The Vines: ‘The Asperger’s Thing Is Just A Word’
Enfant terrible. Troubled genius. Asperger’s sufferer. The Vines’ Craig Nicholls has been called a lot of things in his life – but for now at least, he’s just comfortably numb. Words by CAITLIN WELSH.
Possibly the most fun I’ve had with the lights on in recent times was the second encore at Tame Impala’s gig at The Metro in Sydney, in May last year. The band had closed with a searing ‘Half Full Glass of Wine’ and it was like giving a six-year-old red cordial with dinner.
When the band left the stage, a good third of the audience stayed put, baying for more even as the house lights went up. They were rewarded, after 10 minutes of devoted bellowing, with an impromptu supergroup: giggling members of Tame Impala, supporting Perth band The Silents, and surprise guests The Vines took turns bashing things with sticks and chasing one another around the stage. Out the front was Craig Nicholls, snarling his mindless, nine-year-old fuck-this-shit anthem, ‘Get Free’, in the grey of the house lights with almost as much relish as everyone else in the room. It’s a big dumb song with a big dumb riff, and it’s fun as fuck live – it’s hard to hold onto your grown-up cynicism about The Vines in the face of that reckless, snotty energy. Resisting it feels as wretchedly middle-aged as buying gig posters in a shop instead of stealing them off telephone poles.
Reckless, snotty energy will only carry a band so far, though. As far as a lot of music fans are concerned, Nicholls’ particular appeal both as a songwriter and a person could carry them exactly as far as one album – 2002 debut Highly Evolved – before the wheels began to come off. The inevitable hype backlash, the lacklustre follow-up albums, the heinous overuse of the phrase “enfant terrible of Australian rock”; the increasingly antagonistic Nicholls smashed reporters’ Dictaphones, multiple guitars and a gig photographer’s camera.
The latter was at that Annandale Hotel show in 2004 – the one that lost them bassist Patrick Matthews, that brought the assault charge, that uncovered Nicholls’ Asperger’s Syndrome. While it appeared as though the Vines were unravelling, they kept recording albums that were rich with the ’60s pastiche-rock that was so adored on their debut; they kept touring, albeit on a less hectic schedule; and Nicholls kept writing – because, as he admits, it’s the only thing he really knows how to do. When I ask if he’s aware of how his diagnosis increased the general visibility and understanding of Asperger’s Syndrome, he replies, “No, I’m not really aware of anything.” He mumbles something about bands, the bands he plays in and listens to, “but everything else I don’t know about”.
On the phone, Nicholls is friendly, if not garrulous - he often replies to both direct and open-ended questions with the simplest answer and little more. While I try to prompt him on the genesis of or influences on the band’s fifth and newest album Future Primitive – a mixed bag, even for them, with Brian Wilson orchestral moments and hints of krautrock – he’s vague or blankly literal and won’t be drawn. But he’s also self-deprecating and unexpectedly candid, admitting freely to being “a bit drunk” at the Tame Impala show and drily calling some of the earlier recordings “just screaming”. More than anything, though, as the album and tour cycle starts again, he’s enjoying himself enormously.
Tell me about the beginning of Future Primitive. Did you sit down and work out a grand plan? Or is it more a “throw things at the wall and see what sticks” kind of thing?
It always starts out with just having a new bunch of songs, and then we just demo them. I wrote a lot of songs, even throughout recording the album. Well, maybe not then, because we did it in a few weeks. But then we had a break after that. So, yeah. We just write a bunch of songs, and then choose the best ones.
What was influencing you at the time?
A lot of different bands. Super Furry Animals, Gorillaz, Supergrass, The Verve. A lot of different bands.
And you keep coming back to ‘Autumn Shade’, too [credited on the album as AS.4]. Are you going to do an entire album of different versions of ‘Autumn Shade’ one day?
Maybe we should. Yeah. I don’t know why. When we did the third [version] I said to our producer in America that that was it, that I wasn’t going to do any more. But he said you should never say that. So it was because of him that I did the fourth one. But maybe that’s it. [Laughs]
What do you get out of every different version of it? Is there something about it that you keep wanting to perfect? Or is it just a vibe, or a motif that you keep wanting to come back to?
It’s the vibe. It has a cool, minor chord acoustic feel to it. So, yeah, I just seem to like that mood a lot.
Tell me a little about recording the album. Where did you do most of the work on it?
301 in Sydney, which was really cool. It’s a really nice studio, and a really big studio. And we did all the instruments live, and we’d do a few takes and then choose the best one.
So you prefer to do things live in the studio?
Well yeah, then I preferred doing it live, because we’d never done it like that before. And it’s really quick, and a really fun way to record. So I’m not sure if we’ll always do it like that from now on, but for this one I think it works well.
And what about the title? Future Primitive harks back to Highly Evolved. What is it about evolution and natural order that you keep coming back to?
Well, with Highly Evolved, and this one, it’s talking about me. Or people in general, and what humans are like. It’s simple – I don’t want to go too deep, because we’re still a rock band, but also the words sound cool. I had the album title Highly Evolved, and then wrote the song after that. And the same thing with Future Primitive – had the title, wrote the song, then liked the way it turned out and used it for the album title.
How do you feel about the first album now? Do you feel like you are still chasing it a bit?
I think it’s really good. Of course, I have to say that because I made it with the band. But obviously that one was at a time where rock bands were getting a lot of hype, and a certain type of band. Like The Strokes – their first album was getting a lot of attention. And then when their second album came out people were saying it wasn’t as good as the first one. But I liked it more than the first one. So I’m not saying which of our albums is better. It’s hard for me to judge, but I guess I don’t think of [Highly Evolved] in a bad way. I think it’s good we got a lot of recognition. And that’s always good if you’re playing in a band – you want to get recognised.
Do you think the way the media hype bands up, and the pressure they put on second albums, is a damaging thing, especially for young bands?
I’m not sure if it is. But definitely, if you have a big first album people want to see what the next thing is, and if it’s not like the first one they’re not going to be happy. But I guess that’s just the nature of things. I guess it’s better for people to be focussed on you than not – even if it can be negative.
What about your relationship with the media? You’re not the first muso who ever got pissed off at journos, or stormed out of an interview. But do you see the media as more of a necessary evil these days?
Um, yeah. Well, I don’t really think they are evil. When I’ve had bad interviews I was probably just sick of it. But for these interviews I’m doing now, I haven’t done any in a while, so it’s flattering that people still want to talk to us. So I’ll do my best to describe what’s going on.
As damaging and unpleasant as it was for you and the band, do you think your health problems and behaviour sort of added to the bratty-rock-star mythology?
Yeah, maybe. I know it was definitely real for me - all my reactions to people when we first started travelling and meeting people. Because we got there by doing it on our own, and writing our own songs, so we didn’t feel like we needed to act the part for anyone. But when you’re younger you have an attitude anyway, and when you are in a band you especially have one. But when you get older you are less angry.
There’s a difference to writing a shit-kicking garage rock song when you’re 23 and when you’re 33, I guess.
Yeah, I think we’ve changed. There’s a lot less screaming. When I think about earlier stuff, a lot of it is just screaming. And we’ve still got a little bit of that, but I think it’s a happier sound, overall.
“I guess it’s better for people to be focussed on you than not – even if it can be negative.”
You once said in an interview that part of the appeal of being in a band was that there were no rules, that The Kinks used to fight on stage, and you liked the lawlessness of it. Do you feel like you’ve got a more grown-up approach to it now? Are you more realistic about the day to day part of being in a band?
I think so. On our first two albums we were touring a lot, because when you start out you’re just doing as much as you can. But for the last couple of albums we haven’t been doing so much work. But personally, I think I have grown up a bit, and been a bit calmer. But my attitude to music is still the same, I think.
Do you buy into that whole “troubled genius” thing that people tend to attach to you because you can write a killer riff? Before you were diagnosed do you think people bought in to it a bit more, because you were so good at what you did?
Maybe, yeah. Maybe that helped. I think we wouldn’t have been able to do anything at all if we hadn’t had good songs. But you don’t get in to it because you want to cause trouble for people. [Laughs] I’m really not like that, but when I started out I was young, and there were drugs involved. But yeah, you don’t wanna cause trouble for people, but like I was saying before when you’ve been going by your own rules you won’t immediately do what people tell you. People will always try to get you to do things.
Do you ever wonder how different things might have been if you’d been diagnosed earlier?
I don’t know. I think ... I don’t know if it would have ... It’s hard to say how it would have been different ... I just see it as me, and I’m just myself. And I’ve always been introverted, but when I started playing music I just wrote a lot of songs and stayed at home all the time. So it’s hard to know where ... I just see myself as being me, and the Asperger’s thing is just a word.
Of course – but it must have been a relief to have a name put to some of the things you were doing.
I guess so, in that it describes a bit the reason why you are a certain way.
So how do you manage it now? Are you still not smoking weed?
Yeah, I don’t take anything. I feel really good. We’ve got the new album coming out, and yeah.
How are things with the rest of the band nowadays?
They’re good. We get along well, and we’re all having a good time with what we’re doing.
Patrick [Matthews, the departed bassist] aside, are you ever surprised that the guys stuck around as long as they did? Or did he always have less patience with you than the others?
Our old band member? I guess so. He was very crazy at the time. So I dunno. These days we don’t do as much craziness or have as much stuff on, so we can handle it better. And I can handle it better.
Are you on good terms with Patrick now?
Yeah, yeah, I’ve seen him a bunch of times ... [We’re] still friends. Obviously we don’t see each other as much as we used to. But yeah, it’s cool. I think he plays in another band [Youth Group, The Jewel and The Falcon], and we’ve got our new bass player [Brad Heald] who is working out well. And he’s been in the band for five years now, so he’s doing pretty good.
So you’re feeling good, and settled?
I feel good. Yeah. I feel comfortably numb. [Laughs]