We’re growing up in the spotlight - The Vamps talk ahead of Birmingham gig
It’s not so long ago that The Vamps were excited about seeing their name on a photocopied piece of A4 paper stuck to the outside of Birmingham’s Actress & Bishop with wallpaper paste.
Back then, there was no contract to worry about, no marketing contra or technical rider, no guy on the spotlights being paid handsomely for illuminating their pretty, boyband faces nor 12,000 rabid fans SCREEEAAAAMING as though they’ve just seen the very ghost of Elvis Presley chewing on a burger at the drive-in.
Truth be told, Brad Simpson, Connor Ball, Tristan Evans and James McVey were just as excited then as they will be when they play at Birmingham’s Genting Arena for the penultimate show of the all-conquering, money-spinning, feel-the-love spectacular that is their Night And Day Arena Tour.
Back then, they had everything to look forward to. They were holding on to a dream, imagining what it might be like to do the things that have become their new ‘normal’. They were also probably wondering how things would go when they sat their GCSE maths exam and whether they really ought to have paid more attention to cosigns and tangents.
And now, well, now they’re simply living it: playing to stadiums full of fans, hanging out with rock star mates, getting their security to shoo away the gaggles of girls that cover their every move while raking in more moulah than any self-respecting 22-year-old might reasonably expect to earn. Good for them.
Brad ‘I’ve-got-the-thickest-and-curliest-hair-in-pop’ Simpson and Connor ‘I’m-so-pretty-it-hurts’ Ball are on the phone to chat about being Britain’s shiniest and most perfectly formed pop stars. Alongside their partners in pop, Tristan Evans and James McVey, they have honed The Vamps into a song-streaming, tune-downloading, merchandise-selling machine.
And theirs is a tale not only of being devilishly handsome good lookers with more silver, gold and platinum discs that they know what to do with. It’s also a tale of hard work, of slogging it out on the club circuit and of being so damned determined to succeed that they actually got to where they were heading.
They won’t be thinking about the Actress & Bishop when they take to the stage tonight, of course. They’ll be too busy making sure the show goes well; that the crowd feels engaged, that they look good, play well and give fans the time of their teenage lives.
“It’s changed pretty quickly,” says Connor. “We’d be lucky to get one or two people waiting for us at the Actress & Bishop.
“Now it’s different.” Like heck it is.
Instead of worrying about the normal 22-year-old stuff, like how to pay the rent, whether their girlfriend will stay over and if they ought to be buying six pints of lager when they need to be in work the next day, they’re flying first class and being chaperoned by music industry moguls with brains the size of white rhinos.
It’s not been easy to adapt to a life more different; though they’re seeking neither sympathy nor understanding. They realise they are four of the most fortunate young men in Britain.
Brad says: “It’s taken a while to get used to being famous. Me and Connor started the band when we were 15. It’s not just been about The Vamps. Part of the whole thing has been about learing to grow up. It’s been about that as much as it’s been about getting used to being in a band. We’ve had to have time to grow up as people. But everything becomes easier as you get older because you grow more used to it. We’re more comfortable now than we were before, though it took time to change.”
Birmingham is a highlight of the tour, as well it might be.
Brad grew up in Sutton Coldfield and his family recently opened a new gin bar there, with his parents, Anne-Marie and Derek, and his sister Natalie. The family are rooted in the West Midlands: Derek is a golf professional at The Belfry and their roots remain important.
Brad adds: “I can’t wait to play Birmingham. We love Birmingham. It’s a home town show for me and Con. I went to a few gigs here at the Genting when I was younger so it’s cool to come back and play the venue ourselves. I think I saw Michael McIntyre there four or five years ago. It was a great. He smashed it.”
The only drawback, of course, is that Brad has to buy back a small fortune’s worth of tickets so that he can get all of his mates – and family and friends – into the show. It’s worse than organising a wedding.
Brad laughs: “Yeah, it’s the biggest guest list ever. We’ve got down all of our families and our mates, as well as our mates’ mates and our mates’ mates’ mates.”
The show is important to The Vamps. And they’ll be deploying some of the performance skills that they learned when they were playing on their never-ending toilet tour of the UK’s grubbiest venues. That’s where they learned their on-stage skills – as well as when they were supporting such artists as Demi Lovato, The Wanted, JLS, Little Mix and Lawson.
The heirs apparent to One Direction will be like kids at a free party, making the most of the gargantuan venue.
Connor says: “It’ll be great. There’s a lot more space on stage so we can run about. Even the way we interact with the crowd is different when we play the big gigs. It’s harder because we have to make sure everyone enjoys it.“The staging matters and we put a big walk-way out to the fans so that we can run about and never be too far away from them. Brad will be going down into the crowd to say hello, too.”
Brad adds: “It’ll be an exciting gig because of growing up in the city. We’ll feel the pressure because of that. There’ll be nerves. But we can’t wait.
“We’ve all had similar journeys in different parts of the UK. We’ve grown up playing gigs at pubs. That’s where we cut our teeth before we were even a band. So for us, part of the thing about playing the Genting is remembering how hard we’ve had to work to get there.”
The Vamps are a thoroughly modern pop band. Not for them the age-old route of making a demo, emailing it to a record company and fishing for a contract. Instead, the band are one of a new generation of millennial pop groups who’ve used social media to fashion their fortune.
While the band were still in their teens, James McVey decided he wanted to form a band and discovered Bradley Simpson through YouTube. It was 2011. Together, the pair wrote songs and Simpson became the lead singer. They subsequently met Tristan Evans through Facebook before hooking up with Connor Ball via a mutual friend.
By the middle of 2012, the band were uploading cover songs to their YouTube channel and as autumn arrived, they were covering One Direction’s song Live While We’re Young, earning fans around the UK.
Connor looks back on 2012 happily. “That year was when we got signed and when the YouTube covers gained traction. Then the first song was out in 2013.”
The rest, as they say, is PRS cheques for the rest of their sainted lives. Can We Dance went into the UK chart at number two and was a hit in Australia, Japan and other parts of the world. Wild Heart and Last Night followed, earning them two more top three hits.
Brad remembers: “To be honest, we were one of the first bands to come out of that YouTube scene and transition into an album. We’ve seen a lot of artists do it since then. Change is inevitable within the music industry. You’re now seeing artists coming out of Vine as well. We are a product of a change in society – for us, when we were listening as kids, it was all about cds, but now it’s YouTube. The first stuff I bought was at a garage sale. Things have moved on.”
They have indeed. For The Vamps, the days of small pubs and clubs started to change when they were asked to support McFly on their Memory Lane tour. It was their first serious outing, a tour that took them from Birmingham Academy to London’s Wembley Arena and all points in between as the headliners promoted their greatest hits. It gave them a taste for the big time and, in some ways, allowed them to pick up the torch that McFly were passing.
Brad says: “That tour was huge. You know, seeing McFly play got us going. We loved them individually too. It was surreal for us going on tour with a band like that. We learned a lot from them as people as well as performers. It was a massive thing for us.”
Later that year, they supported Selena Gomez before Taylor Swift signed them up for a couple of her Red Tour shows in 2014. After that, the stage was set and it was time for them to headline their own shows.
In the intervening years, there have been incredible highs and unexpected lows. There has been lots of pressure, too much hard work and not enough of being normal and hanging out with friends and family. It’s been fun and unreal, it’s been isolating and just plain weird.
Connor says: “What’s got us through it is being mates. We go through it with three people who understand it. If someone’s having a low day, the other guys in the band will bring them up.”
Brad adds: “There’s been a lot of fun times and the tours are always amazing. Having a number one album was ridiculous, too. We never thought we’d be able to say that. Then bringing it back to Brum is a bit special. Playing the biggest venue in town is pretty cool too. The first time we did the NEC it wasn’t even called the Genting. You know, this show is a really cool moment.”
All of those support shows have led them here. Like a new football manager who’s learned from playing under a succession of different bosses, they’ve picked up plenty along the way from the others that they’ve played with.
Connor says: “As an artist and performer you go and support other bands and you take bits from them and make them your own. For us, having the chance to work with artists like Taylor Swift and Demi and Little Mix has been incredible. You see how them work and try to work the best bits into your own show.
“Taylor is interesting and I think the fact that she has so much control over every aspect of her output is fascinating. As artists, there’s so much to think about; writing, the business side and being creative. You can tell with Taylor that she’s at the top of all that she does and I have massive respect for her for that. That’s what we take from her.”
Tonight’s show will give The Vamps the chance to put a lid on their Night & Day campaign. The record was released in July last year and gave them their first number one.
Brad says it’s been tough to live up to expectations but the boys are proud that they delivered and took their music to the top of the charts.
“I think the expectations were high. The first single did well on Spotify and people realised it was a bit of a departure. To see the music being received so well was quite promising. It meant the rest of the album really followed on from that. It was received with the same kind of open arms that the fans had when we released the first record and that was special. We’d gone away for a year and written songs that were special to us – and, thankfully, they connected with the fans. That means a lot to us.”
And it’ll mean even more when they return tonight to Birmingham’s Genting Arena.