Busby Marou are mak­ing waves across the world with their in­fec­tious style of mu­sic but the two mates still call Rock­hamp­ton home, writes Iain Shed­den

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

JEREMY Marou has a ukulele in his mouth again. It’s get­ting to be a bit of a thing on stage when he and his part­ner Tom Busby play Un­der­ly­ing

Mes­sage, one of the songs from their 2011 self-ti­tled de­but al­bum. Marou starts his con­tri­bu­tion on the ukulele, switches to elec­tric gui­tar half­way through to play a solo while hold­ing the uke be­tween his teeth, then with one smooth mo­tion snatches it out of his mouth to fin­ish the song.

Such stage­craft has be­come sec­ond na­ture to Busby Marou in the past few years. As a duo that served its time play­ing for up to 10 hours a gig at their lo­cal pub, the Ox­ford Ho­tel in Rock­hamp­ton, the two Queens­lan­ders know how to im­pro­vise, how to pace them­selves, how to en­ter­tain. And they know their way around ev­ery­thing from plain­tive coun­try bal­lads to bom­bas­tic rock ’ n’ roll wig-outs.

‘‘ We never thought about sound­ing a cer­tain way,’’ says Busby, the front­man and prom­i­nent song­writer in the act. ‘‘ We just write and if it feels good that’s it. We could get a rock song or a hip-hop song or heavy metal song and do it our way. We like that. It feels com­fort­able. And the band helps us ex­plore cool op­tions . . . pushes us into some happy times.’’

The happy half-hour the two men and their four-piece band are hav­ing tonight is in a Bris­bane laneway, per­form­ing to a crowd of maybe 100 at a makeshift out­door venue as part of the an­nual Big Sound mu­sic in­dus­try con­fer­ence and show­case.

It’s one of a dozen Big Sound venues around the city’s For­ti­tude Val­ley where, for two con­sec­u­tive nights, buzz bands and upand-com­ers strut their stuff in front of pub­lish­ers, man­agers, record com­pany ex­ecs, jour­nal­ists and, not least, gen­uine pun­ters.

The show is a suc­cess, with an in­fec­tious en­ergy pour­ing off the stage to ig­nite the crowd. It’s the be­gin­ning of a new ad­ven­ture for Busby Marou. They haven’t played to­gether with the band for a while and Bris­banebased Busby has just re­turned from a hol­i­day in Viet­nam, on which he be­came en­gaged to his part­ner Huma; so the six-piece en­sem­ble is in a cel­e­bra­tory mood.

They’re ex­cited also about the re­lease next week of their sec­ond al­bum, Farewell Fitzroy, a ti­tle that re­flects the duo’s reach be­yond the banks of Rocky’s Fitzroy River.

Busby Marou’s first al­bum and an EP, The

Blue Road, that pre­ceded it, recorded at Aus­tralian singer-song­writer Pete Mur­ray’s home stu­dio in NSW’s By­ron Bay, earned them plau­dits and launched them na­tion­ally, suc­cess they backed up with heavy tour­ing on their own and as sup­port to Dolly Par­ton, KD Lang and Birds of Tokyo, among oth­ers. Their first sin­gle from the al­bum, Bid­ing My Time, earned them an APRA award for blues and roots work of the year last year. Their ver­sion of Crowded House’s Bet­ter Be Home Soon was one of the high­lights of the multi-plat­inum al­bum He Will

Have His Way, a trib­ute to the Finn brothers, re­leased in 2010.

Farewell Fitzroy was recorded with their band in Nashville on a Warner Mu­sic bud­get with top Amer­i­can pro­ducer Brad Jones. It’s a step up from their de­but, which was a rel­a­tively low-bud­get, in­de­pen­dent af­fair, re­leased on the Bris­bane-based Warner indie la­bel Foot­stomp and partly funded by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s Break­through pro­gram in sup­port of emerg­ing in­dige­nous artists.

‘‘ I’m ex­tremely am­bi­tious,’’ Busby says. ‘‘ Not cocky, but I’m mo­ti­vated and de­ter­mined. I would never let us stop. The first al­bum was my whole life of song­writ­ing, about be­ing on the road and hav­ing fun and be­ing a lit­tle prick, learn­ing that I was good and I was bad. But I’ve got so much more to go. I want to be sim­ple, like in the way Paul Kelly can tell a story. If I can make it hon­est and real with­out hurt­ing any­one’s feel­ings . . . I think I’m go­ing to get a lot bet­ter just by ex­pe­ri­ence.’’

The pair’s life ex­pe­ri­ence so far is noth­ing short of ex­tra­or­di­nary. Both men had well-paid ca­reers out­side of mu­sic while they were em­bark­ing on their joint mis­sion.

Marou, who stud­ied en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­ence at univer­sity in Rock­hamp­ton, was a pub­lic ser­vant, first with the state depart­ment of nat­u­ral re­sources and mines as a veg­e­ta­tion man­age­ment of­fi­cer. Af­ter that he worked with the state depart­ment of com­mu­ni­ties, act­ing as a li­ai­son of­fi­cer be­tween com­mu­nity el­ders and land de­vel­op­ers. ‘‘ It was re­ally cool,’’ he says. ‘‘ I looked af­ter the el­ders. If [min­ers] were com­ing into ex­plore an area they would consult us to ask how to ap­proach the el­ders.’’

Busby had planned a ca­reer as a sports jour­nal­ist but in­stead be­came a lawyer. At the point, in 2009, when Busby Marou de­cided to go full time, he had been a prose­cu­tor for the depart­ment of pub­lic prose­cu­tions for five years.

‘‘ I was pros­e­cut­ing peo­ple for things I’d al­ready done in my life,’’ he says with a laugh.

‘‘ It’s not for ev­ery­one, crim­i­nal prose­cu­tion, but I loved it.’’

What both men re­ally loved, how­ever, was the magic they cre­ated to­gether as mu­si­cians. There’s a great bond be­tween Busby and Marou that fires up when­ever they’re to­gether. They are more than col­lab­o­ra­tors. They’re great mates.

It’s a chem­istry forged from hard work stretch­ing across 10 years and a shared pas­sion for coun­try mu­sic and rock ’ n’ roll, the two fore­most com­po­nents of their oeu­vre, al­though el­e­ments of folk and blues are never far away.

Of the two men Busby is the more an­i­mated when he talks, whether it’s about mu­sic, fam­ily, fish­ing or rugby league (the Bron­cos), pas­sions both of them share.

Those are re­cur­ring topics in the Busby Marou camp. It’s the talk of two well-grounded blokes liv­ing the dream, play­ing mu­sic for a liv­ing, but still proud of and grate­ful for their big break, as Tom & Jeremy, pick­ing up beer money at the Ox­ford play­ing for any­one who would lis­ten. THE Ox­ford Ho­tel doesn’t strike you as some­where a mu­sic ca­reer could be launched. Sit­u­ated in Rock­hamp­ton city cen­tre, a few min­utes’ walk from the river, it’s a pub, says Busby, where old men go to drink af­ter work.

Two days af­ter their Big Sound per­for­mance, we’re sit­ting in the front bar of the Ox­ford hav­ing a late morn­ing beer. Our host, the ho­tel’s owner Ian Jones, has close ties with the duo. His son, Joshua ‘‘ Jonesy’’ Jones, is Busby Marou’s man­ager and also has his own events com­pany op­er­at­ing out of Bris­bane. Jonesy is the third part­ner in the Busby Marou or­gan­i­sa­tion.

The bar is pretty much empty, just as it was when Busby joined Marou on stage (in ef­fect, the cor­ner of the room) for the first time 10 years ago.

‘‘ There was Ian, Jeremy’s brother and his mate,’’ Busby re­calls.

Marou honed his gui­tar play­ing in a rock ’ n’ roll cov­ers band, Keep Left, in Rocky be­fore he formed an al­liance with Busby. Theirs was an im­promptu col­lab­o­ra­tion, with Marou im­pro- vis­ing on songs of Busby’s and cov­ers he had never heard be­fore.

‘‘ It felt good right from the start,’’ Busby says. ‘‘ I felt good play­ing my­self, but when Jeremy started play­ing the songs it just clicked. We started get­ting crowds at the Ox­ford and it grew and grew. We were play­ing five or six gigs a week and that re­ally helped us.’’

The Ox­ford is a sig­nif­i­cant part of the Busby Marou story, but just as im­por­tant is Rock­hamp­ton. It’s their heart­land, the place they talk about the most. Home.

It’s where both men grew up, al­though they didn’t know each other un­til mu­sic brought them to­gether. Busby is the youngest of eight chil­dren from a Catholic fam­ily of Scot­tish de­scent. His fa­ther, 74-year-old Ray Busby, still runs a con­struc­tion and de­mo­li­tion busi­ness, while Tom’s three brothers head up as­so­ci­ated com­pa­nies. You don’t have to walk too far in Rock­hamp­ton to see or hear the Busby name.

Marou’s roots are in Mur­ray Is­land in the Tor­res Strait. He too had a strong Chris­tian up­bring­ing and got much of his mu­si­cal ed­u­ca­tion singing and play­ing drums, bass and gui­tar in church in Rock­hamp­ton.

‘‘ I didn’t lis­ten to much sec­u­lar mu­sic,’’ he says. ‘‘ I wasn’t even al­lowed to lis­ten to the ra­dio in case the devil came out of the speak­ers.’’

His great-un­cle was land rights ac­tivist Ed­die Mabo who, Marou re­calls, lived for a time in a car­a­van in his great-nephew’s front gar­den. Through his Mur­ray Is­land lineage, Marou has in­her­ited a con­sid­er­able part of Mur­ray Is­land’s land.

He still lives in Rock­hamp­ton and is mar­ried with three young chil­dren. ‘‘ It’s my home,’’ he says. ‘‘ I was born here and I’m lucky to have this amaz­ing place as my back yard. Why would you want to leave?’’

Busby, even with his base now in Bris­bane, is no less pas­sion­ate about be­ing at home. Their suc­cess has been wel­comed by the city. They can’t walk down the street for more that a few min­utes with­out some­one want­ing to ask how they’re go­ing.

‘‘ I don’t un­der­stand how any­one doesn’t love their own home,’’ Busby says. ‘‘ I’ve got seven brothers and sis­ters and 30 neph­ews and nieces. I’ve grown up with hap­pi­ness and I’ve been very for­tu­nate. I don’t want to miss out on any­thing that goes on here. So for me it’s about fam­ily and friends and noth­ing changes.’’

Ex­cept things do change, pro­fes­sion­ally at least. Busby Marou have had a taste of suc­cess lo­cally and have per­formed in the US and Canada. It seems likely Farewell Fitzroy will bring fur­ther Aus­tralian and over­seas ac­claim. The chem­istry on songs such as Get You Out

of Here, the rootsy My Sec­ond Mis­take and the coun­try rocker Heard it All Be­fore on the new al­bum is aided, Busby says, by the fact the duo in­sisted on tak­ing their Aus­tralian band — drum­mer Da­mon ‘‘ DJ’’ Syme (DJ), bassist Enzo Russo, key­boards player Vaughan Jones and gui­tarist Chris Sheehy — with them to Nashville in­stead of us­ing lo­cal ses­sion mu­si­cians there.

The song­writ­ing process has been the same all the way though their ca­reer. Busby comes up with a ba­sic melody and lyrics and takes them to Marou.

‘‘ We mould it to the way Jeremy plays and the har­monies he uses,’’ Busby says. ‘‘ For me the har­monies are re­ally im­por­tant. That’s when you know you’ve got some­thing.’’

The key com­po­nent, how­ever, is the un­der­stand­ing the two men have of each other’s tal­ent. They used to fight but have man­aged to over­come their mu­si­cal dif­fer­ences, cen­tred on Marou’s slightly more en­hanced love of coun­try mu­sic.

‘‘ Jeremy used to try and get me on to Keith Ur­ban and Brad Pais­ley,’’ Busby says. ‘‘ I was flog­ging Bruce Spring­steen and Paul Kelly. That went on for years.

‘‘ Then we re­alised how we were do­ing it to­gether . . . me do­ing it my way and Jeremy do­ing it his way . . . and it works. I love ev­ery mu­sic if it makes me feel good. I think we’re on the same path with that now. It’s all about mov­ing on to the next chap­ter.’’

Leav­ing Fitzroy,

Tom Busby and Jeremy Marou, op­po­site page, play­ing live, left;

be­low left

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