Immigrant Union’s Bob Harrow and Pete ‘Gamma’ Lubulwa sit upstairs at the Gasometer Hotel in Collingwood, chain-smoking and explaining how their latest album Anyway came about. “We all went to Benalla, to my parents’ place where I grew up, and that’s where we really started jamming,” says Harrow. He’s the band’s co-lead singer and guitarist, while Lubulwa plays keys.
Lubulwa goes on, “I think we ended up recording 14 or 15…”
“16,” Harrow interjects. “16 songs.”
That batch of 16 songs was cut down to ten to make up the band’s sophomore album. For Immigrant Union, good songwriting is paramount. In comparison to their self-titled debut, Anyway has more of a psychedelic undercurrent. Harrow and Lubulwa cite Spiritualized as a big point of reference. But tone and genre aside, they maintain it’s all about the song.
“You listen to Nirvana or The Beatles,” says Harrow. “It’s always Kurt [Cobain] or John Lennon sitting at the piano or on a guitar. I’m not comparing ourselves to them, but we start our songs in the same way. Like, your girlfriend just broke up with you, instead of kicking the wall in you’re going to write a song. Shit like that.”
Case in point is the song ‘Alison’, one of the standout tracks on the new album. When asked what the song’s about, Lubulwa whispers, “About a girl.”
“About a girlfriend,” Harrow laughs. “It’s a fairly sort of literal song saying, like, ‘Fuck.’ With the lyrics of ‘Alison’, I sat there and wrote it like I was writing a creative piece for English. Like, ‘I’m going to write a story here and it’s got to be concise.’”
Immigrant Union’s songwriting approach has been the same since their first EP. In fact, that’s how Harrow and Brent DeBoer (of The Dandy Warhols fame) started the band. They met at Melbourne’s Cherry Bar while DeBoer was in town on the film tour for the documentary Dig! The pair got chatting and DeBoer invited Harrow to come away with him for a weekend, where they spent a lot of their time passing a guitar back and forth, swapping songs. Their relationship grew, and when DeBoer eventually moved to Australia, Lubulwa jumped on board.
The lineup has constantly changed since their inception, at one point ballooning out to a nine-piece. They have now pared things back to a core five, which has had an effect on the music. “The kernel of the song always stays the same,” Lubulwa says. “The songwriting hasn’t changed, it’s just what’s done to the song that’s changed.”
“Yeah,” Harrow agrees. “Instead of the fiddle, now we’ll have Gamma do like a fucking synth ‘wahwahwahwahwahwah’, and instead of a shuffle [he starts drumming in the air] it’s just a straight beat.”
Since establishing their current lineup – rounded out by bassist Ben Street and drummer Paddy McGrath-Lester – Immigrant Union have come into their own as a live act. Their original lineup included Courtney Barnett, Dave Mudie and Bones Sloane, who left when Barnett’s solo career picked up pace. There’s some hesitation to talk about her success – not in a sour way, more in a ‘we’re sick of talking about it’ way.
“Everything’s always about Courtney, which is awesome,” says Harrow. “They were awesome, but we’re really stoked with the live thing at the moment because of [Street and McGrath-Lester]. It’s like, you read shit and you’re sitting with them and you think, ‘Are you guys even in the band? Because you’re not mentioned here at all.’”