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Cover Story: The Vaccines

| February 28, 2018

The Vaccines

Fans will have to forgive the cheesy film reference, chortles Justin Young. But for a while there recently, the anchor for brainy British folk-punkers The Vaccines actually came to believe that he’d somehow lost his magical inner mojo, just like Austin Powers in Mike Myers’ hilarious espionage spoof The Spy Who Shagged Me. And no mentions of the flick’s villain Fat Bastard, either, if you don’t mind – he’d grown chubby enough himself during this dark, depressing period. “I put on three stone – you can do the conversion rate yourself,” reveals the singer, 30, of the bloated 42-extra-pounds period following the group’s third aesthetically-adventurous – but ultimately energy-snuffing — English Graffiti in 2015. “All I was doing was drinking beer and eating cheese snacks, and apart from making our next record, I didn’t really feel like I had any purpose.” He sighs, dejectedly. “I was drifting, feeling very lost, until I well and truly lost my mojo, socially, emotionally, even spiritually.”

What could lay low such a stellar talent as Young, a former acoustic London folkie who called himself Jay Jay Pisttolet before he found his spark in 2009 when he met Strokes-edgy guitarist Freddie Cowan, who was equally frustrated with the UK music scene? As The Vaccines, the symbiotic team burst out of the gate with 2011’s snark-titled What Did You Expect From the Vaccines?, a bracing bombastic tonic for the tepid times that – like vintage R.E.M. – featured jagged, jolting guitar lines from Cowan that seemed to converse with Young’s conversely rich and sonorous vocals. They followed it up a year later with the equally frenetic Come of Age, and — as they began acquiring nominations for Q, NME, MTV, Brit, and – ahem – MOJO Awards, several of which they won – they were suddenly an irresistible force to be reckoned with, with no immovable objects in sight. What could possibly go wrong?

Young is self-reflective to an almost OCD fault. And – hindsight being 20/20 – he can clearly identify the turbulence into which The Vaccines were insouciantly flying with English Graffiti, and exactly when it knocked them out of the sky – a course they’ve carefully corrected with a rollicking new mojo-reclaiming comeback Combat Sports, which hits shelves later this month and is preceded by buzz-sawing hallmark single “Nightclub,” a reason to be cheerful this year if ever there was one.

The ambitious Graffiti project had started innocently enough, with the composer leaving the comfortable confines of London for a rented apartment in New York City’s bustling Chinatown, where he hoped to capture the pace and the splashy neon-hued color of the neighborhood. He invited Cowan to join him in his experiment, while bassist Arni Arnason and drummer Pete Robertson (who would later quit, replaced on Combat by Yoann Intonti; touring keyboardist Tim Lanham also officially joined) stayed home.

As produced by Dave Fridmann, some of the material (“Handsome,” “20/20,” “Radio Bikini”) was as rip-roaring as early singles “Teenage Icon,” “If You Wanna,” and the definitive “Post Break-Up Sex.” But a good portion of the record was comprised of gentle, navel-gazing ballads, which – if you viewed the group as a speedboat powering maniacally across the choppy waves – was like the sound of the engine sputtering off into an eerie dead calm. Not at all what you would expect from The Vaccines.

Young returned to Britain, couch-surfed with friends with no home to call his own, and promptly fell into a funk. Had he over-thought the third record? Been too dogmatically determined to become an uptown artiste with an E on the end? He laughs. “Yes, definitely, definitely,” he can now admit. “I think we felt like we’d been pigeonholed, and that we were functioning within these small parameters that we’d set up four ourselves. And we really wanted to prove that we were more than that to people – we wanted to prove to ourselves that we could make a production-heavy record, that we could make pretty songs, that we could make songs with weird, understated chords. I mean, it was written and recorded over a very long time, and there are some brilliant songs on there, songs that are some of my favorites.” He pauses, weighing his next words carefully. “But the record lacks focus. And in trying to find ourselves, I guess we lost our way. So then we started trying to figure out what defined us. What’s at the heart of what The Vaccines do that nobody else does? What is at the core of our identity? And this new album is our journey of rediscovery.”

It’s not an easy thing to pinpoint, all told. But it’s there on track one of the What Did You Expect bow, the pell-mell punker “Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra),” which scampers past in only 1:34. Midway through it is a six-second guitar-solo bridge from Cowan that sounds like an angry, Mason-jarred hornet fighting to escape that is truly one of the greatest moments in modern rock. In rock and roll history, period. It’s nothing that was over-analyzed – it’s just Cowan sensing the innate flame his comrade had lit with the anthem, then ratcheting it up to a roman-candle intensity, like all great collaborators have been doing since Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards. And the axeman’s instrument actually speaks in different pedal-affected tones from cut to cut, until there really does seem to be a conversation going on between his textural statements and Young’s warm, woodsy delivery. It’s a 50/50 arrangement that’s musical symbiosis at its most enthralling. “We need each other, and its good to be reminded of that sometimes,” Young says, thoughtfully.

Friends saw Young struggling to find himself and made a few helpful suggestions. Stop crashing on people’s sofas and get your own home, or – as George Carlin once termed it – a place for all his stuff. And he did. “I have now got my own house in London, and it’s nice after being in such a weird space,” he says. “Everyone kept saying, ‘You’ve got to get a room with all your books surrounding you, all the things you care about, and all the things you love. And only then will you finally start feeling better about yourself.’ And – even though the nomad in me lives on – it was true. Having a home has been really great.” But it was Cowan who imparted the most relevant wisdom. He heard the artsy new tunes Young was working on – many bereft of potential guitar solos – and sat his friend down for a serious come-to-Jesus moment. The tough love wasn’t easy to hear.

As Young recalls the minutes of the said summit meeting, “Freddie told me, ‘I don’t understand what you’re doing — we need to make a record that’s good for us, not just good for you. By trying to be universal, you’re completely forgetting all your own idiosyncrasies, your own weirdness. So you should go away and reconnect with the person that first wrote all those songs that we have so enjoyed playing together.’ So I bought myself a Wurlitzer and spent every day of the next six months writing songs.”

In 2011, he had undergone three separate polyp-related throat operations, temporarily suspending his singing career in sword-of-Damocles limbo, which led him to the softer, less shouted intonations on English Graffiti. “But I began to feel like my voice was back at the heart of it, and I wasn’t afraid to sing out again and all that stuff,” he adds. “And Freddie very quickly got involved with it. I mean, there are ten great guitar solos on the new record, so he’s very much back at the forefront of our sound again, which I think is a vital part of what we do – you’ve got my quite urgent, helpless voice, then you’ve got his very aggressive, simple, hooky guitars. And that,” he says, declaratively, “is what we do.”

Produced in Sheffield by Arctic Monkeys associate Ross Orton, Combat Sports has only one ballad-slow moment, the breakup-themed “Young American” and its creepy lyrics like “Hold me in the grips of your jaw/ So you can show me what my moth is for” (and yes, Young harrumphs, he’s single yet again, which always seems to work wonders for him in the songwriting department). The rest marks a return to the band’s signature propulsive approach, from the sneering opener “Put It On a T-Shirt” (“My ego sent me lullabies/ and my conscience sang the blues”), to the wah-oohed stomper “I Can’t Quit,” a keyboard-sparkling “Your Love is My Favourite Band” (“I’ll turn my radio on for you, baby/ I’ve been waiting all night long”), the punk galloper “Surfing in the Sky,” a clanging falsetto-edged “Out in the Street,” and the huge, Farfisa-cheesy anthem “Take it Easy,” boasting some of Young’s most slacker-cynical observations, ever (“That’s the problem with people like me/ Why wirk hard when you can take it easy?”). Closing on the church-organ lament “Rolling Stones” – which Young swears is inspired by a monolithic building across the street from his new house (who lives in such palatial digs? he frequently found himself wondering) – the disc is a fine return to form for The Vaccines, with a subtle new emphasis on Tim Lanham’s keyboards. “Did you know that the only thing separating you and him is one little vowel?” Young inquires, snickering; Yes, I reply, but he’s, of course, no relation. Uhh, most likely. Perhaps might reveal some trans-Atlantic genealogical surprises.

When did things finally begin looking up for Young? What were his breakthrough moments? He thinks about it for a minute. “I guess it was when we met Ross,” he reckons. “When we went up to Sheffield and started working with him. He actually played a very important part in re-injecting us with some of that curled-upper-lip attitude.” The tack list was gradually whittled down from over 40 possibilities, and a year ago, there was actually a Mach One version of the album that they would later scrap in their quest for punk-pop perfection. “And once we started playing this stuff, Freddie and I looked at each other and got really excited. Like, ‘Oh, fuck – we’re a rock and roll band again!’”

Young is happy that “Nightclub” is already out there as a fittingly punchy reintroduction to The Vaccines. It was built on a riff borrowed from the pomp-and-circumstance intro music that the group used to walk onstage to at every concert. So when Young barks in the chorus that “It makes my head feel like a nightclub,” he’s not far off the real-life mark. “Once I dug up that old music and added it to the framework of that song, well, it was quite poetic,” he says. “Again, everything just felt right; everything was falling into place quite naturally.”

And frankly, he adds, it feels good to snap and snarl again. No more Mr. Nice Guy. After his surgeries, Young elaborates, “I got very afraid of singing loud. I’m sure you’ll notice in English Graffiti that I don’t really sing out. I’m kind of whispering, even on the more aggressive songs, like “Handsome” and “Radio Bikini.” I wanted to show another side of my voice, but I was also petrified of losing it or killing it. But people should be able to listen to a Vaccines song and know that it is one just by the sound of my voice. I mean, Radiohead is this band that’s constantly evolving, but what ties them together more than anything is that – as soon as you hear Thom Yorke’s voice – you just know it’s Radiohead. So no matter the mood of the song, I decided, people should be able to hear it and know that it’s The Vaccines. I think by hiding my voice the way I did, everyone that was able to connect with us in the first place probably lost that connection that they initially felt.”

Young – who often collaborates in songwriting sessions for other artists – enjoys pondering on the artistic dilemma of pushing the envelope at the risk of offending your fan base. At what point does, say, a genre-jumping composition turn from a bold experiment into shameless self-indulgence? And who would be the arbiter of such pronouncements? The artist? The audience? The profit & loss-concerned record company? “I think that, first and foremost, you have to be fulfilled by what you’re doing,” he notes. “If you’re cheating yourself, then you’re cheating other people, and other people can see straight through that. But equally, it’s a fine balance, because any artist would be lying if they said that they didn’t want to be loved and appreciated. So it’s a fine line you walk, because music is entertainment as well as art, and you need to please yourself as well as please other people. But with this record, we really wanted something that was focused, but that also had this primal urgency.”

Mission accomplished. The only unusual aspect of Combat Sports is the title itself, which was rooted in – believe it or not – an actual studio fistfight between Young and Cowan that went down on the last day of recording. Just looking at Cowan, he’s not someone you’d want to get into it with – he is one of those wiry guys that would probably come at you like a spider monkey. “Plus, he boxes and is into Krav Maga and all this Israeli stuff,” says Young, regretting the fisticuffs. “But we hugged it out, and we got an album title out of it. I can’t even remember why we got into it now. And Freddie’s my brother, and I love him.

“But when you’re like caged animals for 15 hours a day in a studio with no windows, and you’re working on something that you care so deeply about, we do frequently argue,” he concludes. “And actually, when bands stop arguing, I think that’s when bands split-up because it’s almost like they stopped caring. So when Freddie and I argue, its’ always because we’re arguing very passionately over a certain creative decision.”

– Tom Lanham

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