The band fits smoothly back together after their 21-year hiatus with new album, V for Vaselines
Speaking from his living room on a stormy day in Glasgow, Scotland, Eugene Kelly tells me about the genesis of his band, The Vaselines. He sounds very relaxed, almost affable, and his tone does as much as the story itself to help elucidate the central spirit of the group.
“We were just barely out of school when Frances [McKee] and I met,” says Kelly. “We just started going to clubs in Glasgow and meeting people who were into the same kind of music. [We were] discovering things, discovering films and music, really for the first time … Frances and I just decided to be part of it … When you do something when you’re that young, you don’t really see it as the beginning of a career. You put your heart and soul into it but you don’t really think ‘oh, this is gonna pay the bills,’ you just enjoy it as something that could disappear.”
That youthful ephemerality is one of the central draws of The Vaselines’ early work. It’s comforting in a way to hear what is essentially a few friends taking shots at each other and making dirty jokes (“Rory Rides Me Raw” stars a female-friendly bike seat, “Molly’s Lips” can be interpreted at least two different ways), all underscored with a Velvet Underground style of sunshiney pop that never strays too far from a simple two-chord structure. This sense of ephemerality was further cemented by the band’s breakup almost immediately after the release of their first LP, Dum Dum, in 1989.
A full 21 years would elapse before they released another one. In the interim, nearly every genre of music experienced massive changes, and in fact, a whole new one, known as hip-hop, became the central focus of both the mainstream and the underground. The Vaselines, meanwhile, experienced one of the luckiest breaks a band can really hope for—they were covered by one of the biggest rock groups in the world. During the early ‘90s, Nirvana performed and recorded three Vaselines compositions: “Jesus Don’t Want Me For a Sunbeam,” “Molly’s Lips,” and “Son of a Gun” bringing a level of renown to a set of songs made “mostly for a laugh,” that was completely unexpected. “I haven’t had a job for 20 years,” Kelly told me, which we both agreed was probably the end-goal of being any sort of artist, “the royalty payments from those [songs] really helped us through the early years.”
Both Kelly and McKee had bands in these intervening years. Kelly’s band Eugenius (formerly Captain America), was signed to Atlantic Records, and proved to be relatively successful, while McKee’s band Suckle, formed with her sister, recorded two sessions for John Peel’s BBC Radio 1. After playing a few promotional shows together in 2006, The Vaselines officially rejoined, and in 2010 released Sex With An X, an album that, though certainly the work of at least slightly more mature songwriters, maintain the friendly intimacy that turned Dum Dum and the Sub-Pop compilation album, The Way of The Vaselines, into cult classics. That said, Sex With An X is often more enjoyable than these works, mostly owing to some solid production that manages to make the music more aurally palatable while not sounding overly slick, and the simple fact that Kelly and McKee sound like they’re not straining themselves vocally on most tracks. The highlight of the album is “I Hate The 80’s” which is as catchy as it is bittersweet, closing with the nostalgic “Where did that boy go/ Where did that girl go.”
Last year’s V For Vaselines, is just further confirmation that The Vaselines can still put together a great set of songs, and it contains what I personally think is the hidden gem of their entire catalogue. “Single Spies” feels like taking a breezy jog at sunset, sounding very reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s brand of soft-rock with ‘60s handclaps thrown in for good measure.
The Vaselines play Bar Le Ritz (formerly Il Motore) this Sunday, Jan. 18. I’ve already promised to try to start a moshpit, seeing as Kelly vividly remembers a show in Scotland where “people were actually punching lumps at each other,” though I’m fairly certain that’s illegal.