The Vaccines on pop, T in the Park and the future

The Vaccines performing at Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebrations in 2012. Picture: Greg Macvean
The Vaccines performing at Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebrations in 2012. Picture: Greg Macvean
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It took the indie darlings a while to discover that pop isn’t evil, but now the sound of the future is honed for T in the Park, finds David Pollock

SOUNDCHECK’S finished,” says Freddie Cowan, “and it’s great, it’s such a unique venue.” It’s early evening on the last Sunday in March and he’s enthusing about the Old Fruitmarket in Glasgow, the latest stop on the Vaccines’ return to British touring – albeit in a low-key fashion – ahead of the release of their third album, English Graffiti.

“You come across less and less of these venues in England,” he continues, over dinner in Mono before the evening’s show. “They’ve all been bought up by the same companies and I think their aim is to make them all look the same. To come across somewhere like that is really special. Is it smaller than we’re used to? Yes and no. We’re doing more intimate shows and that keeps it really exciting, but they’re not small by any stretch. Some of them are a couple of thousand people, you know? I think a couple of hundred people is a lot.”

This, of course, is some months ago, and the album’s eventual release in May confirmed their status as one of the country’s most popular young rock bands, hitting the charts at number two, just one short of its chart-topping predecessor, 2012’s Come Of Age. Having just returned to the country off the back of a week-long residency at South By South West festival in Austin, Texas, he can feel the band he formed with singer Justin Hayward-Young in 2010 in London, months before their debut album’s release, getting back to speed.

“It’s been fantastic,” Cowan says of the tour. “Part of me wonders how we’re going to sustain the energy levels, because we’re getting into it so much. We took a year out and we’re so excited to be getting back into touring that we’re really going for it every night. So we’re wondering how long we can keep that up, but every show has been great so far, touch wood.”

Cowan says a year off, but in effect it was only two weeks before thoughts turned to this album. The Vaccines returned from a tour of America with their friends, Mumford & Sons, at the end of 2013 (“they’re great guys, and so good at what they do”) and went in different directions, with Hayward-Young decamping to New York. Before long Cowan had joined him for writing sessions.

Freddie Cowan, Arni Arnason, Pete Robertson and Justin Hayward-Young. Picture: Roger Sargent

Freddie Cowan, Arni Arnason, Pete Robertson and Justin Hayward-Young. Picture: Roger Sargent

“It was good to get out of the country and find new drives, new reasons to push forward,” he says. “There’s something invigorating about the atmosphere of New York, everyone is doing something or trying to do something. It’s a very personally ambitious place, which is quite inspiring. Not like London – there it’s more ambitious in a professional, career sense – but New York is more about artists. No-one’s there with their families, they’re all from different places, it’s a very transient place – it just kind of breeds this great energy and confidence. I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard on anything in my life.”

Within a year the pair had around 50 songs written, and had whittled them down to an album’s worth. And it was around this point that the record wasn’t working and they had to start again. “You’ve got to go through it and if it’s not right you have to change it,” says Cowan. “It was a big decision, it was really difficult. It was hard to stare it in the face and say this isn’t good enough, it’s not what the Vaccines should put out. We started off the process with no rules about what we wanted and that took us to all sorts of places, but we realised we’d left out the crucial thing about the band that we always wanted from it, which was directness – an immediacy and precision.”

Songs like the advance singles Handsome and Dream Lover arrived with these qualities in tow, a brisk and lively guitar-pop sound that their fans will recognise, except without quite the same sense of indebtedness to the past as before. Dream Lover, for example, sounds like the Beta Band gone glam rock. Cowan agrees. “When we started we were still students of music history and heavily referential of things like Brian Eno and Robert Fripp,” he says. “It was one eye on the past and one on the future, which was great, but now we’re just listening to the radio. I put it on in the car and I hear pop music, and I get really excited about people like Kanye West, who’s not some idiot pop star, he’s a really clever curator of his craft. Pop isn’t evil.

“We’re becoming members of the modern world a little bit more,” he continues. “When we started we’d be obsessed with how to get an amazing sound, that Mick Jones Combat Rock sound. This time what we’ve done is make a record that belongs in this year. Because, you know, what did [the Clash’s] Combat Rock sound like in 1982? It probably sounded like the future. Today I think that’s a given for a big pop artist, but less and less common with guitar bands. When we’re in the studio we don’t want a guitar to sound like a guitar, we’re thinking, ‘How do we make it sound like a horn section, or a synth, or a video game?’”

It’s not a mould-breaking record, but it’s bright and lively and obviously well-considered, and it deserves its success. It’s hard to begrudge that to any group that takes the time to judge their craft and their position without coasting on already earned popularity, a trait Cowan at least seems to deploy regularly.

Take the album’s title, for example, which he believes sums up the modern world. “We have all this technology that’s supposed to bring us together,” 
he says, “except it stunts our social ability and breaks us apart. You can see graffiti in English on a wall in Peru, and buy a can of Coke in Timbuktu… the world wasn’t like that so long ago. We’ve never been so connected, but how connected are we really? It’s about how it’s never been harder to have a connection.”

In that context, listening to a pop band play songs with immediacy and precision in the middle of a field seems like a good way of plugging into the here and now.

Twitter: @thelatedave

The Vaccines play the BBC Three/Radio 1 Stage at T in the Park, Strathallan Castle on Saturday, Their third album, English Graffiti, is out now on Columbia,