Named after the former Easybeats member and legendary producer Harry Vanda, The Vandas became one of Melbourne’s favourite young groups. But despite releasing a couple of EPs and a full-length album – both of which received generous critical acclaim – The Vandas gradually faded from view, as the members’ competing commitments took precedence.
“Logistics just got in the way,” explains Agars. “It just happened that way, and then I ended up moving away, which really put a halt on all The Vandas stuff indefinitely,” Altmann says.
Altmann had decided to focus on writing and recording his debut solo album (under the Que Paso moniker). About 18 months ago – not long after The Vandas played their last gig at The Tote – Altmann left Australian shores, packing his things and heading over to his wife’s home territory of Canada. “We lived in this place called Peterborough, about an hour and a half north-east of Toronto. There’s a lot of cool stuff going on around there – Ronnie Hawkins [who, in the early ‘60s, provided the members of The Band with their earliest education of the lascivious pleasures of rock’n’roll] lives about 20 minutes away. I haven’t been able to meet him yet, but he still plays around there,” Altmann says. Altmann has also found time to travel down to Nashville to hone his songwriting skills. “There’s a really good alternative scene going on there, especially in east Nashville,” Altmann says.
Meanwhile, Mikey Madden found time to record a second album with Gruntbucket, punctuated with the odd Chrome Nips gig. Julien Chick has been playing bass with Mick Thomas’s Roving Commission and Michael Meeking and the Lost Souls, while drummer Gus Agars has occupied the drum stool for everyone from Tex Perkins and his Ladyboyz, to Tim Rogers, Mike Noga and his Gentlemen of Fortune and The Gin Club. “I played with an Argentinian Elvis impersonator the other week as well,” Agars says.
With Altmann briefly back in Australia to play a series of solo shows, as well as playing alongside Susannah Espie, and Madden, Agars and Chick able to find time in their occasionally busy schedules, The Vandas are reforming for a one-off 10th birthday show at the Spotted Mallard in Brunswick. “The Vandas is something we’d been doing for a long time, so we can come back to it at any time,” Altmann says. “It falls back pretty easily into place,” Agars add.
It seems a long time since The Vandas’ halcyon period, when the band was signed to Liberation Records, and found itself on the Big Day Out bill. In fact, it seemed at one stage that The Vandas would achieve a level of popular and commercial currency far in excess of the average local band. “There were those glimmers of hope, yes,” laughs Altmann. “We were in that stage when we wanted to play a lot as well,” Agars says. “But I don’t think we really thought about the future that much – we were just playing shows and having fun,” adds Altmann. “We did Slow Burn, and then I started doing my solo record, because I had all these songs that weren’t really Vandas songs. And that was around the time I turned 30, and I was less interested in playing high energy, sweaty kind of shows. I wanted to sit back a little bit.”
Agars and Altmann note that The Vandas had at its heart a democratic compromise which, while successful at the time, eventually led to other problems. “Mikey and I had different musical styles, and when we all came together in The Vandas, it was a mixture of all that, and that’s why I think it was inevitable that we’d want to do our own separate thing,” Altmann says, “so Mikey went off and did Gruntbucket, and I did Que Paso”.
While Vandas’ live appearances have been rare over the last few years, Altmann says he’s written the odd song that would sit easily into The Vandas’ repertoire. “I’ve got some that have been accumulating,” Altmann says. “We talk all the time about doing another album – it’s just a case of being in the right place at the right time.” Both Altmann and Agars are looking forward to reuniting this week. “I’m really looking forward to doing some of the really early Vandas stuff. Maybe there will be some extra people on stage – some all-in action,” Altmann says. “We’re getting together to rehearse in the next couple of days – I think this is the first time I’ve ever looked forward to rehearsing,” Agars says.
BY PATRICK EMERY