Rolling Stone Australia

Decade of Dysfunction

Source: Rolling Stone Australia

Text: Daniel Murphy

Published: July 1st, 2011

With the release of The Vines' fifth album, Future Primitive, Frontman Craig Nicholls reflects on 10 years in a furious spotlight.

THE EARLY YEARS

Formed in 1994 while in their teens, the pre-Vines nicked their name from the place where the Beatles met the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Like their relationship with the guru, says Craig Nicholls, it wouldn't last long. 

"I met Patrick [Matthews], who also worked at the McDonald's in South Hurstville. We talked about bands we liked, and about playing guitar. We lived close, and started hanging out, playing acoustic guitars sometimes. One of those times he said he had a friend who played drums and his name was Dave [Oliffe].

"The first songs we jammed were covers, the first one was probably You Am I - You Am I, Nirvana and The Kinks. The Kinks is probably my favourite band. We didn't know what we were doing, we just liked playing music. After we could half play these songs all right, I decided to try writing my own songs and we started doing them.

"Dave came up with the name Rishikesh, [but after a while we] wanted to change it. It wasn't that serious. We'd only played one or two gigs under that name - small gigs in pubs. And I liked the Vines. My dad played in a band called the Vynes - and I just liked that. Dad's band wasn't ever that serious. Maybe at the time they were - I think they did one recording and that's it."

Picture 1: Patrick Matthews' and Craig Nicholls' first-ever gig: April 1995, South Hurstville RSL Bowling Club.

Picture 2: THE FIRST LINE-UP Dave Oliffe, Matthews and Nicholls outside Sydney's Sandringham Hotel.

Picture 3: An early set-list: note the inclusion of "Ride" and "Winning Days".

THE FIRST TASTE OF FAME

Shortly after signing a deal with fledgling management company Winterman & Goldstein in late 2000, the Vines supported You Am I at the Enmore Theatre. Numbered demo CDs with white labels were handed out to punters as they left.

"I remember that night, it was really funny. I was signing CDs and I'd never done that before. It was really cool. People were wanting me to sign them and we were this completely unknown band. People saw us and liked us and I got good feedback from those songs.

"Those demos were written at home, then we'd go into a rehearsal room and record the instruments and I'd take it back home and do the vocals and any other overdubs, but it was mostly pretty simple."

HIGHLY EVOLVED

After signing to Capitol in 2001, the band decamped to the Sound Factory in Los Angeles to work on their debut album with producer Rob Schnapf (who'd also produce Winning Days and Melodia).

"We were there for six months. Not recording for the whole time; that only took about four months, which is still a pretty long time. But we had to stop for a while due to money and label things. So there was a bit of a break, but I was there for the whole time, from start to finish, living in a hotel off Hollywood Boulevard. It was really cool, being in Hollywood, in America for the first time, meeting people... I was still focused on what I was doing. It was definitely fun, but I was there for the music, that's how I got there."

THE EXPLOSION

Released in July 2002, Highly Evolved exploded around the world, eventually selling 1.5 million copies. For the first time since Men At Work in 1983, an Australian band decorated the cover of U.S. ROLLING STONE - this after already being hailed the future of rock & roll by NME. With new drummer Hamish Rosser behind the kit, the asylum of a successful band on the road went into full gear.

"I felt pretty confident [Highly Evolved would do well]. There was no way I could know what was going to happen, but I knew if we were going to make it, it was going to happen on the first album. It wouldn't be, 'Oh, if this doesn't do it then we'll keep trying.' We'd been together for a few years and I'd been writing lots... Look, we had good timing and we'd been working really hard and it worked out well. So, in a way, I kind of expected it. In another kind of way, it was a relief.

"I wasn't thinking too much about [the huge reception for the album], or reflecting, because we were very busy. It was just good that people were listening, and even if people were calling it hype, it was still good to me. We were still about to do what we wanted to do. People were listening to the album and people were coming to see us play. There wasn't any pressure. It was just people's opinions, just what they were saying. You can't control it. It wasn't bad for us, it was all positive. People have got to say something. I kept doing what I was doing."

Picture: LIVE CHAOS Nicholls, at home on the giant stage of the 2003 Big Day Out.

THAT LETTERMAN MELTDOWN

Invited to perform "Get Free" on The Letterman Show on August 19th, 2002, Nicholls turned their debut on American network TV into a moment of atonal destruction. (YouTube it.)

"I was out of my mind on that particular day. As you say, 'a kid from the suburbs', and I wasn't used to New York even though I may have been there once or twice before, touring. It was just really mad being cooped up - the landscape of the place was really strange to me. I remember before the show just crawling around backstage, food in my hair and putting it on the walls, just being a maniac [laughs]. It was a good time and all. Looking back on it now, it's like, 'Wow, that's crazy.' I wasn't thinking that much; you can probably tell.

"I feel self-conscious about [whether drugs were a part of it] now. I can definitely say something was going on, let me put it that way. I don't have any regrets and I don't take drugs any more. I've answered that like a politician."

Picture: Nicholls, mid wig-out Letterman.

THE NOT-SO-DIFFICULT SECOND ALBUM

The Vines went rural to record the follow-up to Highly Evolved, 2004's Winning Days, at Bearsville Studios in New York State. As Nicholls explains, it was still a long process.

"We recorded Winning Days right near Woodstock. We'd come straight off touring and it was great to be in the outdoors. I saw deer and bears and lots of animals I'd never seen before in real life. It was a nice, peaceful experience. And it was easier than Highly Evolved. Each album has been easier as we've gone on. It was still long for an album, between two-and-a-half and three months. But we were still kind of learning. Now I couldn't imagine doing an album that takes that long. We were very lucky that we were on Capitol and we could kind of do what we wanted. We were in upstate New York and time wasn't an issue. We could have taken longer if we wanted. It was like being on vacation at the same time, taking a break from the tour."

Picture: Recording B-sides in Capitol Studios.

SELECTIVE APPEAL

After the success of Highly Evolved, Winning Days sold "only" 600,000 copies, going Top 10 in Australia, and Top 30 in the U.K. and U.S.

"It didn't feel like a failure to us. We were still doing TV shows and big gigs in England and America. I remember someone telling me after we'd been touring for a while that it wasn't selling as much as the first album - they were just numbers to me. It didn't feel like a failure to me. I really liked the album and talked to a lot of people who liked it. Capitol were very good. No one from the record company ever mentioned anything to me. Of course, they would have their concerns. They were trying to sell as many records as they could, but they were really cool. They let us do what we were doing. I still love the record. There are songs on there I'm still really proud of, as recordings and as songs."

Picture: TOURING WINNING DAYS "I still love the record," says Nicholls.

THE IPOD AD

In a sign of the changing times, the single "Ride" became a favourite with commercials; first for the iPod, then Nissan. It was a marked changed from the purist stance taken by bands such as the Vines' heroes, Nirvana.

"We get offers to do things and we usually do it. Usually it's something that's all right, something that you don't feel strongly against. If it was something that was really negative, then you wouldn't do it. But apart from that, a song being in a commercial or a movie, it's usually a cool thing. It's good to have people hear your songs and to have people pay you for it. It's part of the reason why you're doing it. You love it, but you also want to make a living at it as well."

Picture: Subway posters for the iPod in New York, 2004.

NICHOLLS VS THE MEDIA

Nicholls' behaviour in interviews has, at times, been notoriously eccentric. During an interview in Sydney, for example, he smashed an NME reporter's dictaphone, then hid in a toilet cubicle for over an hour.

"[The music press has a place] but it's in the media. It's not a big influence on me. I still think it's a good thing, because it's just another way to let people know about bands. Even if sometimes - or a lot of the time - they put people down, that's just what happens in life anyway. We've had bad things written about us, or me - that's all right. It doesn't really bother me. People can say what they want, that's the whole thing with it. If you're going to get the good, you've got to take the bad. It doesn't really mean too much, either."

Picture: Nicholls, during 2002 KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas.

ONE NIGHT AT THE ANNANDALE

By May 2004, after a long U.S. tour with Jet and the Living End, things came to a head at a gig for competition winners and industry types at Sydney's Annandale Hotel. Before the first song was even finished, Nicholls had abused the crowd and kicked a photographer's camera to pieces. Bass player Patrick Matthews stormed offstage midway through, and never played with the band again (he would go on to join Youth Group). Brad Heald would in time replace him, but the repercussions for the Vines were extensive.

"I was really tired and obviously I wasn't in a great mood. I knew it was almost the end of the tour. While I'm not trying to justify my behaviour, we had just got back from England where we were doing Brixton Academy, sold out, these really big venues, and people were going mental. And we got back to Sydney, where we're from, in front of 50 people, or 100 and, I don't know why, but it just didn't feel like people were there because they liked us. And being really exhausted after a whole lot of travelling, it was kind of like Letterman: another one of those moments where I just kind of ... threw it all away. I wasn't being professional at all. But that's part of the appeal of being in a band or being an artist, you can be a bit expressive. We've played since at the Annandale and I've always said that Sydney is my favourite place to play. I love Sydney - it's really cool. Just that one gig, it was against what was going on."

DIAGNOSIS: ASPERGER'S

Being diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome gave Nicholls relief, both from the justice system - the photographer from the Annandale show had pressed charges, which were dropped on the proviso he seek treatment - and from himself.

"I've always thought a little bit, well, a lot introverted; just kind of socially... awkward. But [after the diagnosis] I felt like I had an explanation for some things, for the way I am. But I felt all right about it.

"I was given [medication], it didn't really work for me. It can be not so good for creativity. Sometimes, it can take away a lot of... mental energy, I think, energy that you can use for good things. I've been lucky, where it's not really a strong case [of Asperger's]. I've heard and seen some people where it's really extreme and makes things really difficult. I feel pretty normal."

Picture: Nicholls leaving Balmain Court in 2004.

WRITING PERFECT POP

The Vines have always been a great singles band, from the howling rush of "Get Free" to the easy power pop of "Ride".

"Keeping it simple is good. When you're writing, you want it to be something that's memorable with a little bit of meaning and it rolls off the tongue. 

"We've always had short songs, it's about keeping it really basic. The simple things: having a good beat and having a good melody and taking it to its point. Try to make it not very long. I like that kind of music."

VISION VALLEY AND MELODIA

After an extended break following Winning Days, the next two Vines albums were thoroughly different experiences for the now sober and determined songwriter.

"It was cool to record Vision Valley [2006] in Sydney, and good to do it with Wayne [Connolly], he's a really good guy, good producer. We did the album a bit quicker.

"We didn't go to America, so it wasn't like the first album, and we weren't trying to go everywhere and talk to everyone. It just felt natural with what we'd been through to take it easy and make this the album we wanted to make it; I mean, we've always done that, but it was less intense. It was good. It wasn't as successful as the first album or even the second one, but it was just nice to be doing it again after such a long break. And Melodia [2008]? Again with Rob Schnapf. Back in L.A. Old times."

Picture: Brad Heald (left) joined The Vines (pictured at South By Southwest in 2009) after Matthews' departure.

WELCOME TO THE FUTURE

The Vines' new album, Future Primitive, is another punchy serve of fuzz, psychedelia and uncanny melody, produced by the Bumblebeez' Chris Colonna and mixed in Paris by Julien Delfaud (Phoenix). It's also remarkable for being the band's fifth full-length in just under 10 years - a consistent output despite the bizarre, punctuated road.

"I love making albums. It's good that it's been consistent. [Recording Future Primitive] was really cool because we did it live, so it was really quick and fun.

"Chris Colonna can make some really cool sounds. What he's doing with his band, he brought some of that to us. But for the rest of it, we've been influenced by ourselves - the stuff we've done before - and the stuff we've been into for years.

"There's no real big goals I have, it's just good to have something new coming out, and the people who've stuck by us will hopefully enjoy it. Nothing crazy, just continuing on. Because we love doing it. I don't plan on stopping. I'm not interested in much else."

Picture: THE VINES, 2011 Heald, Nicholls, Ryan Griffiths and Hamish Rosser

DANIEL MURPHY is the Deputy Editor of FHM. He interviewed You Am I for RS 708.