In occasion of the arrival of The Vaccines at Montreux Jazz Festival on July 3rd 2018, I had the chance to have a chat with the band once again. This time I met singer Justin Hayward-Young and bassist Árni Árnason, in the beautiful backstage of Auditorium Stravinsky overlooking lake Geneva. They told me about the making of their new album Combat Sports, the departure of drummer Pete Robertson and how The Vaccines are back rocking more than ever!
Big thanks to Justin and Árni for kindly having taken the time to answer my numerous questions, to the Montreux Jazz Festival team and to Christian Zilocchi of Sony Music Switzerland for arranging this interview 😊
The Liberation: I met Pete and Freddie two years ago…
- Justin Hayward-Young: Oh nice! When we played in Geneva.
The Liberation: Yes, exactly
- Justin: Nice nice nice.
The Liberation: Yes and I had a bit of a chat with them. What has changed since?
- Justin: Well, Pete is not here anymore.
The Liberation: Yeah, I know.
- Árni Arnason: Wasn’t that in the middle of winter?
- Justin: No. When was that?
The Liberation: It was in October 2015.
- Justin: So he hadn’t told us he was leaving at that point. Or maybe he told you. (laughs)
- Árni: No no no (laughs)
- Justin: Yes so Pete has left the band and Yoann and Tim have joined the band. I mean even back then actually we were working on Combat Sports, the record that came out this year. But I think I’d just come back from L.A. and had written “I can’t quit” which was the first single on this latest record. We kind of lost our way a bit trying to go down a few different paths, follow a few different directions. And most of them ended up like brick walls, that’s why Pete left. But then you know we regrouped, found some enthusiasm and excitement along the way and yeah, here we are, really happy to be in the band again.
The Liberation: Yes, great! So how did these line up change affect the band? If it did in any way.
- Justin: I think putting fresh blood into any situation is good, I don’t know sometimes you need a shake up don’t you? I don’t really know.
- Árni: We were just talking about it the other day. I don’t think we could have gone on the four of us (with Pete). It needed to happen, and something did happen. And because of what happened I don’t think there is another version of it, you know. This is like the only route we could have taken otherwise we probably wouldn’t exist anymore.
- Justin: Yeah and it’s funny because it happened quite gradually as well. Because Tim has been touring with us since the beginning of 2015 right, nearly four years now which is almost as long as Pete was in the band, which is kind of crazy. And then Yoann joined for six shows but then you know it was never an intention for him to join the band but it sort of happened quite naturally really. And yeah, as I said, they’ve been in the band for nearly two years now. They’re not new members anymore.
The Liberation: Cause they were already touring with you before.
- Justin: Yes, exactly.
The Liberation: Ok. So you’re fourth album Combat Sports is a kind of a jump back to your rock beginnings.
- Justin: Yeah
The Liberation: How did you come up with it?
- Justin: I think that once Pete left we were forced to kind of look at ourselves in the mirror and figure out like: what are The Vaccines doing that no one else does? and what makes us The Vaccines? What’s our core? You know like something happens when we’re in a room and we’re playing together. And I think that we were maybe kind of trying doing things upside down, we lost sight of that, or the wrong way round. We were writing all this music which was kind of cool and interesting and lots of merry in it but it didn’t sound like The Vaccines it was all over the place. And I think we kind of went back to a place like “Ok let’s try to start with a song that has my take on the world, that’s coming from you know like this personal idiosyncratic perspective and then let’s get in a room and let’s play it and allow Freddie to be loud and allow Arnie to have a fuck around. I don’t know it’s weird because we just did what came naturally to us and it seemed to feel good.
- Árni: Yes, I think in the process of like growing up as a band we had to try different approaches to this band. And the conclusion is that like what makes us strong it’s probably what we should be focusing on.
The Liberation: So that’s what you did?
- Árni: We’re a much better rock band than we are anything else.
The Liberation: Cool! And lyric wise Combat Sports goes deeper in the exploration of life struggles and such. How did you write it?
- Justin: Being honest I think. And overtime I started with the lyrics, I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. I had like lyrics finished and then kind of try to put melody to the words and I’ve never really done that before. And I think that allowed the lyrics to be more direct and more honest, I guess, cause the songs are about the words as much as or more than anything else.
The Liberation: So usually you would do the other way round and write the melody before the lyrics.
- Justin: Sometimes they come together. Actually yeah. Normally when I write, I like to come up with them at the same time. But this time I don’t know, I guess you’re always looking for new ways to feel inspired. Not doing the same thing over and over again but trying to figure out, to keep it interesting. So yeah I would just take lots of walks and just have them in my phone now and I would write down something, even like a phrase or so.
The Liberation: Yes, cool! What’s your favourite song on the album and why?
- Árni: It changes really quickly, very dramatically. Currently it’s probably “Nightclub” but it’s probably because we’ve been opening the sets with it and it’s very energetic. It kind of even doesn’t matter how you feel before you go on stage, when you start playing it you feel like you’re revived, you know.
- Justin: Yeah I don’t know, finally it’s been out so long now as well, we’ll not so long but a few months. I don’t know I’ve forgotten. I haven’t listened to it in a few months. But to play live…
- Árni: Can you remember how it is called? (laughs)
- Justin: Yeah (laughs). I love “Your love is my favourite band”. Yeah I really like that song, I like playing it and listen to it. I was excited when we wrote it and yeah I don’t know it’s weird because “Take it easy“ which isn’t one of my favorite songs on the record and I love playing it live. I think your relationship with the song changes. Because once you stop playing them, you stop listening to mixes and stuff like that, then you actually have got a relationship with a completely different song that you don’t realise is moving further and further away from the recorded version. And so actually my relationship or our relationship with these songs now is completely settled to the recorded version.
- Árni: It’s kind of interesting when you listen back to a recording you haven’t been listening for a few years, it sounds like it’s in a totally different place.
- Justin: Yeah and even the way you phrase things. And I heard the recorded version of “Nightclub” the other day in the radio and I didn’t realise I was pushing all my vowels. It’s weird. Apparently that’s great, cause you know apparently people you know crowds, really like your songs as well.
- Árni: But then if you’ve just listened to the songs on the record and then come to hear them live the songs are quite different even though we think we are playing the sort of true version of the recording but actually they are by far not.
The Liberation: So does it also depend on the way the public react to your songs?
- Árni: You kind of don’t want it to. I think you just want to go and be able to do a great show, whatever is going on, but I think it does, yeah. Right?
- Justin: We were talking about it the other day, I think you can have really good shows when you don’t have a great reaction and you can have really bad shows when you do. I actually think more than the crowd it’s about your own expectations, like managing your own expectations or something. I guess if you’re expecting of blowing the roof off the house or whatever then you might be disappointed. But I don’t know, expectations feeds into like fun I guess, and if you have fun you’re prepared to cross over, stressing out and freaking out.
The Liberation: Yes. And the title of the album is quite curious, and I heard it originated after a fight.
- Justin: It didn’t, it actually was on a list before that.
The Liberation: Ok
- Justin: Because I thought that there was a lyric that said “Contact Sport” so I put “Contact Sport” on the list and I was like “Combat Sports” is more interesting. But I had a really long list. Cause I thought that it sounded kind of primal and brutal. And I thought there were a lots of these beams around mental health and stuff. And yeah Freddie and I had an argument as we quite often do and I said to him after we made up “Oh I’ve got Combat Sports written down as a title” and he was like “I love it!”
The Liberation: It sounds nice actually! So you’ve got a long Summer full of festivals and concerts to play, how do you actually make sure you’re at the top?
- Justin: I mean it helps in days like today when you can wake up looking over lake Geneva. I don’t know it’s really fun, I don’t know if it ever stops being fun. It doesn’t matter like how tired, hangover or homesick you are, there’s always that adrenaline that hits 20 minutes before you go on and there’s nowhere else you’d rather be so yeah I don’t really know it’s like I’ve never got bored of playing shows. I think you can have bad shows and you can sometimes be in places you don’t want to be but gigs are always good aren’t they?
The Liberation: And how are you feeling about tonight?
- Justin: I’m really excited I don’t know what to expect. Last time we played Montreux we played with Villagers, in 2013 or 2014.
- Árni: Yeah, true I remember.
- Justin: And it was a subdued crowd. I don’t know what to expect but I’m excited.
- Árni: I’m excited.
- Justin: We’re on stage at the same time as the England match though in the World Cup.
The Liberation: Oh.
- Justin: Yeah. So I’m not sure how many British people will be there
The Liberation: So you’re gonna miss it.
- Justin: Yes we are (Laughs)
The Liberation: Are you also playing any small shows? Like more intimate?
- Árni: We’re going on a European tour in October/November, and yeah basically we’re touring all over for the rest of the year but European tour then. So yeah it’s like not long until then.
The Liberation: What do you prefer playing, huge shows or more intimate ones?
- Justin: I think the best thing of being in a band is that every day is completely different. So you know the day before yesterday we were in Finsbury Park playing to 40’000 people and then today (July 3rd) it’s like a concert hall. I don’t know it’s like every day it’s different and there are lots of places we go in the world and we play to 400 people and it’s equally as fun.
- Árni: Yeah, it’s definitely that.
- Justin: Yeah, it’s all about the actual energy between you and the crowd, no matter how big they are. Often it is more intense if you’re in a small environment, bouncing off the walls.
The Liberation: True. And as musicians, do you actually attend gigs of other artists ans stuff?
- Justin to Árni: You do don’t you?
- Árni: I do yeah.I do it quite a lot yeah! Like when we are on the road no, because when you come over after a long period of playing your own shows you don’t necessarily wanna be in a dark room with a loud band. But yeah I do it quite a lot.
The Liberation: And like do you experience the gigs differently since you’re also a musician?
- Árni: I don’t know because I’ve never been to a gig when I’m not a musician. I’ve always been one. So I don’t know that.
- Justin: I think you lose a bit of the magic maybe.
- Árni: Maybe you do.
- Justin: I don’t know whenever I see like a band I’m like “oh God I bet one of them has the flu, I bet one of them has had an argument with his girlfriend, another has a sore throat he doesn’t want to be here, …”
- Árni: (laughs) I don’t know, you’re probably right about one of those.
- Justin: Yeah yeah yeah. But then maybe that’s not true, I don’t know. But it’s weird actually because even if I know someone, when I go watch them on stage, they’re like a rock star. The second someone is on stage he’s like a rock star.
The Liberation: Yeah, that’s interesting! So are you gonna watch Iggy Pop tonight?
- Justin: We can’t. We were gonna watch a bit of it but we can’t, we need to go to the Czech Republic. We’re playing in the Czech Republic tomorrow.
The Liberation: Oh, ok.
- Árni: We’ve been arguing with our tour manager over this for a couple of weeks. But he says we cannot make it unless we leave an hour after being on stage. So we’ve just been told that we are not allowed to watch the Iggy Pop show.
- Justin: Are you gonna watch it?
The Liberation: Yes, I am! I’ve never seen him.
- Árni and Justin: Neither have we.
The Liberation: I’m looking forward!
- Justin: Yeah, it’s tough.
- Árni: But you know…
The Liberation: So how do you prepare yourselves for the tour?
- Justin: We don’t practice.
- Árni: We practice before we start touring.
- Justin: I guess so, I don’t know. I think we’ve been around long enough to just go and do it. I don’t know really. I think the less you prepare, the more exciting it is.
- Árni: Yes, it’s like the less you control the environment the more exciting it is. (laughs)
The Liberation: Like do you actually improvise things during your shows?
- Justin: We definitely improvise the performance but the playing not so much. Our music is so simple and so straightforward that there’s not really much scope to improvise it. You can’t really start jamming.
- Árni: Yes we are the anti-improvisation at a jazz festival, it’s fine.
The Liberation: True! (Laughs). Thanks a lot!