With third album ‘English Graffiti’ released this week, NME’s Dan Stubbs joins The Vaccines in Spain to find out about the grand ambitions that helped create it.
Freddie Cowan is missing. Last spotted talking to Palma Violets bassist Chilli Jesson at Gatwick airport, the louche Vaccines guitarist turned up at the wrong gate for his flight to Alicante, from where the band are travelling on to Murcia to play Festival SOS48. His bandmates – frontman Justin Young, bassist Árni Árnason and drummer Pete Robertson – were blissfully unaware until, sitting in their separate seats on the flight (“We always sit separately,” says Árni), Cowan’s name was called over the PA, with a warning that they’d be removing his bags unless he made himself known.
Freddie’s clerical error came as a surprise to precisely none of the other members. “I’m glad it’s happened,” says Justin, shortly after arriving in Murcia in southern Spain. “He always has to go at his own pace. If you try and make him speed up, he’ll go slower.” Soon, the band are having photos taken as a three-piece, falling quite happily into arrowhead formation in front of a wrought iron church door in the city’s old town. “It’s like a glimpse into the future,” mutters Árni. Justin agrees: “Yeah, it’s just like a normal photoshoot except there’s no-one trying to stand just in front of me.” It’s all in good humour, of course; at the stroke of midnight, Justin will turn 28, and in the morning, he and Freddie will hop over to Majorca to celebrate for the weekend, like a couple of old pals might. A year ago to the day, Justin made a vow. “On his 27th birthday he said to me, ‘I’m not going to say ‘no’ to anything for a year – my 27th will be my ‘yes’ year,’” explains Árni, over tapas in one of the city’s plazas. I ask what the most ludicrous thing he ended up saying yes to was, and Justin giggles. “This isn’t a Fat White Family interview,” he says. “I’ll tell you later.” He doesn’t.
There is evidence of Justin’s ‘yes year’ on record, however. The Vaccines’ new album, ‘English Graffiti’, finds the band exploring new territory, casting themselves as pop rockers from the future as imagined in 1987. It’s there in ‘Handsome’’s robotic take on the Ramones, or in ‘Dream Lover’’s interpretation of the kind of power ballad that might soundtrack a glitterball-sparkled prom scene in a John Hughes movie. It’s come, simply, as a result of Justin ceasing to say ‘no’ to anything beyond his original, narrow vision of what The Vaccines would and should be. “I don’t want to do ‘rama lama ding dong’ any more,” he says. “We had to unshackle ourselves from this clearly defined and self-imposed ethos we had.”
Early in the band’s career, Justin had implemented a number of rules: no drum fills, no fussy basslines, no guitar solos. It’s a formula that put the songs and the energy firmly at the forefront, and one that proved so instantly successful that 2011’s fun, punky debut, ‘What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?’, was swiftly followed by more of the very same – 2012’s fun, punky ‘Come Of Age’. In cold calculation, it worked, but you get the sense that Justin no longer sees the group’s second LP as any kind of artistic triumph. “There were times when we were making that record that I thought, ‘This is great within the boundaries of what we’re doing, but it’s not great within the wider context of music and music history and what’s happening now,’” he says. “It brought me down. There were points where I almost admitted defeat and thought, ‘Well, this is what we are, so either put up or shut up, really.’ But coming into this record, there was this desire to have no limits, a freedom that I always stopped us from having.”
‘English Graffiti’ saw the band heading into the wilderness, physically and mentally. Recording in the remote Tarbox Road studios in upstate New York with producers Dave Fridmann (The Cribs, Mercury Rev, Weezer), who owns the studio, and Cole MGN (Beck, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti), they generated heaps of material that might be far out even by the standards of Fridmann’s most regular collaborators, The Flaming Lips. Árni says some of it sounded like industrial miserablists Suicide, and a track I’m played evokes ‘Poupée De Cire, Poupée De Son’, the track Serge Gainsbourg wrote for Luxembourg’s 1965 Eurovision Song Contest entry. ‘Rama lama ding dong’ it ain’t. “We thought we had the record in the bag last October, but I think that we were about to commit suicide – commercial and creative suicide,” says Justin. “I think we were kidding ourselves to an extent. I think we were being selfish, and I don’t think music is necessarily selfish. There’s one thing that ties us together, and that’s my emotive disposition and my very straightforward way of writing a pop song, and whatever we do around that, however we choose to colour it in or chop it up or reorganise it, that’s always going to be at the heart of what we’re doing.”
Justin’s emotive disposition has, however, shifted. The group’s first album, and to a lesser extent second, seemed powered by the gonads, whether lusting over a young Danish model in ‘Nørgaard’ or having one for the road in ‘Post Break-Up Sex’. This time, it’s less about getting your rocks off and more about romance; it’s love, not lust. “I was single when I wrote it,” says Justin when quizzed. So it’s like an advert, then? “No! But it’s people I’ve met, for sure, rather than people I want to meet. A song is always for someone.” Do they know? “Never.” Do you woo people with songs? “No,” he says. “That’s… awful.” He’s perfectly clear on one thing: there’s meaning – and feeling – behind everything he does. “I firmly believe that the more personal you are in your songwriting, the more universal you are,” he says. “It’s frustrating to me when I hear people being disingenuous and faking it. And it makes me incredibly frustrated when people can’t see how honest I am and how good I am at writing songs or writing lyrics about very personal things.”
You mightn’t guess it from listening to the Skittles-bright, primarycoloured blast of ‘English Graffiti’, but the record followed dark times for the band, and took Justin to an even darker place. “I definitely have had numerous breakdowns this year. I guess the record really allowed me to say everything I wanted to say, and once we’d finished the record I really felt I’d lost a bit of purpose and direction and felt like a very vulnerable body floating in a big, scary ocean,” he says. After completing the album, and on finishing the touring cycle for ‘Come Of Age’, Justin began suffering phantom symptoms, convinced there was something wrong with him. He suffers, he says, from clinical hypochondria. “Three or four times in my life I’ve ended up in hospital after finishing important projects, just through boredom and self-obsession,” he says. “I’m an incredibly self-obsessed and anxious person. When I lose focus in life, which I do when I hand in a record, all my focus turns to myself and what might be wrong with me. With self-obsession comes this desire to control and preserve, and so for whatever reason over the last 10 years, this has manifested itself in hypochondria and psychosomatic pain and a weird list of things that scare me enough that I end up in hospital attached to various different machines trying to reassure myself that I’m not about to drop dead.”
It wasn’t just Justin who felt bruised by the band’s rocket-fast rise and punishing touring schedule. After ‘Come Of Age’, Árni took himself off to a cabin in his native Iceland in splendid isolation. Pete, meanwhile, went home to Winchester to work out how to be a rock’n’roll dad. “I had a pretty set life to go back into, but I had to learn really fast what my role was,” he says. “I had three weeks at home when my son was born and that was it – we were off again. I only had a few days at home here and there until he was about nine months old. Towards the tail-end of the campaign it was really difficult to try to keep everything together, trying to churn out really good performances while knowing you’re not being able to be a really good husband and father.” They certainly aren’t the first band to find that life’s harder when you don’t have a tour manager telling you what to do. “I think you’re in a vulnerable place when you put yourself out there like musicians do, and actually, that structure institutionalises you,” says Justin. “The day-to-day touring and having someone tell you what time to be in a hotel lobby or be onstage – or catch a flight – is comforting, because you’re a family.”
The singer, tellingly, hasn’t really settled in recent years, and now describes himself as a “nomad”. His last permanent address was in New York, where Freddie eventually relocated too, but that was, in itself, an exercise in upsetting the apple cart. “I felt so apathetic in London and I wanted to go somewhere I didn’t know anyone or anything, the way that I’d arrived in London from Southampton eight years before,” he says. “I wanted to feel hungry for the place I was living in, not say no to anything and be able to… I guess I just wanted subject matter, you know.” For songs? “No, for life.”
Like being 27, being in New York was about saying ‘yes’, then, but – typically – Justin gives a politician’s answer about what that entailed. “I had a group of friends that I suppose facilitated a certain lifestyle, but I’d go to the cinema a lot on my own – that’s the ultimate form of escapism,” he says.
Outside of the band, Árni and Pete have dipped their toes into production – the bassist recorded an EP for Madrid indie rockers Hinds, the drummer for local bands in Winchester. Árni, too, has fostered a sideline in cooking, and in May was guest chef at a restaurant in Madrid. Justin still hires himself out as a songwriter-for-hire. It’s something else he’s fairly cagey about, it having been a matter of some controversy when it emerged he’d done some sessions with members of One Direction in the past. He refuses to say who he’s been working with lately, but he doesn’t write under a pseudonym and he insists it’s not a matter of shame. “I love writing songs,” he says. “I’m not very good at much. I’m not a very good musician, some would say I’m not the most enigmatic frontman and I’m not particularly good at producing music, but I could write 100 songs a day, because melody just comes to me and it’s very cathartic getting that out. I’m a songwriter. I wake up in the morning and want to write a song, and I’d love to write a Number One for someone.” Puffed up, Justin reaches out with his fork and nicks half of Árni’s melted-cheese dish. The shy frontman of old is no more.
Freddie Cowan bowls into the dressing room at SOS48 at 10pm, decked out head to toe in blue denim and looking like he’s stepped straight straight out of the band’s recent Levi’s ad, currently doing the rounds on billboards Stateside. It’s not selling out, says Freddie, “because we’ve been inadvertently advertising for them for years, so we might as well get paid for it”. He’s had quite an ordeal: he had to be escorted out of the airport, collect his luggage, arrange a new flight, cab it from Gatwick to Stanstead and make his own way from Alicante airport. It was, he says, a “dehumanising” experience.
Out in the festival – the kind of big, concrete-y, gig-in-a-car park event favoured in southern Europe – the band head off to check out Morrissey, today’s de facto headliner. They don’t seem particularly impressed, but neither do the locals when Moz relishes the line “There’s no mercy in Murcia” in ‘The Bullfighter Dies’. Árni heads off to check out The Parrots, a band from Madrid, as the rest filter back to the dressing room. At 11.50, Pete’s working his way through a bag of crisps, Freddie’s strolling around strumming an acoustic guitar and Justin is idly scrolling through listings of motorbikes for sale on his laptop. This, he’s decided, will be his birthday present to himself, a very premature midlife crisis or a very late quarter-life one. We talk about how awkward it feels receiving birthday presents in front of people mere moments before the lights go off and there’s a cake, candles and the ‘Happy Birthday’ song. Freddie presents his friend with a pair of homoerotically fierce-looking black leather biking boots. Time to buy the bike, then. “I’m 28,” Justin says, blankly, after the excitement, realising he’s too late to join the 27 club. “I didn’t die.”
With Freddie finally present, it’s out into the courtyard for a full-band photoshoot. There’s an audience: fans gather on the balconies, take their own pictures and holler sweet nothings at Justin. It is, you suspect, not something the frontman finds easy to rationalise, even if he says he doesn’t mind posing in front of an audience any more. All day, the band have been taking photos for Instagram, but very few have gone online. ‘Handsome’ tackles selfie culture and self-obsession head on: “Well, I got so down I held the world to ransom/Lonely, bored and bad, thank God I’m handsome/Arresting, prepossessing and disarming/Oh, what a stroke of luck that I am charming”. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but as ever with Justin, you wonder if there’s a grain of truth there. He says, “Don’t you think there’s something quite poetic about someone who two years ago sang about not being a teenage icon but can now address God and thank him for making him such a fine specimen?”
Justin says he often composes a tweet or Instagram post, then changes his mind and deletes it. “Sometimes I think I’m too clever to say anything interesting,” he says. “I don’t like Liam [Gallagher] doesn’t worry about what he says.” Oversharing and social media is a characteristic of his generation that the singer seems to struggle with. “I think the best thing about the internet is it’s levelled the playing field and everyone has a voice,” he says. “But that’s also the worst thing about it. All these people writing comments under news stories on NME.COM are the kind of people who were writing in to Points Of View 20 years ago. It’s a victimless crime – they can say what they want and there’s no recourse. Most people probably shouldn’t have a voice.” I tell him that sounds a bit totalitarian. “Well, I’m happy with that,” he says. “Bit of clickbait for you.”
An hour later, the band assemble behind the stage, each a bundle of nervous energy. They’ve drawn a bigger crowd than Morrissey, and their set is a pacy, fat-free romp through highlights of three albums. They’ve saved ‘If You Wanna’ for last, because it’s been used on a heavily rotated commercial for well-loved Spanish beer Estrella Damm and has raised their profile in the country. The crowd goes bonkers for all three minutes of it.
“It feels like we’re a one-hit wonder over here now,” says Justin after the show. “But that’s OK.” Justin’s ambition for The Vaccines could probably be best described as grandiose tempered with a dose of realism. Earlier he told me, matter-of-factly, “The Vaccines are not The Rolling Stones. We’re not going to be popular for 50 years – that’s just not going to happen. That doesn’t scare me; I just want to make sure that we all put everything we can into it while we can, because I do still believe that the better you are, the bigger you become. Not just by fucking trying harder, but by being open to everything, open to each other, open when you’re making music.”
Some cynics have noted that ‘Dream Lover’ bears some tonal resemblance to Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ thanks to its prowling riff and lascivious feel, a comparison that the band brush off as “lazy”. Says Justin: “Honest answer, we definitely had a conversation at one point where we said, ‘Do you think anyone’s going to make this lazy comparison, because this is a four/five-note riff over this slow-burning groove and we’re both British rock bands. Both producers said no and we never spoke about it again.” But Justin does freely admit to coveting the success enjoyed by Alex Turner and co. “I look at a band like Arctic Monkeys and think, ‘I want to be as big as them’, but I also look at Muse and Coldplay and Mumford & Sons and U2 and The Rolling Stones and fucking Imagine Dragons and think, ‘I want to be as big as them, too,’” he says.
It’s big talk that ‘English Graffiti’ might deliver on. Even if it doesn’t, there’s a mental stumbling block that’s been pulled away for this cautious young band, a straightjacket that’s been removed. The Vaccines may have used the title ‘Come Of Age’ too early.