A shot in the arm
After he’d accepted that his nu-folkish solo project wasn’t connecting with people as he’d hoped, Justin Young joined The Vaccines – reluctantly. It’s a good job for fans of rambunctious, streetwise indie rock that he did, but why the hesitation, asks Lau
IF YOU didn’t know better, you’d think that perhaps Justin Young and his bandmates weren’t thinking straight when they named their band. The Vaccines? A moniker that elicits images of sterility and visits to the doctors involving large, scary needles?
But don’t underestimate the singer of the hottest new indie band in town. The Londoner has been down this road before, and Young’s prior experience in the music industry has made him all too aware of the unimportance of band names. The twentysomething’s first foray into the musical limelight – after he’d completed his history degree, that is – was under the singersongwriter pseudonym Jay Jay Pistolet. He was lumped in with nu-folk artists such as Noah and the Whale, Laura Marling and Johnny Flynn, and he even shared a flat with members of Mumford and Sons for several years, enticing Marcus Mumford to play in his backing band on occasion. Yet although his current role as Vaccines frontman and chief songwriter couldn’t sound any more different from his days of fey folk, that doesn’t mean he’s dismissive of his recent past.
“It was definitely a sort of apprenticeship,” he agrees. “I suppose I was further down the line than I would have been, in terms of writing songs and learning how to channel creativity. I always feel, as a songwriter, or whatever you do in life, that you get better if that’s what you strive to do. I’d seen various different paths that various different people I knew had taken, but I’d always watched from the sidelines.”
While the careers of his contemporaries flourished, Young was left playing the same venues and moving in the same circles – so a shift in sound and direction was inevitable.
“Well, I think it’s like anything in life, isn’t it, really? Relationship, work, or an artistic pursuit – if you’re losing your drive, or your creativity, or your focus, then the best thing to do is to change. That said, it wasn’t like I dropped everything. I still write all the Vaccines song on an acoustic guitar, and they still come from the same place emotionally. I think it’s just the way they’re dressed up. It needed to be refreshing – for me, anyway. Having other people to bounce things off helps things, too. It’d be really cynical – and not true – to say that I stopped [operating as Jay Jay Pistolet] because I thought that people had had their fill of folk artists, and that the winners had already crossed the finish line. But I definitely started to question whether or not I had anything to offer. It wasn’t like I thought ‘Well, those people are successful, so I won’t play folk music any more, because no one else can be successful’. But I was certainly aware that I wasn’t connecting with people in a way that other people were.”
Enter Freddie Cowan, guitarist and younger brother of Tom Cowan of The Horrors. Cowan, and a mutual friend of his and Young’s, had a plan: to form a rock band that paid tribute to the greats, but that also sprinkled their own distinct flavour on the songs. Yet although Young was eager to move on from his Jay Jay Pistolet material, he wasn’t particularly amenable to the pair’s offer.
“I was quite reluctant, and so was Freddie, ironically. We sort of had to be convinced to start the band. I wasn’t really in that place. I wasn’t really feeling creative, and I didn’t know what to do with it all. I’d lost my drive a bit. But from pretty early on it felt really good. Freddie and I just sort of clicked on a creative level, so we continued with it.”
Having cemented their line-up with session-musician friends Arni Hjover and Pete Robinson just over a year ago, the quartet signed a deal with Columbia and recorded their debut album quite quickly. What Did You Expect from the Vaccines? is a collection of short, sharp bursts of rambunctious indie rock, and although rumours abound that its release date was moved forward by a week to avoid a clash with The Strokes, there are only the vaguest of similarities between both bands. If anything, tracks such as the brilliantly catchy Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra) and If You Wanna have more in common with the sort of melodic, streetwise indie rock once peddled by Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros.
Other comparisons have been drawn with everyone from The Ramones ( Nørgaard) to a range of Phil Spector-produced acts ( A Lack of Understanding), but the well-spoken Young takes such comparisons with a generous helping of salt.
“I think you’d have to be rather narcissistic to think you’re worthy of comparisons like that – but I think as musicians, and as music fans, we’ve been in constant search of the perfect pop song,” he nods. “We’re constantly looking back to the ’50s and ’60s. I know it’s a lazy answer, but we listen to so much from so many different eras – you’d be surprised at some of the stuff we listen to. Straight-up pop music, punk rock . . . we