English Graffiti on Every Wall

Ellen Desmond talks breaking the mould of a repetitive music scene with Árni Árnason of The Vaccines.

It was 2011 when I first saw The Vaccines live. The Oxegen Festival was in full swing at Punchestown Racecourse, but no one wanted to come see the indie rock foursome. Determined, I abandoned my friends and went to see them alone.

A newly formed group at that point, they played their debut album What Did You Expect from the Vaccines? in its entirety, before abruptly leaving the stage. They charmed their way to many new followers that day, with their punky air and nonchalant attitude towards the audience; there was a void to be filled by a new band like that, in a year as encompassed by pop music as 2011.

Jump forward four years and, as is inevitable, times have changed. The Vaccines will be the first to point out that they’ve lost many fans along the way, especially with the arrival of 2015’s English Graffiti, which is their third full length studio album. Everything from their lyrics to their videos have evolved, securing them levels of ever changing success, paralleled by ever changing fan opinion. Yet, there are still the most faithful original listeners, not to mention this year’s escalating critical acclaim and favourable mainstream public opinion.

An allegedly shivering Árni Árnason, the band’s long-haired Icelandic bassist, answers his phone just as he arrives in a cold, breezy Nottingham. Fresh off Brighton stages the night before, The Vaccines are now in full swing of their UK and Ireland tour.

“It didn’t even really occur to me how much our sound had changed until like two days ago when I listened to Come Of Age for the first time since it was released,” says Árni. “What you get is an impression of a band that, when you listen to their three albums, it’s like listening to a schedule of growth that has happened. Come Of Age was written and recorded and released pretty much straight off the back of our first album. And so in the next years that followed, we were just gradually developing and it felt to us entirely gradual and logical. Obviously, for us it’s all an unconscious process. We didn’t realise it. There wasn’t like a watershed moment or anything; we were just getting on with it, you know? We’ll keep developing and transitioning and I don’t think we’ll stop. I think this [English Graffiti] is a really transitional record. And maybe it’s all going to make more sense by the next one. We’ll see.”

English Graffiti is unavoidably a change of direction for The Vaccines. It gathers all of their strengths and produces them in a uniquely accessible way. This accessibility is something that was missing from previous records. While Come of Age, for example, is an acquired taste, English Graffiti won’t alienate the average listener. The album is a tough act not to love and has so far proven incredibly popular; an idea to the distaste of many of The Vaccines’ most indie fans, who wanted the band’s reputation to stay niche forever.

However, Árni says the reaction on the whole has been very positive for the band, especially from live audiences.
“Yeah, it’s actually been quite fun. Like it always is when you play a new album to a lot of people. A lot of the songs are coming out a lot bigger. Like ‘Dream Lover’ – everybody seems to like that. So yeah, the response has been really good.”

Árni has the right idea. ‘Dream Lover’ along with ‘Handsome’ seem to be the stand out pieces so far from English Graffiti, but the entire record is a refined and polished production that won’t see you skipping over any of the tracks. The Vaccines hope this third album will be genre defining, and looked back on as a record that reflects its time, in the vein of the way that Never Mind the Bollocks has aged yet remains very much a product of its day.

“You can only see it in hindsight. So, I mean, what sounds like 2015? We don’t even know yet. We just wanted to make an album that was influenced by its time and had some relevance to the modern era. When we look back at the music that we grew up with, any band or any musician, you tend to see that things were influenced by people who were trailblazers at the time. But if you all try and sit around and try to sound like Mick Jones’ guitar, then Mick Jones is going to sound like nobody, you know? I think that sometimes that gets lost, especially in guitar music which is kind of self-referential. We tried to break the mould by thinking, oh shit, well Buddy Holly wasn’t trying to sound like Buddy Holly he was trying to sound like a god, you know?”

English Graffiti seems to have captured this experimental quality. Not least in that the band have not limited themselves so much to one tone, as they previously seemed glued to, but, more interestingly, in what it hopes to prove. But just how do a band so well known for avoiding political lyricism manage to capture the essence of a time and place? It seems an ambitious undertaking but Árni feels the exact opposite.

“The purpose is first and foremost entertainment. Music is a force that finds certain people; it’s entertaining, it’s spiritual, kind of, and can be looked at as solidarity, I guess. And that’s it, I guess, that’s its purpose. I don’t know. I don’t necessarily have anything against people using their platform of – I don’t want to say fame – to be political. I don’t really have anything against it. But for the majority of people who do that it’s really basic. Like if you listen to the majority of lyrics that try to do that it’s normally just absolute base level schoolboy politics. Also you can’t put the staggering complexity of a cultural issue or interaction in politics into a phrase. It’s impossible.”

Above: Árni Árnason with the rest of The Vaccines
Above: Árni Árnason with the rest of The Vaccines

This leads to a feeling that English Graffiti is potentially a heartless album. Does it mean The Vaccines are going for an “art for art’s sake approach?” Or is it all secretly about entering the mainstream charts? Árni is quick to explain otherwise.

“There is a song, a title track, called ‘English Graffiti’ and it’s about the homogenisation of western culture. So, like, for example, wherever you go in the world you can expect to hear certain music and see all of the graffiti in English. So it’s an observation on that homogenisation of western cultures.”

Take that, critics. It’s very clear that The Vaccines know exactly what they’re doing, as is also clear in their newfound attitude towards the music industry. It certainly isn’t just their sound that has changed, but their outlook and determination is something they are increasingly keen to showcase. Cited several times this year, lead singer Justin Hayward-Young has widely spoken about his ambition to see the band go as “big as the biggest” names in the industry. This gathering momentum of ambition has translated onto stage and is echoed in their bassist’s words, as he describes their intention to put together more well-rounded and impressive performances.

“We have always written very short songs, but these days we’ve got a whole back catalogue. So, that’s the sort of band we’ve become now! We’ve got a back catalogue. Which means we’ll be playing for a lot longer than before. It’s gotten a lot more ‘show like.’ We’re moving a lot away from the idea of a gig, and making it more about putting on a show.”

As we are discussing the evolution of their act from gig to show, Árni is doing what he always does on the day of a live performance, which is often a strange or nervous time for performers.

“I do this a lot. I sort of aimlessly wander. Just pick a direction and walk. There’s also always an hour before the show where we’re all just listening to music and crashing about, dancing around and acting like idiots. Then there’s sound check and stuff like that. There’s nothing like ritualistic in that it doesn’t entail any major plan of events it’s just like there’s certain things that always have to be in the right place.”

The next performances in the pipeline for The Vaccines at the time of our chat were several sold out Brixton dates, and evidentially that was what was on the wandering Arni’s mind today, but the 14th of December will soon see them play a postponed gig on Irish soil.

“Irish audiences are spectacular. I think every city is very different. Dublin, we always have a good time out in Dublin, and we always end up misbehaving.”

But touring and English Graffiti will only take The Vaccines so far, especially if they are to hit the stadium-filling heights of success they seem to be targeting.
“We are conceptualising new music at the moment,” Árni admits. “We’ve already done some writing, done some sending and we are hoping to get back on that all, as soon as possible pretty much. And you might even get to hear a new song in Dublin.”

Taking aim from every angle, as they appear to be doing, and with fan favourites and experience now firmly in their pockets, I couldn’t help but reflect upon their touch-and-go 2011 Oxegen gig, and think of just how far Árni and the rest of The Vaccines have obviously come since then. I was reluctant to say goodbye to the intriguing bassist, but having pressed him for long enough I began to wrap up our chat.

“I’m currently in a Waterstones looking for a book,” he adds before we hang up, laughing at the irony of how he may be depicted following this declaration. “And I think I’m pissing everybody off. See you in Dublin!”

2015 has not been what I expected from The Vaccines, and when purchasing tickets for the upcoming Olympia Show, it didn’t take any convincing on my part to rally troops to go along.

The Vaccines will play at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre on the 14th of December. Tickets begin at €28.