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Exclusive interview: Formidable Vegetable Sound System

25 Feb

Camping near Mick Jagger, twerking with vegetables and wowing 1000s at Glastonbury is now all just a normal part of 2013 WAM Folk of Song of The Year winners Formidable Vegetable Sound System’s gig life. With the permaculture kings headed back home, WAM’s Claire Borrello spoke to vocalist and ukulele player Charlie Mgee.


It has to be asked, how on earth did you come up with the name Formidable Vegetable Sound System?

It happened spontaneously as we were about to get on stage for the first time ever at the Eclipse 2012 Festival in Cairns. I’d gone over to play with Ensemble Formidable, but the festival had programmed us on a day earlier than they’d originally told us, so being the only band member there, they asked me if I could do something to ‘fill in’ (for the headline slot on the opening night!? Aghh!). I MacGyvered together a makeshift band with any musos I could find who were up for playing along to some dodgy electroswing beats I’d hacked together, and as we were about to go on stage, the MC asked me what we were called. I awkwardly burbled “uh… Formidable… Vegetable… Sound System?” Unfortunately it kind of stuck.


How did the System begin and how do you go about inspiring “the world to Garden the Funk Up and Grow Food Everywhere.”

When I was with Ensemble Formidable, I had been working on this side project that was meant to be an educational resource for teaching sustainability. I’d written 12 songs on a ukulele about the regenerative design principles of permaculture and had expected to maybe get a few gigs in schools playing them to kids or something, but after the unexpected Eclipse 2012 twist-of-fate I suddenly found myself being catapulted onto the international dance-music festival circuit! I figured that kids and ravers probably have quite a lot in common and since it was such an awesome opportunity to get the message out to a huge audience, I just adjusted the songs to suit and rolled with it!


For someone who hasn’t been to a FVSS show before, how would you describe it?

I imagine it’d be like seeing Costa from Gardening Australia jumping around with a ukulele and getting his twerk on with an electroswing, dubstep compost heap whilst saucy maidens make Alfredo Pomodoro on their bosoms with his organic heirloom tomatoes… or something like that.


You’ve performed around the world and have played at some insanely cool festivals like Glastonbury (UK), Shambhala (Canada) and Symbiosis (USA).  What have these experiences been like?

Seeing Tame Impala owning the main stage at Glastonbury was pretty epic, as I remember doing gigs with those guys in my old band Double Entendre at Mojo’s. It was kind of cool that as a couple of bands from Fremantle, we’d both ended up on the other side of the world playing at the biggest festival on the planet! Apparently Mick Jagger was actually camping in a yurt not far from us for the whole week! The whole back-to-back festival thing was kinda crazy – especially the electro-ones as, not being much of an electronic music goer myself, I just found it bizarre that we’d somehow ended up playing songs about gardening at all of the massive raves!


Are there certain countries that your message effects more so than others?

I think places like Europe and the USA are becoming much more open to ideas of localised sustainability and things like permaculture, as their economies (and climates!) are becoming so far gone that people have started realising that their governments aren’t necessarily going to come to the rescue and that maybe it’s time to start doing something about it at a grassroots level. A lot of the festivals over there have been taking it on board as well and now have started to develop a real sustainability focus. Glastonbury actually has an entire permaculture and green-futures festival within it where you can go to learn practical skills of food production, house and tool building, renewable energy production, all while listening to bands being pumped through wind, solar and bicycle-powered sound systems! Shambhala had a cranking veggie garden smack bang in the middle of the festival, where we got most of our food for the week, so it’s starting to become a really integrated thing over there! I think WA’s economic mining bubble has prevented us from making any real progress in this area, as everyone is under the impression that we’ll be rolling in the dough forever and there’s no need to do anything for ourselves if we can pay someone else to do it. All I can say is Watch That Space!

 Formidable vegetable sound system 2

You’ve said that ‘music is one of the best tools for bringing about cultural change.’ Please elaborate.

If I were to get up on a soapbox and start ranting about climate change and peak oil to the general public, I’d probably just get told to piss off and get a real job. For some reason, if you’re entertaining, people will stop and listen no matter what you’re saying. In a lot of cases we’ve played to audiences who are already into a lot of the ideas we’re singing about, but there have been occasions where people have come up after a gig and said stuff like “Man, I had never really thought about all that stuff, but now it just makes sense!” If you look back a few years, some of the most radical movements in history were fueled by powerful songs written by some clever musicians (eg. Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Gil Scott Heron, Rage Against The Machine etc).


FVSS has a very clear message and purpose, so when it came to the music side of things how did you go about it? Who are some of the musicians that inspired you?

The 1940’s Paris swing sound – I’d been listening almost non-stop to a couple of albums by a French band called Caravan Palace…and was wondering how to go about making those kind of fat antique-beats that sounded like you’d attached a subwoofer to your gramophone. I’ve been stuffing around with sampling and production for a little while and was lucky enough to get some tips from a few awesome electronic producers while we were overseas, so the beats are starting to come along nicely.


Lastly, what’s your best vegetable joke?

What do you call two babes getting their Daikon? Rad-ish.

Formidable Vegetable Sound System play Nannup Festival 28 February, Railway Hotel Beer Garden Saturday 8 March and Nukara Festival 15 March.


More info here.

Government of Western Australia Department of Culture and The ArtsGovernment of Western Australia Department of Culture and The Arts

WAM is supported by the State Government through the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries and Lottery West, and is assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.