MUSIC

My life in seven Itchyworms love songs

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The director and the host of the podcast “Worms Upon a Time” looks back at 25 years of Itchyworms through their iconic love songs. Photo from UNIVERSAL RECORDS PHILIPPINES/YOUTUBE

I first met an Itchyworm when I was 21.

That particular Itchyworm would be Jugs Jugueta, their frontman and guitarist, and of course, in a couple of years later, friendly neighborhood “It’s Showtime” host.

This was way back in 2003. I was in my graduating year at the Ateneo de Manila, taking a drawing and painting elective every Thursday in Gonzaga Hall.

Every so often, in between doing studies (which eventually become crumpled balls of paper) or charcoal portraits of my seatmate, I would peek out the window and see this Itchyworm sitting by the cabinets outside, quietly playing games on his Nokia phone while wearing shades. This Itchyworm had a cool vibe about him, as if after watching many Eraserheads gigs, he had absorbed the affectations of Ely Buendia.

Of course, being the Eraserheads nerd that I was, I had a quiet excitement in the pit of my stomach whenever I was in the vicinity of musicians who were Eraserheads-adjacent. And true enough, there was no other band more Eraserheads-adjacent at that time than the Itchyworms.

Sadly though, 2003 was a bad time to be an Eraserheads fan. The Eraserheads had already broken up a year before — to little fanfare— a piece of news eclipsed by the tragic passing of actor Rico Yan in that same week.

In music, as much as all else in life, things come in cycles. And yes, the kids in 2003 were no longer interested in Beatles-inspired Filipino songs with pun-filled lyrics and distortion pedals. The sounds of those days came from opposite ends of the music spectrum — you either went for the Rottweiler growl of nu-metal bands (or kupaw, in industry speak) or the kolehiyala-cheesiness of acoustic acts like Nyoy Volante and Paolo Santos. There was no middle ground.

The author with Kelvin Yu, Jazz Nicolas and Chino Singson in 2013. Photo courtesy of WINCY AQUINO ONG

But as fate would have it, I heard the Itchyworms’ song “Bituwin” on the radio one afternoon — all dreamy, orchestral, and psychedelic, bordering on “Magical Mystery Tour” territory, neither kupaw nor acoustic — and strangely, I felt a kinship with their music, like I could imagine myself being friends with whoever worked on that song.

After some time, I mustered enough courage to introduce myself to Jugs after class. When I told him that “Bituwin” reminded me so much of the Eraserheads’ “Lightyears” from the Fruitcake album, he bolted up and gave me a good handshake.

We chatted for a bit and he told me that he bought an EP of my fledgling indie band Narda and he liked our songs as well.

Something was in the air at that moment. And little did I know that a few months later, my band and his would be doing a gig together in K.A.F.E. Katipunan, and I got to meet the rest of the ‘Worms.

Knowing that the Itchyworms were big Beatles fans, I wore a "Yellow Submarine" shirt that I got from HMV Hong Kong, in the hopes that maybe that shirt would start a conversation with Jugs’ bandmates.

See, there’s a lot of waiting time during gigs for conversations with fellow musicians. And luckily, my t-shirt did wonders as Jazz Nicolas, their principal songwriter and drummer, couldn’t stop mentioning my shirt with the Heinz Edelmann rendering of the Fab Four inside that titular watercraft. Then Chino Singson and Kelvin Yu joined in on the conversation, and I instantly had a connection with these four talented musicians.

Maybe it was our love for The Beatles (and Wings-era Paul McCartney). Maybe it was the movie references we inserted in our conversations. Or maybe it was their wicked sense of humor that made me laugh so hard that I would get a hint of abs the morning after.

Fast forward 18 years later, and I could say that the Itchyworms became my good friends in the music business. I practically grew up with them well into my thirties.

I had directed a couple of their music videos, having my humble start as a filmmaker with the ‘60s period piece “Akin Ka Na Lang,” which we shot on a shoestring budget somewhere in Tandang Sora, in which the vocalist of my band Narda, Katwo Librando, acted as the band’s love interest — Mod ukay-ukay dresses, Twiggy make-up, and all.

The Itchyworms at the UP Lagoon Park. Photo courtesy of WINCY AQUINO ONG

Aside from this, I worked with them on one project after another, such as an Eraserheads documentary for MYX, and during my years in a PR agency, I had always requested Jugs to be the host for our blogger events.

Jazz became my officemate for two years when we were jingle writers plying our trade on Amorsolo Street. Jazz also composed the Danny Elfman-inspired musical score for my Cinemalaya horror film San Lazaro. 

But most of all, it was an honor to have them play when I married my wife in 2013. Like I said, it had been quite the journey with them.

After hours and hours upon interviewing the band and their roster of collaborators (producers, album cover designers, music video directors) for the podcast “Worms Upon a Time,” I fell down a rabbit hole of Itchyworms trivia and other Reddit-worthy scoops. And upon listening to all of the songs in their catalog, I fell in love once again with their music, or to be more exact, the love songs they’ve made in the last 25 years of their career. (Mind you, nobody does an OPM love song better than the ‘Worms.)

Here are seven of the greatest Itchyworms love songs (at least for me), and the good memories I’ve come to attach to them.

1. “Bituin”

Like I mentioned a while back, this was the song that got me hooked to their music.

This was my gateway drug, mainly because I’ve always been a sucker for Filipino pop songs with string arrangements.

During our interviews, I learned that Jugs wrote this on the piano, and Jazz, ever the genius arranger, helped him out in completing it. Buddy Zabala, bassist of the Eraserheads, produced this track and told me that during their sessions, they had so many ideas flying around. They kept adding and adding layers of harmony to the song until he had to take out the discipline card and told everyone, “Okay, that’s enough. I think we’re done here.”

2. “Akin Ka Na Lang”

‘Di naman sa sinisaraan ko ang panget na ‘yan / 'Wag ka dapat sa 'kin magduda /Hinding-hindi kita pababayaan

When I first heard the song, I sort of knew that they had a hit on their hands. It was APO Hiking Society meets The Beach Boys circa “Pet Sounds.” Even my mom loves this song.

It was definitely not one of those macho love songs you heard on the radio — and that was so refreshing in the era of pogi rock power ballads.

I heard that Jazz wrote this song for an ex-girlfriend. And when that girl heard this on the radio, she literally fell off her chair.

3. “Beer”

The Ateneo High School covered courts. That was where I first heard this song. This was during a fair and my band shared the stage with The Bloomfields and the Itchyworms that night.

When Jugs took to the mic, he gave a disclaimer that they were still road-testing the song and probably the crowd of Ateneans would be the first to hear it.

When Chino’s weeping guitar solo came out of the amplifiers, I got goosebumps all over my body. And Buddy Zabala, who produced this song along with Raimund Marasigan, shared the same idea. “Oh no, we’ll be hearing this in karaoke bars for years,” he said.

And true enough, this kundiman-inspired masterpiece keeps me up all night whenever the neighbors next door belt it out during long weekends.

4. “Love Team”

My wife, Cj de Silva (who some of you may know as the Promil Kid back in the ‘90s) is a true-blue Itchyworms fan. And she told me once that “Love Team” could probably be the greatest OPM song ever written. Why? “Because the idea of a love team only exists in the Philippines, and there’s a certain sadness to it. A love that’s real to the audience, but artificial to those in the backstage,” she said.

True enough, it is a thing of beauty. It had grown beyond its Kim Chiu-Gerald Anderson associations and became a thing all its own.

On my wife’s 27th birthday, the gift she asked from me was a gig featuring all her favorite bands. I asked Chino if they could play this song last as a surprise to the birthday girl.

When they played it, it turned out Jugs and Jazz had no choice but to turn their microphones to the crowd. Everyone knew the words by heart, and were singing it with their eyes closed. I looked at my wife and saw tears in her eyes. To this day, I still think it’s the best gift I’ve ever given her.

5. “Ayokong Tumanda”

After a long hiatus from directing music videos, Jugs contacted me one day and told me that he wanted me to direct this fun song that he wrote. “Mag-direct ka na kasi ulit!” was Jugs’ text message to me.

When I got the song file, I had a smile on my face all day. It was the Itchyworms doing a yacht rock number! Visions of the Doobie Brothers and Hall & Oates danced in my head. And that piece of lyric, Ayokong tumanda / Kapag hindi ka kasama, really tugs at the heartstrings.

Danita Paner and Jeff Cabal during the “Ayokong Tumanda” shoot in 2013. Photo courtesy of WINCY AQUINO ONG

I remember shooting this music video with the band in three different parks in Quezon City, just the five of us fooling around on the grass, climbing trees, throwing Frisbees, drinking fake wine. Little did we know that it would eventually rack up eight million views on YouTube.

Truly it’s a love song that cuts across all crowds. And yes, you always feel younger whenever there’s an Itchyworms song coming out of your speakers.

6. “Huwag Na Sana Akong Gumising Mag-Isa”

For the most part, an Itchyworm love song is jokey, almost leaning towards the novelty genre, no small thanks to their all-too-Pinoy sense of snark.

For a change, this one’s dark and spooky. And I remember Kelvin and Jazz telling me that the music video should be shot in black-and-white. I couldn’t agree more.

From our interviews, I learned that this song started out as a Cinderella-inspired track from the indie hit film "Ang Nawawala," but Jazz fell in love with it that he wanted to record his own version with the boys.

Whenever I listen to this song, I close my eyes and I picture William Martinez and Yayo Aguila dancing in a miasma of smoke, a love team from a different time and dimension, lost in a film noir dream.

7. “‘Di Na Muli”

According to Jugs, it’s the biggest hit they’ve ever had. And yes, this song is the Itchyworms at their epic best. (No one does epic like the Itchyworms.)

With a helping hand from songwriter Wally Alcolala and Ryan Cayabyab himself, this song won the PhilPop grand prize in 2016. And two years later, after being part of the soundtrack of the Viva Films movie “Sid & Aya,” the song went gangbusters, a cover song that was the staple of the har-har genre (think silky-voiced teens armed with ukuleles and YouTube accounts).

The last I saw the Itchyworms in the flesh, before the pandemic, was during their concert in Resorts World with Ely Buendia.

When they sang this song and everyone was waving their phones like substitute lighters, I realized there and then that there was something mystical whenever the four of them made music.

There was always love to be found in their notes, a love that sticks around for years.

***

“Worms Upon A Time” is produced by Sony Music Philippines and Big Baby Studios, and it’s available wherever you stream your podcasts.