Interview date: 06/02/2008
Run date: 06/25/2008
Chances are, you haven't heard of New York indie dance rockers We Are Scientists, which is a downright shame because they are awesome. If you live in England, however, you're quite familiar with them because the band, much like the Pixies before them, are far more successful on the other side of the pond than they are in their homeland. That could soon change, now that the band has a new home at Astralwerks Records and a fab new record, Brain Thrust Mastery. Bullz-Eye caught up with “singing guitarist” Keith Murray to discuss the factual accuracy of the band's press releases, the stigma of being described as a power pop band, and kitties.
Keith Murray: How ya doin', Dave?
Bullz-Eye: Good, how are you?
KM: I'm all right.
BE: First off, I love the new record.
KM: Cool, thank you!
BE: But first things first: I would just like to say that I think With Love and Squalor has one of the greatest album covers of all time.
KM: Ha ha ha! Thanks.
BE: I noticed you went in a decidedly different direction with the new album.
KM: Yeah, we did. The cover for With Love and Squalor was actually a very last-minute decision. We had taken those photos before we were even signed; we had just decided that that would be a funny promo shot for us to take. We had taken those pictures in my apartment, with a friend of Chris' (Cain, bassist) taking the pictures, and we never used them. We had a guy who was working on the cover that we had in mind for With Love and Squalor, and about three days before the deadline, he told us he wasn't going to meet the deadline and couldn't do it. We're all like, “My God, what are we going to do?” At the last minute, we thought, “Use the cat photos! We have the cat photos, just use 'em!” And ultimately, it worked out very well.
BE: On your first album, it appeared that you only put to tape what the three of you could reproduce live.
BE: Now you lose a member of the band [drummer Michael Tapper], and make a record that sounds absolutely huge. What was your approach to making the new album?
KM: Um, the philosophy behind the three men, three instruments thing on With Love and Squalor was largely a function of being a band who, when we wrote those songs, was only playing live shows. We weren't, by any stretch of the imagination, a recording band. So we would write the songs to maximize the efficacy of three guys playing in a room, trying to fill as much space with those three instruments as possible. And I like that record a lot, and it certainly served us very well, but I do feel like, because we were writing those songs to be [played] live, they all tended to be up-tempo, dance-y rock songs. So I think on this one, we were much more conscious of wanting to make a record that felt like it was written to be an album, and it would have peaks and valleys of intensity. So that was something we were definitely keeping in mind, and we also felt like there was no reason to limit ourselves to simply what we can reproduce live. And initially, our theory was that we were going to [make] this record and then figure out how to play it live. As it turns out, we couldn't reproduce it live without having a fourth guy, so we added our friend Max Hart, who plays keyboards with us live now.
BE: Why did Michael decide to retire?
KM: There were many, many reasons. Initially, of all of us, he was the most worn out by all of the touring we did for the last record. Afterward, he moved to L.A., and he built…a life. So while we were working on the record in New York, he was not really around very much, and I think by the time the record was being recorded, he didn't really feel much attachment to it. And he wasn't very excited about going back on tour again anyway. So it was more of a bowing out than raging against it, as Zach de la Rocha might put it.
BE: Is there a fan of the Kids in the Hall in the band? [Note: the riff in “Let's See It” is eerily similar to the Kids' theme song.]
KM: (laughs) I would say – I think I know where this is going – I would say not a diehard fan. Certainly not a big enough fan that an homage [to the group] might be intentionally implanted. (laughs) It was really funny, someone mentioned that to me, maybe two months ago, and I was like, “What the hell are you talking about?” [Pause, pretending that someone is playing him the Kids in the Hall theme song] “Ooooooohhhh. Yeah, all right, okay. Fair enough”
BE: Let's talk about “Chick Lit.” The middle break sounds like it's straight from a Curve record. Are you fans of theirs?
KM: We're familiar with Curve. I don't actually own any Curve records, sadly.
BE: I own one of their singles, and that is exactly who I thought of when I heard it.
KM: Ha ha, really? What's the song?
BE: “Chinese Burn.”
KM: Ha. I'll check it out.
BE: The vocals on the new album, and the harmonies in particular, are striking in comparison to the first album. You sound much more confident this time around.
KM: (pause) Uh, yeah...it wasn't a decision that the vocals this time would deliver more confidence. I think two years of singing every day has probably made me a lot more comfortable singing. I definitely do now feel like I know exactly what my voice is going to be doing at any time, when before there may have been some gray areas. I think that is simply a matter of having practiced a lot more by playing shows. But that is funny that with the last record, we had been playing some of those songs over a year by the time we had actually recorded them, so you would think that the confidence in the vocals would have been there. Yeah, I think in general, when we were making this record, we were really excited about it. We had figured out essentially what we wanted to do with it, but the excitement of invention was still very fresh, and I think that plays itself out in the performances.
BE: I'm not sure how you're going to react to this, but I have to say it.
BE: I hear a strong power pop element to this album. How do you feel about that description? Is that something you resist, or embrace?
KM: Uhhhhh, I will say as a thinking music lover, the phrase “power pop” does make my skin crawl, but I know what you're referring to. The aspect of the album that has that sensibility to it is intentionally so. Things like “Impatience,” we tried to straddle the line between an Eno and…I guess I wouldn't say we were straddling the line between somebody and Fountains of Wayne, for example. But I could see how it could veer towards that. I think we were interested in just simplifying things a little, and making the arrangements less of the hook and focus more on the actual hooks of the song, which is a very power pop thing to do.
BE: Thank you for not wanting to reach through the phone and throttle me for that.
KM: (joking) Oh, I do want to reach through the phone and throttle you!
BE: I understand that power pop equals commercial death, so you probably don't want those words anywhere in this interview.
KM: (laughs) Hey, you gotta call it like you see it.
BE: You guys clearly take some creative license with your press releases – and I appreciate that – but a lot of it, while outrageous, also seems plausible. Where does the part about the $1.4 million in lottery winnings fall on that scale?
KM: Sadly, we earned that money the hard way, through record receipts. I'm just kidding, nobody has $1.4 million. Well, people in the world do, just nobody I know. It did dawn on me recently how…our press release was crafted that way because we were reading the standard press release that was being drawn up for us, and it was incredibly boring, and tedious, and painful for us to look at. So we wrote that one just because we thought it would be a little bit more entertaining. But now it's beginning to dawn on me that it's entirely unhelpful to journalists who are trying to use that press release to glean information to improve their article. So it probably backfired by making journalists hate us for doing that.
BE: It was actually a very entertaining read, but I will admit it does make me wonder what percentage of your responses to my questions are complete and outright lies.
KM: (laughs) I can't remember what responses I've given so far, but I feel very honest right now.
BE: I noticed that you jumped from Virgin to Astralwerks. Is that just a matter of the mother ship shuffling contracts to various subsidiaries, or did you actually have to start from scratch with them?
KM: It was definitely just a contract shift. The big move was that back in September, we moved the general contract to Virgin UK, so now they run everything and Astralwerks does it over here. But our flagship label these days is Virgin UK. Because our success is generally focused in Europe, it made less sense to Virgin US, and us, to stay with them. We were asking if we could move to Astralwerks, because they seem to appreciate the indie bands that they have. They were taking bands that were doing well on Virgin UK and releasing their records over here, with not necessarily an eye for selling millions and millions of records, but getting those bands to the people that will probably be listening to them. As opposed to a huge label trying to get play on “Grey's Anatomy” or something like that.
BE: You actually led into my next question. You have a loyal following in England. What the hell is wrong with the Americans?
KM: Ha ha ha! I think, first of all, that we're bigger in England just because of the national tastes of England, which align a little more to what we're doing than general commercial American tastes. Given the cultural climate in general, that's still sort of a niche market in the States, whereas in the UK, we get played on their A lists on their national radio, and we get played on MTV all the time. So I think just the cultural tenor there is a little different and slightly more accommodating to large-scale success. In terms of what's wrong with Americans: nothing. We do better than I had any reason to suspect we'd do in the States, but we're still just an indie band here, and over there, we're a rock radio band.
BE: Back to Astralwerks for a second. Time to suck up to your new label. Who is your favorite Astralwerks band, past or present?
KM: I really am feeling Hot Chip these days. Astralwerks really does have a legitimately sweet label, and there is consistency to the bands on their roster, which is nice. You believe that someone is picking these bands because they actually like them, whereas if you looked at Virgin's roster before, clearly somebody there liked us enough to sign us, but…either somebody has the most wonderfully eclectic musical tastes of all time, or they just sort of…sign bands. But yeah, Astralwerks seems to have a grander scheme in mind.
BE: They are to me what Sire Records used to be when I was growing up. Knowing that a band was signed to Sire – or in this case, Astralwerks – you had an idea of what they were all about.
KM: Yeah, exactly, exactly. I haven't actually even been to the office yet and met most of the people that work there, because we've been in England since January, and the contract shift just happened in March. I'm actually going [to Astralwerks' office] tomorrow to meet all those people, but from what I've seen, they seem pretty awesome.
BE: We're doing a piece on rock and roll fantasy bands. A bunch of the guys on the staff pick their favorite musicians to form one kickass band. If you could have any four musicians, dead or alive, to round out We Are Scientists, who would they be?
KM: They have to be in We Are Scientists?
BE: Or backing you up in any band, if you could have four musicians…
KM: I could be in a band with these guys.
BE: Sure. Or pick four people to form their own band.
KM: All right. (pause) Oh, man.
BE: We actually held a draft, just to make sure no one picked the same person twice.
KM: (laughs) I'd like Lou Reed on vocals, I'd like Kevin Shields on guitar…oh, crap, let's see…maybe Eno batting cleanup, doing keyboards and stuff like that.
BE: Who's your drummer?
KM: I'm trying to think of someone with very simple, tasteful…I'd like to go with Matt Helders, the guy from Arctic Monkeys, but I don't think he'd quite fit in with these guys. (pause) Drummers are hard. Hell, I'm just gonna go with Mo Tucker. I know that Velvet Underground is over-represented in there.
BE: When you mentioned simple, that was the first name that came to my head.
KM: Yeah, Mo Tucker owns simplicity.
BE: So what does the rest of your year look like?
KM: We're going back to the UK this weekend, because our next single, “Chick Lit,” comes out on Monday. So we're going to do the promotional stuff, like in-store [shows], and radio shows, and then summer festivals throughout the summer, cut up by two brief American tours. Then hopefully we're going to do a longer American tour in the autumn. Oh, we're doing an R.E.M. tour, that'll be in Europe at the beginning of October, I think. I don't know, there's a lot of stuff in autumn that's in flux. But right now, it's just European festivals going into the horizon.
BE: Very cool. Well, I appreciate you taking the time to talk with us.
KM: Yeah, sure! My pleasure.
BE: I really just wanted to ask you about the kitties.
KM: (chuckles) Man, you shouldn't have made that your first question. The tedium must have been killing you after a while.
BE: Not at all. Best of luck with the new record.
KM: Thanks, man!