The Vaccines – a definitive interview
A few months ago I was on Steve Lamacq’s radio show on BBC 6music reviewing the singles. It was one of those slots with an uproarious panel of Guy from Elbow and Peter Hook and Steve Lamacq in front of a live audience at In the City music conference and a collection of new tunes.
One of the clutch of mp3s we had been sent before the show was from a totally unknown new band called the Vaccines. Good name I thought and stuck the track, âËBlow It Up’ on and was blown away with its thrilling, pop purity that was an instant rollercoaster of classic girl groups, Jesus And Mary Chain, Ramones and punk rock. âËBlow It Up’ was a two minute, spectral rush of sound and I made it my single of the week on the show.
A couple of days after we were on air, Zane Lowe made the band his hottest new band on his radio one show and the buzz was on.
Six months later The Vaccines are the biggest new band in the UK, their debut album, âËWhat Did You Expect From The Vaccines? âË including drop dead classic songs like the single “Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)”, and “Blow It Up” and the curiously titled “NÃÂ¸rgaard” and the best song on the album, “Post Break-Up Sex” sits at number four in the charts, their upcoming tour is sold out and they are here at SXSW in Austin Texas playing those sort of gigs that everyone is trying to get into to check the latest skinny white pop from the UK.
Frontman Justin Young is a tall, angular and singularly polite young man who is equally bemused and thrilled by his band’s success as we sit on the steps in the lobby of a posh New York hotel.
The Vaccines are proof of the random beauty of pop- one day your slogging it out and the next your toppermost of the poppermost.The dream, for some people, is certainly not over.
The Vaccines debut is classic UK indie- not the dour, plodding gear but the yearning for classic, reaching for the stars indie. That wide eyed belief in the redemptive power of girl groups and great chords, of the simplicity of the Ramones, the brash rush of skuzzy C86 (or the âËone year too late tape’ as it’s known) and the very traditional British love of melody.Not everyone is impressed Liam Gallagher put them down much to the disappointment of Justin who is a fan of Oasis, all we can say is that it might be worth another listen LiamâÂ¦ But there is so much more to this story than just another bunch of indie kids on the make. At 23 Justin has serious musical roots that go all the way back to his youth in Southampton.
‘My first love was Elvis. I don’t know how but at seven or eight I was really into impersonating him. It was the showmanship more than anything that got me. I’d seen pictures of Elvis and really loved what I saw and then I got into his music which made me a bit out of step with everyone else.The next big thing for me was when my English teacher gave me a Nirvana boxed set when I was eleven and then I got really obsessed with Kurt Cobain as everyone of my age did then. It was that time of dial up Internet so my dad only let me have five minutes of Internet a day so I would spend it looking at pictures of Kurt Cobain which I found fascinating. I loved the music but I was obsessed with what he looked like as well. Some people are really magnetic, him and Elvis also had that thing that they were like these really reluctant performers, which I found fascinating as well.Elvis is a lot more tortured than people realise, I think he may have found this hard to articulate this because of his background.’
The music obsessed kid was now ripe for connecting with a fiercer and even more intense underground- American hardcore. The American hardcore that more and more is becoming the unacknowledged foundation of modern rock music with all types of bands having gone though it at some stage. Increasingly a band like Minor Threat are becoming a byword for rock truth and a fiery inspiration to a myriad of youth.
‘When I was about 13 I got into hardcore punk and I was vegan straight edge until I was 18. Basically I stopped being vegan because my doctor, who was a vegetarian, and who I knew well, said I’m really supportive of your lifestyle but you are really ill and he said that being vegan should make you really healthy but you are not really healthy so you may have to change your lifestyle.’
Break the edge…?
‘So I started eating meat again and then I got fed up with people taking the piss out of me for not drinking so I started drinking again. Mind you I don’t really drink now, just the odd beer. It was really cool though that when everyone else was discovering drugs and alcohol I was not. Everyone thought I was a bit of a square but I felt like I was the real rebel.’
Justin was deeply into the scene and is enthused talking about it and its attendant pressures of unintentional conformity.
âËHave you seen that straight edge documentary called âËStraight Edge’. They talk about how to look different and to look menacing they would shave their heads and put pins in their boots so you could hear them coming even if they were not menacing in real life, just to create an impression. There is an interview with Ray Capo from Youth Of Today in the film where he talks about the unintentional eventual conformity of the scene and what was really interesting was what all the key players had that in common. They said there were never any rules or a lifestyle- they said we don’t want to drink but if we did who gives a fuck? Ian MacKaye was saying how annoyed he was that he had created a monster with his âËStraight Edge’ song. He’s a hero of mine. Have you noticed how many Minor Threat t-shirts there are round here? I don’t knowâÂ¦are Minor Threat having a resurgence?’
They represent a rare purity of purpose for many people.
âËI wore my Minor Threat T shirt to breakfast this morning and someone else had one on. I really like his first band, Teen Idles as well.’
Minor Threat have many unlikely fans. Ex Mary Chain bass player Douglas Hart who is now a top video maker for many young bands and has made the clips for The Vaccines was also connected to Minor Threat.
âËlas said that when the Mary Chain played America they went to Discord House in Washington DC and I thought of this amazing image of these Glasgow piss heads turning up at the centre of straight edge.’
With its code of abstinence, Straight Edge is almost spiritual in its devotion to the power of music. Afterall who needs to get high when the music is already taking you there? It’s a powerful idea and one that sticks with it’s fans long after they have moved on. A strange thing was going on in the suburbs, hardcore was operating below the surface and has become one of the key catalysts for a whole host of our young rock bands. There is rarely an interview I do with the key bands of these times that don’t talk about these crucial (youth) hardcore bands.
‘Minor Threat was the easy way in and retrospectively having looked back on all that scene they are undisputedly the best in my opinion. I do like Bad Brains as well but I never really liked Black Flag as much, I only got their TV Party EP. I loved Minor Threat and then I got into the even noisier powerviolence scene and groups like Charles Bronson and all at sort of stuff and then I got into the youth crew scene. I used to go to gigs in a Southampton venue called the King Alfred and they used to put on hardcore shows. There was a really cool collective there called the ST collective. It was only about two quid to get in and bands like Tear It Up, Vitamin X- who were a really great band, and other good bands like Sinking Ships, who would play there.’
The hardcore ethic would have a powerful affect on the young fan.
‘The one thing I took from hardcore was that it’s not what you play it’s how you play it and I think that being into hardcore I really took that, you know, it’s how much you mean it that really matters.’
And it’s the powerful presence of Minor Threat frontman that looms large here. Ian Mackaye with his definitive point of view and his fierce idealism coupled with his great concise music and the fact that he wrote, ‘Straight Edge’- the song that invented a neo religion is something of a reluctant hero.
‘Have you met him? Wow, really. We had a really cool letter from Lyle Preslar from Minor Threat. He wrote me a letter and he sent me an early copy of their cover of âËGood Guys Don’t Wear White’ signed by all of them and said there are not many of these left. We had been covering their interpretation of The Standells song and someone told them, so that’s why he wrote me the letter. I really appreciate him doing that because I wrote to a lot of bands when I was younger like your band Goldblade and others and I remember there’s a guy I wrote to a few times when I was a teenager as well, he did everything on a typewriter and wrote back typed letters- each his fanzines were amazing, he used to do them individually.’
From this infatuation with the speed thrills of hardcore, Justin took the well worn, if not immediately obvious, route to nu folk where he performed under the moniker, Jay Jay Pistolet, becoming a name on the scene.
‘I found it a really natural progression. One thing that is cohesive to both of the styles of music is their intensity. You really have to mean what you are singing. I don’t think I was necessarily a very good folk singer but I did mean what I was singing. I had drifted towards it, just before that I was in a powerviolence band called Fashion Police Brutality (brilliant dirty thrash band- just pure visceral noise and distorted vocals check out their myspace) and then I was in an alt. country band at same time and we were into stuff like Uncle Tupelo. Like a lot of people I got into folk music that way- punk kids playing country. I went to see the Old 97’s yesterday and the bass player was X’d up. I guess Ryan Adams is a good example of that as well- a punk kid who became a country singer.’
Justin was another one of these fiercely idealistic youth seeking something from the past to mash into the future noise. There were also more pragmatic reason for his switch to nu folk and becoming Jay Jay Pistolet.
‘The reason I became a folk singer is that I moved to London and didn’t have any friends and wanted to play music on open mic nights. I then progressed from open mic nights to actually being booked to do a few supports. Even when I made a bit of a name for myself on that scene I still couldn’t find anyone to play with me. There are not many good musicians who want to play for no money or no credit. They all want a piece of the pie don’t they? and quite rightly so. I couldn’t put a band together and that’s where I fell down because no-one wanted to play under my solo moniker.’
At this point his life went into a mini meltdown.
‘I lost my way really. My girlfriend dumped me and I didn’t get out of my bed for about three months and that’s when my mate, Freddie, said pull your socks up and let’s start a band and that was this band really. It was just like anything in life, it was just refreshing to start something new. It excites you doesn’t it? It was exciting for all of us really because the rest of the band had been session players and that’s not living the dream is it? You don’t dream of being a session musician do you? For all of us it was this sudden burst of energy and excitement again and finally we got something that belonged to us.’
There was another interesting twist in this story. Freddie’s brother, Tom (Cowan) Furse was from the Horrors. One of the best young bands in the UK, who were by now on their critically acclaimed second album which some cynics have said must have been a good connection for the band.
‘It was no help really. I don’t think Freddie really spoke to his brother about the band. They don’t see each other that often. Eventually Tom did a drone rework of one of our songs, âËBlow It Up’, but apart from that Freddie maintains they don’t talk about eachother’s bands. That makes sense, as they are brothers I suppose! The Horrors were these cool kids who started a band but I think the second record is a really good record.’
I love the first one as well.
‘Do you? I don’t really but I love âËPrimary Colours’, Initially I did find the whole thing slightly pantomime and wasn’t sure. They did look good and they are a culturally great band but it took me some time to realise it. Apart from that there is there is no connection between the bands just blood. I guess his dad must be quite proud, that both his sons had made it.’
The Vaccines spectral, epic sound has drawn many comparisons with The Jesus And The Mary Chain.
‘You know what’s really weird I love the Ramones but with the Mary Chain, I really like them but we are definitely not using them as a blueprint. They were not consciously on the radar. Loads of people say you must love the Mary Chain and the Ramones but I always say I think actually we just love the same music that they did. They just loved really pure pop music from the fifties and sixties and they play it like punk kids. We are not a punk band we take those roots and make them modern, give it an energy in the same way that they did with rock n roll and the girl groups.’
And Justin loves the girl groups.
‘Have you got âËOne Kiss Can lead To Another’? Apparently it’s the complete anthology with everything under the girl group umbrella on it. It comes in a hat shape and it’s really big. It’s got hundreds of songs on it. Brilliant.
What’s so good about girl groups is that it’s a combination of brilliant melody and brilliant sonics and also it was being done for the first time so it’s pure and innocent and doesn’t feel contrived. Some of those songs are really gut wrenching. I always found I’m always drawn to melody. I love melody and what I really wanted with this band was to have really strong melody throughout. Most of the songs were written on acoustic guitar because I like the that if it didn’t sound good in it’s purest form they it would not sound good later on. Some bands go into the studio and start with a loop and it’s really interesting, inspective and self involved but I wanted us to be a really pure pop band.’
With an energyâÂ¦
‘It was a genuine energy because we were excited by what we were doing and that was another thing that I learned from hardcore- that it makes a massive difference how much you mean something, not everyone will be into this but it’s really true, we really mean it. Not necessarily having a message but we feel it when we play it.’
It also feels really positive- a positivity that has seen the band hit a raw nerve and become big in the UK very quickly.
‘It took us by surprise what has happened really. Loads of people asked us about timing and if we planned it but we genuinely didn’t have a plan. I guess they were being typically cynical in the UK. I think the success is amazing, it was completely unexpected. I started my first band 11 or 12 years ago and no-one has ever given a shit and suddenly people do. I think the Internet has made everything a level playing field. I think it’s good, maybe detrimental because the conveyer belt is moving even faster but everyone gets that chance. There is this shit about the statistics of how only well-educated musicians are only in the charts but music has never been more mediocrity because the Internet levels everything out. If you got a good song everyone will hear it. I think that’s a really good thing.’
As we are sat in the hotel lobby the new meritocracy of music is running around all around us at the SXSW music conference. Hundreds of bars are full of bands playing and hoping. Sometimes it feels like everybody in the world is in a band.
‘It’s a real eye opener. When I was on the plane there were all these guys coming over dressed like Brian Jones who could walk the walk but could they talk the talk? I came here two years ago on my own playing hotel lobbies like this one and I know what it’s like. Bands are playing to two people and I feel a bit sorry for them, everyone is expecting to find the pot of gold.’The whole nature of being a musician has changed drastically from the days of girl groups and hardcore.
‘It just shows you, and I’m not knocking it, but how careerist bands are now. Looking for a career. Coming here is the Holy Grail, I’m not sure if careerism like this existed twenty years ago. I was thinking about this on the way over because I was watching ‘Last Days’, the film about music journalists and I was thinking about Curt Cobain who left Sub Pop for Geffen and I have had to do the same and I’m not knocking that but I wonder how much that meant to him. I love the guy and the band though.’
The Vaccines sudden success has, of course, brought out the knockers.
‘The English hate success don’t they. A lot of people have a bit of cynicism about us, I guess it seems like we sort of appeared from nowhere and people think it’s because of the people we know, but if I could fix it why did I not fix it for my solo stuff and not waited till now? At the end of the day being connected can only take you so far, you soon get found out. But some people are still saying it’s who we know, some people were saying we only do well because we are southern! Which really bemuses me.’
What we are doing is real, not everyone buys into it at the core of it but we have a belief that is pure. It’s given us lot of strength and really hardened us. We are happy with what we are doing if you don’t believe in yourself then that’s a big problem isn’t it?’
Finally ensconced in the middle of a music scene a million miles away from the back room of the King Alfred in Southampton and the Powerviolence scene Jason still keeps himself grounded. He may have a big manager but even his manager operates in a cool punk rock way.âËCerne (Canning) is one of the good guys. I love the fact that we are managed by a genuine music fan. He understands integrity. At the end of the day it comes down to the music, putting on good live shows and releasing good records. Another thing is that coming from hardcore is that connection with the audience, which I don’t want to lose now we are getting big. I mean it’s good to get to that size, but I’m finding it really hard to connect with the audience offstage. We were sitting on merch stall at the end of shows and people are not even talking to us. It has became really hard. You get into a conversation with someone for ten minutes and then you realize that’s there is a queue of other people waiting. Everyone wants bit of your time and I don’t want to ignore anyone. We are thinking of doing matinee shows for all ages, so people don’t get locked out.’
Justin looks up. This success stuff will take some getting used to. Maybe the plusses of money and space to create will never be the same as those fiercely thrilling moments of bonding in the tight knit hardcore scene, maybe they will just be different thrills. That the Vaccines musically manage to combine classic pop with the pointed disciplines of hardcore is a measure of success for me. Justin looks upâËSometime I wish I had stood up for myself a bit more. I feel fucking horrible to hit someone when you get punched by someone you think what a horrible person they are. Never hurts when you get punched.’
âËI’ve never thrown a punch in my lifeâÂ¦ âË
Which sounds like a Vaccines song title