The best part about life is growth ─ and goodness, The Vamps have done plenty of it. As their boyishness has faded into young adulthood, and feeling both the pressures and pleasures that come with one’s mid-20s, so has their music molted into a unique and vibrant display of maturity, musicality, and deeper human intensity. Their fifth studio record, Cherry Blossom, sprouts lush, fragrant blooms that invigorate down to the heart.
“Our albums are like milestones and little moments in time. It’s nice that each album has memories associated with it. Musical and personal development are so closely linked, I think,” offers lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist Bradley Simpson. “Both roll forward together. We’ve tried to develop the sound as we’ve developed as people.”
Where companion pieces Night & Day (Night Edition) and Night & Day (Day Edition), sets released a year apart, signaled a transformation, their next evolutionary stage wouldn’t come until they stepped away from the spotlight altogether. Breaking a reliable album creation cycle (plotting massive arena tours while scribbling away on the next record) didn’t come easy, but once they severed any preconceived notions about how things should be, the creative floodgates burst open.
“It was great to finish that [last] cycle and actually reminisce,” drummer Tristan Evans tells American Songwriter over Zoom earlier this week. “It was taking inspiration from the past and using it for the future. We all did our own separate things for a little bit. We traveled to Japan, Thailand, loads of other countries before COVID-19, and we naturally found more inspiration that way, as a band. And as friends, it brought us closer together. There was more passion, energy, and focus that’s gone into this record.”
Hopped up on inspiration, the four-piece rented out a couple Airbnbs and holed up for some quiet creative time together. Things ignited pretty straight away, leading to one of the first songs called “Part of Me,” among the set’s moodier pieces. “It was in that period where we knew we were writing the album, but we hadn’t set a date. It was still very experimental, something we’d never had the time or space to do in a long time,” says Simpson. “Going and locking yourself away in the middle of nowhere with gear and guitars is the best thing you can do. It was a much-needed injection.”
“You took a part of me, the best piece / Can’t bear to see another body,” laments Simpson, twisting the emotional knife over frothy waves. Initially with the chorus melody, he brought its barebones into a session, and as often happens, it zapped from their fingertips like static electricity. But it plummetted downhill just as quickly. “There was such a lack of productivity [after that],” he says with a laugh. “It was fun, though.”
In those early days, the band, liberated from self-imposed constraints, found themselves dabbling in any and every kind of sound, working their way through various influences to settle upon who the band was at the moment. “It’s good to try different things. Especially when you’re trying to find a sound and keystone for an album, you have to go down different routes. We’ve continually developed, sonically, and finding that thing you can hold onto that becomes the light at the end of the tunnel and everything then filters toward that… that’s a key moment.”
Undeniably the record’s most volatile, “Chemicals” (inspired by Royal Blood’s work) was that key to unlock the door. “It was a really big moment and became the key to production [for the album],” says Simpson, noting they were “listening to a lot of Haim,” which steered “the melodic inspiration for the album.”
It was the last session of 2019 when the song locked into place. Beginning with a guitar riff and “a super minor progression,” quite evident in the final mix, Simpson took it too co-writer Tom Mann (Lewis Capaldi, Rita Ora) to stretch off-beat lyricism over its weirdly unsettling edge. “It’s fun to write melodies over those kinds of chords because you can have a bit more fun. You’re not boxed in as much,” he says. Expansive reverbs and pitched-up guitars erupt from its roots, leading into LOSTBOY’s maddening production style.
“He produces at the same rate you’re writing, so he keeps up with you. Then, you’re encouraged to write even more. You’re running this race together.”
As bright and shiny as it is, lead single “Married in Vegas” sticks with a similarly peculiar structure and transition. Big (and real) drums blend with saucy programmed patterns, accentuating Simpson’s sky-bound vocals, among his best work. The record had already been handed into the record label when he got drunk one Friday afternoon ─ “I had had a few beers throughout the day,” he admits with a laugh ─ but he hooked up with LOSTBOY over Zoom that evening, and the song seemingly arrived out of nowhere.
“It’s that whole idea of falling for someone to the point it’s dangerous and obsessive and you’d literally throw your life away. That all-encompassing love is how it should be. You should have that feeling,” he contemplates. “The sentiment was so big, it needed to have a tag that emulated that. We’d been speaking about ‘Rocket Man,’ the Elton John film, and all the grandeur and excess. Using that as a metaphor for love and how it should be, the song came off the back of that.”
Conversely, Cherry Blossom doesn’t skimp on the gutting, provocative moments. “Protocol” is nothing if not a true heartbreaker, emerging out of lead guitarist James McVey’s imagination. “I won’t tell my parents how I fucked up affection,” weeps Simpson. The frontman firmly culls out his vocal performance from McVey’s brooding well of emotion, as the musician imagines a world in which his life crumbles down upon him.
“This song is a weird one for me. The way I wrote it is I thought about what I valued most in my life. And it’s my fiance and her parents ─ I have a really good relationship with her dad. I wanted to write a song about how I would feel if I ruined the best part of my life,” explains McVey. “I have never done that before. I’m very happy, but I said, ‘Fuck it, I’ll open that box: What would happen if I cheated on her next week?’ My life would fall apart.”
A unapologetic country music fan, whose current favorite record is Lindsay Ell’s probing Heart Theory, he crafted the song initially with country-infected chords. “Then, we made a demo that sounds sort of country-ish. Originally, I think we went in to do just the vocals. Brad has an amazing ability to somehow end up on an instrument when we’re meant to be doing something else. He started playing these bluesy chords instead of a straightforward country progression.”
Evans later supplied pulsating drum work, nestled in the undercurrent so as not to distract from Simpson’s earnest pleas. “We loved the vibe of Tristan’s drum. We ended up getting rid of all the previous instruments and pulling that track up from the drums,” adds McVery.
Cherry Blossom crashes the senses, zig-zagging from high-powered anthems (“Glory Days,” “Better”) to other such tearjerkers as “Treading Water,” a surprisingly hopeful way to bookend the record. Even as they step into more propulsive sounds, their songwriting approach largely remains the same as it always has.
Five albums deep, the group’s writing “has kind of stayed similar to very early songs we were writing, meaning that often it starts with one instrument and one person in a room,” offers McVery. “What has changed, though, massively, is these boys’ production; it has come such a long way now.”
The music also significantly benefits from them co-producing half the record. “That’s opened up a new door where in many ways production is equally as important as lyrics and melody. We’re now able to make tracks as we’re writing a song or even make the track before writing the melody. Technique wise, from a guitarist point of view, we’ve definitely learned a wider variety of chords in the past 10 years. Back in the day, we would have probably played around with eight chords in various different keys. But now, we’re always trying our best to put in something slightly more jazzy or bluesy.”
“A lot of the songs have revolved around guitar riffs, which I don’t think we’ve really done before,” continues McVey.
With exponential technological advancements, the band also has way more tools at their disposal, further cracking open endless possibilities. “It’s always been important for us to evolve with technology, as well. We always want to test the new stuff that comes out. We love all the nerdy stuff like Splice,” says Evans. “We’ve got so much stuff on our laptops we can go through, and that’s just really important, as a producer. That pushes you as a writer, too, when you can put down ideas quicker, or you can put samples in from a drum pad. Something portable is very important for us.”
Greatly inspired by Arctic Monkeys, Royal Blood, and other indie/rock/pop bands, Simpson rarely sits down to write a guitar riff to emulate anyone else. “You listen to music and it seeps its way into your subconscious. When you’re writing or producing, you just naturally veer into that,” he says. “It’s so unpredictable. Sometimes with plugins, or if you get into a rhythm of writing, you fall into those same paths you always go down. It’s finding guitars or plug-ins or effects that make you go, ‘Oh, shit, what was that?’ That spurs your creativity, and then you go try something different.”
Even down to specific sets of chords, The Vamps know no bounds in their songwriting. “In the early days, when we were writing a chorus, for example, we may do the same four chords two or four times. What’s interesting this time, or the past couple years, really, is we try to do four chords for the first part of the chorus, and then you change one of them the second time around or third time,” explains McVey. “It could be a slightly different minor, for example. We’ve learned how to build choruses. When you’re a 16-year-old kid, you never really think about it, but the more you write, you realize the significance of making those subtle changes.”
In broader terms, McVey, who’s gone on record about his love of folk music and artists like Damien Rice, observes a fascination to artists who “speak about almost uncomfortable themes,” he says. “Bands like Haim do it really well, where they say things we all feel but in a different, obscure way. Having that essence to a band or artist is so interesting. We’ve really tried to capture an element of that.”
Underneath all the pop glitter and electrifying rock bravado, The Vamps’ latest offering plants firmly in their ongoing journey as a band of four 20-something guys. As comes with such a transformational decade, in which you find out who you want and could be, they turned ever-inward to peel back layers of their emotional and psychological states. “There was a lot of looking internally. There are a few songs that are very relationship focused or at least set in that context,” notes Simpson.
Where “Better” links directly into a person’s innate duality, “Would You” runs loose on inescapable insecurity. “Tell me how you really feel / So I know it’s really real,” Simpson begs his lover. Screaming desperation glides along like a ghost throughout the record, ever present but often hiding in the shadows. You have to really listen or you’ll miss it completley.
“The whole album deals in real human emotions and spans the full stretch, or I hope anyway,” he adds.
More to the point, their 20s “have been crazy,” concludes Evans. “We started quite young, and when we got into our 20s, we could start going out and kicking off in America. That was different, so we had more experience to write about. That’s really important for a person ─ to go through the normal experiences that everyone else goes through. The 20s are all about finding yourself and who you want to be later in life. I hate when people think they’re old when they turn 30.”