The Vaselines back in the day

An interview with the Vaselines

We spoke to the influential Scottish duo about working/sparring together as exes, the impact of Nirvana fans on their career and comeback, & what Kurt was really like.

the Vaselines
The Vaselines now
Staying civil with your ex is no small feat. Working with them is another matter entirely — especially when the job involves touring the world, penning the occasional heartbroken ballad, and then singing it in front of thousands of fans.

It sounds like Frances McKee and Eugene Kelly are lamenting such a problematic partnership on “Single Spies,” especially when they share the refrain: “Stop denying/ That it meant nothing/You’re lying…” The former flames — who front Scotland’s pioneering indie rock, the Vaselines — have an undeniable chemistry when they write and perform. And while “Single Spies” may be the most melancholy cut from their latest album, 2014’s V for Vaselines, the release is otherwise comprised of power pop tunes that sound more optimistic than a split couple who easily settled the custody of their labour of love.

McKee, for instance, attributes V for Vaselines’  best lyrics to her old squeeze. “The best song on the album is ‘Inky Lies,’ one of the ones I didn’t write,” she says. “Eugene had a set idea for ‘Inky Lies,’ and it’s one of the more serious songs on the album. It has a message, if you’d want to say that, in terms of the way the media portrays people, and the way people buy into what the media tells them.”

Kelly is far more modest about the song’s complexity, saying, “You’d be hard pressed to listen and know exactly what we’re singing about (on ‘Inky Lies’). A lot of it is about celebrity culture, and how everyone’s getting into the lives of other people that they’ll never meet. But that’s just where it started; we hope people can listen and get something from it.”

The Vaselines then
The Vaselines then

Kelly adds that he has had few gripes about how the media has covered the Vaselines, mainly because the band is so small, albeit influential. But Kelly has caught a glimpse of the kind of pandemonium that engulfed some of the bands that drew on he and McKee for inspiration, especially Nirvana. The mammoth grunge trio covered the early Vaselines single “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” on its five-times-platinum-selling MTV Unplugged in New York album. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain told the media that McKee and Kelly were his “favourite songwriters in the whole world,” and even invited the then defunct Vaselines for a one-off opening gig at Nirvana’s Edinburgh stop in 1990. Cobain later recruited Kelly’s then-new band Captain America as opener for their U.K. tour.

And while Cobain has often been depicted as a heroin-addled alt-rock martyr, Kelly says the media missed a whole other side of his personality.

“Kurt wasn’t this angst-ridden person,” he says. “He was just a normal person that liked to have fun and get on with life. But it’s too easy for people to take one aspect of a person and magnify it, and I think that’s what happened.”

After Cobain’s 1994 suicide, rock fans scrounged for every minute detail about his life and work. The Vaselines’ influence on Nirvana did not go unnoticed, and eventually the once underground Scottish band had a massive new following. But it was too late. McKee and Kelly’s romance had already withered in the midst of their early affiliation with Cobain, and their split also brought an end to the Vaselines almost immediately after they released their debut album Dum-Dum in 1989.

McKee and Kelly, who are both now pushing 50, were only in the early 20’s at the time. As grunge became passé with the mainstream, and dance rock took hold in the U.K., the Vaselines felt more and more marginalized, with no idea Cobain’s accolades would eventually rekindle their popularity. That kind of latter success didn’t even occur to the former couple.

“I didn’t think we could write together if we weren’t together the way we used to be,” Kelly says. “And after we broke up, the scene changed, and it would’ve been a struggle to fit in. We thought it had been a bit of fun that lasted a few years. We didn’t think it was going to be this serious career that lasted this long. So it made sense to stop it and do other things, and we made different music separately.”

Kelly’s band Captain America had to change its name to Eugenius after a lawsuit with Marvel Comics. Eugenius released an album and a string of EPs throughout the mid-’90s to critical acclaim, but their soggy sales prompted Atlantic Records to sever ties. Kelly began a solo career in the new millennium, a career trajectory that was oddly similar to that of McKee, who attained modest success but soon parted ways with her own indie-pop outfit Suckle. By then, ’90s retrospectives were en vogue and promoters were hassling the Vaselines to regroup. By then, Kelly and McKee were amicable again, and the notion of playing some of their old tunes had a strange appeal.

“I’d been doing my own solo projects, and I liked it, but I forgot how much fun it was to play with other people,” McKee says. “I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed bringing these songs back to life. Because don’t forget, we hadn’t played a lot of songs live from Dum-Dum. It was like a new project.”

“After we broke up, there was a few years where it wasn’t great, where we didn’t see each other and got on with different things,” Kelly says, explaining that business meetings for Vaselines royalties and retrospectives forced the former lovers to remain somewhat in touch. “We’d have to do phone calls to discuss what was happening with this and that, and I’d bump into Frances at gigs.”

Before long, the pair were occasionally inviting each other onstage for impromptu duets at their respective shows. When prepared to play a 2006 gig organized by her sister for a charity, she invited Kelly to accompany her for some acoustic tunes. But he had one stipulation.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we play a one-off, full punk rock show?’ I was getting bored playing acoustic music. Soon as we did that, we were asked to do another show, and another. We realized that we wanted to continue, because we hadn’t played a lot of the songs live, what with our breaking up when the record was released. So it felt like a new band.”

Since then, the reformed Vaselines have embarked on several world tours and released three new albums: 2009’s Enter the Vaselines, 2010’s cheekily titled Sex With an X and last year’s V for Vaselines. Kelly says that, in a way, that he and McKee may be better equipped to play together now, despite their long-soured romance.

“When we first started 20 odd years ago, we didn’t know what we were doing. Everything was written intuitively and spontaneously. Now the records sound more professional; before, they were really rough and ready, lo-fi,” he says, adding that he also appreciates McKee’s strengths as a musician more than he used to. “She’s always got good ideas. I’m a slacker, she’s a hard worker. She’s determined to get things finished. But she also brings a sense of fun to it — if I get serious and indulgent, she’ll lighten it up.”

Unfortunately, the pair can’t always maintain that level of maturity in this amicable new partnership. There are times when they still squabble like an old couple.

“I’m not sure which of us is more clever, but Frances is definitely more nasty,” Kelly says of the tit-for-tat banter that he and McKee unleash onstage and during interviews. “She goes for the throat straight away, and I’ll be left dumbstruck. Especially during concerts — she can get me quite quickly and I have to wait a few songs before I think of a comeback. She must plan it all in advance, waiting up at night, thinking of ways to get me.”

McKee cheekily says her barbs are merely a result of vastly superior maturity, both on a musical and personal level. “It’s me that’s evolved, Eugene hasn’t changed. It would take 1,000 years for him to show some evolution.”

Despite the constant one-upmanship, Kelly says he relishes all aspects of being back in the Vaselines. He adds that he now misses playing stripped down acoustic shows, and the band’s current tour might be their last before he and McKee resume their solo careers. But he’s always open to new possibilities and surprises for the Vaselines, because he had no idea what he was missing out on when McKee and he split up decades ago.

“Being in a band again for the past five years has helped us become friends again, and I think that’s a great. Frances and I have known each other so long, for 30 years, so we now communicate really well. And that’s great, because to lose a friend when you break up with them is such a sad thing.” ■
The Vaselines perform with Amanda X at Bar le Ritz PDB (179 Jean-Talon W.) on Sunday, Jan. 18, 9:30 p.m., $18/$20