Though it may be hard to believe now, there was a time, not so very long ago, when melodic indie pop that featured male-female vocals, and combined an innocent, proto-twee identity with punk-rock energy and smart, funny lyrics about sex, religious skepticism, macho idiots, and cats was not a recipe for global superstardom. Nonetheless, despite receiving no notoriety whatsoever until after their 1989 breakup, the Vaselines remain one of the most beloved underground bands of the past 25 years. Founders Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee have reunited to play Sub Pop's 20th anniversary event (with three members of Belle and Sebastian filling out the lineup)—the band's first ever show in the U.S. A handful of additional shows, mostly in the UK and Europe, have since been added, leaving the door open for a present-tense identity for a band that fans have only ever known as a posthumous entity. Kelly, whose quiet voice has the most pleasing Scots lilt you can imagine, spoke to The Stranger by phone from his home in Glasgow where he sat "watching the rain out the window."
What was your ambition when you started the band?
We didn't have any ambitions at all. The whole music scene in Scotland and Britain at the time was pretty dire. There was hardly anywhere you could play music if you weren't a heavy-metal or covers band. So a scene started up in Glasgow—and probably other different places up and down Britain. Lots of people were starting clubs and forming bands again. When we released records, we didn't think anything was going to come of it. We just thought we'd have some fun while we were at college and we might get to play some shows. That was as far as we thought it would go. I mean, I always thought I'd love to do music as a career, but we never thought in our wildest imaginations that it was possible for people who played the kind of music we were playing to even have records released or keep doing it for so many years.
How did you and Frances McKee start making music together?
I was in a band called Famous Monsters, and Frances was in a band the Pretty Flowers (with people who went on to be in bands like the Soup Dragons, BMX Bandits, and Teenage Fanclub). We met when both our bands played on a bill at this hotel in Glasgow. Both those bands split up around the same time, so we decided to try and write songs together. It was just for fun, just for a laugh and to see what we could do.
It was easy to write together. Everything came out of us just playing guitars together and having fun and making silly jokes and writing some lyrics, and then we realized we had some songs. The songs happened so fast. I soon realized we could write together really well, really quickly.
There's a lot of innocence in the songs, but a lot of sex, too. Where did that contrast come from?
Well, we were a couple at the time. There was a lot of innuendo and jokes in there. We had the freedom to sing about what we wanted, because we never thought anyone was going to listen to what we were writing. We didn't think anyone would be interested in our private humor.
We knew what we couldn't do as well as what we were capable of. We couldn't just go onstage and pose about, put our foot on the monitor—we were kind of anti-rock. I think a lot of that was going on at that time; people were annoyed by the scene around the world, it was kind of knee-jerk and heavy rock bands. We were trying to do anything opposite to that. We couldn't go and... headbang. I mean, we shook our hair a bit, but there was irony in it as well. We just... anything we saw David Coverdale do, we couldn't do it.
Always a sound policy. How did it feel to gain so much notoriety after you'd broken up?
It was amazing. We had released maybe a thousand copies of our first single and a thousand copies of our second single, and to hear that it had even reached the other side of the world—to us, that was mind-blowing. We thought it might reach as far as the London press, but we never thought there'd be copies of it going around the world. When the Vaselines ended, we started hearing word from America that Mudhoney were playing our songs and Nirvana were playing our songs and were fans of them.
It is a pretty odd thing to happen to anyone who releases records and then the band splits and then the band has a life after. I think it's great. It just proves that what we were doing was good. It got to travel and it gained fans around the world. It surprises me that it happened. I'm always amazed by it.
Why the decision to replace the original rhythm section [James Seenan on bass and Kelly's brother Charles on drums] with members of Belle and Sebastian?
We thought it was going to be a one-off gig in Seattle, but it's sort of expanded. So we asked the guys in Belle and Sebastian because we figured it'd be quick and easythey're really good at picking up songs and not having to rehearse very often. It's worked out really well. Before, the Vaselines never really played what was on the record. We played a different version. Before, it was much more spontaneous and sometimes you didn't know what was going to happen. We thought we'd get people who could reproduce what's on the record. People are going to come and expect to hear that and we want to deliver it for them.
How was the old live band different?
It was more primitive, kind of hairy. We didn't know how the songs ended, we never rehearsed very often. We just used to go out and try to play. It was really raw and immature and naive, as well. Frances and I weren't the best guitar players. At that time, we had some fundamental basics, so we'd just go onstage and make a racket.
How does it feel to revisit the old songs?
It's been great. Rehearsals are great and the couple of shows we played in Glasgow were really fun. A lot of the songs we never played before. A few of the singles we used to play live before we recorded them, but then they'd wind up being slightly different versions. So now we're getting a chance to go back and play almost everything that was on the Sub Pop release for the first time. There's 19 songs on that, and we're gonna try and play at least 14 or 15 of those.
Lines like "I was born of original sin/to a two-timin', hustlin' virgin/Father, Son, and Holy Ghost/I'm the sacred host with the most" make a person wonder if you grew up in a religious house.
Yeah, Frances and I both grew up with a Catholic background.
Some of the best Vaselines songs deal explicitly and implicitly—and always irreverently—with faith and religious mythology. Was it a natural subject?
When you go through Catholic school, and I was an altar boy, and you're in chapel more times than the priest almost, you come through that and it's still part of you. We were in the Vaselines in our early 20s, so there's still part of you that's not really sure what you think about religion. We were so used to singing hymns in chapel that we tried to write songs that might be—not using the same kind of chord structure or melody, but we used to think that the hymns we sang were influencing the way we wrote songs. Maybe some kind of folk element or something. But we hadn't really decided what we were thinking. You go through that late teenage/early-20s period where you reject a lot of things you've been taught by your parents and you kind of move on. You want to be a rebel and you want to be your own person. I think we were definitely trying to figure out what we thought about religion.
The songs about religion are obviously irreverent, but they don't feel hostile. Though a believer would probably disagree, given the gleeful sacrilege of a song like "Sex Sux (Amen)!" But "Teenage Jesus Superstar" isn't really about religion even though it draws on the same spirit.
Yeah, I can't remember what that song was actually about at all anymore. It was just someone full of ego, really. And he mentions his mum—it's a bit of a juvenile rant, really, thinking they're Jesus Christ, but they're really just a teenager, and they have to go to their room. There was a playfulness. I don't think we were ever going to stand up and sing real antireligious songs. We were just poking a bit of fun at it and being like, "Here's what we think about it, and what do you think?" We weren't sure ourselves.
Did you ever get any religious criticism after Nirvana's version of "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam" was released to such a wide audience?
No, I haven't. When I play solo now, I play that song a lot, and not one person's ever come up and said I shouldn't. And I've played it in very Catholic countries: Ireland, Italy, Spain. Maybe I didn't get the message of the song across properly, but no one's ever been angry. Maybe I'm just playing to the right people. I think it's sort of a sweet message. By singing a song to god, saying I'm not worthy of it, it's almost like admitting that god exists, but I'm trying to say I don't believe in you. It's a very confused message, as well.
Kurt Cobain's legacy, other than his songs, was the way he used his fame to call attention to obscure bands like you guys, the Raincoats, Meat Puppets, Flipper, and a lot of others. The result was that a lot of his mainstream fans not only sought a lot of those bands out, but also kind of discovered that there was more to music than what was on the radio and MTV. Can you talk a bit about what it was it like to benefit from that? Do you think it affected the music audience in any larger way?
Just personally, it's a pretty amazing, generous thing for a person in his position to do. A lot of people don't do that. A lot of people don't start quoting bands in the press. He was very vocal. He appeared on the front of NME in a Captain America T-shirt after we toured with them. If it hadn't been for Nirvana, I'm not sure I'd still be doing music. And I don't know if I'd have been able to continue a career doing music. Everything that's kind of happened to me in the past 20 years is down to Kurt, Krist, and Dave covering the songs. I dunno, in the wider scale of things. It must have had some effect. You get Kurt pointing to Daniel Johnston and saying, "Listen to this," and it just opens people's ears to what was beyond the grunge bands at the time. You didn't get a lot of bands doing that. I think it's an amazing thing to do, just saying "Here's what I like" and trying to change people's ideas of what is music and what is possible.
I feel like he helped recondition a big section of the culture toward an appreciation—maybe a superficial one, but not always—of subculture, and inspired people to feel a responsibility to seek out music that might otherwise be overlooked and forgotten. I think you see that in the indie rock that has entered the mainstream today.
What's in the mainstream charts in Britain now is kind of indie rock. I've been thinking about that and wondering where you can trace it back to. I don't think you can trace it right back to Kurt, but that had a big part of it in that what is the mainstream now is things that would never get in the charts 10 or 20 years ago. It definitely had a part. It helps when someone in his position points to the underground and says there's great stuff there. It can only help make the mainstream more interesting.