I Was Right
“We were always thinking about the song,” says Vincent Giarrusso, frontman of the legendary undergroundLOVERS, who took alternative rock to brave new places through the 1990s and beyond. “What would make the song work better: a guitar sound, a loop, a different structure, a keyboard sound, drum machine or real drums? Of course influences bled through on some tracks but we were always thinking about songs and then songs in extended structures – taking the listener on a journey.” And through six studio albums, a live compilation, a slew of seminal singles and EPs and several different guises that’s exactly what they did.
While officially forming in 1990, the seeds of undergroundLOVERS were planted much earlier, when Giarrusso and Glenn Bennie met in high school in suburban Melbourne. “We were part of the drama gang at school and spent a lot of time together, acting up and being the creative types.”Giarrusso and Bennie initially played gigs as a duo; their stint together in drama school creating an instinctive and easy chemistry. “In high school we’d have parties at Glenn’s house,” recalls Giarrusso, “and we’d play music: Glenn on guitar and I would play keyboards with crappy drum machine, a snare drum and sing. We would jam and come up with tunes and song structures.”
It wasn’t long before they started piecing together a band through “friends and friends of friends”. The undergroundLOVERS’ first gig – a support slot at the Corner Hotel – featured Philippa Nihill (vocals, guitar, keyboard), Stephen Downes (bass) and Richard Andrew (drums), with Downes replaced by Maurice Argiro after the first show. Their early influences were manifold – from Joy Division and The Clash to New Order, Stone Roses, Talking Heads and Brian Eno. “Locally, it was older stuff like The Reels, The Birthday Party, the Go-Betweens, Tsk Tsk Tsk and Essendon Airport,” Giarrusso explains.
That melting pot of influences shines through on undergroundLOVERS, their self-financed 1991 debut, which landed them an ARIA for Best New Act. But the magic was happening beyond the studio, too. The band’s multi-sensory shows – visuals were incorporated from a very early stage – helped land them supports for the likes of The Cure and My Bloody Valentine. In a live setting, Giarrusso would often work himself into a trance-like state amid the band’s dense wall of sound. “We just knew we had song smarts, a great guitar sound, an awesome rhythm section, and an ethereal voice in Philippa Nihill,” explains Giarrusso. “We wanted the audience to concentrate on the music and lose themselves in it like we did.”
Like many of their peers, undergroundLOVERS were snapped up by a major label (Polydor), which yielded two records: Leaves Me Blind (1992) and Dream it Down (1994). The former was produced by Wayne Connolly, who helped nurture an experimental approach in the studio. “We learnt that the studio can be a terrific creative and collaborative space, and the importance of intricate layering of sounds. That mixing acoustic instrumentation and electronic noise is an art that creates tension which is representational of contemporary life.”
After a few tumultuous years, Dream It Down was their last record for Polydor. It featured guest contributions from their heroes in Essendon Airport, David Chesworth and Robert Goodge, and one of their best loved singles, Losin’ It. “Dream it Down was a tough recording,” admits Giarrusso. “Bits and pieces were recorded all over the place with multiple players playing different parts. Polydor was supportive but there was tension because all this other stuff was going on behind the scenes between the label and our management at the time.”
In many ways, 1996’s landmark Rushall Station, was a reaction to the difficulties that followed Dream It Down. The band’s messy split with Polydor inspired a back-to-basics approach, epitomized by the reflective title track, which is little more than Giarrusso’s voice, Nihill’s harmonies and acoustic guitar. “I remember having to do things like ring up regional radio stations and record shops around Australia to see if they had the record, if they liked it and would they add it to their playlists and sales charts,” recalls Giarrusso. “We wanted to fill that dull emptiness with music rather than fill music with a dull emptiness.”
A trio of records followed: Whitey Trickstar (1997, which Giarrusso and Bennie released under the moniker GBVG), Ways T’Burn (1997) and final studio album Cold Feeling (1999). Each blurred the line further between dance and rock. “Electronic music was always an influence,” Giarrusso says. “The use of repetition, drum machines and synth sounds generate a tension and excitement that is representative of modern life.” Following a tour with New Order in 2002, undergroundLOVERS went their separate ways. Although, as Giarrusso points out, they never officially split. “Those nine or so years was a cooling off period after a fairly intense period. We got on with work, projects and families.”
Off the back of a reunion in 2009, comes a long-awaited two-disc retrospective, Wonderful Things. Lovingly assembled by the band and re-mastered by their original mastering engineer Don Bartley, it features artwork by long-time visual collaborators Other Rooms, and spans all the special moments across the band’s career – from classic singles “Your Eyes”, “Losin’ It” and “Undone” to remixes and b-sides. “We tried to make long play records that you could listen to from start to finish and somehow be taken on a journey,” says Giarrusso.
With Wonderful Things, it’s come full circle.
Albums / Lp’s
|Underground Lovers (1991)|
|Leaves Me Blind (1992)
Dream It Down (1994)
Rushall Station (1996)
Whitey Trickstar – as GBVG (1997)
Wats T’Burn (1997)
Cold Feeling (1999)
Evil: Underground Lovers 94-97 (2000)
MallBoy – Soundtrack (2001)
Wonderful Things: Retrospective Compilation (2011)