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The Vines - Talking About Evolution

Author: Andrew Weaver
Monday, September 1, 2008

3D’s Andrew Weaver talks to Hamish Rosser, drummer of The Vines, about the group’s latest album Melodia, and how what Craig Nicholls’ hears in his head is not what the audience hears when they play live.

For the longest time, it looked like The Vines – one of Australia’s most successful musical exports in the last 10 years, a band that blazed a path followed by the likes of Jet, Wolfmother, et al. – wouldn’t last for four albums.

Frontman Craig Nicholls’ much ballyhooed breakdown in the wake of second album Winning Days, its lukewarm reception, and the departure of founding member (and Nicholls’ foil) Patrick Matthews seemed certain to conspire to render the band rudderless. Yet they survived – the Australian-made third album Vision Valley was about surviving the darkest of times, while latest opus Melodia finds the band back with a vengeance.

A new lease on life, a return to the studio with Rob Schnapf, who produced the first two albums, and a new label (albeit with familiar faces, and their managers in charge of it), seems to have given them a taste of beginning again.

“I really hope that’s the case,” drummer Hamish Rosser says optimistically. “I always like to be a bit cynical so I’m pleasantly surprised if something goes better than expected rather than build myself up for disappointing. But having said that the band is in a really good place – we’ve got Craig together, and he’s not smoking pot chronically like he was when that was the case, and the band is a cohesive unit so if it’s going to happen then the time is now. I just want win people’s respect – that’s more important than sales.”

Melodia has a wonderfully thick sound – the impact of having a permanent bass player cannot be understated, with Brad Heald an aggressive force to be reckoned with – he’s less subtle and more propulsive than Matthews, who played on the first two records, and less elegant than Vision Valley step-in, and You Am I legend, Andy Kent.

“I suggested him,” Hamish boasts proudly of the main man for Vision Valley. “But Brad’s temperament fits the band so well, as well as his playing, and Patrick really fits Youth Group – for the heavier rock songs he found them not as cerebral and just played the root note. Brad looks for something a little bit more than that.”

Returning to the studio with Rob Schnapf has, no doubt, played a major role in the sound of Melodia.

“He can be a harsh taskmaster if he needs to be,” says Hamish of their familiar producer, “and he can be honest when he says you can do better. He’s a bit of a father-figure too – it’s good to have someone that Craig looks up to and respects and will listen to, otherwise he’ll just enforce his opinion and his way and it’ll be that way.”

Admitting that, if he had his way, the Vines would sound more raw and naked than they do in their polished studio form, the skinsman nevertheless says that “Rob knows how to get a great result at the end of it all.”

Once more the key to the band’s sound is in the loud-quiet-loud template mixed with the blissful stacked harmonies – Nicholls has long used his voice as an extra instrument in the studio setting, layering it and singing in different melodics to create a bewitching effect.

“When we’re rehearsing Craig’ll be singing normally and then when it comes to the studio he’s singing all these multi-part harmonies,” he explains. “It blows by mind – I ask where that comes from and he said ‘I heard it in my head’.”

Perhaps, it’s easy to speculate, that’s why the Vines live shows have always been so chaotic – he hears it a certain way in his head, and while he can capture that in the studio it’s not quite so easy when it comes to performing. If he can’t recreate it how he hears it in his head line, then why not destroy it.

“I don’t think it’s quite as malicious as that,” Hamish counters. “He often switches to singing harmonies instead of lead vocals and that’s when a lot of people get lost – he’s switch from a lead to a harmony, then a third harmony, and back again – and to anybody else but himself it’s going to completely lose it. It’s not a malicious attempt to sabotage, but he does hear it different in his head to you and I, for sure.”

It was the band’s explosive performances, and Nicholls’ erratic behaviour, that both saw them scale the heights then fall off the edge – culminating in a tumultuous radio showcase at the Annandale in Sydney, which saw Nicholls lash out at a photographer, breaking a camera, and winding up in court. It was at the subsequent legal case that it was revealed that Nicholls suffered from Asperger’s Syndome. It looked for a while there that it was all going to fade away for the Vines, and they wouldn’t ever match the heights of debut Highly Evolved.

“It’s not so well documented what happened to Craig after the Annandale situation,” Hamish says. “I was wondering what the future of the band was. I always knew he would write songs, but I didn’t know what the future of the band would be and whether he’d be able to function on a professional level – nobody did.”

You can hear the inaudible shrug. “But it’s been nice for him to come back around and get it all together, and I always held out some hope that we’d get it back together. I stuck through some of the dark times, that’s for sure.”

How dark did it get-

“It got pretty dark,” he admits. Slowly but surely, everything is revealed. “He was living in this big house all by himself, and he ended up getting really thin – he lost a lot of weight and wasn’t eating. He went a little bit around the bend. I’d go around there with Ryan [Griffiths, guitarist] and he’d be watching The Beatles anthology or Supergrass demos until well after midnight then we’d start demoing until the sun came up the next day. We’d leave there glassy-eyed thinking it was pretty full-on and he’d call and say ‘come back, we’re going to do some more today’ and it was just…”

He pauses, before summarising that “even when he was going a bit bonkers he was always focused on recording and writing music. He never lost that.”

Here’s hoping he never will.

WHO: The Vines
WHAT: Melodia through Ivy League / Play ANU Bar, Canberra / Great Northern, Byron Bay / Metro Theatre / Homebake, The Domain
WHEN: Out now / Friday 24 October / Thursday 30 / Saturday 1 November / Saturday 6 December