Early recognition and success is, for many, a particularly sharp double-edged sword.
Sure, it delivers a degree of attention, something invaluable when a band is starting to find its feet, and provides a platform from which an act can promote their art and themselves. With all those extra eyes, however, comes the extra weight of expectation, which either makes or breaks a career in the industry. As such, when Clash Magazine labelled London four-piece THE VACCINES “game changers” after only a year of being a band, you held your breath. Appearances on the likes of Later… With Jools Holland prior to an album release – the first band to do so – qualified the notion somewhat, though you still feared for them. That was back in 2011. Now, in 2015, we are two albums and an EP down the line, with a third LP, English Graffiti, due out on 25th May. Already this year The Vaccines have treated us to the dashing singles Handsome and Dream Lover, and festival appearances where they’ve handled the tag of headliners with aplomb. It’s fair to say that The Vaccines have survived.
Describing the lifespan of The Vaccines as survival, though, is to do them a severe injustice. During our brief but engaging conversation with guitarist Freddie Cowan, what becomes increasingly clear is the profound sense of development since the release of What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? back in 2011. When reflecting on that debut, Cowan describes how “The first album was such a whirlwind of energy… we were just really lucky, you know. We got in a room together and Justin [Young, The Vaccines’ frontman] had all these amazing songs. I was listening at the time to what I considered to be amazing music, and we all got together and something really amazing happened, just a pure ball of energy.” Early releases If You Wanna, Wetsuit and Post Break-Up Sex instantly caught the attention of a generation of youthful deviants, cultivating a numerous and incredibly dedicated fanbase. Only a year later Come Of Age dropped, an album which maintained the hooks and rowdy charm of the debut, though dressed it in a more sophisticated garb. As Cowan puts it, “The second record was kind of coming to terms with how that kind of thing doesn’t last forever. You have that really kind of fresh first round of energy but that only really works on your first time, and then you really have to get to terms with being musicians, do your other things and find your quality in harder-to-seek-out places.” Led by barnstorming singles Teenage Icon and Bad Mood, The Vaccines proved that they could do that rare thing: change and develop without compromising their sound.
Such a point has only been reiterated time and again in the period since that record was released three years ago. In fact, it was on 2013’s Melody Calling EP where Cowan seems to feel that the most evident sense of progression was made: “The EP kind of took me by surprise a bit because it was kind of unexpectedly something we wanted to do. But I remember listening back to it the other day and thinking actually it was a huge progression; that it was really explorative, maybe with, like, less direction than the third record, but it was still a kind of wonderful adventure.” This sense of adventure is something which seems to particularly resonate with Cowan, as he goes on to explain. “That’s the best thing about it because you’re seeing someone on their journey. It’ll be no fun if someone locked themselves away for ten years and tried to do something that was perfect, because, you know, human interest isn’t much interested in what’s perfect; it’s kind of what’s human and what’s imperfect, what’s like a journey, and that’s why it’s so great.”
With English Graffiti, The Vaccines’ own journey has led them to making a record with its roots very firmly in the music of today. Working alongside Dave Fridmann – who has a history of producing bands such as The Flaming Lips, Tame Impala and MGMT – and Cole M. Grief-Neil – who has a similarly impressive catalogue working with Ariel Pink, Beck and Nite Jewel – in Fridmann’s Tarbox Road Studio in upstate New York, the band’s record exhibits a noted increase in the emphasis on production and utilising modern equipment. The decision to indulge in such a sound was, as Cowan explains, a wholly intentional one: “What we ended up listening to was a lot of modern pop music and hip hop and just things that were very much utilising computers. I think we just felt like we wanted to create a produced record, a record that could only have been made in 2015 or 2014, and I think that was our main objective.” Working with Grief-Neil in particular, Cowan tells us, was a conscious part of this process. “The reason we wanted Cole to be on board was because we wanted someone who was really well versed in that type of thing, because when we came into the record we definitely – although we were willing and wanted to make this transition – had no idea how to do it.” The result is an album which professes the same sort of mentality and ethos which ensured The Vaccines have succeeded thus far: namely, progression without compromise.
It is, in fact, exactly this notion which Cowan seems to find most satisfying. He takes great pride in the fact The Vaccines have developed their own sound, something with which a great many bands struggle throughout their entire careers. When discussing the third record, he explains how: “We explored and explored and explored, but we came back to a sound which was really very distinctly The Vaccines, and I feel that’s a very special thing because it’s amazing to have something like that.”
Throughout our interview, Cowan comes across as a dedicated, articulate and passionate member of his band, his sense of artistic duty coming to the fore when he notes that, “A lot of people care about this, and a lot of people I care about care about this.” Never does he seem more proud, however, than when discussing how The Vaccines have successfully carved their own niche in the nigh-on-impenetrable mesh which is the music industry, a feat which he sums up well: “I think we’ve cemented that [sound] while going in a completely different direction,” he states, a point that is impossible to dispute for anyone who has given the band even the most cursory of listens.
Looking forward, there is much lined up to keep fans of the band satisfied, not least the full and proper release of Modern Graffiti. Plans beyond this, Cowan believes, depend on the success of the new record. What is certain, however, is that The Vaccines are not going to be standing still. For a band where change and development from one album to the next is a key feature of their sound, remaining static is never likely to be an option. Amidst all this development is also the essence of what it is to be The Vaccines, the beating heart which has drawn audiences thus far, and which truly marks this special band out as distinct. Lead singer Justin Young put it best when, as mentioned in a recent Guardian review of their show in Nottingham, he pronounced to the crowd: “We’re The Vaccines, and we’ll always be The Vaccines.”