21st Apr2010

History Lesson: We Are Scientists

by Todd

You need to buy a shirt. Haling from New York City, We Are Scientists have been making challenging alternative music long enough to have a place in your closet. Originally formed with Keith Murray on drums, Chris Cain playing bass guitar and Scott Lamb providing vocals and guitar, before Michael Tapper became drummer and Keith became vocalist and guitarist. The band’s breakthrough success came with their second album With Love and Squalor which sold 100,000 copies in the first 6 months. Their second success was with Brain Thrust Mastery which charted at 11 in the UK album chart, with two top 40 singles “After Hours” and “Chick Lit”. They are currently promoting the release of their fourth album, Barbara, as well as starring in their own television short Steve Wants His Money. Keith took a few moments to talk to about the upward trajectory of the band and why they will continue to dominate our iPod for the forseeable future.

TDOA: I realize the switch happened quite a while ago, but when you switched from drums to guitar and vocals, do you think it impacted the way your write songs? Your music has always had a percussive nature, but I wonder if you began consciously, thinking about counter-beats in the vocal delivery and the way your attack the guitar.

KM: Well, actually, I played guitar and wrote songs long before i ever really began playing drums, so the causation is sort of the opposite of what you’ve suggested. What I mean is, I think that I ultimately began playing drums because I was interested in rhythmic music, rather that the other way around. Certainly, the fact that I play drums has affected the writing process, though. Our songs generally start with bass and drums, with the vocal melody coming over those. It’s usually not until the song has been entirely written that I even really start to think about what the guitar will be doing – it’s not uncommon to have the vocal harmonies in place before I have a guitar part, which is why I think my guitar parts tend to more decorative than anything else.

TDOA: On your MySpace page, you’ve shunned the traditional list of bands and listed animals as your influences. Can you talk about the music that you listened to as you grew up?
When you switched to guitar, did you find yourself thinking back to guitarists that you’ve liked in the past?

KM: I would say that when I finally got around to writing music, I was far more interested in the guitar as a writing tool than as a solo instrument. My earliest heroes (like, when I was 12) were all jackasses who did a whole lot of soloing in total excess – your C.C. DeVilles, your Nuno Bettencourts, your Marty Friedmans, etc. Suffice it to say that Poison and Extreme have had very little impact on my songwriting, but, recently, I’ve really been coming around to guitar excess. Because of my formative favorites, I can shred a little, and it’s been working its way into our live show on occasion and, recently, onto one of the songs on the new album. It’s not meant to be ironic at all, just a signifier that we’re all here to have fun and not take this stuff too seriously.

TDOA: Can you talk a bit about the “Steve Wants His Money” show that aired on MTV UK? How did it come about and will there be future episodes?

KM: The Steve Wants His Money thing was the result of a long performative evolution. I guess it really started with a seminar we did before our second album called Brain Thrust Mastery (the album was named after the seminar), which was a faux self-help thing that we did in universities around the UK. That began because our label wanted us to do a Q&A tour of schools, which we thought sounded awful, but, in the interest of not being difficult, we offered to concoct our own presentation, which ended up being Brain Thrust Mastery. We shot a bunch of fake advertisements for the lecture tour, and the show itself included a lot of pre-recorded interstitial stuff, and our label pretty much jizzed over that, and decided to hire a production company to help us make a “sitcom” meant to be a promotional tool for the album. This was a scripted “show” (it was something like seven five-minute episodes), written by us, in which Chris and I have decided to try to use our fame as musicians as a means of switching into the self-help profession. The label and the production company liked the result so much that they decided to try to sell it to a TV channel, and, as such, they decided not to use it as a promotional tool (since putting it on the web would essentially make it worthless to a TV channel). Anyone who’s ever worked in TV will tell you that the process of getting a show green-lit is an insanely protracted one, and so by the time MTV agreed to make a show with us, the Brain Thrust Mastery series was essentially unusable, since the record cycle for the album that it shared a name with had already ended (this whole thing took about seven or eight months). So, we agreed to come up with an entirely new concept, and that turned into Steve Wants His Money. MTV are apparently extremely happy with SWHM, because they’ve asked us to come up with a half-hour show for them, which we’ve so far neglected to do, since we’ve been distracted with the making and releasing of our record, and we’re lazy.

TDOA: How has your writing style evolved over the years? Do the songs tend to change much once you start recording in the studio or have you pretty much worked theourhg the arrangements by then?

KM: When we wrote the first record, We Are Scientists was three guys who all lived near one another and practiced with some regularity. The writing of new songs was essentially a means of keeping shows interesting, and, since there was no deadline for the process, it often took a long time. At that point, I’d generally write song in full, bring it into the guys, and then have it totally warped by them. There was a lot of push and pull. The songwriting process at that time generally involved a lot of fighting, and almost every song was shelved at one point or another while we all cooled off from a passive aggressive hate-off. While we were writing the second record, our drummer moved to Los Angeles, so I’d send out mp3s of the demos I was making on our own. Chris and I could talk about what we did and didn’t like, but our drummer was essentially out of the loop, and which made accommodating his last-minute ideas pretty difficult, he agreed to leave the band. For this album, I moved to Athens, GA for the summer and spent every day writing. The goal was to produce a song a day, and my rule was that I had to craft at least four per week that I was confident enough in to send to Chris. Chris and Andy (Burrows, who drummed on this record) spent the summer together in NYC, and they would send me their collective feedback, which was helpful. At one point, they came down to Athens for a few days and we ironed out some arrangements, and we did a bit of that in London later in the summer, as well. Overall, this was by far the fastest and most painless record we’ve made. It was essentially a delight from start to finish (the fact that we recorded it in four different sessions in London, New York, and LA did make the recording process a little stressful, though).

KM: What can you tell us about the new album, “Barbara”? How much of this record was written on the road and how much in the studio?

TDOA: Well, as I mentioned above, essentially all of the record was written in a house in Athens, GA. I am positively miserable at writing on the road, or even on short breaks between touring. I really need to have total solitude to write, and touring robs you of privacy, entirely. My first few months in NYC were also not particularly productive – I wrote bits of Rules Don’t Stop (the first single) and Break It Up, but that’s about it, which is why I shipped myself off to my self-imposed boot-camp in Georgia. The songs really changed very little in the studio, for the most part. Ariel, our producer, came up with the synth lead on “Jack & Ginger” on one of the last days of recording, and things like roto-toms and slide guitar were added impulsively while recording, but the general DNA of most of the songs went unchanged once we began the recording process.

TDOA: What plans do you have to promote the album? Tours, videos, etc.? Is there a U.S. release date , yet?

KM: There isn’t a US date set at all, actually, although our intention is to get it out simultaneously with the rest of the world, so it should be coming out in some form in mid-June. In terms of promo, yeah, we’re going to do the usual: a bunch of touring, most of the European festivals (and hopefully one or two in the states), videos, all of that. I’m not sure when we’ll get a chance to do a major US tour. We tend to focus our efforts on Europe, since that’s where our largest, most fervent fan base is, but we do love to tour the US, so that’s gonna happen, no doubt.

TDOA: How do you feel about the process of making videos? An output for creative expression or a necessary evil?

KM: We tend to feel both ways about them. We’re never really that enthusiastic about the prospect overall, but our commitment is to make the most of every opportunity that we’re presented with, so the idea of letting someone else dictate what’s going to constitute our video is pretty anathema to us. Despite our general disinterest in the form itself, we do end up using videos as person creative expression (as much as you can call a video of cowboys wrangling pomeranians “creative expression”).

TDOA: There have been some video game references in your music in the past. Who in the band is the biggest video game junkie? What games are your faves, right now?

KM: I would say that I’m the biggest game junkie, but that may be because Chris has a kid, so spending large chunks of his time playing games when he could be fathering is probably a bad idea. Since my greatest responsibility is remembering to bathe once a week, I’ve got more time for gaming. That said, I refuse to play video games alone – there’s something too depressing about that – so I’ve become very good and drawing friends into my apartment to join. Our current favorite is Left 4 Dead 2, with Modern Warfare 2 coming in a close second. Our favorite of all time is Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Vegas 2, if only for the unwieldy title.

TDOA: The music press in England is notoriously fickle, yet you seemed to have avoided their wrath thusfar. What’s your secret?

KM: I think our secret is that we’ve never really quite received the insane amount of hype that they tend to lavish on the more successful acts, who often later become the objects of outright rancor. Magazines like the NME and Q like us, but they’ve never lost their minds with praise, so I don’t think they feel the need to demonstrate the evolution of their tastes by making sacrificial lambs of us. We’ve spent our career with a nice critical simmer, rather than an explosion, so nobody really seems to begrudge us any undue coverage in the press.

TDOA: You’ve played late night network tv shows, huge festivals, your records have charted and gotten lots of great press over the years. What goals do you have for the future? Do you think you’ve accomplished what you originally set out to do?

KM: We’ve certainly surpassed our initial goals, by far. Playing main stages at festivals and selling out 10,000 tickets in London were never really part of the goal, you know? I think that’s why we still really enjoy the smaller shows and weirder perks (like making shows for MTV): because becoming ridiculously massive superstars was never part of the plan. If it happens, that’s great, too, but, really, we just like being allowed to pursue the random creative opportunities that have been coming our way since we got our foot in the door.

To purchase the new WAS album, visit iTunes!
We Are Scientists

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