It’s been said that, in life, timing is everything.
The Vaselines somehow never subscribed to that theory.
The Scottish indie pop group, led by the songwriting/singing duo of Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee, emerged in 1986 and released two brief EPs of sugary melodies entwined with Velvet Underground drone and libidinous lyrics.
But just when things should have been taking off for The Vaselines, the band abruptly called it quits in 1989, at the same time its first full-length album, Dum-Dum,was getting released.
A few years later, The Vaselines earned posthumous recognition after Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain began singing the group’s praises. Cobain lauded Kelly and McKee as a great influence and even called the duo “his favorite songwriters in the whole world.” After Nirvana famously covered three Vaselines songs—”Molly’s Lips,” “Son Of A Gun” and “Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam”—a new generation of fans were introduced to the band’s obscure genius.
When The Vaselines reformed in 2008—delivering the critically acclaimed comeback record Sex With An X and touring the world for the first time—it was an overdue coming-out party for the long-dormant cult favorites.
V For Vaselines, the group’s latest album, was released in September 2014. Inspired by a love for the Ramones’ jagged, brief punk missives, V For Vaselines encases Kelly and McKee’s pop creations in a tighter, cleaner, and more radio-friendly package.
Recently, Kelly spoke to The Aquarian from his Scotland home, as The Vaselines prepared for a string of U.S. tour dates in January. The affable Kelly explained the truth behind the group’s breakup, offered details on the new record, and revealed his interest in writing show tunes.
Can you talk about how the new album came together, and what your mindset was writing these songs?
After we toured the last record, we were thinking, “Do we stop, or do we keep going?” We decided to just see what happens and make another record. I think both Frances and I were coming at it from the same angle, which was to write shorter, snappier songs, that really weren’t more than three minutes long. We both read the Legs McNeil book Please Kill Me, which is about the New York punk scene. I think that really inspired us, thinking of that scene and bands like the Ramones.
So those New York acts were a big influence on the new album?
Yeah. There’s definitely some Ramones on there, and there’s a bit of Blondie on there, on the song “One Lost Year.” We were just trying to pick up a guitar and write a song that conveys that era, and that brevity, and the way they got their song into your head as quickly as possible.
On the new album, the pop elements definitely come through, and you still have the punchiness that The Vaselines are known for. But it seems like the production quality is maybe a bit more polished than usual?
I think we wanted to do something that was a bit slicker, and that would maybe get played on the radio also. We spoke to [producer] Tony Doogan, and his ideas were the same as ours. He wanted it to sound like an early-’90s, Pixies-style sound. Not an overly slick pop record, but a bigger sounding rock record.
I sense a Beach Boys influence on the song “High Tide Low Tide”—was that what you were going for?
Yeah, I like the Beach Boys but I’m not as obsessed with them as some people are. I think that song was intended to be like a surf pop tune, but I wasn’t directly thinking about the Beach Boys. I had the initial chorus and that’s just the way it came out. But I couldn’t deny that those surf harmonies are what worked on that song.
The Vaselines famously broke up as your debut album was getting released. What were the factors that made you decide to end the band when you were putting out a record, and do you ever look back with regret?
No, I think we broke up at the right time. The label [53rd & 3rd] that was going to release our record had ended. There was a distribution company in Edinburgh called Fast Forward, and that had gone bust, so our record sat on the shelf for six months. And Frances and I had broken up [as a couple]. By the time Rough Trade was going to put the money up to release the record, we had sort of decided that the band had ended; we just didn’t announce it. When Rough Trade released the record, we had to say, “Well, there’s no band anymore.” It’s a much more interesting story to say that we broke up the week the album came out, but we actually had ended it before that. At some point, we had to tell people that the band didn’t exist anymore.
Plus, the music scene was changing. The independent labels were being taken over. People [in Europe] were into the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays and focused on Manchester, and what we were doing was not considered fashionable. Nobody was rushing to our door to offer us a new record deal and nobody was rushing to be our manager (laughs). It just seemed like the right thing to do.
Being championed by Nirvana helped raise your profile considerably, even though your band had broken up, and introduced a legion of new fans to The Vaselines. Was it somewhat surreal to have Kurt Cobain be so outspoken about his appreciation of your band?
It started with Mudhoney, really. That was the first band from Seattle that we heard was interested in us. They quoted us in an article and said they were playing our music in their tour van. But at that point, it was 1989 and those bands weren’t really big yet. But we thought it was really nice that our music had traveled to the other side of world and was appreciated, especially by fellow musicians. After that, Nirvana went mega huge.
What are your favorite memories of Kurt Cobain? I know that you performed with Nirvana at the Reading Festival.
That Reading Festival was just an amazing experience for me. That’s one of the highlights of that era for me. The night before, my band Captain America had supported Hole and Mudhoney. We met up with Kurt, Krist and Dave. And we were supposed to go home after that, but I ended up taking a train to Reading the next day. I walked into the backstage area and Krist asked, “Do you want to go onstage with us?” And I said, “Give me a beer and I’ll do it.” That day was such a great experience.
What made you want to reform The Vaselines in 2008?
Both Frances and I had been making solo music for a while. Just plodding along, really. We were having fun, but not really getting anywhere. We played some acoustic shows together to promote those solo albums. And about two years later Frances wanted to do the same thing again, and I thought, “Let’s do a big Vaselines electric rock show.” And it was really just going to be that one time. Then Sub Pop asked us to come over and play their 20th anniversary festival, and we agreed.And from then on, the phone started ringing, and people were asking us to come to their country and play.
Up until that point, we didn’t realize that people wanted us to go around the world and pay us to play for them. We didn’t even think that was possible. It kind of surprised us. Once the phone started ringing, we kept answering and accepting. And then we didn’t want to keep playing the same 19 songs forever, so then we thought, “Let’s start writing new music.”
What is it about the chemistry between you and Frances that just clicks? There’s something about the sound of your voices together that works so well.
I think we’ve known each other for so long now, nearly 30 years. Our voices work together; it just happens naturally. When we’re singing together, it creates a nice sound. I also think we’re on the same level, and come from the same background, from the east end of Glasgow. We’ve got the same upbringing and sense of humor so there’s a real connection there.
When you first started the band, were you influenced by other acts that had a blend of male and female vocals?
I think so. We liked Sonny and Cher, and also Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood. Also, acts like Abba—anything where you had male and female vocals working well together. And even the Velvet Underground, with Maureen Tucker’s lovely vocals. It’s the combination of all of that.
Your fans in the United States are excited because you’ll be performing here in January—it seems like Vaselines shows in the U.S. are all too rare. What are some things that you enjoy most about touring here?
It’s a lot of fun to come to America; it’s one of my favorite places to play. New York and Seattle are probably my favorite places. It’s great to get an opportunity to come over and play. I think audiences “get us” in America.
Are you and Frances still involved in side projects, or making music outside of The Vaselines? I really enjoyed your band Eugenius years ago.
Thanks. We haven’t done too much. This takes up quite a bit of time. I’ve written a couple of things. I think after a while I’d like to try to write a musical.
Really? You’d like to try your hand at writing show tunes?
Maybe. When you write a song and see it performed by actors onstage, I think that’s just great. I’d like to write a collection of songs and maybe a story, and perhaps collaborate with a bunch of people to make it happen. It’s not something I ever really thought about until about a year ago. I’ve got a few ideas for tunes. Hopefully, it’s down the line somewhere.
The Vaselines will perform at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia, PA on Jan. 15 and The Bell House in Brooklyn, NY on Jan. 16. V For Vaselines is available now from Rosary Music. For more info, visit thevaselines.co.uk.