After ten years of unrivalled live performance, the 30-piece Melbourne Ska Orchestra finally have their debut album out, and a Forum show with which to spruik it. "Vibe master" Nicky Bomba talks to Time Out
Since he was six years old – and already a drummer in a live band – Nicky Bomba had been watching others realise their dreams and take the spotlight. His formative years spent gigging the Maltese circuit in a top 40 covers band naturally set him up to become a session musician (including being one third of the John Butler Trio), until his malaise reached a head.
Luckily, it proved to be a turning point and instead of giving up music as he’d seriously considered, he launched a swag of successful bands with himself as the creative force, including the 30-piece Melbourne Ska Orchestra.
Despite having been in high demand at festivals and shows for ten years, the orchestra is only now releasing its debut self-titled album, which captures the spirit of those live shows. They resurrect the sweetest ska and reggae sounds of yore in the form of original material. “It’s a pretty amazing spectacle,” confirms Bomba. “It’s one of the most enjoyable bands I’ve ever been in.”
Nicky, Melbourne Ska Orchestra is relied upon to bring the party… but what happens if you’re not in the mood?
I feel blessed to be able to be doing this on this planet, you know? To be making music that I’ve written and seeing an audience go crazy for it – I love the celebration of music. So if sometimes if I’m feeling down, that’s the thing that energises me. There’s something about stepping onto the stage that’s just like walking through this energy wall. Theoretically you’re only on stage for like an hour, two hours you know. What’s the hard part is what’s in-between: the travelling, the dressing rooms, getting things right. There’s just heaps of other stuff that can be quite taxing, too.
Then I’m guessing you don’t get your typical Melburnian audience standing with arms folded?
Melbourne audiences are renowned for that, but I find them discerning – and if the music’s great they come to the party. People are just generally shy, so you need to flick that switch on and say it’s okay, you can have fun here. Regardless of whether it’s Melbourne or Sydney – I find that universal thing is that people need some kind of ringmaster to go, “It’s party time for the next hour and a half, so either get on board or get out.” If they get out then we have more dance floor space.
Is it a totally different experience to recording as drummer/percussionist with the John Butler Trio?
It’s a totally different process. But I’ve been kind of doing this for a long time, it’s kind of easy to work out what your role is. It’s like a soccer team you know, sometimes you’re the coach, sometimes you’re the full forward sometimes you’re the captain, sometimes you’re the goalkeeper. And with John, I feel I’m the goalkeeper. I used to be a goalkeeper when I played soccer and I really liked that role of “nothing gets past me”. It’s about accepting that that’s your role and if you’re not accepting then that’s when the problems happen and that’s where egos kick in. I think you have to be quite smart about and you end up having more fun that way.
You recorded the album in Melbourne with producer Robin Mai at Adelphia Studios. What’s the deal with your tribute to the Espy’s Gershwin Room?
It’s one of the bonus tracks. We’ve got a song called ‘St Kilda Strut’. The Gershwin was a significant part of the band’s history, because that’s where we did our first gig on the 50th anniversary of ska in 2003. If you’re a Melbourne musician it’s one of the great places to play. A lot of music’s been made and played there and when we did the recording we wanted to hark back to the ’30s and that’s why we used the clarinet for that whole kind of Gene Krupa thing. The song mentions Owen Gray, who is a Jamaican performer that we flew over to Australia to perform with us – and one of the gigs that we did with him was at the Gershwin Room as well so um and I think it’s important to a band like the Melbourne Ska Orchestra to have a sense of time and place, you know?
You started your musical career aged six in a band with your brother and sister. Playing five-hour sets of covers set you up for becoming something of a session musician when you were older.
I’ve been playing live since I was six and then when I was about 14 we started doing some minor tours, then I turned professional when I was 16. It was a bit like the Partridge Family meets the Jackson 5 meets... I don’t know, the Brady Bunch?
It was a great way to cut your teeth growing up, playing all different styles of music, because you’re exposed to different things – and being a drummer I observed a lot. I detailed how people performed and what worked and what didn’t, and it was a really sweet way to grow up with a house full of techniques on how to win a crowd over and what kind of works on a musical level and on a dynamic level.
And then you became a bit disillusioned with it all?
It was only really ten years ago that I thought, I’m not just this all-rounder musician who plays for everybody. Something clicked, and with it came this whole new reinvigorated creative spark, and as a result, all the bands that I’ve formed – Bomba and Bustamento and Melbourne Ska Orchestra –really defined what I love doing. I started to focus. And I think that just comes from growing up really.
So who initially taught you to perform and put yourself out there? Was it a parent?
No, not really. We were from the Maltese community so every weekend there was always a dance or an engagement on, that kind of thing, and Dad used to sing along to a couple of Maltese songs. My brother, when I was six years old, he’d started high school and he’d met these other like-minded musicians that wanted to form a band. My brother said, “My brother plays drums. He’s only six but he’s actually pretty good!” Then some of the sisters joined and we used to do ABBA renditions, you know, all the top 40 songs. But you also had to know all the foxtrots and the barn dances and there was a dinner set and then there was a dance set… You didn’t think about it much at the time, it was just kind of what you did, as a child, but in hindsight it was a sweet way of just learning the craft, you know.
What were you called?
Ah, well it’s funny. My brother started out on drums just for a little while and then he went on to piano so then we had to get a proper drum kit. So my dad bought a kit and on the drum skin there was this sign that said ‘The Fugitives’ and he said, “Well, here’s the drum kit and that’s the name of your band as well.” We just thought that was how it worked. And so that was the name of the band until I was 16. Fortunately the Fugitives in Sydney weren’t a big touring band and we didn’t get sued.
Sounds like a classic ska band name, the Fugitives.
It does actually, I hadn’t thought about that. And then we changed the name to Fugitive Flight because there was this whole thing of trying to do our own songs as opposed to playing the Maltese circuit. That happened at about 14 where, you know, you just wanted to move on from what your parents. We got into writing songs, and it was lovely just to be able to make a living from music. That’s kind of a success in itself and I’ve mentioned that to many [session] musicians, you know, “If you’re making a living, just play music, keep doing your thing and be proud of that.”
It would be fascinating to hear a concert in the life of Nicky Bomba where you just run through every genre you’ve played since you were six.
You’d probably be bored after half an hour.
You’d still be there a few days later.
I actually was going through some old demo tapes from 20 years ago, going, “Oh, jeez, I’d forgot about that.” I’m glad I didn’t have any success with that because my voice sounded terrible – and I thought it sounded good at the time. In my early twenties I got a little bit frustrated because we weren’t having any success and I realised I was more about the ambition and wanting to have a hit record than actually developing my craft you know.
I think that happens a lot, the bitterness when people don’t get a song on the radio or people don’t turn up to gigs. It’s easy to get despondent and throw it away. I remember being at that point – it’s got too hard there’s too much to do. Apart from writing the songs and recording them and everything, you gotta promote it, try and get a gig… and I was never good at doing that. And also I’m a classic control freak. I wanted to do everything. So when you learn that it’s all about having a good team and it’s all about just focusing on your craft and that just making music and listening to music is the thing that you love, it can be really enriching.
I remember the turning point when I started listening to James Brown properly, and learning the grooves and everything – it became the point where I started developing the craft.
To now be in front of a beautiful bunch of musicians and be able to just do anything I want with the ingredients that are there – the dynamics of the horn section, two guitars, two keyboards and percussion and singers – I have a full respect for it. As the person at the front I try to bring the audience’s attention to who’s shining at the time. I won’t call it conducting, that would probably disrespect real conductors (laughs). It’s more like crowd control or vibe master.
Is being a musician a great way to see the world?
I’ve been amazed at how I’ve been able to infiltrate the deep fabric of a culture or a town by simply meeting musicians who then go, “Just hang with us, we know what’s going on here.” Within 24 hours, you’re at somebody’s place having a soiree, eating the local food… I think music is a beautiful ticket when you’re travelling, anywhere from Morocco to Kadal music to Maltese folklore to Jamaican. I find that you get actually get deeper quicker if you do it via the music channel.
It’s a universal language as well; I’ve done many places with just a ukulele just rolling up into a restaurant and they see I’ve got a guitar, I pull it out, and within five minutes of playing I’m one of the family (laughs). I appreciate that, I appreciate the power of the harmonics that happen when someone has learnt an instrument and is willing to share it.
Is there anything you’ve particularly learned from in your travels?
I’ve had a lot of profound experiences but my friend in Jamaica took me into his house in the hills. He loves the simplicity of the life that he lives, he is a Bobo, or a Shanti – all about taking care of your body and respecting nature. There was an old fella called Wally who passed away recently, he taught me to get with the simplicity of life; there’s a lot of hoo-hah that goes on but you need to know the essence y’know? It’s kind of a Buddhist thing as well: before success, chopping wood. After success, chopping wood.
Wait, that sounds depressing.
Not at all. I love chopping wood! It just means a lot of things can go bad, a lot of things can go good, things will come and go and things will pass. It just keeps an essence of happiness, I suppose, and that’s the thing I’ve been taught, to keep that. I never panic. (Laughs)