While it may seem sometimes that we are living in a strange wormhole where everything that once was old is new again—what with yesteryear legends ranging from the New York Dolls to My Bloody Valentine to Throbbing Gristle having been resurrected—when it was announced last year that the Vaselines were getting back together, it was still a reunion most couldn’t have seen coming. The Glasgow group, consisting for most of its existence of just principals (and then couple) Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee, had only been active for three short years at the end of the ’80s, releasing a couple of churlish EPs and one full-length on the small 53rd and 3rd label, before both they and their label disappeared into the ether.
Well almost. The band was championed (and also covered) by Kurt Cobain as one of his favorites, and got back together only for a few opening spots when Nirvana played Scotland a year later. The association also led to a compilation on Sub Pop, The Way of the Vaselines, which in turn has created an annually expanding audience for the would-be forgotten band.
While Cobain, who first heard the band via Calvin Johnson’s radio show, may have introduced the Vaselines to many new listeners, it was their music that won them over. A mix of jangled pop, noisy overdrive and sexual enuendo, the Vaselines were at once coy and direct. They operated on several visceral planes, tackling the subject matters that have long been the r&r playground, but from entirely different angles.
Having played Sub Pop’s 20th Anniversary in Seattle and a couple warm-up shows in the New York area last year, the Vaselines recently completed their first ever proper tour of the States in support of the remastered and expanded version of the Sub Pop comp, Enter the Vaselines. I caught up with Kelly on the phone before a show in Chicago.
When you started, did you feel like you were part of a greater music community in Glasgow?
Eugene Kelly: Not really, because we felt completely outside of what was big. It was just the Pastels and Primal Scream and the Jesus and Mary Chain, though at that point they were mostly in London. So it wasn’t a big massive scene. There was a club called Splash One that was run by Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream. That was the first place I went to and met lots of people who were into the same music. It felt like a bit of a community with lots of people in bands. That’s the first time I felt that there was some kind of scene going on in Glasgow.
And do you still live in Glasgow?
EK: Uh huh.
Did you keep in touch all these years?
EK: We did. We used to see other occasionally, but just because Sub Pop started putting out the Vaselines back catalog and there was always something to deal with. Every five years the contract would get renewed, or if someone wanted to use a song in a film or something. We had to communicate over the Vaselines, so we weren’t distant for the last 20 years.
Do you have anyone backing you up on these shows?
EK: Yeah, we’ve got Stevie Jackson from Belle & Sebastian on guitar and Bob Colburn from Belle and Sebastian, and on drums, Michael McGaughrin, who plays in the 1990s.
Was there ever any thought of getting the other people who had been involved with the Vaselines to play?
EK: The way it started was that Frances’ sister was organizing a charity show, and I said, “Let’s play some Vaselines songs,” and Frances agreed. So we thought we’d just get some friends to back us up and have some quick rehearsals and do the show. That’s why we got those guys, and it’s just worked out so well that we’re going to continue with that line-up. My brother Charlie, who played drums with us, hasn’t played drums for 20 years and he’s got a job and a family and he’s not been in the music business. We lost contact with James (Seenan), who used to play bass. So when we got this line-up it felt so good that we felt there’s no going back and it’s much, much better.
Had you planned to continue with the reunion last year?
EK: No, not really. The charity was a one-off, but at the same time we had been offered to go to Sub Pop’s 20th anniversary festival. We had said “no” to that, because when they asked us we didn’t have a band. There was no band, I mean, we didn’t exist. But once we had done the charity show we kind of thought about it again, but Frances couldn’t go. Luckily her in-laws visited and they could look after her children. So we thought, “Why not? Let’s go, it’ll be great to be part of it.” That’s when it kicked off.
Did having this new version of the record instigate keeping it going or was it vice versa, because you were keeping it going they decided to issue a new version of the record?
EK: I was talking to somebody from Sub Pop this week, and they said that it was about a year ago that they asked to think about a reissue, so it’s taken that long. I mean, it’s kind of coincidental. It wasn’t like we planned to get back together because we had the reissue coming out—they were both happening at the same time. It made sense as well that once we were playing more shows to come back to America when the record came out.
And this version was taken from the original tapes whereas The Way of the Vaselines wasn’t?
EK: Yeah, because when The Way of the Vaselines happened Sub Pop asked me what we had to cut the record from, and there wasn’t much. I think we may have cut some of it from a CD version of Dum Dum and some cassettes, original studio cassettes, and couldn’t get access to any other tapes. So this time we really tried harder and tracked down the multi-tracks from Dum Dum and went back and remixed from scratch. Then we found the stereo mixes on quarter-inch tape of the first two singles, cut it from that and then went into Abbey Road and remastered everything as well. So it’s a whole new redone version of everything.
Was it just a matter of not having those tapes at hand or were they really hard to track down?
EK: We just didn’t know where they were at the time. We didn’t know where anything was, but this time we managed to strike it lucky. Stephen Pastel found one of the tapes in the cupboard and then Stevie Watson at Chamber Studios managed to track down the multi-tracks for Dum Dum.
“Slushy,” in particular, stands out to me as one that sounds remarkably different.
EK: Yeah, and “Lovecraft” as well because there was a lot of stuff that’s been taken from that, some voices and harmonies and things that we couldn’t find the same effects and the sample that we used the last time. We just sort of redid it as it is.
On the new release, there are some demos that were never rerecorded. Was it a matter of them not making the cut or was it matter of never getting around to rerecording them?
EK: Once we demoed the songs we had... we liked “Son of a Gun” so that was on the record, but we had started writing some more and we always preferred the new songs we were writing to those songs. They were a bit twee-er. I think we hadn’t found our voice yet. By the time we recorded “Son of a Gun” and “Rory Rides Me Raw,” we had found what we should be doing with the band so we never went back to those songs.
What was the reason for the band breaking up back then?
EK: It had kind of run its course. It wasn’t a serious thing. There wasn’t any future really. We had released a couple singles and an album in the space of three years. Our record company had went bust, our distribution company had went bust, and there wasn’t anybody in a rush to give us money to do another record. Frances and I had broken up as well, and we didn’t know if we could write songs together. I wasn’t so sure if we could continue as well. There was an end to the record company and distribution company, both of us had finished college, and we’d broken up as a couple. Lots of things had ended so it just seemed like a time to part ways and move on to other things.
Did you second-guess that decision at all once you gained the notoriety from Cobain?
EK: No, we never thought about going back to it at all at that point. We had moved on. I was doing Captain America and then Eugenius and had a deal making records. There was never any thought of regrouping then. What’s great about it now, the distance from it in time makes it more appealing to go back to it. Then it was just too soon to go back to it.
Did you have any great aspirations for the band and did they change at all over time?
EK: Never really, no. We had no ambitions about what we could achieve back then. We were very lucky to get a couple singles and an album out, and we thought that was an amazing achievement and that was about as far as we could ever get, maybe play some shows in England. That was the height of our ambitions. We never thought we’d ever get a manager or get a proper agent or a proper record deal. We never chased anything like that or thought it was going to come our way. The music scene back then was so different. Alternative or indie rock or whatever you want to call it—there was no real audience for it then the way there is now. It was very underground.
I remember what it was like before the internet. To find out about a band from Glasgow when you are in America living in some place like Olympia, Washington was difficult.
EK: Uh huh, I think that’s what it is. Now, it’s very easy to tell the world what you’re doing and where you’re going to be. Then, we were a very small band. Once we put out the singles, we thought that was that. We had some fun, but that was as far as our musical careers may have gone. We were both going to work at college to learn other things. Music was fun, but it wasn’t something we thought we were going to be doing forever. At that point, we thought we weren’t the kind of people to get a record deal.
What was the reaction in Glasgow when you started?
EK: We never played to big crowds, and we did a lot of support shows. I think people were a bit confused by us because we were snuffy and a bit confrontational and the music was primitive. People weren’t sure if they liked us or not.
Did you tour much back then?
EK: We didn’t do much. We played in Glasgow and in Edinburgh, and we did maybe one or two tours supporting the Pastels in England. We didn’t play much.
Being championed by people like Calvin Johnson, did you feel like you shared an aesthetic with the American lo-fi bands?
EK: Uh huh, because we were influenced by a lot of our favorite music at the time coming out of America, like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur, Pussy Galore. So I think we felt attuned to that scene. Our record company, 53rd and 3rd, would swap copies of records with K Records. So there was definitely an affinity between us and people in America.
I think that one of the songs that you’re most well known for is “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” and it seems to stick out as being more serious in tone. Did it feel that way when you wrote it?
EK: I can’t remember what it was like at the time when we wrote it, but looking back it’s less flippant and less juvenile than the other songs. It definitely has a serious idea behind it about rejecting the religion you’ve been brought up on and questioning it. I suppose it’s a more serious song, but at the time I never thought, “This is a serious song” or “This is a lighthearted song.” They were all kind of the same thing. We were just singing what we felt and about things that interested us.
In addition, it’s taken on added weight just because Cobain sang it so close to his death. Does it feel melancholic to you now?
EK: Not really, but it did at the time that they recorded it because I hadn’t seen the TV version of Unplugged until after Kurt had died. I watched it with a friend of mine who had worked with me as a sound engineer and he also worked with Kurt and the band doing their monitor mixes. We watched it together, and I found it quite eerie actually because Kurt was dead, and I felt quite emotional hearing their version of it for the first time. But when we play it now, I don’t think of Nirvana’s version, I just think of it as us playing it.
Given that you weren’t as accomplished of a musician when you made these songs, is it hard to play stuff that might seem simplistic to you now?
EK: Not really. We haven’t evolved much as musicians. We managed to learn what we needed back in the ’80s and that was good enough for us. We can still play these songs very easily and don’t have to dumb down to play them.
On your recent solo album you sang that you were done with noise. Is that incongruous with revisiting the Vaselines?
EK: I still like loud music. It was a song about somebody growing up and trying to move on from the past and have a domestic lifestyle. It wasn’t about someone who doesn’t like loud music. It was just about change and moving forward.
Do you feel at all like the Vaselines have overshadowed what you’ve done since then?
EK: I think so. You can’t escape that. Even when Frances and I were doing solo stuff, people would still be asking about the Vaselines. That’s the way it will always be because Nirvana really highlighted us. If we never play Vaselines again and only do solo stuff, we’ll still be talking about the Vaselines for the rest of our lives, or at least as long as we play music. But that’s fine, I don’t have a problem with that.
I think people might have discovered the band through Nirvana, but I think they hold the band pretty dear because of what you did do too.
EK: I think most fans that will see us now will be people that heard us through Nirvana. But that’s great—that’s what Nirvana did. They tried to open the ears of their fans to other music.
Do you feel like you have a legacy to live up to?
EK: No. If we felt that way, we wouldn’t do anything. We’d be scared to do anything. So we just get on with it and play music and have fun doing it. We don’t worry about legacies or anything like that.
Nevertheless, there seems like there’s a lot of new bands citing the Vaselines as an influence.
EK: I’ve just started to hear about a few bands that people say sound like us. But when I go and listen to these bands I never really hear the Vaselines in them.
And you’re writing some new songs?
EK: Yeah, we’ve written about four or five. Two are definitely finished, and we’re playing them in the set. The other ones, the lyrics are pretty much done, but we haven’t arranged them properly, and we’re going to get back to work when we go home. We don’t know what we’re going to do next with them. We just wrote new songs to have new songs to play in the set. A lot of people are asking us if we’re doing a new record, but we don’t want to say anything about it in case it should never happen. If we say we’re doing a new record and then we don’t do one, then people will ask us why we didn’t do a new record and think there was a big problem. So we’re just going to keep our cards close to our chests till we see what happens. A little bit of mystery is always good.