The Vaccines - Just when you thought rock'n'roll was dead...
Reports of the demise of guitar music are premature: The Vaccines have injected new life into the genre. By Gillian Orr
Friday 11 February 2011
It took just one song to be uploaded to the internet last summer to incite a music-industry frenzy; three minutes of vintage, brash, no-messing, rock'n'roll.
After The Vaccines debuted "If You Wanna", the web was abuzz with excitement over these mysterious new players. It wasn't long before record company execs sat up and took notice, and the boys have been enjoying (or have been saddled with) comparisons to the arrival of The Strokes and the Arctic Monkeys ever since. Now a band still very much in its infancy is preparing to release one of the most anticipated albums of the year.
Much has happened in these last few whirlwind months. The band were asked to perform on Later... with Jools Holland before they'd released a song. Their gigs were marked by huge queues and the occasional scrum. They came third in the BBC Sound of 2011 poll. Debbie Harry turned up to watch them at their debut New York gig last month. NME put them on their cover accompanied by the strapline "The Return of the Great British Guitar Band". No pressure then.
But if you thought all this fuss could have led to prematurely inflated egos, you'd be much mistaken. When I meet The Vaccines' frontman, Justin Young, and guitarist Freddie Cowan in a cheap Vietnamese restaurant in east London, they are excited and polite, as opposed to cocky and self-assured.
"I think people need to remember that we haven't put ourselves in the position we're in, other people have," says Young, between mouthfuls of chicken curry. "Whilst we're grateful for the position we're in and we want to make the most of it, we still started this band with very humble ambitions and I'd hate for people to think we've come marching in thinking we're better than everyone else because that's not the case at all. I think we've got a good band, but we're kind of here by accident."
Young and Cowan were introduced by a mutual friend before being joined by bassist Arni Arnason and drummer Pete Robertson. The boys, all in their early twenties, have been playing in various outfits for years, perhaps the most notable being Young's previous incarnation as solo folk troubadour Jay Jay Pistolet, whom Laura Marling invited to support her on tour.
So, why do the band think they've managed to inspire such excitement? "I genuinely think we've got a really great set of songs and there are people who are really connecting with them," suggests Young. "We've worked really hard to get our music to a place which we're proud of. The other reason is that we're benefactors of timing. I think lots of the great British indie bands at the moment are too left-field for commercial potential and I think guitar music got really tired and really derivative so it sort of went away. Whether or not we're a false start, guitar music is cyclical and at the moment it looks like it's maybe revving its engines again. It will come back whether or not we're the forerunners or a false start. I think people want to hear exciting guitar-pop music. There has been some really bad stuff about."
They've found ways to remove themselves from the hype around them, which Cowan has taken to calling "the 'H' word"; only too aware that it could contribute to their downfall as much as it has propelled them thus far. It can be a frustrating position to be in. "The press say we're hyped, but they're the ones creating the hype," laughs Young.
As a way of keeping their heads down they refuse to Google themselves. "Sometimes it's hard and it's tempting, but I think it's genuinely beneficial to keep the blinkers on and just remember that some people will like what you do and other people won't."
As it is, the band isn't without its detractors. As with anyone whose success may appear to have come easily, there are many characters waiting to trip them up before they've even properly arrived. The band's name was brought up in a recent flurry of debate over whether or not too many of Britain's successful musical acts were privately educated, with many commentators pointing the finger at The Vaccines and proclaiming them to be too posh to rock.
It's an accusation that riles the boys. "Firstly, none of us have trust funds, all of us have worked for a living," argues Young. "You know, we might be middle-class but we're not rich; it's never in any way helped me make music. I just came to London and I started playing open-mic nights. And also, we sing about things that affect young men; we sing about unrequited love, anger, jealousy, and we're no less qualified to sing about things like that than someone who grew up really poor. I think it's wholly irrelevant."
"I've spent a third of my life trying to do this," adds Cowan. "I've played every dive venue three times, I've been trying to do music since I was 15. Nothing and nobody can really help you but yourself – and that goes for everyone. No one can make you good, you just have to work really hard at it. I really believe that."
For now they're focused on the release of their debut album next month. You'll only need a spare 30 minutes to listen to the entirety of What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? but, with its catchy, youthful tunes, prepare to have it stuck on repeat. The rhetorical title is a nice touch and works as a cheeky nod to the expectations thrust on the young band.
The album is filled with some of the stomping classic punk-rock that instigated early comparisons with The Ramones, such as The Vaccines' first official single, "Wreckin' Bar (Ra Ra Ra)", as well as some more surprisingly sweet pop, including "Family Friend", a hazy paean to a summer romance. "I am quite a nostalgic chap," explains Young, the band's chief songwriter. "All of the songs on the record are looking back, none of them are looking forward."
"I think it's a good snapshot of where the band is at the moment," continues Young. "It's pretty simple and to the point, we haven't tried to be clever, we've just said, 'this is who we are'. We're really happy with it. I think it's the record we always planned to make."
And what of their plans for the future? "I want us to be the best live band and for us to fulfil our potential," says Cowan, "to work really hard at being good. Music's a really important thing and if you're lucky enough to do it everyday then you should be really good at it. There's no excuse not to be."
Just before the boys head off to get the Tube, Young smiles and says: "You know we might not live up to other people's expectations, but we've already far surpassed our own. We're just enjoying the ride. It is kind of weird being in a position where people are talking about you, but we know what it's like to be ignored and now we're seeing the other side of the coin. I think we just have to prove to people that we're worth it."
'What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?' is out on 21 March, preceded by the single "If You Wanna" on 14 March. Tour dates at www.thevaccines.co.uk
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