Gus Leighton completed a Bachelor of Music with Honours in 2017 and will begin his PhD soon. But he didn’t wait to finish studying to begin his career. In fact, he and some friends began working professionally while still undergrads, as the jump jive outfit Uncle Gus and the Rimshots.

The seven-piece group known for its high-energy, irreverent style features four musicians – Gus (lead vocals and tenor saxophone), David Cavallo (trumpet), Mathew Olivier (piano and vocals) and Hadyn Murtagh (bass) - who were initially brought together through an ensemble class at UTAS' Conservatorium of Music in 2016.

After playing together as the lecturer’s behest, they kept going in their downtime. “We loved it and we wanted to get our mates in on it and we just started jamming and then it turned into turned into a band.” The collaboration felt natural. 

That's the cool thing about somewhere like the Con because it's such a cooperative degree. More so than others, you're working with your classmates and getting to know them really well.

Trombonist Adam Davenport-Hortle, guitarist Thomas Hann and drummer Damien Oliver-Black – also students at the time and now graduates – were added to the mix and Uncle Gus and the Rimshots were soon booking gigs regularly. "From the very start the idea was to get work out of it but more because it was such a fun thing. We knew people would enjoy it and we'd enjoy doing it too."

Study/work balance

Starting out in a field you’re still undergoing training in would be a daunting prospect for some. Gus says good planning is key. Also important: knowing how to slow things down when necessary, such as during exams. “I had to remember that uni was what was making me a better musician.”  

He came to think of his undergraduate studies as the “fuel” that would sustain a lifetime in performance. Sometimes what he learnt supported his professional practice in a very direct way.

I remember when I first started doing gigs I took a couple of tunes that I was learning to my saxophone teacher [and said] 'I'm really struggling with these, can we go over them?' It wasn't necessarily uni work but it's music… It was still going make me a better musician.

Something borrowed, something blue

Watch Gus and the Rimshots perform live for ABC Local Radio.

Musically, Gus and the Rimshots’ influences are eclectic, but the sound can best be described as jump jive, or, at times, jump blues. When asked to reflect the group’s uniqueness, Gus says it’s partly attitude. “I think the thing that gives it a fresh take is just that we're all being super cheeky with it and having fun.”

But why go old-school in the first place? This is not the music that would automaticaly appeal to your typical twenty-something in 2018. For Gus, at least, it goes back to early childhood. 

I fell in love with a Big Band sound really, really early on. Like Glenn Miller and stuff; Mum used to play it all the time. I don't know why but she did.

But the Conservatorium experience also strongly informed the group’s direction.  “A lot of the stuff at the Con is a bit jazzed-based – well, in the contemporary side of things, because a lot of other genres have sort of grown out of that.”

Gus and the Rimshots have played tunes from the greats of the genre, like Louis Jordan, Louis Prima and Bull Moose Jackson. They’re also played more recent music, like by Stray Cats, a New York band that put rockabilly back in the charts in the 1980s.

Going their own way

Performing in the Founders Room at Salamanca Arts Centre.

But the next frontier for Gus and the Rimshots is developing their own material. Gus does most of the arranging for their gigs, and recently he’s started writing original songs too.  “I'm still getting my songwriter chops up because I've never been too incredible with lyrics but I'm getting better at least,” he says modestly.

I'll write something and I'll go to the guys, you know, 'What does this sound like?' or I'll ask my Mum because she's a good judge on that, or just whoever wants to listen, I'll go, 'What do you think of this?'

The group’s look is also evolving. The matching ‘letterman’ jackets they’ve begun wearing is a nod to the Big Bands of the past. “Our drummer Daimo, he organised those. We just thought it was very much in the style to have like a matching thing.”

Boys in the band

Sasha Gavlek performing in @Panopticon 2017.

There’s one area where the group has more inadvertantly adhered to tradition, and that’s when it comes to gender balance. Back in the day, such groups did tend to be all-male line-ups; often to be joined by a female singer.

With the Rimshots, Gus says it was about who was available at the time. “I think it's how it worked out with the instrumentation at the Con. A lot of the girls in Contemporary are singers.” But he says he’s observed a noticeable shift in this, even in the few years. “It’s starting to turnaround a bit… which is really nice to see.” 

In fact, bass player Sasha Gavlek, a current student at the Con, is sitting in with the Rimshots at the moment while Hadyn Murtagh is away overseas.

Opportunity knocks

For Gus and his collaborators, it’s a great time to be a musician in Tasmania. They’re all making a living from performance, from a combination of Rimshots and other gigs.

"The scene in Hobart is growing at such a rapid pace and it's awesome," explains Gus. "The really funny thing at the moment is, with Dark Mofo and Festival of Voices, winter is becoming the busy period... It's grown this active scene throughout the entire year."

In short, they're having a good time. And Gus and the Rimshots seem to do their best work when most relaxed.

I'm enjoying myself way too much when I'm on stage. Because it's happy. It's dancing music, you know? Music's for singing and dancing and music is to enjoy.

Apply to study a Bachelor of Music at the University of Tasmania's Conservatorium of Music. 

Find out more about Gus and the RimshotsThis weekend they're playing three shows for Festival of Voices and on 5 August they're playing at UTAS's Open Day at the Sandy Bay campus.

Hero image: photograph by Matt Griffiths, showing (front L-R)  Damien Oliver-Black, Gus Leighton, Thomas Hann, (middle L-R) Mathew Olivier and Hadyn Murtagh and (back L-R) Adam Davenport-Hortle and David Cavallo.