Recently, I sat down to interview The Vaselines, a Scottish indie band of immense cult appeal.
The story of The Vaselines differs greatly from the classic example of a band's steady rise to fame. Originally formed in 1986, the band, initially only comprised of Scotland natives Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee, could at the time, be thought of more as a fun experiment conducted by two young musicians than a band tenaciously seeking fame. The band's superbly crafted songs embodied a carefree spirit, and appealed to listeners of pop rock as well as punk rock.
One such fan of theirs was Kurt Cobain, the late front man for Nirvana. By the time The Vaselines' first album had been released in 1989, they had broken up. However, with the rise of Nirvana's career, it was Cobain who implored them to regroup, asking them if they would support Nirvana during their stay in Scotland on their 1991 European tour.
The supplemental recognition brought on by Nirvana came and went, though. McKee and Kelly soon went back to their lives, as well as other musical projects.
Although they remained friendly, the band endured an extensive break. Then, in 2008, they reunited and decided to continue touring on and off, releasing two albums since their reunification: 2010's Sex with an X and 2014's V for Vaselines.
Their repertoire can be thought of as fun and reckless, lacquered in youthful ambitions and served with brash, boisterous bursts of instrumentation.
This piece is the first in a two-part series, and it is a pattern that I intend to emulate in my future blog posts. For every act that I blog about, I will post a transcription of our interview first, followed by a show review. Such a review will be posted shortly after this blog.
On Thurs., Jan. 22, I had the chance to sit down with the original odd couple of indie rock. Here is what transpired:
How's the tour been?
FM: Yeah, pretty good.
EK: It's been fun. We're really enjoying it. Sometimes you get daunted when you see two weeks of shows ahead of you and the shadow is kind of intense, but We've got one day off, 14 days. So you get into that and you think: 'What am I getting into?' but then you get on tour, and --
FM: You get into the rhythm of it and you don't have to think about anything else for two weeks. You don't even know what's going on in the world after a while.
I was wondering: which songs of yours are your favorites to play live?
EK: I like the new ones because they're fresher. The older ones, we've only been playing them for the last six years. Frances last night zoned out during one of the old songs and started singing when we shouldn't be singing. [Frances laughs] Sometimes you can do that, but basically it was a laid-back song.
FM: My mind wandered a little bit.
EK: So the new ones keep you focused, because you're still getting them rather than just kind of concentrating on lyrics.
Seeing as now that you're writing new songs as The Vaselines, how have your songwriting routines changed?
EK: A bit.
FM: We're more structured about it. When we wrote Dum Dum, some of those songs just materialized from the time we spent together as a couple.
EK: Yeah, it's more formal. Frances comes to the house, we send each other things beforehand, and we get time to sit down and write lyrics.
FM: We were much more prepared for both Sex With An X and the new album. We knew what we wanted, and we had also our solo projects, so we were much more experienced in the studio.
EK: Twenty years ago, we didn't really know what we were doing. It was a brand new experience for us as we were learning how to write songs. It was totally intuitive and what came out was just an outpouring.
How often do you two write songs?
EK: We only write when we know we're going to make a record.
FM: Well, you write...
EK: I've got ideas inside but I don't finish things often. For The Vaselines, when I'm writing I just play guitar every couple of days and I'll put things aside and record them. We put things away, and when we decided to this record, it was like: 'What have we got?' We only sit down and write Vaselines songs and finish them if we know we're going to go into the studio and make a record. We don't have tons of songs.
FM: We bring ideas to the table. I was talking to someone about albums and how musicians keep putting out records, and it does seem like a machine, you know. Bands -- they record a record and then they tour the record, then they record another record -- it's just too much.
Yeah, it seems kind of inorganic.
FM: Yeah, and as a musician, as a songwriter, you need time to write the songs. Otherwise, you're just turning things out. That's the way we'd like to be.
EK: You need to live some life to get experiences to be inspired by things. You can't just like get in this hamster wheel.
FM: In the words of Jeffrey Lewis, you get the blowjob and then you write the song after.
The music of The Vaselines is ripe with religious elements. There are referential lyrics in many of your songs, and the music video for Sex With an X has you two in religious garb. What are your attitudes towards religion in general? I get the feeling you're poking fun at it.
FM: I think we have a healthy disregard for it.
EK: A healthy respect and disregard. I think if people want to believe in something, that's fine. I think we went through a Catholic upbringing, and we came out the other side of it not really believing in it, so we kind of started to poke fun at ourselves, making fun of the way we were brought up, and not really taking a pass at anyone else.
FM: Well, I think it's making fun of a culture reference, and it's something that we know, and so it's our healthy disregard for it.
EK: It's kind of shaped in your formative years. You're getting all of this religion, so it's kind of something we write about. It's quite an experience and I experienced a lot of it. I mean, I was an altar boy for about five years, and I was there every week, twice a week, and it's something that's still there -- you can't escape it.
FM: Funnily enough, someone asked me at the Chicago show last night: 'Were you really a nun?' 'Was that real?' (laughs)
EK: We like to dress up like actors. We like to dress up and show off. We thought: 'What could we dress up as?' So we dressed up as a priest and a nun.
Speaking of dressing up, I also liked your video for Crazy Lady.
I didn't see the ending coming!
FM: I watched it with my kids and my wee girl got really upset. And my son said: 'How did you get to all of those places?' Because we filmed it in one day. 'How did you get to Moscow and Vienna?'
EK: Because it makes no sense at all. It's really short -- it's like two-and-a-half minutes long and you think: 'That doesn't make any sense... I have to watch it again.'
One thing I liked was when it showed you two traveling to different cities, the map has some outdated countries. I saw Austria-Hungary on the map.
EK: And also, one of the cities we go to is Venice, but that was a mistake. It was supposed to be Vienna. We had to speak with the director and we had a lot of ideas, and then he went away and wrote the script, and none of us noticed that it said Venice. We thought: 'Venice, great!' but it's supposed to be Vienna.
FM: We had really good fun doing it. We had different directions for those two videos, but I think we like to have our sense of humor come across in our videos because that's who we are.
So the Nirvana connection is well known, and I feel like you two get that a lot, so I'm just going to ask one simple question about that: I'd like each of you to tell me what your favorite memory of that band is.
EK: I think for me, it was actually getting to sing with him at the Reading Festival. I got onstage with him and I sang a song. I'd never been to a festival before, and I wound up there just by chance. I played a show with Hole and Mudhoney the night before, and I was supposed to come home in the van, but I ended up onstage. It was such an amazing experience. That's my personal favorite. Beat that (Kelly leans over to McKee and mockingly points at her, laughing)!
FM: Well, I maybe can! They came to Edinburgh and asked if we'd support them. We had split up by then, but we went to Edinburgh and I didn't know who they were, or anything about them, but as the evening progressed, we all got pretty drunk, and as we were all leaving, I got a nice kiss from Kurt Cobain. Beat that (McKee turns to Kelly and points back at him. Kelly mockingly exclaims aloud as if his story has been beaten.)!
On the cheek?
FM: I couldn't possibly comment... Of course it was on the cheek! The bum cheek (laughs). Only there on the first night.
So after the tour, what's next for The Vaselines? Do you have any immediate plans?
FM: Dumfries (laughs).
EK: We fly from LA to Scotland, and then we drive next morning to Dumfries, and then we drive straight back and go to sleep for a week. And then we have nothing after that. There's talk of maybe Japan, but nothing's even penciled in. What's the next step? Is there a next step? Is this it? We can work with that, it's just that we don't really know what's happening until it happens.
That seems to be kind of your style, though. You kind of just do it when you want to do it.
FM: Yes. Yeah -- we don't answer to the man.
EK: Yeah -- we are the man.
FM: There's no man.
EK: When we were touring the last record, there was a year gap where we kind of had to say: 'What -- is this it? Are we not going to take any offers for shows, or are we going to not record anymore, or...' And then we said: 'Well, let's just see what we can do. Let's see if we can write another record,' and here we are. We'll have that meeting at some point and we'll decide what's going to happen.
This question's just for you, Eugene. I read in an interview somewhere that said you were interested in writing a musical-
FM: Well, that's on the cards. We wanted to do: 'The Vaselines, the Musical [here, she says: "I like to call it"] The Next Stage [it's ambiguous whether she's continuing the title or if the musical is the "next stage" of their careers.].
So you think that's a possible future?
EK: I mean -- it's just fun to talk about it. The reason I say that is because I wrote three songs for different theater shows and it was just good to see actors singing your song in a big production, and I just thought: 'Great, I would love to write more and let people do all of the work' (laughs). You just sit there as a writer with a cigar (imitates smoking a fat cigar) and be like 'Oh, yes...' (he says this with a heaving exhale). We've had an idea for something for years and had never really got right to doing it, so... but it's kind of just pie in the sky right now.
FM: With tap dancing and everything.
EK: A Vaselines musical would be great, though. We'd have to get a story together and-
FM: We have a story!
It could be about The Vaselines!
FM: Of course it could! We could just turn all of our songs into musical numbers.
You said before, too, that you want your lyrics to be universal, so they're up for interpretation.
If either of you weren't musicians, what do you think you'd be doing now?
FM: Well, I'm not always a musician.
EK: Frances has got a life (laughs).
FM: (Laughs) I've got a life, thank god.
EK: I don't know. I've often thought about that. If Nirvana hadn't existed and hadn't recorded those songs, where would my life be? The things I was doing at the time, I was doing graphic design and I was interested in music, so still probably music.
FM: I think acting. Maybe not in the same theater company, but I think we were both aspiring actors at one point.
EK: Yeah, just in youth theater, and drama workshops, and improv.
FM: I was really bad at remembering lines actually.
EK: Yeah, I noticed that last night, actually during one of the songs.
Well, as far as questions I've prepared, that's pretty much all of them.
FM: You didn't ask the most biting question of all that I get asked every night: 'Are you guys on tour?'
[Sarcastically] Yeah are you on tour? Wait -- you guys are on tour, right?
EK: It's funny you say that. I couldn't believe people actually asked that.
OK, what's the worst question you've ever been asked?
FM: 'Are you guys ever coming back?'
EK: We're here, and we probably won't come back for years, and they ask us: 'When are you coming back?' We're here now!
FM: I know! Just be in the moment!
EK: One night only. We'll never come back here again.
FM: Except I'm not that rude (laughs).
EK: People shout out for solo songs, and it's just like -- 'We can't do it...' Today is for The Vaselines; we're doing Vaselines songs.
Shortly after the interview, I attempted to take a photo of the band. I soon realized that the camera, which was lent to me, had not been charged and did not have any charging chord with it in the case.
However, Eugene was kind enough to let me use his iPhone to take their photo. Admittedly, the photo is not optimal -- it's slightly blurry, and it did not adequately capture the lighting of the room we were in.
Despite this blunder of mine, there is a silver lining. I did, after all, get to use his iPhone to take his photo.
Frances and Eugene have had their picture taken many times over, but how many fans have taken their photo using one of their cameras? I think that qualifies as the cherry-on-top for this interview.
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