Meet: We chat with Australian indie legends Underground Lovers

This Saturday and Sunday night in Melbourne, one of my favourite bands, Underground Lovers,  will playing a double set celebrating their 25 years together as a band. For details of these gigs, see my piece last week.

I asked Vince Giarrusso, singer and co-songwriter (along with Glenn Bennie) a few questions about the band.

You and Glenn Bennie have known each other since high school in Melbourne. How did your collaboration develop and what were the environmental influences on the band’s sound?  

It was the late eighties…We would play at parties. Glenn Bennie on guitar and I would play keys (a cheap Casiotone with drum machine and a snare drum) and sing. As teenagers we tapped into community radio (mainly RRR and PBS) that was playing a whole different world of music…The Birthday Party, The Jam , Joy Division…and it was at point we knew what we wanted to do. Then in the early 90’s alternative music and indie sounds exploded and we were part of that

Who or what were and continue to be your greatest musical influences? 

Well there are so many, MBV, Essendon Airport, Neil Young, New Order, Joy Division, Orange Juice, The Cure, Split Enz, dozens and dozens

It seems to me that the Undies sound in the early nineties – the amalgam of indie rock and electronic dance music organically grew to some extent at the same time as the baggy, Madchester scene spearheaded by The Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays. Were you conscious of this happening in the UK or was the development of your sound independent of this?

Yes we were aware of it but we had our own sound and ideas about how we wanted to structure music and long play albums. The madchester scene was about great music as well as the drugs that fuelled that scene.  We were never part of a drug scene. The drug element is fun to watch and laugh at but it is kinda boring. Ever had a conversation with a junkie? Sheeeesh! 

The album “Dream it Down” was in some ways a commercial high point for the band, having earlier been signed to Polydor and producing the very accessible single “Losin’ It”. Why did you leave Polydor soon after this?

They wanted a bigger say in the kinds of records we wanted to make … more singles … and they wanted more performance videos. We hate all that fake prancing and carry on you have to do on videos.  How embarrassing …

What influenced your move towards a greater emphasis on electronic music, particularly in the album ‘Cold Feeling”? Would you say you were at this stage more interested in working in a studio than playing live?

Partly working in the studio  … we were deep in Korg MS20 and computers and deep in songs. Having said that we always write with just guitar and voice… then we have to figure out a way to do it with the available technology

Has there been any frustration with the fact that the critical acclaim you have received has not translated into a wider commercial success, especially globally? What would you attribute this to – do you feel, for example, the explosion in grunge music in the nineties lessened interest in your style of music?

Not really … we feel really free. As history points out again and again explosions of any sort usually end badly.

Over the years, you’ve recorded various solo projects and together as GBVG – what differentiated these projects from the Undies?

 We always have loads of songs left over. Glenn and I can write the foundations of a record in an afternoon if we are in the zone. Then it’s just a question of finding a way to make it. Part of the fun is coming up with a production process that will suit the songs. Undies records are always masculine/feminine except for “Ways t’Burn” which is masculine/masculine.

 Why was there such a long break since your last performances in 2002 supporting New Order to getting the band back together in 2009?

 We needed a break… I think like any relationship you need a break. Glenn wanted to explore music with different musicians and I was concentrating on different writing, stuff like scripts, curricula, film projects and PhD. (Note: Glenn Bennie has an on-going side musical project called GB3 and Vince, as well as having some side musical projects, wrote and directed “Mall Boy” which was selected for the Directors Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000)

 Were you worried that after such a break, there wouldn’t be an audience for you, given the general trend to banjos and beards?

 Well we wondered how it would translate after such a long time. But the support was very strong. In regards to trends we always ignored them or is it vice versa?  We were always up against the trends.

 You utilised crowd funding for the comeback album, “Weekend”, which was very successful. Was there an element of nervousness about this process – I guess it is the ultimate test of your fan base? How happy were you with the ultimate reception for “Weekend”?

 Yes and we are still a little hesitant with the process. Crowd funding tends to take away the mystery of the artifact. It did work a treat for weekend and we gave something back to our supporters, which I hope they liked.  We got great reviews and a fair bit of airplay, which was very satisfying. I think it is a record that will have a long life.

 In a recent interview, Steve Kilbey from The Church cited Underground Lovers as the best band in Australia (well, to be precise, the second best after The Church!). Who do you think are the best and second best bands in Australia at the moment?

 Such an honour from Steve … umm we don’t really think in those terms. We love classic Australian bands like The Church, The Go-betweens , The Saints, The Birthday Party, Essendon Airport , The Triffids, The Reels . New music like Tame Impala, Empire of the Sun (what’s with the big bird outfits?), Skonks, Bloods  and Underlights are terrific . I love classic Melbourne sounds like Eddy Current Suppression Ring and Mum Smokes.

 You are touring to celebrate 25 years together, and playing songs from all of your albums going back to 1991. With what is considered to be the most iconic line-up back together, including Phillipa Nihill on keys/guitar and Maurice Argiro on bass, how different is it playing now compared to ten years ago? Has it been a challenge remembering what you played in 1991?

 No we remember Ok … it’s the fury of those songs that is daunting and its difficult trying to capture that vibe … Richard has to play like an energizer bunny for over an hour and Maurie has to keep up on bass… it’s intense. Dirty and raw.  We want to capture that intensity… like time never passed…

 What’s next for the band after these celebration gigs?

 More recordings starting later this year…and more live shows…

For a retrospective of the Underground Lovers, check out their best of album “Wonderful Things“. You can get all of their albums through Rubber Records. I’ll leave you with one of my favourite Undies tracks, “Excerpt from ‘A Winter’s Day'”, off “Cold Feeling”:

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