Smut At The Bus Stop & Career Revivals: The Vaselines Interviewed
, September 3rd, 2010 06:55
Ash Dosanjh talks to Eugene Kelly about Sex With An X, the first album from Scottish cult heroes The Vaselines in 20 years. Plus: bus stop romances, smutty songs and Kurt Cobain
Believe it or not, there's a lot of good that can come from mild stalking. Take The Vaselines for example. What started off as curious glances from the school bus improbably ended as the soundtrack to the lives of countless dysfunctional teenagers; specifically ones that liked musical ingenuity and humour as much as they did their soft-core sexual innuendo.
Sadly though, just as soon as Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee got set to release their salacious debut LP Dum Dum in 1989 the duo imploded in on itself - professionally and personally, but thankfully with not one restraining order in sight. And despite reforming briefly 18 months after their initial demise, the lack of record deal, underwhelming public and media interest and general record industry pitfalls proved too much of an incentive for the former lovers to tread their own musical paths independent of the other.
What is probably most surprising about the career trajectory of The Vaselines is that it would have been doomed to obscurity for eternity had it not been for the interest of one young man from Seattle.
Twenty years on, the Kurt Cobain-approved Glaswegians release their first new material. And although the passing of time has seen Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee mature somewhat it's not done too much damage: in their own shy way, these twee indie-poppers can still add a bit of filth and fury to proceedings. So, after last year's memory-jogging compilation album Enter The Vaselines, we now get Sex With An X - under those thick jumpers, pulses are still racing, it seems. Happily, the tunes are still flowing too.
Criminally ignored the first time round, The Vaselines are finally getting the recognition they always deserved. Here Eugene Kelly explains why there are no hard feelings.
Sex With An X, your first studio album in 20-odd years, is gonna come as quite a surprise to most people.
Eugene Kelly: I don't think people were expecting another record from us. We kept it quiet because we didn't know how it was gonna turn out. We just thought we'd do it under the radar and not tell anyone. We wanted to surprise everyone as well. People wouldn't be expecting us to make another record, even though we were playing shows and going on tour. It was good to keep it a secret for a while.
When you did get together to write and record the new album was it like old times? Or was it more fun than that?
EK: It was certainly different. It's kind of hard to remember what the old times were like because it was 20 years ago. I can vaguely remember us writing the songs back then. It was made up on the hoof really. But this time round I think we kind of just seemed to sit down every Monday night and write songs.
It seems incredible that you waited 20 years to record a new record and then did so in just 13 days. That's an amazingly fast turnover by most modern-day bands' standards.
EK: Yeah, well, we were spending our own money when we were doing it! So we thought we'd do it as quickly and cheaply as possible. We weren't rushing through it though, we were taking our time, but we just knew that we had to finish it all. It was like a production line getting it done. Sometimes when you work too long on records you can take the life right out of it. We wanted to get the energy across as well by recording it really quickly.
Were the songs written in the same time-frame as the recording?
EK: That was done over the space of a year. We just met up every Monday and tried to write the songs. Some of them worked out really quickly and some of them didn't. With the track 'I Hate The 80s' we knew exactly what it was gonna be about, we just didn't know how to say it, so that one took a wee time. But with some of the songs I would email Francis some lyrics and she would email ones that she'd written and they would generally tend to work out as being the same idea.
Were the 80s really that dreadful for you?
EK: No, they weren't. That song is about the whole nostalgia thing that's going on with the 80s, saying the music and the clothes were great. But it wasn't that great. There was lots of bad things about that time and we're just talking about those bad things, politics-wise and music-wise. Our formative years were the 80s and it was a pretty good decade to live through, but it wasn't all David Bowie trousers.
Your debut album Dum Dum is a smut fest, with its sexual innuendo, but your new record is a lot less salacious than what's gone before. It's a lot more thoughtful in places.
EK: There are less songs about sex on the new record than on the old records I suppose. I think it is a lot more grown up. We were younger then and just having a bit of fun. Although, we do still like a bit of smut, we just got that out of our system over the years. I'm not trying to say that we're all grown up and mature, but we kind of wanted a fun record, but there is a lot less smut. Which is a shame.
Did you try and get some in there?
EK: We did. We always have a laugh and smut just tends to creep into our normal conversation, but I think the songs kind of happened the way they are. We didn't find space for [smut]. We didn't feel inspired by the smut this time.
**You and Frances used to go out, so who came up with such a personal title as Sex With An X for the album?
EK: My flatmate, Carey Lander from Camera Obscura, came up with that. We had a title for one of the songs called 'Kissing With A K' and I told her that we were struggling with a title and she suggested 'Sex With An X'. I told Francis about it and she told her husband and they both thought it was a great idea. I was like, 'No I've got to think of something else', because it didn't feel right. But now I'm happy. It's a good title.
When you listen back to the songs you and Frances made in your youth, how do they make you feel? Quite proud, or do they make you cringe?
EK: A bit of both. It's almost like you've heard them so many times that you don't feel anything really. They exist and they're always there and you play them and you enjoy playing them. There aren't many that make me cringe. The only one that I didn't really enjoy singing when we played it live last year was 'Teenage Superstar' because it's sung from the perspective of a young person, being snotty to their parents. I just thought, 'God, I can't sing that. I'm a middle-aged bloke'. I thought pretending to be that character was beyond my acting skills.
How did your parents feel about those songs when they first came out?
EK: I don't really know. I never really played the songs to them. I still keep my family in the dark about what I do. They have to ask me. They come and see me occasionally, but I don't really tell them what I'm doing. I don't know why. I guess we're just like that as a family.
What do you think sets aside this incarnation of The Vaselines from when you did it the first time around?
EK: When we started it was a two piece and we played to a backing tape so it was very naïve and primitive.
Wasn't that what made it so great in the first place?
EK: I think so. Most people got bands together to try and play shows and we just thought we'd just get started now without worrying how to find other people to play these songs. When we got a drummer and a bass player it became a bit more raw and a bit more edgy and spontaneous. Now it's a bit more relaxed and we know what's going to happen. It's rehearsed. It's taken the danger out of it, which is good. Before we didn't know how songs were going to end. I don't think we could come back now and be the drum machine version of the band. I don't think people would get it. It was okay back in the 80s but, and I hate to say this, we knew we had to come back with a more professional attitude to the live show.
You and Frances had your own solo projects going on before you got back together – with you in Eugenius (nee Captain America) and Frances in Suckle. Did you feel cautious about re-grouping as The Vaselines?
EK: We didn't talk about it as if any of us were weary about it. I don't think either of us were. I'd always hoped we'd get back together and do something, even if it was just to play a couple of shows. There are a couple of the tunes on the new record, I'd put aside ages ago thinking, 'Well, they sound like Vaselines songs'. So I stored things away hoping we'd one day maybe do something.
Do you remember the first time that you saw Frances?
EK: I used to see her on the bus going to school. We went to different schools. My bus past her house. I remember seeing her at the theatre one night. School used to give us free tickets to the Royal Scottish Academy so we could go see students putting on plays on a Friday night. So I saw Francis at that. Then I met her at a party. I knew who she was so we just started talking and that was it. The rest is history.
What were your first impressions of her?
EK: I thought she was pretty cute [laughs], and I thought she was very funny, her and her twin sister. They were not like any girls that I knew. They were having a laugh and had a great sense of humour, so we got on straight away.
Who asked who out first?
EK: Um…I don't remember, I think it might have been me. I think I saw her on the bus one time and I got off the bus and told her I was acting in a play and she came to see it. I think that may have been when we first started going out, after that.
When the band broke up your relationship broke up as well, didn't it?
EK: Yeah, that's kind of was what happened. We broke up and we thought that we could continue. But I wasn't happy to write songs, and I just thought it wasn't right to continue. We got back together about 18 months after that to do the Nirvana show in Edinburgh. I don't know why we didn't continue after that. It was probably best to let it go. I think musically we just thought we'd done all we could do. We didn't have a record company. It just all fell apart naturally. We never thought that we were a band on the cusp of stardom or anything. We knew our limitations and we knew the music that we made was never going to be in the charts and bands like ours were never going to get major record deal, even though some of our contemporaries, like the Soup Dragons, were getting signed to labels. We just didn't think that anybody would be interested, or be sniffing round.
Do you think you were a bit naïve in that sense?
EK: Yeah, we had no idea how the music business worked. We were totally outside it. We didn't know who to turn to and say, 'We want to continue the band'. We didn't know how to do it. We were in our own wee bubble really.
So did you regroup because you felt like there was some unfinished business?
EK: I suppose there's a bit of that. The band is more well-known now than it ever was 20 years ago. There's an audience out there who would like to see us play. So we wanna go and meet them. Nothing really happened with our solo careers, we put out records but we weren't expecting anything great to happen to them. We thought the Vaselines time is now.
Does it surprise you that people are interested now when back then you flew so low under the radar?
EK: It does a wee bit. People tell us that the Vaselines are well known around the world and we didn't know this until we started to play again and found there was an audience for us. That's when we went, 'Oh my god, what's happening here? This is not like the old days. People aren't booing us.'
You once said that there were three key players in The Vaselines' history: Stephen McRobbie from The Pastels for putting you your records; Calvin Johnston for playing your them on his radio show in Olympia and then Kurt Cobain for covering your songs. Is there a little part of you that's resentful that it took so long for you to be recognised?
EK: Not at all. It's just the way things happen. At the time we weren't sitting around going, 'Oh, the record is great. Why aren't we getting front covers on magazines? Why aren't we getting tours?' We never thought like that. We just thought we'd put the record out and some people will buy it and most people won't and that's it. We kind of knew we weren't the greatest band in the world. It's fun now that 20 years later there are people wanting to see us. We're very happy and surprised by it all.
You're new album is coming out in September and you've got a slot at this December's ATP curated by Belle & Sebastian. Do you have any other plans for The Vaselines?
EK: We've got no plans for doing another record, but you never know. We don't know what's gonna happen next. If we do make another record I know what I want it to sound like. It won't be like this record. I was writing some songs for a film recently and I thought, 'Ah, this is the band I want to be in next'. It's not reggae. More electronic I suppose. But who knows what will happen….