2. COMING OF AGE DRAMA
There’s a subdued morningafter vibe in Ariadne’s Nektar this afternoon, largely because local resident Damon Albarn hosted a drink-up here yesterday until the wee hours. It was here also that The Vaccines partied to the dawn, after they’d played a mind-boggling headline show across town at London’s O2 Arena. That was on 2 May, 2013 – a date that Justin Young remembers, because it was his 26th birthday. “Most arena acts are in arenas by the time they’re 25,” he notes – the implication being, it actually happened pretty slow for him. Both he and Cowan concede, however, that the O2 gig messed with their minds. “The whole thing felt absolutely surreal and unbelievable,” the guitarist muses. “Even while it was happening, it was hard to take on board. You spend so many years being rejected, then it happens so quick, you almost feel like you don’t belong there.” Like Oasis and Arctic Monkeys before them, The Vaccines clocked through each stage of career success at breathless velocity. What Did You Expect…? yielded no less than six singles, and, within 18 months, their hastily created follow-up, Come Of Age, went in at Number 1 in the UK. “Success is quite addictive and intoxicating,” says Young, “so once the ball started rolling, it was like, ‘Aw, this feels fucking good’, but alongside bouts of anxiety and insecurity.” “It never felt good enough,” adds Cowan. “Like, what’s next? We played Alexandra Palace, and then immediately it was, ‘Right, now we’re booking the O2’. It was this hunger that you could never satisfy.” Written on the hoof, and recorded under colossal pressure, Come Of Age isn’t an album they’re fond of. They’re just proud that they didn’t buckle, but got it made and thus kept their momentum going. After capping off the campaign at the O2, the royalties from its predecessor started landing. “Label and management were going, ‘Take some time off, and spend some of the money you’ve earnt – enjoy yourself!’” Young recalls. He responded by buying an apartment in New York City’s Chinatown, and burning the candle.
“I got fucked every day for three years,” he confesses, grinning unrepentantly. “I ate two cheeseburgers a day, and drank all the Corona in New York, and ended up putting on three stone. This is me standing outside an ice-cream van towards the end,” he says, calling up a picture of himself, looking bearded and porky like Brian Wilson in the mid-’ 70s. “You look miserable,” notes Cowan. “That’s because I’m having to queue for my food,” the singer explains. Young had hoped that the rest of the band would also move out to the Big Apple, and that they’d enter into this exciting new Transatlantic chapter in their band’s narrative together. “Like, ‘We’re a gang, let’s all go and do this!’” he says, with characteristic bright-eyed optimism. Only Cowan followed, as Árnason went back to Iceland, and Robertson started a family in Hampshire. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we’re really scattering. Two of us are here trying to find inspiration in this big scary amazing city, and Pete’s living in the town he grew up in, raising kids. I don’t mean that as a slight, it was just people wanting to go in different directions in their lives.” Things didn’t improve when they came to record their third album, English Graffiti, in NYC. During his carefree Stateside sabbatical, Young had also spent time in Los Angeles, blasting out contemporary R&B as he and his buddies hopped from party to party in an open-topped hummer. He was full of ideas of modernising The Vaccines’ sound, with the attendant dream of hitting the pop jackpot on both sides of the Atlantic. “Guitar music had never seemed less relevant,” he says, “so I just wanted to make music for those people I was partying with.” Obsessed with pop crossover, he even did some co-writing with Niall Horan and Harry Styles for One Direction’s Midnight Memories album (the tracks were shelved, as the teenie idols opted not to rock up their sound). For English Graffiti, they’d chosen producer Dave Fridmann for his modernisation of flat-out guitar bands such as Mercury Rev, and soon enlisted Cole M. Greif-Neill, a shadowy LA mix-avatar associated with Julia Holter, Beck and Ariel Pink, to take them deeper into the pop-synth zone. Consequently, concedes Young, “Pete felt marginalised by the process, because we wanted the drummer to be like a robot, not a human.” The album performed handsomely at home, reaching Number 2, but while touring the album, says Young, “things became more strained. We’d all put everything we had into this big-sounding pop record, and we all thought it would bring us to the next level. So, when you’re four weeks into a US tour, and you’ve all got the flu, and the same 500 people come to see you in Minneapolis as three years ago, when maybe you were hoping you’d be in the local arena for three nights – that’s when the reality of the situation doesn’t live up to your hopes and dreams. “The last single, Give Me A Sign, was us going all-out pop. I thought it was exciting, a big risk, but watching people’s faces when we were doing it live, it was like Spinal Tap doing Jazz Oddyssey [ sic] – ‘what the fuck are you doing?’ We were cheating ourselves.” In June 2016, a month after touring concluded, they announced Robertson’s departure. Young and Cowan had to face some home truths between themselves. “I’d always thought Justin had a real idiosyncrasy to his songwriting that no one else had. You have to be yourself, and be brave enough to deal with the consequences, and I felt that we’d lost that.” “I was aiming to be too universal,” agrees Young, “where you kind of paint over everything – the same shade of beige as everybody else.” Summarises Cowan: “From day one, we had something priceless, and you don’t throw that away.”
“I got fucked every day for three years. Two cheeseburgers a day. I ended up putting on three stone.” Justin Young