The Age

Rebel with the Soul of a Clown

Source: The Age

Text: Andrew Murfett

Published: July 11th, 2008

The Vines remain functionally shambolic, with frontman Nicholls a genuine loose cannon, but we wouldn't have it any other way, finds Andrew Murfett.

"I hate you!" Craig Nicholls, frontman for the Vines, is having one of his trademark stream-of-consciousness moments, during which, in the course of a long-winded answer (to a relatively benign question), he blurts out something off-topic but pointed.

This time, it just happens to be a swipe at a journalist. At me, in fact.

Tomorrow, the Vines release their fourth album, Melodia. Recorded in Los Angeles with producer Rob Schnapf (who recorded their million-selling debut from 2002, Highly Evolved), it's being pitched as a return to form. It's a snappy listen; 14 tracks lasting just 33 minutes.

Regardless of how Melodia fares, the Vines' story is a cautionary one.

Seven years ago, the raw quartet sprang from south-west Sydney with a collection of demos so strong American label Capitol was prompted to pull out its chequebook.

Highly Evolved rendered Nicholls a star; it sold more than 1.5 million copies and scored the Vines high-profile slots at Glastonbury and Reading. They were the first Australian band in 20 years to land the cover of the US Rolling Stone magazine and their sound fitted neatly into the glossy garage rock aesthetic of their contemporaries: Jet, the White Stripes, the Hives and the Strokes.

Three years into their ascent, Nicholls was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism which affects the sufferer's ability to function in social situations. And now the Vines' tumultuous history can be succinctly split into two periods: pre and post-diagnosis.

Finally, long-suffering bandmates and management had an explanation for his erratic behaviour.

But the damage was done. The band was splintered, their US deal in tatters and most goodwill with fans and media expunged.

Today, however - gathered in their management's Sydney offices before the video shoot for their comeback single, He's A Rocker, a fiery, commercially appealing, but brainless two minute stomper - ­ the band insist they are looking forward.

At their prediagnosis peak, the Vines spent $500,000 per American video shoot for Get Free; the He's A Rocker shoot, in a cavernous hall in Parramatta, costs less than 10% of that.

When Nicholls fronts up for the shoot, there's still a sense of wildness and unpredictability about him. In a world of smooth, manufactured music and shiny personalities, he is a refreshing rarity: a genuine loose cannon. And live, the Vines remain a glorious shambles. There's little uncertainty left in rock music, but there's plenty around Craig Nicholls.

Things have clearly improved since the band's days of fighting each other on stage, but to the outsider, the dynamic remains a little strained.

Drummer Hamish Rosser, the group's quasi-spokesman, waits patiently for Nicholls to finish his rants before offering a clarification. When a question is initially greeted with silence, Rosser will respond.

Nicholls' demeanour is colourful to say the least. He doesn't hide his distrust of journalists and is reluctant to engage in interviews; if uncomfortable with a question, he puts on a flamboyant pair of sunglasses and spews a rambling answer. Nor is he averse to playing the clown - at one point during our interview he flings himself out of in his chair and begins writhing on the ground. His bandmates cringe and laugh uproariously.

When talk turns to Nicholls' infamous early demos - which led to the band's huge deal with Capitol - he is, however, surprisingly earnest.

"It was the most exciting time of my life," he says, excitedly. "We'd play to 15 people. We felt like we could do anything. The band grew from isolation and desperation. That sounds dramatic, but it's the truth."

Former bassist Patrick Matthews, now with Sydney-based band Youth Group, says the most frustrating thing about the Vines was a sense that Nicholls deliberately made life difficult.

"He made life hard for the tour manager by always wrecking things," he says. "For managers, by blowing out expenses. For me, it felt like there was no creative reason to be there. We'd try and do a serious soundcheck, and Craig would just get his skateboard out."

In the gossip-driven music industry, Nicholls' diagnosis has been viewed with suspicion. The suggestion being that the frontman's erratic behaviour was just as much a product of what one insider describes as a "monster pot habit" as anything else, and that once Nicholls gave it up, things came together for the band.

From the band's early days, those close to him worried about Nicholls' subsistence on junk food and cigarettes. By the time their second album Winning Days arrived in 2004, they were at breaking point. Matthews says he had been one of Nicholl's closest friends, having dreamed of music stardom while they flipped burgers together as teenagers. The reality, he says, was something else.

Commercial radio, particularly in the US, didn't rate the single Ride and, meanwhile, Nicholls was, by all accounts, "completely off the rails".

"He was in a lot of turmoil all the time," manager Andy Kelly says. "It was hard to watch."

It all came to a head at a Triple M-sponsored show at Sydney's Annandale Hotel in November 2004. Nicholls smashed a photographer's camera, verbally sparred with the audience and watched his mate Matthews storm off stage, never to return. Assault charges against Nicholls stemming from the show were eventually dropped but Triple M vowed to ban the Vines from their playlists.

A few days after the fiasco, Matthews, the band and crew (minus Nicholls) had dinner. His departure was confirmed, and the Vines effectively broke up.

When that fateful gig is raised today, the band collectively shrug their shoulders.

"Taking a break was a unanimous decision," Rosser says, cautiously.

"I didn't think the band was going to end," Nicholls adds. "But it's all in the past. Seriously, we think that happened in the past. Some good and not so good stuff. I'm more interested in the future and what we're going to do now. Because we can't change it. It's funny to me that you even care about it."

For his part, Matthews says he was driven by anger while in the Vines.

"I felt if Craig would just play and sing properly, we'd be really good," he says. "It happened rarely when I was in the band. I hear it happens more commonly now."

Remarkably, although they have never "had it out" regarding Matthews' mid-gig walk-off, he and Nicholls remain friends.

"We didn't speak much for a couple of years," Matthews admits.

There are a litany of war stories regarding the missed opportunities caused by Nicholls' temperament; some are urban legends, but it's no stretch to say that the band could have been much more successful.

After a long break following Nicholls' diagnosis, the Vines cautiously pressed on, tapping You Am I's Andy Kent to play bass on their third album, Vision Valley.

The band's comeback gig, courageously, was at the Annandale.

"Yes, I'd had a meltdown there," Nicholls says. "I told everybody I'm going through a really hard time. I got a note from the doctor telling me that I have a medical condition... But everything in the past is trash and irrelevant."

Vision Valley was cathartic for Nicholls, but it was the Vines' last album for Capitol. By the end of their deal, communication levels were disastrous. They regularly waited two weeks for the label to return their calls.

Two years on, after hiring new bassist Brad Heald and signing to Ivy League Records, Melodia arrives without the hype of its predecessors.

These days, activities are tailored around preserving Nicholls' health - even the video treatment for He's A Rocker was refined at his behest.

At the shoot, he takes direction without complaint, but when a break is called, he stands defiantly in the middle of the hall and lights a cigarette. "Hey, please write in your story that I'm tough and a rebel," he says, as he proudly flouts the room's non-smoking rules.

Afterwards, Nicholls politely seeks to clarify his earlier outburst. A few years ago, interviews with him regularly degenerated into ugly shouting matches. That's why, he says, he "has trust issues".

"I still feel people don't take us seriously because I have the soul of a clown," he says. "It forces me to blow at the most crucial of moments."

The singer is currently in a relationship with a female musician, he says, but he is reluctant to discuss her. He's more forthcoming on the topic of his health, however, professing he has started meditating for 30 minutes a day.

After the shoot, the band gather together and watch a run-through of the song on a small screen and some genuine camaraderie is evident.

When he's not "on", Nicholls can be charming and endearing. He's also clearly more perceptive than he initially lets on.

And as the crew packs up at Parramatta, Craig Nicholls has one more thing to add.

"I'm sorry that I swore, and for everything else," he says. "But I thought it would make me sound tough."

Melodia is out tomorrow through Ivy League Records.