“Guys Wanted to Talk to You in Bars About Nirvana More Often”: An Interview with The Vaselines

Douglas Martin speaks with the influential band from Glasgow on destroying and rebuilding themselves.
By    January 22, 2015

Art by Alterna2

The Vaselines were never supposed to get this far. As the legend—which you’ve probably heard or read about more than once by now—goes, the romantic partnership of Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee dissolved around the same time their creative partnership did, and they were destined to be yet another great band time forgot before being praised effusively by the most famous rock musician of the 90’s, Kurt Cobain. Yet, the band had still only gotten back together temporarily. In 2009, however, the Vaselines got the call to play a few more shows, and slowly started putting together their decades-awaited album, Sex With an X. In the thick of a West Coast tour in support of their second record since getting back together, V for Vaselines, I was able to prod Kelly for his thoughts on the Vaselines’ legacy, whether or not the band has one more album left in them, and Cobain’s impact on their career. Before we get to the interview, just in case you’re unfamiliar with the magic of the Vaselines, here’s a short primer—five songs that exhibit the band’s strengths as songwriters—just for you. – Douglas Martin

#1 — “Rory Rides Me Raw” (Son of a Gun EP, 1987)

Essentially, a good portion of the Vaselines’ early output involves hormonally charged salvos in jangly dress, and “Rory Rides Me Raw” is the most explicitly sexual of any song fitting in this category. Alongside ringing major chords and the occasional cymbal crash, Kelly engages in both euphemistic and literal dirty talk, to the point where the spit guard in the studio had better be strong enough to prevent lube from damaging it. Definitely not history’s first raunchy twee sex jam, but perhaps its greatest, and proof the name the Vaselines gave themselves as a band contains exactly as much innuendo as you think.

#2 — “I Hate the 80’s” (Sex With an X, 2010)

If nostalgia is a disease, misremembered nostalgia is Stage 2. It’s cute the post-punk revival of the early-00’s and Joey Bada$$’s popularity among presidential offspring were well-received, but the only thing more detrimental than pining for one’s past is pining for a past which didn’t even exist for you. As Kelly and McKee harmonize the lyrics, “How do you know? You weren’t there! / It wasn’t all Duran Duran,” they tap into a universal truth that not only were the “good old days” not so good all the time, but also looking at a bygone era with rose tinted glasses that you weren’t even there to experience just means you’re looking back at your own imagination.

#3 — “Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam” (Dying For It EP, 1988)

Though Nirvana’s Unplugged version of this song hits high points on both a visual and tonal level—Krist Novoselic on accordion, Pat Smear on guitar(!), Lori Goldston on cello, Kurt Cobain and crew turning the somewhat jaunty original funereal—the original version sounds more like a celebration of life than the far more famous version and its grim foreshadowing. When Cobain sings, “Sunbeams aren’t made like me,” there’s a little catch in his voice, as if he feels underqualified. Kelly sings the same line and it has the air of self-confidence, as if sunbeams don’t provide the same wattage as him.

#4 — “High Tide Low Tide” (V for Vaselines, 2014)

It’s been reported that the Vaselines’ most recent album was inspired by a Ramones cover band, and the evidence is apparent in the forward-driving first-wave punk of the record’s opening track. Look at the structure, the chords, the tempo; it’s built from the ground up as something straight from the Rocket to Russia sessions. (The Ramones worship isn’t exactly unexpected for a band once signed to a label named after the song “53rd and 3rd.”) Which is definitely not a bad thing, especially when you’re as sharp as the Vaselines and can turn what would characteristically be described as feel-good surf-punk into a meditation on longing, loneliness, and uncertainty.

#5 — “Dying For It” (Dying For It EP, 1988)

The shronking guitar and simplistic drum set up is reminiscent of Beat Happening (whose Calvin Johnson was an early adopter of the Vaselines), as are the lyrics which touch upon teenage lust and what happens when that desire isn’t quenched. There’s a raucousness to it, but there’s also a sweetness to its melody. Throw in the undercurrent of sexuality, creeping up from underneath and around the margins of the song until the sexual frustration is palpable, and you have what is basically the quintessential Vaselines song.

Do you think about your legacy at all? How do you feel it’s changed since you decided to get back together for Sex With an X?

We didn’t think about legacy at all when we split. We released two singles and one album and thought people would soon forget about us. Over the years more people have heard those songs than we could ever have anticipated and because Nirvana recorded them, they’ve been elevated in a way we could never have foreseen.

When you reformed for a charity show back in 2008, did you think you would get back together for another album? How long did it take after that show to decide to get back together again?

We got back together for one show which led to a trip to America for the Sub Pop festival and a big Glasgow show [both in 2008]. We talked about writing again when we realised that people were interested in coming to watch us play and we needed to get some more songs into the set so we could play for longer.

You originally broke up the Vaselines due to, well, a breakup, and because you felt the band had no upward mobility. And then one of the most famous musicians in the world took an interest in hipping people to the Vaselines. How would you describe the difference between being unknown and being the favorite band of a lot of people’s favorite band, both in your professional and personal lives? Did you have people start to recognize you on the street?

Not much difference. We didn’t personally become famous but the band and the songs became better known. Guys wanted to talk to you in bars about Nirvana more often.

Were there any reasons for not reforming the band after that Edinburgh show with Nirvana in 1992 aside from it not feeling quite right?

We didn’t discuss it at all. It was too soon after breaking up and all the reasons we broke up were still there. There was no one waiting to release a Vaselines record then or finance it and we had no money.

I think we played that show just to meet the guys from Nirvana as they were playing our songs and we wanted to say hello.

With the Internet being the vast source (it feels as though “glut” is a better word sometimes) of information it is today, do you think there would have been a renewed interest in the Vaselines even if you weren’t so assertively championed by Kurt Cobain?

Maybe,  there was no video or film of the Vaselines but someone might’ve put our tunes on YouTube. I don’t think it would have lead to anything.

When did you decide to record V for Vaselines? Was it decided upon well in advance or was the approach more casual?

Once we wrote one song, we knew we could still write together. So we decide to try and write more and see if we could come up with enough for an album. We had done that in secret until we were sure that what we were writing was good enough and sounded enough like the Vaselines.

Songwriting-wise, did you consciously approach anything differently from Sex With an X, or was it mostly intuitive?

We just write and if it sounds like the Vaselines we send it to each other for approval. We managed to get to the Vaselines sound quite easily.

Do you feel as though you’re a better band than you were twenty-six or even five years ago?

Much better. We were rough and primitive back then and had a basic sound. It was great for the time but when we came back we decided we needed a drummer who could play everything including songs like “You Think You’re a Man.” We always have fantastic musicians with us to make us look good.

In a lot of circles, you are considered a legendary tandem. Have you been afforded the benefits of elder statesmanship when it comes to younger fans or young bands you play shows with?

If anyone meets us and tries to elevate us to something we’re not we soon let them know we’re very down to earth.

How is touring now compared to your first U.S. tour a few years ago? How would you compare that to playing shows in Scotland and the United Kingdom years ago?

Audiences are much the same everywhere. Driving between shows in America and Europe takes much longer. Touring is touring, you get on with it and try to keep your sports up and make sure the gig is the main thing to focus on and give the audience the Saturday night out every night.

In the press release for Sex With an X, you said there were no plans to record another album, and then four years later came V for Vaselines. Do you feel as though you have another album in you? Or are you still adopting a “wait and see” approach to recording a new album?

We have no plans as yet to record again. I think we can see the end of the road.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!