A Conversation with Frances McKee of The Vaselines

Music Features

The return of The Vaselines in 2010 via their second-ever full-length album Sex With An X came as a pleasant surprise. Here, after all, was a band that was name-checked and covered by Nirvana during that band’s ‘90s heyday, but ignored any call to reunite for the sake of cashing in. The most that Stateside fans got was a 1992 compilation of their recorded work via Sub Pop. But after a set of reunion shows in the aughts, including their first U.S. dates in 2008, the leaders of the band, Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee, were inspired enough to try writing and recording together again.

Sex With An X would have been enough to put a cap on the band’s story—especially as the last song was pointedly titled “Exit The Vaselines”—but Kelly and McKee had other plans. The group recently released a new album, V For Vaselines, a short, sharp, and surprisingly mature statement. Gone are the tunes about furtive fumblings under the sheets, replaced with ruminative thoughts on relationships, aging and celebrity culture. The spirit of the music hasn’t changed one bit, though, as the band—aided in part by members of fellow Scottish acts Belle & Sebastian, Teenage Fanclub, the 1990s, and Sons and Daughters—sounds as keyed up and sugar buzzed as ever. To find out a little more about the album and about the potential future of The Vaselines, we spent some time with singer/guitarist Frances McKee, who spoke to via Skype from her home in Scotland.

Paste: According to everything I’ve read about this album, you and Eugene were both taking inspiration from the Ramones, and I was wondering if that came into play with the cover art for the album?
Frances McKee: [laughs] Maybe on a subconscious level, I don’t know. We were really just sort of thinking, “What could we do for the front cover?” And funny enough, Eugene didn’t want us to be on the front cover. And I said well, you know, every album cover and every vinyl cover that we’ve ever done has featured us on the cover, it would seem a shame now not to do that. And I think the cover is really about us sending ourselves up a little bit, like, “Look at them, old rockers, here they come again.”

Paste: It sounds like you and Eugene were very much on the same page about wanting to write these shorter, more punk-type songs for this one.
McKee: Yeah, it was funny. When we first got together to talk about it, Eugene mentioned about seeing this Ramones cover band and my sons were just getting into the Ramones. I could hear a lot of CDs getting played in the house, and it was on my iPod. It managed to get in there, and I was cycling along one day and all these Ramones songs came on and I was thinking to myself, “God these are so good.” They’re so good and they’re so fast, and they’re so simple! And I would love to make songs like this again.

Paste: Does it work out that most of the stuff on there, that you were singing on, is the stuff you write and write the lyrics for, or does that get traded off between the two of you?
McKee: No, it doesn’t really work like that. Eugene is sort of a bit stumped with lyrics. He had lots of really good riffs for songs and when we started writing together I would come up with sort of lyrical ideas and then we would work on them together. So if the first lyrical idea wasn’t really happening then we would go in and just rethink it. The one that was causing us the most problems was “The Lonely L.P.” because we wanted to address, using this sort of idea or premise, something about downloading, so every time I came up with lyrics it sounded a bit kind of preachy or something like that. So we really liked the song but the lyrics but were not happening until I suggested that we write it from the viewpoint of an LP, so that kind of got that moving along a bit. With singing, it’s who’s singing the best, or whose voice suits the song the most. I think that’s what usually happens.

Paste: With “The Lonely L.P.,” there’s been a lot of talk about the resurgence of vinyl. Is that what helped inspired that song? And what do you make of that resurgence that people are talking about?
McKee: First of all, I think it’s really good that vinyl has made a comeback because I think it brings a kind of connection to the music that’s not there if you just download it. Downloading was just take it or leave it. Whereas if you’ve actually bought the physical copy, then there is more likelihood that you’ll actually play it. And I think also with vinyl, people make time to actually listen to it. It’s not like an iPod where you plug it in and it’s background music. You do actually allocate a little bit of time to it. But that’s not really why the song was written. The song was just written as an analogy of how relationships can be like that. You can just take it or leave it; you’re not really connecting with whomever you’re with, and then a sort of play on that with downloading. It’s very complex for the Vaselines! [laughs] We’re always working on many levels. Dumb and dumber!

Paste: I also wanted to ask about “Inky Lies,” the song where you comment on the News of the World scandals and celebrity culture. It comes along at an interesting time with all the nude pictures of actresses that were spread around the Web recently…
McKee: I never saw them! Nobody put my nude pictures up!
Paste: Well, we’ll have to get someone to start hacking into your iPhone then! But this obsession with famous people is obviously something that has been going on for decades and I mean, do you foresee that ever changing in any way? Or is that always going to be sort of the way it is?
McKee: I think that until people actually take more responsibility for themselves and their own life, then it’s always going to be more interesting to look at someone else. I think the whole celebrity culture kind of magnifies it as well. It does make me chuckle a little bit because you get people who sold their souls on TV and done this and that and they complain that they’re getting all this press attention. You kind of have to take both sides of it. I know that sounds a bit harsh, but there’s no point in crying “poor me” because this is the reality. I’m going to also say though, I think the way some people are hounded by the press is ridiculous but you know, they feel that there is an audience there for that. I mean, I don’t really engage in that kind of stuff at all. It’s like being a peeping Tom or something. I’m not that interested in anyone that I’m going to pry into their private affairs. But, you know, people who are consumed by celebrity life, it seems bizarre. I think that’s all that song’s really saying. But…if there’s a copy of Closer on the table, I would probably have a little sniff through it. But don’t tell anyone!

Paste: It must be nice in a way that you and Eugene have sort of avoided a lot of that. Even when the Vaselines were getting a lot of attention, especially around the time of the Nirvana covers, and even with the reunion, you never reached the point when people were hounding you day and night. Unless you think this is hounding…
McKee: No, we wish! Come on, hound all you like!

Paste: Much of the rest of the album concerns itself with relationships both good and bad. Is that an easy thing to write about? Is it easy to get back into the mindset of like, bad relationships and love gone wrong?
McKee: Oh yeah, it’s dead easy. [laughs] Yeah, there’s always something from the ether that comes through.

Paste: It sounds like it didn’t take you very long to record this album, something like a week in the studio for everything. Is that usual for you guys?
McKee: It was the only way we could work. We were funding it, and so we had to do it quickly. We didn’t have the luxury of spending six months in the studio because we didn’t have a big record company paying for it. I’m quite sure we could’ve taken at least three years over this, given half the chance! But that aside, I’m not one for being in the studio for any longer than you have to be. I think there’s a point of no return and I think that the first couple of weeks will be the best. I think also if you know there’s a time limit on it, you become more productive. We worked kind of longish days but we got everything out of us that we possibly could.

Paste: What was it like working with folks like Michael [McGaughrin] and Scott [Paterson] and Paul [Foley] on this new album?
McKee: Michael we’ve worked with for a long time now. He is great fun, and he’s a really nice person to be around and he’s a really good drummer. I think I should’ve put the “really good drummer” bit first actually. He’s a fantastic drummer. And he just gets what we’re trying to do and Tony Doogan, the engineer, really helped get the best sounds for the drums. Which I have to say, I find a wee bit boring but it’s all worth it in the end because the end result is always really worth the time and patience it takes to get it right. So Michael worked his wee socks off, he really did. And he always wears nice socks, I have to say.

Paste: I have to ask, what do your kids think about your musical career?
McKee: They’re kind of over it! I went into the kitchen last night and my daughter was standing in the middle of the floor just staring and I said, “What are you doing?” And she went, “Shh, shh! You’re on the radio, mum!” So she’s still quite excited about it. The boys are like, “Yeah, whatever.” Although my middle son…I let him hear “One Lost Year” when we’d just recorded it and I put it on and I said, “Come on and listen to this.” And he went, “That’s not you!” And I said, “What do you mean it’s not me?” “It sounds too good to be you!” So it’s great when your bloody children have faith in you! [laughs]

Paste: Do you have any thought of how long you and Eugene want to keep going with The Vaselines?
McKee: Well, in theory it could go on until we both decide otherwise. I mean there comes a point I guess where we might just say, “Oh, it’s not fun anymore.” But you’ll be hard-pushed to stop us, really. We’ll be rolling onstage in our wheelchairs, trying to play guitar, I’m pretty sure.

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