Pirate ships, melodica, and hot sopressa: Meet Ukulele Death Squad

Embark on a journey through the fantasy land soundtracked by seven-piece sensation Ukulele Death Squad.

Prepare yourselves, folks, because the quirky and captivating sounds of the Ukulele Death Squad have embarked on an epic European tour! Brace yourselves for a joyful musical adventure as this seven-piece Aussie folk ensemble takes you on a wild ride with their latest EP, Til The Death.

This talented squad has already charmed fans with an album and three singles in the past few years, but now they’re ready to conquer new lands. Their European tour promises to be a thrilling journey, where they’ll not only unveil the tracks from their brand-new EP but also revisit the fan favorites that have stolen hearts around the world.

Ukulele Death Squad

When it comes to the creation of Til The Death, the Squad’s spokesperson, Reuben Legge, couldn’t contain his excitement. “Writing and recording this EP was an incredibly enjoyable experience,” he shares with a grin.

Band member Matthew Barker, who takes on lead vocals for the title track, reveals that it’s a song that “fulfills all your sing-along, sea shanty fantasies… undoubtedly awakening your inner pirate.”

They are also the proud owners of a flash new music video for their closing number ‘Down’, which you can read all about here

Ukulele Death Squad is like a chameleon band, effortlessly shifting between styles and genres. With the mischievous flair of Ween, they infuse folk, blues, Mexican mariachi horns, and even a touch of flamenco into their Til The Death EP.

This tour is not only a thrilling adventure for the Squad, but it also marks their first overseas venture since 2018 and their first tour as the revamped band we know today. “Almost every song on the EP was written collaboratively, with the single ‘Til The Death’ featuring 4 songwriters,” the band explains. It’s evident that creating this EP was a riot of fun, and they can’t wait to share their new songs, which have been honed on the road.

Ukulele Death Squad has garnered attention and adoration from festival-goers at prestigious events like Adelaide’s WOMAD and the National Folk Festival in Canberra, thanks to their diverse range of influences and their infectious energy on stage. And let me tell you, they have no intention of slowing down!

Ukulele Death Squad

With such an imaginative foundation, and totally enticing project name, you can’t help but be drawn into the UDS world. The Uke gang sat down with us and talked all thinks Death Squad, so strap in me’hearties for everything you could ever want to know about Ukulele Death Squad

Happy: What are you up to today?

UDS: Today is Monday the 10th of July and after a few days rehearsing we finally have a morning off in sunny Berlin. Some of us have chosen to go sightseeing in this beautiful city, others have chosen to take the much needed respite and go for leisurely swims in a nearby pool.

This afternoon after a radio interview as well as a photo shoot we then resume rehearsing before our first show of the tour kicking off tomorrow.

Happy: Tell us about where you are from? What’s the music scene like in your neck of the woods?

UDS: We’re a band that has spread across all of Australia, one member in Melbourne (Reuben Legge), a few in Sydney (Julian Furgeson) and three based in Adelaide (Ash Randell, Matthew Barker & myself Alice Barker.)

The best words I could use to describe Adelaide would be wholesome, convenient and homely. It’s the kind of city where you could leave your house or car unlocked and nothing would be stolen (which has happened to band members and also my brother Matthew Barker a few times).

It’s also the kind of city where you could be walking down the street and you run into a long distant cousin – socially it’s pretty small but good quality. 

The music scene in Adelaide, although smaller than Melbourne or Sydney, is very supportive and community orientated.

The music scene is a bit of a small petri dish of artists that are multi-disciplinary and incorporate non-traditional styles of art into their music making more sensory experiences as opposed to a traditional music set.

This really shines during the Adelaide Fringe when Adelaide Art’s scene comes out of the woodwork to show what they have spent the last year working on.

Happy: What about your ultimate day?

UDS: Honestly my ultimate day has been what we have been doing whilst on tour. Lots of music and jamming time, a swim, some relaxation time, good food, maybe a cheeky drink or two and great company!

Happy: What did you read or watch growing up that fuelled your passion for music?

UDS: My family had a huge part to play in fuelling my passion for music. In our family when I think of music I think of roadtrips and the CD’s that would get brought out.

Artists like Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, Missy Higgens, Pink Floyd and of course Abba come to mind when I think of the music I listened to growing up.

My mum encouraged me and my brother (who is also in Ukulele Death Squad) to always have an interest or a hobby to be working on.

It just so happens that we both ended up taking our hobbies a bit too seriously and made it more a full time thing.

I learnt music predominantly through singing in the Australian Girls Choir from a young age and as I got older I slowly started to add more and more musical/creative projects within my life – including writing music with my brother.

Happy: You’ve been making music together for a few years now. How has your dynamic as a band evolved over time, and what have you learned from each other?

UDS: One of the elements of this band that we all personally enjoy is the fact that every member brings a unique sound, perspective and skill set.

Much like our song writing process, we all bring a piece of ourselves into the sound and make sure that every member feels heard and represented in one way or another.

As long as we all continue to enjoy our sound – it will most likely keep evolving. 

Happy: As a band from Adelaide how has the city and its music scene influenced your music and career?

UDS: The band has evolved from the founding duo, featuring only two ukuleles, to a seven piece that now incorporates a three-piece brass section, percussion, bass ukulele, and even melodica!

The evolution of the band has also incorporated more diversity through new song writers and voices creating a richer and more vibrant sound.

Happy: Can you tell us about the evolution of the band from a duo to a 7-piece energetic, Tarantino-influenced folk band?

UDS: The band was formed at the Adelaide Fringe Festival in 2017. The city’s festival allowed for band to experiment with the unique idea of combining the ukulele with fast paced songs like miserlou.

The band cut its teeth playing on the small stage of the much-loved music venue, the Grace. This is a venue close to the band’s heart.

Happy: What sets the Ukulele Death Squad’s unconventional approach to ukulele apart and how has it resonated with global audiences?

UDS: (Death squad) are not afraid to have the ukulele traverse genres – taking it out of the cutesy box it traditionally sits in. This, paired with self-deprecating humour, quality musicianship (and by that, we mean our resident octopus, Reuben) plus a hearty, sea-shanty singalong means there’s usually something that every audience member can connect with.

Happy: How did the collaborative songwriting process shape the songs on the EP, particularly the single “Til the Death” featuring four songwriters?

UDS: For us, making a song is a soupy process. Each member approaches songwriting differently, so we often play to each other’s strengths in collaboration.

As a band, we’re all spread out across Australia, which brings another interesting dynamic to our process. In the case of ‘Til The Death, our members from Sydney (Stephanie Rogers and Julian Fergueson) came up with the core idea of the song and then sent this on to Adelaide member (Matthew Barker)  to play around with melodies in verses, and lyrically define a narrative.

Then over the course of a year the whole band jammed the song when we came together for gigs finding new elements. Benjamin Roberts solidified the structure of the song and Ashlee Randell/myself Alice Barker found the balance between a harmonic beauty and a raucous sea shanty.

Eventually we were happy to put it on stage. Additionally, our member based in Victoria (Reuban Legge) found more depth instrumentally throughout the recording process evolving it yet to another stage of songwriting. All of our songs generally take a journey like this or very similar to this. 

Happy: Congrats on your EP ‘Til the Death’ can you tell us a little about the recording process behind it?

UDS: This EP was recorded in 2 cities and several living rooms. Reuben flew to Adelaide with a suitcase full of recording equipment, and we managed to find time while rehearsing for an Adelaide show to play a bunch of our songs in a semi live format.

We then had a hearty pasta and red wine and laid down the vocals together in the kitchen. Reuben got to the lab in Melbourne and then ornamented the tracks with horns and percussion, while roping in his mother to play the cello.

Finishing touches were made by the rest of the band in the morning after our Melbourne show before driving 8 hours back to adelaide. We really had to cram it in. We then listened to the songs online as reuben uploaded new versions after feedback was received – sometimes with great drama.

Some sections were cut and new sections were added in the following weeks to complete the song’s evolution.

Happy: What can listeners expect from ‘Til the Death’, in terms of storytelling, musicality, and the unique soundscapes explored?

UDS: When crafting the lyrics and sounds in these songs, we found it helpful to imagine the characters who would be singing and the fictional settings in which they would be sung.

This helped us collaboratively develop stories throughout the song and we then selected instruments which we thought would be found in those imaginary places.

Happy: Can you describe the overall atmosphere and themes conveyed in the EP, from musty taverns to sea shanties sung on pirate ships?

UDS: When picturing a tavern, it was easy to imagine a raucous setting where musicians with eclectic instruments were gathered, hence the combination of instruments such as cello, accordion, piano, trumpet and clarinet on the song “Hurricane”.

When picturing the setting of a pirate ship, it’s easy to imagine a marching band on the docks where the pirates are sentenced, and big vocal singalongs are always a mainstay of Ukulele Death Squad’s songs.

Happy: What was the inspiration behind the cinematic orchestration, including the big bold brass and Latin percussion, showcased in the EP?

UDS: Most of the songs have epic stories that are romanticized, and it felt natural to kind of “over do it” with the orchestration. Some say that less is more, but we disagree. We say more is more!

Part of the inspiration was just about picking up whatever instruments happened to be lying around the house and then developing the sound in that direction. When a song called for something specific, like latin percussion, we just went out and bought it and added it to the collection. 

Happy: How do you envision the audience experiencing and connecting with the songs and stories on ‘Til the Death’ during live performances?

UDS: We always like to encourage our audiences to connect with the songs in whatever way feels best for them. If that means sitting down at the back and taking the sensory experience in then great!

If that means getting up from and getting down and dirty on the dance floor even better. As a lot of our songs are more raucous and fast paced we always end up having a crowd dancing and we hopefully predict that our upcoming performances will be no exception.

Happy: Lastly, what makes you happy?

UDS: Reuben- Jamming. Reuben is often in bed by 9pm but if instruments are out it’s a different story and he will likely be in bed by 9am.

Matt –  Dancing and an oat milk latte. 

Alice – Hot sopressa. 

Steph – Dogs and puppies and improv. 

Julian – He likes tennis, chocolate peanut butter iced cream, surf beaches, razzing people and being a general menace. 

Ash – What doesn’t she like is the better question. She, socially, is the most equipped. She also enjoys Rain. 

Check out the Death Squad and their Ukuleleing, and get yourself a physical copy! (Germany/UK)