Straddling his chair like a grunge Christine Keeler, Craig Nicholls is tugging on his dishevelled mop and thinking hard. "You can't really predict anything," he says finally. On the eve of the release of The Vines' second album, Winning Days, the band's impish front man is musing on the supernova success of their debut, Highly Evolved. Released in 2002, hot on the heels of their ferocious 2001 debut EP, Factory, the record was greeted with almost embarrassing levels of critical adulation, as publications from the NME to Rolling Stone fell fawningly under its scorching charms. The first single, "Get Free", was a short, sharp shot of pneumatic garage rock that blew the cobwebs off a listless British music scene; the follow-up hit, "Outtathaway", cemented the band's reputation for blistering, rocket-fuelled melodies. The album catapulted the Australian four-piece from the serving-counters of Sydney's McDonald's on to major-network television shows, shifting more than 1.5
Straddling his chair like a grunge Christine Keeler, Craig Nicholls is tugging on his dishevelled mop and thinking hard. "You can't really predict anything," he says finally. On the eve of the release of The Vines' second album, Winning Days, the band's impish front man is musing on the supernova success of their debut, Highly Evolved. Released in 2002, hot on the heels of their ferocious 2001 debut EP, Factory, the record was greeted with almost embarrassing levels of critical adulation, as publications from the NME to Rolling Stone fell fawningly under its scorching charms. The first single, "Get Free", was a short, sharp shot of pneumatic garage rock that blew the cobwebs off a listless British music scene; the follow-up hit, "Outtathaway", cemented the band's reputation for blistering, rocket-fuelled melodies. The album catapulted the Australian four-piece from the serving-counters of Sydney's McDonald's on to major-network television shows, shifting more than 1.5 million copies and heralding a year-long sold-out world tour.
After seven years of grafting as an unknown band, the success came quickly and unexpectedly. And just as Nicholls couldn't have predicted their sudden rise, so no one could have predicted his reaction to it. As Highly Evolved made music-press cover-stars of Nicholls and his bandmates - Patrick Matthews, Ryan Griffiths and Hamish Rosser - he became the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde of rock stars.
To put it mildly, Nicholls is a man prone to childish tantrums. He has been known to wreck dressing-rooms and trash TV-studio equipment on a whim. He locks himself away in hotel rooms, refusing to come out. He even smashed a journalist's Dictaphone in a fit of rage at the tone of the questioning to which he was being subjected. With Nicholls, there are never any plans; only hopeful contingencies. He has a formidable record for cancelling meetings with the press. Our interview, initially scheduled to take place in Oslo, on the Norwegian leg of the band's European mini-tour, was called off at the eleventh hour because he was "getting sick" of speaking to journalists.
Live, that volatility translates into sets that are either electrifying or abysmal, depending on Nicholls's mood. At the Glastonbury and Reading festivals in 2002, he mesmerised tens of thousands with his thrilling, impetuous performance, his voice lurching instantaneously from husky howl to cut-glass falsetto. But when he's bad, he's awful. A Boston gig later that year ended in a stage-front punch-up between Nicholls and his bassist, Matthews; and Nicholls's juvenile posturing and tuneless caterwauls at the band's British dates a year ago (at the tail-end of The Vines' world tour) made for one of the most shameful, soul-destroyingly pathetic performances that I have ever witnessed. But Nicholls refuses to take either credit for the fine performances or blame for the terrible ones: "I can't tell the difference between the good shows and the bad shows," he insists. "I just get up there - we just play. Nothing really goes through my head."
It's not easy to get inside the mind of someone as irrational and undeniably different as Nicholls, but his explanation does seem genuine. The problem is, it seems, that he just doesn't think like the rest of us do. On a good day, that means that Nicholls exudes the endearing innocence of a child. But, when faced with situations with which he is unable to deal, he becomes frustrated and his petulant streak comes bursting to the fore. "I can be really nice or I can be really, really evil," he admits with a wry little laugh.
Today - just as he was the first time we met, two years ago - Nicholls is all sweetness and light. Happily cocooned in his cosy hotel-room habitat, he enthusiastically commits himself to being questioned, while strumming merrily on a psychedelic-coloured toy guitar. It seems that when he's comfortable and secure, Nicholls is polite and attentive. But when he's not, he's prone to lashing out. Only last month, just a few weeks into the new album's promotional campaign, he flipped again, unleashing a torrent of abuse on a journalist from Kerrang! magazine that culminated with Nicholls storming out of the interview. So why the outburst?
"I could sense bad vibes," says Nicholls, trying to explain in his strangulated Aussie tones. While acknowledging that he was "misbehaving", he remains unapologetic: "I don't really feel that what I'm doing is acting up or anything like that," he says. "I mean, I just kind of... I can sense things like energy and negativity, and that's when I go off."
As such meandering sentences prove, Nicholls's main problems stem from communicating - or his inability to do so. At times, talking to him is like trying to extract sense from the March Hare. He hides behind playful sarcasm and speaks in long streams of consciousness that flounder and double back on themselves as Nicholls grapples with his opinions. At one point during our hour-long interview, he stops mid-sentence and announces, "It's funny: what I just said is the opposite of what I'm about to say." At another point, he says: "I just feel like I have trouble getting the words to fit the meaning."
It's not surprising, then, that spending time with journalists is not his favourite thing. "Doing interviews, I do feel a bit of pressure," says Nicholls, with a self-conscious laugh. Playing music in front of thousands of people is one thing; trying to explain that music is quite another. "I wasn't expecting to have to do interviews - that wasn't even in my head," he says. "I'd never really talked about what I think with anyone before, so all of this has been kind of strange for me."
He pauses for a long time, deep in thought. "There's no way that what I think in my head can be put into words so someone else can read it and then get a real clear view of me," he says - annoyed as much with himself as with those who, he feels, twist his words. Nicholls has often been portrayed as a man on the edge - several pieces in the music press have talked almost longingly of his "madness" being likely to lead to suicide at some point in the future. But the fact is, he's not willing to be pushed into the role of the next Kurt Cobain. "I wouldn't want to kill myself," he insists, both hurt and irritated by the oft-repeated suggestion. "I'm really serious about making music."
He wrings his arms in front of himself, seething with irritation: "Interviews shouldn't be about me having to come up with answers to defend myself from what some people may have said, which isn't even true. Maybe I am retarded. Maybe I should live in the real world, yeah?" Nicholls's voice is soft, but his sarcasm is barbed with frustration. He takes a swig from his bottle of Coke and lights a cigarette. "Interviews should be about music. That's why I'm in a band - to make music."
And that music is more than capable of speaking for itself. While not exactly heralding a new direction, the raging blasts of furious rock on Winning Days are much rawer and more visceral than those on Highly Evolved. And, this being a band of extremes, the moments of soft, psychedelic bliss shine with sweeter melodies than ever. From the wired adrenalin rush of "TV Pro" to the melancholy of "Rainfall" and the sumptuousness of the album's stand-out title track, underpinned by Nicholls's powerful and emotive voice, The Vines' musical spectrum is fully explored.
Nicholls compares the songs to an art exhibition ("They're like different paintings on the wall," he says), and certainly, it's a record of many shades and moods, with Nicholls the enigmatic and passionate painter. Nicholls sees his job not as a musician but as an artist and, perhaps not surprisingly, finds inspiration in the work of another notoriously difficult customer - Salvador Dali. "I look at his paintings and to me they seem pretty clear," Nicholls says of his hero. "He was painting all these images that were strange to a lot of people's minds - but not to his." Nicholls feel much the same about his music. Just because he struggles to explain it fully, that doesn't mean it doesn't make sense to him. "I'm really proud of the album we've made," he says, his face lighting up at the thought of it. "Music is magic. It's my favourite drug: it really has an effect on me mentally and physically. It's such a rush."
Perhaps partly because the album does not differ vastly from the template of the first, and partly because of Nicholls's on- and off-stage antics, the new record has not been greeted with quite the critical love-in of the first. Yet it is another fine album, proving that for all Nicholls's problems, The Vines have what it takes to grow beyond the success of Highly Evolved. Although clearly a little barbed by the criticism that the new album has received, Nicholls remains defiant. "People have the option of whether to buy the album or come to our show. That's what the band's about. We're not some pop group who get told what to say and how to act," he says, revelling in a moment of lucidity. "I don't really feel like I owe anything to anyone, and I don't feel anyone owes anything to me."
As a person, Nicholls is reckless, impulsive and intriguingly bizarre, but at times he is also stupidly stubborn and foolishly rude. Yet it would be an enormous shame if his talent as a musician were snuffed out or overwhelmed by the quirks of his personality. At the very least, in a world of faceless career musicians, Nicholls is certainly never bland; nor are The Vines. A wide, lazy grin fills his face. "Yeah. If you want consistency, go to a jukebox."
'Winning Days' is out now on Heavenly/EMI