Campbell Burns on the patient rise of Vacations, forthcoming third album, and their love hate relationship with TikTok
As buzzed up algorithms constantly spurt ‘the next big thing’ at us, it can be easy to forget the effort and time it often took them to get there.
Australian band Vacations were such an act, as their 2016 track ‘Young’ found its way to the front of the TikTok queue in 2021, with everyone from Lizzo to Rosalía getting in on the action.
But the New South Wales quartet, formed and fronted by Campbell Burns after leaving high school, has two albums spanning eight years and a third on its way later in 2023. This feels like a breakout year for Vacations. We catch up with Burns about the Vacations journey so far, the pros and cons of using TikTok as an artist, plus fancy tins of tuna.
Vacations has been quite a long-term project for you, but it feels like you’re on the cusp of your biggest moment yet. Give us a run through of the journey to get to here…
It was the first musical project I pursued after leaving high school, because I was just starting to write songs by myself, and there were friends around me that were also playing music. I wanted to do that, to be a part of it. I was starting to take music a bit more seriously, and from there I grew from writing songs in my bedroom and posting them online. There was a bit of a buzz on SoundCloud and YouTube that continued to grow, and eventually, as the band started taking shape, we made those first two EPs and our first album completely DIY by ourselves. From there we got a record deal, a manager and a producer. We’ve always had a really strong online following, but not as much of a critical reception. There’s no rulebook on this stuff, I really do think you can just do whatever you want these days, and I find it fascinating. In saying that, we released an album in 2020… Covid happened, but we still had all this international buzz.
But now we’re playing songs that were written in 2019 or 2020, two years after the fact, and playing these songs in some of our first sold out shows in other countries. It’s just insane to think about. Everything happened real quick and I think that gave us a morale boost and inspired us to tackle a third album.
Who else has been important to the project’s longevity?
It’s very much a collaborative effort, I alone could not have done this. Everyone else in the band is as close to a brother as they could be to me. Everyone helps each other in their own ways, everyone supports each other, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. We’ve almost been a band for nine or ten years. We’re not playing shows at the pub down the road, we’re playing shows in other countries to huge audiences now. Everyones’s starting to realise their strengths and how we compliment each other, and I think that’s been the really rewarding process of doing this album and getting these new songs together and developing our sound and palate.
It’s been a very DIY project from the get-go, and that’s always been a really important part of our ethos. We completely sidelined the industry in the sense that we don’t really get reviews or get picked for festivals or anything, but we’ve always had people online talking about us, whether it’s through songs going viral, or memes that I just sh*tpost on our Instagram or people covering our songs or sharing TikToks, it’s been a really interesting process.
On that, what is your opinion on TikTok and its relation to music making? It’s obviously been crucial to your popularity, but I imagine there are negatives with being labelled or pigeonholed as a ‘TikTok artist’?
It’s funny, I actually uninstalled it the other day because I find that it just melts my brain, I lose capacity for what’s around me or what I’m doing, I just get sucked into it. It’s such an easy way to kill a few hours but it’s so mindless. I think in that sense I’m very grateful that although you could label us a TikTok artist, we aren’t. ‘Young’ has stayed consistent the entire time, and ‘Telephones’ has also swept in. Every song has picked up because of it, and we’ve kept a consistent fan base that is listening to us every day and hasn’t just sharply dropped off in a way like other artists that have found virality through it.
In saying that, I remember when we first started blowing up, we were getting a lot of pressure from people around us being like, ‘oh well you have to be making content every day to keep up’. But that’s not sustainable. Because it wears you down, and it makes you into something that you’re not, and I think it’s very easy for people to see through that. It reached a point where I didn’t want to do this anymore. I was spending hours trying to learn how to make a TikTok and then editing and thinking of a script or some other content to make. In that time I could have written a song, gone for a walk, seen a friend or done something else with my time. That’s much more important. I don’t want to be trying so hard.
That’s a frustration that seems to resonate on your latest single ‘Next Exit’ – tell me a little more about that track.
‘Next Exit’ is interesting, it was one of the first songs I wrote for the album. I wrote it in Austin during one of the few breaks we had during the US tour. I had some studio time and all these synths. I remember the song was just that initial synth loop, and I liked it so much but I had no idea what to play for the rest of it. I kept coming back to it month after month and it kinda just pieced itself together.
I’ve noticed over the years that I tend to write ambiguously and non-gendered, because in that sense it has a universal relatability; I like it when people can project themselves onto the song. I do find that on this new album a lot of the tracks are starting to get a bit more direct, or more blunt, and personal. ‘Next Exit’ is a way to ease people into that, I think. It’s about being stuck in cycles of repetitious behaviour. Of being aware of that, but not knowing why, and then this sense of doubt – questioning why you’re doing anything in the first place.
You mentioned ‘industry standard’ earlier. Has your approach to production changed as you’ve moved more into the limelight?
The whole reason I got so into production was because when I first started to write songs, I was like ‘OK, how do I record a song?’. ‘How do I get that guitar sound?’ It was a constant game of asking myself questions and trying to pursue certain sounds to evoke certain emotions and create feelings that I wanted myself and the listener to feel. It’s a never-ending rabbit hole for me, a constant pursuit of sound. So it’s always extremely important to me and I’ve picked up on so much throughout the years. There are still things I’ll do the same from when I first started out, but I have a better idea of how to approach it now.
I think it sounds like us, and I like that. I think there can be an industry standard to some things, like making indie guitar pop, but that doesn’t entirely interest me, because then I’d just be trying to replicate what someone else has done.
We included Vacations in our top acts performing at The Great Escape festival. What’s your relationship with the UK like?
We did our first UK and European tour in 2018 and we had a sold out London show. Everybody was attentive, you knew everyone in that room wanted to be there for every single song, then hanging out and talking afterwards, letting us know how much our music has meant to them. So I’m excited to go back, because it’s been five years. We have so many songs we haven’t played in the UK yet, plus we’ve also got the new songs of this album to showcase, and our production and set-up is so much more organised and regimented compared to when we were just rocking up to shows, plugging into our amps, and going for it.
What else is on the horizon for Vacations?
I would really love a house. Since the start of the year I’ve been travelling constantly and living out of a suitcase. It’s a wonderful experience, and I’m very grateful for it because it’s entirely though music that I’m able to travel the world and make friends all over, but I am missing the comforts of having your own space and bed. I tell this to everyone but I can’t stop thinking about it: every time I go grocery shopping I’ll just look at all the different varieties of olive oil or tins of tuna or just really nice salt. Something about the packaging does this to me, like one day I will have this. It’s so simple and so boring, but to me it’s fascinating.
That’s a personal thing, but for the band, we want to be touring more. The rest of the album is completely different and it’s such a good representation of where we are now as a band, and I feel like it’s what we were trying to do with our second album. Now we’ve achieved that and taken that idea even further.