The Vaccines have been flirting with reinvention ever since their first album came out. Following the breakout success of 2011’s What Did You Expect From the Vaccines?, the London band were determined to avoid repetition. To achieve this end, they brought in Laura Marling and Tom Jones producer, Ethan Johns, who banned them from listening to music during the recording process.
The result was 2012’s Come of Age, which, in retrospect, retains much of the indie rock and surf punk sound of its predecessor. It wasn’t until album three, 2015’s English Graffiti, that The Vaccines came good on their intention to go off-road. Recorded with Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann, English Graffiti was the sound of a band trialling many possible futures, from glam pop to indie dance.
The Vaccines’ fourth album, 2018’s Combat Sports, was in many ways a back to basics affair. Though, in contrast to the vim and enthusiasm of their first two albums, Justin Young’s songwriting displayed a newfound maturity on Combat Sports, as the band tapped into a slick and streamlined power-pop sound.
The Vaccines’ upcoming fifth album, Back in Love City, is something else entirely. It’s disciplined, but only insofar as everything on the album exists within the over-the-top and hyper-real universe the band creates. The title track is the nucleus of the album’s thematic orientation – singer Young imagines the titular city as a holiday destination akin to Las Vegas, where people spend their savings on artificial offerings of love and human connection. Outside of Love City, however, everyone’s spiritually estranged and more online than not.
On a musical level, Back in Love City presents The Vaccines at their most unshackled. Songs such as ‘Jump Off the Top’ and ‘Alone Star’ have an energetic twang reminiscent of the band’s early work, but the ballsy glam metal of ‘Wanderlust’ and ‘XCT’ and the hyper-pop acoustics of ‘El Paso’ come like bolts from the blue. It’s indulgent and a bit camp, but also contains the band’s most blatant pop moments to date.
Music Feeds spoke to Young on the phone from his London home about the direction explored on Back in Love City and the band’s desire to change while staying The Vaccines.
Music Feeds: Combat Sports was more mature and sleeker than your earlier records. It wouldn’t have been unreasonable for you to commit to that sound going forward, but were you eager to shake things up after finishing that record?
Justin Young: Every time you make a record there’s inevitably this reactive response. You go through everything from how it feels to how it sells, how people react live to what critics say to what it feels like playing those songs every night for two years to asking, “What did we do right and what didn’t we do right?” There’s this quite loud internal dialogue going on. Combat Sports was a record we were really proud of, we really enjoyed making it, but we got to the end of the touring cycle feeling like, “Do we really want to go through the exact same thing again?” And I think the answer was a unanimous no.
MF: Back in Love City suggests it was a pretty firm no, too. It’s distinct from all of your previous albums and musically, it feels like you’re completely unshackled. Is that how you felt making it?
JY: I think we definitely felt like anything goes and we just had a lot of fun with it. But when you’ve been in a band for ten years, you’re constantly trying to figure out how you can evolve and move forward and thrive and survive in the world of releasing music whilst at the same time not abandoning what is at your core. It’s like, “How do you move forward but stay The Vaccines?”
I always get excited when I write something that I feel like we haven’t really done before, but then I’m always like, “OK, but could we make this make sense in our world?” One of the reasons why it was so exciting doing this record is, for a lot of it, it did feel like uncharted territory but it also felt like it was unmistakably The Vaccines.
MF: Thematically, the record revolves around the title track. It’s a bit sci-fi and a bit tech apocalypse. Did that song come first and provide the framework for the album narrative?
JY: It didn’t come first first, but it helped create an avalanche. That term – “back in love city” – fell out of me one day and I didn’t really know what it meant at first, but the more I thought about it and unpacked it, the more I thought it had legs. And then once we had that concept and we had that sound, all of a sudden everything just started falling out – we couldn’t contain it.
It all happened very quickly and created a certain cohesion. Even the palette, you know, surf guitars and that loose ode to Morricone here and ABBA there, those became cornerstones for the rest of the record.
MF: It’s definitely your most musically eccentric album and there are some genuinely funny lyrics, too. Was there an enhanced sense of freedom that came from writing songs for this adjacent but unreal world?
JY: Definitely. I think, ultimately, I was and we were having fun. Everything I was writing I genuinely really loved and the band seemed to really love too and it didn’t really feel like there were any compromises. It was all stuff we were enjoying and getting a kick out of and that was the same when we were recording. Everybody was given the room to try things and it’s a very fun, maybe even funny-sounding record.
MF: So you didn’t have to twist the arms of any of your bandmates to get them to follow you down this path?
JY: Absolutely not. All five of us were saying, “It’s my favourite record we’ve ever made.” From the word go, we were all pretty excited by the process and by the songs and by the music we were making. It had been two or three years since we’d written any new music, so I think the slate was pretty clean. And it was the first time we’d started the process as a five-piece. So, in many ways, it felt like being in a brand new band.
‘Back in Love City’ is out on September 10th.