EVER SINCE THEY RELEASED THEIR DEBUT indie single in Australia last year, the superbly titled “Hot Leather/Sun Child,” the Vines have been rocketing to the big time. Along with bands such as the Strokes, the White Stripes and the Hives, they’ve been acclaimed as leaders of a new modern-rock sound that blows away the bloated Kornclone cliches of the past few years. In truth, none of these bands really has much in common with one another, but they all get lumped together because they show how rock fans across the world are starved for some new excitement and adrenaline, punk-rock style. Suddenly, the letter K and fake DJ in baggy shorts are out; guitars, leather jackets and the silent E are in. As Griffiths says, “It’s a miracle we’ve gotten through America without anybody introducing us as the Hives.”
The Vines have garage-punk energy in their sound, but their real wellspring is Nicholls’ grandiose imagination. What sets him apart is his ambition, his sense of mission. “I always knew we had it,” Nicholls says. “I knew we could make a great album, if we put our heads together. We didn’t put our heads together, but we made a great album anyway.” He wants to be the next Kurt Cobain, and he wants it right now. He wanted Highly Evolved to be a double CD; he’s impatient to head back into the studio and record the music he has inside him. He’s often been heard to complain that the Beatles and Brian Wilson didn’t have to go on tour, so why should he? (Never mind that the Beatles and Brian Wilson gave up touring after they’d already conquered the world.)”We want to make … him… I think about twenty albums,” Nicholls says. “Yeah, twenty. Sounds about right. I want to do it when I’m young and I have energy, because my energy’s fading.”
Hanging at a friend’s bungalow in West Hollywood, absent-mindedly playing Radiohead’s “The Tourist” over and over on his Epiphone acoustic guitar, Nicholls babbles amiably in the afternoon sun. He lounges in his Swervedriver T-shirt, under rat’s nest hair that looks like the rats were evacuated for their own protection. He’s a friendly, funny guy, but he definitely fades in and out of his own world. Sometimes he zones out and can’t finish his sentences; other times he falls asleep. When he’s on a roll, he can ramble on wittily for minutes at a time. As the ancient proverb says, you can’t steer a cat. “I’ve always been shy,” Nicholls says. “I was aquiet child. I didn’t start speaking until… uh, last year.”
Maybe, just maybe, his demeanor has to do with the fact that he smokes an ungodly amount of pot. Nicholls carries his own bong around all day, wrapped in a plastic bag. He constantly packs the bong, lights up and slurps away. Forgetting his manners, he neglects to offer any to the hard-working journalist in the room. Spending time alone with him feels like baby-sitting my three-year-old nephew: I’m on guard, vigilant, watching to see that he doesn’t hit his head on anything.
He’s aware that his nut-case reputation precedes him. “I don’t mind. It doesn’t hurt me if anyone says I’m not normal. I don’t know what normal is. Sometimes I’m just really tired, or I haven’t eaten, and people get the wrong idea about me.” The Vines hadn’t toured much before this summer, and Nicholls is still getting used to performing. “Coming offstage is like going on a spaceship,” he says, closing his eyes. “It’s really far out. You’re still kind of spent, in every sense of, you know, the existence thing. Heavy, man. I’m very dazed and confused when I come off. It’s a good feeling. But I guess I’m kind of dazed and confused even when I haven’t just played.”
Nicholls grew up in a suburb of Sydney, where his father works as an accountant for Sony Music. In the Sixties, Nicholls’ father was in an Australian garage-rock band called the Vynes. “That’s where I stole the name from,” Nicholls says, stretching out on the floor. “They sounded like Elvis, I think.” Nicholls’ dad taught him his first guitar chords. It opened up a new world. “I was a loner, it’s fair to say. I didn’t drive a car, so I never socialized. I stayed at home and listened to music all day. Music became a mystical world for me.”
Nicholls left school after tenth grade and did a six-month stint in art school before dropping out to work at McDonald’s. “I was pretty slack. I just worked there to get money to buy . . . that unameable thing,” he says, looking down at the crumbs of green all over the coffee table. While flipping Big Macs, he and fellow employee Patrick Matthews bonded over their love of music, especially American rockers such as Nirvana, Beck and pavement. It was only a matter of time before they started a band. After Nicholls began writing songs, the group went into a local studio to cut a demo. “We spent a couple of days there and a few hundred dollars. When I heard it back on the headphones, that’s when I quit McDonald’s.
“Our next album will be a hundred times better,” Nicholls announces, warning to his favorite topic. “We could go into the studio tomorrow and make another great album. I wanna go in and do hundreds and hundreds of tracks — violins and cellos and everything. There’s so much good music that’s happening now, and we’re glad to be part of it, with bands like the Strokes and the White Stripes. I don’t think it’s a movement. It’s just real rock music.” There’s a pause, then the synapses fire up again. “I like to think music is a healing thing, a meditational thing.”
This is a theme dear to his heart: the mind-altering, life-affirming power of music. But Nicholls gets freaked out dealing with the world outside of music — it’s almost as though his connection to music is so intense he has to unplug the rest of the world. He hides behind that sweet, impassive, heavy-lidded grin of his, a beautiful and coddled child of rock & roll fantasy, listening to the sounds inside his own head. Beyond music, he doesn’t have a lot of curiosity about the world. He watches a lot of TV on the bus, but he doesn’t remember much when it’s over. He plays a lot of Tony Hawk video games. He identifies with Shaggy from Scooby-Doo because he used to have a dog. Trying to think of a film that made an impression on him, he ponders in silence before coming up with David Spade’s Joe Dirt. He isn’t a big reader. He has no interest in politics. What he really cares about, all he really cares about, is being a rock star. If not the new Kurt Cobain, he’s at least the new Evan Dando.