So at ease are Brad (lead vocals/guitar), James (lead guitar/vocals), Connor (bass/vocals), and Tristan (drums/vocals) - on set and in the hustle - you could never suspect their first release since 2018 and highly anticipated new single would be dropping in New Zealand and the UK that same day. But such is the work ethic of one of the hottest pop-rock bands around.
We talk about the next step, their upcoming album Cherry Blossom, and what the rebirth means. The excitement to finally get new material out there is real, as I discover this decision to take time out was about more than just a chance for new writing. Since the band’s formation via YouTube, to touring four consecutive albums on four consecutive world tours (selling three million of those albums globally), they tell me that prior to this period they hadn’t had longer than two months off since 2012. Sometimes you have to step off the merry-go-round, turn away from the noise and get back to the basics to remind yourself of your purpose. That, I soon discover for The Vamps, is the love of the music, of bringing people together, and the love of the fans.
Photographer Jade Danielle Smith follows the foursome on this journey. Away from the crowds and stadium lights - although ironically another slightly more sinister, PVC-clad music video seems to be shooting on the same location - we find the boys settling into their new chapter. Stylist Abena Ofei dresses the group in the mood of the moment. Relaxed. Effortless. Just like the sunshine, the threads match the sentiment of finally having found a place of total comfort and contentment. The rest of the story, we’ll leave to discover in the music.
Cherry Blossom releases on 16th October, 2020.
First things first, how is being back on the grind?
Tristan: It's been a while - it's been two years since we released the last album. For this fifth album, we wanted to take our time and really get it right, so we decided to stop touring… Well - we had just finished the tour. Usually, we're in a whirlwind: five years of just touring and then releasing new albums before the tour has ended. It was amazing, but it wasn't making as much sense as we'd like it to, so we took time out. We really spent a lot of effort and time together as a four in Airbnb's across the country writing this new album, and then Coronavirus kicked off, unfortunately. So, of course, that forced us to finish the album individually in our own homes.
Because you guys had already made the decision to take some time out, I wonder how much quarantine impacted your work schedules.
James: I think we probably would have released music a little bit earlier. But what's interesting about the song we've just released, Married In Vegas, is that it came after we handed in the album. Had we released the album in March time or the first song in March, this song never would have happened because we'd have already released other songs. It's kind of like a weird positive out of a massive negative. Also, apart from the first album, this is the first time we've had everything ready before releasing, which is slightly strange. Normally we're finishing an album whilst touring or doing music videos on 'off' days, which is quite stressful and quite hard to fully submerge yourself in when you're from pillar to post; in different countries, trying to keep up. It's not really the best time to be creative. But now we've taken time away, as Tristan said, to focus on exactly what we want to do. I think we're in a better position than ever before, really.
And how was finishing the album on Zoom?
Tristan: Weird. It was weird, wasn't it? Good - just weird. I think that answer in a year will be even crazier because we will realise how mental this time really was.
Connor: I think people still will use Zoom, as well. It's this strange, creative thing for everyone.
It's amazing how quickly we all adapted, I think.
Tristan: Yeah, it was forced upon everyone, wasn't it? Everyone had to get used to it. It's not our ideal way; we prefer writing an album just the four of us together, in like a barn.
Specifically a barn.
Connor: Only a barn.
How did everyone stay sane over lockdown?
James: We adopted a dog in January - not as a band, me and my other half! - and that was a massive thing for us. Even when we were only allowed out of the house once a day, we were forced to go out for that walk and that really helped. Being out in nature definitely really helped my mental health. I think we appreciate it more now than perhaps we did before.
Tristan: These boys. Family. Time off; realising that it's okay to just chill because I always feel guilty about having time off. Now, we’ve been forced to have it and you don't feel as guilty because everyone else is doing it as well.
Brad: Genuinely, finishing the album off. I know that sounds very wanky, but it was a lot that needed to be done in quite a short space of time. We got a deadline in halfway through lockdown that's was like, “Right we need the final in three weeks, so you need to finish all the songs.” There was just so much to go through. I'm very much a perfectionist, as well, with vocal takes and how stuff sounds, so it was about condensing all of that into quite a short period of time - but lockdown was the perfect time to do it.
We usually ask this individually but let’s see how well you know each other. Who is the person next to you?
Brad: Who is James McVey? James McVey is a hard-working, caring friend.
James: Connor's a twat.
Tristan: That's getting used now.
James: Can you imagine? Do me right over.
[disclaimer: sorry, James. We used it.]
I think he's considerate, thoughtful, pensive.
James: You contemplate things. And he likes Haribo. I feel like a lot of your day revolves around sourcing where you're going to have them next.
Connor: That is a good point. That's very lovely. Tristan is a free spirit. He loves being himself as much as possible and is a very kind, very thoughtful person. And... this is going to make me cry. We always go out together and so we party as well. He's a party animal.
Tristan: I appreciate that, man. Brad? Inspirational. Focused. I'd say yeah - a perfectionist. Family man. And extremely caring.
I think this ties into the next question: what do you guys like most about each other?
Brad: All of those things. Touring is very secluded. If you're going to be stuck with three other people on a tour for three weeks or two months - however long - on a bus or doing train and plane journeys together, these are the boys to do it with. It really locks you together.
What is the most challenging part of touring?
Tristan: Airports for me. I fucking hate them. What really screwed it for me is we were on a tour in America and our bus broke down, so we had to do the whole tour by plane. And this sounds like I'm complaining, but because you have to get to the city to check in a couple of hours early, we had to get up at 5 am or 6 am after playing shows the night before and you're in that momentum of being completely exhausted. That I struggle with; the travel exhausts me.
What are the highlights?
Brad: It actually is sick! Coming back from Japan - the duty-free is great.
James: I always get my dad whiskey coming back from Japan. I think it sounds a bit cliché, but genuinely being able to play to a variety of audiences is pretty cool. There have been some places - like the Philippines for example - where we've had fans from day one, and we weren't able to get there for the first three years of the band. Then when we went there, it really felt like we've always known the fans there. And I think culturally, it's been really invigorating to go to those countries. Tristan likes eating the weirdest of foods he can find - but it all contributes to you having world experience, which sounds so wanky, like "I'm a man of the world", but you do pick up things from different cultures. Especially for this album, we did a bit of touring in Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia, and so took elements of that into the album.
Brad: Massively. Scandinavia as well.
Tristan: I love the unity. You do a world tour and it doesn't matter where you are - people are going to come together. They don't know each other but they're all going to come together and celebrate a night. And it's not really about us being there, it's about everyone enjoying an experience; sharing it with your loved ones - or even people they hate but then realise they love. As long as a positive comes out of it, that's what’s great for me.
What's the strangest thing you've eaten?
Tristan: I was going to do a 1000-year rotten egg.
Brad: Did we not do that?
Tristan: I did the foot.
Brad: It was a chicken foot we got offered to eat in Taiwan.
Tristan: We’ve dabbled in the rotten egg, the chicken foot, and crickets.
You’ve spent a lot of time touring in America. How does this experience compare to playing in the UK? Is there much of a difference in culture specifically within the industry?
Brad: America - they do everything bigger. You'll go into rooms of people and it's like “HEY!”, it's always like 20% more energy. Even the riders are physically bigger - the carrots and apples! In terms of people and culture and even fans, I don't necessarily think there's a huge difference between them, which is quite cool because they're unified by one thing. I know we keep referencing it, but you find the differences when we have gone and played shows in Japan, for example. They're so respectful and polite in the way that they watch live music, they'll clap and then instantly be silent, which is the strangest thing because we just chat shit in between our songs.
Last year I interviewed a Japanese band called DYGL, and they said it was really funny because they'd play a gig where everyone in the audience would be deadpan. Afterward, they'd go on Twitter and everyone would be like, “Oh my god, best night of my life!”
Tristan: In South Korea, we had a big mosh pit. It was like a full-on circle pit, but it was so nice - they were like high fiving each other as they went past!
Brad: Usually it's elbows at Reading.
Tristan: There's so much bullshit in the world, that when you're playing and you see people having fun, that beats everything. For us and them.
What’s the story behind your new single, Married In Vegas?
Brad: We'd literally handed the album over, which was a relief because it was fun, but it was stressful. We were really chuffed about finishing it. There's a producer who has been a big collaborator across this album called Lostboy, and I went on Zoom with him that day to have a few drinks to celebrate, and then like four hours later we had Married In Vegas. We weren't even intending on writing a tune, really. There was a riff that I'd written a week or so before, and we just started messing around over that. It literally came out of nowhere. I think we'd been speaking about someone who went to Vegas and then it just started spurring lyrically - the imagery and content of the verses - it came around really, really quick. We sent it that night to everyone and got this consensus from all of the team that it should be the first single, which was just so weird.
The upcoming album has in many ways been described as 'The Rebirth Of The Vamps'. What in particular is being shed and how would you describe the next musical stage of your career?
Tristan: The main one that you get from this album is positivity and encouragement to do what you want to do, and not settle for less. To try and be the best person you can. I feel like there’s almost a liberating feeling when you listen to the lyrics. The production is also much darker so it can appeal to a lot more people that like alternative music.
Brad: I don't think it's necessarily even about shedding anything. That's something that we want to highlight: we're not downplaying anything that we've done or wanting to disregard it. If we hadn't had done all that, I don't think we'd be able to make this album now. I think it's more about being like, ‘that was sick, but we've grown into this now’. That's the rebirth. We've loved every step, but this change has been really fun.
Would you say you've reached a new place of happiness?
Tristan: Definitely. I feel so content with this album and what we've done - the creative process and effort that we put into it, just to create something different. We've created this album by saying no to a lot of things. The normal process would be, 'oh, that sounds amazing. We might as well do that', but we put our foot down and realised what we really want. I feel like that's the beginning of the direction that has got us here. The visuals are completely different; the music video is completely different. Without that, without knowing exactly who we want to be we wouldn't be in this position now, so it's good that we took the step.
James: When we first started writing songs, we were like 13 and we met each other when we were 15-16-17. It's a very different point in your life. I'm 27 now, and the other boys are a similar age, and I think in order to write the best stuff, you have to be comfortable with yourself as a person. You chase for things in your late teens/early twenties, and for me, I'm getting married; we have a house together, we have the dog. I feel settled for the first time ever and I think that's reflected in the music that we're making. All four of us live in London now and we're all happy in our lives. It's been ups and downs along the way, but it's the first time for a while that we're all kind of on the same page in our lives and what we want to achieve.
Writing this album, you took your first proper break since 2012 in order to reconnect to each other and the music. At what point did you realise you were heading for burnout?
Brad: I don't think any of us were really burning out consciously. You need to be bored to be super creative, I think. You need to have space to start something new. The albums that we did we're really proud of, and they were a product of being on tour - we were recording vocals on the bus so underneath the majority of the vocals there's probably like an engine or something.
But the burnout thing - we finished the world tour last year and were touring an EP that we'd released early last year. That gave us a good bit of excitement because they were new songs that we were playing, but then at the end of that we were really like, ‘okay, we need to chill for a bit’. We always say like, ‘right, let's have six months-a year off’, and then after two months we're like, ‘shall we meet back up?’ because we get bored quicker than we realise.
Have you found any new coping mechanisms to protect your personal wellbeing during such hectic schedules?
Tristan: It's definitely a different situation now, isn't it? I'm definitely going to be healthier on tour. I like to do home workouts - not for a fact of getting big, I just enjoy it. I've got to get energy out of me - it's usually drums or something, I'm always running around. But since being isolated, it just really helps to get shit out.
Brad: I used to use Headspace a lot, the app. Those kinds of apps, and meditation and stuff, is always good for on tour. Finding a bit of calm amongst all of that noise.
Tristan: We've all got into yoga and stretching.
Stretching is seriously underrated.
Tristan: We should start doing sessions on tour. Backstage we’ll just have a yoga session.
As you mentioned, you met in 2011-2012 on social media. How have your personal relationships with social media changed since then?
James: We started the band when Twitter and YouTube were the platforms. I remember, Brad and I had to force Tristan onto Instagram - but I was on MySpace when we started. And so I think for us, we kind of stumbled upon this weird and wonderful place where we could put something on YouTube and it would somehow resonate around various territories around the world, which we'd never really had before. We were lucky that we were able to build fan bases, and even though they were small, they were hardcore fanbases in places like the Philippines, Italy and Scotland.
I think it was quite difficult for us - for me, definitely, I found it bizarre how intense it was so quick. But eight years on from that, I try not to see social media as so important, which is weird because it so is for the band. It's very important from a business perspective.
Brad: I think there's a bit of pressure sometimes that you've got to give a lot for social media. Not even if you're in a band or if it's part of your job, I think people feel there's just this pressure to put stuff up. That was weird at the beginning for us. But I think we're all at a point where you feel those things a bit less because you've realised that once you step out of that bubble, it's like, ‘we're in the real-life and that other stuff doesn't matter’.
Tristan: You have to realise what's real, as well. Of course, Instagram is, but as soon as you're relying on that to be the centre of attention of your life, that's the wrong steps to take. I personally don't really use social media. I love to be aware of stuff, but I'm not really bothered about updating people about my life because I really like the fact that I can always escape to something personal that no one else knows. Especially in our situation where we were quite young when it kicked off, our privacy was quite out there from a young age. I really like the fact that no one knows what I'm doing today.
James: I think there's such a "value" on likes and interaction, but likes don't sell tickets or albums. It doesn't work like that. It might sell Boohoo t-shirts, but that's not what we're about. We're a band that wants to make music for our fans. I think it's a really weird thing where, as these guys were saying, a lot of people feel like they have to use social media to be a successful musician, but that's not what's important to us anymore. We're happy making the music that we are and, yeah, we'll put stuff online, but social media isn't driving our careers. I think we've come quite full circle with that, and it's nice nine years on that we don't have to worry too much about that.
James, I understand you’re a patron of the Diana Award. We teamed up with Alex Holmes Deputy CEO of the Diana Award for Mental Health Awareness Week in May. Why is this cause important to you?
James: I think it's great that we now have something like the Diana Award, because growing up, a lot of us experience bullying. When I went through that at school, there was no real place that I could go to. I think it's quite daunting for a lot of kids nowadays to go to a teacher or a parent - or even their friends about it - so the Diana Award is that middleman that I wish I had, where you can get advice and that anonymity.
Do you have a personal story around mental health?
James: Yeah, kind of. Especially with the music. In the early days when I was writing songs in Dorset, there weren't really that many people that understood me. I was quite a weird teenager with really long hair and big flesh holes and stuff. Most of my peers were playing football and rugby, and I turned down roles in the football team to do music and ride my BMX, so I was sort of scrutinised for not fitting in. It was all at that start of social media - on Bebo and MySpace - and for the first time ever, I had people sending me messages about my music that I didn't know, and I thought it was kind of scary to receive quite a lot of shit messages from strangers. That went on for a few years and then, luckily, as that was ending, I met these boys and it worked out. But so many people don't have The Vamps to get them out of that situation, so it's important that there are platforms like the Diana Award that can help those who feel isolated. Social media is now round the clock; you can't just go home from school and it ends - and that's why we need to do more work.
In light of Black Lives Matter, do you have any thoughts on how the music industry can help level the playing field?
Brad: I think sometimes it takes the scales being tipped all the way the other side for them to eventually balance back out. Everyone needs to develop a deeper understanding of what the situation has been like and to understand the context of it all. I think the biggest thing is that people have got to educate themselves. And in the music industry - it's everything. The bedrock of music is that culture, so having that representation is absolutely key.
Tristan: Everyone has just got to look at themselves; look at what type of person they actually are and fix it for the best of the world. The fact that racism, homophobia, sexism is still about in 2020 is disgusting. Everyone needs to individually take themselves out of their egos, out of their box, and change themselves for the better - because no one is perfect, and everyone can change. You've got to figure out what type of person you want to be that makes this world a better place.
You’ve already seen so much success. What is the ultimate dream?
Tristan: The ultimate dream? To do this, forever. I'll do other stuff as well, of course - marriage and kids and that haha, that's a separate dream. But for us to have a good quality of life to keep touring and inspiring people and inspiring ourselves, for me that's the dream.
James: Yeah, it would be sweet to have your kids see you perform live. Better get a move on...
Tristan: Like all our families at a show - that would be so sick.
Brad: All the different generations...
James: Also, maybe to win a songwriter award at one point. That would be awesome.