“I think your circumstances always change but the things that drive you rarely change,” offers The Vaccines frontman Justin Young when asked if the same things are still inspiring him.
Combat Sports is the band’s fourth studio album, touted by critics as their stomping return to the indie pop morsels that first gripped fans of their 2011 debut What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? “Yeah I’m just looking for some peace of mind and some satisfaction,” agrees guitarist Freddie Cowan in a mellow manner.
We’re speaking mere hours before the album’s release, and days before the quintet (made up by bassist Árni Árnason, keyboardist and guitarist Timothy Lanham and drummer Yoann Intonti) embark on a mammoth UK tour, which sees them take a trip across the pond and then head on to mainland Europe. Does a stint like that take a lot of mental preparation as well as the obvious physical prep? “I always feel that mental preparation happens almost subconsciously, if you know you have a big night ahead of you then you’ll get tired during the day, you can’t really force your body to mentally prepare, you just do. You definitely try and prepare for it physically but also we tour in a very different way than when we first started the band - I didn’t think about any of that stuff, it was just go for it every single night and we never slept but actually we have a lot more fun touring now because you’re not sleeping all day, you have friends in cities and you’ve been certain places before and you know where to go. You’re also more in control of the gig and you can get into a really good rhythm with it,” explains Freddie.
So what’s changed between now and the early days? “Honestly I actually think about my state of mind when I’m playing, for some reason I never thought about that when we started. It didn’t matter if you were drunk or you hadn’t slept or you weren’t even concentrating, I’m not giving my former self too much of a hard time, but I think it’s just an experience thing. You learn over time what are the best ways to approach it and what’s the best state of mind to be in.”
The record itself is the result of a very transitional period for The Vaccines in the three year space between Combat Sports and it’s predecessor English Graffiti. Drummer Pete Robertson announced he was leaving the band in June 2016, a space now filled by ex-Spector drummer Yoann Intonti. “Yoann is just an amazing guy and has such good energy, he’s so positive. I remember the look in his eye on the first time we ever played together and we just looked at each other and had a bit of a smile, I felt like I’d known this guy forever,” praises Freddie. The band also inherited another new member in the form of the “very gifted musically” Timothy Lanham.
“I met Tim at a wedding years ago in Italy and he came on as a fifth member for us not in the band before Pete left. He’s an amazing mediator between everyone, he’s very smart and he’s very technical. He’s the kind of sound influence that we were missing before. Everyone in the band has such a strong personality but sometimes you need a bit of help to communicate with each other rather than expecting everyone to just do their thing, so Tim will help Justin demo the songs and then help me with the parts and everyone, so he’s been incredible.”
Recorded in Sheffield at McCall Sound studios, Freddie states that, “it was exactly where we needed to go,” the quintet worked with Ross Orton - whose production portfolio includes the likes of Arctic Monkeys, The Fall and M.I.A. “It was amazing not to have any distractions and be really focused. We’ve worked in LA, we’ve worked in London and we’ve worked in New York and there’s always an excuse for someone to leave early when you’re in an exciting city like that, so when you go to a smaller city you just want to be there working,” Justin explains.
“Also Ross was the right guy for us. He wasn’t really a fan of the band necessarily but he’d seen something in us and all he was interested in was recapturing that. We needed the blinkers on for a while just to make sure we didn’t fall into potholes for a moment and he was brilliant,” enthuses Freddie.
It was also during the initial stages of what would become Combat Sports that The Vaccines were forced to take a step back and reassess the band as a whole. “‘I Can’t Quit’ was probably the first song we had but honestly no one really liked it that much. I think Justin liked it, but I didn’t like it, it sounded very different to how it sounds now, and that was kind of relegated, it was one amongst loads of songs that we had written and had left over I think from the third record or in between, and then we started the writing process,” begins Freddie.
“We picked up from English Graffiti and there was fifty songs or something and we made the best part of a record then we decided we were going in completely the wrong direction. We thought what do we like about us? What do we think is good about the band? What is good about Justin’s songwriting? What works about my guitar playing? What works with everyone? I think we had maybe become quite ashamed of ourselves or what we did. English Graffiti was such a searching record and I think in that two year period of writing we came to accept and then love what we did and who we were as individuals a bit more. It gave us faith for Justin to start writing songs again like he’s written for this album and for me to make the guitars sound like guitars again.”
“It was really in the eleventh hour we actually started getting those songs, once we were there it was quite easy. We’d lost a band member, we got two new members, you do what bands do, you fight and I always had faith it was going to work out but there’s definitely moments where there’s no guarantees.”
Ultimately Combat Sports is a record the band, for now, are incredibly proud of and rightly so. Teetering between the dense guitars snaking through ‘Nightclub’ to the delicate and impassioned delivery of ‘Young American’ it strikes up an admirable level of diversity while still remaining quintessentially Vaccines-esque. No wonder it’s difficult for Justin and Freddie to earmark a favourite track. “We’ve all probably got connections with them in a different way but I like ‘Young American’, it’s very bare and naked and honest. ‘Your Love Is My Favourite Band’ was quite an important song for us because it put the wind in our sails. It’s funny because something like ‘I Can’t Quit’ musically is one of my least favourite songs on the record but then I always connect with songs that open doors for us, I’m always very grateful of the songs that feel like they’re connecting because they allow us to go and do so many amazing things,” divulges Justin.
By definition, a combat sport is “a competitive contact sport that usually involves one-on-one combat,” perhaps an activity that is akin to the music industry itself? “I think all industries are,” begins Justin. “Music is a funny one because it builds up inherently sensitive people and then knocks them down, understandably, because it’s a business and the bands and the musicians are a commodity. It’s funny actually I was thinking the other day about how there’s a lot of schemes and charities in place for ex-sportsmen and women now because I think that people are conscious of the impact that has on your life and mental health, being lauded and then spat out the other side of this ten year career, but there’s very little said about what happens to the people that were making music. It’s a harsh industry, it’s a difficult industry, but money talks, the people that are signing you and putting out your records, they’re all subject to the same fickle nature of it.”
As the album takes it’s first sonic steps into the world I can’t help but wonder if The Vaccines are already looking towards the future. Do the band plan to release any more EPs like 2013’s Melody Calling? “Maybe, we were talking about releasing some new music next year, originally talking about one song but you never know. It’s some of my favourite stuff we’ve ever done that EP, it’s nice as well because it’s kind of like the pressure is off, you don’t really get the promo train. They don’t define you in the same way an album does so you don’t have to play by the rules as tightly,” Justin offers.
Finishing our chat on the hint of new music in the not too distant future is definitely an exciting prospect, but then again what else would you expect from The Vaccines?