It was the end for Chino Singson.
And then the Itchyworms guitarist decided he wanted to teach guitar. Not so much how to play it, but how to know it more intimately. Before he sits for this catch-up with NME and the rest of his bandmates, in fact, he was just teaching an author.
Two months ago Singson put out feelers online, but in reality, he had already been hard at work on a deck for would-be students. “Honestly speaking, I was kind of panicking in terms of my finances for the next few months. So I’m happy there were lots of takers,” the guitarist says.
He even got some open-minded colleagues to sign up: people like Gab Chee Kee of Parokya Ni Edgar and Dax Balmeo of KIIT (who’s also as a session guitarist for The Lotus Eaters and The Wild Swans). “What was I going to do anyway, keep watching Netflix?” he chuckles.
Then it was the end for Jugs Jugueta. But the Itchyworms singer – one of two in the band – turned it around and “synthesised” his two loves: cooking and tending to plants. He’d sweet-talk his potted basil to “please not die” so he can use it in the dishes he’s been whipping up.
In this provisional virus-riddled world, an ability to be self-sustaining is requisite. And for Jugueta, that realisation came the bittersweet way.
In July, four months into the nationwide lockdown, the Philippine Congress denied the renewal of the broadcast franchise of media giant ABS-CBN, a known critic of the administration. If truth and information were blood, the non-renewal was generally seen as the severing of a crucial artery.
But Jugueta worked there. He co-hosted the wildly popular noontime program It’s Showtime! for a decade. The thought of it being cancelled was as far-fetched as anything. Instead, it was the station that got the axe.
“It’s important for us to let the audience know that, whatever they’re going through, we’re going through it, too” – Jazz Nicolas
So he started planting and cooking, and listening to every piece of music ever made by Lake Street Dive, a Boston-bred band he discovered while in lockdown. It was love at first listen, and he found himself buying the group’s entire catalogue. On vinyl. In one go. That kind of head-over-heels insta-attraction really is something else.
“This band is really freaking good. They’re like us, but they’re so much better!” he says, excitedly explaining how the Massachusetts quintet is able to deliver irresistible melodies amid a smattering of technical Easter eggs. He cites his own band’s hit single ‘Gusto Ko Lamang Sa Buhay’, which is infinitely hummable, “but people don’t realise there’s a section there done in 7/8 time.”
“In short, I’ve been coping through music. I mean, I lost two of my jobs, as everyone knows,” he says, referring to the TV gig and live music, and it elicits a pregnant silence that his co-singer, the multi-instrumentalist Jazz Nicolas, pops with a needle.
“Well, we haven’t fired you yet.” They all laugh.
It was going to be the end for Nicolas, too.
The composer-arranger, who is the band’s other vocalist, hasn’t been getting that many jobs for corporate studio work, and it’s been a while. There were fun things, though. Earlier in the year, for example, he helped salvage the surviving recordings of defunct indie outfit Narda, remastering them for digital reissues at Big Baby (the studio he co-runs with his younger brother, the guitar player Peavey Nicolas).
“I’m thankful that we embarked on this project because it kept me busy at this time,” Nicolas says of ‘Waiting For The End To Start’, the Itchyworms’ fifth album and their second with Sony Music since the label’s Philippine arm made a comeback.
“Actually, now that it’s done, I’m kind of looking for things to do.”
“Apart from promoting it, you mean?” Jugueta gets the last laugh.
As for Kelvin Yu, well, it was poised to be the end for him, too.
So the bassist started checking in on their band’s HQ. “Just so ghosts don’t get any ideas,” he kids, adding, “They tend to hang out in empty houses.” These daily visits to the band’s office, incidentally, also involve feeding three snakes and an iguana.
He’s also been arranging files in his computer, renaming and refiling everything into neat little folders, like digital spring cleaning. People have time to do that now. He’s freed up so much space he can now start new recording projects. “Amazing!” he laughs.
“I’m a band guy, that’s my orientation. It mattered a lot that we weren’t around each other for this” – Kelvin Yu
It was going to be the end for the Itchyworms. It was going to be the end for all of us.
Then the band somehow found a way around it, like a video-game cheat – or one of those MacGyver life hacks you find on YouTube. For Jugs, Jazz, Chino and Kelvin, that hack was cutting their newest record, ‘Waiting For The End To Start’, in a manner they wouldn’t have imagined possible: apart, while everything falls apart.
Unlike their last few records – 2008’s ‘Self-Titled’ (on Sony) and 2013’s ‘After All This Time’ (independently released) – the songs for this one didn’t have the luxury of on-tour maturation; they weren’t even written and arranged in the presence of each other. And if you know the Itchyworms, you’d recognise and acknowledge the physical immediacy to their pop smarts. They just work better when they’re elbow-to-elbow.
“I’m a band guy, that’s my orientation. It mattered a lot that we weren’t around each other for this,” Yu admits.
But as soon as the pandemic hit, they were forced to resume work on a previously shelved song, ‘Armageddon Blues’, through back-and-forth chats and emails. It was their trial piece for this new workflow, and when it fared well, the boys mustered enough courage to embark on an entire record done in the same fashion.
The resulting studio version of ‘Armageddon Blues’ quelled all of the group’s anxieties. On the cut’s raunchy Wings-meet-AC/DC guitar tones, unshakeable melody and acerbic end-of-days rhymes, the band negotiate old impulses with new ones, grappling with limiting circumstances – and basically win.
“It was more a matter of sweetening the sound, to get it to where we wanted it to be,” Chino says of the assembly of ‘Armageddon Blues’, a process they were able to duplicate beautifully with ‘The Silence’, which they put out as an advance single.
Contrary to the balls-out, blazing-guns bombast of ‘Armageddon Blues’, there is something disarming about the vulnerability of ‘The Silence’. The Itchyworms, after all, aren’t known chroniclers of inward strife. Save for the razor-sharp commentary of their sophomore release – 2005’s ‘Noontime Show’, a caustic jab at local showbusiness – the band’s discography has been a string of one earworm after another, all wistful yet humorous musings on love.
Who knew they’d get anxiety pangs like the rest of us, and have that restlessness inform their next album in a profound way?
‘Waiting For The End To Start’, released August 18, is a return to serious longform. This is a point of pride for the band. “It’s another opportunity to present a cohesive body of work, rather than piecemeal material,” Nicolas says, adding that while the band didn’t plan for ‘Waiting…’ to be a concept album, the helplessness borne of the times just couldn’t be masked by sheer creative energy.
The record’s great contradiction is, of course, that the band still exudes its signature sunshine. That quality, Jugueta wagers, cannot be helped. “It’s inevitable – like Thanos,” he says.. ‘Waiting For The End…’ runs the gamut of tempos and genres and neuroses, from the doo-wop of ‘Give Me A Love Song’, to the histrionics of ‘InstruMental’, to the show tune stylings of ‘Burning Bridges’.
The album peaks in emotive impact and thematic potency on the Ben Folds-indebted ‘The Life I Know’. “You took me away from the safety of the life I know,” Nicolas sings plaintively. Though the virus remains a spectre, in the song it is cast as a life-altering lover, the one you always wrote home about.
“The album’s not meant to be inspiring or encouraging,” Nicolas offers. “But it’s important for us to let the audience know that, whatever they’re going through, we’re going through it, too.”
The Itchyworms’ ‘Waiting For The End To Start’ is out now