The second supernatural coming of Total Giovanni
As Melbourne disco-freaks Total Giovanni prepare to take the Supernatural Amphitheatre this weekend, Jake Cleland remembers the band’s first triumphant Golden Plains appearance.
On a Sunday afternoon in 2015, Total Giovanni walked onto the Golden Plains stage arranged in all white and gold. These princes of the new disco had come to pay homage to Moroder and Cowley and Rodgers as much as to the beloved Victorian festival itself—with that stage the grounds for their coronation. The Supernatural Amphitheatre was hot and dry and still the field was packed. The first half of the set was eerie: spaced out jams and menacing pitch-shifted vocals in place of the shiny and free good time anyone might’ve expected. It seemed like they were messing with the crowd. But then they paused and Vachel “Frankie Topaz” Spirason, the group’s lead songwriter, approached the microphone. He told the story of five boys and the long weekends they’d spent caked in dust and sweat and dreaming of the day they’d find themselves up there. It’s a familiar rap—plenty of local artists who end up on the bill have been going for years—but something about the way Spirason told it made it feel real and resonant. And then they blasted into the hits. The effect was immediate: massive pockets of people all the way up to the back of the Amphitheatre were flowing with the tide, roiling to the swagger of “Can’t Control My Love” and the ominous groove of “Paradise”. And then the boots started going up. This is a sacred Golden Plains tradition: a boot in the air is a vote for best on field. And there were a lot of votes flying for Total Giovanni by the end of their set.
When I meet him in June 2016, Vachel Spirason looks just like any other fella, sat at a coffee shop in North Melbourne on a rainy Thursday. Where Frankie Topaz, his alter ego, is all sexy and sleazy, erotic but distant, Spirason is frank and grounded. Frankie Topaz might light up at the prospect of an acid-fuelled tantric massage; Spirason lights up when he talks about time at home. He’s got a kid now, a few months old, and he’s just moved into a place around the corner to start his family. He says he spent his own childhood in St Kilda—at a time when Fitzroy Street was transitioning from Nick Cave-and-needles to popped collars-and-prams. His mother was a performer with a rehearsal space over in Port Melbourne; every nook of their house was bursting with books and records. Spirason’s first musical encounter was as a seven-year-old, when a stern Russian lady named Xena would push him through classical guitar lessons. Once he grokked the fundamentals he ditched sheet music to start figuring out songs by ear. And always in private. Even into his twenties, his music was only for himself. In high school he turned to theatrical performing, a way to channel the natural desire to fuck around. It started with school plays, but at uni it became full-blown. Plays and sketches turned into writing a couple shows that landed him in Edinburgh. It was only after then that he started playing music with other people.
Total Giovanni gestated long in secret. The five members had bonded in high school and the years after, and spent a considerable amount of time DJing and frequenting Melbourne’s house parties. Their musical friends caught wind of their project, but were left wondering when the strange experiment would see the light of day. It happened in November 2013. At the Empress Hotel—the real Empress Hotel, with its moulding carpets and slimy walls and every third pint came with a drowned fly in the glass; not the shiny approximation now standing in its place—the poster read, “For the first time ever in Australia, Total Giovanni!” The gag was that the band were some kinda iconic disco group from Milan who’d moved here ’cause times had got tough. (Although their names marked them as aliens from another dimension: Frankie Topaz, Spike Punch, Shidi Amin, Cavallo Nero, and Shattered Guru.) The show was packed: 180 people turned up, friends and friends of friends who’d been curious since the band’s first trimester. Total Giovanni had hit the ground running, and the speed they were picking up wasn’t in anybody’s plans.
At every step, looking in from outside, Total Giovanni have seemed like a deliberate project, but so much of it has been the fortuitous accidents of happy experiments. And nothing more so than that Golden Plains set and the following shows. “We’ve spent so much time there, it feels like home away from home,” Spirason says of the festival. “It feels like Aunty Bev’s place. It’s a nice, warm hug of a space, and we’ve had so many formative experiences there as a group of friends. It was like, this is okay. It’s a safe space. We’d never played a stage that big. But we were backstage, we got dressed, did our normal ritual. The good thing about the costume element… it feels like a footy dressing room before we go on. We got our fruit platter, our beers. We got our gear on and we’re like, “Right, let’s have a crack at this. Let’s give it everything we’ve got.” No-one anticipated it dovetailing the way it did, with everyone getting into it, but to be honest I think we had a hundred mates up the front who were helping start the vibes. It was the best show. It’s still hard to top that as a performance experience because of how special that place is.”
Read Jake Cleland’s full piece in the first issue of Swampland.