As a teenager, Vaccines frontman Justin Young was a straight-edged vegan. Slightly later in life he became a solo folk singer, establishing himself with middling levels of success in his native London, but struggling to pull together a backing band. Many musicians go through multiple guises before they find fame, but to those who’ve followed Justin more consistently, The Vaccines have always seemed a tangent; a less obvious route to a UK number one album and a highly established fan base. Everyone changes, but in view of Justin’s history, five years ago it would have been difficult to picture this particular front man chatting casually as he is today, lounging in front of a huge Jack Daniel’s sign blazed across a cliff and sipping Tennessee’s finest.
The man we’re chatting to today, though, isn’t quite the same character. “To be honest I feel like I know myself better now than I did then” he explains, going on to point out the benefits of companies like JD getting involved in the industry: “Sponsorship in general is becoming a bigger part of music, and brands like this just want to be associated. Small festivals might be suffering, but people always want to drink stuff like Jack Daniel’s. I think bands are more and more willing to get involved now that there are fewer contracts. If you’re on an independent label, you don’t get given tour support. The opportunity for bands to team up with brands would have been frowned upon twenty years ago, but we’ve got some friends who teamed up with one recently and it allowed them to tour for six months. I actually welcome more and more brand involvement, and I think it will happen. The locations are good, too, I think spots like this generate hype.”
The spot Justin’s referring to is a remote cave in the UK’s Peak District, imaginatively named The Devil’s Arse (click here for a full gig review), and there’s a real flush of excitement to The Vaccines post sound check. Tours, after all, can seem samey. “The venue breaks up the monotony of portacabins and fields”, Justin says, smiling in the direction of the gaping hole in the rock. “It’s really exciting, playing in a cave. One of the best things about being in a band is getting to new places and meeting new people. When you go somewhere you’d never normally go, to play a gig somewhere you’d never normally play one, it’s actually quite special. There’s something very primal about banging drums in a cave. And it sounds great.”
Things haven’t always been so casual and positive. Early in The Vaccines, career, Justin developed a reputation for slightly shaky interviews and a sense of discomfort in the limelight. He wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, but looking back, post-debut Vaccines were struggling: “Retrospectively I think we were quite uncomfortable with the fame to start out. I think even now it’s been gradual. A lot of the things people learn together, we learnt separately. I toured for seven years before The Vaccines. We tried to slow it down. Our ambitions weren’t that big to begin with, but now … As a folk singer my biggest headliner was maybe about 80 people. But we did a lot of support. I played the O2, and toured a lot. We’d driven ourselves up and down whatever motorway year after year, just without the others sat in the back. We all had that hunger; we’d dealt with disappointment and rejection. Every show deepens our connection to the music, and we grow stronger. We become a better band after every show, even if it’s a bad show.”
From 80-person headliners to a national-level buzz band was never going to be a simple task, and even the euphoric speed of the Londoner’s success was a cause for concern, even if there was a tinge of euphoria in there, too. “It’s difficult, because you don’t want to outrun your fans, but we’ve never done something venue wise that ended up being a mistake. I was saying to someone the other day that we were playing fifty capacity venues and they were full, do we play them again or go up? We’ve built up the capacities as we go. For example, we played the main stage of Reading and Leeds a month ago. Until we walked out to a full field I was worried that we’d made a mistake, that we belonged in a tent, but what do you do? Ultimately you want to have fun while you’ve for the chance.” We suspect if Justin was totally honest he might say he prefers intimate gigs like todays, but alongside the basic economics of the way things have turned out, there’s a fan-pleasing element, too. “The speed of our rise doesn’t worry me”, Justin offers. “If I was looking at it happening to someone else I’d probably think they should be worried, but If people want to see us, I’d like them to be able to see us. We’re still hungry, we want to make the best music we can all the time, without getting caught up in other bullshit. It doesn’t worry us as much as people might think it does. We’re just having fun, tomorrow we’re going to wake up and still be in this band. And we will the day after, too.”
The same slight sense of wonder seems to accompany a lot that The Vaccines do. Justin still writes “every day”, and claims there were more than 160 snippets of songs competing for a place on second album ‘Come Of Age’. “It was very hard to pick. We had to listen to an extortionate amount of little snippets and find the stuff that was exciting and wasn’t. It does really worry me that there’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water Part 2’ hidden amongst our discarded material or something.” His tongue’s wedged firmly in cheek with the Simon & Garfunkel comment, but the speed of The Vaccines’ progress has already seen Justin turn his back to some extent on their huge-selling debut. “The first record really bums me out, how bad it sounds. I wish we could re-record the first album and put it back out. The songs are still evolving, finding their place.”
It would be twisting the facts to suggest that borderline arrogant-façade that occasionally takes over in interview isn’t in jest, and it’s certainly preferably to the slightly morose early angle, but it also offers some fantastically outlandish quotes. Midway through our time, Justin casually suggests that the albums “might have sold a million records ten years ago”, only to admit in the very next sentence that if that were the case, “we’d probably be getting to grips with The Academy live”. The live shows are what matter now, though, and it’s clear that they’ve become something to savour: “Starting a band isn’t a completely selfless act; the only thing you’re really looking for is people coming to your shows. I don’t really care if we’re selling 10,000 records or a million; if we’re playing to 100 people or 100,000, as long as that room is full and there’s passion” .There’s another of those outlandish twists to go alongside the claims, too: “I fully support illegal downloading. It annoys me how musicians talk about that as money out of their back pockets. I know that touring, merchandising and branding, all these people that are complaining are making money. I’d rather people got the album, had it in their collection and like it rather than got priced out of listening to it.”
Things are improving live, too, in part because of options. “Now we’ve got two LPs there’s more to choose from, we don’t have to play the same every night. On the first record, we had a 35 minute album so we had to play everything, and then people still went away saying you didn’t play for very long. We’re trying things out a bit more now. We’ve been playing a couple of songs off the new record for a while now, but we’re playing more, jockeying it around a bit these days.” Equally, the vocal problems that plagued early Vaccines shows have largely been shoved into the past: “My voice is alright. I don’t think I’m ever going to be completely out of the woods, but on a day to day basis, I feel fine. I do lots of warming up, a lot of weird noises. We’ve arranged our touring schedule around it a bit, too. We went a bit wild to start with and it had a detrimental effect, so we’ve slowed down slightly.”
The fans, the acclaim and the sheer scale of what The Vaccines have come to represent, then, finally seems to have settled, and even crept into the music. “The second album’s a kind of therapy, a kind of selfish album. I tried not to be a band singing about being in a band. I didn’t want to do it, and I just kind of did it by mistake with Teenage Icon. I’ve become that person. Shit.” Even with the downsides – “I find it particularly hurtful to be called lad rock, we’re not that kind of band, I don’t feel any affinity”, Justin highlights, showing us an iPod rammed with the likes of Grimes, The Clash, Adam and the Ants and Gary Glitter to emphasize – the work ethic and the desire is stronger than ever.
“It’s important to me that when you make good money as a band you don’t go and sit on the beach, but you go back into a room and argue. We still a lot of hunger. A friend of ours who worked in a band reminds us we won’t be on the way up forever. The manager always tells us before we go on stage to enjoy this one. Not many bands could really afford to go and sit on the beach in Thailand with a bunch of supermodels any more, but that was never us anyway. They end up making a shit record and getting dropped. We’re determined not to do that.” Two years ago, then, with cancelled tours, a sense of discontent and a slight sense that The Vaccines were a band that never really meant to make it at all, it wouldn’t have been wildly outrageous to suggest things were about to fall apart. Today, against a willing backdrop of grandiose corporate sponsorship, babbling rural brooks and joking, engaging calm, it finally seems The Vaccines have caught up to that manic hype. Image, it seems, is finally in the same ball park as reality.