“I was trying to figure out if people make more records now because it does seem like a lot, having made six…” ponders The Vaccines’ frontman Justin Young, considering his band’s current status as one of guitar music’s long-term, tenured fixtures. Where the group began life 13 years ago as four young Londoners, making the sort of sub-three minute wallopers that saw them immediately rise to the summit of the early ‘10s indie boom, in 2024 they’re immediately recognisable yet undeniably changed.
Justin spends the majority of his time in LA now - a Stateside affinity that can be heard clearly throughout their newest, the tongue-twisty ‘Pick-Up Full of Pink Carnations’. There have been multiple line-up changes along the way too. Most recently, in March of last year, guitarist Freddie Cowan announced his departure, leaving the singer and bassist Árni Árnason as the only remaining original members, joined by guitarist Timothy Langham and drummer Yoann Intonti.
Justin is pragmatic about the need to adapt. Though there’s a romance to the ideal of the classic ‘last gang in town’ band mentality, The Vaccines’ line-up has been, by necessity, “quite fluid”. “I don't want to do Freddie a disservice because he remains one of my best friends and he was such an integral and important part of the band's history,” he begins, “but I think if someone doesn't want to be there, it's better they’re not. And then when you ARE all there because you want to be there, and you're excited to be there and there's this kind of common goal... I know that creativity and comfort aren't always the best bedfellows, but I do think where we're at in our career, the happier we are, the better the music we're making."
Now scattered around the world - himself in the US, Árni in Iceland and the others in the UK - coming back together to record and tour means something different to when they were living parallel lives in the same city. “There are sacrifices you have to make and there are parts of your personal life that you have to put on pause, and as your personal lives grow outside of the band, those sacrifices become greater,” he notes. But having reconvened to put pen to paper for the sixth time, there is still evidently the drive to keep pushing forward that keeps The Vaccines going, that makes the sacrifices worthwhile.
“It still feels like that kind of need, that kind of fire remains,” Justin nods. “And obviously when it starts to go out is when some people do less and less, and start sounding less inspired as well. But I don't think - whatever you may think of The Vaccines - I don't think you could accuse us of running out of ideas. One of the things I'm most proud about on this record is even though it has a lot of our DNA in it and it's obviously a Vaccines record, it still sounds and feels very fresh to me. And I don't think that's necessarily always an easy thing to achieve.”
“I think I’m perpetually hungry for more - not just in a musical sense, but even in a spiritual sense.” - Justin Young
Full of widescreen melodies and a polish to the production that seems specifically to root it on the other side of the Atlantic, there is plenty new on ‘Pick-Up Full of Pink Carnations’ to grab onto. There is, says the frontman, nods to Springsteen-like heartland rock, and warm West Coast sensibilities that reflect the album’s sessions out in LA. “I grew up on a diet of American pop culture and got all my music from film and TV and skateboarding videos and all this kind of stuff,” he says. “So I think it's funny: this definitely is an American-sounding record.”
Recently, on DIY’s Before They Knew Better podcast, Justin opened up about his teenage listening habits - where pop punk and emo were on heavy rotation rather than the indie hits that fans might have predicted. In some ways, it makes sense of The Vaccines’ intensely heart-on-sleeve approach, where the big suckerpunch hook reigns supreme and love is at the heart of it all. “I think that romantic love and loss and all that sort of stuff, they’re still things I'm dealing with in my everyday life,” he says. “They definitely play a big part in me trying to figure out my place in the world and it’s probably the only subject matter that I don't like broaching in my personal life. So to kind of crudely [summarise it], then you just end up having the conversation through song, I guess.”
This time round, now in his mid-thirties, the way these subjects manifest themselves is via a collection that he describes as being largely “about loss”; about the gap between expectation and reality and how you can attempt to accept the difference. “When you’re in a band and you're travelling the world with 20 other people and spending 18 hours a day with them, seven days a week, 300 days a year, it feels like you have a family. You never really have to confront loneliness or anything,” Justin suggests. “When you're in that bubble, it feels like real life is waiting for you and then you come out of that bubble and you realise it hasn't been waiting for you. And now, rather than dealing with that, I'm just waiting to get back in that bubble again.
“I don't really have the answer. I think that I am probably perpetually... not dissatisfied but hungry for more. Not just in a musical sense, but even in a spiritual sense. The hardest thing to do is to be present, isn't it?” he continues. “To be in the moment and to be at peace with yourself in the moment. We spend our entire lives looking back or looking forward and that's a big part of this record. I do think a lot of people experience that feeling of never really being in the moment. That's the greatest challenge.”
“When you think about Elliott Smith or Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen, they got better through the message becoming clearer and clearer.” - Justin Young
These sentiments write themselves all over The Vaccines’ newest. Opener ‘Sometimes, I Swear’ begins with a chorus cry of “it feels like I don’t belong anywhere”; ‘Primitive Man’ sets a scene where “I’m at your wedding now / I’m not taking your name”; even the relentless bounce of recent single ‘Heartbreak Kid’ masks what seems like a fairly central realisation - “People like us think we’ve got all the time in the world / But we ain’t got all the time in the world”.
Does he feel, aged 36, how he expected he would feel at this age? “No,” Justin says bluntly. “And I've given up trying to; I don't expect anything now really. I feel in many ways a lot more at peace than I was worried I would, and in other ways, probably a lot more lost than I expected. But then that’s the dichotomy of life, isn't it?”
What remains constant, however, is the obvious kick he still gets from putting all these ideas into song. He estimates that still now, he probably has written “maybe not a song a day, but a couple of hundred songs in the last year”. “When you think about someone like Elliott Smith or Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen, I wouldn't say they got better through experimentation, they got better through the message just becoming clearer and clearer,” he notes.
Over the past decade-plus, it’s this balance that has maintained The Vaccines’ place at indie’s top table (all five of their previous albums have landed in the UK Top Five). They’re a band who know who they are and don’t try to fuck with the formula just for the sake of it, but who still strive to find new and better ways to express what they do, to keep refining at every point. ‘Pick-Up Full of Pink Carnations’ might be riddled with questions, but musically The Vaccines hit upon the answer a long time ago. “It just blows my mind to still be doing this 13 years in; it’s crazy,” Justin nods. “In that sense, I couldn't really ask for more.”
‘Pick-Up Full of Pink Carnations’ is out 12th March via Thirty Tigers/ Super Easy.