Following the tour supporting third album, English Graffiti, English indie rock band The Vaccines decided the 2015 LP was an ill-advised attempt to be something they were not. The journey back to their sweet spot was filled with false starts, the abdication of a member, difficult discussions and an in-studio fistfight between singer Justin Young and guitarist Freddie Cowan. (It was trivial, and they made up immediately).
Still, the most significant moment of truth came when The Vaccines decided to scrap a plan to work with a cadre of pop producers and collaborate with just one: Ross Orton.
“I think the role of a really, really great producer is telling you off, and doing so in a nice enough manner that you want to work with them. It’s quite a difficult job to do when you’ve got a bunch of egotistical maniacs in a rock and roll band,” bassist Árni Árnason said in a call from the U.K., where the band had recently completed work on its fourth album, the aptly titled Combat Sports.
The path to Combat Sports, which was released March 30, was not straightforward and began even before Young, Cowan, Árnason and former drummer Pete Robertson went into the studio to make their previous album.
Young, who was cementing his place in the hall of memorable frontman voices with his deep lilt, suddenly required several vocal chord surgeries after years of ignoring his health. So rather than try to stick to their guns and combine his vocal delivery with Cowan’s jagged guitar licks like they did on 2011 debut, What Did You Expect from the Vaccines?, on songs like “Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)” and “Post Break-Up Sex,” or “No Hope,” from 2012 follow-up Come of Age, the band slowed it down and pursued their artsier side.
“There’s always been this looming danger of it. He’s better at taking care of it now,” Árnason said. “I think the vocal treatment on English Graffiti was probably a product of it. It wasn’t a worry at the time. It was just like, ‘Oh, this is a new thing.’”
For English Graffiti, Young and Cowan moved to New York and rented an apartment in Chinatown with the intention of being inspired by a new environment. They were also out to prove they were more than a three-chord garage rock band.
It was a dream for the band to work with Dave Fridmann, who produced acclaimed records by The Flaming Lips, Sparklehorse and MGMT. His Tarbox Road Studios was “a constant cave of inspiration.” They were isolated from the outside world for weeks at a time, Árnason said.
“I don’t think the sonic picture became apparent to [the Vaccines] until you’ve stepped out with it, because you weren’t reflecting in anything,” he said. “People started taking various roles in the process of making the album. The process of making it was, in hindsight, at least, incredibly rewarding and inspirational and fun. The thing that let it down is a lack of direction, because I don’t think we were ready to make the album when we went in.”
Árnason describes The Vaccines as “lost” in the time following the end of the English Graffiti tour. Young had given up his apartment and instead slept in friends’ homes, suffering from writers’ block and some depression.
“We had done an incredible amount of work … and we’d just been institutionalized by touring,” Árnason said. “When you’re in that mode, the last thing that you really take care of is yourself. I think it’s a rock and roll cliché, but it breaks people a lot.”
There were no dramatic breakdowns—“nobody developed a heroin addiction or anything”—but the road took a toll on the band, and especially on Young.
Relationships became strained. The others in the band didn’t like the direction of Young’s songs, which had bypassed traditional guitar hooks in favor of complexity. The members were questioning their own choices; this despite the previous album having sold well in the U.K. and receiving positive reviews. All they understood was that they had stopped having fun.
“We had lost sight of what it was that we originally set out to do,” Árnason said. “I think that was the problem. … It became painfully apparent that none of us could agree on what we were, or what we meant to ourselves or anybody else.”
After so many disagreements, Robertson left the band. His decision came after the four men had spent too much time in Árnason’s too-small studio in an industrial part of East London in the dead of winter. The depressing, suffocating atmosphere got to everyone. And eventually, all of the demos for those sessions were scrapped. Árnason said he presumes Robertson, who is still friends with the others, was already considering leaving. The lack of progress could have been the final nail in the coffin.
“It didn’t feel exciting in any way, shape or form,” he said. “In that process, Pete … just kind of told us that he needed out.”
The remaining trio thought Robertson’s departure might inspire creativity, but instead it confused them further. Plans to meet and work with numerous pop producers did not end in anything the band enjoyed. In late 2016, they promoted session drummer Yoann Intonti and touring keyboard player Tim Lanham to full-time member status. Then things slowly started looking up, as the enthusiasm of the new members began to reinvigorate the others.
By the time they met with Orton, who has made records with Arctic Monkeys and M.I.A., The Vaccines had enough material for four completely different albums, Árnason said. Orton began setting them straight.
“He just kind of looked at me like, ‘I’ve seen you guys live, and I’ve seen you play these songs. You guys are a much better rock band than you are a pop band. You’re smite-y, visceral, in-your-face rock music. It’s what you’re good at. Why don’t you just become good at that instead of trying to chase something else?’”
Young played Orton a few demos, and the producer suggested changes, bringing the euphoric energy on which the band had risen back to the surface. The members took direction from him after too much questioning of their own choices.
That led to the 11 brash, sneering angular guitar rock songs on Combat Sports. The record takes off without prelude with “Put It On a T-Shirt.” The following “I Can’t Quit” is classic Vaccines, with Young speeding up and slowing down his vocal delivery over power chords and “whoo-whoo” back-up vocals. “Your Love Is My Favourite Band” is a snarky take on a synthy power pop love song. “Surfing in the Sky” is a blitzkrieg that comes with the first beat. Throughout is a sense of urgent emotion: a call to take action.
“I kind of feel like Combat Sports is a record that is [about] looking at yourself a little bit clearer than you’ve dared to do earlier,” Árnason said. “I think it’s about facing inner demons. … It’s slightly more fearless than before.”
Follow Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.