Live, Music

Underground Lovers take to the stage (Photo essay)

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Every once in a while the photojournalist’s stars align! So it was recently upon learning that my favourite local act, Underground Lovers, were supporting much-loved overseas band Stereolab in Sydney.

Ever the opportunist, I asked old friend Lisa Gibbs, partner of ‘Undies’ co-founder Glenn Bennie, to pitch a project in which I would shoot their Melbourne rehearsal for the show, followed by the soundcheck, backstage goings on and eventual performance on the day.

I didn’t assume go-ahead (the band, while highly personable, prefer to let their music do the talking), but thought it was a good way to catch them interstate, experience their inner sanctum, watch the preparation involved in a 45 minute support slot, and grab a few free beers from the rider.

Oh, and see Stereolab for the first time in 25 years!

Fortunately, they acquiesced. These sequential images follow the ‘Undies’ from their nondescript Preston rehearsal studio last month, to Sydney venue The Factory, where they blew a packed house away on March 8 (and arguably blew the headline act off the stage too).

A huge thank-you to the band, their nearest and dearest and crew for letting me snap away stress free. An even bigger thank-you, Underground Lovers, for some of the best music and live gigs in Australian rock!

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Glenn Bennie’s introverted personality is at odds with the soaring licks he coaxes from an assortment of guitars. He is one of Australia’s best songwriters and axemen, forever partially hidden beneath an assortment of caps. He crouches on stage too, natural for a shy soul, but frustrating as hell for photographers.

Glenn co-formed GBVG in 1988 while studying film with high school buddy Vincent Giarrusso. The two-piece morphed into Underground Lovers the following year with Richard Andrew on drums, Philippa Nihill on vocals, guitar and keyboard and, soon after, Maurice Argiro on bass. While members have come and gone and come back (and disappeared entirely from 2002 to 2009 – having kids and careers will do that), Bennie and Giarrusso have stayed a creative duo throughout.

Multi-instrumentalist Philippa Nihill sings roughly a quarter of Glenn and Vincent’s tunes, the ones that lend themselves to her honeyed vocals. She plays mean guitar and keyboard, and has rock’s best locks! Philippa pursued a solo career from 1996 until the band’s reformation, and has contributed to all three albums for Glenn Bennie’s side project, GB3. YouTube ‘Nectarine’ to see just how well.

As band member Emma Bortignon puts it: “everyone has careers and families and calendars and pursuits outside of the band, but we make a priority of juggling things to pull six people together in a room on a regular basis.”

This particular rehearsal took place on a warm Sunday afternoon in late February, when most Melburnians were out enjoying the sunshine. The Undies didn’t seem to mind.

There’s nothing flash about the band’s rehearsal room, with its scuffed walls, worn carpet, and a softly buzzing speaker almost on the fritz. There’s even a Confederate flag of all things in one ceiling corner; intact when they first arrived, tattered almost beyond recognition today. Abbey Road Studios it ain’t.

But it’s been home, musically speaking, for 20-plus years. It’s where songs have been penned, honed, transformed, discarded and debuted. Only for one song do they stop and repeat during this rehearsal. Vince is less animated than live, Glenn, seated, less hunched, Richard slightly less pained, but the music is no less electrifying. Close your eyes and you could be at a packed gig. Open them and its six friends, one photographer and his awestruck 12-year old in a tiny room.

Vincent Giarrusso, film and television lecturer, and the Underground Lovers’ lead singer, wrote and directed Mallboy, a feature length movie depicting the dysfunctional life of a youth in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, and soundtracked by the band. It closed the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2001 and became the fifth ever Australian film selected for Cannes’ celebrated Directors Fortnight.

Vincent is pictured belting live highlight The Au Pair at rehearsal. Don’t know it? Listen on Spotify – and try keeping still while you do. Even better, YouTube the video, a pastiche of manic scenes from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 black comedy, Weekend, one of Vincent’s favourites.

Remember The Muppets’ crazed drummer, Animal? Quiet, unassuming Richard Andrew is nothing like him off-stage, but bears striking similarities on it. He’s a ball of manic energy, his flailing arms somehow keeping beat. A set builder by day, Richard lives for music, with past side projects including Black Cab’s debut and newly formed The Daydream Apollos. While music doesn’t see him at the pointy end of planes, or living in tax havens, he’s proud of The Underground Lovers reaching “a level of success on (their) terms”, an achievement in an industry rife with creative compromise.

Film sound designer Emma Bortignon was 21 and a devout grunge fan when she replaced Maurice on bass in the late 1990s (shifting to keyboards and effects upon his return). She fondly remembers Glenn and Vincent visiting her parents to alleviate fears that she’d joined a morally bereft heavy metal band (it worked, pretty soon mum and dad were regulars at gigs).

She recalls even more fondly a 2015 Gasometer Hotel gig, at which she played five songs while 36 weeks pregnant, with feet almost as swollen as her tummy. “I didn’t want to miss a gig and my obstetrician gave the go-ahead so long as I didn’t jump around,” Emma says. “I wanted my daughter to be up on stage feeling the music with me.

When mild mannered metronome Maurice Argiro locks into step with Undies drummer, Richard Andrew, only superglue can keep feet from tapping. Away from music, the award winning children’s television creator co-directs Kitty Is Not a Cat, an animated series written with Bruce Kane. When he’s not doing that, Maurice follows U.S. politics keenly, the current Democratic primaries in particular. He dearly wants Donald Trump ousted, but is too soft spoken and gentlemanly to say so with vigour or vulgarity. (I did so for him!)

My 12-year-old son Max, an aspiring musician with his own band, attended the rehearsal to see how the pros go about things. Don’t be fooled by the casual hair flick and mobile in his hands, he was blown away. “Dad,” he said on the way home, “can you play that Au Pair song? Loud!”

Sydney’s The Factory is in an industrial section of Marrickville close to the airport. Like, really close, enough that jet engines roar louder than cranked Marshall stacks. Just.

Half the band arrive at 4.30pm for a 5.30pm soundcheck. At least, that was the plan. Stereolab didn’t finish their own until almost 6.15pm, which made for a frantic set-up, warm up and race off before doors opened at 7pm and punters poured in. As it was, Underground Lovers started playing at 7.30pm – hardly a rock star timeslot, but very Sydney on a Sunday night, apparently.

Emma and Philippa greet each other. The Underground Lovers are like family, bound not by blood, but music (which some might argue is just as thick.)

Vincent (left) and chief stage man, Wes, should know better than to touch their faces in these crazy times!

Gigs are usually fun. Set-ups not so much!

The Factory hordes ascend.

A last second chord check from Maurice while punters gather.

A pensive looking Glenn backstage pre-show. He’s not concerned about potential musical problems, but that Underground Lovers, unlike Stereolab in the neighbouring room, haven’t been given a rider. How, one wonders, can any self respecting band ascend the stage without a gulp or two of Dutch courage? What would Mariah Carey think? Fortunately, calls were placed and drinks delivered during the third song. Ever professionals, the Undies played as they usually do: not even the most astute observer could have noticed they were stone cold sober!

“Hello Sydney”

Vincent can fairly belt out a tune, and is a solid rhythm guitarist, but he comes into his own on tambourine! (Just kidding, Vince!)

It’s hard to see Glenn’s face during gigs, but there’s no mishearing his guitar!

Aurally floating on the Nihill.

The band in full flight.

High fives backstage.

It’s hard to take your eyes off Richard Andrew during Underground Lovers gigs, partly for his dizzying whir, and partly for spiky hair that somehow defies gravity, regardless of sweat. Industrial strength product, that!

Richard has worn an elastic bandage around his left forearm since almost severing it in a work accident a few years back. He was meant to take longer than he did away from music, but was reportedly shattered while watching an Undies gig with a fill-in drummer. The next week he was back.

Several Undies WAGs and HAPs (husbands and partners) enjoying Stereolab, among them Lisa Gibbs (foreground), who, I’m willing to bet, has seen more Australian music gigs than any other woman in the country!

The Underground Lovers are Stereolab fans to their core, which made the support invite a no-brainer. Here’s Vincent shouting for an encore.

Let’s not forgot Stereolab, who’ve still got it 25 years after I last saw them in New York’s Central Park. In fact, they’re even better! This is lead singer Laetitia Sadier.

By night’s end, backstage wristbands were ignored and the Undies’ room became a free-for-all. Not that any beers remained in the rider (this thirsty photographer helped see to that). All in all, two great gigs and many more memories. Until the next show…

The Underground Lovers supported Stereolab at the Factory Theatre, Sydney on Sunday March 8.

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