(Originally published on Cluas.com)
Keith Murray and Chris Cain of US indie-rockers We Are Scientists often don’t take interviews all that seriously. It may have something to do with their way-out sense of humour (check out their website http://www.wearescientists.com – it’s insane) or it could simply be a way of entertaining themselves as they respond to questions they have heard countless times before. So it is with some trepidation that I phone Chris (above right), the band’s bassist and prankster-in-chief, at his home in New York for an interview about the new album and their upcoming plans for the year. As it turns out, he is relatively serious for once and is friendly and unfailingly polite throughout as we chat about his band’s excellent, return – to – form new album Barbara, how his ending up in a successful rock band is somewhat accidental and why Cardiff’s nightlife terrifies him…
So, are you happy with the new album Barbara? Does it differ in any way to the previous two albums?
I think this is the one. It’s not a stylistic left-turn or anything but I think it represents the culmination of the sort of song-writing we have been doing for the last ten years which is definitely just poppy, ‘audience-worshipping’ rock-songs. We’re definitely not a navel-gazing band when it comes to our song writing!
I’m intrigued by the album title Barbara. Is it a specific person?
It’s not a specific person but we liked the idea of giving it an actual name as opposed to a title. And I guess if there’s any meaning, I think the name Barbara suggests an older generation a little bit, and it’s a very current name. I think a year from now everyone’s going to be naming their daughters Barbara!
With Love and Squalor was the album that brought mainstream recognition and it gives the impression the band was an overnight success. Yet it is not actually your debut album?
Yeah, we tend to count this (Barbara) as the third album as it’s the album that is getting any sort of distribution at all. We did a record back in 2002 called Safety, Fun, and Learning (In That Order) and we literally printed about a thousand copies and sold them at shows. I probably have about two hundred copies of that record still! We did not sell out a 1000 copy-run of that record! We tend to think of that album as a demo or such-like. We then did three EPs after that: Bitching, Inaction and The Wolf’s Hour.
As an American band, were you prepared for the success that came with the release of With Love And Squalor over here in the UK and Ireland?
I don’t think our rise was meteoric in any way. We signed to a label – Virgin Records – and that allowed the music to get in front of a lot more people, especially in the UK and Ireland and then it took off a little bit but it wasn’t like we had a bunch of number one singles or even a top twenty! I think on that first record the highest placing for the single was like thirty-six or something. So it wasn’t meteoric or anything but it was great and I am hugely grateful for what has happened over the last five years. It felt more like a steady-build with each tour as each time we were going to larger venues but there’s also been some backtracking, as the second album didn’t sell as well as the first album, but we had time to enjoy it, that’s for sure.
It seems to me that you are enjoying a comfortable level of success, not overwhelmingly famous yet not languishing in obscurity either. It’s ticking over nicely.
Well, yes, we have never felt that our privacy has been violated or anything. Every once in a while in London or somewhere people will recognise us on the street and will want to get a picture of us. We’re just regular Joes but at same time we are at that level where we don’t need to work day-jobs, definitely.
Did you always want to be in a rock band?
No, actually! Unfortunately for the romanticism of the story I didn’t always want to be in a band. In fact, I had never picked up an instrument until I started playing bass in We Are Scientists in 2000 and basically Keith and I and another friend of ours, Scott Lamb, decided to start playing to kill time in the evenings. We had just graduated from University and we had our first real jobs so we needed something to do! It was really just a hobby and generally we had very low expectations of where it might go. We enjoyed playing live in front of a couple of people, it was fun to rehearse, and it was fun to write songs. But even for someone who wasn’t pining his whole life to play on stage I think it’s a dream come true to be able to work on something that is mine and that I care about and that’s all I have to do.
What type of music did you listen to growing up?
We listened to a lot of mainstream rock in the late Eighties, mainstream hard-rock like Poison, Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard and then in the Nineties it was essentially grunge and Nirvana. I think it wasn’t until I got to college that I listened to stuff that wasn’t necessarily on the radio
Is there any band or artist that could claim to be the single most significant influence on We Are Scientists?
I think Weezer is a long-time shared influence for both Keith and I and is the one that is fairly apparent in our music. (For) this record I remember having conversations before we even started writing it that we really wanted it to be like The Green Album, the third Weezer record, that (album) is weirdly homogenous in that it has all these perfect, three-minute pop nuggets and they’re not repetitive in any specific way. They are all just so perfectly honed and melodic that it has this strange hypnotic effect when you listen to the record. I don’t think we ended up achieving that exactly but we did write a lot of short songs. We were so impressed by that record being under thirty minutes long, which was so cool for us for a rock record. I think ours is thirty-one minutes and a half!
Was there a specific reason why you wrote a short album with short songs this time around on Barbara?
For us the attraction of short pop-songs is more of a math-problem or something as in how much you can cut out of a song, how short can you make everything to give the most concentrated version of the set of melodies you have come up with. I mean, even back on With Love And Squalor our tendency as a band is to always cut out as much out as possible.
Do you enjoy touring?
It has its downsides. Playing shows remains a magical experience but that’s about an hour or so of each day, the rest of the day can get pretty grinding when you are on tour. We are entertainers after all; they’re not paying to see you drive from Manchester to Brighton or whatever! One of the first things you have to deal with once a band takes off is that it is still a job, there is a lot of work involved, just that drudgery but once (you deal with it) you will realise that maybe it still is the best job in the world. But it’s not a vacation.
Do you prefer touring to being in the studio?
I don’t hate being in the studio but we’re not really a big ‘fiddling around with the sonic’ (aspect of recording) type of band, as we tend to write our songs before we get to the studio. The studio aspect is more about being patient and trying out different sounds to get to the point where you think the song is being properly served.
What are your memories of playing in Ireland up to now?
I think we played the Ambassador twice on our own and another time on the NME tour. We also played… is it, The Village?
Yes, The Village. [I tell him it’s not the best venue in the city, to put it mildly.]
Yeah, it’s got these weird, crazy sight-lines but the show at the Village was really awesome as people got up on stage, the bass-amp fell over at one point, almost crushed someone to death! It was a truly crazy and rowdy night at that venue! We’ve always loved playing Dublin; we also went to Galway and Cork too and of course up to Belfast also.
Do you notice any real difference when you play to an Irish audience, as opposed to a UK or US one?
I don’t really know about a specific difference but my gut tells me that Irish fans seem to sing along to the songs a lot more than UK audiences
Maybe that might have something to do with the fact they have drank larger quantities of alcohol!
Yeah, there is definitely a culture of partying there. Even just hanging out in Dublin is always pretty wild but in a nice way. Going to somewhere like Cardiff is pretty wild too but in a fucking terrifying way.
Really? Why’s that?
On a Friday night or a Saturday night in Cardiff, you’re downtown and no matter where you look you always see one or two fights happening! It’s just a very violently – charged atmosphere. It’s a not a wild-party atmosphere in a jubilant way, but in more of a letting off violent energy way. Scary!
I tell him that my favourite track of theirs is ‘Chick Lit’ because when I first heard it I was surprised it was by them as it has an ambitiously serious quality that is at odds with the band’s jokey persona.
That one’s got a complex after-life for me because I was never quite satisfied with how it ended up on the record. I liked it because I think it had a lot of really cool elements to it but it’s just so busy, it feels like you are in a tempest! I wish we had simplified it more. Playing live recently we have gone back to a three-piece (so) playing Chick Lit with just three guys you end up having to cut out a lot of stuff. But it’s been really cool to rediscover the skeleton of the song and what really makes it work
Speaking of band – personnel changes, is ex-Razorlight drummer Andy Burrows now a full-time member of the band?
He’s the drummer on the new record but he’s going to be only intermittently available to play with us live this year as he’s got a solo-project called I Am Arrows that’s bringing out an album in July. We are thinking of doing a tour with him in the Fall where they would support us so Andy would play both sets, which would suck for him but would be great for us!!
How did you end up working with him anyway? Are you fans of Razorlight?
Keith and I were more fans of Andy Burrows than Razorlight – not that we dislike them – they were just not a big band for us. We probably met him at some festival and he is one of the most affable people you could meet. Almost everyone that meets him all think of themselves as a friend of his! In any case, we had a very amicable relationship with him and whenever Razorlight came through New York we would hang out with him.
What’s quite distinctive about We are Scientists is that you put almost as much effort into the comedic side of the band as you do with the music, yet the music itself is quite thoughtful, accomplished indie-rock. Is the comedy aspect something you’d like to pursue further?
It’s definitely something we will pursue further. That’s something Keith and I have a shared interest in, stuff like stand-up comedy and on TV and film also. We used to go see stand-up comedy when we first moved to New York two or three times a week. It’s definitely a long-standing interest and one that we have the opportunity to indulge in, now that our music is a little more popular. It’s given us opportunities to basically abuse our own fame and basically make people sit through our comic efforts! As long as people continue to let us do it we are going to see what we can make of it.
I tell him that those NME Brat Awards clips, where he and Keith pretend to be reporters putting nonsensical questions to famous types, are hilarious…
The real bummer for me was seeing some of the responses on the YouTube videos afterwards – they would say ‘Aw, you guys fucking destroyed Kate Nash’ and ‘Who is that idiot!’ and that was not at all the intention of the thing. In fact when we were actually doing it, it was all very good-spirited and even the people who were a little confused had fun with it. After we finished the piece, they were laughing alongside us.
I’m happy you’ve gone easy on me but in many of the other print, online or TV interviews I’ve read or seen you and Keith prefer to joke around rather than give proper answers, albeit never in a mocking or cruel way. Why is that?
To be honest, we usually take the lead of the interviewer. If the interviewer is bored or doesn’t want to be there or is not serious himself about it then we are going to try to make it fun for ourselves. But if someone comes with a legitimate interest and wants to have a real conversation then we are not going to shut them out or anything! I think it sometimes confuses people but I think it’s the only healthy way we could do this; we could not do it any other way. I hope it doesn’t cause too much negative confusion, as I don’t want them being put off. Although our personalities have plenty of ‘frivolity’ the music tends to be a concentration of the more thoughtful aspects of who we are.