The Vaccines: The American Origins of English Graffiti

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There’s nothing wrong with paying fastidious, keen-eyed attention to your craft, Vaccines bandleader Justin Young believes. In fact, he’s so serious about his compositions that he regularly deconstructs—then rebuilds—them until he’s achieved sonic and poetic perfection, discarding any unsatisfactory versions along the way. “Songwriting is all I have, really—it’s very important to me,” says the singer, who penned three different title tracks for the band’s third effort, English Graffiti—none of which appear on the official release itself (one take was added to the bonus-track edition). “I mean, I’ve never punched anyone in the face, ever. But I honestly don’t know how many times I would have been in fights if I didn’t have music, or songwriting as that relief.”

Naturally, Young, 28, had a master plan when it came to following up The Vaccines’ first two punk-propulsive discs—2011’s ironically dubbed What Did You Expect From the Vaccines? and its 2012 successor, Come of Age. In 2013, coinciding with the gentler, more acoustic EP, Melody Calling, the Brit packed his bags and moved from London to New York’s colorful Chinatown neighborhood, then invited group guitarist Freddie Cowan to follow; bassist Arni Arnason and drummer Pete Robertson stayed home. And he immediately set up studious shop, renting a room where he would disappear daily for eight-to-10-hour writing sessions. Things didn’t work out the way he’d imagined.

He and Cowan definitely teamed up, Young recalls. “And that was the main reason he came to New York, really—for the shared experience,” he says. “I think that if we wanted to be on the same page—and this was a conversation that we had pretty soon after I went out there— then we had to be there in the same place. So Freddie was very much there for us to co-exist, really, and create something together from the same place.” But a few months into his routine, the vocalist grew tired of following his own rules. Hard work was all well and good, he reasoned, but it wasn’t helping him compose cathartic material.

“So I actually took a step back and started going out, just hanging out with friends and trying to live, and allowing myself to make mistakes and do things I’d never done before,” Young says, sighing. Six months later, he finally began coming up with songs that made sense and really meant something to him. What were the mistakes he made? He coughs, nervously. “Uhh…I can’t say anything about that. But you know what I mean,” he replies. Perhaps it’s the unspecified ephemeral paramour that inspired two of Graffiti’s earliest numbers—the mournful quasi-love ballads “Want You So Bad” and “(All Afternoon) In Love.” “Those songs came because they were very personal, and it was someone who was really weighing me down and bringing me down, so they were very cathartic to write,” says the recently reconfirmed bachelor, who currently claims no fixed abode; sans significant other, he’s back in London, crashing on friends’ couches and floors before The Vaccines head out on tour with Mumford & Sons.

Still, Young hit the target he was aiming for—ultimately, English Graffiti stands as their Big Apple album, pulsing with the urban energy of that metropolis and a feeling of hunger he sensed in its busy, scurrying populace soon after touching down. It was mixed in upstate New York as well and co-produced by Dave Fridmann and Cole M.G.N. (M. Greif-Neill) It’s Cowan who really captures the city thrum, his guitar buzzing like a hornet under glass in the machine-gun opener “Handsome” (with Young crooning aggro observations like “If my body is a temple you can worship at my feet but it might kick you in the teeth some/ So even when you’re spitting blood you would save a thought for me”), the Bikini-Atoll-inspired nuclear blast “Radio Bikini” (“’Radio Bikini’ was such a great bubblegum phrase, such an embodiment of American pop culture, but then it’s about this terrible event—it’s almost our ode to ‘Holiday in Cambodia,’” he explains), and the Brontosaurus-stomping “Dream Lover,” one of the hugest anthems the band has ever attempted.

The Young/Cowan combination has long been a winning—albeit magical—one. In Jagger/Richards, Lennon/McCartney fabular fashion, the vocalist was a struggling solo folkie with the cumbersome moniker of Jay Jay Pistolet when in 2009 he first met the Strokes-edgy Cowan, who hadn’t been afforded any room to swing his razor-sharp axe in previous outfits. Sparks flew. “Freddie was as good a guitarist as I was a songwriter, hopefully,” Young recalls, wistfully. “But I don’t know what I’d do without him at this point—I think we really round each other out, and give each other stuff that the other needs. It’s a two-way street.”

Fridmann’s remote rural studio only cemented the unusually strong bond. “It’s in the middle of nowhere, and it spends months under snow,” Young says, laughing. “So there was just this feeling of isolation whenever you’re there and recording.” Band members were instructed to wear bright colors outside the house—it was hunting season, and they could easily be mistaken for deer by the trigger-happy locals. In town, they downed shots of a high-octane liquor dubbed Fireball, not the easiest on Young’s sensitive throat, which had endured three separate polyp-removing surgeries in 2011, during a time when he wasn’t sure if he’d ever sing, or even talk, again.

“This was real America,” the vocalist says of the Deliverance-stark experience. “And not in the way that New York City was America. This was right on the border with Canada, and it made everything a lot more immersive.” Most locals owned huge, mastiff-sized dogs that roamed freely in the woods, so any time Cowan went jogging, Fridmann provided him with a huge stick. “Freddie asked ‘Is this to throw for them?’ and Dave was like, ‘No—it’s for you to hit the dogs with when they’re biting you,’” Young says. “And I met this one guy on one of the first nights we were there that had a Confederate flag tattooed on his neck—I was speaking to him for ages, and he was kind of scaring me. But it turned out that he had a British family that lived 10 miles away from where I’m from, which was really weird. It was this guy from a completely different world, but we were sort of connected, you know?”

Young has been pushing the envelope on his craft, co-writing with pop wunderkinds One Direction and most recently Caitlin Rose. And he has plenty of new assignments lined up, before touring for English Graffiti revs up. “I love it—it’s a very different experience from sitting down on your own and playing acoustic guitar on the edge of your bed,” he says of the collaborative process. But sometimes, a clever tunesmith simply has to let go, or at least loosen his grip a little—as Young did two Halloweens ago, when he ventured down to the songwriting mecca of Nashville but steered clear of publishing houses and instead formed a spur-of-the-moment spinoff combo called Salvador Dali Parton, featuring himself, Mumford & Sons’ Winston Marshall, Old Crow Medicine Show’s Gill Landry, The Apache Relay’s Mike Harris and Jeff The Brotherhood’s Jake Orrall.

“We wrote our whole set in one day, then we rehearsed it the next day, and then we went and played five shows that night,” Young recollects. “It was quite the lineup, and it was really fun. And since it was Halloween, we were all dressed up. And honestly, I’d been taking playing music and writing music so seriously, it was so therapeutic to be able to play and write with zero pressure. And zero consequence.”

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