March 30, 2018 9:00am
Lost band members, wilderness years and even a fist fight hasn’t knocked The Vaccines’ spirit. As they release fourth album ‘Combat Sports’, they tell Larry Bartleet how they got back on top form
It’s March 9, and along with rest of the NME team I’m watching Vaccines frontman Justin Young discuss the closure of the print title on the BBC’s current affairs show Victoria Derbyshire. It’s weirdly meta: The Vaccines were due to be on the cover of this week’s would-be edition, and for someone who’s been interviewed so many times by NME, it seems fitting to see him being interviewed about us by someone else.
A week later, I meet Justin and guitarist Freddie Cowan as arranged. While they take their seats at a café outside the Tate Modern, I bring out their six NME covers to date and fan them out on the table in front of them – Justin betrays his fondness for the mag by standing up on his bench to take a picture – and we go on to discuss their experiences as six-time cover stars through the years. “Being on the cover definitely never got old,” he says.
The Vaccines first hit the NME cover in 2011, sharing front-page real estate with their hotly tipped indie contemporaries – Slough’s Viva Brother – just two months before the release of their platinum-selling debut album, ‘What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?’. The past seven years have transformed both NME and The Vaccines considerably, but some things never changed. “Being on the front cover of NME was rock stardom,” Justin says. “Every time it happened, I couldn’t believe it. But,” he adds, “I remember thinking: ‘Wow, I thought this would feel different.’ I thought it would help me escape who I am.”
Four albums on from that first cover, Young seems to have learned how to rectify that feeling. Following the stodgy curveball of third album ‘English Graffiti’, the band’s new album ‘Combat Sports’ is a triumphant and very intentional return to their rock roots, with the majority of the songs clocking in around three minutes, most of them featuring guitar solos, and Justin warmly embracing everything that makes The Vaccines… well, The Vaccines. ‘Combat Sports’ is a reinvigorating new chapter for the five-piece – though the route to album four was anything but smooth, not least due to the departure of a founding member, drummer Pete Robertson, in June 2016.
“We felt pretty lost [after Pete left],” Justin says. “Demoralised,” adds Freddie, glumly. “After Pete walked out, we just didn’t know what the fuck it was gonna be.” Struggling to identify how the remaining trio should progress, Justin remembers “going down every avenue available to us.” The idea that they headed straight back to their roots after ‘English Graffiti’ is plain wrong: at one point they even discussed programming their drums in. “There’s a tendency to romanticise the decision-making process,” says Freddie, “but it’s actually really clumsy. You just have to keep going until it feels right.” Justin cuts in: “And it felt like poison.”
In their past NME interviews, weird inter-album Vaccines stories have abounded – Freddie planned meditative solo trips to Nepal, bassist Árni served as an actual chef in a Spanish hotel – so did they do anything like that in their time off after ‘English Graffiti’? “There wasn’t really much time off,” Justin says. “It was just, like, writing. We spent a lot of time working on the record, every day. For, like, months.”
During the record’s painstaking formation, Justin found his lyrics getting “a bit too beige in my quest for universal appeal.” To strike a chord with listeners, you need to be honest, he reasons: “The more personal you are, the more interpersonal you become: people respond to authenticity. At one point I was writing a song about an avalanche or something – it sounded like a Chainsmokers song. And it didn’t mean anything to me.” Freddie nods: “Once you lose faith in what makes you unique, you’re lost.”
So, following his instincts, Justin got personal – particularly so on the honey-sweet ballad ‘Young American’ – which he says was written “really soon after I’d stopped seeing someone who I really liked at the time. It was uncomfortable for me to sing when I was demoing it, so I knew: ‘Oh, that’s a good thing.’”
“With a small group of highly strung men, for up to 15 hours a day, often in a windowless room, working on something you really care about… it’s inevitable that you come to blows”
– Justin Young
In time, drummer Pete was replaced by Spector’s Yoann Intonti – who signed on for four shows in summer 2016 and simply “never left” – while keys player Tim Lanham, who was working at a bowling alley at the time, was recruited by the band at a wedding in Tuscany. The new members live in Paris, bassist Árni Árnason flits between London and Reykjavik, and Justin and Freddie are both based in the capital – though Justin spent “a lot of time” in winter writing in LA. Gone are the days where he co-writes for artists such as One Direction in his spare time, he says. “There’s only a finite time we have on planet earth, isn’t there? I got to a point where I thought my time was probably better served creating stuff that was for me.”
Even after the line-up was complete again, the problems weren’t over. A story of a fiery studio bust-up between Justin and Freddie on the final day of recording ‘Combat Sports’ has even made its way to the band’s latest press biography. Justin explains the incident away: “When you live together and work together and create together,” he says, one hand rhythmically striking the table, “with a small group of highly strung men, for up to 15 hours a day, often in a windowless room, on something you really care about… it’s inevitable that you’re going to come to blows, either physically or mentally.” Freddie plays the fracas down too – “It was done and dusted in 20 minutes,” he says – to which Justin responds, “Glad it happened, really… it’s like a brother thing.”
Though the name ‘Combat Sports’ succinctly captures Justin and Freddie’s volatile relationship, it was actually August 2017’s historic fight between Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather that gave the band the inspiration for the album’s title. “Yoann is obsessed with [Conor Mcgregor],” says Justin. “He’s like his style icon.” Suited and booted, Freddie chips in: “He has terrible taste.”
If there’s any hint of combative aggression emanating from the band today, it’s simply nervous excitement at the prospect of getting back on the road – unsurprising, really, given that on the 2017 festival circuit they were already looking like a band reborn. Justin is visibly happy at the thought: “Playing live is one of the most rewarding, exciting things about being in The Vaccines. And I think it’s also one of the things we’re undoubtedly the best at. I really believe that we’re a great, exciting, fun rock’n’roll band live.”
Here he embarks upon a lengthy and amusing analogy comparing live rock to ballet – “when it feels good it feels like you’re floating”, he says – but then, unprompted, he compares third album ‘English Graffiti’ to a tripwire. “We definitely considered that when we were writing and arranging this record,” he says. “Like: ‘How’s it gonna fit into this dance we perform every night?’”
It sounds as though he doesn’t really like LP3. Is that the case – is hindsight 20/20? “We really hoped that ‘English Graffiti’ was going to help us figure out who we were,” he replies – the implication being that it very much didn’t. “Songs like ‘Denial’ and ‘Maybe I Could Hold You’ relied so heavily on studio trickery and production that of course we can technically play them live,” he concedes, “but I don’t think we’d ever do them justice.”
Freddie blames the process of recording itself, where the band didn’t actually rehearse together before laying down the tracks. “It was very disjointed, recorded in layers… we were so disconnected from who we were and what we were doing. The songs just don’t have life in them, no blood and sweat. There’s no life in the bones of them. I just don’t think it suits rock’n’roll.”
Reflecting on it now, he realises that their ‘English Graffiti’ approach contradicted a solid bit of advice Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea once gave them at “some Slovenian castle” while they were on tour together. “He was like: ‘[After our first album] we made all this money and we didn’t have to do it, but we decided to get in a small room with each other and fight, and keep making music.’” Freddie goes on: “Bands like U2, where everyone’s all over the world and you’re so disconnected – it’s never going to sound like a good rock record. You have to actually suffer a bit to do it.”
Back to those old issues of NME sitting in front of Justin and Freddie. As we examine their contents together, they tell a neat chronological story of the band: November 2011 finds them ballsy and brash and saying stuff like: “We always knew we were a great band.” April 2013 has Justin doubting his frontman status: “My mental state swings from delusion narcissism to crippling insecurity.” And in their last cover, from June 2015, he goes one further: “I think I’m too clever to say anything interesting.”
Within minutes, 2018’s Justin is disproving that final theory by slagging off Viva Brother and Mona, and all the other hyped indie bands of 2011 that didn’t flourish like The Vaccines did. “It frustrated me being talked about in the same breath as them,” he groans. “I didn’t like being lumped in with them. I thought that we were better.” Freddie keeps schtum.
I steer the boys back to their 2015 NME cover, in which Justin expressed a desire to be as big as U2, Coldplay and the like. Is that still the case? “There’s some truth to that,” he says, three years the wiser. “I don’t think we ever will be. That’s not something that keeps me awake at night. We want to be a big band, and we want to connect with as many people as possible.” Supporting The Rolling Stones, Muse and Red Hot Chili Peppers, he says, was “incredibly inspiring and intoxicating… you see them go through that every night and you want a bit of it yourself.”
So – if that’s what they want – where do they go from here? The pair of them confirm there are no plans for another tour after their huge UK headline run in April, which culminates at London’s 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace, so how else will they be taking it to the next level? Is the Reading & Leeds headline slot entering their sights? “Yeah,” says Freddie. “That’s my dream. It’s actually my dream.”
The Vaccines on three key tracks from ‘Combat Sports’
‘Your Love Is My Favourite Band’
“That was a turning point: a new perspective on something tried and tested. It reignited something in me” – Justin
“I remember hoping it would turn out as it did: if we could cross that line, it would really set us up to have a meatier, heavier sound” – Freddie
“Originally the Rolling Stone lyric was about a huge house opposite mine, but I changed it to ‘mouth’… I thought it was funny – it’s about when you’re lippy but you’re dying inside” – Justin