Craig Nicholls is sitting in the TMN offices pondering his band’s latest recording. It’s been two and a half years since the release of their fourth album,Melodia, and speculation is rife over which direction the new album will take.
Nicholls, however, is discussing the band’s recent recording of the song Black Betty, for use in a Volkswagen US TVC. The commercial could potentially relaunch The Vines in America, a country that has been decidedly fickle towards them since their debut album hit number 11 in the Billboard Albums chart. But why Black Betty?
“That’s what they wanted,” Nicholls states bluntly. “It would have been good if they wanted one of our songs. We just thought, ‘it’s for America, it’s good to get any exposure you can get there.’ We’ve done that kinda thing before, and we’ve got no problem with it. We just tried to put our own spin on it. We made it heavier, similar to what we do.”
At 33, Nicholls looks alarmingly youthful, and seems healthy and at ease, two descriptions that have rarely been levelled at him. He openly discusses the band’s meteoric rise and equally quick crash landing, both of which he is able to sum up succinctly in retrospect.
Before this though, talk turns to the new “spacey sounding” album, Future Primitive, which was recorded over two weeks in February 2010 with producer Chris Colonna, of The Bumblebeez.
“We get along well with him,” Nicholls recalls fondly . “We met him and did some demos with him and he wanted to do the album. We did preproduction with Chris for a week; it was more with the actual recording that Chris could bring different sounds to it and add effects, but we didn’t really change the arrangements too much.”
The last decade has been a rollercoaster ride for Nicholls, which saw him go from playing sporadic gigs around inner-Sydney to being on the cover of American Rolling Stone within an eighteen-month period. Prior to The Vines’ success, Nicholls was dividing his time between working at McDonalds with bassist-at-the-time Patrick Matthews, and meticulously demoing songs on an eight track (“It’s got sixteen tracks, but I only know how to use the eight inputs; that’s enough”).
Andy Kelly of Winterman and Goldstein and Ivy League Records heard these rough demos and immediately took Nicholls under his wing. He began shopping the recordings around and American producer Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith) was impressed enough to fire back an email with the band’s name in capitals repeated ad nauseam. From that point, it all moved rapidly.
“We went to America and made our first album there,” Nicholls recalls. “While we were doing that, one of our demos got put out in England and got single of the week in NME which I think really helped get some interest. We were based in America but we kept going back to England every two months or so, playing bigger and bigger venues. People were really enthusiastic about it.”
Was this sudden success overwhelming?
“No, it was really good. It was excellent,” he enthuses. “I’d been doing it for years, so even if it seemed that it happened overnight, that we were this new band, I’d been doing it for years. Writing, recording, even playing live sometimes. We just enjoyed it because we didn’t really wanna question it too much. It was just a good time.”
The Vines soon became the biggest Australian export in years, with media outlets scrambling to give column inches to the band. Rolling Stone called them “the saviors of rock,” and placed them on their cover (the first Australian act since Men At Work in 1983), NME profiled their every move and the debut album went on to sell 1.5 million copies. An overwhelming barrage met the band, a rush that Nicholls struggled to make sense of.
“It was usually looking back on things after they happen, like how we were on the cover of the Rolling Stone in America and how we played the MTV Awards. I remember that,” he muses quietly. “Playing the MTV Awards, at the time; that was a big deal. That was really exciting. And to sell a lot of albums was really good too. That’s the main thing, I guess, out of everything we’re trying to do…”
Things soon escalated, with constant touring, shifting schedules and label demands providing a pressure cooker environment. In his first UK interview, Nicholls smashed a journalist’s tape recorder and locked himself in a bathroom for 90 minutes. The media devoured these regular ‘tantrums’ and kept Nicholls’ reputation as a wild man of rock percolating, all the while selling magazines off the back of it.
Of course, these incidents make more sense in the context of Nicholls’ at-the-time undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome.
He lived on a diet of McDonalds and marijuana. His lifestyle was chaotic and the constant pressures, time restraints and location shuffling made being a travelling musician the worst possible profession at the time.
Looking back on this period of constant touring, Nicholls is philosophical.
“When you’re on an American major label they want you to tour all the time. Most of it is really fun, but sometimes it’s hard… I mean it is a great position to be in… but sometimes you do it so much that you really don’t want to play and it defeats the purpose of why you’re in a band in the first place.”
The situation came to a head at the now infamous Triple M show at The Annandale during the touring cycle for second album Winning Days, where Nicholls kicked a camera out of a photographer’s hand, causing Patrick Matthews to walk off stage never to return. Nicholls was soon diagnosed with Asperger’s and narrowly avoided criminal charges. The band ceased touring altogether, destroying their career trajectory. The backlash was imminent, however Nicholls was shielded from the worst of it, mainly due to his aversion to reading press and, ironically, his insular nature.
(cont. from magazine version)
“I don’t really read the magazines so I don’t always know what’s being said. It doesn’t really bother me; I don’t think it bothered the other guys. We just liked playing music; you can’t please everyone.”
A third album (Vision Valley) limped out, with sales affected by the band’s inability to tour, and the buying out of EMI by Terra Firma Capital Partners in mid-2007. The Vines were dropped during the reshuffle, however Nicholls has nothing but good memories of his time at Capitol, despite the constant pressure to tour.
“I’d be hanging out in the president’s office, watching TV and getting a lot of free CDs and things like that,” Nicholls recalls. “[In regards to The Vines], there wasn’t that much that needed to be talked about really, because we weren’t a manufactured band. We’d finished recording our album before they signed us, so they couldn’t really change that, and I guess they would have ideas about things, but we were still able to do what we wanted. We were pretty lucky.”
Locally, the band is set to relaunch, with Future Primitive due to be released through Sony, backed by a full national tour, which Nicholls is looking forward to (“It’s cool, I like playing”).
For all of Nicholls’ perceived luck, the most obvious thing that comes across is his burning ambition.
Although he remains scatty on whether or not their fourth album Melodia, released on independent Ivy League in Australia, received an American release (“I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t get released there. We made the album in L.A, and we had some labels come and listen to it… I should know,“ he laughs. “But I don’t.”), it is clear his sights are still set on America and the UK. He mentions a potential UK tour later in the year, and fondly recalls recording in Hollywood.
His single-minded drive is what Nicholls attributes to The Vines’ early success.
“I was a very ambitious… young artist,” he states, dropping into a mock-pretentious accent for the last two words. “To the point where I was going out of my mind before we recorded our first album. I needed the opportunity to prove myself and I think I did do that, so I was very relieved and satisfied. I was really obsessive about it, and I think you’ve got to be that way to make an impact or do anything that is going to get recognised.”
So with the diminishing commercial returns from each album (inevitable when the bar is set so high from the start), lineup changes, public scuffles and long stretches without touring killing the band’s career momentum, does Nicholls have any regrets?
“Not really, I just think, if anything, we’ve done really well. Not many Australian bands in the last ten, fifteen years have done what we’ve done, you can probably count them on one hand. When I was younger I was like ‘I want to do this’, I wanted to record in America before we even had the chance, so I’m happy. There’s no regrets.”
Nicholls leaves the office, and heads back to the studio. He seems amused by his current project, and again, talk turns to America. “I’ve gotta sort this song out… for some American car commercial.”