Interview: The Vaccines
Published on March 30th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
Perhaps no British band since Arctic Monkeys have been subjected to quite the same levels of pre-emptive ‘buzz’ as London four-piece The Vaccines; but then, you probably already knew that. Their fuzzy, reverb-drenched, surf-rock sound has been summarised in similarly clichéd terminologies across the board and has led to comparisons with the likes of The Jesus and Mary Chain and The Ramones; but then, you probably already knew that as well.
For all the hype – and, as ever, the British music press has not been found wanting for hyperbolic taglines – The Vaccines are not here to be “the saviours of British rock”. Neither are they here to be the biggest band in the world, however much that may now be out of their hands. What they are here to do is make exhilarating pop music informed by every other era of exhilarating pop music and, judging by the very evident enjoyment of their game (when Rocksucker was lucky enough to attend their already semi-legendary gig) at the now-defunct Flowerpot in Kentish Town, blow your bloody socks off.
If you found that last sentence a mouthful, you should cleanse your palette immediately with the glittering array of delicious melodies and arresting lyrical turns crammed onto their debut album What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? – and let it soundtrack the start of your summer. Because, believe it or not, that’s pretty much all that The Vaccines want to do.
Rocksucker caught up with the band’s Icelandic bassist Árni Hjörvar to discuss the disillusionment which led to The Vaccines’ formation, the contrariness of the hype machine, why ‘pop’ shouldn’t be a dirty word, complimenting Debbie Harry’s trousers and why his homeland is such a disproportionately fertile breeding ground for musical genius. Along the way, we even invent a new word (sort of)…
How did you come to be a member of The Vaccines?
I’ve known Pete [Robertson, drums] and Justin [Young, guitar and vocals] separately for three years. On separate occasions, they were almost the first people that I met as soon as I moved over to London. I’ve played with Pete in all sorts of outfits, which is great because we really like playing with each other. I played with Justin once in a while because he had this little solo project called Jay Jay Pistolet and I played with him when he needed a band. We were good friends.
Then one day, he decided he was fed up with everything and decided that he wanted to start a band with Freddie [Cowan, guitar], who I’d never met at the time. He gave me a call a month later and I joined them. We had another drummer to start with but it didn’t really fit or feel right – he didn’t really want to do it, he wanted to be a session player – so I instantly called Pete because he was the first person I thought of and he joined later.
It was just mates starting a band, very natural and normal, sort of like the way you start a band when you’re a kid. It’s something that just feels right and you’re like, yeah, we just want to make some racket in the garage; no aspirations as such, just making music that you want to make. We were all quite disillusioned in our own sort of way: I did loads of really failed, really annoying session stuff and, when you’re doing that stuff, you’re playing music that you don’t necessarily want to be doing. You’re just doing it for the sake of doing it, know what I mean?
Pete was doing the same, so was Freddie and Justin had hit a wall creatively with his solo project. So we all came from being a bit (affects a weary sigh), not wanting to do that stuff anymore and it was a breath of fresh air creatively and aesthetically. It was a completely new start for us and that’s the reason it stuck out: we were in love with it from the start.
I was reading an interview with Justin in which he said something along the lines of: “We don’t create the hype, the media do.” Where did the hype bubble up from though? The first I heard of you guys was when ‘If You Wanna’ was – stock phrase alert – being “championed by Zane Lowe”…
Oh yeah, that’s where it started originally but I wouldn’t call playing a song on the radio ‘hype’. I think that audible word always has less meaning than a written one, for some reason. If I said to you, “I really dislike…(thinks carefully for a second)…X,” or go on about how much I dislike them…did you notice how I politically decided not to name anyone?
A consummate display of bullet-dodging it was, too.
Anyway, as soon as I say something like that, it means something to you but, as soon as I write it down, it means a lot to a lot of people, do you know what I mean? The written word has a lot more power than the spoken word. As soon as a bold statement is made in written word, even if it’s on a blog that five people read…Big shout out to our regular readers!…journalists will take the quotes and put them on the front covers of magazines. The first claim I saw that was really hyped up and made me think “are you serious??” was the first thing that we ever did with the NME, which was a ‘Radar’ piece. A lot of bands get ‘Radar’ pieces – they do fifty-two of them every year – but our one had a little quote on the front of the NME that said “the great saviours of British guitar music”. We were just like…er, wow, alright. It was plastered on the cover of a magazine!
It’s obviously a very flattering quote but it means that people who read it believe it and, if people believe something like that, then they don’t listen to you thinking about whether you’re a good band or not; they’re thinking about whether you’re the best band in the world or not. Those expectations aren’t fair on any band, know what I mean?
I can see how stuff like that would lead people to automatically try and pick out faults.
Absolutely. Obviously it’s very flattering and it’s been very helpful; because of those grandiose claims, people wanted to talk about us and write about us. If it wasn’t for those ludicrous claims, we probably wouldn’t be where we are but the people who write them are the first people to shoot you down as well because that’s just the way it works. They create the hype, the hype is never naturally created by thousands of kids running around trying to get into our gigs or anything.
Obviously we had quite a few at first but it wasn’t on the same scale as Arctic Monkeys or whatever, you know – we didn’t sell 250,000 records in the first week that it got released – and, therefore, people get sort of underwhelmed if that’s not the case. You can’t live up to other people’s expectations, so why even try? We brushed it off but it did start to piss me off in the end and I’m very happy that the record’s out because that makes all of those conversations completely invalid as now there’s no secrecy anymore.
Now you can pick it up, listen to it and make up your own mind. You don’t have to read what people have to say about it. One week, we’re the great white hopes of British guitar music and, three months later, it’s “the overhyped madness that is The Vaccines” and it’s written by the same fucking person! It’s like, (adopts exasperated tone) what do you want us to do?? We never made those claims, you know.
But were things like featuring on NME‘s ‘Radar’ the fruits of your own self-promoting labours, or those of a publicist or some such?
NME was the first thing, the first press that we got. We had things buzzing around, like Zane Lowe had been playing us and all of that, but essentially what happened was that we put a song up online, sent it to a few people that we knew would like it, circulated it around a bit to see what people would think about it. Then it went on YouTube and people started talking about it, Zane Lowe starting playing it and, off the back of that, everything else sort of happened.
It’s not difficult to get an NME ‘Radar’ piece – as I said, they do fifty-two of them a year – so it’s not like a ‘Radar’ piece will make or break you, absolutely not. They just contacted us, came down and did a ‘Radar’ piece on us and that was the first bit of press that we got.
A lot of people have compared The Vaccines’ sound to such seemingly obvious reference points as The Jesus and Mary Chain and The Ramones. Do you find these comparisons lazy or accurate?
If this is a back-handed question to get me to talk about our sound then it’s really well done, actually!
Thanks…sort of. I was going to add that, personally, I can hear traces of Panda Bear in the melodies…
When we started, it was a lot more experimental and it sounded very, very different to how it sounds today. It was slightly influenced by the Brooklyn lo-fi thing, you know, Animal Collective and all of that stuff. It was quite sparse, it had a keyboard and it was…
…(picking up from previous utterance) because it’s quite incantation-y…
Yeah, exactly! Exactly that word that you just used: incantation-y.
I don’t think ‘incantation-y’ even is a word.
It’s a word now! (Returning to the point) It sounded a bit more like this lo-fi movement which was going on at the time. ‘If You Wanna’ is a key track to us in many ways because, when that got written, that was when the direction of the band changed dramatically. There are so many bands these days that are so great but they really try to hide their ‘pop’ roots, and we just went, do you know what? This is the music that we love, this is the music that we’ve all been listening to, so why not embrace those pop roots and just do pop music?
I think the sonic qualities of the lo-fi movement are probably audible in the way that we present our music but we’re essentially the antithesis of what they do because none of them are actually making any pop music. They’re making music which is sonically very, very beautiful but it doesn’t really have that sort of direct ‘pop’ element to it. We’re all massive fans of pop music but also of music in general so there’s a lot of fifties rockabilly there, a lot of sixties garage and sixties girl groups, seventies punk, eighties hardcore: all instant, get-to-the-point kinds of music.
And it all has this sort of ‘teen culture’-y kind of lyric; I wouldn’t say that we write like teenagers, absolutely not, because we’re not teenagers any more, but they’re all about very extreme emotions, which you experience when you’re a teenager. We’re all very influenced by that sort of music, The Beach Boys probably being the best example of writing about teen emotions. Even though we don’t write about teen emotions, we write about extreme emotions.
I think Justin’s a brilliant song-writer and a brilliant lyricist. Lyrically, I think this record encompasses a lot of experiences that all four of us were going through, even though that wasn’t meant to happen; it was just because we were all going through very similar experiences at the time. We were all quite disillusioned, tired and realising that time catches up with you and that you just have to sort of live the moment and take things for what they are.
Justin’s encompassed all of that really nicely in the lyrical content of this record and it’s applicable to all four of us, which is quite amazing because we never spoke about this at the time. You analyse things afterwards, not while you’re doing them, and when I listen to the record there’s a lot of emotions that we were all going through. I think he’s a brilliant, brilliant lyricist.
It’s a shame that ‘pop’ has become such a dirty word.
Everyone’s a pop band, you know. We’re a rock and roll band but we write pop music. I’ve never seen ‘pop’ as a bad word.
It’s been bastardised.
Of course it has but so has R&B.
Good point. So who or what was the biggest driving force behind your sound? Did anyone in particular say, “Hey, let’s crank up the reverb!”?
I think it started there. It started more as sonic experimentations, then the song-writing came a bit afterwards and they sort of merged together in the end. Freddie’s got a very defined sound; he’s such a sound geek, an absolute monster. He’ll spend hours just thinking about the exact right distortion sound that he needs. He brings this sort of incredible sonic might to the whole thing. It started out being quite ethereal sonically and it’s probably even been brought down a lot over the process of recording the record.
Our live sound is probably a lot drier than it used to be. I don’t know where it came from to start with. All of our instrumentation and presentation of the songs is essentially…we’re a song-based band and we really want the songs to stand by themselves. We don’t want to drown them with too much playing, we just want to make wheels to carry them and let them float on their own.
So all of the instrumentation is kept to the bare minimum and it’s all about not doing things that aren’t necessary, you know. If it isn’t necessary then don’t do it: that’s the sort of mentality that we all came to the music with, and then we used the sonic qualities of it to make a soundscape where you think you’re hearing things that aren’t there. The easiest way of doing that is just mashing everything up in reverb, so that was a sort of starting point which actually got toned down quite a lot throughout the record!
I guess it came from this wish of making a soundscape that is essentially lying to you with things that aren’t actually there but feel like they are, know what I mean? A lot of the time you listen to that kind of music and you start humming melodies that aren’t there but you wonder why on earth they’re not there because they sound so perfect over it. They’re not there because they’re not supposed to be.
It certainly is a very tight, pared down rhythm section that you inhabit, with the occasional little flower’s petal of lead guitar melody icing the cake.
Yeah, that’s very conscious. It’s so easy to make a bad song good with flowery playing and great instrumental bits but I think there’s a certain art in not doing those things, just letting the song be exactly what it has to be and nothing else. It takes a lot of restraint because it’s so easy to go, “I’ve got a great bass line for that”: no, you’re not going to do that, you’re just going to do exactly what is needed for it and hope that it stands on its own. If the songs weren’t good then you couldn’t do that but I think the songs are good on their own.
Ah, the old adage of ‘if it sounds good played just on an acoustic guitar then it’s a good song’…
Yeah. That’s the self-same mentality that we brought in: just keep it as simple as we can get away with.
What’s the most star-struck you’ve ever been?
I did take a piss next to Mike Patton once. I was 18 at the time so I was probably more susceptible to being star-struck than I am now. Debbie Harry walked into our dressing room like three minutes before we went onstage at our first New York show, which was a sold-out Bowery Ballroom. It was so magical and incredible in every sense, to go to New York for the first time, sell out a place like the Bowery Ballroom; it was like, this is it man, this is fucking beautiful, an unreal moment!
We were getting ready and warming up backstage, really buzzed up, and all of a sudden in walks Debbie Harry without anyone announcing it, without anyone telling us that she was there or anything. She just walks in and says, “Hey guys!”
She did warn you many years ago that she was “gonna find ya…gonna meet ya, meet ya, meet ya, meet ya.” (Feels slightly ashamed.)
Ooh, bad pun! I was pretty star-struck. Freddie just sat there going (adopts ‘fawning’ voice), “You’ve got really nice trousers on.” That was pretty much the exchange of words that happened. I met Vivienne Westwood once, that was quite amazing.
Why do you think a country as small as Iceland keeps churning out such great musician
s?Actually, I think I’ve got an interesting answer! First of all, I think it’s because we don’t have anything. It’s very easy to get bored in Iceland; it’s always dark and you can either go and play sports – and suck at them, because we suck at sports – or you can just go and make a racket with some friends in a garage. So everyone’s in a band, there are hundreds of bands in Iceland and the main feature of it is that there’s no such thing as a career as a musician in Iceland. Because the market’s so small there, commercial aspirations don’t exist.
Being a pop star in Iceland – and this is no joke – means selling five thousand records. If you go on tour in Iceland, most of the places you play will only have a population of about one thousand to fifteen hundred people, so being a successful artist in Iceland isn’t commercially viable. Therefore, people don’t have commercial aspirations which means that they don’t need to make music that people like, they just make the music that they like.
There’s a massive punk scene, a massive metal scene, a massive dance scene, post-rock as well. Because all of those scenes sort of exist within their own little entities, they never try anything else and that’s how it works. Because you don’t have these commercial aspirations, it means that you’ve got so much interesting stuff happening. Sigur Rós don’t sound commercial; they’re just commercial because they’re big. The commercial marked adopted Sigur Rós, Sigur Rós didn’t adapt to anyone else. Same with Björk, same with The Sugarcubes in the old days.
Icelandic bands exist in their own little entities and don’t think about what’s going on around them and that’s always the best way of convincing people, because if you’re not convinced about your own music then you won’t convince anyone. They’re just making the music that they want to make and that’s the truest way of doing it.
What are you listening to at the moment? Or, put another way, who are your top tips for 2011?
I think you’ll be hearing about a guy called Oberhofer. He’s from Brooklyn and he’s very good. He’s shameless; he’s got high aspirations and he’s not ashamed of it. He’s still got this sort of Brooklyn sound, this lo-fi thing going on, but he wants to be a pop star and he’s absolutely proud of saying so. He’s a really nice guy and he supported us twice while we were in the States.
I hope you’ll be hearing about a band called The Caezars, although it’s quite unlikely because they’re like a full-on, no bullshit rockabilly band. But they’re fucking brilliant.
Everyone’s saying it but when they hit English shores I think they’ll be the biggest band in the world, and that is Odd Future. They’re like really clever rich kids from Hollywood but they behave like Wu-Tang Clan with balls. They’re fucking mental. Their videos are like skate films of people puking, really messy and really mad. They played SXSW with us and they were hands down the “winners” of SXSW. Wherever they came, it felt like an event.
The main guy is called Tyler the Creator and there’s another one called Hodgy Beats, and they would literally climb up any speaker stack, fifteen foot-high speaker stacks, and they would…not jump into the crowd to crowd surf but they would bomb , like you’d jump into a swimming pool. Fucking off the wall, really, really mad. When they come to England they will definitely kick off instantly.
The Smith Westerns as well. They’re coming on tour with us and they’re really good, got some really great songs.
Could you name, as of this very moment, your top three albums of all time?
The Argument by Fugazi. Midnight Marauders by A Tribe Called Quest. Then we have to have a Beatles record, so I’ll say Abbey Road.
Finally: if you could ask yourself one question, what would it be?
Where are you going to be in two years?
Árni, thank you.
The band’s debut album What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? is out now on Columbia Records. For more information and a list of live dates, please visit www.thevaccines.co.uk.