The Sydney Morning Herald

The Future Looks Primitive

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

Text: Darren Levin

Published: June 3rd, 2011

"SOMEONE from the label picked us up from the airport." This is Craig Nicholls's punchline to a joke I inadvertently start when I ask him what brings Sydney's the Vines to Melbourne.

"Every chance I get at a joke like that, I can't resist it," he smiles, taking another swig from a can of Coke. Gracious, funny and self-deprecating - this is the supposed enfant terrible of Australia's music scene on a good day.

It's 11am and Nicholls and a bandmate, Brad Heald, are sitting in a plush interview room in the South Melbourne offices of Sony, the band's new label. (Their last album, 2008's Melodia, came out through Ivy League, while their early years were spent on Capitol.) Nicholls is wearing a Blur T-shirt and women's sunglasses, his scarf wrapped around his head like a beanie. Heald, the Vines's second bassist - he joined the band in 2006 following Patrick Matthews's departure - sits cross-legged on the floor across from him. He's looking every bit the Cronulla native: black stovepipes, a blue-knit jumper and a beanie (a real one) concealing his beach-blond locks. The pair are showing off a swag of CDs, a gift from their current suitors. "These two I don't know so much," Nicholls says, pointing to albums by Manchester Orchestra and Cage the Elephant, "but I gotta assume they've got something going on."

I'm playing a bit of show-and-tell today, too. I've brought in a copy of a Vines demo I picked up from a You Am I gig in 2001. Recorded that year on a four-track in a Sydney rehearsal room, it's garage-y and psychedelic and similar to the band's new album Future Primitive. I'm hoping it'll spark something in the notoriously cagey Nicholls. It does.

"That reminds me of the first tour just before going to America and making the album," he says, beaming.

"The first song off it is Factory. That actually got released as a single. [British label] XL put it out on vinyl. That got Single of the Week in NME. We were in LA when we heard about that."

Heald has a copy, too. "I got that from one of the shows. It was one of the first live shows I went to when I just turned 18. I've held on to that ever since."

Conceived as Rishikesh by Nicholls and Matthews in a Hurstville McDonald's in 1994, the Vines spent their early years very much under the radar in Sydney, before XL's release of Factory sparked a love-hate relationship with the international press. Along with Melbourne's Jet, and later Wolfmother, the Vines were part of a three-pronged Australian rock invasion unseen since Men at Work, Midnight Oil and INXS in the '80s.

"I didn't know too much about NME when we first started," Nicholls says, "but I definitely learnt a lot more about it after that. We got to be on the cover a bunch of times. We got to do interviews. That helped build interest in us, I think."

However, around the time of Melodia,NME issued an apology to readers, saying the Vines were "never the saviours of rock'n'roll we said they'd be".

How did Nicholls feel when the British music press turned on his band? "Well, I heard they did that," he says of NME, "but they do that with everyone, I think. They can be very opinionated but it's alright. I think there's a place for them."

Soon after Melodia's release, the Vines were forced to cancel festival appearances, as well as a Japanese tour, when Nicholls's mental condition deteriorated. He was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a type of high-functioning autism, in 2004, and the combination of his illness and the rigours of the road nearly derailed the band. While people may have written the Vines off, Nicholls, now 33, never stopped writing. Of the 13 songs on Future Primitive, there were 40 more that didn't make the cut. "I just write songs," he says. "That's what I do. That's what I love doing. To get away from that, to kinda relax as a hobby, I write songs to keep for myself."

Nicholls, who reckons he has demoed exactly 139 songs on his home recorder since 2006's Vision Valley, says he is drawn to the adventure of songwriting; the "whole mystical magic" of it.

"It's just the coolest art form to me. Ever since I got into it, I thought it was great and felt like it's what I should be doing."

Produced in Sydney by Chris Colonna (Bumblebeez, Wolf & Cub), Future Primitive sees the band delve back to the past for inspiration, particularly the psychedelic sounds of the '60s. For the first time, they recorded the bulk of the material live.

"We had mutual admiration for that garage '60s sound," Heald says of working with Colonna. "We were on the same page in that respect. We wanted to keep that element."

Nicholls agrees: "Melodia was very hi-fi, so we wanted to do something different with Chris. We did a lot of it live - guitar, drums and bass.

"We did only a few takes … It was really quick and enjoyable."

The band plan to tour the album throughout Australia, before heading to the US and Britain. While the music community will be holding its collective breath, Nicholls is confident it will go off without a hitch.

"I was going through a roller-coaster but now we feel comfortable with what we're doing and it seems to be going well so far."

And then the punchline: "I'll mess it up soon."

Future Primitive is out today through Sony Music.