Toff at the top
Britain’s hottest new band The Vaccines reveal to Ed Power why they are immune to the class war surrounding them,how they are fighting the hype disease, and where their surf-pop sound came from
Published 15/03/2011 | 11:38
Slouched in the dingy depths of a tour bus, several days’ worth of stubble fuzzing his delicate jaw, The Vaccines' Justin Young is trying hard to keep his cool. We've been dancing around the subject but conversation has inevitably turned to the sticky question of class.
Contravening the golden rule that musicians are expected to come from the rough end of town, the sketchy side of the tracks, The Vaccines - the hottest new band in Britain, if you haven't heard - were born with silver spoons wedged firmly in gob. Barely six months after their first gig, people are already using this as a plank with which to thwack them about the chops.
“To be honest, it's pretty boring,” says the 22- year-old Young. “I don't think anyone gives a f**k. I certainly don't think music fans do. It's ironic that the issue is being propelled by journalists who are probably far more middleclass than the musicians they are writing about. It's a funny one, isn't it?”
He can down-play it all he wants, but there's little doubt that, in another era, the louche foursome who comprise The Vaccines might plausibly have had walk-on parts in Jeeves and Wooster. Young - Justin James Hayward Young is his full name - is a descendant of Walter Hayward-Young, a prominent 19th-century landscape painter.
Privately educated, he was raised in a country pile in England's New Forest. Guitarist Freddy Cowan, meanwhile, grew up amid holidaying sheikhs and Russian billionaires in the chi-chi London borough of South Kensington, the son of a wealthy gallery owner. Last year, there was a minor Twitter backlash among fans when it emerged his childhood home - a Victorian maisonette - was on the market for €3m.
“A lot people have started talking about it. I've never been aware of it,” sighs Young. “I don't read a lot of music press or check the internet for our presence. It's not something I worry about.”
If The Vaccines represent a new genre - let's call it ‘toff pop' - they are hardly on their own. Last week, Noah and the Whale's Charlie Fink explained to the Irish Independent that his brother, Doug, was leaving the band to complete his medical studies. Laura Marling, a friend of both Noah and The Vaccines, grew up on a sprawling estate south of London and went to an exclusive girls' college.
Grandest of all, perhaps, are Mumford and Sons, whose frontman Marcus Mumford - an old flatmate of Young's - attended King's College, a Hogwarts-esque grammar school with links to Eton where annual fees are in excess of €20,000. (Honorary membership, meanwhile, should be accorded to Arcade Fire, whose Win Butler is the scion of a millionaire Texan oil family). It's hardly the second coming of punk, is it?
“If I was singing about Left-wing politics, people might go, ‘hang on a sec',” says Young, slightly defensive. “I'm singing about universal subjects: being a young man, being angry, being insecure - lust, love... that sort of stuff.
“I don't think it matters if you grew up on a country estate or in a council house. No one's more or less qualified to talk about that than anyone else. Class has never affected how good anyone's creative output is - has it? In any field.
“I don't think we are necessarily the sole victims of this. I don't know where it has come from. There are plenty of hallowed figures - Joe Strummer, Nick Drake. They are from middle-class backgrounds. As a band - we've always had to work. The fact that I didn't grow up on a council estate has never helped me to get where I am now.”
Where The Vaccines are, now, of course, is strapped to the prow of a rocket set to blast through the hype stratosphere. Formed last summer, the group's first show, at London's 200-capacity Flowerpot, was attended by half the music journalists in London, as well as members of White Lies, Franz Ferdinand Mumford & Sons and The Maccabees (Nick from Kaiser Chiefs was outside but couldn't get in, so mobbed was the room).
At that point, a record deal was already in the bag, on the strength of a demo tape White Lies' Harry McVeigh had passed on to his manager. Not long after the Flowerpot gig, and before they had released any music, The Vaccines were booked on Jools Holland (they are only the third act, after Adele and Corinne Bailey Rae, to be accorded such an honour). By the end of the year the buzz was cacophonous, almost shrill.
“The media presence has slightly run away,” says Young. “We've actually tried to limit the amount of media presence we are responsible for. We were conscious of the fact that building a live following is important. We can't control [the hype]. But we try to as much as is possible, though admittedly not that well. We want to build a following from grass-roots. Live, we have a good enough following.”
The smartest way to deal with all the attention, he believes, is to turn a blind eye. “Obviously there have been all these pinch-yourself moments, that we find amazing and exciting. Generally, we are really busy.
“When you are inside something like this... the funny thing is it doesn't feel any different. Life goes on as it did before, only slightly busier and more rewarding. We've all been in different bands before, so it's not as if we don't appreciate what's happening.”
What was it like stepping on to the cramped Flowerpot stage with half the scenesters in London staring back at him? “We weren't aware of who was going to be there. I don't think I felt any more or less nervous than I normally do. I was anxious that the show wouldn't be made up solely of industry types.
“We walked on and saw they were a minority at the back of the room. It was largely populated by those connected to the music, people who had come to have a good time.”
The Vaccines have had the good fortune to fetch up as British rock music is going through one of its intermittent existential crises. After grunge and the early ’90s US invasion, UK bands started wrapping themselves in the Union Jack and Britpop was born. A decade on, the arrival of The Strokes and the rebirth of New York as the global capital of cool fed the recreationary janglings of The Libertines, Kooks et al. Today, zeitgeisty genres such as dub-step and the pre-eminence of esoteric American groups such as Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective have once again left the UK music press scrounging the undergrowth for new heroes to champion. With a breezy surfpop sound and a commitment to brevity - debut single Wreckin' Ball (Ra Ra Ra) clocked in at 85 seconds - The Vaccines are a perfect fit.
“Ironically, our starting point was making music along the lines of Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear,” says Young. “Music you have to sit down and listen to through headphones. Slowly we found out that it wasn't coming naturally to us.
“However, we are massive fans of that subgenre of indie music. It's sonically interesting and quite challenging. We wanted to take some of that stuff and use it in our music. We certainly aren't trying to react against it.”