Catching up with Eugene Kelly, one half of songwriting duo The Vaselines, to talk about their new album, current tour, and their Do-It-Yourself attitude.
When Scottish songwriting duo and couple Eugene Kelly and Francis McKee started writing music together in Glasgow, they were in their early twenties and were inspired by the hooks of The Ramones and the beautifully simple melodies of The Velvet Underground. By the time the band had garnered fame due to their popularity in the Northwest and Nirvana’s covers of their songs “Son of a Gun,” “Molly’s Lips,” and “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam,” Kelly and McKee had split, and the band subsequently disbanded.
Two decades later in 2010, The Vaselines reunited and put out their second album, Sex With An X. In October of last year, the band released their third studio album V For Vaselines, and they just wrapped up their North American tour.
mxdwn: Sex With an X, your first album as a reunited band, was released 5 years ago. I read that you guys started playing together again to support Frances’s solo album Sunny Moon, is that what happened?
Kelly: Yeah, she had been doing some shows to promote her album and I’d released a solo record maybe the year before, so she suggested we go together on tour and play and promote the record, and I thought, yeah, that’s great. We played some Vaselines songs at the end of the show because, why not? We used to be in The Vaselines.
At what point did you guys decide to start writing together again?
It wasn’t for quite a few years after that, that was 2006. In 2008, Frances phoned me and said, “Do you want to play a charity show,” and do that acoustic thing again, and at that point I just got really fed up with playing acoustic guitar, and I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to make any music again, and I just thought, I want to do one more Vaselines show, before I stop. I got a full band, an electric band, and Frances was up for it, and I went to Belle & Sebastian, and they were up for it, as well. I sent them a text saying, “Hey, do you want to be in a band, in Vaselines? We need to rehearse next week and the show is in, like, five days from now…” And we just went, wow this is great fun, and we did the show and it was amazing. We didn’t start writing until after we’d played for six months together. We’d been doing shows off and on, and we went to America and we went to Brazil, and we thought, well, we like doing this, so let’s continue it. We don’t want to be one of those bands that’s got one record and have to keep playing the same songs forever. So we thought, let’s write some songs and add them to the set list, because there’s nineteen songs, and we didn’t play all of them, so we did some extra songs just to fill out the time. Because otherwise, we’d only be playing for like half an hour. So that’s why we started writing, just so we’d have something else to play.
Has the style of your songwriting together changed since the beginning of The Vaselines? Has writing with other bands and as solo artists changed the way either of you write songs?
Yeah, I think when we got back together, we kinda wanted to make sure it sounded like The Vaselines, and [for] people to instantly recognize The Vaselines. We didn’t want to suddenly change the feel of the songs, some of them are quite simple and quite direct. Frances’s stuff was very different to The Vaselines, so we thought, we have to try and find our way back. They came quite easy, because that kind of simple songwriting, just comes naturally to us… We thought, that’s okay, that sounds like The Vaselines, and then we just got our heads down and tried to write some more.
The songs on V For Vaselines are catchy and smart pop songs, with Ramones-style quickness. Have your original inspirations, like The Ramones and The Velvet Underground continued to inspire you all these years later?
Yeah, things like The Velvets are just those kinds of bands we used to hear in the 80s and made us think we could play guitar. Most bands, most kinds of rock bands before that, there was punk rock before that, and all sorts of good music, but guys you were at school with would be playing heavy metal music and all that, and you just think, that’s just so difficult, how could I ever learn to play that? You just want to get on stage instantly, when you’ve got the desire to be in a band. You want to go into the studio as soon as possible. You don’t want to spend the next five years learning how to play “Stairway to Heaven.” Eventually you think, this is the quicker route to doing this, it’s kind of simplistic guitar playing. It’s a bit wild and crazy and it’s a bit free-form, and so we took that route rather than the Led Zeppelin route.
Are there any other new influences you have acquired over the years that directly inspired V For Vaselines? Any Scottish bands you’re excited about?
Umm, I’m just so out of touch with what is going on in Glasgow. I mean I live there but I just don’t go to see new bands, I just kinda keep to myself, and just go to see big bands when they come to town really. Yeah, I need to get out more.
The Vaselines obviously found a home in the early 90s once Mudhoney and Nirvana became fans, do you think there’s a reason that your music has found a stronger footing in the states rather than the UK?
Yeah, I don’t know why. We definitely feel a connection with the sort of Northwest in America, Seattle and Portland, and places where you know, we kind of made a connection. Olympia, especially, with Calvin Johnson and K Records. When you find [people] you might find them on the next street or you might find them in another country, and it kind of took us [time] to find people that felt like us and that wanted to play the same kind of music as us, but it was thousands of miles away from Glasgow. I think that as a community Olympia is kind of similar to the music scene in Glasgow. It’s just kind of close knit and it’s kind of not macho, meat-head rockers, its kind of very mixed with men and women all getting involved and making music, it’s not a boys-only club.
Over the last thirty years, how has your audience changed? Do you have a lot of original fans who come out to your shows, or have you found a new audience after the release of your last two albums?
It’s a bit of both, and sometimes it’s different every night. Sometimes it’s like you get the older audiences, sometimes you get a mixture of the older and the younger audience, and its good, I think, if we we’re just playing to our peers forever and ever, you just feel like you haven’t made a connection with the a new generation. It’s kind of good for us to have young people finding out about us and getting into us. It means that we’re never going to get out of fashion, we’re still going to pick up fans along the way, and it’s great, young people bring a different energy to the show. Mature people prefer to stand and watch the gig and enjoy it, but young people sometimes really want to get rowdy and get into it, and that can make for a more exciting show for everybody.
The last decade has seen a huge change in the music industry due to digital sales and technology in general, how has this directly affected you as a musician? Do you welcome the changes?
You can welcome it, and you can be wary of it as well. It just means that people can find out about you instantly by going to the internet and searching for you and going to YouTube and seeing clips. Back in the 80s and the 90s, if somebody mentioned some great record, you had to go round every record shop in town to try and find it, and then maybe try and phone some record shop in London or go to London, but now everything is so easily accessible it makes things so you can find about bands really quick. So, that’s a really good thing. You can just go on YouTube and listen to some B-side of some obscure band, but also it means that the technology is there for people to just take your record and give it away[for] free before you’ve even released it, which isn’t great. It just means that art might make less money from doing it the mood of mid and years gone by, which affects our ability to make another record because if we can’t make some money from it, we can’t make another record. So there’s upsides and downsides, but you have to embrace it and say this is the future. Vinyl and CD’s will still hang about but, you know, ten, twenty years, thirty years, technology will be the main thing and people will be streaming and people will be just buying things in digital form, and you just have to deal with it. You can’t complain, you just have to go on with it, and say this is the way things are going.
Your band Eugenius toured with Nirvana and was signed to Atlantic Records, how did your experiences being involved with such a huge band as Nirvana and a major label affect you as a musician? Did your experiences change the way you approached making music for The Vaselines?
No, I don’t think it made any difference. A label is just a label and they’re just there to try and get your record out and promote it as much as possible and the only difference is there’d be more money if you’re on a major label, there is more money to record and more money to tour. You get a tour budget and stuff like that. You just kind of adapt to whatever situation it is, for each band you’re in. The Vaselines are much more low-key, you know, DIY, we just kind of do it ourselves, and pay for it ourselves, and release it ourselves. We have a good team around as agents and promoters and management and stuff that really helps us, and distribution company, but yea, it’s more hands-on, and its more interesting for us to do it this way, I don’t think any major label would be interested in The Vaselines these days, but it’s better for us to just take it under our control.
What have you learned over the past thirty years that you would do differently now, if you were just starting out as a musician?
I think Frances said this a while back when she was on stage, just, don’t. Don’t do it (laughs). Go and do something else instead. Just go and get a sensible job that pays a wage every month.
Do you think you would have been able to do that? Or would your creativity have forced you to be a musician anyway?
I think if you have a foot in the door of making music and making records you kind of don’t want to stop. It’s good fun. So, I think I would maybe tell the younger version of me to practice more (laughs). Practice more, learn to play guitar a bit better. Do a vocal warm up.
Eugene, I read that you’ve been thinking about writing a musical, could you tell me your ideas or what inspired you?
Yeah, over the last two years I’ve written a couple songs for [secret] shows, people in Glasgow asked me to get involved. I think I’ve written three actually, three different shows. When you see your show being performed by actors on stage with a set and costumes, it’s interesting because you don’t really see your music being presented by anybody else. I just thought that was great, I got a thrill from it. So I’d like to explore that and see if there is a chance I could write a collection of songs that kind of work as a thematic thing and to get someone to write a story, just to work in collaboration with somebody to develop it. It’s something for the future. Not right now, but definitely something I would like to try.
Do you have a theme or idea yet?
I’ve got an idea for something that’s based on something that I can’t really talk about, in case somebody else steals it. I’m going to keep it under my hat for the time being.
You guys are currently on tour, how’s that going so far?
It’s only the third show, we played in Washington and Philadelphia, and now we’re in Brooklyn. It’s going to get colder though, as we go to Montreal tomorrow and then Toronto, so we have a bit to go before we get to LA. It’s not that long, two weeks, but it’s a show everyday which keeps you busy and so you don’t have any days off.
Do you like going out every night and performing, or does that get old?
No, that’s the best bit. You travel across the world, travel across the Atlantic ocean to play, and that’s the reason we’re here. Usually things get hard sitting in the van for hours, and you’re not eating properly or getting the best sleep, that’s the bit that’s hard. But you don’t worry about that because the show is the main thing, and when you go on stage you’re kind of wired for that hour and a half. You’re there to entertain people and have a Saturday night out, and everywhere you go has to be Saturday night out. You have to give people their money’s worth.