We Are Scientists frontman Keith Murray vents to George Morahan about such divisive topics as Kanye West, the downfall of the music industry and world domination.
We Are Scientists have long been thought of as the clowns of the indie scene, though it is true that they are that rare band that can do both hook-laden pop songs and also tour universities with their comedy self-help lectures. They see themselves as a band first and foremost, but do not doubt that their sense of humour is an integral part of their makeup.
“I don’t think we would even secondarily describe ourselves as a comedy duo, we’re certainly a band first and foremost,” says singer/guitarist Keith Murray, who, along with moustached bassist Chris Cain makes up the consistent core of the band.
Murray and Cain formed the band in 2000, whilst at college in Berkeley, with original drummer, Michael Tapper. During the early years, they self-released a debut album, Safety, Fun and Learning (In That Order), as well as numerous EPs to a muted reception. In 2001, they moved to Brooklyn, just as New York indie was reasserting itself in the public consciousness. Murray thinks that they arrived late to the party.
“I feel like the major New York explosion happened early enough to bypass us. We were just moving to New York as The Strokes, Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were becoming successful, we missed being a part of that New York scene.”
Of course, they never expected the success they have had; all three members had steady jobs that they would have been content with making into careers; Cain had been working at an advertising agency, whilst Murray had a job at film production company, IFC.
“The band was never our entire lives. We were just a band who liked playing and we were happy living and working in New York when this great opportunity came along.”
Sandwiched between that first wave and the latter group of New York upstarts such as Vampire Weekend and Grizzly Bear, We Are Scientists cut a lowly figure when they emerged in early 2006 with their major label debut, With Love and Squalor – an album that included songs such as ‘Nobody Move, Nobody Gets Hurt’ and ‘The Great Escape’. Squalor was warmly received by audiences and some critics, while Murray looks back on those years with tender eyes.
“As much as I am not really interested in that record anymore, it is impossible to not be fond of it, because that period was so exciting and has so many great memories tied up in it.” Murray and Cain may have moved on, but realise the debt they owe to that record.
The band found relative success in Europe with Squalor, but to this day, they are looked upon with bemusement in their native land.
“[In America] I think we’re perceived as an indie band that has become an anomalous success. The American press really has no idea what to make of us.” However, Murray couldn’t be happier with the warm reception they have received on this side of the Atlantic, but is not surprised by the lack of recognition in their homeland.
o-two questions whether American audiences are confused by the band’s innate irreverence; Murray believes there is no outlet for that side of their personality in the States. “I feel like American journalists are unaware of our light-hearted nature, whereas people over here are far more familiar with us.”
In regards to their European success, Murray says: “I think it’s largely a function of the style of music we play, we’ve never had any reason to be successful anywhere and we’re still more successful in America than I would have ever imagined.”
Nevertheless, some critics, regardless of nationality, have been wary of embracing the band due to their trademark flippancy and have also found difficulty in reconciling their music with their comedy side projects. Most music fans simply dismiss We Are Scientists as silly and light hearted much to Murray’s chagrin.
“It would be foolhardy to completely disregard something that some people cite as a stumbling block for them in terms of wholeheartedly latching onto us as musicians. We also feel it’s weird that some people can listen to Kanye West and say ‘this music is great, it’s clearly made by a narcissistic bastard who I would loathe to be in the room with, but I can still listen to it and love it.’”
This is certainly a double standard to Murray and a slight which breaks his rather easy-going tone: “It gets to me that critics would complain about us being ‘comedians’ when they’re listening to a record on which there is no comedy at all.”
Following on from Squalor, Cain and Murray started to drift apart from drummer Tapper, who hadn’t helped his cause by moving back west to Los Angeles.
“He wasn’t part of the writing of [third album] Brain Thrust Mastery at all. He wouldn’t respond to the MP3s we were sending him. By the time we were ready to make the record, Michael had suddenly realised he hadn’t been involved in it at all.” Tapper’s lack of input was only compounded further by his dislike of touring and he subsequently left the band, leaving We Are Scientists to function as a duo for a time.
Brain Thrust Mastery saw an 80s inflection the band’s sound, as synths and chiming guitars (as well as the obligatory cheese factor) were added to the mix. Singles ‘After Hours’ and ‘Chick Lit’ produced some rather memorable videos, both revolving around the band’s interactions with dogs. Naturally, this brought the band increased publicity.
In spite of their insistence that music is their primary focus, the band remains willing to create absurd visual accompaniments, comfortable in the knowledge that they will be mocked in some dark corners of the blogosphere. The band’s creative process for their videos can wildly differ from single to single.
“Some videos have been conceived the night before, out of necessity, while others are longstanding ideas that we wanted to explore. We take the videos really seriously otherwise it would be the waste of the opportunity, time and money to go with a boring performance video.”
The video for ‘Chick Lit’ follows We Are Scientists around rural Wexford as they set about rounding up an expansive group of unruly Pomeranians, the very epitome of the comic sensibility that forces a wedge between them and critical appraisal. It was “an idea that [they] had for a long time but didn’t know how to execute.”
Squalor and Mastery had been released by EMI and Virgin in Europe and the US respectively, EMI’s well-publicised financial difficulties reaffirmed the band’s desire to record their next album without they vigilant gaze of the major labels: “Once you see how major labels work, you are under no illusions as to why they are in the financial trouble they are.”
Now working on an independent label, the band released fourth album, Barbara, earlier this year. It’s an album the band and their fans are very happy with and, Murray believes, a mark of his own progression as a lyricist.
“I tried to rein it in a little; I was averse to active whining [of earlier albums]. I was trying to be more amusingly self deprecating, but thematically this album is way more obsessed with social failure and trying to figure out where people’s impressions of social integrations differ from other peoples’. ”
For Barbara, former Razorlight drummer Andy Burrows joined We Are Scientists. Rather luckily, Burrows quit his former band just as Murray and Cain were preparing to enter the studio. The three had struck up a friendship when hanging out together in New York and the original members were thrilled with their new recruit.
“At the time, Chris and I were thinking about how to approach writing the next record without a drummer. Then Andy quit Razorlight and said he wanted to do our whole record, it sounded great to us.”
The band have certainly been busy with the new album and an exhausting tour schedule, but late last year, they found the time to indulge in their much-maligned comedic side with the MTV web series, Steve Wants His Money, which Murray and Cain co-wrote and starred in.
In Steve, Murray and Cain play fictionalised versions of themselves who have debunked to London to avoid the titular, unseen Steve and the debt they owe him. In each episode, they rope in a celebrity guest to pitch a hair-brained, money-making scheme to. Kano and Edith Bowman were among their victims in the first series of seven four-minute shorts (a second has been commissioned and confirmed).
Murray himself admits that o-two’s description of his alter ego as a morally bankrupt (yet somewhat likeable) idiot is perfectly apt, but does not believe that these characters are an example of art imitating life.
“I wouldn’t say we’re morally bankrupt, I think we admire moral bankruptcy as something you really have to commit to.”
The web series came as the result of a convoluted process that began with the aforementioned mock self-help lectures that they gave at various British universities to accompany the release of Brain Thrust Mastery. The band reveal themselves as a rather traditional double act with Cain and his cruel intelligence working as the derisive straight man to Murray’s naive, petulant child.
The conversation begins to wind down as topics turn to Murray’s premature greying (“I seemed to have gone fully grey by 28”) and previous predictions of domination in the world of speedboats (“I’ll be honest, we’re failing. We spend so little of our time in port cities.”) We can only hope for We Are Scientists continued existence, the world would be a significantly more cynical place without them.
Barbara is out now.