The Vaccines have never much cared for other people’s opinions – least of all critics. The band’s approach has always been to circle the wagons, delivering impeccable indie stompers that seem to hit the spot for thousands upon thousands of fans.
Of course, they’re fans themselves. Deciding to let the press into the inner circle for one afternoon only, Clash troops to West London to catch up with singer Justin Young and guitarist Freddie Cowan, and we probably spend more time discussing the work of other musicians than their own. Everyone from Iggy Pop to Leonard Cohen get a shout out, with the ebullient pair throwing out song after song, memory after memory.
Perhaps it suits the music. New album ‘Combat Sports’ is out now, a terrific, visceral, adrenalin-fuelled return that finds the band entrenched in common ground: big, huge riffs, soaring choruses, and lyrics that punch hard and never look back.
“Someone asked me the other day,” Freddie reflects, “they were like, ‘is this a reaction to the last record?’ And I feel like every record you make is reactive, isn’t it? You’re not really starting from scratch, you’re starting within a new framework that is - I guess - a reaction to the last record.”
“I think that it always feels like starting again, ‘cos what you’re writing about, how you’re writing and where you’re writing is different, and then the rehearsal and the refinement process, and the recording process, who you’re doing it with, where you’re doing it… it always feels different. I guess you’re trying to push things forward.”
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Ah, that last record. 2015’s ‘English Grafitti’ was one of The Vaccines’ most successful to date, but it also found them meandering away from settled territory, introducing a host of ambitious new elements. By way of contrast, ‘Combat Sports’ is a profoundly physical return, 11 rounds rapid of pop culture inspiration.
Freddie continues: “I think we learnt on this record that we’re not a band that can start with a concept, like ‘oh, we’ve already decided the next record’s gonna be pop’. We need to leave the songs and then the concept or mood can follow.”
“I think we get bored quite easily,” Justin adds. “We’re quite tough on ourselves and we get quite bored. I think there’s always a lot of emphasis on trying to do different things with the same tools.”
“I think it’s straddling that line of keeping your core, what you do, what makes us The Vaccines, whilst at the same time being authentic and conscious of the fact that we started the band eight years ago,” the singer continues. “It’s difficult ‘cos if you started a band now, your M.O. probably wouldn’t be what it was eight years ago. So it’s trying to work out how to retain what was best about what we did eight years ago whilst trying to move forward and make something that we feel fulfilled by now. It’s a difficult thing.”
What fulfils the band more than anything else, it seems, is simply being as band; whether that’s in the rehearsal or the studio or onstage in front of countless fans, it’s plugging in, working cheek to jowl, and kicking out some serious indie jams.
“I don’t think a band like The Vaccines – and I don’t mean this in a negative way – but I don’t think we can make records completely free of framework,” Freddie says. “As an artist that’s obviously a really appealing thing, but as an artist within a band, that wouldn’t serve us well.”
“You forget, when you’re sat on your sofa at home for six months, what it feels like to play live, how those songs are going to be re-contextualised in a live forum once people have heard a record. That’s a vitally important part of what we do.”
“I think also that it’s so rare – and we’re also lucky – to have a band which has a personality of its own,” enthuses Justin. “I think you have to kind of respect that. I don’t think it actually restricts you from being innovative, but I think you do have to respect the personality of the band.”
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It’s a personality that practically screams out of every groove on the vinyl edition of ‘Combat Sports’. Lead single ‘I Can’t Quit’ is a call to arms, while something like ‘Out On The Street’ feels like a rallying cry for fans and band alike.
“I think each member brings a certain personality,” adds Freddie, “and the combination of those personalities ends up with that exuberant, euphoric thing. It’s an assimilation of personality types: the impatience, the introspection, the aggressiveness, shaking-leg energy. It’s all these personality traits put into one thing.”
A concise, precise package, nothing feels wasted on ‘Combat Sports’. Ever-industrious, The Vaccines reckon they wrote around 40 songs for the record – and then whittled it down to an 11 track breakneck package.
“We’re kind of the opposite of self-indulgent,” smiles Freddie.
Justin starts to chuckle: “We like being as lean as possible...” “We do a lot of work, a lot of writing, separate to each other,” the singer adds. “We present our parts and we shave them down as individuals and then we come together and shave it down again.”
Freddie interjects: “I think we’ve always prided ourselves on being direct. We are music fans as much as we are musicians, and I’ve got insane ADD in my listening habits. I listen to songs and go like, ‘why is there a fourth verse?’ I think that plays into the way we write.”
The choice of producer on ‘Combat Sports’ was vital. Ross Orton – a figure more readily associated with punk, and harder rock elements – caught The Vaccines at a live show, and decided he wanted to work with the band.
The two parties got on immediately. “Ross was so good,” Justin blurts out, almost immediately jumping to attention in his seat. “He was so brutally honest, he really shook us out of some unhelpful habits when approaching the songs. He woke us up out of a coma, he was fantastic.”
“I felt like I was thinking along the same lines as Ross,” Freddie explains. “He was like, ‘I saw you live, you were touring with the Arctic Monkeys, you really had something, it was really great, and I don’t hear it in these demos so let’s play together a bit and see what happens.’ We’ll know if it’s right or not, if not we can just part ways. There was no room for that to be manipulated into something that was not true. He was always completely true.”
“That’s kind of what you want from a producer, I guess,” Justin muses. “You want someone to have an equal amount of admiration and disdain for what you do. You don’t want someone to like you too much.”
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Out now, ‘Combat Sports’ is a record embedded in pop culture. Just look at those track titles: ‘Young American’ with its nod to Bowie, ‘Rolling Stone’ with its nod to, well, y’know… Elsewhere, you can find allusions to Wilco, Big Star, and more; as ever, The Vaccines’ record collection plays a key role in where the band travel.
Freddie picks up the conversation: “It’s funny, when we were trying to reconnect with the band, and we were trying to work out what kind of record we wanted to make, we started going back into those sections of our record collections.”
“I’m obsessed with pop culture, I’ve always loved pop culture cross-referencing itself. On the BBC the other day, one of the eight biggest clichés in music was songs referencing other songs. I was like: yeah, it’s ‘cos it works, it always sounds so good.”
In the world of The Vaccines, then, a song is a memory, a memory is an emotion, and an emotion is worth writing a song about. “I think you get quite lucky,” Freddie interjects. “We did an interview in Paris the other day, a Desert Island Disc kind of thing. Justin was saying Leonard Cohen, I said, ‘Raw Power.’ And he was like, ‘oh, that’s The Vaccines then!’ I think you get lucky, and those elements come together. It is quite intentional. So much of it is limitations, what you’re not able to do.”
“People have been writing about the same things using the same 12 notes for the last 60, 70 years, but I suppose it’s how you frame it… as long as you get to the core of what you’re doing,” Justin explains. “The Vaccines make more sense to me at the end of this record than they did at the end of the last one.”
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'Combat Sports' is out now.
Catch The Vaccines at the following shows:
9 Manchester Academy
10 Nottingham Rock City
12 Glasgow Academy
13 Sheffield Academy
14 London Alexandra Palace
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