Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra Week: Interview

If I had to pick one group to represent where the ukulele scene is right now, I’d go with the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra: a big bunch of sexy people singing songs with huge grins on their faces. In honour of that fact, this week is dedicated to the WIUO kicking off with and interview with three of the band: Age Pryor, Gemma Gracewood and Megan Hosking.

With your EPs and shows selling by the barrow-load over there, when are you going international?

AGE: We’re working on it – currently in development of tour plans for USA in either, or both, 2009 and 2010, and also getting excited about somehow blagging our way over to Japan. Know any friendly Japanese ukulele enthusiasts we can stay with? With room for 12 people on their couch? Those little apartments weren’t designed for touring Ukulele Orchestras, eh…

What’s your role in the orchestra?

GEMMA: Well, first of all, everybody apart from Dan plays the ukulele. Dan plays the double bass. He describes himself as ‘the anchor that keeps 11 helium balloons from floating off’. We’re not sure whether that’s an insult.

Musically we’ve organically developed various roles by virtue of our technical experience and/or our personalities… Age really is our band leader, Nigel fine-tunes the vocal arrangements, Andy is our default lead singer (when we haven’t figured out who should sing a song yet), Sam’s the left-hander, Steve shreds up the solos, Francis strikes perfect rhythms, Megan gets to shout ‘1, 2, 3, 4’, Carmel dances and does a nice line in 50s-style songs, Bek is our punk rock star, I deliver a lot of unnecessary trivia and Bret services the ‘international’ part of our name.

We also assign ‘ministerial’ roles when we go on tour because you can imagine that it’s like herding cats. So we’ll have a Minister of Well-being (makes sure we’re eating and sleeping), a Minister of Hi-Jinks (makes sure we’re having fun), a Minister of Hot Licks (makes sure we’re practicing new tricks) and so on. The people in those roles rotate on each tour.

What makes for a good ukulele cover?

AGE: Anything goes. In our group we tend to favour songs with tasty vocal harmonies, and catchy numbers that are hip with the kids (or used to be hip with the kids 40 years ago). Sometimes you go for the element of surprise (eg a heavy Metallica number) and other times the classics (eg I Did It My Way), but ultimately, it’s about how the tune and the performer fit together.

You’ve had some high profile collaborations. Who would you most like to jam with?

MEGAN: Woah there. It’s a long list. Basically, all the international living legends whose songs we have had the privilege of playing and/or recording. Y’know, Cohen, Wonder, the Followill Brothers, Andre 3000… And since this is a wish list, some of the not-so-living legends like Lennon, Kermit, Cash…

What’s your favourite song to cover on the uke?

MEGAN: Just one? That’s pretty unfair. My favourite cover is Toto’s ‘Africa’, which Age, Nigel and Andy do with a few little added extras from the rest of us. Including a gong, African thumb piano, and soul claps. (So, no, we are not a purist Ukulele Orchestra). I am not sure if we have crossed the line into Stone Soup territory, as these elements are still the garnish. It’s when we start bringing in tubas, timpani drums and violins that I will start to worry.)

What’s the ukulele scene in New Zealand like? Any other NZ ukulele acts we should be checking out?

GEMMA: The absolute godfathers of the contemporary scene are the Big Muffin Serious Band guys (who also go under The Serious Ukulele Ensemble moniker). They paved the way for us. They hail from Hamilton, a city that services the farmlands south of Auckland. Their outfits are outrageous and they’re a brilliant act.

And I would have said they’re not particularly serious, until I heard TSUE’s newest album ‘Mostly Harmless’. It’s all instrumental and it has some seriously incredible covers such as ‘Albatross’ and ‘Paint it Black’. They’ve got a MySpace site.

MEGAN: It’s true that the uke is having a bit of a revival Down Under and it has made its way onto loads of new pop albums around here – like Tim Guy‘s latest album.

But perhaps more importantly, the ukulele seems to have been one of the best selling Christmas presents last year, and so you will find one in many houses in New Zealand (in various states of being ‘in tune’).

The tricky thing is converting the ‘having a uke’ to ‘playing the uke’. The ukulele is being taught in many New Zealand schools and ukulele groups are sprouting up everywhere. And we are doing our very best to grow the scene by hosting winter workshops which have spawned several new orchestras and bands.

All of this equates to more people playing and singing together – because with 3 chords under their belt, they can. And that’s what we love about it.

What is it with islands and the ukulele?

GEMMA: I dunno! Maybe because it’s hot, it’s just easier to play something with fewer strings? Maybe the slack-key styles perfectly suit the laid-back feel on the islands? I like to think it’s something to do with minor key tunes sounding prettier and less plaintive on the uke, so you can trick people by making sad songs sound happy under a tropical palm tree (and we have so many of those here in Wellington).

The thing about New Zealand is that in the 1940s and 50s we had a lot of dancehall big bands that were led by Pacific Islanders – Bill Wolfgramm, Bill Sevesi – and ukuleles were always a feature of their bands. So the four-string has pervaded our pop music from fairly early on. In fact, it appeared in NZ’s first ‘official’ pop song, a wartime classic called ‘Blue Smoke’, way back in 1949. We’ve done our own recording of that song – it’s coming out this year sometime. Well, that’s a rumour I just started.

What advice would you have for anyone starting up a ukulele orchestra?

GEMMA: Don’t hesitate, do it! Start by playing your favourite songs. Try to write your own songs (we’re giving it a go). Meet often. Set goals. Think of a shorter name for your orchestra than we did. Find a local café that will let you practice in it – I only got good by having to play in front of strangers. Play everywhere, all the time.

Do you ever have band arguments? How do you resolve them?

AGE: We never argue. It’s un-ukulele-like. Occasionally we have different points of view, but these all get sorted out on the bandstand. It’s about the walking, not the talking. Or so I’m told.

What can we expect from you this year? Any new releases planned?

GEMMA: Yes, we have a new release planned! We recorded at Neil Finn’s Roundhead Studios in late 2008 so we need to do something with those songs. Other than that, more gigs, more tours, more fruity vocal harmonies to work on… More fun, generally. That’s our bottom line – when it stops being fun, that’s when we stop. We haven’t stopped yet.

Friend up The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra on Myspace and buy their EPs on Amplifier

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