A conversation with The Vaselines’ Eugene Kelly
Hailing from Glasgow, Scotland, Frances McKee and Eugene Kelly, also known as the Vaselines, have inspired musicians, artists, groups, and other creative types with their distinct brand of ear-catching ‘Euro-pop’. Among those influenced and inspired, was Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. As a matter of fact, Nirvana included their own cover versions of the Vaselines’ “Molly’s Lips” and “Son Of A Gun” on their “Incestcide” recordings, and the unapologetic, crowd-pleasing ballad, “Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam”. Then in 2010, after two decades of dormancy, from out of nowhere, McKee and Kelly brought the Vaselines back to life. They revealed, to an unsuspecting public, that the legendary Seattle-based label, Sub Pop Records, would release their brand new full-length album “Sex With An X,” in addition to the band’s full back catalogue, The return of the highly esteemed group gave new hope to established fans and piqued the curiosity of newcomers. After promoting and touring for “Sex With An X,” it appeared that as quickly as they returned, they were gone again. But now, in the year 2014, good fortune does indeed smile upon the ever-growing leigon of Vaselines fans. McKee and Kelly have decided to give it another go, and will release their next brand new full-length studio album, entitled “V For Vaselines,” in fall of 2014.
As a devoted fan for 20-plus years, I had the unequivocal pleasure of speaking with Eugene Kelly over the telephone, after a pair of categorically embarassing Skype mishaps had transpired without warning. Much to my relief, Eugene sat and waited patiently through the entire ordeal of my futile attempts at remedying the technical issues. For myself, the Skype ordeal was perplexing as all hell, but Eugene remained gracious and surprisingly tolerant.
Once a landline connection was finally established, we immediately began talking about our mutual liking for Alice Cooper and the conversation just took off from there. Too many times, unfortunately, when people of Eugene’s caliber grant interviews such as this, they conspicuously go through the motions, which ultimately causes the interaction to be tense and end in paramount dissapointment. The conversation with Mr. Kelly, however, turned out to be the complete antithesis. He turned out to be quite an affable man with a perfectly casual, permissive, demeanor, and he spoke with great candor.
Graffiti: So Eugene, what was your first foray into the creative music world? I know that The Vaselines wasn’t your project.
Kelly: No, I was in a band after I left school with two friends and another guy. We were called the Famous Monsters.
Graffiti: Oh, yeah, the Famous Monsters. That’s right.
Kelly: Yeah. We didn’t release anything. We only played a few gigs, and then we broke up. At that time I was going out with Frances, and we started thinking about doing something so we realized that we’d just concentrate on that one thing. So yeah, that was fun. I mean, the band just messed about and that was good fun. But yeah, the first time I started to write songs was in the Famous Monsters.
Graffiti: I realize that the past is the past, but would you mind if we just touched a little bit on the past just so we can bring readers up to date?
Kelly: Yeah. The past needs talked about.
Graffiti: I’m sure that you’re asked about the past all of the time, but by the same token, though, that’s all we really had from the Vaselines.
Kelly: Oh, yeah, I’m happy to talk about it. Anything. Even the stuff from way back.
Graffiti: So when you and Frances originally got together, was that essentially the beginning of the Vaselines?
Kelly: Um, we kind of went out for a while and her boyfriend who was in a band called the Pretty Flowers, and I was in the Famous Monsters. We just decided to do something, and do something together and concentrate on that. Then we just started to write together. She was just learning to play the guitar at the time, and that’s why a lot of the songs were quite simple, minor chords because that’s all we could play.
Graffiti: But the simplicity of those songs was amazing.
Kelly: Yeah, but that was not by design, really, it was just all we knew at that time. You know, Frances had only learned to play guitar about a month before the first single.
Graffiti: The songs were still really good. You know, the chords were there, the song structures were there. When you look at a song like ‘Molly’s Lips,’ it doesn’t really get much simpler than that, and I mean that in a really good way, because you have the two chords or so that just repeat over and over again, but you guys managed to take that and make it into something great. I mean, Nirvana would eventually cover it, in addition to a couple of other Vaselines songs, so as to introduce them to another kind of audience. The version that Nirvana releases was simple and effective in bringing it to life again. Then when you listen to the Vaselines’ original version of that song, it’s simple as well, but there was a touch of sadness in it, which wasn’t conveyed in their cover of it. How did you guys manage to capture that underlying dolefulness?
Kelly: Um, I really don’t know. We would just sit around and play guitar just for fun. We would chat and a melody would just appear and we’d make note of it, and then write a song around it. You know, I think that’s where a lot of great songs come from, because sometimes you don’t just sit around thinking, ‘I’m going to write a song.’ I mean, you just have to play something and sing as you write something. While you’re doing that, things just appear out of nowhere. You know, I don’t really remember how many of those Vaselines’ (songs) came to be. I just remember sitting around playing and things would just come to us. I would sometimes write songs just to make Frances laugh and then think, ‘that’s a half decent song! Maybe she can finish that off.’ You know, the Nirvana songs are great. They just really simplified them even more, making them more direct and just two chords. Our song is a bit janglier. Sometimes you learn a song and then you realize you’ve got some new chords and a new song comes out of it. It was almost inspired by the chords from Eddie Cochran’s ‘C’mon Everybody’ – it’s sort of similar. You think, ‘Ah, I can put a melody over that,’ and then before you know it you’ve got your own song.
Graffiti: The songs on the first Vaselines album sometimes had a sweet but melancholic feel to them. A lot of that was the melodies in the vocal deliveries and the synergy that Frances and you really helped accentuate. Though at the same time, there were moments that almost sounded like there was a touch of mischief going on. For instance, when I heard ‘You Think You’re a Man’ and the line ‘you weren’t man enough to satisfy me,’ used to conjure a thought where I would see both Frances and yourself taking turns verbally degrading and whipping this poor guy while both of you kept little smiles while looking at each other.
Kelly: [Laughs] Yeah
Graffiti: But at the same time, you managed to keep it all in fun. At the same time you captured other different emotions. That’s definitely something that you’ve carried over with you and has been an element of Vaselines, though you guys were more experienced than you were back then.
Kelly: Oh, yeah. We don’t ever set out to intentionally try to create any kind emotions. Maybe some in the lyrics, but when you’re singing a song, of course, you’re trying to make some kind of performance into it, and you want to get people to get something from it and to enjoy the overall thing. Frances has a sweet kind of innocent voice, but sometimes the lyrics are a bit dark, or smutty, or dirty. Me, I don’t really have a big ‘rock’ voice. It’s more of a laid back, conversational kind of voice.
Graffiti: I’ll direct this away from the past in a second, but I first wanted to ask about the original split between the two of you. The consensus is that the Vaselines broke up the week that your first album was released. Is there any real truth to that at all?
Kelly: I think that’s when it was official. The band had drifted apart, Frances and I had split up, and we weren’t sure what the band was doing. The album was being released and we didn’t know if we would have to go out for maybe six months or more. So we had to decide then, are we actually going to play gigs and support this, or are we actually broken up? And I think that we decided then that it was over. So we didn’t do the gigs to support the album because the band was pretty much over at that point.
Graffiti: But obviously you, yourself, weren’t done playing music, as you had several different projects over those dormant years. A personal favorite of mine that you did was Eugenius. Those were some really, really good recordings.
Kelly: Oh, Eugenius was a fun band to be in because we got to travel. I saw Roy, the drummer for Eugenius, when we spoke sometime last year, and talking about stuff that we’d done – one of my favorite times was when Eugenius got to America and that whole period of touring with Eugenius. It was just the best time you could have. I look back on all of that stuff fondly.
Graffiti: It’s good when you can look back fondly at that part of your life. Many times, especially when talking to people who might be a bit more ‘iconic’, like yourself, about the past, they really don’t like to dwell on their pasts. I know that the past is the past, but many people act very jaded. So it’s good that you can look at those times with fondness, because your past ultimately leads you and it’s why you’re where you’re at today. It’s a part of your individual journey.
Kelly: Yeah, because a lot of things happened with Eugenius that (I) could be jaded about. There were a lot of ups and downs, but I met some great people while I was in that band, and I travelled lots. I mean, you just have to see the positive side of it or you’re just kind of on your own in the dark forever.
Graffiti: Bringing it back up closer to the now, in 2010, seemingly from out of nowhere, it was like, voila! The Vaselines are back and they have a new album. The result pleasantly sounded like a logical next step for the Vaselines, creatively. What was it like for you guys to come back like that? The album was released and then headed out for extensive promotion of the record.
Kelly: Oh, it was great to come back, because I think that Frances and I had reconnected, and we started playing some songs together and then played some gigs together; we kind of played a couple of Vaselines songs together. Then a few years later, Frances had asked me to do an acoustic solo set for a charity night, and I said, ‘Well, let’s do a full electric one, because it’ll be the one time we get to do a proper Vaselines show and then we’ll never do it again because no one’s gonna ask for it.’ We played that, we got a band together and it was great fun for them because people started asking if we were back together for good. Then people started making us offers to go places and play. So we thought, ‘we’ll do another one,’ then we did another one, and before we knew it we went out on tour. Then we said, ‘Let’s see if we can write something,’ because we’ve never stopped writing songs. We wanted to see if we could do more than the 19 songs that were in the set. When it came time for the record we didn’t want to tell anybody because we thought, ‘What if it turns out terrible?’ We spent our own money on it, but to do the record and then go back out on tour and be accepted by people was good. It’s a good feeling to know that people still love you and still want to see you. There were probably more people wanting to see us then than there were twenty-odd years ago, so it felt great to actually come back with a great record.
Graffiti: You actually thought that this might only be a one-time thing because people might not want to see the Vaselines?
Kelly: I think initially we did and it was going to only be one show. Then people started announcing it over the radio and on the internet and in the newspapers that the Vaselines played this show. Then we got an offer to do a festival that was over in Scotland; it was kind of an indoor festival. Then we got asked to do a Sub Pop show. That was kind of one of the initial things was when we were asked we said, “We don’t have a band, we don’t exist.” But once we got started, we took that offer up and we wound up in America playing for Sub Pop. After that we thought that it was great fun and we thought, “Why stop doing it when it’s such a great time we can have; making music and traveling.” So we’ve just kind of done that for the last five years.
Graffiti: I’m assuming that you’re still enjoying those same aspects of the process. I mean, you have the new record now, which is something that I wanted to touch on with you. ‘Sex With An X’ was actually released on Sub Pop, but ‘V For Vaselines’ is released through the Rosary Music label. Was there a falling out with Sub Pop, or was it just a one album with an option afterward? What happened there?
Kelly: No, what happened was we had a relationship with Sub Pop because they were releasing our back catalogue. We gave (‘Sex With An X’) to them first and told them that they were the first company to hear it, asked if they would want to put it out, and they wanted to go ahead with it. And then when we began the process for this new record, we gave it to them and let them know we wanted them to hear it first. We had only finished like six or seven songs. They listened to it and just said, ‘Thanks but we’re gonna pass on this one.’ So that was fine. We let some other people hear it, but then we thought that maybe the best way to do this was kind of like a DIY record release. We can put it out ourselves. We paid for it ourselves, so we own the whole thing. We can get a distribution company and get a deal with them, so we started our own label so we could have control over it, as well.
Graffiti:So Rosary Music is your own imprint. Right?
Kelly: Yeah, that’s our label.
Graffiti: Well, it’s obviously a good thing that you have complete control over it. This new Vaselines album does have some differences, though none so drastic that it doesn’t sound like the Vaselines. There is some really nice musical layering on ‘V For Vaselines’, in “Single Spies” for instance, that show musical growth while still retaining the essence of the Vaselines’ style. Then on the other end, there are some tracks that really stand out because of the added element of some real rock & roll qualities: formidable walls of fuzz and subtle gain and even distortion, sonic experimentations, things of that nature. It just sounds like Frances and yourself have really tried to inject musical substance like you might not have in the past. How has the writing process differed with this record?
Kelly: I don’t think that you sit down and think, ‘I’m going to try to do something completely different on this album.’ You don’t try to change it. You just write songs that come to you in that period. The only thing that we knew we wanted to do was try to write shorter songs, songs that don’t really last longer than three minutes. I think that sometimes we got that, but some songs are a little longer than we had originally talked about. We just wanted to write short, snappy little pop songs. We used to write songs where there was somewhat of a duet – when we would trade turns with the singing, like one sing and then a reply. This album has got less of that. Many of the songs have one singer during the verse, and the other during the choruses throughout. We really have never really done that.
Graffiti: When you look at your catalogue in a kind of chronological order, especially with ‘V For Vaselines,’ it all falls in line together and the evolution of the Vaselines’ music is in line with itself. So Eugene, are you happy with this record?
Kelly: Oh, yeah. We can’t wait for people to hear it. I think it is progress in a way because this time we worked in a different studio, a different producer, so it’s gonna sound different. There are keyboards on some of the songs, which we haven’t really ever used before, and there are layers that we haven’t really used before, so yeah, I think that working with someone you haven’t worked with before will push the music into another direction.
Graffiti: What are the Vaselines going to do next? I saw that there are already dates set for Europe. Do you think that you guys are going to make it to the States sometime soon?
Kelly: Yes, we hope so. We’re looking at some things and looking into getting our visas taken care of. We’re just looking at the dates now. But we also need to look at the budget and see how much it will cost for us to do. It’s gonna happen at one point, we’ve just gotta wait for the confirmations, and nothing’s been confirmed yet.
Graffiti: What’s up next, creatively, for the Vaselines? Surely this isn’t the last record. Is it?
Kelly: Well, yeah, but we’re not really sure what’s going to happen. We said that the last time. We don’t really like to look that far into the future.