Published on March 25th, 2015 | by The Beige Baron0
Interview: Glenn Bennie | The Underground Lovers
It’s late autumn in Melbourne, 1990. On the other side of the world, the Berlin Wall is falling. George Bush Sr. is threatening his war in Iraq. But here, Glenn Bennie and Vincent Giarrusso are taking to The Corner Hotel stage to play their first show with a new band, The Underground Lovers.
It’s the first line in a story that is still unfolding a quarter-century later. A story that would eventually see the band take their place alongside the icons of the Australian music scene.
The Underground Lovers encapsulate the shared experience of a generation and evoke a unique sense of time and place. There’s something quintessentially Australian in their music — a disarming blend of world-weary, self-effacing wit that tempers a gift for the exhilarating and uplifting. Light floats in the music, a hazy yellow as the melancholy sun sinks behind dusty gum trees, blue asphalt, and the red-tiled roofs of Melbourne.
Just as those first notes from Grant McLennan’s guitar cut straight to the heart in Cattle and Cane — or as Peter Garrett’s contorted opening lines of Beds Are Burning land with paralysing force — so too do The Underground Lovers have the power to stop you in your tracks. Before cellphones, before the Internet, before YouTube and mashups and ProTools, the Undies reached out of the radio and into the heart of a whole generation of kids. The music became part of us; we carry it wherever we go.
I remember it was a warm night and that Vince and I both wore shorts
Let’s travel back to that stage as the curtains fell on the ’80s, and ask guitarist Glenn Bennie if he even remembers the show — and whether he had any idea that his fledgling band would one day command the respect and affection that it does now.
“I remember it was a warm night and that Vince and I both wore shorts,” he says from his home in Melbourne. “We had seen The Reels play quite a few years before at the Prospect Hill Hotel in Kew and they all wore shorts on stage. Our first gig at the Corner was our tribute to the Reels, one of our favourite bands.
“I do remember that our first bass player, [RRR morning breakfast host] Stephen Downes had decided, even before our first gig, that his day job and radio career were far too demanding and he needed to leave the band… So we were already on the lookout for a new bass player, even before our first gig.
“It just so happened that Maurice Argiro was in the audience to see us play. He had seen Vince and I in an earlier band and he had liked what we were doing. Anyway, we met him after the show and agreed to have a play together a week or so later.
“At the time we probably didn’t think about where it would all end up and I’m sure we didn’t think we’d still be playing together at 50, but we were fairly serious about making something happen at the time.”
BNU: About 10 years ago this compilation CD was put out called Tales from the Australian Underground: 1976 to 1989 or something like that. I remember buying it Chadstone JB Hi-Fi on a lunchbreak and taking it back to my desk and just having my brain melted. You grew up listening to bands like The Sunnyboys and Triffids and X and those guys. Did you, in the ’70s, have an appreciation for local music? Were you obsessive about bands as a kid, or did you dig a whole range of stuff?
GB: I was obsessive about bands in my teenage years. A big influence on me in early high school was the first Split Enz album Mental Notes. I was lucky enough to see them live when I was 12 and that experience really stuck with me.
In later high school I loved the B-52’s and more obscure pop bands of that sort. Ricky Wilson was a big influence in getting me to pick up the guitar again, as I had stopped playing in my early teens when I got bored with guitar lessons.
Ricky Wilson was a big influence in getting me to pick up the guitar again
At the end of high school I discovered community radio, particularly 3RRR. This is when I heard a lot of local independent music, which had a major influence on me. Bands like Essendon Airport and Equal Local and the various projects of Philip Brophy.
In early university days I got to see a lot of these bands live and was introduced to other bands like Pel Mel, Laughing Clowns, and eventually the Go-Betweens and The Triffids. All of these bands I saw play many times and their music had a big influence on me.
As I said earlier, I loved the Reels and saw them the most out of any of those other bands.
Internationally, I loved New Order and saw them play at Festival Hall. I also loved Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, particularly their Architecture and Morality album. I was lucky enough to see them at Melbourne University. I also loved The Jam and The Style Council and saw them play at the Glasshouse when they came to Melbourne. Talking Heads were also a favourite and Vince and I were front row for the Stop Making Sense tour.
Orange Juice was a band I also loved. I never saw them play, but I did see Edwyn Collins solo in the ’90s and recently met Malcolm Ross from the band, which was exciting.
You supported My Bloody Valentine and The Cure. I would file my copy of Rushall Station alongside Loveless and Disintegration proudly, but how did you feel meeting Robert Smith and Kevin Shields and sharing a stage with them? Was it intimidating?
I’m not sure Rushall Station is in the same ballpark as those two albums, but I’m glad you like it. The Cure tour was exciting as we got to play big sports stadiums at a relatively early point in our career. I spied Robert Smith on a few occasions watching us from behind the curtains backstage. That was a thrill. The Cure kept pretty much to themselves, though, and we didn’t get to spend much time with them.
To my surprise, Kevin Shields approached me during sound check and asked if MBV could use my amplifier
We played with My Bloody Valentine in Brisbane in the early ’90s. At that time, Loveless was the biggest album around, so it was an exciting prospect to be playing with them. To my surprise, Kevin Shields approached me during sound check and asked if MBV could use my amplifier when they played. One of their amps had blown, so my Marshall combo was the next best thing available. It was Bilinda who played through my amplifier, which was very exciting.
Your music is so evocative of Australia. When you consider what was being produced in the 1990s in Australia, your music was unique; it had just a pure and instantly recognisable voice. These days, you can hardly tell where a band is from, it all sounds so generic. Did you feel then that there was more unexplored territory than there is now, musically, 20 years later? Or did you guys just have something important to say and that’s just how it came out?
Because Vince and I had written songs together since our teenage years, I think our music really captured our lives in suburban Melbourne in the ’70s and ’80s. All of our songs reflected the music that we grew up with back then, and the environment we grew up in gave our songs context. We were trying to make sense of our place in the music world having grown up in suburban Melbourne. It was our take on music, our commentary on the music industry, and our idea of what music should be. I think that probably contributes to the uniqueness that you talk about.
There was also no effort to create some look or image or some fake angst. It was, and still is, all about the music.
We adopted an art-school approach. The same sentiment we admired in bands like Talking Heads and local bands like Essendon Airport. With those bands, there was a notion of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. We liked that idea. We hated rock star posers.
I can’t talk much about the music of today. I’m pretty stuck in the ’80s in terms of what I listen to… although I have heard some good new stuff from local bands like New War and Repairs.
The best group I’ve seen lately though is The Pop Group, 35 or more years after they started.
I think that the ’70s and ’80s were the best times to grow up in musically and there was so much that was new and so much that was inspiring. Nothing will ever match it for me.
I know some people don’t like old bands reforming and all of that type of thing, but seeing The Pop Group and Wire in the last year or so… and even Peter Hook playing Joy Division, certainly beats the shit out of some of the new stuff that’s out there.
I’m going to see the Sports in a month or two. That should be a cracker.
I think you’re right. There was a lot more unexplored territory back then, which makes the music of that time really special. If we have helped contribute to that for some people, then I am glad.
Rushall Station is probably our best-sounding album… sonically. Wayne Connolly recorded and mixed the album in a period of 10 days. We had just left Polydor records after they had expressed disappointment in the songs that we had written.
Our previous album, Dream it Down, had many false starts and ended up a collection of tracks from different studios and different producers over the course of 12 to 18 months. Surprisingly, that was our most successful album commercially.
Our second album, Leaves Me Blind, was recorded in a short space of time, but it was more experimental and we were given the opportunity to tinker in a big studio for the first time. I guess that album brought prominence to the band because it was released through 4AD.
With Rushall Station, though, we were independent again, and it was like making our first album Get to Notice. It was self-funded with a relatively small budget and we had meticulously rehearsed the songs as a band before recording. There was not much studio experimentation or overdubbing. We had made demos of the songs (the ones that Polydor hated) and went into the studio knowing exactly what we had to do.
The songs themselves were a bit more straight-ahead, verse/chorus-type structures rather than drawn-out grooves. We used basic instrumentation and were less reliant on keyboards and drum machines.
I like the fact that we called it Rushall Station. It makes it uniquely Melbourne, which is what we are.
Contrasted with the straight-ahead nature of the music was Vince’s biting lyrics, which were a commentary on our Polydor years, the posers in the industry, the music scene, and where we fitted into it. It also made reference to our current surroundings in inner city Melbourne, as opposed to Get to Notice, which reflected more on our years in suburban Melbourne.
We put the record out on our own label, aptly titled Mainstream, and distributed it through Shock Records who had released our first album. It was a little bit like starting over again.
At the time, Rushall Station didn’t have the same impact as our previous albums, but over the years it appears to have found many fans and is probably one our most talked-about albums.
Did we “nail it”? I’m not sure. For us, it is just part of a bigger story. It does express something very particularly, though, and that was successfully portrayed on the album.
I like the fact that we called it Rushall Station. It makes it uniquely Melbourne, which is what we are.
Shock Records are keen to release it on vinyl and I think that it would be a good thing to do in 2016, 20 years after its initial release. I no longer listen to the album, but will do if it goes on to vinyl.
What was your first effects pedal, and how did you learn to use guitar pedals with discipline? Do you like playing around with gear? What guitarist most influenced your technique, and who most influenced your tone?
My first effects pedal was a Boss Distortion, closely followed by a Boss digital delay unit… maybe I had a flanger of some sort years ago, too. I can’t remember.
In my early days experimenting with music, I used more of a clean sound, but I usually went a bit nuts with delay. Eventually, I worked out that using a Rat Distortion and Analogue delay pedal was all that I needed to get the sound I wanted; as well as my Marshall combo of course.
I’m not into pedals, guitars, or guitar gear. I don’t even play the guitar much outside of working out songs for the band. I hate going into guitar shops and hearing people playing with equipment.
Ricky Wilson from the B-52’s heavily influenced my technique in the early days, particularly with my use of rhythm. Grant McLennan’s guitar melodies were also a big influence on me and I’ve stolen lots of ideas from him over the years. The emergence of My Bloody Valentine and The Cocteau Twins influenced my exploration of tunings and tones and this has stayed with me ever since.
I hate going into guitar shops and hearing people playing with equipment.
When you travel around the world, as you have, you come back, and you see your home differently. What do you love about Melbourne? Why do you think it is still the heart of culture in Australia? What upsets you about the changes you have seen in the city since you played your first gig in 1990
Melbourne is a very easy city to live in. There is always plenty of music to see if you want to, and the venues and the scene have a rich history. So many great bands started in Melbourne and a lot of those musicians still play today. Unfortunately, some venues are making way for apartments, but as one venue is lost, another starts up.
I do miss some of the old venues, though, like the Seaview Ballroom and The Central Club, The Punters Club, and the Venue, and the Palace in St. Kilda. The Corner Hotel is still going strong though.
I miss union nights at the universities as well. I saw lots of great bands at Melbourne Uni in the early days. The Reels, The Models, OMD, The Go-Betweens, INXS, The Triffids, Essendon Airport, and more.
You started going even more experimental with electronics with the next few Underground Lovers releases (though you kind of nailed it with the last one released last year, guitars and electronics in total harmony). Can you tell me when you started to get fascinated by electronics? You once covered a Can song. Does the experimenting with electronics come from your love of ’70s kraut rock or motorik?
We have always been into using drum machine and synth. Before we started Underground Lovers, Vince and I used to write songs using a Roland TR-606 Drumatix and a Casiotone.
When the band first started we were keen to embrace the band sound of bass, drums and guitar, but once we were given recording budgets and good studios to work in, we wanted to branch out and use some of the instruments that influenced our early writing.
We used drum machine and synths on Leaves Me Blind and worked on programming with Robert Goodge and David Chesworth for Dream it Down. The song Rushall Station also has a drum machine on it.
On Ways t’Burn, we worked with Sonic Animation who remixed a lot of our stuff. I think this created a myth that we were going all electronic. Admittedly, Cold Feeling was an electronic-sounding album, but by that stage it was only Vince and I left in the band and it was a means to an end to program parts of tracks. That album does have an organic sense to it as well though, with a lot of acoustic guitar and Graham Lee’s pedal steel. The synths on the album are all ’70s Korgs and Moogs, so it wasn’t so much a ’90s electronic album, but rather a homage to ’70s electronic music.
We kind of thought of the album as Simon and Garfunkel meet Kraftwerk.
Around this time we also did a side project called GBVG. It was Bruce Milne who suggested we do a cover of Can’s I Want More with Jane Gazzo on lead vocals. He released the song on his label.
Can’s style had been a huge influence on us, and is prominent in songs like I Was Right, Takes You Back, On and On, So Good to Be Free, You Put Me In Your Movie, The Lie That Sets You Free, and Can for Now (hence the title). We love the rhythm and repetition of the style and it is something we’ve explored from day one.
I think your vision for electronic and more conventional rock instrumentation came to full fruition with GB3 and the Damaged/Controlled album, which you released on your own label. What was it like starting your own label? Was it stressful? Was it liberating?
All of the GB3 releases are released through Rubber Records, which is run by David Vodicka in Melbourne. The latest Undies release, Weekend, is also on Rubber, and Vince has a solo record coming out on Rubber in the next few months. David has been a good supporter of ours over the years and is well set up to work on smaller, low-budget recording projects.
Steve is an icon of the Australian music industry and his voice is classic and instantly recognizable
What do you love most about Steve Kilbey’s voice? He seems like a very skilled storyteller. What do you do when you hang out together?
Steve is an icon of the Australian music industry and his voice is classic and instantly recognizable. I feel very fortunate to have worked with him. The songs Famished [off the second GB3 album Emptiness is our Business], and How Do You Glow? (off Damaged/Controlled), are two of my most favourite songs that I have ever worked on. When we are together, we talk about when our next project is going to start. We can’t seem to find time though.
How do your solo albums come together? I mean, does it start with music, or does it start with, “I want to make music with that person,” or do you have something inside you just have to let out? Can you explain your process a little bit?
The GB3 records were all written and recorded when Underground Lovers were on a hiatus. The first album, Circlework, was a bunch of ideas I recorded with my friend Tim Prince. They were just scraps of musical loops and riffs that were put together in the studio as demos. When we finished we decided to press on and release the tracks as a CD. We asked Philippa Nihill to sing on the tracks, firstly because she is great, but secondly, because we couldn’t think of anyone else we knew who might suit.
I quickly thought up the name GB3 as it was a reference to my other side project with Vince, which was GBVG.
We enjoyed the process so much that we decided to make another album. Emptiness is Our Business was a more deliberate plan to involve a range of singers. I recorded all the music and then sent tracks to singers I knew, and others I liked, but didn’t know. There were a variety of styles on that album, but it all sat together really well. The inclusion of Steve Kilbey on the record opened me up to a whole new audience around the world and prompted the recording of a third GB3 album, Damaged/Controlled.
I used the same process for Damaged/Controlled, writing and recording the music in Melbourne and then sending the tracks to Steve who recorded the vocals in Sydney. Each time he sent down a finished track, it was a nice surprise.
Although Steve and I have talked about doing more work together, there probably won’t be another GB3 album. I like the idea that we have done three GB3 albums. I think that is a good way to bring it to a close. I am too busy with Underground Lovers, and if I work with Steve again, it will probably be as some “supergroup” featuring members of The Underground Lovers, The Church, and other bands that I haven’t thought of yet. Apparently the bass player from Echo and The Bunnymen lives in Melbourne now, so he might be good.
What are you working on right now? Does music still blow your hair back? Do you still like playing guitar? What do you listen to these days?
Apart from planning my “supergroup”, I am looking at doing some atmospheric guitar recordings and releasing them under my own name. It is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, but have never gotten around to it. That is my next project… apart from a new Underground Lovers album, which we have just started to write.
Music doesn’t blow my hair back the way it used to, partly because I don’t have much hair left.
I have seen some great bands lately, though, as I mentioned: New War, Repairs, The Pop Group, Wire, Peter Hook, Hedgehog, The Tremors, NDE, Yo Le Tango, Johnny Marr, MBV, The Church, Kilbey-Kennedy and The Moth Body.
I probably get out more nowadays, unlike the ’90s when I was juggling the band and young kids. The more I see, the more I am inspired to keep making music. Obviously, I still like playing guitar… but I probably should pick it up more than I do.
You can buy physical copies of The Underground Lovers most recent album Weekend and their incredible 2CD best-of called Wonderful Things via Rubber Records. Most of the band’s stuff, including GB3, is on iTunes. Follow the Underground Lovers on Facebook for new release info including the upcoming project “Melbournism“.