Cover Story

The Itchyworms From On The Air To In The Air: “I thought, this is a band that won’t disappear in the next few years.”

The veteran pop-rock institution has lived through radio’s heyday, survived a key member’s departure, and is taking their live show overseas.

Nearing three decades as a band, the Itchyworms have definitely worked their way up into the Pinoy Rock pantheon with five excellent studio albums, over a dozen hit singles, multiple awards and recognitions, and a reputation for being one of the tightest and most engaging live acts around.

Their consistency onstage and in the studio is undoubtedly the band’s strongest suit, the result of its founding core of singer/guitarist Jugs Jugueta, singer/drummer/keyboardist Jazz Nicolas, and bassist Kelvin Yu remaining intact since 1996. They’ve since bounced back from the recent relocation of longtime lead guitarist Chino Singson to Canada by getting Ciudad’s Mikey Amistoso on acoustic guitar and keys, as well as ace session guitarist Weckl Mercado to bolster their live sound.

It’s hard to believe, though, that when the Itchyworms started out, Nicolas — the co-composer and voice of some of their most timeless songs like “Beer,” “Love Team,” and the PhilPop-winning “‘Di Na Muli” (Never Again) — actually auditioned to join the band. “Kasi kilala namin siya (We knew him) as a keyboardist,” Jugueta clarifies, adding that Nicolas previously sang and played keys for his high school band. “Sabi namin, ‘Jam tayo!’ Sabi niya, ‘Ako, ako, pwede ako mag-drums!’ (We thought,) ‘Sige, pagbigyan natin ‘tong batang ‘to.’ Magaling naman pala.” (We said, ‘Let’s jam!’ He volunteered, ‘I can play drums!’ We thought, ‘Let’s give this kid a chance.’ Turns out he was good.)

“‘Di ko nga alam na audition ‘yun, eh” (I didn’t even know it was an audition), admits Nicolas with a laugh.

The Itchyworms

The Itchyworms photographed by Jerick Sanchez.

For Jugueta, that initial jam was the earliest moment in which he felt they were on to something musically. For the rest of the band, there have been more such milestones, from winning their first battle of the bands (against Ciudad, no less), to recruiting Singson, and many others that followed. Nicolas singles out the moment their first recorded tune, “Happy House,” was played on NU107’s show for unsigned acts, In The Raw. “(I thought,) ‘Ito na ‘yon!’ ‘Tsaka ‘yung naririnig natin ‘yung pangalan natin na naka-roster d’un sa mga (NU107) Pocket Concerts — (mimics radio announcer’s voice) ‘The Dawn! Itchyworms!’” (I thought, ‘This is it!’ Also when we heard our band name being announced on the radio as part of the roster of NU107’s Pocket Concerts.)

The NU107 days were a “significant step” forward, agrees Yu. “Parang nakasali na tayo sa legit na scene.” (It’s like we joined a legit scene.)

New member Amistoso singles out the band’s critically lauded 2005 sophomore album Noontime Show as a turning point for the Itchyworms. Speaking as an outsider and fan of the band at the time, he says, “Marami kasing bandang nagkaka-album, pero ‘yung nakagawa sila ng second album na better than the first, and may cultural impact-cum-message na malalim… parang, hindi lang ito basta-basta isang bandang mawawala in the next few years.” (A lot of bands can make albums, but they were able to make a second album that was better than the first, with a deep cultural impact-cum-message. I thought, this is a band that won’t disappear in the next few years.)

“Alam talaga ng mga tao ‘yung mga kanta pag sa radyo sila sumikat. Hanggang ngayon alam pa rin nila ‘yung mga ‘yon.”

Noontime Show also begot the infinitely catchy “Akin Ka Na Lang” (Be Mine Instead), the poignant “Love Team,” and of course “Beer,” arguably the band’s most recognizable song to date. It was a bonafide hit all across the FM dial, not just on rock and alternative radio. Yu recalls a recent conversation he had with Zach Lucero of Imago, in which they discussed how fortunate they were to have been among one of the last generations of bands to experience radio’s heyday. “Kahit papaano, ‘yung mga songs namin, alam na ng mga tao ‘yan kahit wala kaming ilabas na mga bagong kanta, kasi collectively isa lang ‘yung source ng music and trends ng mga tao, which is radio” (No matter what, people will always know our songs even if we don’t release anything new, because radio was the only source of music and trends), says the bassist, “‘Yung mga bands like Imago (and us), hindi na sila mawawalan ng gigs, kasi tumatak na ‘yung mga hits nila sa radyo. Alam talaga ng mga tao ‘yung mga kanta pag sa radyo sila sumikat. Hanggang ngayon alam pa rin nila ‘yung mga ‘yon.” (Bands like Imago and us will always play gigs because our hits have made a mark on the radio. People really know songs that became popular on the radio, until now.)

The Itchyworms

The Itchyworms photographed by Jerick Sanchez.

Yu explains how the digital age has changed the way people consume music, which allows them to choose or curate what they listen to on streaming platforms. “Kanya-kanyang kinig na ngayon, eh” (People choose what they listen to nowadays), he continues.

“Dati, radyo lang pinagmumulan ng lahat. So pag may nag-hit sa radyo, alam ng lahat ‘yan whether they like it or not; kahit hindi nila gusto ‘yung kanta, alam nila ‘yung kanta. So swerte kami in the sense na sa radyo sumikat ang ‘Beer,’ so alam na ng lahat ng tao ‘yung ‘Beer’ ngayon. Tapos ipapasa nila sa mga anak nila, or sa mga younger (generations). So feeling ko magtutuloy-tuloy pa. Sabi ng ibang fans na nanonood sa amin sa gigs, ‘Kayo pinapakinggan ng tatay ko, eh.’” (Back then, radio was the only source of everything. So when a song becomes a hit, people know the song whether they liked it or not. So we’re lucky in the sense that “Beer” was a radio hit, so everybody knows it. Then it gets passed down to younger generations. I feel that it will keep going. Some younger fans at our shows have told us, “My dad listens to your band.”)

Even if the Itchyworms never released anything after “Beer,” Yu believes that they already “made our mark” because of the song’s enduring quality and ability to induce sing-alongs from the crowd. But the band has released three more full-length albums and a bunch of singles since then, giving them an impressive wealth of material to draw from for live shows, and to ultimately leave as their legacy. In any case, all of them are proud to have come from the age of radio, having taken the longer route to fame, and having worked harder than the average new band with a song that went viral on TikTok.

The Itchyworms

The Itchyworms photographed by Jerick Sanchez.

Besides, the band is showing no signs of slowing down; in fact, they’ve played their most number of international gigs in 2023, including tours in the US and Japan, and two shows in Singapore. “There’s an Australian tour in the works,” adds Amistoso. “Kung kailan pa ako sumali, d’un biglang andaming international gigs.” (It was when I joined that we suddenly got a lot of international gigs.)

“Baka ikaw ‘yung lucky charm natin” (Maybe you’re our lucky charm), quips Jugueta.

The band’s last US tour made it possible for Singson, who migrated to Canada with his wife and kids in 2022, to rejoin the band onstage for a few shows. Jugueta shares that the lead guitarist had been telling the band of his plans to relocate since the early days. “‘Yun talaga ‘yung goal nila (That was his family’s goal). Actually, they tried migrating to Canada (around 2008), pero hindi natuloy (but it didn’t push through) for some reason.”

“Swerte kami in the sense na sa radyo sumikat ang ‘Beer,’ so alam na ng lahat ng tao ‘yung ‘Beer’ ngayon.”

Nevertheless, they’re glad to have had the opportunity to create music and spend time in the studio and on the road with Singson for so long. “He stayed for ten more years or so,” affirms Jugueta. “‘Yun pa lang, gravy na sa amin ‘yun, eh. At least nakagawa pa kami ng ilang albums together. Lagi kong sinasabi sa mga kaibigan ko na iniwan nga niya nanay at kapatid niya — ano ba naman kami, ‘di ba? So OK na rin ‘yon.” (That in itself was a bonus for us. At least we were still able to make a few more albums together. I always tell my friends that [Singson] left his mother and brother behind — who were we to complain? So that’s OK.)

Despite the distance between him and his bandmates, Singson is still a full-fledged Itchyworm as he has committed to keep writing and recording for the band from his new home. Besides, they were able to craft an entire album (2020’s Waiting For The End To Start) during the lockdown through home recording and file sharing. Nicolas says, “(We told him,) ‘Baka kaya natin ‘to kahit nasa Canada ka. Mag-record ka from there, parang pandemic style lang.’” (We told him, “Maybe we could still do this even if you’re in Canada. You can record from there, just like we did during the pandemic.”)

The Itchyworms

The Itchyworms photographed by Jerick Sanchez.

With their longtime lead guitarist now based on the other side of the world and the band now playing more shows overseas than ever before, the Itchyworms are now in what Amistoso calls their “international era,” 28 years after Jugueta, Nicolas, and Yu first got together in a room and jammed. Over those almost three decades, they’ve built a distinct chemistry around a shared musical language, a deep friendship, and an offbeat sense of humor that comes out in the way they relate to each other onstage and in the studio, as well as in the remarkable music they create.

“Sinasabi lagi ng asawa ko na para kaming ‘Itchyworms Boys Club,’ dahil sa sobrang tagal na naming magkasama, mahirap na siyang ma-penetrate” (My wife always says that we’re like an ‘Itchyworms Boys Club’ because we’ve been together for so long, it’s hard for outsiders to penetrate), says Jugueta. Yet they continue to come up with anthems that everyone can relate (and sing their hearts out) to, while injecting them with a musicality that reveals a high level of technical proficiency and pop songcraft. From their earliest days until now, the Itchyworms have always known that they have a gift, and they’ll keep sharing it with their millions of listeners and fans, no matter the distance.

This cover story is part of Billboard Philippines’ Pinoy Rock series, where we define the sound the Filipino rock scene through 10 of the most influential bands in the country. Read more of the series below.

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