of members so things can go wrong, but they’re really accommodating. Surprisingly, it’s a bit of a well-oiled machine.

How do you get around, bus everywhere?

No… haha, plane, and then busses. A couple of big busses. Two busses. We tried the pushbike thing for a while, but it wasn’t feasible. 

Being an orchestra, is there a standard for playing, whether it be tertiary education—or something similar?

Everything really. We just take people for... umm… well, all players are competent enough to play all of the songs—obviously that’s the level of competence that’s required, but that’s kind of yanno, par for the course. When people join the band, they’re normally professionals that are playing anyway. There’s all different styles, you know, there’s teachers, they’ve got fellowships, some just play in the odd band now and again, but the level is quite high. The standard of musicianship is quite high. Ska, the beautiful thing about it is that everyone recognises what the whole band is about, it’s not about who can play the fastest or the loudest, it’s about the spirit of the music, and everyone gets it. There’s lots of members and it’s lots of fun and lots of mayhem.

Where was the band conceived?

It was a joke at first! We wanted to set the world record of how many horn players we could get on stage at the one time during the upbeat ska, doing the skank, so we booked a rehearsal room… It was really just a joke. So we thought, ‘Oh well we obviously all can play,’ we had a quick rehearsal, but it was magnificent. The night was this celebration of ska and reggae and everything, and we totally forgot about the world record at the end, and the band was formed. We played for eighty people after that, and a couple of years after that we started taking it seriously and writing for it, and then recorded the album, and it’s taken up ever since.

Is everyone invested in ska, or is it just because it’s so fun to play that everyone’s stayed with the band?

Everyone gets it and is playing in a ska band, or has played in other ska bands. A lot of them are fantastic jazz musicians, a lot of them do African music, it’s a beautiful mixed back. But everyone loves the ska. It’s something we all enjoy.

Ska is a niche music scene for a lot of places, is there a big scene for it in Melbourne? 

It’s pretty big in Melbourne. I think what we’re doing in the next couple of months, Australia will catch on to what it is. Ska itself is really very communal music. When you hear it… there’s not one gig I’ve done with the Melbourne Ska Orchestra that people say to me, “Oh, I don’t dance, I’m not a good dancer, I’m not going to dance.” Everyone gets into the music and it’s a magnificent experience. I think once we get that across and people get what it is that we’re doing, I think that ska, and the styles that fall around it will become a lot more popular in Australia. That’s my goal and my dream.

With the recent cultural change in music, everyone has been able to play and record. Your kind of music takes a lot more effort, how has the DIY movement affected you as an artist?

My personal upbringing as far as music goes, is that I love the idea of being self-sufficient. I love where I record, I love our studio, I learned how to play different instruments, and that kind of came from the independent trying to do everything yourself thing. We’re at the point where we can’t take care of everything ourselves, it pays to have people take care of publicity and marketing and producing. Trying to do all that stuff yourself is too time consuming and it actually takes you away from making the music. You have to utilise—when it comes to the marketing of it---you have to utilise the powers that be, but when it comes to the creation of music, you certainly keep it in-house. We tried to open it up a little bit when it came to the song writing, we have sessions where everyone has a bit of a contribution. I write most of the stuff, but I just love learning. I still feel like a student. A lot of the musicians in the band are like that, they’re really sort of wide-eyed and innocent when it comes to what we’re doing, they’re interested and they have a sense of adventure, and I think it’s really important. We don’t just wanna be a ska cover band. We want to offer something new, and I think with this new album, we have. We have lots of hybrids, lots of style, particularly things that haven’t happened before. The ska has a different sound, especially with the steel pans and the way we configure the horns. It’s all got a sense of freshness about it. That’s really important, I think, that we’ve cultivated that.

So your self-titled album has been out for a few months now, tell me about the recording and writing process.

 Well, the recording, that was an incredible experience because we had to be pretty organised as far as when everyone was available, and how much time we had, and getting in touch with the band, making sure the mic placement was cool. So we did a lot of homework, a lot of research on what we wanted it to sound like. It was recorded really quickly, there was a lot of spontaneity, not a bad thing happened in the studio and the hardest thing was catering—making sure everyone was fed. But it was a really great experience, and the album is a beautiful indication of… you can hear the spirit of the band in the room—in the recordings, and you don’t always hear that with bands. We posted it like an orchestra, we miked it up like that, we wanted to catch all the bubble sounds and it worked really great. I love the sound of the album.

On The Diplomat Tour, you’re hitting quite a few dates around the country—for the second time this year—what can audiences expect on stage?

Lots of fun. Lots of mayhem. Journeys, from ska to reggae to rock city, to kumbaya, to drum solos, and steel pan solos and lots of vocalising and crowd participation, and smiles. Heaps of smiles and heaps of dancing.

I noticed in the photos of the band, you have a uniform standard…

 It’s ska, the whole 2 Tone thing happened around the eighties with The Specials and Madness and that was very much about suiting up and looking sharp, as were the sixties, a lot was put into making sure you looked the part. Also, with early Jamaica, you may not have had much money, but you had your suit. You had your style, and every week you could step up and put on a bit of a show. So we embrace that. I like dressing up for a gig, I think it’s a great thing.

Are there any standout artists you could recommend in the ska or 2 Tone umbrella you could recommend to our readers?

Yep! The Specials - A Message to Rudy… I mean… buy the Melbourne Ska Orchestra album because we cover the whole range of reggae and ska in the album. We’ve purposely done that for education, it’s not just one kind of beat, or one kind of style. The Skatalites, are a great band, The Specials, Madness, um, Toots and the Maytals have lots of ska, ummmmmmmm, I was a big fan of The Beat/The English Beat, there’s Bad Manners and The Selecter, that’s from the 2 Tone era. Yeah, you know, The Skatalites were probably the big ones, they’re probably the best example for a lot of that stuff.

How has your work with The John Butler Trio and all your other work around the place influenced the Melbourne Ska Orchestra?

I was kind of doing all that… everything influences everything. When you’re an artist, no matter what medium you’re in, whatever you associate it with becomes part of library. You might use some of that within everything you do. It makes you a more mature musician. When you’re writing songs you’ve got a bigger library to choose from, so I think it makes you a better song writer and performer.

What sort of advice could you give to young musicians starting out?

Keep it fresh. Spontaneity. Have fun. And be smart. Don’t try and do everything yourself. Get people to help with bits and pieces so you can focus on the things that matter. And get yourself a good repertoire, get yourself a good hour set, and just do some gigs… Make sure that set is like a theatre show, from the first song to the last song, you’re on top of everything. You really show them about what you’re doing.

Melbourne Ska Orchestra are going to be everywhere for the next few months, post The Diplomat tour, they have some New Year’s Eve shows lined up, a documentary/television special and a vinyl edition of their self-titled album coming out. Make sure you get along to one of their many shows in the coming months to see the spectacle that is these guys live. Check them out on YouTube, iTunes, or their website.

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