The Vaccines have recently released their third album, English Graffiti, and are confirmed for the line-up of Byron Bay’s Splendour In The Grass. AUGUSTUS WELBY reports.
It seems strange to say, but every time some new UK band gets touted as the future of rock music, it’s reason enough to turn away. The superlative-happy UK music press has a history of nominating ultimately inadequate rock music saviours, who tend to fade from view within six months.
Back in 2011, London outfit, The Vaccines, were subjected to this sort of aggrandising treatment. Pounding into view with a brash indie rock sound, The Vaccines mightn’t have been the second coming of Oasis, but their savvy songwriting prevented them from drowning in the whirlwind of hype. In fact, the band’s debut, What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?, pulled off the remarkable double act of charting in the UK Top 10 and gaining positive critical feedback.
It’s a testament to The Vaccines’ career ambitions that they’ve just returned with their third album, English Graffiti. Looking back on the build-up to What Did You Expect…?, co-frontman Freddie Cowan has no lingering misgivings.
“I don’t think I was aware of it to the level it was going on,” he says. “In hindsight, it was massively hyped. The speed at which we grew in the UK was insane. They’ve touted a couple of bands since, but I don’t think I’ve seen anyone do it and ride that wave like we rode it. We were so lucky for that, really.”
Cowan’s grateful attitude is somewhat surprising. See, while embracing such lofty praise might seem natural, the motives behind this acclaim warrant scepticism. It’s impossible to ignore the nostalgic bent to a statement like ‘saviours of guitar music’, and in this respect, Cowan is less compliant.
“‘Saviours of guitar music’ – what does that even mean? Does guitar need to be saved in that way? I don’t think so. It seems like everyone wants it to be the ’90s again – people who talk like that, ‘Go back to the good old days when people who played guitars made more money’. I don’t want to go back to that. I love where pop music is at and I really understand why guitar has taken a back seat.”
With this in mind, on English Graffiti, The Vaccines break away from the formula that birthed their first two guitar-loaded records. “When we were touring (second album) Come Of Age we thought, ‘This doesn’t represent us at all or what we’re listening to’,” Cowan says. “We were really hungry to get out of what we were doing. The whole Ethan Johns, plug in and play, totally live, raw – we just said, ‘Why are we doing this to ourselves? Why are we making it so hard for ourselves?’ At that time it was 2012 and we were recording a record like it was 1971.”
The consequences of this realisation are stamped all over English Graffiti. Encompassing added diversity and dynamic scope, the synth-heavy album recalls everyone from TV On The Radio to Simple Minds and The Strokes. The band’s penchant for high-speed pop numbers is still in effect, but with help from producer Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Sleater-Kinney), the CBGBs grime has made way for neo-Spector gloss.
“We didn’t really set ourselves any rules with it,” Cowan says. “We’re the ADD generation and we’re like the worst culprits of that, so we just followed what was of interest at the time. It’s dangerous to have too much of a mission. If you over-conceptualise before you walk the path, it’s not natural.
“We listened to a lot of pop radio making this record. But also someone would just come in and be like, ‘Oh, have you heard this song?’ Deerhoof put out their new album and there was a song called Big House Waltz, and we went, ‘This is fucking really inspiring music’. Everything about it was just so right-on. Then there was an older song from this Billy Cox album, Nitro Function, with this girl on guitar, Char Vinnedge, and this song called Powerhouse. It’s insanely musical, insanely brilliant, wild-sounding.”
One of the primary flaws in the nostalgia-drenched ‘bring back the guitars’ argument is the fact the guitar itself is simply a tool. With English Graffiti, Cowan and co. set out to demonstrate that it’s more important to communicate something forceful and exciting, regardless of your chosen tools.
“When Kanye West put out All Day, it was like, ‘What the fuck?’ It sounds like someone did it in five minutes, but it sounds like that person was genius. They’re raw sounds and raw hooks and so throwaway but so catchy, and these stupid little vocal noises that become huge hooks people will sing at stadiums. It ties your head in knots. It’s like, ‘This is the rock’n’roll. This is what people must’ve heard when they heard Link Wray’. When jazz was big, this guy’s playing three chords through a busted amp, but it worked.
“The pop world is living on the edge and it’s dangerous and heavily referential and so fast-moving. I love that. It’s great just to experience that. So when it comes to bringing the guitars back, I have no interest in going back to that era. I still think there’s a place for guitar music, but I think it’s a place that requires a bit more thought.”