Campbell Burns - frontman of Vacations, one of the most-played Australian acts on Spotify - checks in to discuss the Pure OCD diagnosis that informed his band’s latest LP ‘No Place Like Home’, and why he had to relocate Stateside to thrive.
The announcement that Vacations’ 2018 single Telephones had gone Platinum in the US dropped just prior to our interview with Campbell Burns. When we congratulate him, the band’s lead singer/guitarist extols, “I can't comprehend it! It's now our second song to go Platinum in the US, so it's strange to think about because it's quite an achievement.
“I really don't know how to register it. But it does mean a lot to me and I am very grateful, because it's a clear indicator that people enjoy our music and really resonate with it. I think the fact that we get to do what we do as musicians for a living is a very special and beautiful thing, because I know not a lot of people get to be in this position.”
The band’s first Platinum-certified song in the States was Young. This lead single from Vacations’ 2016 EP Vibes achieved Gold status in Canada, Australia, Mexico and Poland as well. It featured in multiple viral TikTok trends, including one that saw users tap their camera along to the start of the track before stepping back to reveal something. Even pop superstar Lizzo got involved!
Burns actually relocated to the US last year, but at the time of our chat he’d temporarily returned to his hometown of Newcastle to celebrate Christmas with his family. So does Burns have a trophy room set up in his new LA pad to keep and show off the plaques Vacations have accrued thus far? “I'm working on it,” he responds with a chuckle.
“We will be getting some plaques shipped out. So I think that’ll make it feel a little bit more real, because there can be a little bit of a disconnect at times when you see all the streams on Spotify. And I equate that to getting a lot of likes on Instagram or having a lot of followers – it sort of feels like that at the end of the day. I think until you see that physical manifestation – the result or the reward of your labour, whether that is a plaque or playing shows to thousands of people and they’re all singing the lyrics back – it doesn’t feel real.
“When it's just statistics and the record label’s like, ‘You've done more numbers this week,’ it's like, ‘Oh, okay, that's great,’ but, you know, you don't wanna just look at numbers on a screen.”
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When asked whether success indicators such as multiple Platinum singles and streaming-stat milestones make him reflect on his dreams and aspirations when he first started making music, Burns ponders, “Not necessarily, but it does put it into perspective. Because my dream when I was a teenager was that I just wanted to play the Enmore Theatre. But we now play venues that are larger than that in the US on a regular basis. So I've already surpassed that, which is bizarre to think about.
“I mean, I haven't played the Enmore in Australia yet, but…” Surely that’s on the cards though, right? “Well, I'd like to think so. If Australia can’t catch up, I dunno. That’s probably why I moved to the US in the first place. There's a lot more going on in the States for the band right now compared to Australia, so it felt like my calling. I moved there about six months ago and I've been really enjoying it. Obviously there was a bit of culture shock – it’s a whole new life to get settled into – but, yeah! I felt the move was for the best, so...”
The wistful title track of No Place Like Home, Vacations’ upcoming third LP, actually documents Burns’ decision to base himself Stateside. “I'm on the east side of town in a neighbourhood called Mount Washington,” he details. “It's a really beautiful area. There's two recording studios and a writing space upstairs, and a really large garden. It's a gorgeous space and I really enjoy every minute that I get to spend there. It's very peaceful, so it does serve as a nice home base. Since the start of the year , I don't think I've been in one place for more than six weeks ‘cause I'm travelling so much.”
Because his Vacations bandmates – bassist Jake Johnson, lead guitarist Nate Delizzotti and drummer Joey Van Lier – are all “settling down” and appear to be “feeling a bit more grounded” in Newcastle, Burns reckons they’ll just stay put for now.
Vacations are one of the most-played Australian acts on Spotify and carved their own path by converting viral success into a global fanbase. “We put out our first album [2018’s Changes] with no management, no PR or anything – it was a purely DIY effort,” Burns recounts. “We were able to go to South By Southwest in Austin, Texas and tour Europe, go to Southeast Asia – just really putting ourselves out there. It's taken years and years of hard work to get to a point where things are starting to turn around and become sustainable.”
While working through his writer’s block, social anxiety and depression with a therapist, Burns was diagnosed with Pure OCD: a subtype of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which is characterised by intrusive thoughts and compulsions that primarily play out in the mind. “I did three years of therapy – a lotta hard work,” he points out. “I've figured out quite a lot about myself over the past coupla years.”
Listening to their latest set, No Place Like Home, feels deeply personal; you can certainly tell Burns was working through some shit while creating this record. “Yeah, well I was,” Burns allows, laughing. “That's entirely the point of the album. It essentially outlines my journey with Pure OCD and navigating my mental health, and how I view myself; how I show myself compassion and love. But then also: how can I give back to others? It poses a lot of questions and tries to answer them in a very nurturing and caring kind of way.
“It's like, well, I've gone through that and come out the other side stronger, and more sure of myself, as a person. If I can raise awareness and help spread that message, or just be open and emotional, that's all I wanna do at the end of the day. And then if I can do that through music and other people can connect to it, that's great! It's a win-win; that's why I do what I do. So I think there’s strength in being vulnerable.”
Burns is also determined not to let his Pure OCD diagnosis define him, instead preferring to view it in a positive light. When asked whether his diagnosis provided a sense of relief, Burns acknowledges, “It did, but then there was almost shellshock. You reflect back on everything that you are, or that you thought you were, as a person and you start to recognise all your patterns of behaviour – how you carry yourself or the way that you speak – which can be quite confronting at first. It creates this disconnect of, ‘Who am I? What am I?’ and you almost have to try and reclaim that and see yourself in a new light.”
“I'm a child learning how to walk again… I was playing charades while the house was on fire…” – although they’re pertinent, these standout lyrics from Terms & Conditions were penned prior to Burns’ Pure OCD diagnosis – “I think in 2021 when I was extremely depressed and just writing for the sake of writing, not necessarily for a song or anything like that,” Burns observes. “Reading those lyrics when I got my diagnosis, I was like, ‘Oh, this all lines up!’ It's kind of eerie in a way, ‘cause [the lyrics] really do capture the feeling of having OCD, having anxiety, having all these feelings that I was experiencing.”
Buoyant melodies abound throughout No Place Like Home, often juxtaposing its heavy themes and confessional lyricism. “I think that's something I tried to achieve on a lot of the songs,” Burns admits. “I didn't wanna write something that was slow and sad. The singles Next Exit, Midwest and Close Quarters are pretty good examples of that: writing songs that were a bit more engaging and upbeat, but then still trying to touch on that very personal, emotional level, ‘cause that’s just how I am with lyrics.”
This record’s closing line, “You've always been enough,” lands like a reassuring hug or affirmation. “Fun fact: the album is actually a perfect loop,” Burns excitedly shares. “If you let that outro play out, it’ll actually go back into Next Exit, which is sort of an analogy for OCD. Because whilst you can reach that conclusion and go, ‘Oh well, everything's okay,’ you can also then go back to the start. And Next Exit is that question, ‘Well, what am I doing? Why am I here?’ – almost that spiral effect.
“It’s like a feedback loop: you progress through something and you think you've made it, and then it goes back and it's like, ‘Oh, wait. No, something's not right.’ And then you get to the end and you’re like, ‘This is okay,’ and then you find – at least in terms of OCD – a new ritual or a new thing to fixate on. Not to say it's like all hope is lost, but I think how you listen to the album will define your experience with it and how you can connect to it.”
Burns started writing the shimmering, boppy Next Exit, our first taste of No Place Like Home, during his band’s first sold-out tour of the States in early 2022. “It's all about leaning into uncertainty, which is one of the biggest things I learnt out of therapy,” he offers. “Because, due to my Pure OCD, I was always so black-and-white in terms of my thinking, but being able to lean into that grey area and just think, ‘Well, there are so many outcomes – so many things could happen – but the only thing I can see with certainty is what’s happening to me right now’; trying to be present within that moment was an important takeaway.”
No Place Like Home’s unexpected centrepiece is Arizona, a brief instrumental palate-cleanser featuring meandering guitar, trickling synths and field recordings of airport announcements. “That's all throughout the album,” Burns reveals. “If you listen really closely you can hear it on a lot of the tracks. Whilst I was making my way through the US – mainly on that first tour – I used my iPhone voice recorder and would constantly be recording in different settings, whether it was an airport, a diner, walking through the streets of New York with my dad, or maybe we’d just finished a show or were all talking in an elevator.
“I tried to slip these little voice memos in just to give the album a sense of place and try to really ground it. Because obviously people can hear the music, but it’s like, ‘Well, what colour is the music?’ Or, ‘Where do you go, in your mind, when you listen to it?’ Sort of getting into these artsy, philosophical questions. But I think it makes the music a little bit more resonant and gives it a bit more depth rather than just having a song that has a great chorus, you know? I really want people to feel something when they listen to it.
“On this album I have tried to get more personal and direct. This is the most defining statement we've made in our careers so far, and it's the complete package. We’ve made a really good statement that we're proud of. It's authentic to us and that's what matters at the end of the day.”
Vacations closed out last year by teaming up with Brisbane indie-rock trio Last Dinosaurs for an extensive, 30-plus date North American co-headline tour – aptly titled Tourzilla – and Burns singles out their sold-out show at New York’s Webster Hall as a career highlight. “I have an almost delusional romance with New York City as somewhere I've always wanted to be,” he admits. “And to finally be in a city like that and sell out such a prestigious and historical venue was such a special moment, especially because it was a group effort from two Australian bands.
“We all grew up listening to Last Dinosaurs and they’re sort of like heroes to us, but now we're all good friends. It was a very surreal kinda moment and I hope it does send a shockwave back to Australia and that people take notice, because I can't think of many Australian bands that are doing so well overseas. I think Australia has such a culture of trying to nurture and respect those artists and cheer them on, but I hope that we get to see that in the same way that other artists might be experiencing at the moment.
“Because it does raise this question of, ‘How much do I have to achieve to be recognised by my own country?’” He wonders aloud, laughing in disbelief, “If it's not three near-sold out US tours in 18 months, two Platinum records – all these accolades, all this attention – then I'm like, ‘Well, I dunno what else I can do.’”
No Place Like Home is out January 12 via Nettwerk. Vacations will perform at the 2024 Laneway Festival.