The live stream to this exclusive intimate show begins from 17.30 UK time
In a quiet, dingy corner of The Rugby Tavern, a stone’s throw away from ShortList’s offices, Justin Young is recounting the moment he realised The Vaccines had made it. The band are in unanimous agreement: it was November 2012; they had just blown away 10,000 indie kids at a sold-out Alexandra Palace. London double-deckers, piled outside before the gig with “The Vaccines” listed as their destination, had been replaced by ambulances picking up fans who’d moshed themselves into a frenzy. “I felt on top of the world,” says Young. “We went for drinks in Highbury after. I went to the loo, this person goes, ‘Look – it’s the singer from The Vaccines.’ His mate went, ‘I know. What a tw*t.’ I came crashing back down to earth.” He pauses, gives a shrug, and adds: “Now I just don’t give a f*ck.”
It’s that attitude, aligned with a new do-or-die record, that perhaps explains how a band that sold out Brixton Academy just 12 months after their debut show at The Flowerpot in Kentish Town have come full-circle and are preparing to play ShortList’s local on Thursday, in front of our readers – you, yes you, reading this right now.
The new magazine is your ticket to the show, likely to be a typical Vaccines gig – a blitz of frenetic indie-pop – made more riotous by the fact the venue they’ll be playing is their smallest ever. Smaller, even, than that first fateful night at The Flowerpot.
When they ascend the stairs for a rehearsal two weeks before showtime, jetlagged following their return from Austin’s SXSW Festival, the first-floor gig space is met with excitement and bewilderment. A tightly packed room in darkening shades of red, it’s a world away from the hordes of festivalgoers who watched the London quartet in the Texan sunshine. Think the Red Room from Twin Peaks condensed into a 10x12m rectangle, with tables and chairs. Instruments will be set up, by default, in the farthest corner from the door. Amps draped with Vaccines bomber jackets are huddled around the drum kit.
Arni Arnason rests his bass guitar against a pile of furniture. “OK, so where are we playing?” He sees the looks on people’s faces. “Oh, here?” Lead guitarist Freddie Cowan is more cocksure. “I love these kinds of gigs,” he says. “Zero separation, no stage, no lights – I want someone to rip out the cords and the amp to explode.”
What did you expect?
Young heads for a table in the corner – nothing about him screams ‘rock star’. Relaxed, fop-haired, wearing five days’ beard growth, he’s taking pictures of his new signet ring, sporting the Coca-Cola logo. “I just love how it’s such a trademark, from the design to the taste, how it’s recognised everywhere in the world,” he says, before showing off a photo of a band T-shirt he’s jokingly designed, emblazoned with the slogan: ‘The Vaccines Went To College’.
Young may not be your typical frontman, but with that comes a down-to-earth friendliness and fierce intelligence that belies The Vaccines’ straight-from-the-hip riffs and simple lyrics, epitomised on their calling card, If You Wanna. “I remember writing it thinking, ‘There’s no band in the world writing pop songs as direct as this,’” reflects Young. “It’s a song most people were afraid to write.”
If bubblegum naiveté and simplicity drove their first two records, comeback LP English Graffiti is written with eyes wide open, a statement of intent best summed up by Young’s ballsy labels: “important-sounding”; “genre-defining”; “reflecting [our] era”. Lead single and album opener Handsome is a red herring – it’s a typical Vaccines headrush, with a daft video featuring kung-fu expert aliens in a pop homage to martial arts B-movies. What comes next matches the talk, Dream Lover, a booming stomp of a song met with an anthemic riff á la Arctic Monkeys’ Do I Wanna Know? It’s followed by Minimal Affection, a synthesised groove beat underscored by Young’s lyrics, hinting at the disconnection of the Tinder generation. Tracks such as (All Afternoon) In Love and Maybe I Could Hold You share dreamier soundscapes contrasting with the thrashy rock of the band’s past.
“So much of the record is about love and love lost in this world,” Young says. “It’s harder for us to connect in modern times. I’m 27, a handful of friends are married, but my parents’ generation were all married by 27. The [thing] I keep coming back to is dissatisfaction.
“When I liked a band, I wrote them three sides of A4 paper,” he adds. “Now people just write on Instagram: ‘Come to Brazil.’ When people ask for photos I try to engage them – they don’t want to talk, they just want a picture. It’s a really weird constructed reality.”
Arnason sits beside Young. He’s had a ring designed, too, of an eagle – the English translation of his Icelandic forename. He lets Young do the talking, interjecting when a date needs confirming, a fact needs verifying; that he was indeed the bassist for Jay Jay Pistolet – the moniker for Young’s pre-Vaccines solo career – etc.
The pair formed the band in late-2009, alongside Cowan and a procession of drummers (“as many as Spinal Tap,” jokes Young). It was through Arnason that Pete Robertson took up the sticks in March 2010. The line-up stuck and, soon after, Zane Lowe declared If You Wanna the ‘Hottest Record In The World’. The band were selling out headline shows and appearing on magazine covers before they had even headed into the studio to record debut album, What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?
But the obligatory gigs in empty bars happened, too. “We were a band longer than people think,” says Young. “We played Nottingham Rescue Rooms when we were called Catholics. There wasn’t a single person there. Two weeks later we played The Flowerpot as The Vaccines and 300 people were turned away.”
Cowan, meanwhile, is shoving coins into the jukebox. Arcade Fire, Gorillaz, Little Dragon and Tame Impala tracks await. He scrolls to ‘V’ and the page solely shows Vaccines hits. All but two are from their debut, the others from 2012 follow-up Come Of Age. Cowan resists temptation and chooses The White Stripes’ Blue Orchid. Counting them, The Vaccines have as many entries as U2.
“There have been more surreal moments than that,” says Robertson, an easygoing type, now combining music with fatherhood. “We were in a karaoke place in Hong Kong, and Post Break-Up Sex was an option. Did we sing it? No, but we put it on to see the ball go across the words.”
“We sang karaoke a few times with One Direction in Tokyo,” says Cowan. “That was surreal. When we arrived we asked each other if we’d become massive in Japan all of a sudden, all these girls outside asking for autographs, screaming, ‘Are you One Direction?’ We were in the same hotel as them, we sang karaoke afterwards. They were singing The Wanted songs – and they hate The Wanted.”
Songs to burn
Back upstairs on the cramped makeshift stage, the band go through rehearsal. Robertson hits the skins with Whiplash intensity; Cowan and Arnason’s jamming is fast and taut. Young works the vocal chords as the opening line to Tame Impala’s Elephant is played by Cowan – the song had blared on the pub speakers moments earlier. The band returns to improvising and the sound bounces back-and-forth between the room’s tight corners and low ceiling.
“I hope none of you recorded that, it was deliberately hammy,” Young says to the handful of people at the warm-up. The band are still figuring out which of their new songs will make the setlist come 9 April. They certainly worked hard to make them – 50 tracks were scrapped during a recording process that spanned six months in upstate New York. “Five of the 10 songs on the album didn’t appear until last October – we finished in December,” adds Young. “The sound had to match the ambition of the band.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited to be in The Vaccines,” says Cowan, now bopping his head to If There Is Something by Roxy Music. “That’s not what I felt 12 months ago – it’s such a huge difference having new songs. The sound’s evolved.”
There’s a break for a surprise birthday cake for Arnason, who turned 31 the day before. Drinking champagne, the band chat Kanye West’s new song All Day (“an amazing, Black Sabbath-style riff with distorted vocals,” says Robertson), their favourite 30 Rock moments and expectations for the gig in a fortnight.
“There’s a connection here that you don’t get in a bigger room, it’s more of a shared experience between band and audience,” says Young. And what if thousands of people turn up? “We’ll open the windows,” he replies. “One of my first ever gigs was in a really rowdy pub – it reminds me of this place. There were windows behind the stage; everyone surged forward and the guitarist fell back on the amp – it went through the window and he nearly went with it.”
So, a band that’s on the comeback trail, boasting an album that’s a product of the times – new material that “sounds f*cked up”, according to Arnason. Does all that feed into playing a poky pub called The Rugby, for one night only? Young says they’ll thrive. “The sound’s not going to be good, there isn’t going to be a light show; we can’t hide in the shadows – we’re going to be as close to people as we are right now. It’s going to be awesome.”
Cowan has just returned from his third trip to the jukebox. “I want it to be as chaotic as possible,” he says. He spots a group of silver-haired regulars sleepily sipping their lagers at the bar.
“If it’s anything like that, it’s going to be f*cking mental.”
English Graffiti by The Vaccines is out on 25 May on Columbia Records