With his record Answer Machine, musician Freddie Cowan has landed on a sound guided by intuition and creative unrestraint. Having led a successful career as lead guitarist of The Vaccines, Cowan made the decision to untether himself from the orbit of one sonic universe to create his own under the project Freddie & The Scenarios. “I think there’s a big difference between instinct and intuition. It really re-introduced me to my heart and intuition again.” shares Cowan below.
Across twelve tracks, the album takes us through a personal journey of rebirth and renewal, one rooted in reconnection with the self and expansive artistic possibility – the seeds of the project started in 2019 when Cowan was living in Mexico City and connected with legendary talents from the city’s rich music scene including Diego Herrera from Mexico’s Caifanes, string and brass arranger Dan Zlotnik, and Moises Garcia, the trumpet player for Mexican icon Juan Gabriel. These encounters directly inspired Answer Machine: a celebration of creative freedom, life, growth, and restoration.
Embracing the idea of community and collaboration, Cowan assembled a supergroup of sorts to create Answer Machine, reuniting with The Vaccines’ original drummer Pete Robertson, The Vaccines’ keyboardist Tim Lanham, Laura Marling’s bassist Nick Pini, Japanese guitarist Tomoyasu Hotei, and producer Ethan Johns on percussion. Guided by Cowan’s desire to explore, the record dances between genres, sounds and rhythms with a cinematic drama only the Mexican desertscape could inspire.
J.L. Sirisuk: Let’s go back to when you decided to take a break from The Vaccines. What space were you in creatively?
Freddie Cowan: That happened about halfway through making the album Answering Machine, and it’s basically one long process of learning to trust myself. We’d been doing it for such a long time. Even when we were ten years in or before that, I couldn’t believe that we were playing music professionally and it was a sustainable job. The first major thing that happened, which was years before that because I met my partner, and a long story short, I got sober. You don’t really see it when it’s happening. I was interviewing Graham Coxon from Blur for NME and said to him, “Do you have any messages for the readers?” He said, “Yeah, if you’re in a band,” and he was looking at me, “be careful because you come across a lot of drugs and alcohol and there’s no time to waste.” I’m like, “Why is he talking about that? It’s so random.” Meanwhile, it’s like 11am and I’ve had two Guinness. I had no idea that [that] whole thing was becoming a problem for me at all, but it all came crashing down quite quickly and I got sober and started on that journey. I think there’s a big difference between instinct and intuition. It really re-introduced me to my heart and intuition again. I was in touch with my intuition when I joined The Vaccines because there was no guarantee it was gonna work. It was just another band we were starting, no prospects necessarily, so I followed my heart into it. I followed my heart into my marriage, I followed my heart out of substances and then it seemed like, “I’m not supposed to be here with The Vaccines anymore.” We played for 30 thousand people or something in Spain, and I thought “If I keep doing this, my hands are gonna stop.” I forced myself to go onstage like, literally, my hands would stop playing guitar. I don’t know why I had to move on necessarily; I can pontificate on that all day but it was just very clear, “This is not for you right now.”
JLS: You followed your intuition.
FC: Exactly. But it’s obviously fraught with anxiety and doubt. You know, I have a son. I’m like, “OK, I’m going to go and be a professional musician and the first step I’m going to take is to leave a successful band.” I feel really blessed to have had that guidance because it keeps me close to my integrity, it keeps me close to who I love and it allows me not to make decisions based on fear, which is a real gift because I think that’s a huge part of everyone’s life isn’t it? “Should I stay, should I leave, am I with the right person, am I doing the right thing? But what happens if everything comes crashing down? I better stay where I am.”
JLS: This leads me to Mexico City. I went there last year and found it to be spiritually healing. I know it’s played a special role in your life creatively and personally. What can you tell me about the time you spent there?
FC: Initially, I wasn’t that interested in going. I’d been there on tour loads of times and I liked it, it was always a massive party place for us. But then my partner wanted to go back, and I was keen and we rented an apartment from a friend. We got there in the middle of the night and it was dead quiet, and woke up in the morning and it was complete pandemonium because we were in Centro Historico [Mexico City], which is like being in Times Square. We were staying on the street where they sell all the musical instruments and the way they display what they have is by turning everything up really loud and playing it all the time. So they’re selling PA systems and all the PA systems are on. They’re selling dry ice machines, they’re on. I’d been living in the English countryside, so initially it was a real shock to the system and I didn’t like it really. I felt super stressed and out of place. I guess even more so than now, I don’t think this is a good thing or an accolade, but I was a bit of a workaholic. So I was like, “Alright. I want to find a boxing gym to learn to box here, I want to have a studio here, we’re gonna do all this stuff.” I’m supposed to be on holiday with my partner and just ended up writing music for the new Vaccines record, joined a great but very scary boxing gym in Centro Historico, it was a real adventure but somewhere quickly along the way I started to really fall in love with it.
A lot of times in my life, some of the most memorable and best experiences are quite challenging, they provoke a lot of growth. When The Vaccines went to play in Juárez I met Diego Herrera from the band Caifanes on the aeroplane and he’s an amazing guy. We had a great time in Juárez. It just seemed like a complete dream – this dream life with amazing music – the Mexican people are some of my favourite people I’ve ever met, they just generally have a really good attitude about life. It became a bit of a fantasy whilst I was in the UK during Covid. I stayed in touch with people and we started working together. I couldn’t quantify why I love it there, it was just love and I want to go back.
“I was watching Succession last night, and I thought, “I used to be like one of the Roy kids.””
JLS: This brings me to Freddie and The Scenarios. How did this project come together?
FC: The majority of the music came when we were in Covid because prior to that I was as busy as I could be, and I wanted to be much busier. I had The Vaccines, I was the creative director of a clothing line I’d started [Basic Rights], I was doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, super into fitness and super into everything. I was always trying to find more, like I wasn’t doing enough. Then Covid happens, lockdown happens, everything gets shut down. I’m very fortunate my family has a house in Scotland that no one was using, so my partner and I went up there and I thought, “There’s nowhere to run.” More than anything else, emotionally. I was in this family house and I had a lot of inner darkness about my childhood, and I was getting sober. I was having all sorts of personal problems… Because of my sobriety, it allowed me to say, “OK. Accept this. Maybe this is a good time to do something about it.” As I was facing those demons, songs were just materialising – there was never any kind of grand plan. Generally, if I do have a grand plan, it doesn’t go very well. The gift sobriety has taught me is to find stillness. It’s really hard to do as a daily practice, to try find some stillness and allow the right next thing in your day to show itself, and then do that instead of trying to execute a long list of plans. There was no plan to make a record really. I thought it would be nice at some point, but I didn’t have any money and there was no indication it was going to be made. But in just doing the next right thing, I met some people, situations kept happening, doors kept opening and within a year or something we were in the studio recording.
JLS: Was it during the lockdown period that you were writing these songs, when you were being still?
FC: I’d say the majority probably within the six months we were in Scotland. There were other songs that came but it was a challenging, simple time. It was so challenging because I was so unused to having a simple life, and I’m still not used to it. I’m still obsessed with the one thing I want to happen and I’m really trying to train myself to have a bigger-picture view. Sometimes I can feel like I’m wasting my life because I’m so obsessed with what the band’s going to do next. I know this sounds corny, but if I’m not grateful that my son is here and OK, my partner is here and OK, we have the bills paid this month and we have food and what we need… If I’m not grateful for that, I feel that I’m wasting my life. That’s a major 180 for me because before, I was watching Succession last night, and I thought, “I used to be like one of the Roy kids” – I was like Connor, the older one who wants to be President. He doesn’t give a shit about anyone. I really relate to it because that’s what I used to be like, in a way.
When I was a teenager, I so badly wanted to be a rock star or a famous musician. I didn’t really care about other people and it was such a miserable way to live because nothing in my life mattered to me except me getting what I wanted – everything became a vessel for me to get there. I feel very grateful that’s not my life anymore. I’m still practicing to make it less so.
JLS: How do you feel about the songs on this record and the world you’ve created?
FC: The truth is it’s a journey, it’s an arc. I think the first song is like being in a hangover, in the darkness, being very lost, and it kind of moves through the journey. I’ve never told anyone this, really, but it’s a recovery album. It’s got twelve songs because there are twelve steps, and it was really important to me that it was in twelve’s. The Mexico thing came a little bit later, and it’s the essential flavour to the music, but the album is about establishing a connection with God, finding and establishing a connection with the universe. Answering Machine is life prior to that – this endless stream of ideas that I would use to try and solve my life problems. Move to New York move to Mexico, Tokyo – do this, sell that, get a red guitar, get a green guitar, it’s fucking endless.
“I think the first song is like being in a hangover, in the darkness, being very lost, and it kind of moves through the journey.”
JLS: How did you bring this super group together?
FC: I just earmarked people over my entire career with The Vaccines. So Pete [Robertson] is the best drummer I know and want to play with, and Nick [Pini, bass] – they’re very earthy people. I live in Somerset in England near Glastonbury and it’s a very hippy earthy place. I earmarked these people as I just knew what combination of things I wanted, which was becoming an antithesis to what The Vaccines were doing. I might give them a tiny bit of direction, but essentially I’m saying, “I’ve chosen you for a reason. Here’s the start point for you.” I’d give them a starting point but then it’d be, “Do what you feel.” I record everything live, so it’s not drums and then bass, it’s everything.
For me, the majority of music that really has soul is when you capture a great moment and you might hear someone coughing, or it might go out of time for a minute. A really good example is The Rolling Stones during their ‘69 or ‘72 period, if you’d given that a normal mix engineer, it would sound completely different because it’s so raw. You can hardly hear the drum, there’s this massive cowbell here, it’s completely out of time, but it’s amazing, and it’s timeless and it will last forever because they captured something very special. That’s what I had in my head, I wanted to be able to go in with great players and give them very little guidance, record everything live take-to-take. The supergroup aspect was not premeditated. Ethan [Johns] is an amazing producer but also the best percussionist in England, he came in to play, which is really hard to do on music that isn’t recorded because you have to follow all the tempo changes. And then the guys in Mexico – they were a gift from God, just incredible.
JLS: How long did it take to record?
FC: We recorded all that brass in a day, but the whole thing took a month. For that one day I think I drank about six or ten espressos. The album was recorded over the course of a year, but in two-week segments, so we probably started in August 2021. We did another session in December, another quick session in March and then the Mexico trip in May. Then we had one more session to finish it off in the UK. So it took a year.
JLS: What do you hope people take from the journey of this record?
FC: The best thing I could hear is that it felt like a gift, like what you needed and that it’s something that might help you in some tiny way take another tiny step in the right direction, whatever that looks like.
Answering Machine is now out via Ivy RecRods.
The band’s first London show will be at The Lexington happening on July 22nd.
Follow the band on Instagram.