I had the great pleasure to interview The Vaccines’ Freddie Cowan (guitar) and Pete Robertson (drums) when they came to see us in Geneva for their gig at Post Tenebras Rock – L’Usine on 4th October! Can’t hide I was pretty excited to interview them cause I’ve been following The Vaccines since their very beginnings. Freddie and Pete told me about the making of their third album English Graffiti (2015). Among other things we went into a digression about the meaning of “arctic monkeys”. It was a pretty long and fun interview!
Thanks a lot to Freddie and Pete for being so spontaneous and friendly, and thank you to Dominique Saudan of Sony Music Switzerland for making this interview possible! 🙂
The Liberation: I work as a freelance journalist for The Liberation Indie-Nation which is an indie-rock website based in Geneva. So you’re in our home today!
- Freddie: Great, yeah!
The Liberation: And you are welcome..
- Freddie: Thank you!
The Liberation: In the French-speaking part of Switzerland. And you only played once…
- Freddie: Zurich!
The Liberation: … in the French part of Switzerland, in Montreux.
- Freddie: Oh yeah we played in Montreux. But we played Zurich as well.
- Pete: Yes, but that’s in the German speaking part.
- Freddie: Yeah, German speaking.
The Liberation: So yeah this is only the second time and we’re happy to have you back in the French part.
- Pete: That’s good!
- Freddie: It’s really nice to be here. We’ve been touring America, it’s very nice to be touring England, England and Europe again it’s so much more civilized.
The Liberation: (laughs) I can imagine! So I have a few questions for you so you’re debut album What did you expect from The Vaccines? (2010) and your second album Come of Age (2012) had a huge success. Then in 2013 your EP Melody Calling came out
- Freddie: Yeah
The Liberation: And then this year in 2015 you’re back with your third album English Graffiti
- Freddie: Yeah
The Liberation: How does it feel to be back after two years?
- Freddie: It’s just a perception thing cause obviously for you guys it’s like if we came here a long time ago did a show and then disappeared. Obviously for us it feels as if we haven’t gone anywhere ’cause we’ve spent the whole time playing shows in other places and making the record and stuff. So it just feels like a continuation it feels good.
The Liberation: So why did you decide to come out with an album after three years?
- Freddie: Erm like I said, the industry has changed the point, the cut where you are at home being creative to when you’re away touring, it’s not completely like this. So you’re expected to do an enormous lot on touring so we didn’t take much time off we just toured the second record and the EP for a long time for whatever reasons. Then we took a year off, intensive to make the new record. But we weren’t home for three years.
The Liberation: Yes of course. Since your first two albums were so successful did you feel any pressure in writing English Graffiti?
- Pete: Only the pressure that we put on ourselves really. I mean obviously we were enjoying life as a band that had success and that was able to do it for a living you know and tour pretty much full time and that was something that we wanted to continue so it was always at the back of our minds I’m sure but I think the biggest pressure was just to get better and to do something that we felt really reflected who we were ’cause we’d obviously changed a lot since we began the band to make the album. So we wanted to reflect that and yeah just keep improving, keep growing as a band and as artists, as people. That was the biggest pressure really.
The Liberation: Ok, yeah. So do you think you reached what you wanted with this album?
- Pete: I think so yeah.
- Freddie: Yeah, I think it was really like an armory of discovery and I feel like we learned so much doing it. So it was a really kind of, before we obviously released it was really a big collective personal trial.
- Pete: I think it is a developing from Come of Age to English Graffiti I really feel that you know we were able by the time we finished English Graffiti I can say that we expressed ourselves and fulfilled more ambition in that record than twice as much as we had done in Come of Age. Come of Age we’re still really proud of but I think as an expression, as a piece of work I think it’s the best thing we’ve ever done.
- Freddie: It’s the only thing. And I like to listen to the Melody Calling EP but yeah that and English Graffiti are the only thing that we’ve done that I like listening to.
The Liberation: Ok just those two?
- Freddie: Yeah I mean, the 27 years old me is only really interested in listening to those two, which makes sense, they’re most recent.
The Liberation: Ok. And why did you choose New York as a recording location?
- Pete: It was mainly because we wanted to work with David Fridmann and I mean he is genius, we’re huge fans of his work. The fact that he kind of expressed interest in working with us was a huge deal for us. Looking into his kind of creative life I suppose we kind of figured that the majority of his work is kind of him in his studio, there’s a huge like synergy. When you ask Dave then it makes sense to ask with the studio as well cuz the studio is crazy. So we just wanted to go with him where he could create his magic the best, that’s where we ended up. But it wasn’t New York New York (laughs)
The Liberation: Ok (laughs)
- Pete: It was very much upstate New York, right up near the Canadian border in the middle of nowhere. So I think that influence is kind of there in the record as well. If we’d recorded in the city than it would have probably sounded a little different but because we were really in the countryside with no outside influences at all, we were just in his cabin in the woods.
The Liberation: Oh wow that’s great!
- Pete: Just focusing on the music and it was like this fucking desert out (laughs)
The Liberation (laughs)
- Pete: You know so we really locked ourselves away and focused on the music off and on for two months.
- Freddie: Almost too much focused makes you a bit crazy.
The Liberation: I can imagine.
- Pete: I think if we were to pick a place based purely on its geographical location I would say probably outside Fredonia Upstate New York would be pretty fine down next (laughs)
The Liberation (laughs)
- Freddie: I can’t imagine I ever want to go back there!
The Liberation: Really?
- Freddie: Even for a visit. I just think I’d get the shutters. You know it’s like eating too much of the same thing always.
The Liberation: All the time?
- Freddie: Yeah. As you kind of go you get completely sick of it. Cause it is very much, it has this one gear.
- Pete: It’s quite sort of the scary small town America that kind of thing. But the studio itself was… you walked in there and you could basically be anywhere you could be in outer space.
- Freddie: Justin and I were kind of living in New York at that point so it was an incredible from one extreme to the next.
The Liberation: From the city to the countryside
- Freddie: Yeah, from Manhattan to this kind of THE most secluded place. To explain you how secluded it was when you go for a jog, for a run he recommends you take a stick with you in case…
The Liberation: Oh Gosh.
- Freddie: Cause there are a lot of farm dogs who are not used to people walking there obviously no one walks there cause the distances are so large and everybody’s driving. You take it just in case cause some of the dogs get a little bit excited and they happen to bite people.
The Liberation: So did you take like two months to record the album?
- Freddie: He (Ed. Dave Fridmann) actually doesn’t let anyone work in. We actually did it in 6 weeks.
The Liberation: OK
- Freddie: But we would do as much work as we could outside the studio to go in these two weeks block. Cause he doesn’t allow any bands to record for longer than two weeks a time cause he thinks: a) that people would go mental because of how secluded it is
- Pete: which is true.
The Liberation (laughs)
- Freddie: And because of that lack of mental activity he thinks after two weeks you kind of become crazy and just exhausted, uninspired. It’s quite difficult.
The Liberation: Yeah
- Freddie: You can come up to the middle of nowhere but can’t stay too long.
The Liberation: So do you think this is the biggest difference influencing the album?
- Freddie: What? The location?
The Liberation: The creation part was influenced by the location?
- Freddie: No, I think we were just mostly inspired by the music we were listening to at the time. Cause it all had this back to basics classic kind of approach. Especially the second album of Ethan Johns is playing and getting the vibes, which is awesome. But there’s so much music we were listening to at the time and still you know, what’s writing the kind of musical trend is this kind of search for what’s modern new can seriously embrace in technology, in doing something which is really forward thinking. And we were very much into that towards the end of touring Come of Age and I think we were collectively very frustrated with the simplistic we kind of built ourselves into. Cause we were listening to this crazy shit and then we were going and play like very simple and very kind of raw stuff which didn’t really represent our tastes.
The Liberation: Yeah ok
- Pete: There’s been quite a shift I think over the last few years where you know, I feel like back maybe in the 60, 70s 80s it was sort of alternative music, you know rock music or rock n’ roll music that was unafraid and was trying new things and was experimenting in the studios and finding new sounds that was leading pop music along. You know pop music kind of followed their lead and I think it’s gone the other way round now. If you think traditionally of what you considered alternative music kids was guitars unafraid and unabashed making rock music. But now it’s not, it’s like the guitar bands largely are kind of stuck in the past, I think, to a large extent. It’s actually in pop music and hip hop music and stuff like that, that’s where a lot of the real risks are being taken now.
- Freddie: So many
- Pete: And it was quite frustrating to have guitars around your neck and drumsticks in your hand and feel like we’re getting left behind, you know.
The Liberation: Yeah
- Pete: I think we all wanted kind of to be involved in something new and take more risks and be more adventurous sonically and I think that was something that drove what ended up being the creative process. But you know obviously we’ve been working with Dave (Ed. Fridmann) and Cole (Ed. M. Greif-Neill) and ending up in Dave’s studio were other factors.
The Liberation: Ok
- Freddie: We’re just following a line though you know I guess. I guess you know pre rock n’ roll, jazz was the music the kids were listening to but in order to make jazz you required an enormous amount of training and practice and rock n roll was a much more accessible thing you know. It was much easier to just go by a guitar and learn a couple of chords and then you could start a rock n roll band. In a way what’s happened socially and financially with technology now having a band is way way more expensive than being like a kind of hip hop producer because you need a laptop and that’s it you take samples and do this and much more, contained, you don’t need to go to studios to do it it’s kind of following along as other things get left behind. Guitar music is still in the process of being left behind. And it has such a kind of weight of history and reputation, such a cultural importance. In England The Beatles and The Stones are part of the cultural fiver. But you know no one in your average playground in England who listens to music on an iPhone is listening to anything like a guitar band. But then you can’t say it’s wrong, there’s nothing wrong with progress, cause it’s kind of just a natural progression.
The Liberation: So do you mean you want to drift away from the alternative rock music?
- Freddie: No, no I’m just making an observation. I’m just making an observation I’m not involving us in there.
The Liberation: Ok.
- Freddie: I think it’s a little bit longer process how guitar music finds a way to stay relevant. I’m not sure. I’m not sure it always does. And there are a few people who seem to use it in a modern way but that doesn’t mean that the future belongs to rock n’ roll music.
The Liberation: Yeah, there are so many things around…
- Freddie: Yeah, because it becomes your pay up it becomes your parents generation’s music and people want to do something different. Like in Japan they have girl bands with 100 members because they probably find The Roots or The Beatles quite boring. Another four-member boy band with the cute one, the grumpy one, … we don’t want that again we want something that it’s completely fucking different.
The Liberation: Yeah, make sense sort of. (laughs)
- Freddie: Yeah, make sense it’s amazing to watch. It’s like any progress. According on where you are in the line of progress it affects what your opinion of it will be. If you’re at the back you probably will think it’s terrible “stop, stop, stop it, stop”.
The Liberation: (laughs) And how does your composition process work? Do you usually come up with the lyrics first or the music?
- Pete: I mean in this record it kind of started with Justin and Cole writing together and I think the music and the melodies came first and then the lyrics came after. And then yeah they brought them into the band and then we kind of arranged them and recorded kind of simultaneously.
The Liberation: OK
- Freddie: It was quite a long process before though cause I guess we were kind of painting the scene for what we would then play on it. Kind of exploring the sonic path they would be in once Cole and Justin had written a couple of songs earlier on and then they would kind of stood out as the best as the kind of alliteration ones for the record. And then we applied all those kind of directions and sonic ideas and things to the record. But yeah the vast majority thought that all the songwriting in the last record was from Justin and Cole.
The Liberation: Yeah, ok. Now that you have three albums on your back when you have to prepare the setlist how do you choose the songs?
- Freddie: It is much more enjoyable.
The Liberation: (laughs) Yeah?
- Freddie: Cause we used to kind of think “Can we get away with playing for 30 minutes?”
- Pete: “Do we have to play all this?” (laughs)
The Liberation (laughs)
- Freddie: Yeah it’s as if there was so much fat in the set that we were trying stretching to get 45 minutes. Even in the first album, the album did quite well and then we were gonna play shows in England and they were like “Oh wow it’s really short! It’s really cool and it’s different!”. Then we came to Europe and they were like “What the fuck is this? We came in and you put up only half an hour?”. People really disliked that. So now it’s really joyful to be able to come and have a set that we feel has no filler. We don’t wanna play for 3 hours but at least if we want to play for 1 hour we can make it an hour worth hearing. Cause you know making it like an hour and ten minutes if you have an hour it’s nearly impossible, especially for us.
- Pete: And we can now choose. Like tonight we can actually swap out songs for others we like equally, you know the same amount. Whereas before we were “Ok, shit we gotta do that one, that one… ok fine that’s it” and then that was the setlist for like a year or something. But now it’s just “Would you fancy play that one tonight?” “Yeah let’s play that one tonight”, you know you swap around a little which is great.
The Liberation: Which is much more interesting for you as well.
- Pete: Yeah, definitely!
The Liberation: That’s cool!
- Freddie: Absolutely. I think there’s nothing worse than getting obnoxious, it’s so common. It’s like live music becomes more and more prolific it becomes less and less special for bands to go on tour. So it’s just that bands spend such a huge amount of time on tour now that it’s easy for them to go through the motions. I don’t know, I feel like that might be the death of the live industry with bands getting completely bored doing that and the shows are not that good. All I’m saying is that, anyway, that you kind of keep it interesting and almost challenging for yourself is a very positive thing.
The Liberation: Yes, of course. Where do you take inspiration for your music? Are the songs auto-biographical?
- Pete: This may be a question for Justin (Ed. Joung, the singer). (laughs)
The Liberation: (laughs) Cause his the only one who writes the lyrics?
- Pete: He writes the lyrics yeah. I mean we’ve all had various inputs along the way but it’s mainly Justin’s bit.
- Freddie: He’s the best at it.
- Pete: He’s definitely the best at it.
- Freddie: He’s the best at it. But when we choose the ten songs on the record they’re usually his it’s not like we don’t drive. (laughs)
The Liberation: (laughs) Yeah
- Pete: Yeah, I would say that it is largely autobiographical.
- Freddie: It sounds like a confession to me, it’s the way I think about it. Some people are song crafters, he’s just kind of a “brlbrbrb” cathartic voice.
- Pete: Like a therapy.
- Freddie: Yeah, it’s like on a confession that’s at least is how I think Justin is.
The Liberation: That’s interesting, ok. So in the past you played and opened concerts for many many big bands like The Rolling Stones, Muse, Arctic Monkeys and…
- Freddie: It’s such a weird name “Arctic Monkeys” I was thinking about that this morning. There are some weird names you get used to but “Arctic Monkeys” is actually one of the strangest names of a big band.
The Liberation: (laughs) It is…
- Freddie: And I still don’t know what it means.
The Liberation: You don’t know what it means?
- Freddie: It’s “Freezing balls off a brass monkey”
- Pete & Freddie: It’s a Northern expression.
- Freddie: What does that mean?
- Pete: It means freezing, it means really cold.
- Freddie: “Freezing balls off a brass monkey”
- Pete: Yeah
The Liberation: Oh it’s a Northern expression?
- Pete: Yeah, North England.
- Freddie: “How it’s cold.”
The Liberation: I didn’t know that!
- Pete: I think they say “brass monkey”, I think that’s what they say, when it’s cold they go “it’s fucking brass monkey”. (imitating the Northern accent)
The Liberation: Brass monkey
- Pete: Brass monkey
- Freddie: So “brass monkey” is “arctic monkeys”
- Pete: It’s just crap, it’s a shit name.
The Liberation (laughs)
- Freddie: It’s a shit name but a great band
- Pete: A great band!
- Freddie: So there’s nothing in a name.
The Liberation: Yeah, true. Did playing with these bands help you promote your music in a way? Did they inspire you?
- Freddie: I think they all did in loads of way. I think Arctic Monkeys really helped us build the following in England and also inspired the hell out of us. I don’t know what I was thinking but when we first toured America I hadn’t heard much about them for a little while and I thought we were just like the hot new band. We went out to America and I was like “Yeah we’re gonna wipe the floor of these guys or whatever” so foolishly. And just watching them the first night I just realised they are a fucking good band, they really are a fucking good band.
The Liberation: Yeah, they are. (laughs)
- Freddie: There’s no debate in that. (laughs) They’re very inspiring you know.
- Pete: To be honest I think it would be sort of cynical and almost foolish to go into a situation where you’re backing up a band with the worth of experience and obvious talent, you know, and not take something from it. You know we’ve opened for bands that we’ve necessarily not been the biggest fans of. But you know you go and watch it and there’s always going to be something to take from it.
- Freddie: Oh definitely.
- Pete: Always.
- Freddie: Definitely.
- Pete: So I think we’ve learned a lot from everyone and we’ve been inspired by everyone as well.
- Freddie: That’s what I meant about the Arctic Monkeys now. Cause initially our first brush of a big band in my mind was like almost confrontational.
The Liberation: Yeah.
- Freddie: Then immediately I was like there’s no available competition to be had but there’s actually so much you can learn. And I think actually touring with them showed us what it meant to be like a great tight band, it was a completely different level.
- Pete: I think the same applies actually, in kind of play in going and watch bands who open for you as well.
The Liberation: Yeah
- Freddie: Yeah definitely.
- Pete: I just think that’s one of the best things about touring and one of the best things about being involved in music on a day-to-day level. There’s always stuff you can learn, there’s always inspiration to be learned you can just always be great and I think that’s great.
The Liberation: Yeah that’s great. And of course bands who are opening for you will look up to you as you looked up to other bands.
- Pete: I mean yeah I think so.
- Freddie: Yeah. It’d be fun having anyone looking up to me. You’re not kind of saying I would want to be a member of a club that had me in there. If you do there’s something obviously very wrong with you.
The Liberation (laughs)
- Freddie: Which is very comfortable about me.
The Liberation: Yeah, ok. (laughs) So what should we expect from The Vaccines in the future?
- Pete: I don’t know.
- Freddie: It’ll be fucking awesome.
The Liberation: And tonight? (Ed. 4 October 2015)
- Pete: Tonight will be fun. We haven’t done our own gig for quite a while. It’s just been the end of festival season, we’ve done lots of festivals this Summer. And we’ve kind of back in our own terms now and I think it’s quite exciting actually. And it’s sort of kind of a small venue to keep things a bit more intimate. I’m excited, it’s gonna be fun!
- Freddie: Yeah I’ve already felt that in this tour there’s definitely a hunger for creation. Some tours we would just got out the studio and we couldn’t think anything worse than picking up a guitar and writing something. But in this tour I really think there’s a thirst to be creative. I don’t know I’m really excited and like I said I love touring in Europe so I’m very excited.
The Liberation: Yeah, that’s great. Just out of curiosity I just wanted to know who designs like the T-shirts, merchandise, album covers?
- Pete: It’s various.
- Freddie: It’s sort of various really.
- Pete: We’ve got a few people that we like, artists and designers and stuff, Matt de Jong
- Freddie: Matt de Jong has been the most involved recently.
- Pete: He’s sort of been responsible for the design of all the album sleeves and all the single sleeves as well. And he’s also been involved in the art direction on the videos as well. It’s good to have that sort of what’s the word?
- Freddie: Continuity
- Pete: Yeah, continuity
- Freddie: But he’s not like “All right guys next month is gonna be red backgrounds and you dressed in black!”. It’s more what we want and then a black background. I don’t know how he found a way for the “Handsome” video jackets and stuff like that. I don’t know you take a picture of something you see in the streets and then you start cobbling then you work on that. He’s the good collaboration of people you don’t have to talk him through the things. It’s like if you’re a director of an actor you can’t tell him “take left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot go lean on the window seat and take a drag out of your cigarette” there are some things which just have to be unspoken otherwise it’s gonna be an incredibly long and impossible process.
The Liberation: Yeah
- Freddie: But he really understands the band and what the band wants so it’s collaborative. Band + someone else.
The Liberation: Yeah, that’s good.
- Freddie: I’m sure most bands are so
The Liberation: Yeah, I was just wondering if you had anything to say about the creation process aside that..
- Pete: Oh yeah, I mean it’s driven largely by you and Justin, they put the visual stuff and they pretty much come up with the idea and concept and then other people realize it.
The Liberation: That’s great!
- Freddie: That’s so fun though! It’s like magic isn’t it? There’s nothing more exciting to me then seeing something cool on the street and making a connection with that to somebody who can create and then two months later holding in your hands. That’s such a privilege to do that in any form.
The Liberation: It is.
- Freddie: On a work, on a T-shirt or anything. Or even in something completely different. That’s a real privilege!
The Liberation: Yeah. Cause music is a work of art and so is what surrounds it.
- Pete: Yeah it’s all part of that really, yeah.
- Freddie: Yeah. And it is just really really fun to do that.
The Liberation: Cool!
- Freddie: Yeah!
The Liberation: I’m done! Thank you very much for your time!
- Freddie and Pete: No worries, it was a pleasure!