Q&a The Vaccines' Justin Young - on new album The Vaccines Come Of Age, why "clunky lyrics" rule, the need to make an emotional connection & more...
Having gained a heap load of fans - and to be fair a good deal of detractors too - with their debut album What Did You Expect From The Vaccines, The, er, Vaccines return this summer with new album The Vaccines Come Of Age (released 3 September). We spoke to frontman Justin Young (second from right) about the new record, the personal honesty he's poured into his lyrics (and why he likes them chunky), the way his band split opinion and more.
How the devil are you?
"Very good, actually. At the moment things are bit unsettled because we've just finished the record. I'm looking forward just playing a show every night again."
How's your throat? You had a few issues touring last time.
"I had three operations, but it feels alright at the moment. I had to make some lifestyle changes, but it feels alright."
Looking in from the outside it doesn't feel like The Vaccines have stopped, you went off the road and straight into the studio, and now you're back out playing festivals again this summer.
"We haven't stopped! We really haven't. We continued to write from the time the first record came out really and at Christmas time we took a step back and realised we had close to an album's worth of what we felt was really great material. Certainly better material than we had before. So we went to management and then to the label, and rarely in a world of major label release plans, they said Ok, release a record! So we compiled a wish list of producers with Ethan Johns at the top of it, and he was the first person to come back to us, so we called off the search. We did two weeks in March in Brussels, went to Coachella, then another two weeks in May. So it took four weeks to make the record but it wasn't a rush because we were quite strict on ourselves before we went in the studio."
You knew exactly what you wanted to do?
"A lot of bands these days are unable to play the records they make, because they create these things in the studio and then it's like, What the fuck are we going to do? For us it was the other way round. For us it was, Let's make a record as good as we're capable of by playing it live. We really thought about and refined the songs, so when came to the studio Ethan was like, Let's get a fucking great take now!"
What made you realise you had an album ready to go?
"For me the hardest thing was thinking, Do these songs make sense in an album? Chronically they were written over 12 months so there are songs like Teenage Icon that sound like the first record and then there are songs that were written in March this year, like Aftershave Ocean, that don't. For us the reason why it was a no brainer to make the album was firstly, you're only as good as your last album - the problem is a record is a snapshot of how good you were at a certain point in time and if you play every night for 18 months then you're going to be a better band 18 months down the line. So we took a step back and thought, There's definitely an evolution here, they're better songs, really well crafted. And secondly, we were being asked if we wanted to play festivals this summer and we all said to each other, Not really if we're playing the same record, because you don't want to become a cabaret act. We thought if we have new songs to play to people then we could do another summer of festivals."
How have the fans reacted to getting a new album so soon?
"I supposed people are still engaged, I guess we're riding a wave which we haven't fallen off yet. As a music fan I don't like being tested. There haven't been points in the show where we've gone, OK everybody you can stop singing now we've got seven new songs we're going to play in a row and they're a little bit different... We've snuck in songs that made sense, that are easier to digest in the live set and they've gone down really well. You can see a progression. I try to stay out of online critique - when I do see it, it depresses me - but it seems from people who are fans of the band there's a genuine goodwill for the record."
You weren't worried that you were rushing it?
"No, for me it's really important for me that we keep making records and keep trying to better yourself. You're fucking busy as a band but ultimately you can sit down and write songs and I feel it would have been lazy and we wouldn't have fulfilled our potential if we relied on something we wrote four years ago."
Why was Ethan Johns top of your producers list?
"As a teenager I got into a lot of alternative country, Whiskeytown was the band that really flew that flag, and then obviously through that I got into Ryan Adams and he produced those records. I was aware he did the Kings Of Leon's first two albums, although I didn't own them, and I knew who his dad [Glyn Johns] was so, in my mind he was one of the most famous producers in the world. He probably is actually, if you know your producers. I loved every record of his and presumed he was a purveyor of taste: all his records have a closeness to them, they sound great and are all tasteful, so we all immediately thought of Ethan. All our hopes were fulfilled, I think. The first record, I like it, but I feel it just drives, you don't know who The Vaccines are at the end of it. Whereas when you listen to a record Ethan Johns has produced you feel you know the artist slightly better at the end of it."
What's he like to work with then?
"At first I'd be going Can we get some reverb on that? And he be, Why? He wants a closeness to it, more character. He essentially gave us a lot of confidence. He told us we're a great band and anyone who can't see that is an idiot. He said, You're good at some things and no so good at others, so why don't you focus on what you're good at. You're good live so let's make a complete live record. Even the vocals were live, which is why there's a more ad lib delivery, no Autotune. Even though it's not as driven I think it's more exciting because there's more character and genuine energy. We made the first record live, but then it was a case of picking the best word from each take. This time I'd sing and then if it was a great take then who cares if it's not spotless. There's one song on the record where we're using our first take. It was just having confidence in being a great rock'n'roll band."
You've spoken previously about how honesty was an important part of the approach to this record, so that even applied to the recording?
"I think honesty really is important. Whether or not people believe us or not is another mater, but if you want people to emotionally invest in what you do you have to be honest with them. Whether my songs are on tried and tested subjects or not is irrelevant, you have to be honest, lyrically and sonically, if you want emotional investment. It's the same in all walks of live and I feel there's an honesty that embodied the whole process. The day Ethan met us he sat us down and said: I don't want any fucking egos, I'm here because I really respect you. I'll listen to you but you have to listen to me, don't take things personally. And I think we really benefitted from that."
Has that frankness changed the type of song you've written at all? The first album had a lot of snapshots, is this one more direct?
"Yeah, it's pretty much all first person. I realised on the first record I was playing the victim a bit, it was all wet. I feel on this record it's a bit more, Fuck you! There are literally lyrics and snapshot emotions where you feel something for a day, week, month or year or whatever. I feel like I'm still learning as a lyricist, what works, what doesn't. I like being knowingly dumb as well. I love clunky lyrics because all great pop songs have them. I had versions of songs where the lyrics weren't as clunky but they didn't sound as classic. The Beatles have clunky lyrics because the way it flows and the universal nature to it, but I feel like I'm still working that all out. I guess I had a choice to look outward and tell stories or look inwards, and I suppose I put my emotional disposition under the spotlight."
It's true, if lyrics are too polished they can lose their meaning.
"I often don't believe people who are expressing themselves eloquently because I don't think it's reckless enough. You know what I mean? Often high brow lyrics can change a song from entertainment into purely art. It's amazing how simplicity can aid a pop song. It just lifts it."
So this record is dumb but it happened to you. It's stuff you actually felt or experienced?
"Yep, I'd say 90 per-cent. It's really important to be uncomfortably honest because, like I said, how can people connect with you if you're wishy washy? If people can't comprehend what you're saying... I don't like that."
Was that inspired at all by the fact you know you have an audience this time? Who knows who'll listen to a debut, but with a second album fans are waiting...
"You're slightly more self-aware, but what I'm really proud of is we didn't compromised what we thought was good or what we genuinely liked. Put it this way, there are songs that I listened to that we've recorded for this record where I genuinely think anyone who had a problem with The Vaccines first time round can pull this one apart as well, a lot of it's still there. I don't give a shit, because I know it's still good. They obviously don't get it. You could be compromising, going: I'm not going to rhyme there because I saw this review and they singled out the clunky rhyme. But who are you pleasing? Because I've heard 20,000 people sing it back to me and they all believed it. It's really important that I go with my heart in that respect. We had 150 ideas for the record and I remember going, If anyone knows we had 150 ideas I can imagine some sarky comment going Can you imagine how bad the other ones were? But then I thought, Maybe we're not picking the cleverest ideas but I know we're picking our favourites and that's really important, isn't it? Picking something that means something to you rather than: this will show progression, this is pretty highbrow. You have to have faith in what you believe in. I always felt, and we were shy because of what people might think, but there were four of us who knew a bit about music and we all felt we were onto something that people would like because we all liked it. We had to rely on that faith in ourselves."
Talking of which, you do seem to divide opinion, particularly amongst the blogs, don't you?
"Online culture has had a negative impact on new music. It predominantly covers indie music which is artistically brilliant but a lot of indie music lacks ambition. I feel that if you look at what's in vogue at the moment, it's not to be big and brash but to stare at your shoes, to be introverted. I feel coming out saying We want to be a big band and if you don't like us we don't care, isn't in vogue at the moment. I don't feel rock'n'roll is in vogue either. Maybe we're moving against the tide."
Are you bothered that online people who don't like your band seem to take your existence personally?
"They way people talk about music has changed. Before it used to be celebrated or ignored. Obviously people thought negatively about bands that came before, but no one knew it because there wasn't an online forum for them. I think it's great people have a voice but the only thing that's been amplified by that is negativity because positivity was always plain to see. I genuinely feel that 18 months on we've weathered the storm and people accept us now. I like the idea of good music winning."
The flipside of that of course is you provoke a reaction, which must be satisfying to a degree?
"We evoke passion, I guess, which is amazing!"
You've called the album The Vaccines Come Of Age, based on what you've been saying, does that sum up how the band feel now?
"It's very tongue-in-cheek, it's a joke. In the same way the first one was a joke too. I like having the name in the titles because it sounds classic, Meet The Beatles, More From The Monkees, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Also it is a lyric from one of the singles, but lyrically it's actually: It's hard to come of age, so if you're going to take it seriously you need to think of it in that context, as a human being and not as a singer in a band. But purely taken as The Vaccines Come Of Age, that's supposed to disarming."
Still based on your idea that albums are snapshots of where you are now, there does seem to be a new bullishness about the band and what you've been doing, so it could fit that way.
"You know we listened to the record back to front when we left the studio and Ethan turned to me and said: You know what? If someone doesn't think this is brilliant fuck them because they don't understand you. And that really resonated it, it's celebrate or ignore. People were suspicious of the way we came about, and we were self-aware as music fans. We'd witnessed with other bands before and probably made snide comments ourselves! We turned down a lot of stuff because of that. But what made me proud was people weren't talking about us because a video had gone viral or we had a really strange look, they were talking about us because they thought the music was awesome... or maybe they didn't, but they were talking about us because of the music and that's all that fucking matters. So I feel confident now. Anyone who doesn't think we're a great band will have their mind changed by this album, or the one after that or the one after that... or they can pretend we don't exist!"
Paul Stokes @Stokesie
For more head to Thevaccines.co.uk.
11:04 AM | 01/08/2012
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