You know that awkward moment you when you try to spark up a conversation about football with someone that has no interest in football? Well that happened to me the other day. It just so happened to be in the middle of an interview with Freddie Cowan, guitarist in arguably the biggest indie band in the country today, The Vaccines.
I rode out that storm, and we went on to discuss breaking America, getting schooled by Arctic Monkeys and stealing Michael Jackson's music. Although there was another slightly uncomfortable bit when I called him a “posh-boy”.
It's been a busy summer for The Vaccines, including over 50 festival appearances. What's been the highlight so far?
Freddie Cowan: Yeah, it's been really, really busy. I think it's 45, that's how many we're doing. We haven't done them all yet, but we're most of the way through. If people want to see you, you should make an effort to go and see them, but we almost got to the point where we were too busy. It's expensive to be on tour when you're a new band, so you've got to make those dates count. We've probably been the busiest touring band in the world this summer.
We did two sets at Glastonbury. We played on Friday and Sunday, and on the Saturday we played in Madrid. The highlight? Glastonbury was great – great seeing that many people, that was the biggest outdoor stage we'd ever played. I really enjoyed T in The Park. Scottish audiences are notorious for a reason. Up north, gigs are generally just better.
Your brother [Tom Cowan] is in The Horrors, did you play together when you were younger – ever think of forming a band together?
FC: I played with The Horrors before they were The Horrors, on guitar. When your friends or family play music, you're always going to play together. We started off playing in a band at school together, but nothing serious, just messing around.
Did you both want to be musicians from an early age?
FC: I like photography a lot, but music was the thing that attracted me the most, so I set out to find a way I could do it for a job.
I think people that don't know too much about us may resent how quick they think it's happened, but there's a lot more behind it.
Who were you into when you were younger, what made you want to pick up a guitar?
FC: My Dad was a guitarist and he was really into blues music, people like Lightnin' Hopkins, Blind Lemon Jefferson, J. B. Hutto, John Lee Hooker. He was into blues and really loved it; that's how I started playing the blues, and that developed into rock'n'roll, and that went into punk...
How did you get together with the rest of The Vaccines?
FC: I was friends with Justin, we had mutual friends. We didn't have jobs and it was a bit of a bad time for us. So we decided we should do something, a bit of solidarity, just go and mess around and have some fun together, and we built it from there. Justin had played with Árni before. Árni wanted to bring Pete in. We auditioned him and that was it.
Once you did get together, you became successful relatively quickly. Do you think this affected the way the music press or other bands treat you?
FC: Not really. It happened quickly for The Vaccines, but you've got to remember that we were playing in bands since we were 12-year-old, different bands, plugging away at it. I don't think there was any animosity from people that we were playing with before this. I think everyone was happy for us. It's a lot of work, the amount of effort we all put into it, so I don't think anyone should be unhappy with us.
It's a valid question. I think people that don't know too much about us may resent how quick they think it's happened, but there's a lot more behind it. In London, the scene is so big and fragmented, we didn't come out of a big pool of bands that thought we were unfairly championed. We were on our own.
If you could play in any other band or with any other musician for a day, who would you pick?
FC: I'd love to play with Portishead. I'm a big fan of Adrian, the guitarist. I think that would be really great. Or My Bloody Valentine, just to learn how he [Kevin Shields] does what he does. I think Jack White is a great guitarist, too. Obviously The White Stripes were his most serious band, but The Raconteurs seem like a lot of fun. They're a really tight band – the guys that play bass and drums are in a band called The Greenhornes and they're a really tight rhythm section. So that could be quite fun. But, I'd probably say Portishead.
I can't name any names, but I used to be a waiter for a while and all of the bosses and everyone I worked with was horrible.
Are you a football fan, Freddie?
FC: I'm not really a football fan. Our band team is Tottenham, but I'm not the most avid follower – the rest of the guys are hardcore fans, but I'm not.
We're running a series of features at Sabotage Times, and one of them is The Greatest Goal I Ever Saw. What goal would you pick?
FC: You've picked the wrong one. I'll text the guys and get them to pick one... I remember seeing Ryan Gigs score a goal for Man United, when he went from the half-way line. Remember that goal?
The one against Arsenal in the FA Cup where he took his top off to celebrate?
FC: Yeah, that's the one.
That was a great goal.
FC: Yeah, it was.
We also have a series entitled My Trainer Heaven. What's the best pair of trainers you've ever owned?
FC: I had a pair of Converse that I wore for the gestation of the band, all the way through until they literally fell apart. But my favourite pair of trainers are Jack Purcells, they're a badminton shoe and they're really cool. They'll be the next “cool” trainer.
Have you ever had any Horrible Bosses?
FC: I don't think anyone's ever had a job where the boss hasn't been horrible. I can't name any names, but I used to be a waiter for a while and all of the bosses and everyone I worked with was horrible.
I can relate to that. What would you be doing if you weren't a musician?
FC: If you want to be a musician that's something you just live with, and you keep trying, and you keep working. It's not about being successful. What is success? How do you perceive it? People have different definitions of it. It's an intangible thing. It's just about being creative and satisfied. It's something sitting at a desk and no amount money can give. But I'd do something creative: paint or take pictures.
Cool. What's next for the band, have you started working on a new album?
FC: The B-side to our new single, Norgaard, is called Primal Urges, which is the first thing we've recorded since the album sessions. We were with Albert Hammond, Jr. in New York a few weeks ago and we fooled around with a song idea there. It's definitely on our minds more than it has been in the past, and we're really focused and looking forward to the new material. We'd rather start looking at it now, than look at it in five months time. We want to give ourselves as much time as we can.
The NME's problem is, it doesn't have a collective opinion. They're always changing their minds, so people can't buy into it and people can't trust it, because they love something one week and slate it the next week.
So is Albert Hammond, Jr. going to be producing your new stuff?
FC: We went up to his studio in upstate New York and just fooled around with a new song. I guess you could say he was producing, but it was very informal.
You've been spending a lot of time in America, how's it going for the band over there?
FC: It's good, but it's different. The British music industry – or whatever you want to call it – is based around new bands. Radio 1 is based around new music, their A-list has new and upcoming songs, which seems pretty normal to you, right? But in America it's not. They have new pop songs, but their alternative music, guitar music, is the best songs the last 30 years – they'll have Nirvana songs. A new band for them will be Kings of Leon – who are the biggest band in half of the countries in the world.
So you put a record out there first, then you tour it, and tour it, and tour it; and see if gets somewhere. But it's been great, really positive. I really feel like we're making progress. It feels there, like it did here in England six months ago, or ten months ago. We're going back and that'll be the fifth time we've been this year. But we're definitely making our presence felt.
How do you feel about going from huge festivals and big venues here, to smaller ones over in America?
FC: I think it's really good for us. I'm an Anglophile, I love England, I love spending time here and I love touring here; but I'm fascinated by American culture. It's a really interesting country to be in. Also, the matter of not being a big band over there is good for us.
We toured with the Arctic Monkeys – after doing our own, big headline tour in the UK – and then went to America to support them there. We played our set and we were like: “Yeah, that was great.” And then we'd watch the Monkeys and they'd blow us away, and we'd realise that we have so much more work to do. They schooled us. By the end of that tour we really felt like we'd come on so much. I think you have to keep challenging yourself, you can't just sit back and enjoy things, you have to keep pushing.
Spotify – where you can access your album and lots of your live stuff – recently launched in America and is doing really well over. How do feel about people listening to your music on services like that?
FC: I think it's a losing battle. Unless someone comes up with something completely revolutionary, I don't think that can change. The iPod and iTunes is the most relevant invention for our era of music.
But, personally, I don't care if people steal our music. I'd never complain about that. Before we started the band, I didn't have a penny and I used to steal everything. I'd steal all the music I could. That's not to say you should steal things, but most bands make enough money out of touring, so they shouldn't be complaining. If you steal a Michael Jackson album, I'm sure no one's going to care. If it's a new band, that might need the money, I'd think about it twice.
Yeah, Jacko wouldn't mind. How do you feel about people perceiving you as being this posh-boy band? NME said: “Supposedly guitarist Freddie Cowan is so toffee-nosed he’s 14th in line to the throne and gets carried to gigs on a sedan chair."
FC: We didn't ask people to like us; we didn't ask people to dislikes us. The NME's problem is, it doesn't have a collective opinion. They're always changing their minds, so people can't buy into it and people can't trust it, because they love something one week and slate it the next week. People look to the NME to tell them what's good, and they need to be more direct. You know what I mean, they need continuity in what they say. But, yeah, I couldn't give a shit.
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