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The Prolific Australian Bad Boys Move Beyond Rawk With Their Second Recording, Winning Days

The Vines have suffered through more than one Nirvana comparison, so it's somehow appropriate that drummer Hamish Rosser is reading a Kurt Cobain biography on the band's current tour.

"I'm almost finished Heavier Than Heaven," the laid-back Aussie says on the line from a Kansas hotel room where he's stuck doing a full day of press. "The funny thing about the book is that I'm seeing so many stories in there that sound like things that have happened to us. The exact same stuff: cancelled interviews, photo shoots that don't end up happening, and the stress that goes on before an MTV shoot. I'm reading all these stories, going, 'Yep, yep, yep, I know all about that.' "

The Charles R. Cross--penned Heaven painted a picture of a tortured artist incapable of handling his success. Cobain started out wanting to make music and was unable to cope when being in Nirvana become more than that. Where that's probably resonating with Rosser is that he's also in a band with a singer, Craig Nicholls, who has been hailed as something of a prodigy but who isn't always comfortable with the adulation.

in & out...

Hamish Rosser sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know:

On the importance of making it in America: "Even if you have a gold record in Australia, you're probably on the dole because that means you've only sold 30,000 albums. That doesn't buy you a house, doesn't buy you car, doesn't even buy you lunch. That's why you want to make an impact overseas."

On why the Vines' success has been gratifying for him: "The last Australian rock group to break out was Silverchair, so I thought the chances of being able to do this for a living were really slim. Before I joined I was playing covers. I was in a band that travelled across the Canadian Prairies doing '60s tunes at country fairs."

On Craig Nicholls: "He's not really much of a social guy. He doesn't drink, doesn't go to bars. He likes going to record stores, though. We're going to go to one later today--I want to get a Melvins album because I've been reading all about them in Heavier Than Heaven."

It's well-documented that Nicholls rarely gives interviews, which explains why the Vines' drummer is the one on the phone talking about the group's sophomore album, Winning Days. When the singer does decide to open up, he is inevitably portrayed as introverted, sullen, controlling, and prone to monstrous mood swings. That has made Nicholls sound like the Axl Rose of alternative rock, but Rosser suggests that's not quite the case.

"I joined the band at the start of 2002, when it had done some gigging but not a lot," the drummer says. "When I auditioned, management gave me a warning, sort of exaggerating the whole madness of Craig. I was expecting some violent, freaky monster who was going to tear my head off. Then I met him and he was a really quiet, shy, pleasant guy who was nothing at all like he'd been described. Like all of us, there are times when he likes his personal space."

Still, in the world of rock 'n' roll a bad reputation is good for business, especially when it leads to incidents like being thrown off The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, which happened to the Vines in December of 2002. Rosser explains that the much-publicized incident was mostly a result of sleep deprivation; when the band arrived for a 10 a.m. sound check, he and bassist Patrick Matthews had been up partying all night with Coldplay. Nicholls hadn't been to bed either and wasn't in much better shape.

"Craig just wanted to do the sound check and get the hell out," Rosser relates. "They had one of those Perspex screens around the drum kit, and he ended up throwing his guitar at it a few times until it eventually broke. Then he threw his guitar over the screen at me, and then threw a couple of lights at me as well. It didn't take long for them to say, 'Get these guys out of here.' God only knows how long it took our label to get us on Jay Leno, but we were thrown out of the building within 10 minutes."

What sometimes gets lost about the Vines because of such incidents is the music, the one thing that Nicholls wishes people would focus on. The 26-year-old singer has worked on his craft longer than most fans might think. Although the Vines are often lumped in with the White Stripes/Hives rawk explosion of 2002, the group has been at it for half a decade. Nicholls has written a lot of songs over that period, and it's perhaps for that reason that his band shows no signs of a sophomore slump on Winning Days, which ranges from overheated fuzz pop to cellophane-flowers psychedelia.

That fact that Nicholls is so prolific left the Vines with no shortage of material to choose from for the disc. "We had no time off before we started on Winning Days," Rosser says. "A lot of bands find themselves in a position where they have to take six months off to write. Craig was busting to get working on the second record. We literally came off the road and went into the studio with more than enough material for an album. Craig has demos for at least 30 songs, and probably even a bunch more kicking around."

Like the Vines' platinum debut, Highly Evolved, Winning Days meets its quota of maximum-volume, radio-friendly unit shifters. "F.T.W" marries barbed-wire-and-blood guitars with a monster-fuzzed bass line and a screamed chorus not fit for family listening. "Animal Machine" is bubble-gum pop spiked with broken glass, and "Evil Town" lumbers along like Sabbath slathered in six coats of Mudhoney.

But the disc also finds Nicholls determined to show that his sonic influences don't start and end with the class of early-'90s Seattle. "TV Pro" mixes black-sunshine trippiness with galloping garage rock, the folksy "Autumn Shade II" time-travels back to the summer of '67, and the sun-splattered title track sounds like Brian Wilson after a good day in the sandbox.

"We've still got a lot of heavy songs on the album; 'Animal Machine' and 'Fuck the World' and 'TV Pro' are all pretty high-energy," Rosser says. "But the idea was to show different sides of the band this time out, to make it as diverse as possible."

If Winning Days proves anything, it's that Nicholls has learned about the importance of diversification from those who have gone before him. The subtext to Heavier Than Heaven was that Kurt Cobain felt backed into a corner as an artist. The singer seems determined to make sure that doesn't happen to him with the Vines.

"There's been a bit of a misconception about the band in some respects, particularly in America," Rosser says. "The songs that got played over here on the radio off the first album were 'Get Free' and 'Outtathaway'. What would happen because of those songs was that college football jocks would show up at our gigs screaming, 'Play some rock tunes.' We do, but the Vines have also got a mellow side. We understand that you've got to have more to offer than balls-out rock 'n' roll."

The Vines play the Commodore Thursday (April 15).