It’s early on Friday afternoon, with the sun shining for the first time in recent memory. Gus Agars, and (a freshly shorn) Mikey Madden, drummer and guitarist respectively in The Vandas and I are sitting outside a coffee shop in Block Arcade discussing The Vandas, past, present and hopefully future. Towards the end of the interview I offer a gratuitous recollection: way back in 1985 I played indoor cricket with Agars’ father at Stepney Indoor Cricket Centre in Adelaide. “I love that,” Agars laughs. “That’s the best thing anyone with a beard has ever said to me.”
It’s not quite 25 years, but it’s been a long between live drinks for The Vandas. So long, in fact, that both Madden and Agars pause to remember when it was that the four members – Madden, Agars, guitarist and vocalist Chris Altmann and bass player Julien Chick – actually performed on the same stage. “We played a gig last year sometime, but Gus wasn’t there, so we had Dave [Watkins] from Gruntbucket on drums,” Madden recalls, “and the other three guys played at my wedding.
But that’s just about it.” Agars, who arrives late due to the obligatory public transport logistical drama, is little the wiser. “Geez, I dunno,” he replies, looking at Madden for inspiration. I note that the last time I’d seen The Vandas play was supporting Johnny Casino at The East Brunswick Club a couple of years ago. “Yeah, but he was supporting us!” Agars corrects me politely.
In the early years of the 21st century The Vandas rose from the ashes of Altmann’s band The Drowners, who’d moved across from Adelaide to Melbourne to pursue their musical interests, and maybe a hidden fortune. Madden had also moved to Melbourne from his native Sydney, and made the acquaintance of Altmann and his band mates; the band then proceeded to take their name from Harry Vanda, the legendary music producer, songwriter and Easybeats guitarist. In their early years the band spent many a weeknight entertaining local punters at Fitzroy’s Rainbow Hotel, eventually releasing two EPs (Didn’t Come Here To Be Alone, In The Morning) and a full-length album (Slow Burn).
Somewhere along the path of the band’s evolution, The Vandas found themselves lumped into a country-rock category. It’s a description Madden doesn’t think is entirely appropriate. “I’m not sure how that happened,” he says. “We definitely do a lot more than country rock. Chris is really into country rock – I think he listens to country rock almost exclusively these days – but The Vandas were always more of a rock ’n’ roll band,” he counters. Agars agrees. “I don’t know why we got tarred with that brush,” he remarks. “I suppose it was just an easy thing for some people to say.”
The Vandas’ hiatus from live performance has been a simple matter of logistics, with no hint of euphemistic intra-band artistic differences. Altmann has spent the last past focussing on his Que Paso solo project, in which Altmann has indulged that acknowledged love of country rock (as well as his drumming skills). Madden has edged up the other end of the rock ’n’ roll spectrum, teaming up with former Downhills Home bass player Tim McCormack and drummer Dave Watkins in the psychedelic noise trio Gruntbucket. Agars has split his time, here, there and everywhere, playing drums in The Gin Club, Mike Noga and his Gentlemen Of Fortune and Tex Perkins And The Ladyboyz. In more recent times both Madden and Agars have been seconded into Joel Silbersher’s ‘greatest hits’ party-cover band (“they’re not really anyone’s greatest hits”, Madden says) The Chromenips. This in turn makes it difficult to even have the members of The Vandas in the one spot.
“It’s really hard just to get us in the same room at the same time,” Madden says.
Thankfully, the Vandas’ perennial logistical problems have been solved – for one night at least – when The Vandas play The Tote on Australia Day Eve. “I was talking to Amanda from The Tote about Gruntbucket gigs, and it just came about from there,” Madden acknowledges. “We always knew we’d play again, but it was just a matter of when we were all free,” Agars adds.
With Agars heading to Europe shortly to play with Mike Noga and The Gentlemen Of Fortune as support to Band Of Horses, Madden juggling his own activities and Altmann preparing to move to Canada with his wife for an undefined period, time is of the essence for a Vandas reformation. “I always find that when we get back together, it’s really easy to pick things up,” Madden muses. Agars says a pre-gig rehearsal is still necessary. “I reckon I might’ve forgotten some of the songs, so we better rehearse,” he laughs.
Geographical logistics and extra-Vandas commitments aside, both Madden and Agars hope the band can reconvene soon to write and record some new material. “We had hoped to get together and write some songs for a new album last year, but it never happened because everyone was so busy,” Madden says. “Chris and I haven’t actually sat down and written anything together yet, but hopefully we can do that soon; before he goes away.”
For a band that always seems remarkably at ease in their musical and fraternal skin, even a brief period together should be sufficient to capture the creative juices. “We only need a couple of days in the studio,” Agars grins. “That’s all we had last time, and it worked out pretty well.”
THE VANDAS make a welcome return with a huge show at The Tote on Australia Day Eve – Tuesday January 25. They’re joined by the mighty Hoss and The Bowers. Kick off is 8pm – see you at the bar to celebrate the rough one year anniversary of The Tote shutting down… and re-emerging stronger and better than ever.