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Sunday, June 20, 2004
Big in Japan, without really trying
Special to The Japan Times
Eugene Kelly released his first-ever solo album, "Man Alive," in December. So far, it's only available in Japan, which isn't unusual. Japanese record companies are famous for taking chances on unknown artists no one else is interested in. But Kelly isn't exactly an unknown artist. He was part of the legendary Scottish band The Vaselines, Kurt Cobain's favorite group, and he's been called the godfather of the Glasgow rock scene that produced Belle & Sebastian, Teenage Fanclub, Snow Patrol, and lots of others. It's hardly surprising that Japan would bite, but why hasn't anyone else?
"I'm trying to get other people to listen to it, but I guess I'm not trying hard enough," Kelly says over the phone from his home in Glasgow. "I sent it to some small labels in America. I haven't really even tried to release it here." Is that because he's too busy?
"No, just lazy," he admits matter-of-factly. "I don't have a manager and I deal with everything myself. I just sent it out and hoped for the best and didn't get any replies, except for P-Vine in Japan."
This relaxed attitude apparently characterized The Vaselines' short-lived career as well, and to many people it signifies the duo's (and, by extension, the Glasgow scene's) innocent charm. In the late '80s, Kelly was a graphic-design student and Frances McKee was studying to be a teacher. As Kelly wrote in the liner notes for "The Way of The Vaselines," a CD that included everything the group ever recorded, the band was "born out of the bored and very sick minds" of its two members. Song topics were willfully goofy, ranging from popular TV personalities to cult-horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. The lyrics and titles were filled with naughty double entendres ("Monsterpussy," about McKee's cat; "Rory Rides Me Raw," about her bicycle) and the music was a totally unselfconscious mix of noisy pop punk and artless folk.
"We didn't take it seriously," Kelly says. "When The Vaselines started there was no way you could imagine being on the charts or even selling records in Britain. We only pressed a thousand copies of each single and never thought this was some kind of future. I suppose we were taking the music seriously, but we certainly weren't taking the music business seriously."
The Vaselines broke up the week their first full album was released on the Rough Trade label. The band might have been no more than a footnote in pop annals had it not been for Cobain, who fell in love with The Vaselines' singles well before Nirvana became the biggest rock band in the world. He would sing the praises of Kelly and McKee to every interviewer he met and included several of their songs in Nirvana's live set. He got Sub Pop to release "The Way of The Vaselines" in the United States. His daughter, Frances Bean, is supposedly named after McKee.
"After The Vaselines split I didn't do much music until Nirvana started quoting us," Kelly remembers. "And then I thought maybe I could play guitar and write some tunes. The notoriety gave me a lift up." Cobain had been corresponding with Kelly before he came to England with Nirvana and asked Kelly's new band, Captain America, to open for them. "We were doing the British tour just when 'Nevermind' was released. It was exciting. They were moving up to larger venues and suddenly they had this chart hit. So many people wanted to see them, and, consequently, they saw us."
Captain America was more of a proper band than the makeshift Vaselines. A guitar quartet containing members of BMX Bandits and Teenage Fanclub, with a full Byrds-like sound, they released several singles that were well received and, thanks to Cobain's attention, were signed to Atlantic in the States., at which point they changed their name to Eugenius, Kelly's nickname. "Someone at Atlantic had a friend at Marvel Comics," Kelly explains. "He called him up and said, 'We just signed this band called Captain America, what do you think?' and the guy says, 'Well, we don't like that.' So we received a cease-and-desist letter saying you're not allowed to sell T-shirts or make records or even play under this name. It was no big deal. I wanted to change the name anyway since two members were leaving."
Eugenius released two albums. The first, "Oomalooma," is one of the high points of the alternative rock canon, filled with jangly, ecstatic songs that polished The Vaselines' brand of adolescent pop without spoiling its freshness. But after another album, the group fizzled out.
"The music scene had changed a lot," Kelly explains. "Atlantic didn't want to pursue what we were doing. I think we recorded over 40 songs, which have still not been released." In the latter half of the '90s Kelly would play here and there, often by himself. "I even toured Australia and America, but you wouldn't know about it because I didn't have any records out." He switched to acoustic guitar. "I'd done the dumb rock thing, and Eugenius tried to do intelligent rock. I wanted to write more about the things I was thinking about rather than just trying to rock out all the time. I bought a harmonica 'cause I thought having a harmonica would help me find melodies more easily."
"Man Alive" is closer in feeling and style to the music that Kelly always listened to "Dylan, Neil Young, folk rock," but his songs can still kick up a ruckus. And his writing still betrays the kind of mischievousness he's famous for, in particular "I'm Done With Drugs" and "You're Having My Sex," but whereas in the past this mischief was an end in itself it's now utilized to address the identity crises one faces when approaching 40.
"When I thought of writing songs for a record I felt that I was getting on and wanted to comment on the fact that I was not really the young rocker, that I had gotten over that," he says. He adds he's not sure if anyone really wants to hear them, even in Glasgow. "Right now the art rock thing is taking over here, bands like Franz Ferdinand. So in that sense I'm an outsider again because my music isn't trendy."
But people obviously like what Kelly does, or at least they do in Japan. Last January, he opened for Belle & Sebastian at Shibuya Kokaido. It was just Kelly, his acoustic guitar, and a harmonica. He did some songs from the new album and some Vaselines songs, and the audience loved it. At one show, they called him back for an encore, practically unheard of for an opening act these days.
"This summer I'm coming with a band," he says. "I hardly play shows with a band any more because it's too hard to organize everyone and it's a bit too expensive as well."
Wouldn't it be simpler to just hire a manager? "They work you too hard, I think."
Eugene Kelly: July 8, 7 p.m., Harajuku Astro Hall, Tokyo, 4,000 yen, Smash, (03) 3444-6751. With Shonen Knife: July 9, 7 p.m., Nagoya Club Quattro, 4,500 yen, Jail House, (052) 936-6041; July 11, 7 p.m., Shibuya Club Quattro, Tokyo, 4,500 yen, Smash, (03) 3444-6751; July 12, 7 p.m., Shinsaibashi Club Quattro, Smash West, (06) 6535-5569.