Barely 24 hours after the first shots were fired in the most recent Middle East conflict, Patrick Matthews, bassist for Australian band the Vines, takes a peek outside his Portland, Oregon, hotel-room window. Below, anti-war demonstrators are clashing with authorities. "There are helicopters overhead and troops in the street," he says, sounding worried, as if he's wondering how the simple rock & roll dreams of a lad from Sydney, Australia, managed to land him in this place at this time. The Vines' relatively quick trip from unknown Aussie band to purported saviors of rock & roll has been a strange one, and it seems to be getting stranger by the minute.
"This last year has been so different from anything I've ever done before," he says, noting the tunnel vision that can develop when a band catches fire, as the Vines have done with their 2002 debut, Highly Evolved. "The thing is, when you do this, it's all you do. It's not like a nine-to-five job. You can't go home and have the wife pat you on the back or something like that. It all just happens, and people say, 'Well, it must be amazing.' But you're just in the middle of it the whole time, everywhere."
Highly Evolved earned kudos from critics for its blend of Beatlesesque pop and noisy grunge-rock à la Nirvana. Driven by intense hype from the U.K. music tabs, the album entered the British charts at number one, the first debut album by a band from Down Under to do so. In America, the Vines appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, accompanied by the headline "Meet the Vines: Rock Is Back." They also landed in the magazine's 2002 "People of the Year" list in the company of Eminem, Norah Jones and Nelly. Back home, they played a triumphant two-week "Big Day Out" tour alongside groups that may not have much name recognition over here but are massive in Oz -- not to mention childhood heroes to Matthews and Vines guitarist/vocalist Craig Nicholls.
In short, the Vines have become the toast of three -- count 'em, three -- continents. Not bad for a couple of guys who got together on the job at a Sydney McDonald's and, after hours, joined with drummer David Oliffe to learn songs by Nirvana, their favorite band at the time.
"When we first started, '93, '94, that was the big thing," Matthews says. "The Beatles were probably the main reason we started a band, but Nirvana songs were what we played. They're very easy. You can bash through the whole of Nevermind without hardly being able to play!"
Comparisons to the Seattle grunge kings still dog the band, thanks in part to the charismatic and chaotic persona of Nicholls, who is known for his Cobainlike cynicism when it comes to rock stardom [though Nicholls displays a lighter, wittier touch], as well as his ability in live performances to trash the stage and scream his way through songs such as the angst-fueled yet tuneful "Outtathaway" and "Get Free."
Matthews says comparisons of the two bands are valid but insists they're based more on music than on personal issues. "I think we get compared to Nirvana because of the [guitar] distortion," he says. "We don't use the exact same distortion pedal that Kurt had, but it's pretty similar, I think. It's a cheap thing, but it sounds the same when it gets recorded. Also, I think it's Craig's songwriting, his words. They've got a serious touch to them. That's the similarity that people notice, and combined with the way he sings, that makes for a pretty obvious Nirvana comparison. But our songs are very melodious, and the rhythm is very '60s. We were influenced by the Kinks and the Beatles, too."
Of course, the Vines aren't the only band out right now that's being touted as the future of rock despite a definite predilection for the past. They're joined by the Hives, the White Stripes, the Strokes and the Music -- in short, all the "the" bands.
"It's weird," Matthews says. "When we got the name the Vines [they were named after the Vynes, a band fronted by Nicholls' father in the '60s], there were no bands called 'the' anything. I remember we had our name in the paper, and there was nothing else like it. None of us forsaw all these bands with 'the' in the name. It's very strange."
And although both the public and the press have been quick to hail the stance of those bands against prefab pop -- the Britneys and the boy bands, which they helped knock off the charts in favor of pure guitar-fueled rock -- Matthews likens their efforts to emptying the ocean armed with only a shovel. "Maybe all that saccharine pop music is going away, but I don't think rock & roll will ever really come back the way it was," he says flatly. "I don't think you're going to get rock & roll songs being number one anymore. I just hope rock & roll doesn't become [marginalized] like jazz."
That's not likely, at least not as long as the British press is on the job. NME is on the Vines watch full-time these days, it seems, and its staffers are curious about every aspect of the band members' (and especially Nicholls') existence. What pop groups do they recommend? Who cuts their hair? What brand of ciggies do they smoke? What do they eat for lunch? These are pressing questions in the U.K.
For his part, Matthews is grateful for -- but also skeptical about -- all the attention. "A lot of bands get their start because [the British music press] pokes the fire," he says. "They get kids excited about bands, but they've got a track record of both good and bad hype. They picked up on, say, the Strokes and all that, but they also picked Menswear a few years ago, which was just a terrible band. They're sort of like the engine room. They get bands started. But then every week there are, like, ten bands they claim are the best bands you've ever going to hear, which of course isn't true. Every issue, there's at least one band that's the greatest band in the world. That makes 52 per year."
Can the Vines survive the hype as well as the demands of the rock & roll life? It seems they dodged a bullet (figuratively and perhaps literally) fairly recently. It was reported that the band was set to hire legendary producer (and current murder suspect) Phil Spector to work on the follow-up to Highly Evolved. Not true, says Matthews, although he did meet Spector's daughter and went to his house once. "He was upstairs and wouldn't come down," Matthews reports.
Actually, despite rampant speculation and reports to the contrary, the group is not recording a follow-up record just yet. Last year, Nicholls said the Vines' next album might include some touches of electronica or synthesized strings. Matthews simply says that they've been jamming informally and making some demos. Nothing's been decided just yet.
One likely scenario is that the Vines will again work with producer Rob Schnapf, who worked on Highly Evolved. They're also thinking of booking time at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, New York, where such luminaries as the Band, R.E.M., Patti Smith and Iggy Pop have laid down tracks. "I'm not the biggest student of rock history," Matthews says, "but people keep telling me all these great records have come out of there. So that's impressive."
At this point, the Vines have our full attention. Now it's time to make a little history of their own.