"We're a rock band. We're happy with that" – The Vaselines interviewed

A full 25 years since their debut, Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee return with a third album as The Vaselines. The duo talk about yoga, still getting a kick out of music and why they're most definitely not a twee band from Bellshill

Feature by Chris McCall | 16 Sep 2014

The Vaselines are a rock band from the East End of Glasgow. If you think that’s a statement of the blindingly obvious, you’re in the minority. Music magazines, websites and Wikipedia still regularly report that Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee hail from Edinburgh or, somewhat bizarrely, Bellshill. Kelly, who was most definitely born in Calton and grew up in Parkhead, winces slightly when the ‘B’ word is mentioned. “I’m constantly telling people on Twitter that we’re from Glasgow,” he sighs. “Even last week, Mojo had a thing on ‘50 indie songs you must hear.’ We were number 24 and described as a four piece band from Bellshill. I went straight on Twitter and told them. 

“I think it’s because 53rd & 3rd [the late 80s indie label that first signed the duo] was based in Edinburgh, and we’ve also got a connection to the Bellshill scene of the early 90s – we’re friends with Duglas [Stewart] from the BMX Bandits and Norman [Blake] from Teenage Fanclub. Frances knew them before she knew me. But I really can’t understand why people don’t accept it when we say we’re a Glasgow band. I’ve nothing against Edinburgh or Bellshill, but it’s a basic journalistic fact that people should get right. I was born in Calton, near the Barrowland. Frances is East End as well. Not Bellshill.”

The Skinny meets The Vaselines, well, one half of them anyway, in a Byres Road cafe to talk about their new album, V for Vaselines. McKee is otherwise engaged in France at an annual yoga retreat, but will later cheerfully respond to questions via email. Their third LP is a step up from 2010’s Sex With An X and something of a departure in lyrical content from 1989’s Dum Dum. It should also slay another lingering myth that surrounds The Vaselines; that they are somehow ‘twee.’

"The way we’re looking at it just now is that we probably won’t do another record" – Eugene Kelly

“It’s just a terrible, patronising name,” explains Kelly. “Although we were contemporaries with that kind of thing – and I’ve nothing against any of the bands that were – but we’ve never wanted to be called twee. The Kinks are one of my favourite bands, but you would never call them twee, even though Ray Davies has quite a soft, gentle voice. Sometimes you read that one of your songs is listed as the twee genre, and you think... we’re not. Our voices are quite soft, but we don’t have rock ’n’ roll screaming, so people think it’s a bit twee. We’re a rock band, and we’re happy with that.”

While writing V for Vaselines, Kelly and McKee, now in their late 40s, rediscovered their love of The Ramones and a passion for writing short, direct songs. “It was inspired by the brevity – how you can say everything in the song in a minute and a half or two minutes,” adds Kelly. “We didn’t want to go away and sound like the Ramones or anything. We wanted to get back to what The Vaselines were like, writing really short songs.”

It’s true that some of their best loved tracks, like Molly’s Lips or Monsterpussy, don’t trouble the two minute mark. But V for Vaselines sheds the innuendo without losing their trademark good humour. It’s another stellar chapter in the Vaselines’ remarkable story, which began with two singles and an album released with little fanfare in the late 80s. They had split before almost anyone outside of Scotland’s central belt had the chance to hear them. But, crucially, the few people that did get their hands on the records loved them – and their popularity grew from there.

Fast forward two decades and their live comeback was topped with a memorable sell-out show at Glasgow’s ABC in 2008. It was also around this time they realised they had built up a global fanbase without realising it. Sex With An X, their first new material in 21 years, was released on Sub Pop, the seminal Seattle label that also kick-started the career of a certain Vaselines über fan by the name of Kurt Cobain, who covered Kelly and McKee’s songs pretty much any time he had the chance, most famously on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York. V for Vaselines is, however, self-released on the band’s own Rosary Music imprint.

“There were at least ten major labels wining and dining Eugene and I, but in the end we decided that we would go it alone, especially since we wanted to have total control: just like the Daleks,” McKee writes. “However, back to the real world. Music is changing, the way people listen to music is changing. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the attitude of record labels. More and more, musicians are cutting out the middle men as they are no longer required. Things have become very safe again and it is strangling music.”

Kelly is philosophical about the process. “I can understand that people might like the band, but might not see it as a viable business proposition, that it’s not going to make enough money... so we had to do a self-release. I think it’s their loss; I think it’s a good record. It might not make anyone rich, but I think it’s still a worthwhile thing to do; to put out a piece of music because you believe in your own talent.”

When The Vaselines return to the stage to promote the album next month they’ll be accompanied by a new look band. Michael McGaughrin remains on drums, but Stevie Jackson and Bob Kildea, who have played with the group since they reformed, are now back on full-time duty with Belle and Sebastian. That prompted the signing of Olympic Swimmers bassist Graeme Smillie and Sons & Daughters guitarist Scott Paterson.

“It’s always very difficult to move on to different musicians,” McKee said. “It’s just like when you chuck your boyfriend/girlfriend – you can’t imagine finding another until you do. There is always the initial breaking in period, but after that you forget all about the previous ones and focus on the new energy that has been added. Each musician is unique and each brings that to The Vaselines. They put a new slant on old songs, so it’s very exciting for us to hear that.”

With two records in four years and several tours under their belt, it’s easy to forget just how unlikely a Vaselines reunion once seemed. Prior to reforming for Sub Pop's 20th anniversary, their last public appearance was to support Nirvana at Edinburgh’s Calton Studios in October 1990 alongside L7 and Shonen Knife. Kelly had little faith that they could make a success of the band during those intervening years. “People were saying: 'Don’t ever get the Vaselines back together!' Friends of mine have said to me over the years: ‘Oh, if you get back together you’ll totally make a killing.’ But I just thought: You’re completely wrong, there just isn’t an audience for it. And we haven’t made a killing, so they were wrong! But there is now an audience in different parts of the world that there wasn’t 20 years ago. It’s great to be able to go to different places and play. It’s one of the best things about being a musician, you can travel the world and someone else pays for it. We love playing live more than anything.”

Those presuming we can now look forward to a steady stream of new Vaselines material may be disappointed, however. “I think the way we’re looking at it just now is that we probably won’t do another record. But that could change in a couple of years. This one feels worth the six months it took to get it released, but now we just want to get it out in the shops. I won’t even start thinking about writing something for a while. But you never know. I was playing something last week and I kept thinking: is that a Vaselines song? Is it? Maybe I’ll put it aside... so you never know.”

Tea finished, Kelly prepares for the short walk back to his West End home. Has he never been encouraged to follow McKee’s lead and take up the yoga? “No. But when you hang around with someone who looks after themselves, you do pick up a few wee things." McKee, however, seems confident her songwriting partner can be won round. “He did join in a yoga class that I took when we played All Tomorrow’s Parties. I suspect he is working out his moves at home until he has reached perfection; he is a Capricorn after all. And then when he can show off he will come pouncing into class and impress all the ladies and gents around him. I am expecting that moment to come very soon.”

V for Vaselines is released on 29 Sep via Rosary Music. The Vaselines play Edinburgh Caves the same day http://thevaselines.co.uk