Ahead of the imminent release of their second album, “The Vaccines Come Of Age”, we talk to Justin Young about life in The Vaccines: from pop and playing live, to punk and Pussy Riot.
The Beatles spent three years crafting their trade in the clubs of Liverpool and Hamburg before gaining any semblance of notoriety. Nirvana had a lengthy warm-up, cradled by college radio, before fame beckoned. Even the Arctic Monkeys – often hailed as the first internet bolstered band - had a solid stint sheltered in Sheffield before their meteoric rise. The Vaccines had three months.
“It is one of the real downsides of the internet” lead singer Justin Young tells me “people can’t hide anywhere … the speed at which people are recognised – and also the speed at which people are dropped now – is frightening.” Indeed, the first demo they uploaded to YouTube was hailed the “Hottest Record in the World” by Zane Lowe; they were the first band ever to play “Later With Jools Holland” before releasing a single; and just over a year after forming they had released their debut album ( “What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?”, Columbia Records, 2011) and were playing to an audience of 10,000 (supporting the Arctic Monkeys).
Impressively, The Vaccines then made an unexpected decision: they put in the leg-work they’d leap-frogged. The band toured extensively, playing over 150 gigs in a year, before withdrawing from the spotlight to write their second album, “The Vaccines Come Of Age”. Ahead of its imminent release (it drops next Monday), we talk to Justin Young about life in The Vaccines: from pop and playing live, to punk and Pussy Riot.
I wanted to talk first of all about your upcoming album, “The Vaccines Come Of Age”. I understand you recorded it with Ethan Johns. How did that come about? Is he a producer you had wanted to work with for a while?
He was a producer who, when I was growing up, I figured was one of the most famous producers in the world. I guess for me he was. I was really into Ryan Adams and I was aware of Kings Of Leon and I knew he made those records. So when it came to making this album we made a wish-list and on mine, Ethan Jones was at the top of it.
I understand you recorded a lot of it live? What was the process like?
Yeah, I think it was completely live. We really wanted to capture, honestly, where the band are at as players really. So we’d go in and we’d decide what we were going to do and then we’d get our guitar sounds, our drum sounds and then we’d just press record - on vocals and everything - and just try and get a good take. Then when we had it the song was pretty much finished.
"A lot of people talk about how short our songs are, but I’m a massive fan of short songs!"
Did you feel any added pressure following the critical acclaim afforded to your debut?
Not really. I suppose there are always people who are going to like it and people who aren’t and people who are going to connect with it and people who aren’t. On the first album we put a lot of faith in our own tastes and we went with our hearts. We are all from very different musical backgrounds and I think we benefited from that. We did that on this record as well. We really sort of trusted ourselves. There are eleven songs on this record that we all think are better than the first record. If the first record connected with people then I don’t see why this one shouldn’t, so I don’t feel any pressure.
You said you all come from very different musical backgrounds, who would you personally cite as an influence?
That’s a really hard question! I don’t know really. I grew up listening to a lot of punk-rock. Freddie grew up listening to a lot of blues music, Pete is into Jazz music, Arni likes punk-rock as well.
It’s interesting you say punk-rock. There is an immediacy to The Vaccines that is reminiscent of American punk from the early 90s, but there is also something quintessentially British about it.
Yeah, I think you pick up things along the way, don’t you? When you don’t intentionally mean to. I guess, our song-writing process is a very natural one and I’d be worried if we didn’t channel things! One thing I learned growing up is that it’s not necessarily what you play; it is how you play it. I mean a lot of people talk about how short our songs are, but I’m a massive fan of short songs! One of my favourite records, “Milo Goes To College”, is a pop-punk record with something like fifteen songs in twenty-two minutes! It’s all very simple and very straight up. There is a sort of directness, a no bull-shit factor. I definitely feel that while we are not a punk band we have taken that ethos on board.
In terms of the song-writing how does it work? Is it an entirely collaborative process or does one person bring in the bare bones of a song for you all to work around?
Yeah, it’s a collaborative process, but more of the latter. People bring in a song, or an idea, and if the others are excited by them then we pursue them. We usually start with a song idea or maybe even a compete song and we just go from there really.
You’ve been embraced by many revered musicians – a video directed by Douglas Hart from The Jesus And Mary Chain, a split 7” with R. Stevie Moore, members of The Strokes singing your praises – that must feel great.
Oh yeah, absolutely. Especially when we live in an age where people are so quick to put other people down, it is amazing to get that approval from people you’ve grown up respecting or have come to respect. To get respect from fellow musicians is always amazing – but not that much more amazing than from anyone else actually.
As a band you’ve done a lot of collaborations; particularly live – Minor Threat, Franz Ferdinand, Savages – is that something you actively seek out?
Yes, certainly when we are on tour. With Minor Threat that came about because we were covering a song they had also covered, “Good Guys Don’t Where White”. I just think it makes things more interesting and I like working with new and different people, I think we all do. It’s fun!
"If you play a gig and someone likes it, it is up on YouTube; right or wrong, however you want to look it, it’s out there"
You’ve played live a lot. How does that affect your sound? The cohesion of the band for example?
Well I think playing together every night has deepened our connection massively as a band; our connection as people as well as musicians. I think we are better players, better musicians. Also, from doing things like covers - and playing and seeing how your own songs work live - it adds to your understanding of crafting pop music and rock and roll music.
It’s interesting you say that. Because you received a lot of early, on-line attention, you became relatively well-known very quickly. Nowadays that happens quite a lot, the internet has turned things on its head. In the past people used to go on tour, play live, build up to becoming well-known.
Yeah, I think it is one of the real downsides of the internet actually, that people can’t hide anywhere. If you play a gig and someone likes it, it is up on YouTube; right or wrong, however you want to look it, it’s out there. I think we made a very conscious decision to hide away until we had an album’s worth of material. I probably would have liked a bit longer to hone our trade as a four-piece. But I guess it wasn’t to be. I do think the speed at which people are recognised – and also the speed at which people are dropped now – is frightening.
Talking about this digital age, you seem to be putting quite a lot of work into the physical formats of your releases - deluxe editions, 7 inches. Is that something that is important to you?
Yeah, massively. I guess it’s not the be all and end all, but for me ownership of the music is still really important. I don’t object to anyone downloading our music for free, but I think it’s really important that you take care of those people who want something to hold and to look at, records to put on - you know, you give them a whole experience when they buy your record. That’s what it should be really, shouldn’t it?
Absolutely, and while we are on the topic: you have a very strong, consistent visual aesthetic in terms of artwork. Is that something you explore as a band or do you have designer?
I suppose it is a collaboration really. We have a designer and he has been a really big part of that – but as have I and as have we, so it’s been a really healthy collaboration on both records. I am really into continuity. It’s a real extension of the art and the campaign. I feel our singles are kind of collectable for their artwork, they are all kind of variations of each other and they all have deeper meanings. Videos and artwork are a really big part of what we do.
"The whole Pussy Riot thing is scary, a lot of people seemed impassive"
I know you’ve had a couple of really big support slots recently, The Stone Roses at Heaton Park for example. How did that come about?
I don’t know to be honest! We were rumoured to be the support, but then everyone we asked the question didn’t know. Then I got told we were doing it. It was a big weekend, so it was amazing to be part of it.
I understand you’ve also recently been supporting the Red Hot Chilli Peppers in Russia. How that was? Considering the attention on the Russian music industry, with Pussy Riot’s imprisonment.
Yeah the Pussy Riot trial was certainly something playing on our minds. We actually were supposed to be going to Moscow, but we got denied re-entry, so we only actually played St. Petersburg. The whole Pussy Riot thing is scary. It’s funny because when you go there, when you visit for 48 hours, it’s still essentially like you are in the Western World – a free thinking, free speaking country – but quite clearly that is not the case. I asked a few people about it because I was really interested in it and I got a lot of different opinions. A lot of people seemed impassioned and angry, but a lot of people seemed impassive, people shrugging their shoulders, which I found quite scary.
Finally, what next?
Finishing the record, then off to Korea and Japan next week and starting to tour the record in September.
You played a tour of coastal towns last time, will you do that again?
Probably not exactly that, but something similar; I like the idea of playing in places bands don’t normally play.