This article appears in the July/August 2015 “British Issue,” now available on newsstands.
Justin Young, singer and guitarist for London’s The Vaccines, recognizes just how difficult it can be for a guitar-based rock band with a radio-friendly sound to stand out in an already crowded field. His band’s first two albums, 2011’s What Did You Expect From The Vaccines and 2012’s Come Of Age, dealt heavily in garage rock with big hooks, big choruses, riffs, fuzz and attitude – essentially everything that a good rock and roll album should have. And the positive press from outlets like Mojo, Q and NME suggested that the critics agreed.
Yet while a straightforward, punchy rock sound can certainly be refreshing, it can just as easily be limiting. So when it came time for the U.K. foursome to regroup and get to work on album number three, they took the extra step of trying to overcome the hurdle of playing it too safe, and made even more of a concerted effort to make rock music that went somewhere more exciting.
“I think, more so than ever, it’s not in vogue,” Young says in a phone interview. “It’s not the most exciting, forward-thinking genre of music. And I think that it’s funny that rock and roll is synonymous with rebellion. But the majority of rock and roll sticks to some old, outdated rules. I think that whether or not we’ve done that isn’t for me to say.
“It’s funny, in the past we’ve referenced [The Clash’s] Combat Rock and been like, ‘Let’s try to get that guitar sound’,” he continues. “With this record we were thinking more, ‘Well, that was 30 years ago. They were trying to be forward thinking. Why don’t we try to get a guitar sound beyond what we’ve got before?’ There are all these rules and we were keen to not try and abide by them.”
The band’s third album, English Graffiti – released in May via Columbia – finds Young, bass player Arni Arnason, guitarist Freddie Cowan and Pete Robertson challenging themselves in ways they never had before. The lively, raucous spirit of the band is alive and well throughout the record’s 11 tracks; it’s recognizably a Vaccines album. And yet the group also took a considerable leap outside of their comfort zone in their effort to open up their sound to new ideas and aesthetics.
One major difference is the decision to work with producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev), whose approach tends to amplify and exaggerate the sounds of the bands he works with. “He’s extreme, and often times he’s genuinely seeking a certain sound that makes him laugh,” Young says. But the band also took its time to shape and mold these songs before ultimately arriving upon something they were satisfied with releasing.
“It took … a year, 18 months of exploration and making mistakes” before the songs on English Graffiti came together, Young says. “I went seven months before writing any songs that made it on to the record, and then I wrote four in one week. Often, you know, with anything creative there is that element of wanting to feel like you’ve explored every avenue, and then winding up closer to where you started than perhaps you were expecting.”
The sonic baubles and bric-a-brac that Fridmann helps fling toward the listener makes English Graffiti an even more exclamatory and, at times, psychedelic listen than The Vaccines’ previous efforts. It’s a bustling buffet of ear candy, whether it’s serving up the blown-out distortion in glam-rock strut “Dream Lover,” the heavy use of delay and echo effects of “20 20 Exchange,” or the dreamy, almost underwater-sounding layers of flange and phaser in “(All Afternoon) In Love.”
The Vaccines navigate a heady landscape throughout the album, but the songwriting itself still carries the punchy, punk-inspired rock and roll on which they made a name for themselves the first time around. The music has evolved, but the ethos hasn’t; the guitars are still loud and the songs are still catchy and concise (the full album runs a lean 31 minutes). It’s a tricky balance to try to maintain your identity as a band while also making the effort to grow, and Young contends that they’ve learned this lesson the hard way.
“The one thing that I really regret on the last record is that we didn’t really give ourselves enough time to evolve,” Young says of Come Of Age. “We kind of released it too quickly and I think there are great songs on that record, and the playing and dynamics. But I don’t think we had become a better band.”
Young fully acknowledges the complications that come with trying to make guitar-based music that’s both original and interesting. But doing just that isn’t the ultimate goal for The Vaccines. Young has his sights set on a much higher achievement.
“I think we were a good band, but we never felt like we were an important band,” Young says. “We wanted to make an important record – whether it’s important now, or five years or 25 years from now.”