The Valentinos: Young And Full Of The Devil
The Valentinos are going places – they just have to get past The Church first
Steve Kilbey looks like an erudite version of the Bush Tucker Man: scuffed work boots, khaki shorts, and a grey beard. He could be a literary figure about to lay a patio. It’s 6.45pm and according to the tour schedule, doors for The Church’s show at Melbourne’s National Theatre are due to open in 15 minutes. But the logistics of getting the veteran guitar combo to work together involve a fair degree of negotiation and rewarded prayer. They still haven’t started their soundcheck.
In the empty shell that is the support band’s dressing room, The Valentinos are experiencing their own problems. “How the fuck am I supposed to do my make-up?” demands bassist Pat Santamaria with mock outrage as he surveys the globeless light fittings around the mirror. A pretend star is torn.
While their genially efficient tour manager and mixer Tom fiddles on a laptop, The Valentinos kill time. Sprawled on ramshackle chairs they have the insouciant air of young musicians who have turned the corner from struggling to surging ahead. They’re the Sydney five-piece in their early to mid twenties who exemplify the rock/dance/fashion crossover – even if they personally have little idea of what that actually means – and they’re a week away from making their first trek to the grotty band rooms of England and their sparkling equivalent in Japan.
Panning from right to left you have: Andrew Santamaria, the gregarious guitarist who calls everyone “dawg” with a dose of hip-hop affectation once he’s relaxed; Pat Santamaria, his somewhat quieter brother, who is growing a moustache; Daniel Stricker, the band’s drummer and co-manager, who’s already sweating over a setlist; Jonno Ma, the guitarist and keyboardist who bears an uncanny resemblance to Barcelona F.C.’s Portuguese playmaker, Deco, and has much the same guiding influence on the band’s sound; and vocalist Nik Yiannikas, who is telling a story about a recent stint in a K-hole.
His encounter with ketamine happened at Sydney’s Club 77, a venue that’s become a touchstone for the group and their milieu. As he sat chemically locked off from the rest of the world, a friend and fellow traveler tried to climb onto a table, but slipped and gashed his head. Bleeding, he sat next to Nick, but the lanky singer wasn’t able to offer aid. He was immobile. “I couldn’t do anything,” he protests as his bandmates laugh at him.
They spend some time ragging on Pat’s jacket and talking about their contemporaries with a mixture of friendly respect and keen rivalry. Their collective catchphrases are “asscapella”, “Erroneous Monk” and “Lucius” – the latter is a play on luscious that was coined in honour of Cog drummer Lucius Borich, who they have never met but are fascinated by the idea of (one of their new tunes also has a working title of “Borich”).
High in one corner of the room sits a closed circuit television screen that’s locked off on the stage, where The Church have finally assembled. From what The Valentinos have observed on their short stint supporting The Church, Kilbey and guitarist Peter Koppes do not converse. Some of the band’s members have appointed partners or friends to positions of authority within the touring structure, creating personal fiefdoms.
The Valentinos were nonplussed when invited to support The Church, but accepted happily. It is another example of their industriousness and versatility. In recent times they’ve headlined club shows of their own, played alongside the DJs who dominate The Parklife Festival in Brisbane and now fallen into time with The Church’s elegiac guitar edifices. They don’t see genres, just audiences.
“If you’re exploring different styles, that freaks people out,” Yiannikas later notes. “It also freaks people out if you’re doing anything that people are doing overseas.”
Some of the residual suspicion that follows The Valentinos stems from their earlier incarnation. The Valentinos Mk II are skittering drum patterns, the requisite angular guitars, keyboard washes and Yiannikas’ Robert Smith-like yelp. But the earlier version of the group, formed in 2004 for a Sydney Uni band comp, was a retro-obsessed sixties garage rock band. Of the current quintet, only old friends Yiannikas (law) and Andrew Santamaria (micro-biology at nearby UTS) were in that line-up.
An acid bender from another member on their first Melbourne tour put an end to that grouping, not that Andrew was that concerned. After a childhood where he’d ignored rock in favour of classical (he and his brother played in a string quartet), jazz and funk, he’d discovered everything from The Rolling Stones to The Stones Roses in a heady rush of sound. When the reconstituted Valentinos first started playing at the start of 2005 they had more expansive listening habits at a time when Sydney’s music scene was on the cusp of change.
“Everyone see Sydney as uber-pretentious because fashion and music and design all boomed within the same genre at the same time,” notes Andrew, sitting on the steps behind the National Theatre. “I find that exciting. There’s a good vibe in Sydney. People think that Sydney bands said, ‘I think this is going to be cool, let’s all start doing it’. I don’t think any scene starts like that.”
Melbourne’s Snapp! Crakk! played a series of influential shows, Spectrum opened and the first wave of the early eighties revival crashed upon receptive rocks. Everything coalesced. The New Rock movement was deposed and The New Wave of New Wave replaced it.
“Everyone thinks Modular [Records] and Tsubi [Jeans] are the same thing,” admits Andrew, wise to the criticism that posits their scene’s outside influences as cover for a lack of substance. The band remains unconcerned – when not playing with The Valentinos, Jonno Ma and Pat Santamaria DJ together under the moniker Knife Machine, pollinating ideas from one setting to another.
Yiannikas cites Midnight Juggernauts, Snapp! Crakk! successors Damn Arms, Pharaohs, Expatriate, Cut Copy and Children Collide as contemporaries and fellow travellers. “We’re all friends and we play each other’s gigs,” he says. “It’s good to be able to relate to other people who are doing what you do, so you don’t have to feel alone.”
A signifier of this scene is a form of conspicuous consumption when it comes to hedonism; post-millennial blues and the relentless negative drag of multiple unrelenting news cycles – Iraq, global warming, racial and religious conflicts at home and abroad – is answered with a volley of indulgence.
“I think any great movement has its own drug,” enthuses Andrew. “Punk had speed. Hippies had acid. And right now in Sydney ecstasy is everywhere. Everyone is having pills. If you go out you have a pill. Pills are a beautiful mindset. You hug people. It keeps you going to dawn and the comedown is like, ‘We’ve all just had such a Lucius experience’.”
“That doesn’t necessarily come from the bands we hang out with,” Nik later adds. “We also hang out with Bang Gang DJs and people in the DJ scene and they’re the ones who lead us astray – them and acts like Presets and Cut Copy. Before we met those guys we’d be home by midnight.”
But right now they just want to play. It’s 8.45pm and the acoustic opening act is on. A ten-minute soundcheck, complete with a perpetually stressed monitors engineer muttering to himself, ended when The Church’s crew needed to work on the headliner’s riser-mounted drumkit. Sitting in their dressing room, picking at the remnants of a St Kilda takeaway dinner, the band debates their set. The Church’s tour manager, who they believe to be Marty Wilson-Piper’s girlfriend, has cut their playing time down to 25 minutes.
Daniel Stricker, as is his nature, grows more intense, while his bandmates shrug their shoulders and laugh at his peaking intensity. “We should cut two songs from the set,” suggests Andrew Santamaria. The group has two EPs to choose from, plus the material they’ve started writing for the debut album they plan to record in the first half of 2007.
“We’re only cutting one – we’ll just keep playing,” insists Stricker. Sadly, that strategy doesn’t work. They go on at 9pm to muted applause from the seated audience and by just the third song The Church’s tour manager is standing side of stage, making expansive chopping motions with her hands. They get a fourth number underway but when it ends they have to walk off the stage. Stricker throws his sticks up in the air in annoyance.
In the dressing room Andrew Santamaria glumly looks at the luminous orange squishy he purchased from the service station over the road before they went on. “We didn’t even play long enough for this to melt,” he laments.
Later Peter Koppes says some nice things to Nik, but the band make a fast exit. They’re unfulfilled. Eventually their evening out post-gig starts with a visit to another Sydney band, unsigned and without a release, who are ensconced in a South Yarra serviced apartment for their first Melbourne run. The teenage usurpers are already being pursued by A&R reps from major and boutique labels. People in small groups congregate and laugh and watch YouTube clips and play console games. The golden scent of promise and youth unhindered by setback or doubt fills the air. The Valentinos get an hour’s sleep before they’re at the airport to fly onwards.