Ben and Julian from Ukelele Death Squad are both keen to chat. Their ukelele band have been selling out their live shows, as word has quickly spread of their talent, improvisational skills and funny banter. This has lead to the four piece be asked to play numerous festivals since forming in February 2016, and they are still yet to find the time to record a studio album. After seeing them perform on the Blues train in Queenscliff (their carriage was the one that families and festival punters poured out of cheering and laughing, sweaty and grinning), it’s not surprising they are trying to keep up with demand. Enthusiastic and relaxed before a gig later that night, we’re sitting in Northcote on a Saturday.
Do you both remember the first song you wrote?
Ben: The first song we did together was a song called Not Afraid and it was a song that i’d done previously. I’d had it all written- an intro and riff and a completely different song to what it is now, and said to Julian ‘This is a potential option for the show’ and he’s like ‘I only like the intro’ (both laugh) ‘the first 30 seconds of that intro is killer, there’s something in that’. Then we pretty much rebuilt the whole new song from there. It was one of those things like sometimes just one simple idea is good enough for a song, and just sticking with that idea.
Does that song now have a different title?
Julian: It’s called Just Like Fire
Ben: It does have a different title, due to a mind blank I had when writing the album. Forgot how to spell ‘afraid’ (laughs).
Julian: I struggle to write a finished song, but that one, because Ben sort of had pieced it together, I found it quite easy to put words to. The vibe was there- that was really quick.
So do you sing that one (Julian)?
Julian: I do, yeah, and now we have the bass and saxophone which adds an extra vibe but essentially you could do the whole song (on uke). I think Ben’s done it before by himself, so you can strip it right back. It kind of works like that. You’ll (indicating to Ben) have the structure on ukulele, and we piece it together from there. Because the uke is so simple to write stuff on.
Compared to guitar?
Ben: We’ve always got them, cos they’re so small to carry around. In our last trip, we played at Open Studio – just down the road here, and we were staying just round the corner, so we’d do a lot of writing walking in the street.
Julian: Yeah they’re super portable. And train stations- you just pull your phone out and often you come up with something catchy.
And then you work it out when you have a bit more time?
Julian: Yeah. We do find it hard at the moment. We’ve got so many ideas, but it’s almost like the band is moving too quickly for us to catch up, if you know what I mean. Often when we’ve been in other groups, you find you have this 3 or 4 year period where you’re writing, and cementing your sound. This is sort of like- every show we’ve done is sold out, and we still haven’t recorded a studio album.
The one online is a live album right?
Ben: Yeah it was our third gig we ever did. And we’re close to 2000 copies selling it, it’s crazy.
So you’ve obviously both played in other bands before this. And there’s a lot of comedy in these songs. Were the other bands like that at all?
Ben: They’ve been fun sort of party bands but the comedy was never really on purpose. When we started with the idea, we put something together for the Fringe – we had this idea of doing some dirty comedy stuff, so then we discovered there’s a real sort of nylon string spanish flamenco sound to the uke, and especially with two ukes together because he’s (Julian) got a baritone which is an octave lower than the tenor that I play and um the Misirlou – Pulp Fiction song – (and) thought ‘We’ll try this’. Then we suggested Tamacun, which is by Rodrigo y Gabriela. Then suddenly it was ‘Oh that’s the path we can take with this, and it has turned into a bit of a show. It was “Fringy’ enough to do a Fringe Festival show but not too ‘Fringy’ to have a life outside.
How much is improvised on the spot? A lot of jokes seem natural at gigs.
Ben: Some of the jokes that have worked get re-used. But we’re starting to play around some of the places we’ve been so we’ve got to be careful. We started as on the spot, nothing was ever scripted.
Just having fun.
Julian: Ben, we call him the spiritual leader of the band (laughs). We got booked for a festival and Ben couldn’t make it once. We were like ‘Jesus – there’s lots of songs we just cannot do without Ben’, because Ben does typical uke playing that cannot be replicated. So instead we sat down and work shopped up a show. We filled like 20 minutes or so, just with banter. Still had the same amount of songs, and it really worked and afterwards, the music and the banter just sort of took off- that kinda next level. It’s as much about the songs as it’s a show. You have to judge the right moment because sometimes you play a gig they just want to hear music. Particularly with the set construction, it’s really important with the songs you choose. Other band members are starting to write songs as well. They’re quite different in the style. Ben writes this quite deep, almost like smoky, teary songs – there’s one on the EP – The Hostel Bed- and knowing when to place those in a set – its great having such a range of songs we can place in the set list now.
Ben: With the comedy side – most of the songs are serious songs, but then people just start laughing at anything now – it’s like ‘Oh this is actually not meant to be funny’.
I guess the more you play together you know when to drop into those jokes, or go into that banter?
Ben: Yeah I mean a lot of it is like ‘Let’s say something about this here’ – and it always changes.
You mix a lot of genres- are you all coming at things from a different angle?
Ben: Growing up and sat in front of the computer I listened to Heavy Metal, Rap and all sorts of stuff and it wasn’t until I moved away from Tassie and just had an acoustic guitar- that’s when I got into acoustic music. The first thing that really got me into acoustic music was when I started listening to Celtic music because of the fast shreds. Some of those riffs and things sounds like Iron Maiden but its all on mandolins and banjos so it really drew me in. Bands like the Pogues, they had – still got – that punk energy but it was acoustic music. I have a very large appreciation of all types pf music, and the good thing about the Death Squad its all on ukuleles but its a band that has no limits to what can be played because in other bands im in, like the Timbers, we would say ‘That’s not a Timbers song’. But with the uke, because its so versatile we’ve got sort of a ‘no restrictions policy’ of what we can put into the set. If it sounds good and it works it doesn’t matter what style it is.
And your audience kinda expects that too.
Julian: Yeah it’s wierd, it does appeal to a wide range. We do find alot of our gigs often sell out and the crowd tends to be older because young people don’t buy their tickets early enough (laughs). But when we play festivals, we notice there’s a huge age bracket, can be jazzy sometimes – i’ve got a bit of French influence because I went to high school in France. Ben does a bit of country – there’s a real kind of mix and because it’s on ukuleles it’s different. We could stretch to a jazz festival, or we could play at a folk festival or a fringe festival.
And it doesn’t sound like it was fore-thought, you just had the idea it’d be fun to try?
Julian: It’s sort of the side project that blew up.
Ben: The side project that’s destroyed two other bands (laughs)
With your song writing, how much is geared towards the live reaction? Are you thinking about the audience a lot more than you initially did?
Ben: Now we’re probably thinking more about the show. Most of the time punters aren’t musicians and when you try to add ’Oh that’s a sweet diminished minor’ (we laugh), no-one cares about that, it’s really interesting for the musician but the people who come to our shows are beginner uke players. What I try to learn – is keeping it simple.
I think I’ve learnt that writing for myself is sometimes better than writing for the live reaction. I think the songs that are going better are the songs that you arrive to by yourself. The more true it is the better. Sometimes you can think ‘I don’t want to say this, I might offend someone’ or might get embarrassed if it’s too personal to share. (But) I think sometimes with a few of the quieter ones, yeah they’re just working better because I think they are a bit more personal.
You still need the depth of the song, not just be a novelty band.
Julian: We’ve got this one song ‘Dance With The Devil’, and we’ve never finished it. The words are ’I’m gonna dance, gonna dance, gonna dance with the devil, the devil I know’ It’s got two chords essentially.
Ben: And it just goes off.
Julian: And we haven’t even finished it.
Oh okay, so you’re playing it live?
Julian: Yeah we’ve improvised bits and pieces and we’ve never got round to finishing the song. Everyone’s always like ‘Where can I get that song?’ Someone was like’ I’ve heard that song on Triple J’ (laughs). We haven’t actually recorded it.
I wonder if it’s worth finishing or leaving as it is?
Ben: Sometimes I go into a rap or freestyle, he’ll (Julian) go into a french rap, and then we do like a live exorcism with our saxophones. Everything’s so fresh still when you start a song you’re not really sure how it’s gonna go. The song still has control over us, anything could really happen because um in other bands when you’ve been playing the same songs for 3 or 4 years you go into muscle memory.
That’s what people love seeing live. I dunno if you’re a fan of Ben Folds at all?
He does that song ‘Bitches Ain’t Shit’ (nods of recognition). It’s different every gig or whatever and he makes up the lyrics. I guess now people are playing live so much to make money and re-forming, it’s good to stand out live.
Julian: Totally. We’ve noticed you don’t make money off your music. Recording and stuff that’s almost like a marketing tool. We’ve both spent money on recording and it leads to nothing. It’s great, but realistically speaking we’ve made more money off recording from a desk at our show.
Creates that buzz.
Julian: It does, it does, totally. As, a musician you’re always thinking ‘We need to get an album done, we need the most beautifully crafted song ever, words and everything perfect, and mastered by this person, because he produced this band’ And it’s changed, it’s not the same anymore. It took us a while to get our heads around, ‘Hang on, how are we getting all this traction?’
I’m digressing off the song writing thing, but with the sold out gigs, it sounds like its word of mouth.
Ben: We’re just able to capitalise on real good targeted marketing. And you know the ukelele – there’s a lot of community. I find if you’re a band and you’re trying to win over everyone straight away and you’re trying appeal to everyone, you’re gonna get lost, so we had this target market of ukelele groups and thing. The first gigs we did, we got the ukelele groups to be our support acts. They’re all mature age people and they tell their daughters, their children and grandchildren and they can sell 5 tickets straight away. So it’s about finding that market and using Facebook marketing and things to target those audiences to really use that bait of the ukelele to get people into it.
In the past, or now together, do you guys have any song writing routines?
Ben: Sometimes you know when it’s on, like ‘Yeah I’m gonna sit down and do something now’, but other times we’ve often got our ukes and if we’re together I’ll often come up with something catchy that’s instrumental and so then I’m like ‘Sing something over this’ and he’ll (Julian) find something quite easily and then that sparks me off and I’ll sit down and pen some lyrics.
Julian: Ben’s like the organised one, I’m terrible. I come up with a really catchy melody and really catchy line and then I just tune out.
That’s a good duo. Choruses are really hard, and starting something is hard too. So it’s more about picking up when it’s working, than sitting down same time every day?
Julian: I find I do my best work when I’m procrastinating- like if I’ve got to do the dishes or something else completely different, I’ll then actually come up with the best lines. (laughs)
Yeah, at the most inconvenient times.
Julian: The worst times, the best stuff.
You talked about it before, but Just Like Fire – what’s that song’s about.
Julian: I put the words to it, it’s sort of about bad mental health, like anxiety I guess. Normally I’m terrible at writing lyrics and often I’ll forget them live, but Ben had it and he had the feeling there (and) tweaked it. I came up with the first sort-of draft.
Did it start off about mental health when you wrote it Ben?
Ben: No, no after that first intro the whole song changed, the riff comes out then it went into a sort of majory type song. So the lyrics from the first version to the second version are completely different.
Julian: I often find it’s how the words flow with the song. I’m not good at writing stuff out, I like improvising live. I literally had it going in the car, on the stereo going over and over and I was singing while driving. I found it easier because it wasn’t my song.
Less attached to it maybe?
Julian: Yeah I wasn’t thinking about it.
How do you know when a song is finished?
Julian: it depends because sometimes, it’s a different process if you’re recording. Some bands, they’ll play exactly the way they record it. And others kind of reinterpret it for the live show.
Ben: I guess there’s a tentative start and finish. Like Dance with the Devil or other songs of ours it’s like ‘The crowds really into this, let’s go acappella!’ Then everyone goes acappella. Then it’s like it might finish there, or nup I’m feeling it again and we pick it back up and do it all again. But other times it’s very clear, like Paris on a Train, the riff is very sharp so it’s like let’s finish it there. So sometimes it’s either two things, it’s clear where the start and finish is or it’s very open.
And I guess because you guys are so live based it may be different to someone who’s writing an album.
Ben: It’s something we haven’t really done yet either because you know, it’s all been moving so fast. Realistically none of the songs are actually finished (both laugh). Just Like Fire- that one has a clear ending but all the bits in the middle are subject to the room, the night, the audience, the feeling. Cos if you’re doing a front bar gig at the Corner or something like that and no one cares, we’ll finish the song.
Do you try to get as many genres as you can, is it a conscious thing?
Ben: No we don’t necessarily try, whatever works. We still are so new really, in the scheme of things, that we still haven’t really sat down properly in a room and done some song writing together.
It’d be interesting to see what’d happen.
Ben: Yeah a weekend away
Julian: We possibly wouldn’t be able to write anything (laughs).
Photo credit: Suzi Murphy