An Interview with Ben Roberts of the Ukulele Death Squad
When we first formalized Uku Global, we were already huge uke fans. The instrument’s approachability and ease at connecting people through music made us fall in love. Our staff quickly acquired a list of our biggest inspirations in the ukulele world — and the Ukulele Death Squad were at the top of the list.
This 4-man band from Adelaide, Australia is not your typical rock band. Sure, they shred, they croon, they command your attention at their exhilarating live shows — all with four ukuleles and the occasional wind instrument. Self described as a mix of punk, gypsy, and flamenco with a heavy dose of cinematic inspiration, we chatted with the band’s leader Ben Roberts to get the low down on what it’s like being in the ukulele’s coolest crew.
How did Ukulele Death Squad come into being?
We started really because an open arts festival called the Adelaide Fringe Festival [in 2017]. We started out with just really putting together a show for that and we never expected it to go as big as it did. We did four shows there and then our fifth show was at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival so we hadn’t even done ten gigs and we were touring overseas! It was pretty incredible how it all started and grew.
Wow, so you exploded on the live stage right off the bat. Were you all working full time or in other bands?
We all have jobs, going to uni, I teach music full time. We started out just planning on doing these first few shows for the Adelaide Fringe but it ended up being about two years of solid touring and playing festivals. It was extreme excitement right away and it was quite full on. We’re just in a bit of a break now before gearing up for our third festival season, starting off at the Darwin Festival, then the Brisbane Ukulele Festival, and working toward another Adelaide Fringe.
What about the ukulele was appealing to you?
I was a guitarist and banjo player and a music teacher, and I got asked to teach the ukulele. And I was one of those people who would always kind of turn their nose up whenever I saw a ukulele group singing “You Are My Sunshine” and that sort of stuff. Then I got inquiries about doing lessons for it. So I thought I’d pick it up and have a go at it, and then it really attracted me because of the way I approach my banjo playing, a lot of my finger picking techniques could be used. With the ukulele’s high string where the low string would be on a guitar, it’s similar to the banjo, so I was able to use some of my patterns and techniques and I thought “Oh this is quite cool.” It had the nylon strings sound like a flamenco guitar, and that sound really drove the band to go down that path.
Did you have to convince your bandmates to learn to play as well?
I didn’t really know the other guys too well before we started, I only knew Julian [Ferguson] and knew he played baritone ukulele. When we started we just thought this was gonna be a bit of fun, and we’d play some funny songs but it grew into something much larger once we started playing and realizing that oh, these instruments aren’t just novelties, you can get really into them.
That’s one of the things we love most about the ukulele.
Yeah! So many people will pick it up, it’s got 4-strings, it’s quite small, it’s not intimidating. You don’t need to lug a massive instrument around, and with one and two fingers chords it’s quite easy to be playing your favorite songs quite quickly.
How would you describe the Death Squad’s sound?
It’s quite a melting pot, it’s quite upbeat but it’s definitely got a dark edge to it. Sometimes we approach songs with a punk edge to them, gypsy-jazz sort of feel, it’s quite all over the place.
Is it representative of the music you guys play in the rest of your lives, or is it off on its own plane?
No, yeah, there’s hints of other influences but I’d say it’s something that’s quite unique.
Your videos are hilarious. Where do the inspiration for these come?
It was all really based on cinematic influences, like Quentin Tarantino and suits and things like that. With the whole Death Squad vibe we really were inspired by films like Reservoir Dogs and songs like Bang Bang from Kill Bill, so it’s really a lot of cinematic influences and pinching ideas from movies we like to get the image from the band for, then the songs sort of fall into that image, especially with the flamenco style it gives it that desperado vibe as well.
How many albums do you have?
We’ve done a live album, but we’ve only released one single, it’s sort of an EP with four live bonus tracks, but yeah, just the single.
Are there any plans to write more music?
Yeah, there’s definitely more plans to record more. We’ve got demos of four more songs, so we’ll see what happens. But we’ve got those in the studio ready to be mixed, and we’re ready to create some more content, another video, another single. We’ve got some band meetings scheduled coming up where we’ll decide where to go next. We’re excited
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