“It feels great to still be here. I’m still doing it because I love making albums. We had a lot of hype at the beginning, there were a bunch of bands who had a similar kind of thing, but we were swept through that. It was crazy and fun”
“It’s cool that we’re still together and that we got through it all, all the hard times and all the ups and downs. I know a lot of other bands have split, but I guess I just don’t know what else I would do if I wasn’t doing this.”
Craig Nicholls, May 2011
When you pause to reflect on everything that Sydney group The Vines have already achieved, it’s so impressive, it’s almost implausible.
This is a group who in a decade-long career have sold well over two million albums – in the process enjoying Top 10 records around the globe, and who along with The Strokes and The White Stripes were one of the chief architects of a global renaissance in rock’n’roll music.
In fact, it’s fair to say that The Vines have had a greater cultural impact on the world than any other group from the southern hemisphere in living memory. In 2002 they were the first Australian band to grace the cover of US Rolling Stone since Men At Work had clinched it 21 years previously. They’ve also proved a catalyst to others – most notably the Arctic Monkeys. The Vines were the first ever band that their singer Alex Turner saw live in 2002, prompting him to comment about Nicholls later, “That’s what being a singer is all about.”
What’s more, as we sit here in 2011, The Vines are on the verge of releasing a fifth album – the brilliantly-titled FUTURE PRIMITIVE – which is undoubtedly their best and most consistent record since their volatile 2002 debut HIGHLY EVOLVED. All of which is not bad for a group that appeared to have self-detonated as far back as 2004 and that has been through sporadic turbulence ever since. You can definitely say with some understatement it’s been an unconventional journey.
Of course what makes The Vines’ story even more remarkable is the parallel tale of singer and sole songwriter Craig Nicholls. Part music maverick and part aspergers syndrome pioneer, the combination nearly derailed the band’s career with a series of, at the time, inexplicable meltdowns both on US TV (trashing the set of Letterman, getting kicked off the Jay Leno show) and on stages in Japan and Australia. There’s no question that his illness has coloured his band’s progress with lost band mates, labels, tours and opportunities. But for all these obvious negatives, there is a far more positive side to the story.
Even leaving aside the general point that Nicholls’ diagnosis has led to a much greater understanding and acceptance of the condition in general, it’s also informed The Vines’ artistic endeavours and given Nicholls the focus to gradually refine and distil his already supremely gifted song writing down to its essence – a process that has been gathering speed over the course of the last two albums (2006’s VISION VALLEY and 2009’s MELODIA) and seems now to have finally come to fruition. Talking to him now, it’s clear that he thinks about little else – and always has done.
“Before we even made the first album, I really loved just writing songs and playing,” he recalls. “That’s all I wanted to do and it still is. I demo songs all the time. I’m writing a new album now. It’s the thing I love the best. Writing songs and recording them. When I’ve got a new song, it’s a really exciting thing to me. I’m thankful I have song writing because I have no other real hobbies.”
“Although I still love listening to Blur all the time…”
This intense concentration on writing and recording, to the exclusion of virtually everything else, means Nicholls has taken his craft to new levels. FUTURE PRIMITIVE – produced in Sydney by Chris Colona from the Bumblebeez and mixed in Paris by Julien Delfaud – is a thrillingly concise record. Be it the screaming 110 second rollercoaster ride of first single Gimme Love or the languid beauty of the ballad Leave Me In The Dark (maybe the best Vines song to date), there is nothing superfluous on the record. Indeed, the whole 13 track album clocks in at just over 33 minutes.
“That’s the direction I’m heading in,” enthuses Nicholls. “Two minute songs are really cool things to me. I’m not a very technical guitar player, so a lot of the songs don’t have guitar solos. Mostly, it’s just about arrangements. I’ve worked hard at those.”
Nicholls has also worked hard lyrically, and the album title itself is an eloquent and knowing take on how he sees himself in the world, and how the world sees him.
“Ha, yes. It’s about being in the wrong time. It’s about what I think I am. It’s about not being connected to technology. I don’t think I’m missing out on anything, I just don’t understand it. I don’t know how to drive. I can’t use the computer. I like playing guitar and writing songs. And I still like CDs. They’re really cool objects.”
For Nicholls, it’s really as simple as that. Back in 2002, The Vines might have seemed unlikely candidates for longevity, but fuelled by Nicholls’ passionate dedication to his craft, they’ve overcome – or at least, come to terms with – their difficulties while so many of their peers have fallen by the wayside.
Now signed to a new label – Columbia – with touring plans for the UK, US, Japan and South America, the time seems right to reappraise what they’ve achieved, especially in light of what they’ve had to deal with to do it. It might be tempting fate to say it, but for a band and a singer largely out of time and out of this world, it’s starting to feel like they’re back in synch with the planet again. Their moment might just have come back round again.