Some kids know what they want to be when they grow up as early as gradeschool. It took Justin Young a little longer. He studied history in college, and punched the clock at a map company and a photography studio. “And before that, I washed up in a pub, but I like to dress it up and tell people that I was a ceramics technician,” chuckles the brainy Brit, who eventually fell in with London’s burgeoning neo-folk scene a few years ago as the acoustic-strumming solo act Jay Jay Pistolet. But it simply wasn’t his destiny. He watched friends like Laura Marling and Mumford & Sons zoom past him to fame. “And I thought I’d hit a brick wall with music, and I lost all my drive and interest in it, really,” he sighs.
It wasn’t a Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards moment. But when the disgruntled folkie Young met an equally bitter punk-edgy guitarist named Freddie Cowan three years back, something clicked. “Once we started playing together, I had something to aim for again, and I wrote a whole string of songs as a result,” recalls Young, whose first uploaded demo under the banner of The Vaccines, “If You Wanna,” caught on with UK radio tastemakers. With bassist Arni Arnason and drummer Pete Robertson on board, the quartet issued its double A-sided single of “Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)”/”Blow it Up” in November of 2010 and the buzz grew. Young’s folk-rustic aesthetics and warm, honeyed singing voice—coupled with Cowan’s jagged, Link Wray-meets-Ramones riffs—were a hit, paving the way for The Vaccines’ chart-topping debut, What Did You Expect From the Vaccines? Young had finally found his true calling.
Now imagine all that hard-won insight simply wiped away, overnight. Imagine, at long last, discovering your talent, only to have to be stripped of said skills in a career-crushing heartbeat. That’s what Justin Young was facing for most of 2011, as The Vaccines bravely struggled through over 150 mettle-testing shows. And he was understandably scared out of his wits.
It had started innocently enough around Christmas of 2010, remembers Young. He began to notice that he was always pausing to clear his throat, and he was no longer able to hit certain notes onstage. “At first I thought it was just loads of mucus, but then I thought ‘No, this is something weird.’ And someone told me to go and see the doctor, and he took a look down there and found that it had been bleeding and there was this lump in there. Then over the course of the year, it happened three times, and I had three operations, which is why we never toured the States.”
The diagnosis was grim. Thanks to the shouted oomph of What Did You Expect anthems, Young had overtaxed his vocal cords, and they’d begun hemorrhaging, forming scar tissue, which was gathering in restrictive lumps. “And then my vocal cords couldn’t work properly—basically the sounds you need to be able to speak just weren’t working,” he says. After each operation, he was told to take time off to recuperate, but the demand for the group was so high, they kept jetting off to yet another sold-out appearance. “So the final time I was like ‘Look—we’re not doing this anymore. I want to get better.’ So we took the time off, and so far, it’s been pretty much a year, and I’m okay up to this point,” Young swears. “So I’m kind of hopeful that that’s all over. But I still live in constant fear—there’s still that danger, because not even singing, but just talking, as well, was becoming a bit of an issue.”
But this storm cloud had an unusual silver lining. After barking through The Vaccines’ reverb-drenched bow (nicely overseen by Dan Grech-Marguerat), Young switched to earthier, more folk-minded producer Ethan Johns for their new sophomore stunner, Come of Age, and recalibrated his craft accordingly in a more subtle fashion. “So actually, on this record, I feel like my singing really benefitted from the softness I brought, or the softer approach that I’m taking with singing now,” he says, delighted that everything worked out. Knock wood.
And admittedly, What Did You Expect was such a kinetic slab of angular perfection—with every song, from the hyper-chorded “Norgaard” and “Wolf Pack” to the snarky, crescendoed centerpiece “Post Break-Up Sex,” glittering with gemlike opalescence—The Vaccines seemed fated for a fall. How could a band that charged out of the gate this confidently ever make another record this brash and brilliant? The dreaded sophomore jinx that’s torpedoed many a great act before them seemed primed to down Young’s outfit, too. Oddly enough, even on his darkest days, the frontman felt no follow-up pressure at all. Through his time off, he says, “we continued to write, so we had all the material. And we had material that we thought was better than the first record. And of course, you’ll have the odd negative thought. But it’s not something that kept any of us ability—we’ve just gone with our hearts and put our faith in what we think is good.”
After a brief one-off session in upstate New York with Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr. at the helm—the sneering, Charlie Sheen-inspired song “Tiger Blood”—The Vaccines got to work on Come of Age with Johns, and he provided them with a blunt, less echoey mix that puts Young’s voice right up front. “I’ve always liked the idea that if you don’t wanna make the same record twice, don’t make it with the same person,” says Young, who was a huge fan of Johns’ early work with Whiskeytown and Ryan Adams, as well as his recent team-ups with Laura Marling. But the group hasn’t lost a kilowatt of energy in the process.
Come of Age may not top the definitive Expect, but it certainly sits comfortably in the modern-rock pantheon alongside it. And stylistically, it’s all over the map, while still sounding uniformly Vaccines throughout. There are exuberant testosterone blasts (the growling “Bad Mood,” a Dylan-wheezed “No Hope”), ‘60s-sunny janglers (“Aftershave Ocean,” “All in Vain,” “I Always Knew”), some downright spooky and sinister moments (“Weirdo” and “Ghost Town”), and percolating punk/folk hybrids that have become their stock in trade, like “Change of Heart Pt. 2” and the irresistible new single “Teenage Icon” (whose video features the four teenage girls from the album cover, aping the bandmembers on instruments). Listen to it once, and you’ll like it. Listen to it a dozen times? You’ll adore it and be awed by its complexity.
On each cut, the mood is set not only by Young’s bratty, tongue-in-cheek wordplay (which often indicts his own self-absorbed Twitter/Facebook generation), but by Cowan’s complementary guitar tones, which morph from Duane Eddy to Roger McGuinn in a nanosecond. In fact, the overall effect is often a conversation that’s occurring between singer and axeman, as on vintage R.E.M. recordings where Peter Buck’s guitar actually seemed to speak to Michael Stipe. “And Peter Buck is someone that we talked about, as a guitarist who really defined R.E.M.,” says Young. “So I guess this is a searching record, because it was us going ‘Who are we as a band? What’s gonna make people compare new bands to The Vaccines in 20 years’ time, rather than comparing The Vaccines to The Ramones?’ And I think Freddie is certainly our secret weapon in that respect—he goes a long way in helping to shape the identity of The Vaccines, just like Peter Buck did in R.E.M. That’s one thing that Freddie—and we—manage to do really well. The mood set by the lyrics is really matched by the instrumentation.”
Now that they’re revved back up, The Vaccines aren’t planning on slowing down. They’ve already issued a free Do Not Disturb covers EP on their website—taped in various European hotel rooms—and each member is writing and recording their own B-side to upcoming singles (Cowan tracking his with his brother Tom Furse from The Horrors), each featuring one of their young-girl doppelganger’s faces on the cover.
Why use teen Vaccines? Young chortles. “There were a few people in the U.K. when we first came out who were like ‘These guys don’t look like rock stars! They’re just kids!’” says the guitarist, who’s grown his once-short hair heavy-metal long now. “And that really resonated with me. So with this album. I was singing about this weird, transitional period in your life where you don’t know who you are, and I liked the idea of having four people on an album cover where people didn’t know who they were. And they were at a time in their lives where they probably didn’t know who they were.”
But Young still has his foot lightly touching the brake pedal, just in case. And he’s learned how to take care of his ailing throat, long-term, now. “I actually had a vocal therapist—not like a singing coach,” he concludes. “Somebody who taught me how to not completely rip my voice to shreds, even when I was just talking. So now I do special exercises and stuff. Just to keep things going. I’ve had quite a wake-up call, really.”