Where do The Vines go from here?

Is it better to burn out than fade away? In light of Craig Nicholls’ arrest over the weekend, DARREN LEVIN considers what the future holds for a band once crowned the saviours of rock’n’roll.

The Vines were never going to peter out, were they? But surely no one could’ve scripted the latest chapter: An alleged domestic assault involving frontman Craig Nicholls, his mother, the police and a can of capsicum spray. It’s probably not worth going into the gory details again – you can read them on every site that posts music news on the internet – suffice to say that Nicholls is clearly going through some heavy shit that will in all probability spell the end for his long-suffering band. Or will it?

While the details are different (and decidedly worse) this time round, there’s still the feeling that The Vines have been through all this before. There was that trashed drumkit during a performance of ‘Get Free’ on Letterman in 2002. Nicholls – looking disoriented and tipsy – writhes around on stage before launching himself into Hamish Rosser’s drumkit. “Is he alright Paul,” an amused and bemused Letterman asks co-host Paul Shaffer. His response: “Can’t say. Can’t say for sure.” A few months later, and their reputation proceeded them. They were cancelled from the Tonight Show with Jay Leno after Nicholls once again smashed up some equipment in the pre-show rehearsal. The band were promptly ejected from the LA studio, with Leno explaining in his monologue that they were booted off because of rowdy behaviour. Rock and/or roll.

An Annandale gig in 2004, however, was the real tipping point. In a moment that will forever be etched into Australian rock’n’roll folklore, Nicholls turned a promotional show for Triple M into a national news headline, trashing an $11,000 camera, calling members of the audience “sheep” and generally behaving “like a child”. He scared most of the 450-strong crowd – who won a completion to get there – shitless, and the band ended up being dropped from Triple M’s national playlist. It was the final straw for founding bassist Patrick Matthews, who quit then and there.

Writing rather cynically at the time, The Age suggested the tantrum was just another installment in a series of contrived bids to cultivate notoriety and push album sales. “As fallout over the Annandale gig continued this week,” they wrote, ”[Second album] Winning Days, which had slumped to No. 85 on the ARIA album chart, jumped 30 places to No. 55.”

But there’s no album to promote this time. No tour on the horizons or festival appearances. No new “best-of” collection to flog. Soon after the 2004 incident at The Annandale, Nicholls was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, and while that certainly doesn’t necessarily explain his alleged actions over the weekend, when you couple that with a reported history of drug use and mental health issues, the erratic behaviour begins to make sense.

Still, it was a very different Nicholls I encountered when I interviewed The Vines at Sony’s South Melbourne offices last year. Wearing a Blur T-shirt and women’s sunglasses, he was polite, funny and self-deprecating; a far cry from the supposed enfant terrible of Australia’s music scene the media has consistently made him out to be. We chatted on a range of topics from working with The Bumblebeez Chris Colonna on their most recent album Future Primitive to notorious UK rock bible NME, who had cruelly turned on The Vines around the time of 2008’s Melodia, saying they were “never the saviours of rock’n’roll we said they’d be”.

I even brought in a copy of the band’s much-mythologised 2001 debut, which I picked up for free at a You Am I gig in 2001. Recorded that year on a 4-track in a Sydney rehearsal room, it featured primitive versions of songs that would later thrust them onto the world stage including ‘Factory’, ‘Highly Evolved’ and ‘Autumn Shade’. It really captures the band at their garage-y best, without the hi-fi studio filter that some major label honcho thought would serve them best.

When I showed it to Nicholls, he beamed. “That reminds me of the first tour just before going to America and making the album. The first song off it is ‘Factory’. That actually got released as a single. [British label] XL put it out on vinyl. That got Single of the Week in NME. We were in LA when we heard about that.”

“Given his chance again I wonder if he’d have embarked on this whole sad adventure in the first place”

And that’s really where Nicholls’ problems began. The media may’ve held him up as the next Kurt Cobain – who could ever live up to that? – but Nicholls to me was always closer to Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard, a talented and prolific anglophile with a compulsion to write and write and write. During the interview, he told me he had demoed exactly 139 songs on his home recorder since 2006’s Vision Valley. ”[I’m drawn to the] adventure of it,” he said of his craft. “The whole mystical magic of songs and music and albums. It’s just the coolest art form to me. Ever since I got into it I thought it was great and felt like it’s what I should be doing.”

In light of his issues, Nicholls would’ve arguably been better served with a life outside the spotlight – and given his chance again I wonder if he’d have embarked on this whole sad adventure in the first place. As for the future of The Vines, or what’s left of them – long-time drummer Hamish Rosser and guitarist Ryan Griffiths left the band last year – it’ll probably take a backseat to Nicholls’ impending court date.

Many will speculate that The Vines’ nine lives have run out – and they may be right – but something Nicholls said to me in that interview really resonates this week. We were talking about the cancellation of a 2008 tour, which included appearances at Pyramid Rock, Homebake and Big Day Out, as well as a run of shows in Japan. Nicholls’ “mental condition had deteriorated extremely rapidly to the point where he required “immediate help over an extended period of time”. Or so said the press release.

“I took a break from touring and maybe songwriting for maybe a few weeks,” he corrected. “But I was always thinking about the next album – even if I wasn’t full-time working on it. I was always working on songs.”