The Vaccines’ Combat Sports was released in the spring of 2018. That it ever saw the light of day was a testament to the band’s inner belief, but a belief that had been badly dented by the departure of founding member Pete Robertson, in mid-2016, after the completion of their third album; the less-than well received English Graffiti. There had also been some well-publicised inter-band fighting, most notably between Freddie Cowan and Justin Hayward-Young.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” replies the Icelander Árni Árnason in triplicate, when asked of the in-fighting. Justin Hayward-Young had previously been more forthright, explaining that, “With a small group of highly strung men, for up to 15 hours a day, often in a windowless room, working on something you really care about, it’s inevitable that you come to blows.”
Árni goes on, revealing, “When Pete quit, we were really tired of working the way we were doing. We had been trying to write that album (English Graffiti) for a while. We had a lot of material, but not a lot we could agree on. It felt like flogging a dead horse. Pete quit and that made the rest of us have an honest conversation about whether we wanted to continue or not, despite how it had all been going at that point. But we decided we wanted to keep going. We brought Tim (Lanham) in, who had been touring with us for a year or so. And we got Yoann Intonti in as a replacement for Pete. He was someone who we knew loosely through (the band) Spector. And they fitted in like a glove, straight away, and brought a joyous spirit to the project, which had been lacking. Combat Sports was a result of that.”
I tell Árni that I read somewhere that the title of the album was something to do with the in-fighting, or that it may have something to do with Intonti’s love of boxing. He dismisses this out of hand. “Oh, God, I hope that is not something people believe is the case. I cannot think of anything worse than commercialised fighting sports. I couldn’t possibly agree with that statement. It’s got nothing to do with that!
“It’s about visceral energy. It’s a reference to a lyric. It was going to be called Your Love Is My Favourite New Band (a song title off the album) until very late. I was a big fan of that, this strange and exciting phrase. At the very last minute that got thrown out for Combat Sports, which sounded energetic, visceral, and powerful, but had nothing to do with boxing,” he laughs. “I’m very happy to set the record straight!”
Whichever way you look at it, Combat Sports was a triumph. An exhilarating return to form, it reeked of the youthful energy and pizzazz of their fresh-faced debut, What Did You Expect From the Vaccines?, an album that catapulted them into the mainstream. It was full of infectious songs, such as the rock’n’roll reverence that is ‘Put It on a T-shirt’, and ‘Your Love Is My Favourite Band’, just two songs that showed the band to be running on all cylinders, full of explosive rhythms, and sharp riffs. It was a brilliant fightback, a successful return to their guitar-based roots, replete with musical references to classic garage, punk, glam and new wave, but with plenty of modern songcraft and lyrical nous to compliment their growing maturity, and to make them still very much relevant in 2018. It probably also helped that they worked with producer Ross Orton (most notably known for the Arctic Monkeys’ AM) who “essentially banned” the group from listening to music, urging them instead to reference themselves. Indeed, most of the songs originally planned for the album were scrapped, and new ones were written. There must be some deep satisfaction within the camp about how it has all turned out? “You don’t really know the scope of the reception until you get a bit of distance on it,” says Árni. “I won’t really know how it’s done until the next UK tour. The last time we did a run in the UK was the week it was released, and that’s not indicative of the success of this album. So, we are very much looking forward to going on this January and February run. That will be the home run Combat Sports tour.
“It’s been a very different and interesting experience, touring our fourth album. By this time you have solidified your relationship with your fans. Normally, at this point, there is no real curiosity, they come because they are massive fans. With this album, it seems to have struck a chord for very different reasons. It’s a very humbling and incredible experience. But, without trying to sound too cocky, we have proven our worth.”
Already with the experience of supporting the likes of The Rolling Stones, Muse and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers behind them, as well as headlining both Alexandra Palace, and Reading and Leeds festival this year, The Vaccines are no strangers to rubbing shoulders with rock’s glitterati. However, although they recognise they are unlikely to be ever as big as the aforementioned, it’s not going to stop them from trying. Take ‘Rolling Stones’, the last track off Combat Sports. Is that a love letter to the kings of rock’n’roll? “We had a song on the first album called ‘Under Your Thumb’,” explains Árni. That song was supposed to be called either ‘European Son’, which is the Velvet Underground song, or ‘Under Your Thumb’, which is a Rolling Stones song,” he laughs. “We chose to go with The Rolling Stones version. And shortly afterwards we were chosen to support The Rolling Stones in Hyde Park. And we knew that they were going to go on tour this year as well, and we figured the same strategy would work if we had a song on the record that was named after The Rolling Stones, we might get asked to support them again. And it worked! We supported them in Southampton, at St. Mary’s football ground.”
So, what are they like? “It’s difficult to put in words the honour of being around that, to be a part of their circus. Their circus is very much one of a kind. They’re international superstars. They’re going to be as charming as they need to be, and as stand-offish as they should.”
What is their secret? How do they still manage to get up on stage!? “You might have to ask the doctors,” laughs Árni.
Árni himself has further reason to be proud, as a new father, even if it meant him missing out on a glorious moment just this last summer. “It’s the only thing I’ve done that trumps releasing an album. Apart from that, just getting to the stage of releasing a fourth album. I don’t think we had ever imagined we would. But, I personally missed Reading and Leeds because I was having a baby, so we got a stand-in. That was a big moment for me, not to play Reading and Leeds! It was really uncomfortable. I hated it. My girlfriend was in labour.”
I’m sure Reading will come again. “I hope so.” As long as she isn’t in labour again!? “Oh no, I’m not planning on doing that again!” he laughs.