Melbourne Ska Orchestra’s Nicky Bomba Talks The Heart of This Jugganaught
“I still hold true to the fact that live performance is forever sacred and nothing can replace that human connection.”
A slew of Australia’s top musicians and 16 years performing a genre they’re passionate about has mean that the Melbourne Ska Orchestra (MSO) has stood the test of a forever changing music industry. Although things aren’t like they were when they began developing their signature stylings modeled on the 80’s Ska era, MSO have adapted their sound, marketing, content and everything else that comes with a 36 member band to make sure they’re still here in 2019. Along with winning an ARIA for ‘Best World Music’ and being asked once again to join the legendary Bluesfest line, they’ve got a new album on the way to share with their devoted global audeince. Take One spoke with founder and bandleader Nicky Bomber to find out more.
I understand that the history of the band formed whilst trying to break the world record for the number of horn players on stage but where did your love of Ska come from?
It all started with the 2 Tone era from the UK in the 80’s. There was a sense of belonging to something and identifying with a new energy, sharp fashion sense, joyous rhythms and slightly dangerous attitude. In time I discovered the bands were referencing music from 60’s Jamaica and that’s when my musical world exploded.
Nicky Bomba and and Ska music are now two things that are forever entwined but did it take awhile for you to make that transition or was it an easy move? If so, why?
I think all musicians and songwriters are on an eternal quest to find their niche. Along with many members of the orchestra, I’m constantly inventing new bands to facilitate any given project I’m working on but always with the music I love. Ska, Reggae, Dub, Mento, Funk, Jazz are all interconnected via the movement of cultures around the world. Ska itself has reinvented itself so many times that now in 2019 we are looking at ways to make our own mark in the genre. Its constantly evolving and the Orchestra seems to strike a chord with audiences …maybe simply in the fact that we have so many people on stage (a metaphor for the population of the planet) making things work and having fun. Its all very organic… we didn’t expect to win any ARIA’s so it was a great suprise when we did!
What was it like re educating the media and audience you had amassed about making your new love of Ska a permanent music career endeavour?
Well the education of Ska has always been a theme with our performances and releases.
I think my personal journey has been an organic evolving one and I doubt that I had amassed enough of a following for people to say I was making a concious decision to make Ska my main focus. Anyone that has seen any of my bands know that all the Ska related forms were always there. I think the big band format and making it fun and fluid is what is new. With our new release Box Set, the first 13 songs are an education in themselves.
Key songs that made a difference to most band members.
As much as the music is so intrinsic to the band, so too are your outfits. How did you decide on how it is you wanted present yourselves to the public?
Well that too is evolving. The idea of dressing up for a gig has always been a thing for us.
Much like the 60’s style, a sense of theatre and style. The early days of the band pretty much took a leaf from the classic 2Tone black and white checks, Rudeboy a la Madness, Specials etc. In 2019, we realise it’s been done enough and, as with our music, its time to inject a new style and add colour, pretty much representing the diversity that we happily live in. Melbourne is great for that. So the new album has a more open style and its more about bonding together and moving together. Still stylish and sharp but more about what we represent as whole.
Everything then comes together when the band gets together on a live stage where, in my opinion, the band really cut its teeth and shines. When I found so memorable about your performance, is that you have a way of making the performance feel intimate. You encourage every single body, be they on stage or gazing up at you, to participate. It’s say this also has something to do with how well you’ve been received globally. That kind of showmanship and generosity isn’t something that every band poses and is especially hard given how many of you there are in the band. How did you develop this style and what is it you want audiences to walk away with?
In essence , what we want to bring to an audience is a sense of joy and adventure. Our craft is an ancient one where the performer takes to the stage to take people on a journey.
At the source is a real belief in the power of music…the harmonic energies of the universe translated through us to the audience to create a unified entity.
Personally I have always tried to connect this way ever since I started performing. I have been in the audience where I was a participant in something special and it made me feel great. The beauty of the orchestra is that we’re all on the same page with this. It’s the most fun band I’ve ever been in and with that many people providing that energy, it’s just super contagious.
You can now safely say that global audiences know who you are and love what you do but I wonder what it was like when you were in the midst of releasing your first album. Were there any nerves around releasing that and what had you envisioned your first release to sound like and tell the world about the band?
The thing with this band is that most of us had already been involved in the music indusrty for many years when we had our first release. We’ve experienced all stories from international touring bands to pop sweethearts to jazz ensembles to classic orchestra presentations. There comes a point where you just play music that you love in the best form you can with a joyful fun intention. Be true to that. It’s just our art. If the belief is there and you put some braintrust thought into the presentation….it then just comes down to marketing and how much you want to spend on that. I still hold true to the fact that live performance is forever sacred and nothing can replace that human connection.
When you made that move from genres, being a composer and drummer to now being a prominent vocalist, writer and bandleader, did you start to rethink what success would look like for you? If so what did you define it as?
Well the thing is I’m still doing all that. I have three or four things going at any one time. My life at the moment is all about the live performance. It’s how I make my living. CD’s don’t sell anymore. People pay their subscriber money to Spotify and the composer and artist no longer have that supplemented income. Success, for me, is simply being able to make a decent living from doing what I love. I don’t actually see myself a succeessful in the traditional term. I think I still work very hard to pay my mortgage, put food in my fridge, cover my day to day expenses, keep a management team, tour manager and pay wages, accom, flights and ground transport. I always encourage our audience to get a little merch item to help the band. This year we have Tea Towels, a CD Box set of the 52 songs we released in 2018, Badges, T-shirts Tote bags etc. It might not seem that important but these sales really make a difference to a band this size.
The last time I saw you perform you were playing your last show before a major European tour. What was it like bringing the band over and how did audiences react?
I can humbly and honestly say that we are one of the best international acts around! The audience reaction to our perfomances around the world is pretty amazing. To see a band this size on stage doing what we do with the full intention of making that moment the best ever , is a powerful experience. We’ve seen may acts at many festivals and I remember thinking how dynamic our show is. Our connection with an audience via the focused energy of the band is rare and beautiful experience.
It’s been 3 years since the last release. Any news on a new album?
Oh Yeah. We’re about to release a Box set of 52 songs all recorded last year called ONE YEAR OF SKA. We released one song a week every Friday in 2018 and it was an exhilarating mission in the spirit of those early Jamaican producers. They would record and release songs on a weekly basis to play at their associated sound systems. The competition to win audiences was fierce and it enabled an atmosphere of high creativity. There is an amazing bunch of musicians and creative minds in the orchestra and it was a pleasure to see all the varied seeds of musical ideas turned into fully fledged songs. If there was a medal for this type of thing, I think we deserve one!
What impact has the live music scene had on developing your musical intuition?
It totally informs it. The live interaction gives us an immediate indication of what works in that world which is ultimately where our gold shines. The idea of releasing lots of songs and general content has been driven by the fact that we playing music in a time where the live performance has regained cultural significance. The way songs are released in this day and age is vastly different to the old vinyl and cd days. Social media and the internet has forced us to reassess the music industry landscape.
This isn’t your first Bluesfest. What was your first BF experience like?
It was a pivotal point in our career. We knew we had to step up our show to an international level. The homework paid off and we were offered a recording contract days after. The performances were electric with a tangible energy connection with the crowd. I remember smiling a hell of a lot.
What will you be bringing to this year’s festival?
Apart from joy, happiness and a complimentary dancing workout, we’ll be playing songs from our extensive seven album repertoire, all the fun tricks from our international tours with a big emphasis on fun and interaction. Our style is now International Ska so we’ll be playing songs that play with the hybrid tunes that celebrate diversity.
Which artists will you be hanging out to see at this year’s festival?
George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic experience always leaves me smiling.
Melbourne Ska Orchestra will be performing on the following dates: