Eleven years since the band’s inception, The Vaccines are still at the forefront of the UK music scene.
When Justin Hayward-Young founded the indie-rock group alongside Freddie Cowan, Árni Árnason, and Pete Robertson in 2010, they surely could never have predicted how well they would do. Their debut record What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? made the London-based band bonafide rockstars seemingly overnight, gaining a legion of dedicated fans. In 2012, they capitalized upon their stratospheric ascent to the top with their UK no.1 sophomore album, Come Of Age, that same year the then four-piece graced one of 1883’s covers for our 6th issue. Over the last decade, the band has had five UK top 5 albums, gained a reputation as one of the nation’s best live bands, sold-out countless arena headline shows, performed on unforgettable festival slots, and had a lineup change as Robertson left and Timothy Lanham and Yoann Intonti joined the group.
Undoubtedly the band has maintained their key position in the UK music scene because of how they’ve continually evolved over time, after the first two records some fans might of wanted more of the same sound but the group returned with the adventurous and somewhat underrated album, English Graffiti, in 2015. Followed by 2018’s reinvigorated and inspired LP, Combat Sports, the album that saw Lanham and Intonti join as official members. But if you thought The Vaccines couldn’t continue this winning streak of creative brilliance then think again — The Vaccines’ forthcoming fifth album Back In Love City is the band’s best album to date. It’s a concept record based around a modern-day pleasure island – equal part utopia and dystopia. Back In Love City was born from the band’s fascination with emotions as commodities and the desperation for human connection. The record has a fresh new sound with pop sensibilities but it also distills some of the best elements of the previous Vaccines records that you love. It also boasts some of their heaviest riffs to date.
With the new recording launching a month from today on September 10th, 1883’s Cameron Poole caught up with Justin Young on the phone to discuss Back In Love City, house swapping with a complete stranger, and the moment when the band started to have fun again.
Hey Justin, it’s been quite a while since 1883 Magazine last caught up with The Vaccines — the last time was back in 2012 as you guys were one of our cover stars for our 6th issue. Would you still say you’re the “gang leader” of the band after all this time?
[Laughs] Did I say that? I don’t know, I suppose I am, maybe? You know what, I probably wouldn’t say that now, but as as you’re asking me, I guess so, yeah!
How are you doing in general anyway, all good?
Yeah, I think as well as can be expected. It’s nice to be able to kind of live life in a bit more kind of colour again, but I suppose it’s still slightly like we’re all in limbo a bit.
You weren’t lying when you said that the new album has a lot of heavy moments, they work really well with the softer pop aspects of the record. Was it hard to walk that fine line and make it all work?
I’m really happy you said that because I think even though it’s quite sort of diverse, and even though it can be quite sporadic in places, it does feel like very kind of it’s all sort of tied together. I think that’s always been something we’ve struggled with and every artist struggles with, right? It’s figuring out how to move forward and how to evolve, but how to kind of do that with maintaining the things that are at the core of your DNA.
It’s harder to do than others, but with this record I think once we had the sort of loose concept, and we had a sonic palette, I feel like everything seemed to exist live or not just exist, but also thrive in this world we created. Even though we could go from “Wanderlust” to “El Paso”, in our heads it all felt very natural and all existed in the same way.
What challenges did The Vaccines face when writing Back In Love City?
I think that challenge is almost like tied in the last question and last answer. Every time you start making another record, you’re really only hoping that you’ve got a better record in you than the previous record. You’re on this process of refinement and evolution and you’re figuring out your place in the world and how to survive and how to thrive as artists and kind of keep on growing. That aspect is always hanging over you.
This is our fifth record and when any artists that have been around for that long, you’re kind of in this contract with your fan base, right? They expect certain things of you, but they also expect you to move and push forward. I’m always kind of weighing up, how do we move forward but at the same time retain and maintain what’s at our core? That’s the loud internal monologue or dialogue I have with myself basically about what is it that makes The Vaccines.
With this record, from day one pretty much through to completion, it felt like very natural, very easy, at times it felt too easy. It was just so fun and we all felt really inspired, liberated, and that definitely hasn’t always been the case. In fact, I don’t think we’ve really had as much fun making record as we do on this one or the first record, I would say.
The album continues to explore the themes of human emotion and our desperation for connectivity, it’s something that you’ve delved into in past songs like Minimal Affection and Lonely World. Thanks to the internet and social media we are more connected to one another more than ever, but it also feels like we are more disconnected as we spend so much time behind screens. Why do these themes interest you? And are you any good at putting your phone down and spending time offline?
No, I’m a crazy phone addict. I’m just drawn to it because I’m so deep in it, like we all are, and I’m somebody that craves connection. I suppose that is the human condition and it is very normal, but I’ll go meet a group of friends for dinner and then I’ll sit there playing on my phone talking to friends that aren’t there — it’s insane. [Laughs] I’m sort of fascinated by it all. A lot of the themes we are talking about on this record we did touch on before, which I feel like I’m like treading old ground, particularly right now. In interviews and thinking about some of the themes we were talking about on English Graffiti and minimal affection being like a really good example of that.
I suppose it’s this kind of thing where we’re five years on and we’re in deeper. It’s not even necessarily cynicism and I wouldn’t say I’m down on social media. I’m intrigued by social media and where it’s going and where it’s taking us. In a weird way, I don’t think we’re any more lonely than our grandparents were.
After writing your Halloweens band project with Vaccines member Timothy Lanham, you actually took part in a house swap with a complete stranger. Can you tell us about how you found that experience?
Yeah, I’m quite lucky enough to do it and then I can spend like a month in LA and I write out there. Last year, I spent a bit of time out there and on this record, I house swapped with this guy. I have never met him before and again, I suppose it just got me thinking about the fact that a website like that exists where you go and look at someone’s house and decide that looks quite nice, and then contact them and ask ‘what about my house’, and then live their life and drive their car and get his coffee from his favourite coffee shop every morning and use his gym membership! Then, of course, he did the exact same for me and we’d never met.
You’re stepping into each other’s shoes. It’s like you’re deeply connected to someone but it’s this complete stranger you’ve never met. I haven’t spoken to him since the swap, it’s weird. I suppose people do that all the time when they rent houses on holiday, but the whole experience just got me thinking.
I met Freddie after a show back in 2015 and he said two things that I found really interesting, the first thing was: after you guys finish making a record, he never listens to the LP again and the other was that he said: because of the adrenaline when playing big shows, he normally blacks out and doesn’t remember much. Obviously this was years ago and things change but would you say you’re the same at all or the complete opposite when it comes to listening back to your own music and playing shows?
Definitely with a record, when you finish it you have to accept that it’s no longer yours and it now belongs to the world. The second people start passing comments from a friend, that can completely change how you feel about it up until that point when it’s complete. You’re sort of thinking ‘yeah, it’s perfect’ and then once people start hearing it, you reframe it and you almost can’t confront it because it would just drive you insane. It’s slightly different on this record because we had so much time to refine it and go back over it; we added a song and we added some additional production on about half the tracks, so in that respect it was quite nice. But now that it’s out soon, I don’t think we will listen to it again.
It’s funny because you obviously end up playing these songs every night for years on end and then you almost accidentally instil your own folk tradition where every night the songs are changing ever so slightly. After four or five years, the songs have drifted pretty far from where they started. You’ll accidentally or incidentally hear one of the songs in a coffee shop or on the radio or maybe you’ll go back and listen to a certain song for a particular reason and it just sounds so different compared to how you remember it, which is really weird. I’ve been in bars and it’s taken me like a good two minutes to figure out if it’s us or not because it is so different to how I perceive it to be, having played it slightly differently every night live.
There’s always that sort of thing when you play a big show. I think Freddie would tell you that he’s become a lot better at living in the moment and trying to take it all in. Obviously you get such an adrenaline shot when you play those big shows and they are so overwhelming; they’re everything you’d expect. You can sort of feel a bit like you’re floating or dreaming, taking a deep breath and taking in your surroundings and trying to be present and live in the moment is definitely something I think we’ve all got better at in the last couple of years.
Can we just take a moment to appreciate that fans have been getting their covid vaccines and a lot of them have been wearing The Vaccines merch whilst getting them. How beautiful is that…
It’s amazing, it’s great. I feel like the whole vaccine thing, generally speaking, is nothing more than a bit of like an eye roll, it’s not as frustrating as it might seem. On a daily basis I don’t really make that connection [between the band and the vaccine] but the one thing that has been nice to see is all the people going out and getting their vaccines in their Vaccines shirts, I like that. It makes me happy.
My personal favourite from the new LP at the moment is EL Paso, it’s just a really beautiful song and it’s quite tender. What is your favourite song off the record?
Thank you. My favourite changes and I suppose it depends what mood I’m in. I do love El Paso. I love Pink Water Pistols. It’s funny, El Paso is a really beautiful song and we joked a couple of times that maybe it’ll be like the Wetsuit of the record or something. I just hope Vaccine fans can find a way to connect with it because obviously it’s slightly lighter but there is a lot of dark in it. I’m genuinely really proud of the entire record. Pretty much every record is unique and there’s always a couple of songs that you’re like, ‘oh, could we maybe have made something slightly stronger’ but I’m so in love with this record & I’m really proud of everything on it.
It takes years to become an ‘overnight success’, most artists/bands will go through various musical projects and visions until they reach the artistic vision that is successful and hopefully long lasting. A lot of well-known songwriters help write songs for other artists/projects. You played in various bands before The Vaccines like The Eldora Parade and Fashion Parade Brutality, you were also a solo artist as Jay Jay Pistolet (I find it mad that you can find videos of these on YouTube). And you’ve helped write songs with artists such as Bessie Turner, Kylie Minogue and One Direction.
I think a lot of people outside the music industry aren’t aware of these things, would you say that you feel like it’s common practice from your time spent in the industry so far?
I think when you first start a band, all you want to do is play music and make music. Any free time you get like after school or any weekend or whatever, you just want to to play, play, play, play, play. Then, when you have a job as well, all you want to do is get home from your job and just write songs. If and when you become lucky enough to get a record deal and a publishing deal, you’re afforded all this time to do nothing but create. For the first couple of years, I lived this quite whimsical existence of just not really knowing what to do with all my free time and just waiting for inspiration to hit.
Probably two or three years into The Vaccines I just realized I had all this time to create and I would much rather be getting up and doing that than doing nothing. Now, every day, I wake up and I want to make music and create music and write songs. I do think that the more you write, the more you make music, obviously, the better you get. I feel increasingly fortunate to be doing this and not something else or nothing else. Taking every opportunity you can get and having fun as they come your way I think is like increasingly becoming my mantra [laughs].
Following on from that last question, do you approach writing The Vaccines songs the same way as you do when writing for other artists?
Yeah, I think I used to separate head from heart and I would be a little bit more contrived when I was writing with other people. But in the last couple of years, I come to think of it all as my own sort of art if that makes sense. I think every time you write with someone, you’re starting a band with them for the day. I try to fit in as much love and attention and care into that as I can do, but I suppose you’re always wearing a slightly different hat. Again, with being five albums in, you’re always figuring out how to contextualize it and what it means and where it will fit and all that sort of stuff. I would say that probably writing for any artist project feels slightly different but actually where it all comes from increasingly feels like the same place.
The Vaccines soundtracked most of my teenage years, it’s really great to see you guys have never felt pressured into treading old ground, especially as What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? & Come Of Age brought the band an incredible level of hype and acclaim. You’ve previously mentioned that all the focus is now on fun rather than trying to please or live up to that hype or expectation. When would you say was the moment you started letting go and just focused on the fun of it?
To be honest when Pete left in 2016, he left at a time where it really wasn’t very fun at all. I think we were feeling pretty uninspired, pretty stressed. If I’m being completely honest, I think we thought going into English Graffiti that it was going to be our biggest record because we thought it was our best. It didn’t turn out that way and we were quite fried after that touring process. We felt pretty uninspired when trying to write the fourth record.
Pete left and we were forced to ask ourselves ‘why are we doing this?’ ‘What do we do?’ ‘Do we want to keep on doing it?’ And Yoann and Tim joining the band made it feel like we were starting a new band; it made us see the world through their eyes and in doing that it almost felt like doing everything again for the first time. Seeing their enthusiasm and their excitement and their focus… so it was the lineup change really. We were like ‘okay, if we’re going to basically do this again, then we should have fun doing it’. And since then I think we’ve loved pretty much every minute of it.
I think the rest of the gang needs to be hyped up, what do you admire about your bandmates?
Any great band is a great balance of characters and personalities; everyone seems to slot in like puzzle pieces and we really complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They’re all fantastic players, they’ve got amazing taste like really good instincts, like people know when to pick their battles and when not to. This was the first record we made start to finish as a five-piece because Tim and Yoann came on board as official members sort of halfway through the making of Combat Sports. This was the first record we’ve really made together. I think the production’s stronger, I think the musicianship stronger, and I think that it sounds more fun. You can hear a band enjoying themselves and having fun and, hopefully, at their best when you hear it.
At the very beginning of the Vaccines, I swear I remember reading that you played a secret show under a fake name and hardly anyone turned up right? Or did I imagine that? What have been some career moments from over the last 11 years that have really made you laugh?
That is true, yeah! That’s a good question. We’ve been lucky enough to actually not have any shockers, but there have definitely been the odd one. This is crossing the threshold when you say you’re enjoying everything, but there’s definitely been the odd gig where we’ve just said ‘what are we doing here?’ Maybe like the odd corporate gig or private party where we’re trying not to piss ourselves laughing because the crowd literally don’t know or cares who we are. Sorry, that’s a very vague answer. Basically, I don’t want to offend anyone! [Laughs] That was probably a very boring politicians answer.
It’s ok, that is very diplomatic of you haha!
Your friend and ex-bandmate Pete Robertson was an integral member of the band for the first three records, it’s so cool to see that he’s really into producing these days and has worked on records with Beabadoobee, Nasty Cherry and more. Do you guys still catch up? And would you ever be tempted to get into music production work?
Well, he’s far better at that than I am. I don’t think that’s one of my strengths, I get that’s always been one of his strengths which is why he left to pursue it. We’re very proud of everything he’s doing and he deserves everything that comes his way. We will text each other and tell each other that we like a bit of music that each other have been working or something like that. Pete has four kids now and doesn’t live in London so we don’t see him that often, but whenever we play locally he always comes and we have a night out, so we’re good. It’s very complicated being in a band with people because you’re not really friends — you’re so much more that, you’re like family. In like any family, there’s layers to every relationship. Our relationship is much better now that now we’re not in a band together to be honest with you.
Here’s a quote from our print issue all those years ago, “I like the idea of people being able to get to know and emotionally invest in the band, so each single on the album is like a lookalike of each band member. For example, Teenage Icon is my kind of lookalike, and it’s quite introverted but quite straightforward, Arni’s is very bullish and simple punk rocky and Freddie’s is weird and overly complicated.” What songs from Back In Love City would you pick as the lookalikes for each band member?
Hey that’s a very good question. There’s a part of me which feels like they’re all my lookalike in a way. Árni’s is Peoples’ Republic Of Desire. Freddie’s would be Wanderlust, I’m gonna take El Paso, Tim’s is Back In Love City and then Yoan’s would be Savage.
I think it happens to all bands but with the new record’s more poppier side, you’re always bound to get some fan comment and say ‘oh, it doesn’t sound like the first two albums’ or ‘The Vaccines need to bring their old style back’ which is a load of bullshit because as an artist or band it’s only natural for your sound to evolve over time. Otherwise it gets boring. But I would argue that Back In Love City is the natural progression from previous single, All My Friends Are Falling In Love, and that song is a god damn banger.
Yeah, I think so! I actually think there will be for the people that have been slightly suspicious of the more pop sound in the first couple of songs, I think there’ll be plenty for them to love across the record. There’s some real classic Vaccines moments and like you said and there are some heavy moments too.
Finally, what should we expect from the Vaccines in the near future?
I hope a proper tour. I hope the world’s going to get back to normal and that our lives do too. Definitely lots of new music, not only did we manage to do more to this record during the last year, we’ve also got a bunch of new stuff. I think we’re going into the studio after the summer, right after this record comes out. Lots more recorded and live music, I hope.
Interview by Cameron Poole