I remember thinking when we wrote our first songs: ‘With music as good as this we could definitely headline the Camden Barfly.’” Justin Young of The Vaccines has had to readjust his ambitions since those heady days of summer 2010. This weekend his band will perform in front of 10,000 fans at Alexandra Palace, and in a few months they’re off to London’s biggest venue, the O2 Arena.
The Vaccines haven’t proved to be the cure for the current dearth of guitar music in the charts but they’ve quickly become the most successful new band in Britain. There is a hunger for their nostalgic, energetic rock ’n’ roll sound. And it surprises Young, their 25-year-old songwriter, singer and guitarist, as much as anybody.
“A place like Alexandra Palace is a bigger room than we ever imagined having to play three-chord, rama-lama-ding-dong pop punk in,” he tells me over lunch in a Shepherd’s Bush pub. “It is vast. That stuff belongs in small places where it bounces off the walls.”
If he sounds dismissive of his own songs, it’s a habit. Never a darling of the reviewers — The Vaccines songs are typically noisy and deliberately primitive — he often deals in pre-emptive criticism as a means of puncturing expectations. The debut album, in 2011, was called What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?, echoing the hype-deflating title of the first Strokes album, Is This It. Eighteen months later the follow-up, which went straight to number one, was called Come of Age. If that implied a new confidence, the full lyric from which the title is drawn suggests different: “There’s no hope, and it’s hard to come of age,” Young sings on No Hope.
Then there’s the single Teenage Icon, with its rockabilly riff and an exhilarating chorus on which he puts himself firmly in his place: “I’m no teenage icon/ I’m no Frankie Avalon/ I’m nobody’s hero,” he sings, later adding: “I’m not magnetic or mythical/I’m suburban and typical”.
“We all suffer from insecurity, even the boldest among us,” he says today. “When I write lyrics I’m thinking out loud really. I feel comfortable knowing I’m being creatively and emotionally honest. That’s something not all pop music has, that conviction.”
Yet there’s another side to him — the side that boasts about having around 150 songs sketched out and ready for that second album. The same side that believes he was destined to play arenas. “Aged five, I was stood on any platform I could find pretending to be Elvis Presley — there’s that part of me that thinks I was always meant to do it.”
It wouldn’t be hard to have your head turned by the amount of hype the band have attracted. Without gigging around the toilet circuit for years, they developed in private, put their brilliant song If You Wanna on YouTube two years ago and were instantly played on Radio 1 and courted by major record labels. “I was always a big advocate of building your house on rock and we didn’t quite have enough time to do that,” says Young. He had pedigree at the time, having operated as part of the new folk scene as a solo artist calling himself Jay Jay Pistolet, though he claims he was the only member of that bunch — Mumford & Sons, Laura Marling, Noah and the Whale et al — to go nowhere. “No one really gave a shit at the time so I don’t see that it helped.”
Though he still sees some of those acts, the sound he ended up making with Freddie Cowan (guitar), Árni Hjörvar (bass) and Pete Robertson (drums) was very different. Indebted to the deliberately dumb melodic punk of The Ramones, the songs are hyperactive and loud and gone in a flash. One of their best, Nørgaard, is just 102 seconds long. “A lot of people pick me up on how simple my lyrics are. For me that’s a conscious, knowing decision. I decided not necessarily to be eloquent or try to sound clever. I’m not a poet — I’m in a rock ’n’ roll band.”
We discuss the state of rock music generally and whether it’s even possible to say anything new in the guitar-bass-drums format today. “I think you can. We just don’t want to.” It’s an approach that has resulted in mass appeal across generations. This week my punk veteran postman, in between enthusing about Sham 69 and the Sex Pistols reunion, was singing their praises. “I do think there’s a nostalgic element to our sound, often purposefully, sometimes not,” says Young. “We’re not trying to challenge people. We’re primarily trying to entertain ourselves. We don’t make esoteric, forward-thinking music — we’re a pop band.”
He can be a rock snob when he wants to be, though. As a teenager in Southampton he was part of the straight edge scene, a dedicated group that listens to ferocious hardcore punk music while foregoing drinking, smoking and taking drugs. “It was a real community. I was taken under the wing of people 10 years older than me, going to a couple of gigs a week and playing in a hardcore band myself. It was a really important chapter in my musical education.” These days he’s most likely to be heard enthusing about the late Eighties indie band The Jesus and Mary Chain, whose blend of raw noise and sweet melody is an obvious influence on The Vaccines’ sound.
But if he professes to be more comfortable in grimy, tiny rock venues and pubs and is somewhat daunted by the idea of being centre stage at mega-gigs (“I don’t really know how to complement the music without looking like we’re putting on a pantomime”), he’ll banish the self-doubt and rise to the occasion when he gets there. He does want his little band to keep getting bigger and bigger. “I know we belong there. We wouldn’t be there if we didn’t.”