Stop Brushing Your Teeth: An Interview With Frances McKee of The Vaselines
by Katherine Coplen
The fact that Frances McKee and Eugene Kelly are making music together again is a bit unbelievable. After all, the pair, who formed the Glasgow-based band The Vaselines in the late 1980s, went their separate ways right before what would have been their big break: Nirvana covering “Son of A Gun” and “Molly’s Lips” on Incesticide, and performing “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam” on MTV Unplugged a year later.
Being Kurt Cobain’s favorite band during the years Nirvana was everyone else’s favorite band should have translated to mega-success for the duo. They were primed and ready with an excellent first full-length album, Dum-Dum. But Kelly and McKee, who were dating while songwriting, called it quits: They broke up just a week after the 1989 release of Dum-Dum.
And that would have been it. But after almost 20 years — during which Cobain’s first label, Sub Pop, released two Vaselines compilations — McKee called up Kelly and asked him to tour with her as she promoted her solo release, the beautiful Sunny Moon. That led to a few one-off Vaselines reunion shows, which gave way to a brand new album in 2010 Sex With An X. Tour dates with members of fellow Glaswegian band Belle and Sebastian followed.
Then, this September brought V For Vaselines, the third, and arguably best, release from the Scottish indie pop group that I still can’t entirely believe is making music again. The new album has an accompanying U.S. tour that sets off in January.
I spoke with McKee from her house in Glasgow after the album release. Could there be more music from The Vaselines? I’m not sure. McKee didn’t soften her harsh critiques of an industry she sees as unwelcoming for independent musicians. I’ve got fingers crossed and a wish that the band finds massive, unrelenting success on their tour here; anything to keep this pair writing hilarious, slightly scandalous, and snappy pop songs together.
You spoke in favor of the Scottish independence referendum in an interview before the vote. What was the mood like in Glasgow, where you live, after it didn’t go through?
I think it’s actually very hopeful. The Labour Party in Scotland is stuffed. They aligned themselves with the conservative government, and you just don’t do that in Scotland. So, although we lost the referendum, we politically gained a lot more. Lots of people have become much more switched on to politics. We accept what happened, of course we accept it, but politically, Scotland is not the same. And it’s really hopeful.
Let’s keep talking about your city. I know that you had many different artists from Glasgow on V For Vaselines, and that you’ve said before that there’s a certain sense of humor specific to the city which translates into the local music.
I think that Glaswegians’ sense of humor is quite unique. It’s a very dark humor, at times. A lot of things we find funny that normally wouldn’t be found funny. And I think that is because, geographically, Scotland is a very dark place for over half the year. We’ve now just reached past the autumnal equinox, going into the darkest part of the year. It’s dark here at half past four in the afternoon now. It does feel like you’ve got to find your amusement within. There’s a sarcasm, an irony in Glaswegian humor, that sometimes people don’t get. A very dry sense of humor as well. We can be looking quite serious, but actually be taking a lot of fun out of things.
Who made the first call to book your dual headlining tour in 2006 with Eugene?
That came from me. I had a solo album out, and just by sheer coincidence, so did Eugene. I was going to play three shows; one in Glasgow, one in Manchester, and one in London. We were thinking about what would make a good support, or a good bill, because people don’t go out to see bands anymore really. You’re trying to make it a two-for-the-price-of-one kind of thing. So it was Julie McLarnon, who used to own this cat [currently walking across her keyboard]. Julie had recorded with us, and she said, “Well, why don’t you ask Eugene?” And I thought, “What a funny idea!” But, actually, a really good idea. Eugene and I were in contact over the years for various things, so I found him. He seemed pretty keen on it. We just did alternate nights of headlining, and we also played some Vaselines songs there as well. It would be churlish not to. I had a cello player, and she played on the songs, so it had quite a different feel to it. We didn’t play many.
Then my brother-in-law was organizing a charity event. He asked us if we would play, obviously thinking we would do what we did for our solo thing. And Eugene said, “I’m really tired of playing acoustically, I want to put a full band together.” So he asked Bob [Kildea] and Stevie [Jackson] from Belle and Sebastian if they would be our backing band. So that’s how we did it, our first Vaselines reunion. It was a charity gig.
At the same time, Sub Pop had asked us if we would go over to Seattle and play for their twentieth anniversary. We did the charity thing, and we were like, “You know, this is really good fun!” So we just decided to just bite the bullet and go over and play there. Then we were offered some New York shows, so we just did it. We’ve hardly stopped since.
When did you decide to go back into the studio to make the first reunion album, Sex With An X?
We didn’t really have that many songs, so we wondered if we could actually write again. It had been a long, long time since Eugene and I had written together. It was just more of an experiment to see what would happen. We kind of tentatively put a couple of songs together, and then we thought, “We could record. We’ve got enough, we could do an album.” The ones we put together, we really liked.
How has songwriting changed for you two as a pair between then and now? You’ve both been in different projects and have evolved a lot as musicians. What have you perfected? How have you changed?
The main difference is we’re not drunk! I wish I could say that I’ve perfected the art, but I really haven’t. I think the main difference is technology. GarageBand and emailing songs to each other means that we don’t have to be in the same room for very long, thank god. So we get together one night a week, bash a few ideas off each other, then go away on our own and work on it. And we just spent a lot of time sending each other ideas, which is much more enjoyable than having to stare at each other, thinking up some ideas. Ideas don’t really come when you’re forcing it. For me, they really do come when I’m riding on my bike or something. I have to muse on things for quite a while. That was, in a sense, quite different from what we’ve done before.
I’ve read zillions of interviews you’ve done in the last few years; you usually include a couple funny asides about your relationship with Eugene, how you have rules like no group hugging, that you’re not in separate cars yet, but it might come to that. I can never tell how serious you are…
Oh my god, Eugene actually read an interview that I had done and he was a bit pissed off. Because I never take interviews that seriously. Eugene was a bit hacked off, and I said, “Say what you like about me in interviews, I don’t mind! We need to make them a bit more interesting.” But it’s all true. Eugene and I, we really don’t get on, so — no, we do. [laughs] Actually, he’s a Capricorn and I’m a Cancer, so we’re opposites. We’re complete opposites. We have to learn from each other. He has to learn to go with the flow more. I have to learn his structure a bit more. When I get embedded in my own ideas, that’s when we come a cropper, really. I just let him do what he wants. He pretends that I’ve got a say, but not really. He was annoyed about that in the last interview, so that’s not true either. It’s a perfect relationship…You know, I could be saying something to you, and I could be having a laugh, but you might not know. The reader won’t know. That’s all part of the mystique for me. That’s what I quite like.
How did you bring on the different Glaswegian artists that played on this record [including Frank Macdonald (Teenage Fanclub), Michael McGaughrin (1990s), Graeme Smillie (Olympic Swimmers), and Paul Foley (Mandrake Shepherd)]? I assume most are friends of yours.
Oh, no, what we do is we put an advert out on the Internet asking for young, handsome men. And I get to choose who will be the next guitarist, who will be the next bass player. They have to come and I get them to dress up in various clothes, usually very little. If they can play guitar, that’s always a bonus.
I’d like to sit in on that. With songwriting, I know you’ve said in the past that you pass things back and forth, that it’s generally collaborative. Is it still that way on the new record?
I think even more so now, actually. I think Eugene, and he has said this in interviews, that he has lots of ideas for songs, but he didn’t have much lyric-wise. I am more of the word person, I think, now. It’s great fun to take a riff that he has, and talk about where we could take it, lyrically. I maybe start off a few ideas, and then it’s ping-pong between us.
Speaking of lyrics, a friend implored me to inquire about the story behind “Monster Pussy.”
I thought that was a well-known story! One night, when I was a student, I acquired a kitten. I can’t remember how, why, what or where. At the time, I was sharing a flat with my sister who is completely and utterly allergic to kittens, which we later on discovered. Anyway, this kitten was totally feral. It was gorgeous, but when it came into the house, it found an exit which was actually below the floorboards. It wouldn’t come out, but I noticed in the morning all the food was gone. So then, I realized it was coming out at night when I was sleeping, but I couldn’t find it during the day. So I had this total fear that this huge, monster pussy was growing under the floor boards. That’s “Monster Pussy.”
That reminds me of the Horacio Quiroga story, The Feather Pillow, about the bug that lives in pillow feedings off a woman’s blood, getting bigger and bigger at night.
Oh, that’s horrible! I’ll be thinking of that when I go sleep tonight.
You’ve said the idea for this album was to make these snappy, short, instant pop songs, and I think that that comes across quite well. But you’ve also said that it took effort to keep things snappy and short. Can you expand on a particularly difficult song that wanted to become more of a production than you allowed it to?
Who said it took effort? That’s nonsense. It was probably Eugene. Everything is an effort. It’s an effort to get out of bed in the morning. To breathe is an effort! They all came pretty easily. One of the songs for me really sounded like a really popular song that sold millions of records. It put Eugene off the song because I kept singing this other tune, and it wasn’t the way he envisioned the song. I changed the whole way of singing it and the whole vocal melody in fact, but when we went into the studio, just on the by and by, I said to Tony [Doogan, who engineered the album], “What does that song remind you of?” And he got it straight away. I’m not going to tell you, because Eugene will go nuts. He’ll spank me hard and I won’t be allowed any sweets for a fortnight.
There wasn’t a lot of effort; it flowed quite easily. We thought we would give ourselves a lot of time, and then we could only get into the studio before we thought we were ready, so we had to push it a wee bit. But it kind of just flowed along. Sometimes the lyrics were hard to get completely right, but we didn’t sweat over it. It wasn’t like digging for coal or anything. It was much easier. [laughs]
You released this record on Rosary Music, your own label. Why did you decide to self-release?
Because no one else wanted to put it out.
That’s hard for me to believe, for some reason.
That’s true! That’s true actually. Who in their right mind would put out a record by people who have had no past history of making a hit record? Who are also approaching their midlife crisis? The music industry is really full of X-factor. It just kills me. Music is dying and the only way to resurrect it is for people to bypass the big labels, or even independent labels, and do it for themselves. It’s a huge industry and only a very, very small percentage of artists make any money out of it. It’s really getting to crisis point with music. Who is going to be able to afford to [put out records on DIY labels] soon? Musicians need to eat. It’s just getting to that point. Unless you’ve got another source of income, which I have teaching yoga, I couldn’t sustain it at all.
Oh, that makes me sad.
It makes me really sad, actually. What makes me feel even worse is that so few artists make gazillions. And the same — I’m sorry, I’m starting to rant now — the same stuff gets played and played and played [on the radio]. And they’re just totally brainwashed, tunnel vision, about other music. You have to really dig deep to hear anything beyond whatever, say [the stations] decide is the flavor of the month. Wouldn’t mind if they decided we were the flavor of the month, but you know, quite often it’s not. They seem to have quite a definite idea of what’s in and what’s out. In Scotland, in Britain, independent music is getting marginalized beyond recognition, really. It’s getting harder. Nobody comes to shows anymore. Nobody’s buying records anymore. What’s the point of actually recording music? Nobody’s listening to it, or buying it, or whatever.
I was going to ask you next how hometown shows for The Vaselines are in Glasgow in the past seven years since you started recording again. I imagined they would be nuthouses.
Glasgow audiences are quite tame. I find it harder to play in Glasgow, than say, London. London audiences, or American audiences seem to understand what we’re doing. Glaswegians, it’s a harder nut to crack, it definitely is. Sometimes it feels easy, sometimes it’s really hard. I think it’s maybe because my family is there, or I know people. I do find playing in Glasgow quite tricky.
What is the status of your various non-Vaselines projects? Solo work, or other musical projects.
I’m not doing much solo stuff. I’ve got not a lot of free time. The Vaselines takes up quite a lot of time at the moment, and yoga teaching takes up quite a lot. But I picked up on an old thing that I did a few years ago, which is an astrology course. I’m really enjoying it. It’s really good fun.
I’m not sure what my sign is. I was born on December 21, so sometimes I’m a Sagittarius, sometimes a Capricorn.
Normally I don’t get along with Capricorn ladies, but you seem okay.
Maybe I’m more of a Sagittarius than a Capricorn, then.
It depends — if you like a lot of order in your life, or if you find a bit more joy in spontaneity, then you’ll be a Sagittarius. Capricorns, what are they ruled by, Saturn? They like their boundaries. That’s why Eugene is so bossy. [laughs]
What would you like to say about this album that you think isn’t being said?
Yes, I’m going to say something. One of the songs on the album — oh, I can never remember the names of the songs because we had actually different names for them when we were recording them — I think it’s called “Spiral Staircase.” We wrote it before the referendum; now if you listen to the words, it really does feel a bit like it was kind of forecasting the stuff that was going on. The referendum was very dominated by a very biased press. That song is about the influence that the press has on people and individuals. And also how the press has this attitude of highlighting celebrities, and how people are more interested in that culture than the stuff that really should be important to them, like the political system, their families, their own lives.
Although that song is a very upbeat song, and you wouldn’t really know [the message] from the song. I think our music always comes across as quite playful, but there’s some lyrics in there that do have relevance to what was going on just now.
Is it possible that one is called “Inky Lies” now?
Oh, yes, it’s “Inky Lies.” I knew it was one or the other. That was a trick to see that you’ve listened to the album.
I loved your cover of “Lithium” that you contributed to Spin’s tribute to Newermind. Did you pick that song to cover?
No, that was all that was left! We were really tardy. Sometimes we leave things to the last minute. Eugene hated that cover version. Absolutely hated it. I really liked it. You know why I liked it? Because we weren’t trying to be Nirvana. There’s no way we could have done anything like what Nirvana did. That song is absolutely brilliant. I love covering songs, I do a lot of cover versions when I play solo sets. My pet thing that I love doing is to take a song and bring it down to its lowest common denominator, which is two chords, or three chords. Really strip it back to nothing. That’s what I think we did with “Lithium.”
Eugene is not very comfortable doing that kind of thing. He’s definitely a 4/4 person, and I’m more 6/8, or something! He couldn’t handle that we had decomposed it, I suppose. He wasn’t very pleased with the result. We only did it in a couple of hours. It wasn’t like we labored over it forever. I was actually really pleased with the way it sounded. I listened to all the cover versions, and I think the ones where the females sang were the ones that were the strongest. [Our cover] wasn’t a Vaselines way of doing it either, it was more like a solo. We pushed Eugene’s comfort zones to the absolute limit on that one.
Made his Capricorn mind go a little crazy.
Oh, yeah. He didn’t enjoy it.
I just watched the video of [Nirvana’s bassist] Krist Novoselic joining you onstage at Bumbershoot in 2012 for “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam.” What’s your relationship with Nirvana’s music like now?
It was amazing that Krist did that. Both Eugene and I know him, and he’s a really quiet person. So for him to come onstage and do that, it was quite a special moment, actually. It’s funny. I didn’t really know who Nirvana was, or anything about the music. It’s really only been the last ten years that I came in to the music, as such. It is pretty remarkable. I couldn’t listen to it all day, or anything, but some songs are just so unbelievably sweet. You just feel that there’s somebody crying out for help in those songs, quite a lot.
What is your advice for young musicians?
I do give a little advice to the kids out there. One of them is to stop being so professional, to really stop being so polished. Stop brushing your teeth. Everything has become polished so that you can almost see your reflection in it, to the point of total sameness. Everything sounds the same. Do something different, don’t do the obvious rock and roll thing. Do something that means something to you, not because you think someone else is going to like it. There’s too much polished nonsense out there. Sing out of tune, or don’t play your guitar very well, or I don’t know.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Photo by Niall Webster.
Katherine Coplen is the music editor for Indianapolis’ alt-weekly, NUVO Newsweekly. She loves pie and rock and roll dads.