If the mention of ukuleles still conjures images of Hawaiian-shirt-clad crooners playing love songs, you’re probably not familiar with the new wave of uke musicians – and you almost certainly haven’t seen the Ukulele Death Squad in action.
With a repertoire drawing on everything from flamenco and Mexican to rap and rock – with plenty of dark humour thrown in for good measure – the Adelaide-based group’s live shows are so raucous they’ve been known to break not just strings but ukes as well.
“They’ve broken in many different ways but one snapped in half when we were playing the Caloundra Music Festival,” group founder and lead ukulele player Benjamin Roberts tells InDaily.
“We’ve also accidentally hit each other and ended up with black eyes, so anything can happen.”
Roberts, who previously played with folk band The Timbers, launched the Ukulele Death Squad exactly two years ago with former frontman of The Coconut Kids Julian Ferguson (baritone uke). The pair “just decided to put a bit of a show together for Fringe”, but once they started writing songs together the project took on a life of its own.
They were joined by bass uke player Eamonn Burke, then Melbourne-based saxophonist Reuben Legge, going on to play sold-out shows at both the Edinburgh and Adelaide Fringe festivals in 2017 and 2018, and earning the title of Best Music Act of the Adelaide Fringe last year.
“It’s been an incredible ride so far,” Roberts says.
Ukulele Death Squad draws on cinematic influences and has what he describes as “a [Quentin] Tarantino kind of vibe”, playing covers of songs such as “Bang Bang” (which features on the soundtrack to Tarantino’s Kill Bill) and “Misirlou” (from Pulp Fiction), as well as original music like their recent debut single “Not Afraid”.
The group’s name reflects their style, but was also chosen to grab people’s attention.
“We’re trying to show a different side of the uke,” Roberts says.
“We all come from a different backgrounds and it all comes together to create something quite unique, we reckon.
“We wanted to make it high energy and fun and some of it turned out that it was a bit darker than people might have heard played on the uke before.”
For this year’s festival season, the band is presenting three different Fringe shows, as well as performing at WOMADelaide.
“It’s definitely been a bucket list thing for me for a very long time,” Roberts says of their WOMAD debut.
“We’ve got nearly a whole new set … it’s going to be exciting for us.”
Their first event at the 2019 Adelaide Fringe will be the Fringe Ukulele Festival – Fruke Fest – which will take place in the grounds of Carclew House in North Adelaide this Sunday and promises a day of live performances from the Squad and other musicians, as well as workshops, ukulele stalls and food trucks.
On March 16, they’ll present Fifty Shades of Uke (it promises to be “a little bit sexy, a little bit saucy”) at the Regal Theatre in Kensington, and from March 12 to 14 they’ll return to the venue where it all began in 2017, the Grace Emily Hotel, with Come Sail Your Ships – A Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Tribute.
The tribute show, which has already sold out for all three nights, was inspired by a performance the band did at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where they were invited by author and illustrator Reinhard Kleist to play at the launch of his graphic novel which features characters drawn from Cave’s music and writing.
A guitar and banjo teacher at the Guitar Academy in Adelaide, Roberts admit his own awakening to the charms of the uke came late – in fact he started playing only about nine months before the Ukulele Death Squad’s first Fringe show.
“I was always one of those people who was anti-ukulele and saw it as one of those ‘You Are My Sunshine’ kind of instruments.
“Then I started playing around and realised you could do some really interesting stuff with it.”
He says the instrument is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity worldwide.
“Ukes are a global phenomenon, and there’s no reason why Adelaide, which has such a vibrant music scene, can’t be at the centre of it all.”
Ukulele Death Squad will play on the Zoo Stage at WOMADelaide at 5pm on Sunday, March 10. Fruke Fest is at Carclew House from midday this Sunday, and Fifty Shades of Uke is at the Regal Theatre on March 16.
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