Scrappy As Ever, The Vaselines Pull No Punches

v_embed1Photo: Courtesy of The Veselines.
At the risk of making a broad-brush, national-stereotype kind of remark, Scots don’t sugarcoat, and they generally don’t have much patience for inflated egos. So a conversation with Frances McKee and Eugene Kelly of Glasgow’s The Vaselines is a refreshingly unvarnished, candid affair. They’ll take the piss out of others, each other, and their unlikely status: a couple of 40-somethings still making the sort of uncomplicated, punky power-pop that they cut their teeth on more than a quarter-century ago, having produced only three albums in all that time.
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The Vaselines’ story has become the stuff of alt-rock legend. They were one of countless scrappy, Thatcher-era northern bands who’d already thrown in the towel by 1989. After just one album, Dum Dum, and a couple of EPs, they were unexpectedly thrust into the global spotlight thanks to an endorsement from one Kurt Cobain, who called them his “favorite songwriters,” and they went on to cover three of their songs with Nirvana. That blip of attention was short-lived, though. After a one-off opening gig for Nirvana in 1990, and a 1992 Sub Pop compilation of their previous releases, The Vaselines didn’t play together again until 2006. Finally in 2009, McKee and Kelly turned out a second album, Sex With an X. Now, as of this week, there is a third: V For Vaselines, recorded at fellow Glaswegians Mogwai’s studio Castle of Doom, and featuring appearances from other Scottish indie luminaries including members of Belle & Sebastian and Teenage Fanclub.
How much longer will this second chapter of The Vaselines’ life continue? What do these ‘80’s vets think of the current state of the music biz? And, what about the biggest story in all of Scotland — the independence referendum, which recently went down to defeat? I spoke to Kelly and the ever-cheeky McKee about those topics and more.
v_embed2Photo: Courtesy of The Veselines.
Guys, I think four years ago there was a sort of novelty — a curiosity factor maybe — at play with Sex With an X because it was the first record from The Vaselines in more than 20 years. But, with this record, I’d imagine fans — even the younger ones — know what they’re getting with you. It seems this album will prove itself on its own without the benefit of rediscovery or nostalgia.
Eugene Kelly: “Yeah, definitely it’s a harder sell, this one, because you’ve not got that impact of the ‘comeback.’ You have us saying, ‘We’re still here. We’re bringing out something new.’ And, it’s still gonna be us, it’s not gonna be radically different to the older stuff, so you kind of have to worry about people thinking, ‘Oh it’s just them again, and we’ve had enough.’ Or, whether they’re bored or if they’re gonna be interested. So, it’s kind of a harder sell, so we kinda of have to get out and shout a bit louder with this one.”
The last time we spoke, you weren’t even necessarily planning to do a third record. Frances, I remember you telling me toward the end of that interview that even asking you that question was like asking you whether you wanted another child, right after you had given birth to one.
Frances McKee: “Yeah that’s right, I remember that. I’ve quoted myself quite a few times. [laughs] And, I still say the same! No, it’s too painful! [laughs]”
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What eventually pushed you in the direction of doing a third album?
FM: “We never put that kind of stress on ourselves. After the Sex With an X thing died down, we didn’t do much. I think we did have almost a year of not doing very much at all. Then we just decided that we would get together to see if any songs were coming about — again, without putting any pressure on ourselves. So we started getting together and realized that we did have some things to work with.”
EK: “I think we just had a meeting of the minds and thought, ‘What are we gonna do next? Are we gonna do another record or just call it quits?’ And, I think we both felt we were enjoying it, and we can write together, and why can’t we do another record?”
You chose to self-release it on your own label. How did that decision come about, and was Sub Pop not an option to put out this record?
EK: “Well, we let them hear it last year, before we had really finished it, and they passed on it, which was absolutely fine. They just decided it wasn’t for them. And, then we let other people hear it, and we got lots of positive feedback from people, but we didn’t really want to put it out. So, we looked at our options and the best one was to release it ourselves. We could have gone with a small independent label, but thought, ‘Well we can just do that ourselves.’ We’ll go with our manager, and we’ll become the label, and we’ve worked with a distribution company who finance it, and it’s perfect for us. I mean, it’s pretty hands-on. You have to approve so much, and it’s a bit harder work, but in the long run I think it’s a more positive thing to do.”
There does seem to still be an ongoing effort to find newer and more direct ways to get music out there. Look at that Thom Yorke release last week and how he put it out on Bit Torrent, and he — as Radiohead has done in the past — has such a following that he can do things that are a little bit exploratory and really kind of lead the way in ways that maybe others can’t. But, it’s nice to see people trying to cut out the middle man, and, as I think Thom said, bring some of that Internet commerce back to the people who actually create the product.
FM: “I think that’s right. I think the music industry continues to be changing, it’s changing in ways that I’m certain some labels haven’t really caught on to yet. I think sometimes it’s changing in a good way and other, I think it’s not. I think it’s becoming more corporate, becoming bigger labels, bigger bands, and the rich bands get richer and bigger, and smaller bands just get treated like shit. I think the hierarchy within the system is ghastly, and it really does need to change. Otherwise actually, people like us, people who are just trying to be creative aren’t gonna be able to do that. And, I really do feel for young kids coming up, who are really just wanting to be in a band, and try to do all that stuff. There’s just no money for anyone and if things don’t change, soon the only people who are able to make music are those with rich parents.”
As you said, you’re not drastically altering The Vaselines’ sound on this record, but I would say that you seem to have dialed back some of the different moods you went into on the last one — in favor of a shorter, punchier, and more straightforward approach?
EK: “Yeah, I think the idea was, when we agreed to do something we wanted to do something short and snappy, a short record and short songs.”
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Did you feel like there wasn’t enough of that on the last record?
EK: “Not really, it wasn’t really a reaction to the last record.”
FM: “I will say that when I listen to the last record, I really do love it, but I think some of the songs suffer from being a wee bit too long. And, I think that we were both consciously or unconsciously addressing that on this album, and not giving any song too much time. It wasn’t really deliberate but that’s kind of the way it all manifested. I was listening to a lot of Iggy Pop and The Ramones and so was Eugene; he was listening to a lot of Ramones at the time. And, it just seemed a good time to stick to that classic thing, with not too much frivolity.”
EK: “Our manager gave us a copy of the [Legs McNeil] book, Please Kill Me, about the New York scene in the early ‘70s. I think maybe because we were both reading that that we were both listening to some of the music, so I think maybe that we both got in our heads that we wanted it to be really concise, short songs. So, I agree with Frances — and that’s a first — note this day Frances, I agreed with you. [laughs] But, the songs on the last record kind of meandered a bit. And, maybe we felt like some of those songs could have been edited slightly, and I think maybe we were aware of that fact and wanted to try and address it. And, also to get back a bit to some of our early stuff which was really short, two-minute songs or even one and a half minutes. We were trying to get back some of that instant pop excitement into it.”
The eyes of the world were on Scotland in recent weeks because of the independence referendum, in which the No vote prevailed pretty handily. Frances, I know you were a Yes supporter; in fact, most Scottish musicians I know of did seem to be on that side. Were you surprised that the vote went the way that it did, or by the margin of the No campaign’s victory?
Frances McKee: “Well, the first thing is, I wasn’t surprised that the No vote won, because actually the propaganda surrounding voting Yes from newspapers put a lot of fear into people. It was the older generation mainly that did vote No. And, I think they were just absolutely terrified of what might happen. I think people like us, musicians, we’re more creative thinkers, and we think, ‘Okay, any kind of change will create difficulties perhaps. But, we just don’t know.’ And for me, that uncertainty was a good thing. But, for a lot of people, uncertainty was not for them, they wanted to be safe. What I didn’t expect though was the 10% margin; I would’ve thought it would be much narrower than that. So, I was hugely disappointed at the result... if, for example, the vote had gone to a majority of Yes, the whole government would have collapsed I think. David Cameron would be out of a job. And, you know, I don’t think the No campaign from London could have ever accepted that, so they did whatever they could to ensure that they did not lose that vote. It was a kind of David and Goliath thing really. It was amazing the number of people that came out to vote, and 1.6 million people voted Yes in this country, and that’s a huge thing.”
Didn’t they lower the voting age?
Eugene Kelly: “Yeah, to 16. And, most of them voted for independence. It’s been an amazing couple of years here, and the whole campaign, being part of it. I think a lot of people like myself started off being No voters but swung to Yes over the past year — just because of the negative campaigning of the No campaign. Basically, it was pro-independence against the British establishment, and the British establishment threw everything in such a negative campaign at the Yes voters, and it was kind of horrible to watch — the whole fear factor. So, yeah, it was disappointing, but still I think it’s the beginning of something rather than the end of something.”
You guys have never been shy about cheeky and lighthearted songs that talk about sex. But, this record, while the music is very upbeat start to finish, the songs seem to deal more with love or relationships gone wrong, and in some cases they don’t deal with sex or relationships at all.
FM: “Well, you know people over the age of 40 just don’t have sex. Don’t you know that?” [laughs]
EK: “Yeah, well I think I’ve read some reviews that said it’s not as fun a record, or there’s maybe not as much humor as in the past. And, I think that’s true. I mean, we weren’t deliberately trying to make a serious, grown-up, mature record. But, that’s just the songs that came. They weren’t maybe as frivolous as previous ones. And, yeah, there’s some songs that are definitely not about romance. ‘Inky Lies’ is not about romance or relationships at all. And, what other ones…”
Maybe the closing track, “Last Half Hour”?
EK: “Yeah, right.”
FM: “Well ‘Last Half Hour’ is more about the demise of our career! [laughs]”
EK: “Yeah it’s all about the faded glamour of an actor or musician who’s out there still performing, but there’s no one there to see them. So, there’s more grown-up things going on on this record, but definitely no sex.”
Well, you’ve said “Inky Lies” was inspired by the whole News of the World hacking scandal, but it’s also seems to be a song just about the press, and intrusion into people’s privacy — pretty timely in the wake of the iCloud naked photo leak.
FM: “I think with that song in particular was that idea of, why are people so interested in other peoples’ lives? And, these absolutely inane headlines that people become obsessed with. It’s just a distraction from their own life. People do believe absolute nonsense that they are told, either on TV or in a newspaper. A lot of it is absolute fairy tales, and it doesn’t make sense, but people are absolutely prepared to believe it.”
EK: “The tabloid press in Britain is just ridiculous, and quite right-wing. The Daily Star newspaper, in the last three days the front page has been ‘Britain Is Being Hounded by Black-Eyed Ghost Children!’ This ridiculous story now over three days, about these ghostly apparitions that they say are haunting people up and down the country. White-faced kids with big black eyes. And, this is a major paper!”
[laughs]
Since I would hate to let a Vaselines interview go by without some mention of Nirvana, I wonder what you thought of the “reunion” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year, with Kim Gordon, Joan Jett, St. Vincent, and Lorde all standing in for Kurt. What did you think of it?
EK: “I think the way they did it was amazing. They just like to do things differently. It’s like when they played Unplugged years ago; people thought the guest stars would be like Eddie Vedder or David Bowie or something. But, instead Kurt brought Meat Puppets on there. And, so, having those women on was like saying, ‘We don’t have to get some bloke on here to scream his head off. We’ve got some really great female performers here.’ And, it’s not easy to stand up and say ‘I’m a feminist’ in quite male-dominated rock, but Nirvana are quite happy to do that and to say they’re feminists, and I think that’s great.”
Frances, your thoughts?
FM: “I’m actually shocked that Eugene has said the word ‘feminist’ in a positive light!”
[laughs]a
FM: “I’m not given any equal opportunities in The Vaselines! I’ve been abused all week!”
You end the album with “Last Half Hour” and I want to end the interview with that. Its final line is “Dim the light low, final curtain, end of the show” — that’s not a statement about you guys, is it?
EK: “No, but I think we’re kind of at peace with that kind of a song as the last track because we’re not sure. I think if this is gonna be our last record, that’s a good last song off the album. But, we have no idea what we’re going to do next, if we’ll do another record. It’s hard to say, because we don’t discuss these things until we have to discuss them.”
FM: “Yeah, I think in the end, if people like the record and buy the record and want to hear more, then obviously we would consider that. But, on the other hand, if no one buys it, well I think that’s a clue that, well, this isn’t really a viable business plan, is it? [Laughs] I mean, we’re not U2. We can’t give the record away. We don’t all have that luxury.”