Kurt Cobain professed The Vaselines to be his favourite band, covering the Glaswegians three times and even naming his daughter after one of their founding members. Why, then, has it taken them twenty years to write a second album?
The name The Vaselines might have passed you by because, well, they haven’t been around for 20-odd years, but they’re finally back with their lovely three-chorded lo-fi garage-pop and it’s time you got to know them.
The duo – comprised of Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee – formed in 1987, released two singles (‘Son of a Gun’ and ‘Dying For It’) and split before their debut LP ‘Dum Dum’ made it onto shop shelves. They went on to follow different career paths and solo projects but a heavy-handed championing from late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain prevented this Glaswegian outfit from slipping into non-existence. By proclaiming them his favourite band and covering three of their tracks on Nirvana’s compilation ‘Insesticide’ and the ‘MTV Unplugged’ live record, The Vaselines name was saved from a Room 101-type fate.
Kelly and McKee may have reformed for one show in 1990 to open for Nirvana in Edinburgh, and started touring together again by 2006, but they’ve only just got round to releasing that long, long awaited second album, ‘Sex With An X’, and when it came down to it, they only spent 12 days on it. Which begs the question, what took them so long?
“I started teaching primary school [children],” McKee informs us. “That took up quite a lot of time so I didn’t do any music, but when I started to do stuff again I realised how much I actually enjoyed it.” Meanwhile Kelly managed to stay in music. “I’ve been lucky enough to have a couple of records out [with Eugenius],” he explains “but otherwise I just played shows here and there. I haven’t done any proper jobs like Frances.” As he speaks a smile lights up McKee’s face, like a cheeky child and she blurts: “Of course, there was the lap dancing and strip bars that you haven’t mentioned you were doing…” The grey-haired Kelly blushes and stutters a little before professing that “she’s making things up now.”
“The men didn’t really go for it, but he tried. He was all beefed up for a bit; fake tan, slick, oily,” she continues before Kelly reproaches her and she admits “sorry, that was me!” and giggles endearingly.
After the couple broke up in the Eighties they debated keeping the band going but Kelly confesses that he didn’t think they’d be able to do it. “Because we were writing from our personal experiences,” he clarifies. “And it just seemed like the right time,” adds McKee. “I don’t think we could have written the songs in the same way, it wouldn’t have been fun. It would have been awkward.” So what finally brought you back together? “Are we back together?” McKee asks, smirking. “My kids are calling Eugene daddy,” she jokes as Kelly replies dryly: “Let’s get back to reality, shall we?” The pair laugh again, which shows how comfortable they feel around each other and although McKee is constantly cracking jokes, Kelly isn’t quite the shy, retiring type he appears.
It was when the two began touring their solo projects together in 2006 that they finally started writing new songs to plump up their sets. “We realised that down the line something might happen,” says Kelly “but we didn’t really talk about it. We didn’t plan it so that we wouldn’t think it was going to be us back in The Vaselines.” And then Sub Pop, who are renowned for first signing Nirvana, asked them to play a festival out in the hometown of Seattle, and the band realised that a reunion could well and truly be on the cards.
Working with producer Jamie Watson again, who produced ‘Dum Dum’, Kelly and McKee worked out a vigorous schedule so that they could spend a minimum amount of time in the studio, and the result is a pleasant blend of the duo’s harmonies with the old hurried rhythms that peppered their juvenile punk tracks. And of course the smutty lyrics are still in play. The title track, for instance, boasts: ‘It feels so good it must be bad for me, let’s do it again’, which is reminiscent of ‘Dum Dum’ (‘I get on my knees and do what I please’) and ‘Teenage Superstar’ (‘I got one thing on my mind girl’).
“Neither of us wanted to take 20 years to make the record and then spend six months in the studio,” McKee tells us of ‘Sex…’. “I don’t like to work like that. I think it needs to be in the spirit of it and it needs to have energy. You could say we’re slapdash about things, which yes, I have to say I can be, but the problem with music now is you can flog it to death and I didn’t want to get to the stage where I really hated the music I was doing.”
Kelly explains that they didn’t have the money to spend any longer in the studio even if they’d wanted to. “We were paying for it ourselves so we couldn’t decide to spend four weeks doing it. All the money we earned on tour last year we spent on making our record, so we just had to get on and get it finished. It was intense; though by the end of it we were thinking it was never gonna end, even though we knew there was an end point. It seemed that every day we just had to get to work. It was like, ‘We have to finish that song by six o’clock this evening so we can do the next one’. In our wee notebook we ticked off everything that we’d done.” That doesn’t sound too slapdash at all. “Well, we knew what we were doing before we went in. We rehearsed for a couple of weeks, full on, so we’d done all the work beforehand, which really helped. So we knew what was going on in the songs. Except for the lyrics, we didn’t have some of the lyrics.”
“We had to do a few late-night lyric-writings. We nearly stole the lyrics from another band, mind you,” McKee mentions before erupting in laughter once again as Kelly lets us in on the joke. “Someone left lyrics behind in the studio,” he smiles mischievously. “Kind of heavy-rock, ‘Hey mamma, gonna rock you all night’ kind of lyrics.”
Speaking of lyrics, with a 20-year gap, surely there would be a dramatic change in the topics they cover? They’re no longer sprightly twenty something’s at the start of life; they’ve lived through many years of the music industry, raised families and had to tackle mid-life crisis.
“I don’t think they’re any more mature,” says McKee. “I think the big difference is where the first album deals with relationships and a sense of…um…” She trails off. “The lyrics were about relationships, but I think these lyrics, from this new album deal with…oh I don’t know, what do they deal with?” McKee chuckles as she looks questioningly towards Kelly, who sits in silence, arms crossed and blank faced. “I think a few of the songs are about our relationship,” she continues “and the fact that we’re not together any more. In ‘Poison Pen’ there’s a lot of that going on.”
“Yeah, but fictional,” Kelly interjects quickly. “It’s just taking things we’ve gone through and turning them into fiction. That’s [‘Poison Pen’] just a couple having an argument, not really agreeing on anything.” McKee lets us know that she thought it was about them and laughs awkwardly when she realises it isn’t. “Don’t take it so personally,” says Kelly “they’re just songs.”
The two split writing duties pretty evenly. “Aye, there was a lot of that,” Kelly confirms. They bounce ideas off each other, and a particular track McKee recalls being a joint effort is ‘The Devil Inside Me’. “I had just learnt to work Garage Band,” says McKee with pride. “I put it all together and sent it back with a little guitar lead line and another vocal and it just brought the whole song together.”
“That’s an aspect I really enjoyed,” asserts Kelly. “Because it gets a bit lonely working on your own. Sitting and writing the lyrics was really fun, just coming up with stupid ideas and then…”
“There was a time,” McKee cuts in quickly “when we were just laughing our heads off because Eugene brought out this dictionary of rhyming words.”
“We never used it,” Kelly interrupts before we start to suspect anything and McKee sits there like the Cheshire Cat. “We never used it,” she emphasises slowly. “But we were tempted.”
So although the lyrics may not have changed much, we wonder if they feel that time has had an effect on their sound. “With the sound of the record,” Kelly starts “we wanted people to listen to it and know they were listening to a Vaselines record.”
“We didn’t want to think too much about it,” McKee carries on. “We just wanted what came naturally. We put aside the fact that there’s 20 years between our old record and this one and just wrote. Because there’s no way we could write another ‘Monsterpussy’ for example, so we didn’t even try, there’s no point.”
While The Vaselines were getting their feet back on the ground they enlisted the help of Stevie Jackson and Bobby Kildea from Belle & Sebastian, who, along with the likes of Dum Dum Girls and other lo-fi girl/girl-boy groups nowadays, sound heavily influenced by The Vaselines. “We taught them everything they know,” grins McKee.
“A lot of people say that to me,” Kelly utters, perplexed. “I never for one second thought, ‘they [B&S] sound like The Vaselines’. Maybe we’re just too modest.”
“The difference between The Vaselines and Belle & Sebastian is that the Belle & Sebastian guys can play, and like, shit, we can’t,” chuckles McKee. “They had to dumb down [for us]. They re-taught us those songs. They were very patient with us, I have to say. But then, Vaselines songs were always written around the fact that I’d only just learnt to play the guitar, so any more than three chords and I would be hitting Eugene with the guitar, saying, ‘I can’t play that, just get that away’.”
“We just never could play that well,” she maintains. “So if you happen to be an excellent guitarist you’ll never sound like The Vaselines, no way.”
“They’re so horribly talented, it makes me sick!” Kelly faux-sneers and draws out his words with disgust before laughing it off.
So, now that the band are ready to tour again with new material, heading around the UK for a couple of weeks and a month-long stint across the US, have they thought about their future and the possibility of a third record? “It’s really hard,” McKee almost whines. “We need to see what people think of [‘Sex…’]. But the main thing is to make sure that you like it and I feel really happy with it, so for me that’s enough. Not that I don’t care if other people like it, I really hope other people do.”
“We haven’t talked about doing another one, this was as far as we could see when we were making this record. I think it’s a long way off,” Kelly replies. “I think we should stick to every 20 years,” suggests McKee as Kelly ponders, his hand reaching to his chin.
“We’ve been lucky with songs which meant we could get cracking on this one straight away, but we’ve got no tunes, so we’d have to start on the next one from scratch. I always thought we should go electro-pop and get Mark Ronson in, and make a completely different record, a high-energy disco record. We could get dance routines and matching outfits like Same Difference.” McKee laughs in agreement and we leave the two, completely bewildered as to what The Vaselines might throw our way in another 20 years.
By DK Goldstein
Originally published in issue 20 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. August 2010