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Vaselines - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 19 / 4 / 2009

Vaselines - Interview


The Vaselines were the favourite band of the late Kurt Cobain. Singer/guitarist Eugene Kelly talks about their recent reformation and puts right some of the stories that have built up about them in the years since they split in 1990.

"We didn’t actually come from Bellshill," says Eugene Kelly. "We were never part of that scene. Frances and I are both from Parkhead. It was just that Frances used to once play in a band with someone from Bellshill, and we got lumped in with all the other groups who came out from there at about the same time as us." The story of the Vaselines has become the subject of independent music folklore and legend over the last twenty years. They were formed by Eugene Kelly (vocals, guitar) and his then girlfriend Frances McKee (vocals, guitar) in Glasgow in 1986, and, in their brief career which spanned to only nineteen recorded songs, quickly garnered a reputation for writing noisy, abrasive bubblegum rock tunes with sharp hooks , smutty lyrics and snappy boy-girl harmonies. Soon signed to Stephen Pastel of the Pastels and David Keegan from the Shop Assistants’ influential 53rd and 3rd label, the often notoriously shambolic Vaselines recorded just two singles, ‘Son of a Gun’(1987) and ‘Dying for It’ (1988), and an album, ‘Dum Dum’ (1990), before splitting up the week that the album was released. They would doubtlessly have remained in relative obscurity, little known outside Scotland, except they were heard by Kurt Cobain, who, declaring Kelly and McKee his "most favourite songwriters in the world", recorded with Nirvana versions of two of their songs, ‘Molly’s Lips’ and ‘Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam’. The Vaselines reformed briefly late in 1990 to open for Nirvana when they played a gig in Edinburgh. Eugene Kelly also appeared on-stage with Nirvana the following year at the Reading Festival to perform ‘Molly's Lips’, while his next band Captain America later on in 1992 supported them on a world tour. Kelly is talking to Pennyblackmusic to both promote a new double CD, ‘Enter the Vaselines’ ( which, as well as all the Vaselines’ original recordings, has been supplemented by various demos and live recordings) and to speak about his group’s recent reformation. Rather than build matters up any further, he is keen, however, to debunk and re-figure properly some of the myths that have grown up about his group in its prolonged absence. Only the first of these is the fact that the Vaselines came from the South Glasgow suburb of Parkhead, rather than several miles to east and the more romanticised out-of-town setting of Bellshill in Lanarkshire, the home of a flurry of other groups of the same period such as the Teenage Fanclub, the BMX Bandits and the Soup Dragons. Despite 53rd and 3rd, which also put releases by the likes of other well-known indie acts of the mid and late 80s such as Talulah Gosh, Beat Happening and the Shop Assistants, having gained a reputation especially in the years since it demise as being a label of quality, Kelly also denies seeing it as being any way special at the time. "It was just a means for us to get our records out," he reflects. "We didn’t see it as being very different from any other label, other than of course it was the label we were on. It was only long afterwards that we realised how good a label it was." The Vaselines' break-up the week that ‘Dum Dum’ came out is often seen as some kind of ultimate crash-and-burn mission statement. Kelly is, however, more matter-of-a-fact : "Frances and I had broken up as a couple. 53rd and 3rd had also just gone bust. We hadn’t played any gigs or done anything for months before the record had come out, and we had to decide whether we were going to continue or not. There didn’t seem any point at the time in going on, so we decided not to do it anymore." Even his relationship with Kurt Cobain he plays down. "I will always be grateful to Kurt for everything he did to make the Vaselines become better known," he says about the late Cobain, who first heard the band after his friend Calvin Johnson from Beat Happening took a selection of 53rd and 3rd Records over to Seattle with him. "Without him, I think we would have been long forgotten. We were never very close friends though. He was always very shy for one thing, and when I was on tour with him, it was about the time that ‘Nevermind’ was really taking off. He was always away doing interviews and that kind of thing. I spent a lot more time hanging out with both Krist (Novoselic) and Dave (Grohl) than I did with Kurt. The three of us got on pretty well together." Much was made even at the time and has been since of the Vaselines' lewdness. Their song titles include 'Rory Rides Me Raw', 'Monster Pussy' and 'Teenage Superstar'. It is something else that Kelly at least in part feels has been misconstrued . "A lot of it was fairly innocuous," he laughs. "Frances had just bought a bike which she rode everywhere and which she christened Rory. 'Rory Rides Me Raw' was about that, while 'Monster Pussy' was about a cat that had got stuck under the floorboards. 'Teenage Superstar' meanwhile was about a teenage actress, who was on the telly a lot at the time." "We did, however, play it up a bit," Kelly admits. "We both really liked at that time 'Carry On'-style jokes and a lot of the song titles reflect that." Possibly more prevalent in the lyrics, and something which has perhaps sometimes been lost behind the ribald humour, was both Kelly and McKee's complex relationship with religion. Cobain favourite 'Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam' had its original title changed from 'Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam', while songs such as 'Sex Sux (Amen)' and 'Son of a Gun' reveal a contentious attitude towards organised religion and Catholicism in particular. "Both Frances and I had Catholic upbringings," says Kelly. "We both went to single sex secondary schools. Frances was taught by nuns, and I was taught partly by monks. Other than on the bus in the morning, I never saw or knew any girls for about six years. We had been out of school a couple of years when we formed the Vaselines, and a lot of our lyrics were a reaction against that." The Vaselines had a reputation for being shambolic both live and in person, and, for all his attempts to fix some of the exaggerations that have been told about his group, on this point Kelly couldn’t agree more. “We were really awful that way,” he says. “A lot of our rehearsals started and ended in the pub. I remember on one occasion James Seenan( bassist-Ed), turned up without his guitar, and Charlie (Kelly, drums and Eugene Kelly’s brother-Ed), arrived without his sticks. That sort of chaos and disorganisation wasn’t uncommon.” The Vaselines’ reformation began in the summer of 2006 when Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee, each with a solo album out, played a joint tour together and finished each evening by playing an initially unplanned short set of Vaselines’ songs. The reformed group’s first official show took place in April of last year in Glasgow when they played a charity show organised by McKee’s sister for the Malawi Orphan Support Group. They followed this by performing their first ever US show at Hoboken in New Jersey in July, and then later that week other shows in New York and then at Sub Pop Records’ 20th Anniversary SP20 Music Festival near Seattle. The Vaselines have also since then played Glasgow again and, earlier this year, their first show in London in twenty years. With both Seenan and Charlie Kelly (who joined the original duo of Kelly and McKee towards the end of the band’s initial career between the Vaselines recording their two singles and the ‘Dum Dum’ album) having departed, the rhythm section has been replaced by members of Belle and Sebastian. “It’s not like it was and it is a lot less ramshackle,” Kelly quips. “We’re a lot better at playing our instruments for one thing.” Kelly and McKee have also begun song writing again. They have completed three songs already and are working on various others. The new songs, which they have playing been in their live shows, slip in seamlessly in their sets with the old songs, having the same distorted, but melodic noisy pop edge. “I’m not sure how long it will last,” says Kelly. “I can’t really see myself doing this in ten years time, but Frances and I are finding it rewarding at the moment, and are getting a lot out of it. We never really made any plans first time around and we’re not doing so again. We’re just really taking it one moment at a time.” For everything that has been exaggerated and all the half-truths that have been told about the Vaselines over the years, they have not really changed at all. As they have always done, they are continuing to make music in their own uncompromising way.

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Interview (2015)
Vaselines - Interview
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