'It’s got a lot of sweat in it': Reg Mombassa on his three most useful objects

As you would expect from a rock star and artist, the most helpful items in his life involve grubbiness and a little bit of danger

Reg Mombassa has had a busy digital life lately. The artist, musician and man behind many of the surfwear brand Mambo’s beloved t-shirt designs has been playing regular concerts on Facebook and YouTube with his band Dog Trumpet; has collaborated with the knitwear brand WahWah on an ultra-Instagrammable charity sweater, and will be speaking online for Ted x Sydney on 6 November.

But, despite all the internet activity, his most useful objects remain decidedly hands on.

A 1969 Fender Strat

I bought this guitar in an op shop in Newtown in 1977. Mentals (Mombassa’s first band, Mental as Anything) were just starting out and I had a cheap kind of copy guitar, so I thought I’d get a decent one. It was $350, which was a reasonable price. They cost thousands now – and I must have played several thousand gigs on it.

It’s like an extension of yourself, a part of your body, because you’ve played it so many times, and I guess in that sense it’s got a lot of sweat in it.

Reg Mombassa, far left, plays with Mental as Anything in 1987
Reg Mombassa, far left, plays with Mental as Anything in 1987. Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns

I do have other guitars but I’ve probably stuck with this one because I’m lazy. It stays in tune really well and it’s set up so I can play slide guitar on as well as normal fretting. I’m not the sort of person who’d have dozens or hundreds of guitars. That strikes me as being a little bit excessive.

I haven’t done too much to take care of it, although you have to keep an eye on it when you’re touring, and be careful that people don’t steal your stuff. But apart from that it just sits in the kitchen. I’ve been playing it once or twice a week lately. Especially at the moment, we’ve been doing online concerts, because there’s not much else going on.

An attic ladder

We installed this ladder 20 years ago in our old terrace house. At the time the attic wasn’t being used – it was just full of soot. Now it’s become my studio and the ladder is my way of getting into that space – but it’s also become my exercise machine.

Apart from walking to the car, I don’t really do much exercise, so going up and down this thing several times a day is my exercise. It’s a straight up and down ladder – not crude, pretty well constructed – but you have to use a lot of energy to climb it.

The ceilings are pretty high, so from the top it’s a 12 foot drop. I am comfortable with it, although I’ve slipped once or twice. It would be a bad thing to fall down … A lot of people come up to the studio and, if they’re a little bit older or larger, I do sort of worry about someone falling, or having a heart attack halfway up or down.

A stick of charcoal

This is not one object, it’s an object that replaces itself constantly. I do a lot of painting but I probably do more drawing than actual painting, and I only draw a pretty much using charcoal. I like it because you get a much deeper blacker line.

When I was a child, I drew obsessively and my mother would buy me cheap blocks of butchers’ paper – which is really thin, almost grey, paper. Drawing on that paper with an HB pencil you get a really crap line. When I was a kid I didn’t know about charcoal. But I would have loved it. Back then I’d use a ballpoint or a marker to get a better line.

I love charcoal because of that rich blackness of it but also because it’s the most ancient drawing implement. It’s what our ancestors would’ve picked up. It crumbles and breaks so you get interesting accidental elements too. You can use it to apply a tone really quickly. It’s an incredibly versatile drawing implement, really.

It is very grubby and another problem I have with it, because I draw a lot in cars and when I travel, is that with charcoal you have to fix it very quickly, otherwise it smudges.

You can’t take fixative spray on a flight because it’s an aerosol. So whenever I travel, as soon as I land, I have to find an art shop.

This article was amended on 27 October 2020, it previously stated that Reg Mombassa had designed Mambo’s “farting dog” image. The image was designed by Richard Allan.


As told to Alyx Gorman

The GuardianTramp

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