Words by Alex Watts
Photography by Gretta Parry
Melbourne’s credentials as a rock’n’roll city are widely acknowledged, however there is also a burgeoning scene led by a diverse group of upstarts intent on taking their music from Brunswick to Bonnaroo and beyond. This month Melbourne Guru examines the rise and well, rise of Melbourne soul.
“Australia and particularly Melbourne has so much great music coming out of it,” reflects Liam McGorry, songwriter and trumpet player of local outfit Saskwatch. “Most places have their own thing but I think Melbourne is pretty special.”
I first experienced the band at Golden Plains Festival in 2012, when the nine-piece vintage soul behemoth seemed to burst onto the stage in an explosion of sound and colour, bringing a subdued afternoon crowd to their feet. Five months later their debut album Leave It All Behind would earn them critical acclaim, rotation on Triple J and appearances at Splendour At The Grass, Falls Festival and many more.
More than just a success story, Saskwatch are just one of the most prominent among a group of current bands whose music incorporates funk and soul, helping to popularise a timeless genre for the current generation.
“The public appreciation, consumption, involvement and participation in soul music has been massive over the last few years,” says Chris Gill, proprietor of dedicated funk/soul record store Northside Records and presenter of 3RRR’s Get Down. “When the record store started thirteen years ago, soul music was not very well represented at all. Roughly fifteen years ago Lance Ferguson (The Bamboos, Cookin on 3 Burners) was in a few bands and it was just them flying the flag. Then the avalanche happened — Deep Street Soul, Saskwatch, Hiatus Kaiyote, Clairy Browne, The Cactus Channel…”
With Northside Records being something of a hub for fans of the funkier variety of music, and having watched Saskwatch mature, Gill agreed to start a record label specifically to facilitate the release of Leave It All Behind. “It has been a great journey watching the bands come up,” enthuses Gill of the various acts he watches go from shopping for records to selling them.
“I am actually quite proud of the mix of music at the moment; I know that it will continue to improve and grow.”
“These days it’s diversified a lot, there’s a lot of different artists doing this thing now,” says Tristan Ludowyk, owner of Hope Street Recordings, whose roster includes The Cactus Channel, The Putbacks and Bombay Royale with a signature analogue sound tipping its hat to the classic recording techniques of the 60’s.
“This means there’s bands doing real nostalgia, and there’s bands that are pushing the envelope, then there’s bands that are exploring a whole lot of other styles that have similar roots: funk/soul, but also African roots — afrobeat, cumbia. One of the catalysts in all this seems to be the ease with which we can discover and share music that would once have been obscure.
“It really started from the local base of soul music in Melbourne,” counters Gill. “All the DJs – I mean club DJs and community radio DJs – are the backbone as to why there is and has always been a positive and progressive music scene in this city. Since the 60s we always had a small soul scene, but back then there was no one that heavy bumping it out. Then in the seventies things started poppin’ — Renee Geyer is a soul queen.”
Without a doubt this thriving scene has been aided by all of these factors — club and community radio DJs, independent record stores, labels and venues. Saskwatch’s own trajectory can be followed from the time that Vince Peach, presenter of PBS’ Soul Time programme since 1984, spotted the group busking outside of Flinders Street Station and invited them to perform on air.
“I think community radio has had a lot to do with it because we have a really strong culture in Melbourne. PBS and Triple R combined have a bigger listenership than Triple J does, which has a direct effect on gigs,” notes Chelsea Wilson, soul singer and music coordinator at PBS FM.
“We’ve had an increase in listenership for our soul programme; our monthly Soul-A-Go-Go night sells out every month so I think there’s definitely been growth.”
Known worldwide as a live music iconic venue, Saskwatch’s next break came in the form of a residency at Melbourne’s Cherry Bar, which continued for almost two and a half years, up until their Golden Plains moment.
“We played a lot to no-one in the early days. We were rehearsing once or twice a week in addition to playing two or three shows,” recalls McGorry fondly. “Cherry were really great to us; they let us woodshed our live show, try new things out and grow as a band. We were very lucky to have their support.”
With Saskwatch and Deep Street Soul having both appeared at Glastonbury Fest in 2013 – the same year that Hiatus Kaiyote were nominated for a Grammy for their Q-Tip featured single Nakamarra – the Melbourne soul scene is becoming an international force. “It’s got it’s own signature sound I think,” muses Wilson.
“Even though it’s a nod to a retrospective genre the music is still fresh and current.
“What I find exciting these days is the calibre of what’s happening; we’ve got bands really innovating and not just being a funk/soul throwback,” says Ludowyk.
“No one else in the world sounds like The Cactus Channel or Hiatus Kaiyote — that’s something to be proud of. The bands that really stand out are those that don’t just pander to the crowd but really write something of substance. It comes with maturity and understanding and it’s great to see so many acts pulling it off these days.”
Not content to merely replicate the retro-appeal of their first offering, Saskwatch’s sophomore release, 2014’s Nose Dive, saw the band stretch into more complex arrangements with a sound that was heavier and grittier, both sonically and emotionally. “We definitely wanted to dig a bit deeper,” says McGorry.
“It was amazing to work with (producer) Magoo. He really helped us knuckle down on some arrangements and focus in on a lot of sounds and the sentiment of the songs.”
With many incredible releases expected for 2015, including Chelsea Wilson’s Women of Soul compilation, Hiatus Kaiyote’s second album and Saskwatch’s third, things are in no way slowing down for Melbourne’s ‘funky circle’, as Gill refers to them.
“Part of the band is not just the musical notes that come out of the instruments but also the vibe they put out and the message they are telling,” notes Gill.
Keep up to date with all things Saskwatch via www.saskwatch.com.au