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Rock and Pop: Interview - Pete Robertson of The Vaccines

Vaccines Pete Robertson, Freddie Cowan, Justin Young and Arni Hjorvar

Published: 31 March, 2011
by ROISIN GADELRAB

A YEAR ago Pete Robertson was doing the rounds as a session drummer, convinced his childhood rock musician dreams had reached their pinnacle.

Then along came The Vaccines, critical recognition, a top five album (What Did You Expect from The Vaccines?) and an awful lot of fuss.

“(Radio 1 DJ) Zane Lowe asked us ‘How did this happen? You survived. We tried to destroy you with our hype and yet you’ve managed to make a great debut album’.” Part of us was like, ‘yeah you’re kind of putting us in quite a difficult position with this’. But I feel like we’ve overcome it and hopefully proved some people right,” said Pete.

In little under 12 months, the band has gone from non-existence to attracting the world’s attention at SXSW – and they can chart the turning point in their supersonic rise to one night in Camden.

Pete said: “We loved the Flowerpot. It was kind of a landmark for us. We’d done a couple of gigs around the country to about 10 people. We were opening to school bands, playing to them and their parents.”

But they were noticed by the music media and a demo was championed by Lowe.

Pete said: “We got to The Flowerpot and no one was there. We thought, ‘it’s just one of those shows’. We went up to the dressing room, hung out till it was time to go onstage, went downstairs and they were queuing out the door.”

The word was out, the muso crowd had shown up and the likes of Alex Kapranos (Franz Ferdinand) and Nick Hodgson (Kaiser Chiefs) crammed into the former Kentish Town venue to see them.

“It was a very special gig for us,” said Pete. “When we were writing and rehearsing, even when we were playing our little toilets, we still felt like we were doing something, we could connect to people – we just thought it might take a little longer.”

The Vaccines play the Electric Ballroom next week (April 7 and 8) and are planning a bit of an experiment.

“We’ve done it once or twice live, but it’s not really taken off for us – the last track on the album Family Friend turns into a noise-fest at the end,” said Pete.

“We’ve only dabbled with playing that live before. It’s so sparse at the top for the first half that it’s right on a knife edge, but we will be doing that at the Electric Ballroom.”

Unable to describe his own character, except to say he questions himself regularly, Pete kindly summed up his bandmates: “Justin’s got an incredible mind, an amazing way of thinking, incredibly intelligent and thoughtful. Freddie is in a similar way a bit of a geek. He knows his music inside out, it’s pretty encyclopaedic. He’s got a wicked sense of humour as well. Arni (from Kilburn) is like a typical Scandinavian. I guess he’s quite quiet but when he has odd days he gets very passionate about it.”

Coming up with the band name was difficult he said, adding: “We had a few good names we weren’t allowed to use because they were a bit inflammatory. We did one gig as The Catholics. But we were told it would probably cause a bit of outrage. We’re not Catholics. We were Red Indians as well for a while – apparently that’s racist.”

His own music preferences vary dramatically.

Pete said: “The drummer who put me on to wanting to play drums, my first inspiration was probably Dave Grohl. Nirvana basically changed my life as it did for most kids at that time – that was a proper landmark.  Dave Grohl’s drumming is brilliant but I think it was that whole band and that whole ethos they had that was so inspiring to people of that generation.”

He has time for the softer side too: “I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. I find music snobbery like wine snobbery. I’ve been derided for liking one of Taylor Swift’s songs – the Romeo and Juliet one – it’s such a good song.”

Pete says he believes drumming keeps him fit: “I’ve got quite skinny arms but I think it must be (good exercise) because I’m not fat and I should be – I eat and drink quite a lot. The most impressive muscle I have is in my hand, no one ever sees it, it’s my thumb muscle. Most drummers, if you have really massive biceps, it’s because you have bad technique. I don’t get much love for that (thumb).”

They’re due to tour the US with the Arctic Monkeys although they haven’t yet met, and have already devised coping techniques for touring.

Pete said: “We entertain each other by basically taking the piss out of each other to the point that we end up fighting and then fighting for fun and watching fights for fun. 

“We’re in a bit of a pressure cooker at the moment. It gets pretty full on, the gripes are bound to happen. Fortunately, we know each other well enough to chill it and then it’s over – no grudges or anything.”

Their recent appearance at SXSW caused a fuss, where they caught the ears of the US media, but Pete had a more important mission on his agenda.

He said: “I got my first tattoo. I kind of knew what I wanted but I was still wondering if I was still going to have the guts. I met this guy and he was a tattoo artist and drew me one, and I loved it so thought, ‘why not drill me with needles repeatedly’, so I now have a rising sun stamped on my arm forever.

“All the guys came down and I thought they were going to help talk me through a difficult period but they just laughed and drank cocktails. They say it’s addictive. I was halfway through getting it done when I already had an idea for the next one. You never know, by next year I’ll be a painted man.”

Recalling the band’s beginnings, while still a session drummer, he said: “It’s great to be able to make a living doing music but I thought that was it and the dream you have as a kid was fading fast. 

“I realised I needed something more from my music, some creativity and everyone else was kind of in the same boat, so when we got together there was a real energy and enthusiasm. It felt like we were escaping and it was really great. The first rehearsal we had together you could kind of feel something there.

“We’re all fans of depth and meaning through simplicity. Listening to, I guess, brave music – stuff that’s laying the character and soul completely bare for everyone to see. “

And for now, life looks rosy for The Vaccines.

Pete added: “I’ve never been busier in life, but it doesn’t really feel like work, it’s something we want to do. It’s all really exciting and fun. I’ve yet to experience getting bored with playing music. I’m sure it happens, but I can’t imagine what that would feel like.

“It doesn’t feel like a rush, it’s been quite a steady and natural progression. There are odd moments when you kind of pinch yourself but the majority you just kind of get on with it and enjoy the moment.” 

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