Árni Arnason of the Vaccines on going from making hip-hop beats in Iceland to playing punk

The Vaccines formed in London in 2010, when Justin Young shelved his solo project, Jay Jay Pistolet, and got together with some friends who had also played gigs with him under his old moniker. The new band came out of punk, and its songs have an undeniably raw energy despite being tuneful and melodic. Within the first year of its existence, the Vaccines were picked up by Columbia, and the band's debut full-length, What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?, yielded a string of singles, with the final, "Wet Suit," having a B-side produced by Albert Hammond Jr. of the Strokes.

See also: Tonight: The Vaccines at the Bluebird Theater, 2/11/13

The band's follow-up, 2012's Come of Age topped the U.K. album charts and its songs revealed that the Vaccines had developed considerably as songwriters, as the dynamic range of songs like "Bad Mood" made obvious. We recently spoke with bassist Árni Arnason about his unlikely leap from hip-hop production as a teen into punk rock, the cultural universality of that music at this point in world history and the image that represents him on the humorous cover of Come of Age.

Westword: What music do you remember first striking a chord with you as a kid?

Árni Arnason: My dad was really into Pixies and the sort of pre-grunge stuff. He gave me a tape of Surfer Rosa, and I've still got that thing. After that, I got a lot of those kind of free compilation CDs after shows or whatever. I got really into Massive Attack and twee pop and stuff like that. From there, I got into Nirvana and grunge.

What was it about that stuff that appealed to you?

I'm not sure. I don't think it's a logical sort of thing. When you're at that age, I think you like what sounds dangerous to you at that time. When I got into my teens, I got choosier; I got more into punk and hardcore. It's not necessarily about rebellion; it's more about being a group of boys making loud noises.

What got you started playing music, and bass, specifically?

It's a funny story, actually. It was at a time in my life when I had acquired some old music software and went to early versions Fruity Loops and Logic. I was really into programming stuff for a local hip-hop guy. I made beats. Then one day a friend of mine who was a bass player was trying to sell his bass, and I had some pocket money, and I offered to buy it off of him. It seemed more interesting to me than my really primitive tracking. So I went straight from being a sort of a hip-hop producer straight into being in a band. What makes it all even more bizarre is that I did all this in Iceland.

Was The Vaccines your first rock band?

Oh no, absolutely not. I gave up my production "career" and instantly went into playing punk bands. We started out in your normal, straight up hardcore punk bands, and then more into the post-core sort of stuff, more the Gold Standard Laboratories influenced kind of thing.

What are some early shows you saw that had a big impact on you as you were developing?

I grew up in Iceland, so I saw the type of bands that anybody else would have heard of. The usual youthful punk bands. I think you can find a punk scene in any city in the world now and that goes for Iceland just as with anywhere else. The local punk scene had like fifty people and everybody plays in each other's bands and everybody attends everybody's concerts. Instead of playing Warhammer, you could play punk shows.

When did you move to the U.K.?

I only moved to the U.K. like five years ago.

How did you get connected with playing music when you moved to the U.K.?

When I moved over, I really wanted to play music, so I'd go out every night and try to find bands that I liked and meet up with people. I did that for a while with Justin [Young] and Pete [Robertson], and we had a similar outlook. But I think, as I said before that, in any music scene, anywhere in the world, is small, and if you're interested in getting into it, those scenes are easy enough to find.

Why do you think '60s girl groups resonate so strongly with the music you make in this band?

I think in the '50s and the '60s, you had the start of youthful music -- made by youths for youths. It was the first time in history that recorded music became accessible to anyone that wanted to hear it. And this is sort of the beginning of the pop music we've had ever since. I think any genre and any style of music is the purest and most fun in its infancy. I think that infancy in music really speaks to me and speaks to all of us. The girl groups, even though they're highly produced, I think really resonate with people in the sense that it's pop in its purest form.

In that interview that Justin did for Louder Than War with John Robb, he talked about how a couple of people in the band were session musicians. Would you say that's the case?

Yeah, I dabbled in sessions for a short amount of time. I got a little bit tired of it. I got very tired of it. Pete, our drummer, did a couple of years in the session in the world, which also made him pretty fed up with it. I think that's sort of the way we ended up getting into the Vaccines: being bored of playing session music because you don't play necessarily what you want to play.

How did you get into that sort of thing?

You meet people and eventually somebody needs a band. When Justin was a solo act, I played a few shows with him. That's sort of how we met. I was sort of a hired gun in his outfit when he needed me.

Do you feel those experiences helped to make you a better musician, or that it helped the band in any way?

I think it's sort of unrelated. As with anything, I think the band was an antidote to being a bit fed up with the session-ing. When we started the band it was more of an organic thing of boys being in a room making a lot of noise and nothing further than that.

You play a lot of bigger shows but still maintain your roots with the punk thing and being connected with your audience in a direct way. Is there anything you do at those shows to stay connected?

We try to stay true to our nature as a straight up rock and roll band. The fact that the audiences are very different around the world. If we go to Thailand, we may be playing to a dozen people. If we go to Taipei, we may play to five hundred people. In the U.K., we might play to fifty thousand. But we try to stay true to our nature and provide a high energy shows. We try to do that in any setting that we can. You try to stick to your guns. I think that's what people that come to see us are expecting. We're not pulling out any pyrotechnics or anything.

On the album cover, you have a fairly amusing image. Who are you on the cover, and do you think the cover is a bit of an oblique reference to the song "I Wish I Was a Girl"?

I wish it was reference. But we had decided on the cover before we had written "I Wish I Was a Girl." Unfortunately I don't think there's a massive correlation between the two. I am the blonde, long-haired one. I think I'm the giveaway.

The Vaccines, with San Cisco, 8 p.m. Monday, February 11, Bluebird Theater, 3317 E. Colfax Avenue, $20, 303-377-1666, 16+

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.