Freddie Cowan and Arni Hjorvar are seated by the pool at The Mondrian Hotel. Amidst bikini-clad women and overdressed old men, the two unassuming young Brits sit on a plain white couch, sharing a cigarette, barely shaded from the mid-afternoon sun. Waiters file by carrying trays of margaritas and French fries. It's quite clear they are soaking up the eccentricities of the Sunset Strip for the first time. "Sorry, I'm blowing smoke in your face," apologizes Arni. The two embody a nonchalant sense of etiquette that seems completely at odds with their surroundings. They both gaze out towards the pool, trying to digest the environment. Arni's never left Europe, but could be mistaken for a Californian, his accent notwithstanding. From the bassist's long, mildly unkempt, blond hair one might take him for the most articulate surfer in the world. Freddie, the guitarist, shares a passing resemblance with T. Rex's Marc Bolan, only with a shorter haircut. He is wearing a long-sleeved, striped shirt tucked into his trousers; Arni is wearing a black t-shirt and basketball shorts. They're two members of a band called The Vaccines.
The band is rounded out by Justin Young, and Pete Robertson. After a stint as a folk artist using the moniker "Jay Jay Pistolet," Young took a yearlong hiatus from music, returning in late 2009 with rock outfit The Vaccines. Justin is a wonderfully soft-spoken person. In fact, today he isn't speaking at all. Under a doctor-ordered vocal rest, he can only nod as he passes by on the way to his room. They have just recently arrived to play their first shows in North America, and they've sold out Spaceland in Los Angeles. Last weekend, the band sold out Bowery Ballroom; it was their first show in the United States.
"Bowery was my favorite live experience of my life," admits Freddie, reposturing himself on the couch. "To have your music precede you, to have a venue sell out, and to walk out on stage to 600 people in New York is just a really crazy feeling." They've relit another cigarette; they never smoke more than one at a time between the two of them.
Arni takes the cigarette from Freddie's outstretched hand and taps it in the ashtray before confessing, "I had the most fun 40 minutes of my life at the Bowery Ballroom. Literally."
In the intervening months since the release of their first single in September, The Vaccines have translated their appeal across the Atlantic. It's not surprising, considering their sound is very much of the classic American ilk: The Strokes, The Ramones, Motown. Despite their ineffable Britishness, The Vaccines are an American guitar band par excellence. Their success at Bowery Ballroom only confirms their affinity with American music.
Months ago they were playing in the backrooms of bars. These days they play shows attended by Blondie, Alex Turner (of The Arctic Monkeys), Alex Kapranos (of Franz Ferdinand), and Jake Gyllenhaal. In several months they will play a show with Arcade Fire in London's Hyde Park. Unlike most guitar bands playing today, The Vaccines' popularity was born on the radio. After influential DJ Zane Lowe played a demo of "If You Wanna" on his BBC 1 radio show in August, they became the hotly tipped band to watch.
"I heard that the first time he played it, that was incredible," Freddie reminisces. "I was in my kitchen at the time, I didn't know he was going to play it. He just spun it and called it the 'Hottest Record In The World.'" True to the ethos of The Vaccines, the song is a paean to immediacy. From the opening staccato guitar riffs, the song aims right in between the eyes. The real power, though, is in the chorus. At once familiar and exhilarating, the chorus immediately places itself in a long lineage of truly great guitar pop classics.
The band has evident touchstones: The Ramones, The Clash, The Strokes. But they are bred on a longstanding tradition of garage rock; their music cites the unsung heroes (The Standells, The Count Five) as frequently as it does the torchbearers (The Sex Pistols, The Velvet Underground). Freddie gushes on The Stooges: "The Stooges! There were no lies about what they wanted to do, and that's what makes it so great. They're not disguising themselves as artists; they're just fucking kids who want to make music. I love it."
But the band hasn't always been this aggressively direct. "I was playing bass when we first started. Justin was playing was keyboards. It was completely different. It was much more experimental," recalls Mr. Cowan. Before the band wrote "If You Wanna," they were much more of a sonic project.
"A lot more sort of Panda Bear sort of feel," Arni expounds, "Then 'If You Wanna' happened."
The band's flagship song "kind of just happened in an hour in the studio," explains Freddie before his band mate cuts him off.
"Rehearsal space," he corrects, "They use the word rehearsal space for studio here." He smiles at this small eccentricity of the English language.
The squall of their early days is still readily apparent in their songs, mostly in the Freddie's guitar work. Their live show is a vicious machine of breackneck drumming, buzz-saw riffs, urgent vocals, and tight harmonies. The Vaccines are making their debut at a fortuitous time: after a wave of more inscrutable bands like Animal Collective, TV on the Radio, or some of Brooklyn's more experimental resident bands, The Vaccines play melodic, sub-two minute stompers. The Vaccines are not challenging. Their charm springs from the immediacy of their musical agenda: get in, get out, play hard and play well. It is straightforward and without pretension.
But the growing hype hasn't changed their attitude. Their manner remains of the most unassuming variety. Speaking with them, one would think they'd had little more exposure than a middling high school band. As they gear up to release their debut album 'What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?' the foursome are keen on staying even-keeled. True to their straightforward approach, the album title directly addresses the heap of anticipation that continues to surround the band. "It's a nice sort of rhetoric to the hyperbole," Freddie laughs, "I think it beats a lot of people to the punch."
After their show in L.A., the band will embark on an 18-month world tour. "I think every show, regardless of whether it's in a basement in Stoke, or whether it's at the Bowery Ballroom, presents exactly the same challenges. I don't think I feel any different about any show as such," Arni muses. He says this slow, and delicately, almost as if he's unaware that he's speaking. As a matter of fact, navigating the morass of publicity and excitement has become de rigueur for the band.
The band's expectations on the other hand, are not in the least bit overinflated: "I hope to be living on a tour bus for the next 18 months," says Freddie. Arni flashes him a mischievous look, "I expect to see a bit too much of you."
'What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?" is due for release on March 22.