We Are S.M.E

[SME MEETS] Freddie Cowan from The Vaccines *Exclusive Interview* by wearesme

If you haven’t heard about The Vaccines, you must reside under a rock. Coming third in the recently announced BBC Sound Of 2011 Poll, with their single ‘Post Break Up Sex’ released this week and a debut album on the way; The Vaccines are the band on everyone’s lips right now. An incredible achievement from a band who only formed officially in June 2010. Their rise to fame has been a rapid one to say the least.

The London based band was initially formed by Justin Young (vocals) and Freddie Cowan (guitar) with a third member who soon left. They were soon joined by Árni Hjörvar (bass) and Pete Robertson (drums) and named themselves The Vaccines in June 2010.

They released their demo “If You Wanna” in the Summer of 2010 and were immediately championed by Zane Lowe, who awarded it his ‘Hottest Record In The World’ on 18 August 2010.

After playing their first gig in Leicester they embarked on their first UK tour. Their popularity continued to rise and they sold out their first London show, having to turn away 200+ people at the door after reaching capacity at The Flowerpot in October 2010. The likes of Alex Kapranos, Marcus Mumford, and members of White Lies and The Maccabees were all in the audience.

The band then released their debut single “Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)” (only one minute and 24 seconds long) on 29 November 2010 which reached number 157 in the UK Singles Chart.

After securing a contract with Columbia Records, they were signed to play on the 2011 NME Awards Tour, joining the likes of Magnetic Man, Crystal Castles and Everything Everything.

The band released their second single “Post Break-Up Sex” this week which was sat at #19 in the mid week chart.

When presented with the opportunity to speak to Freddie Cowan from the band, naturally we jumped at the chance. We couldn’t wait to hear what he had to say about the bands incredible rise from obscurity and everything that has come with their newfound popularity.

Fresh from a week long trip to America where the band caused a massive stir selling out venues in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Toronto, we spoke to a jet lagged Freddie and here’s what he had to say:

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Freddie. You were playing in America this week, you must be exhausted! When did you get back?

Yeah I actually over slept today, I’m glad my phone was off! We only got back yesterday morning.

Well thanks for turning your phone on for us! So the first thing we’re dying to know is where did the band come from? Did you and Justin come up with a master plan to take over the music scene in the way that you have?

We didn’t plan anything, it was kind of a mistake! We met each other through a mutual friend in 2008 but it was just a quick hello and we didn’t see each other for another year.
Our friend had a rehearsal studio and he had suggested that Justin and I got together to play but we were both kind of laughed it off at the time.

Then we met each other again in late 2009 and at the time Justin was sick with what he was doing, and I was sick with what I was doing so we ended up going down to the studio together and started playing together. I was playing bass and Justin was playing Keyboard and it was great.

We read that you initially mixed it up in terms of the instruments that you weren’t normally accustomed with playing?

Yeah; I’ve always been guitar guy but I thought, you know what, I’ve been doing this for a while and I just wanted to try something I’ve never tried before so I started playing keyboard and then I picked up a base. Justin had never played piano before so he messed around and it was much more experimental. I remember thinking “this is brilliant”. And for the first time I could really feel that I was doing something I loved again. And from there it just progressed; there were other guys in the band that left and then we found Arnie and Pete.

I always say to people, even before Justin and I met; It’s not like in June 2010 4 guys came into a room together for the first time. It’s a culmination of our musical lives and that’s why it’s happened so quickly.

In terms of aspirations, did you ever imagine that within 6 months you would be signed to a label?

We didn’t think we’d ever get a record deal!

So how did it come to be? And how did you take off so quickly?

I don’t really know! Well what I guess happened was that Justin played us to one of his mates, who played us to one of his mates, who played us to Jack from the White Lies. He then played us to his manager (Columbia Records) and we got a call from them asking if we had management! Obviously we didn’t, so they told us not to speak to anyone else before we had met and that was it really.

Did your brother play any part or did he give you any guidance? (Freddies brother Justin is in The Horrors)

No *laughs*. It’s funny because we’ve always kept that very separate. There was a time when I was struggling while he was doing really well, but we always kept that separate because we didn’t want it to affect our relationship as brothers.

Whenever we hang out we play new music and talk about music but we never talk about our own stuff. We’re brothers which is more important than anything really!

And you’re friends with The Mumford and Sons, what are they like?

Yeah, I guess I’m better friends with Marcus than anyone else but Justin is their good friend because he lived with Winston. London can be a really small world and sometimes you grow up publicly. Before they were a big band they were just playing pubs and I remember Marcus used to play by himself and he was really good. Then he became ‘Marcus Mumford’ if you know what I mean, but he’s never changed and never will.

Would you agree that your timing has been perfect due to the notable lack of guitar bands in 2010?

Put it this way, I think if anyone tried to time things perfectly they couldn’t no matter who they were. Things just happen in music, you can’t control it.
To be honest when we started I thought we had missed the boat, because it looked like guitar music had its time. But, as time went on and we became more confident with what we were doing, it didn’t matter because we were just happy doing what we enjoyed.

The last big guitar bands were The Strokes and The Arctic Monkeys and its encouraging to hear that rock music means a lot to people and they really appreciate the music we’re making.

In terms of listening to rock music, you’re definitely the first new band we have been properly listening to this year and in the later stages of 2010…

Thank you man, we really appreciate it. But I always talk about rock and roll music rather than rock music. When I think of rock music I always picture bands in the 80’s playing huge gigs and that’s got nothing to do with my life right now in the same way that Rihanna hasn’t.

Rock and Roll music is something that’s different and more important to people than rock is. It encapsulates people’s passion and energy in the way that bands like The Strokes and The Beatles did.

So in this whirlwind 6 months, what has been your highlight?

My highlight was New York this week. The whole experience has been an amazing ride but I’ve got to be honest, and I don’t want to shatter any illusions, but we don’t spend our time thinking ‘this is amazing!’. To be honest, I spend my time thinking really hard about what’s coming up next.

We imagine that there’s no time to rest and gather your thoughts?

Yeah there’s literally no time to rest. And you’ve got to remember how lucky you are to be in this situation, and how hard you have to work to make sure you’re at your best, because it’s so precious that it’s not even a once in a lifetime opportunity.

We assume that you haven’t embraced the rock and roll party lifestyle then?

*Laughs* Not yet, no. I don’t really like going out. I like going to little quiet pubs with a jukebox. I resent going to chain bars and being an obvious consumer.

Don’t worry you’re not missing much in those Lloyds bars! So moving on; you were recently voted 3rd in the BBC Sound of 2011 Poll. Was that a big achievement for you?

I don’t really know what that is to be honest with you, but if people voted for us then I’m really flattered and grateful.

It’s an annual poll where music critics and industry figures vote for who they think will be the most promising new music talent in the coming year. Those nominated often go on to achieve great success; people like Adele, Florence and The Machine and The White Lies have previously been nominated…

That’s what I hear but it hasn’t been going very long and it’s almost funny that they’ve got this almost obsessive importance placed on finding the next best thing. That next big thing should be given a chance before it’s brandished with labels. I guess it hasn’t hurt because inevitably there will be a few people who listen to and like our music because of that title.
Don’t get me wrong, I am really grateful but it’s not always good to have these labels that you don’t choose for yourself.

Let’s talk about your single ‘Post Break Up Sex’ which was released this week. How is it doing in the chart so far?

I think early/mid-week it was at #17 but I think it’s gone down a bit. It’s great to see a guitar band in the charts because the charts have been pretty depressing of late on that front.

I think the Rihannas of this world are f*cking talented but the process is so different. While I was in America I read in a magazine that when Rihanna’s label boss wants to start a new album they bring in 25 producers and 25 song writers and take over a whole studio complex for 3 weeks and come up with a record.

It’s so tailored, whereas bands like The Smiths and The Clash had something special there. I’m not saying Rihanna isn’t special because she undoubtedly is and she deserves to be where she is but the process isn’t as personal. For example I don’t really know her story and background, all I know is she sings pop songs and looks great on T.V!

Talking of America; how did your gigs go out there? You mentioned it was the highlight of the last 6 months…

It was amazing. I think sometimes you have those occasions where you put a lot of thought into something but when the time comes you could never really have comprehended what it would actually be like. For example, the venue was much bigger than I thought. It was massive; the biggest show we have ever played and we sold it out.

Everything just came together, we had this really talented new sound guy and then Debbie Harry came and said hi before the show, it was crazy! And we went on to play one of the best shows we’ve ever played. It was one of those perfect nights. I let myself enjoy it that night!

That has definitely been the feeling amongst the people who came along to your shows. Having read all of the blog reviews, they all said that the shows were amazing.

That’s great and that’s the thing about those BBC Polls; they’re not the people who are there to clap, they just stroke their chins!
Someone asked me the other day if I think that we have an unfair advantage over other bands because of things like that and I said no. I think if anything, it’s just as much of a disadvantage, because you could start worrying about having to prove people right. But at the end of the day, you’re either a good band or you’re not.

Do you feel like you have something to prove?

I don’t necessarily feel like I have something to prove, you just have to satisfy your own expectations. That’s the most important thing.

Would you say that you are your own biggest critic?

Oh yeah. If the show doesn’t go well, I’m not going out afterwards. It’s a rubbish way to be because it’s not fun but it’s very important to me. It’s funny, because I don’t think of it as a long game plan; it’s all about that particular night.

You’re playing on the NME Tour which is just around the corner, do you think that will surpass your New York gig experience?

Well it’s definitely even bigger! Brixton will be our biggest show ever, but I’m looking forward to all of them.

Is there a city in particular you’re looking forward to playing?

All of them. Glasgow is going to be great because the people are fucking mental and I mean that in the nicest way possible, I love them. I met this kid and he went to the bar to buy beers just to pour them over his head! It was funny because I could see him walking through the crowd with the beers being really careful saying “watch your back”. Then he just poured them all over his head! Why was he worrying about spilling them!?

London’s going to be great but I’m a little curious because we’re not used to having so much space between us and the audience.

Do you prefer playing more intimate gigs then?

Yeah definitely, because it’s about the audience as well as the band. I think people sitting at the back of arenas don’t get a very good view and I don’t think it’s much of an experience for them. I believe in energy being held in a room and I don’t think that energy can be held in an arena.

I suppose it’s different for bands like Coldplay who have made themselves into real arena bands but for bands like us it’s not relevant; it’s not what we’re about. I guess I find it a little soulless; and that’s not to say that I think Coldplay are soulless, because they’re great at what they do.

And what are your thoughts on the artist that you’re going to be playing with on the NME tour? (Crystal Castles, Magnetic Man & Everything Everything)

I’ve seen the Castles and they were good; it was very heavy. It felt like I was being attacked! And I like them because there’s not really anyone else like them; they’re very unique and very surreal.
I think the girl doesn’t actually live anywhere they just live on the road and it’s great because it probably wouldn’t work if they weren’t like that.

I’m not going to talk about all of the bands individually but I think it’s an accurate picture of what the public are listening to rather than NME trying to push a load of bands. For example I think dubstep is playing an important part in music in the UK at the moment and it’s important that it’s being represented by Magnetic Man on the tour.

I think NME are realising that they have to talk to the music fans. And talk with them not at them.

And your debut album is on its way soon…

Yeah I can’t wait, just because we did it in 2 weeks and have been sitting on it since last year, so I really want people to hear it now.

Have you got a favourite song on the album?

My favourite one to record was ‘Family Friend’. No one has heard it yet because we’ve never played it live. It was great because we were touring at the time and recorded it completely live, late at night and it was the last song on the record.

Why haven’t you played it live?

Because its 6 minutes long and that’s like a third of one of our sets! *laughs*. Our sets are getting longer though!

Cool, we look forward to hearing it! Were going to finish up with a few quick-fire questions…

Fosters or Red Stripe?

Red Stripe.

XFM or Radio 1?

Radio 1 but BBC 6 Music is the best!

NME or Q?


The Clash or The Sex Pistols?

The Clash.

Rihanna or Katy Perry?

Rihanna is more talented. I was watching TV the other day and I saw a Katy Perry video. She sprays whipped cream from her breasts to sell singles!

London or New York?

London. And I really mean that. As much as I loved New York, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere but London.

Trailer or Hotel?

Well we don’t have a trailer yet so Hotel.

Arena or Intimate Venue?

Definitely intimate venue.

Commercial Success or Critically Acclaimed?

*long pause* Neither. I just want to keep making the music that I like and enjoy playing.

Cool, I think thats everything! Thank’s for taking the time out in your busy schedule to talk to us; we’ll leave you to go and sleep off that jet lag now! And good luck with the NME tour.

Thanks guys it was a pleasure! Speak soon.

The NME Awards Tour 2011 begins on 03rd February 2011 and features a line up that captivates the diverse music scene in 2010; The Vaccines, Magnetic Man, Everything Everything & Crystal Castles.

The tour will reach Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Leeds, Norwich, Birmingham, Cardiff, Bristol, Bournemouth, Brighton and finally London.

For more information and tickets visit www.nme.com/tickets



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