The twosome formed The Vaselines in 1986, and along with fellow pop- purveyors Glasgowians The Pastels, perfected infectious tunes bulging with adolescent hormones and candy-coated in sonic damage. But just prior to Nirvana making The Vaselines household names, Kelly and McKee’s relationship fizzled out and so did The Vaselines. Sub Pop Records swept in to rescue their entire catalog, bringing them a widespread appeal and critical acclaim.
Meanwhile, Kelly formed the supremely underrated Captain America, released one of the best singles of the ’90s, and toured briefly with Nirvana—and were promptly sued by Marvel Comics and ultimately forced to change their name, fittingly, to Eugenius.
Eugenius disbanded shortly after releasing its second album; Kelly and McKee dropped out of sight until 2008, when the duo reformed The Vaselines and performed at Maxwell’s and at the now-defunct Park Slope space Southpaw. Sex with an X, their first LP in two decades, followed, and the pair’s infectiously catchy pop sensibility remained.
Sound of the City spoke to Kelly from his home in Scotland.
You’re playing in Brooklyn tonight. When did you first play New York with the Vaselines? Where did you play?
It was in 2008. It was only our third show after we reformed. We played in Hoboken and then we played in Brooklyn.
So you and Frances never toured the States when The Vaselines were active in the 1980’s?
No, no, we never even left Britain because you got England… and we never even left the islands!
But you then toured here with your post-Vaselines band, Eugenius?
Yeah, we’re looking at the early 90’s—’92, ’93 and ’94.
So the first time you came to New York was with Eugenius?
Yeah, it must have been.
Do you remember anything about it?
Um… just a hell of a good time! [Laughing] We played CBGB twice so that was quite an experience. It’s a real legendary place for people from Britain to play. We headlined but I can’t remember [who we played with], to be honest. I guess like a bunch of 60 year-old guys. I can’t remember the name.
Being from Glasgow, were you into the American punk that came from New York?
Oh, yeah. We knew all the groups and knew the history of it so if you get a chance to play there, you do… Television and Ramones and Talking Heads, everything that came out of that scene. That’s where it all began, where punk starts.
The Vaselines are embarking on a short tour. Are you and Frances working on new material?
Well, Sub Pop asked us to play the Sub Pop stage at Bumbershoot in Seattle, so we just said yes to that then we thought we’d put a tour together and play some gigs. First, we were gonna play a few more than four shows; we tried to do seven or eight. But that didn’t quite work out.
It’s quick turnaround for you to come back and play. The last time was the Vaselines played here was just a couple of years ago?
Yeah, it was 2009, I think. We were there [on tour] for a month. That was great and we’d love to come back and play another long tour but I think we have to wait until we have another record.
Are you and Frances getting together to write some new songs?
We haven’t yet but we’re gonna throw some ideas together, come up with some tunes and then once we got enough of them, we’ll get together and try to see if anything is worth to finish off.
How often do you and Frances see each other to jam out new tunes?
We haven’t done anything since the last record but we did play a lot of shows this year. We just come back from Japan and that was quite an amazing experience. I think we’re just thinking that by the end of the year we’ll try to write some tunes and we’ll see what happens.
Do you write songs on your own? You had a solo record a few years back (2004’s Man Alive) and your tunes with Eugenius weren’t too shabby either.
I’m always trying to write, see what happens and see if anything comes out. I have a pail of ideas that I need to put that in and do the work—from rough ideas into actual songs.
What constitutes a Vaselines song as opposed to that of a Eugene Kelly solo tune?
Vaselines songs are straight ahead and my songs… they are easier to work on than a Vaselines song! [Laughing]
Was it a given that you’d do Sex with an X with Sub Pop? You’ve also had a history with Calvin Johnson’s K Records, but most people automatically attribute Vaselines with Sub Pop.
I think because Sub Pop released the last record [The Way of the Vaselines] and because we have a good relationship with them we felt like we’d do the record and then call Sub Pop first and see if they liked it. Luckily for us, they liked it.
When did you first hear of Sub Pop Records way back? Was it because of Nirvana?
I think it was in Melody Maker, they had a big article about Sub Pop and Mudhoney and the whole Seattle scene. After that, stuff came out of Nirvana mentioning they liked Vaselines and then then they were playing our songs.
Mudhoney is playing Bumbershoot also. That must be cool for you to be playing a gig with them again.
Yeah, we have day off before our show so I am hoping we get to see them. I definitely love Mudhoney and Nirvana. But Mudhoney was the first of those bands that I heard. They played here and opened up for Sonic Youth in 1989 [or something] and it was the first time I saw Sonic Youth.
Eugenius covered Beat Happening’s “Indian Summer” back in 1992. When did you first get exposed to K Records?
Through Stephen Pastel, who with The Pastels had a record label called 53rd & 3rd and he had some connection with K Records and then Beat Happening came to do two shows and we approached them.
Eugenius was such an awesome band name but you wound up being sued by Marvel Comics because of your original name, Captain America. What do you recall of that period?
I just remember it being a nightmare [laughing]! We had the record just ready to be released and it was stopped for the American release. It was a very horrible period to try to deal with [being sued]. I’ve never been sued so it was quite scary.
Was it crazy to be on major label [Atlantic] with Eugenius?
Well, we went from a very, very small label to being on Atlantic and there wasn’t much difference, really. We didn’t really have trouble with Atlantic; they let us do our own thing.
Did the connection with Nirvana help Eugenius get signed to Atlantic?
I think it must have helped because of all the attention directed towards us and because of Nirvana’s interest in Vaselines.
You seemed to vanish from music after Eugenius broke up in ’94.
Mary Queen of Scots got released in 1994, but we continued for another four years and we recorded again but it was never released. For four years we just sorta struggled.
Do you ever play those Eugenius songs live if you’re doing a solo gig?
No, not in a Vaselines set; we just want to a Vaselines stuff. If I play a solo show, I’ll do some of them but I haven’t played a solo show in quite a few years.
You don’t play any solo shows in Scotland?
Not since the Vaselines got back together. I’m pretty happy just doing the Vaselines.
When Nirvana first started covering your songs in the Vaselines, what was your thinking? Were you completely floored?
I think when it first happened Nirvana weren’t such a big band but it was really flattering.
There’s a clip of you singing “Molly’s Lips” at the Reading Festival with Nirvana.
Yeah, that was ’91. That’s what people were talking about that whole weekend. When we were still Captain America, we toured with Nirvana for two weeks just when Nevermind was released—we were sorta in the eye of the hurricane.
Vaselines disbanded right around the time your friends in Teenage Fanclub broke through in 1989. Were you like “We picked the wrong time to have broken up?”
Well, I was big fan of Teenage Fanclub and at that point Captain American was born and there was no way we [the Vaselines] were ever going to get back together at that point. We had other stuff to focus on.
Now that the Vaselines and active again and Teenage Fanclub are still going at it, you’ll have to try to keep up with them.
Yeah, they are making a new album this year. We’re gonna try to keep up with them.
The Vaselines play tonight at The Bell House.