The Vaccines' Justin Young on Their New Sound: 'My Taste Now Is the Most Pop It’s Ever Been'
Photo by Ben Rayner
“Basically, what we write is pop music,” says Justin Young, the singer and guitarist for English rockers the Vaccines. “I think of it as pop, anyway — that’s the way the songs are written. Maybe not in the sense that we write a song with the idea of a beat behind it; we write and have guitars in mind.”
Young's statement is apt because the band’s spring-released third album (and also their third for Columbia Records), English Graffiti, is something of a redefining moment for them. Since forming in 2010, the London-based foursome — which includes Freddie Cowan (guitarist and younger brother of the Horrors’ Tom Cowan), Arni Arnason (bass), and Pete Robertson (drums) — has come on like a herald for the next wave of Brit-rock. “My taste now is the most pop it’s ever been. The main thing was not to do the same thing over,” Young adds, speaking from a tour stop in Philadelphia, four days before the band’s show at Rough Trade NYC.
New song “Dream Lover” handily proves his point. It’s a swanky pop song, a juicy, lusty come-on with a slow beat and big chorus. It is pop with a big guitar presence and a jolt after album opener “Handsome,” a bellowing, punk-y catcall recalling their cited influence of the Ramones. But on English Graffiti pop rules, not rock: The swooning, airy “Denial” is another soulful pop nugget, and the sultry “I Want You So Bad” is straight FM balladry.
So what did we expect from the Vaccines, then? That they’d be content to be the new Arctic Monkeys, or reach to be the next Coldplay? These pop elements were already there, really, and English Graffiti is the band honing and expanding sound, sticking in their thumbs and pulling out the plum hooks.
It’s not like these things can be precisely planned, but Young put his best foot forward from the start. He pointed himself in the right direction, leaving his native Southampton, a safe, quiet spot on England’s south coast, and heading to London, ostensibly for official education. While he made sure he ended up with a degree in history, he was able to put into action the self-education he gained as a kid when, first, he found Elvis and Buddy Holly, and early rock 'n' roll (is it any coincidence the Vaccines have a song called “Dream Lover,” echoing Bobby Darin’s big hit?). Eventually he found the Ramones, and then London punk, and then London. “I did move there and go to college, but that wasn’t the real reason to move to London. It was a means to an end. I did get my degree, but I was also starting bands and doing music.”
More self-educating followed while Young was living with Marcus Mumford and Winston Marshall (before they found mega-fame in Mumford & Sons) in a flat above a shop on New King’s Road in London's Fulham neighborhood — not far from Edith Grove, where Keith, Mick, and Brian wrote the Rolling Stones' early hits in a small flat in the Sixties. Young, clearly a rock scholar, doesn't fail to make note of this.
“There were four musicians living there: Alex, who goes by the name Pale now, lived there too,” he says of his former home. “It really was this inspiring situation, with everyone trying to write songs.” Ambition fueled this cozy scene. “There was always an internal pressure. We did want to have success. But it wasn’t competitive at all.” The four are still close friends; the Vaccines will open for Mumford & Sons in Australia this fall.
These days, when he’s not on the road, Young splits his time between London and New York, simply because he can, and it’s what inspires him now. “The more I travel, the more I realize that London and New York are the center of it all. Los Angeles a bit, too, but London and New York are the places when it comes to music. Because New York apartments are so small and expensive, everyone’s out all the time and there’s an amazing street life.”
This week sees the band back in the city and giving fans a real treat by playing an intimate club like Rough Trade NYC. Because the initial date sold out in less than a New York minute, the Vaccines added a matinee — which then sold out too. Pulling double duty does come with risks, though. Young has already had a couple of surgeries for blown vocal cords, but at this point, as the band pushes up to the next level, it’s a risk he’s willing to take.
“I’d be lying if I said I’m not worried,” he admits, “but I think it will be all right.” Especially, he says, if the crowd helps him sing some of the songs: “Yeah, I’m hoping there will be plenty of that. I might need it.”
The Vaccines play Rough Trade NYC on September 1. The show has sold out, but tickets can be found on secondary markets.
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