Soon after the release of the debut album, What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?, Justin Young and his band-mates wrote a track named Teenage Icon. “I’m no teenage icon/I’m no Frankie Avalon,” it says. “I'm not magnetic or mythical/I'm suburban and typical.”
The song is now the centrepiece of The Vaccines’ second album, set for release just 18 months after that March 2011 debut. But if Justin and co still feel “suburban and typical”, they certainly don’t seem it. To look at them in their latest incarnation; longhaired, denim-clad, more confident than before, is to see a proper gang of four: Young plus bassist Árni Arnason, guitarist Freddie Cowan and drummer Pete Robertson. Teenage icons – whether they like it or not.
“The biggest headfuck of all is the fact that people have an opinion of me as a human being – not as a singer or songwriter, but as a human being,” says Young, musing on the point. “It’s so weird to think of people talking negatively about me or even hero-worshipping. A year ago I could have met said people in the pub and become friends with them but they'll already have an opinion of me now before we meet…”
But a lot can happen in a year. Formed in West London in 2010, The Vaccines were selling out venues nationwide by December. They released their debut the following spring and have since released two standalone singles, three EPs, a live album and the forthcoming follow-up album The Vaccines Come Of Age.
What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? propelled the band into the spotlight - going platinum by the end of the year - and saw them end 2011 with two headline shows at London's Brixton Academy. By the spring of 2012 the band had amassed awards (including an NME award for ‘Best New Artist’), nominations (including at the Brits), 3 NME covers, 6 straight Radio 1 A-list singles and a sold-out a run of U.K. seaside arena shows.
It’s a rocket-fuelled rise that’s left critics and cynics eating their words, even if those words have stuck with the band. “When we first started talking to the press, I think we were quite timid,” says Young. “We were being forced to defend ourselves because it was happening so quickly for us. I think people were suspicious. We’re so confident in what we do though. And we turned the hypothetical situation into something real. We won.”
The attitude shift came at 2011’s summer festivals. “We’d done festivals all around the world and not really at home. 46 I think,” says Young. “I remember saying to our tour manager backstage at our first UK festival, is there anyone out there? He just said, Listen! And I could hear about 20,000 people chanting our name. It felt bigger than anything anyone could say.”
While everything was falling into place, however, Justin’s future as a singer was in jeopardy. He developed hemorrhaging on his vocal chords, requiring surgery three times last year. “It was cruel, but life is like that,” says Young, who was left unable to speak for three weeks and sing for five after each operation, resorting to using flash cards saying ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘I can’t speak’. “Emotionally and socially, that was quite an interesting experiment. I spent my first date with my girlfriend communicating with a notepad. It still scares the shit out of me though – if I take it too far on a night out or I get a bit too overexcited in a show, I know it may be my last. The silver lining is my voice has more character as a result. I think that’s where the softness on the new record comes from.”
If anything, the experience has put even more wind in the band’s sails. Young and his band mates collected over 150 songs during 2011, written in hotel rooms from Tokyo to New York and Sydney. If The Vaccines’s work rate seems unusually high, note that they don’t judge themselves against their contemporaries; they judge themselves against the prolific pop groups of the past. It’s one reason why they found themselves recording …Come Of Age live. Some tracks were cut in just one take. “You think back to when people were paying for two or three hours in the studio. It was, OK – go!” says Young. ''Bands make records and then work out how to play them. We wanted to do it the other way round. It feels purer.''
Producer Ethan Johns was the man charged with capturing lightning in a bottle. “He felt like an old-fashioned producer – an instiller of confidence,” says Young. “He only cares that it sounds exciting. The songs were only ever finished when he said the hairs on his arms were standing up.”
They recorded in Belgium and Bath, stopping to play in Brazil, at Coachella and in New York. In Belgium they worked solidly, breaking only for one night out (they went to a gay bowling night, FYI). At the studio, there were banks of guitars and amps available but Young chose to use his own axe – a cheap Danelectro he bought on Denmark Street for £180. Like his songs, it’s honest, sturdy and deceptively simple.
The album shows the band's songwriting and performance entering a new phase. If the debut was them finding a sound somewhere between The Ramones, Jesus & Mary Chain and The Strokes, the latest, says Young, is them striving to "sound like The Vaccines. We needed to work out which characteristics are going to make people compare bands to The Vaccines in five or ten years time. It's quite a searching record in that sense.” It means there's a spotlight thrown on Cowan's 50s influenced guitars, Robertson's pounding drums and Arnason's pulsing basslines.
Highlights include the groove-driven Bad Mood, the timeless Lonely World and the new wave-influenced Aftershave Ocean, one of the more recent tracks that hint at where The Vaccines may head in the future.
The title – The Vaccines Come Of Age – is tongue-in-cheek, but only a little. “It’s a lyric from the album’s first single, which is how we named What Did You Expect…, and it continues the theme of having the band's name in the title,” explains Young. “Then there’s the whole coming of age thing. The lyric is “it’s hard to come of age,” and that thought ties together the record. I’m bang in the middle of my 20s and I’m finding it to be quite a difficult place to be. You’re expected to know what you want to do and who you want to be at this point, but I don’t know who I am yet. Everyone I know is in a different place – some have it all figured out, some have bad problems, some are parents, some are living with their parents, some are earning money, some are broke. I guess I still feel like I’m a kid. Recently I've found myself realising that a lot of my favourite music is no longer talking to me, but people younger than me. And that is a strange realisation.”
On the album sleeve, The Vaccines really are kids: it sees the four band members replaced by four androgynous, teenage girls. “People said The Vaccines don’t look like rock stars, so we thought, OK, have these girls instead. I wanted them to look androgynous. You can't tell who they are. They're at a time in their lives when they probably don't know either. And of course they're a gang,” says Young. One of the four stand-ins, who have appeared in The Vaccines' videos too, will appear on the cover of each of the singles from …Come Of Age, and the B-side will be written and sung by the individual band member represented on the sleeve.
Though they may claim not be teenage icons, The Vaccines have reset their expectations for this album. “I want to mean something to somebody,” says Young. “I want to keep getting better and better, and if bigger and bigger is a by-product of that, then that’s fucking awesome. Quite simply, I want us to be your favourite band.”