Melissa Trickey talks to some of amateur theatre’s funkiest musicians about their new musical venture.

We performers, so loud and colourful, sometimes do not mix with other breeds. For instance, those ‘musos’ dressed in black and carrying strangely shaped black boxes around… How often do you talk to them during a show season? Have you ever wondered what goes on in their muso brains, apart from counting in 4/4 and thinking about key changes? Do they do anything else other than play for shows? To find out the answer I was keen to chat to a couple of our popular musos about a new band that they have formed, as it involves probably the second favourite venture of any performer — having a good time! (Note, this can vary from appreciating fine music to getting messy and dancing your behind off. Take it as you will.) I’ve gotten to know them a little better in the process.

Funk Buddies

David George, well known as half of the infamous ‘George brothers’, was not always the master drummer you know now: “In high school we were all given musicianship tests which I flunked on all facets except rhythm (I wasn’t exactly crash hot on that either). I was then stuck on percussion. It wasn’t until about year 10 or so that I actually took it seriously and considered it a viable future and actually learnt how to read notation albeit by writing note names in. I first studied at VCA and that lasted all of 3 months as I wanted to learn percussion not just random ‘noise’ (including boiling kettles and brushing my teeth on stage!) I transferred to Melbourne Uni to become as employable as possible by being across as many percussion instruments and styles as I could find.”

Gerard Assi is always quick to flash a smile and play a rocking guitar riff, but fate almost robbed us of this gifted guitar genius! “I started as a clarinet/woodwind player in high school, although I dabbled in guitar jokingly from year 10. I commenced a Bachelor of Music at Melbourne Uni (in 2001) on clarinet. After two years I decided to change instruments to contemporary guitar the final two years. Since then I have made a name for myself around Melbourne as a reliable, stylistically versatile READING guitarist, which is apparently very uncommon.”

Andrew Leach, who is widely respected for his musicianship and conducting skills, was always on track to live his life with music: “I play trombone and piano and kicked off my education at Melbourne Uni, where I studied conducting with the legendary Robert Rosen.”

However being a muso is one thing… getting involved in the crazy world of amateur theatre is quite another. How did fate come to bring them all together?

Andrew was straight to the point: “I started playing in pit orchestras and I wanted to chase girls, so then I started MD-ing shows… But seriously, over the years I’ve MD’d shows for Williamstown, Altona, Whitehorse, and CLOC to name a few.”

“My first real show was Whitehorse’s (RIP) Sound Of Music,” said Gerard. “I was filling in on guitar for a friend from uni and ended up playing for the entire season. Then it snowballed from there as other MDs began calling!”

Dave’s tale involves love and lust of all kinds: “In year 10 I had a date with my then girlfriend to see a professional production of Les Mis. This was one of my first experiences of pit musicians and the conveyance of emotion through music. I was instantly hooked into shows and soundtracks — it didn’t matter what style. That year, and every one after that, I had to be involved in the school’s productions. It wasn’t until uni about second year that I got to ‘dep’ for Whitehorse’s Bye Bye Birdie on percussion. As a dep you get no rehearsal time, you’re just straight into the show, and knowing that the MD (Greg Smith) didn’t know me meant I’d have to make a good impression. I purchased the cast recording and photocopied the score all costing well over what I got as payment. That led to Return to the Forbidden Planet and then onto The Producers and then on and on and on…”

Funk Buddies

Before I turn the subject to their extremely funky new music venture, I couldn’t help but wonder about ‘pit goss.’ Do these musos swap stories? What do they talk about that I might miss from the dressing room? What are companies like to work for from a muso’s perspective? Gerard gives everyone a nod: “I’ve enjoyed working with many companies/bands/MDs over the years, and have formed some long lasting friendships as a result of this. The main contributing factor to my enjoyment of the show comes from the musicians/MD I happen to be working with, and also the quality/challenge of the guitar book.” Andrew has many groups and individuals to name: “I’ve loved working with Whitehorse (RIP) & CLOC. MDs that would I work with again in a heartbeat include Tom Ryan, Sue Porter, Sophie Thomas, and Marty McCauley.”

And now for a favourite amateur experience? Dave can name more than one: “I don’t really have any favourite companies, it’s more the experience from the shows and the cast that I remember fondly. Again Whitehorse’s Producers and Aida were two very high-energy shows to play. Percussively, Once on this Island by Octave was one of the most difficult and ‘busy’ shows. It was an absolute blast as there was so much groove that had to be created from little or no notation in my part. Companies like Whitehorse, Fab Nobs, and Octave have an almost family feel about them; even though they are striving for excellent shows and professionalism they still manage to get it (or pretty close) whilst maintaining a lovely work environment. Recently I played Avenue Q out in Altona (never in my wildest imaginings would I ever drive out that far for a show) but the musicians that were involved were too good to pass up and it turned out to be an amazing experience.”

Andrew can’t limit himself to one either: “Chess with CLOC (including the infamous ‘orchestra member pissing in water bottle in the pit’ incident); RENT with Stella Entertainment; RENT with Whitehorse; CLOC’s Pippin cast; Flora the Red Menace with Magnormos; holding JC auditions at Whitehorse with extreme hangovers; Williamstown Light Opera parties back in the early 90s; and arranging Guild Award stabs — notably the Darth Vader theme for the Guild President’s speech!”

And the clincher question: what show would you play for free, and what show would you never play no matter how much money a company threw at you? After careful consideration Dave came up with the following: “I would love to play Jesus Christ Superstar, Next to Normal, and West Side Story (damn school for conflicting dates!) on drumkit and Singing in the Rain or Les Mis on percussion as both of their books are very ‘bitsy.’ Oliver! is soul destroying. A few years back I played about four productions-worth of that between schools and amateur theatre, and by the end most of the songs were morphing into sambas through boredom. I can safely say I would rather set fire to my instruments than play that show on them again. I can do without Mame, done it, toilet of a show, moving on…” Gerard picked his shows for different reasons: “I loved rocking out to Jesus Christ Superstar and RENT; I’d do them again. I would definitely pick The Pajama Game for my no-go show!”

Funk Buddies

So there you go, musos are just like performers! However these particular musos are so talented that they have formed a funk band called the Funk Buddies. So how did it all start? Why did our theatre musos want to mix things up and get funky?!

“Our sousaphone player Adam Arnold [note from the author – for those of you who have no idea what a sousaphone is, like I did before this interview, it is in fact that tuba you see in marching bands that the player wears around them! Cool!] has always been interested in and influenced by the New Orleans street funk genre, and had dreamt for years of starting his own similar band. For the past few years, Adam has been hard at work writing arrangements, long before even deciding on the players to fill the other seven spots! When the time came to finally piece the band together, Adam headhunted some of Melbourne’s finest horn players to assemble his dream band!”

Andrew agreed: “This is Adam’s lil’ baby — he handpicked all the players ‘cos we love to funk! The vibe is ‘party music,’ the sound is crisp, clean, ballsy & PHAT! We have a three-piece rhythm section (sousaphone, guitar, drums) and a huge sounding five-piece horn section who occasionally sing (bari sax, tenor sax, trombone, 2 x trumpets).”

“The band’s ethos is all about dance,” said Dave. “If you can come to one of our gigs and sit there without getting up and getting down, then you’re dead or in a coma! The band’s sound is old school New Orleans funk mixed with disco and a bit of pop, all geared to make you move. Basically it’s lip-biting, bod-rolling, pimp-strutting high energy. We first started with mostly covers of great funk tunes and have since written our own material as well as borrowed songs from other genres. (You can’t imagine how funky Aerosmith can sound till you see us!) The band itself has had only a few actual rehearsals as a unit and rely heavily on the individual members to practice separately and bring the energy to all rehearsals leading up to the show. If I don’t leave a show without having changed my shirt at least once and at least fifteen blisters on my hands, well, I haven’t worked hard enough!”

So why should theatre people ditch the original Broadway cast recordings for a night and get funky? “Theatre people love to have a great time, enjoy great company, and dance/sing like there’s no tomorrow,” said Gerard. “Funk Buddies are the perfect band to facilitate all of the above! Come down and get your groove on!”

Dave knows us too well it seems: “Theatre people aren’t exactly the type to sit around and be bored. Personally, there is nothing more satisfying that looking up from my kit to see a bunch of friends and randoms dancing to music you are creating. I doubt there are many who don’t like a dance, or at least a move, or a tiny lil’ bop amongst friends. People of this community love to have fun, that’s why we do musicals, because we are performers! We have a drive to show off and have fun! So I suggest you all get down to see who can dance the best, who can at least move the best or tiny lil’ bop the best, to some of the most face-scrunching, pelvic-thrusting funk that Melbourne has to offer. The best part is we never have a door charge so you can get a night of funk for free!” And from Andrew: “Because we’ll make you want to dance!”

You can check the Funk Buddies out on Sunday the 3rd of April John Curtin Hotel, 29 Lygon St Carlton (Opposite Trades Hall). Doors open from 4:30, band kicks off at 5:30.

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