We Are Scientists – Keith Murray, Chris Cain, and lately Andy Burrows (ex-Razorlight) – are almost as well known for their quirkiness as their fun indie rock. With a strident new album, ‘Barbara’, out now, Keith calls from The Big Apple to talk about making people dance, soccer anthems, why they won’t be writing any breakup heartache ballads, ‘Dawson’s Creek’, and chasing women. Oh, and utter the immortal words: “It would be a real tease to let me talk to you and then not let me come.”
You’ve known Chris for almost 15 years. What were your first thoughts on meeting him?
The first time I ever met him was at university. I’d been going to the University of Florida for two years and then transferred to a school in Los Angeles, so when I arrived there, I was sort of being ushered into a school where everybody my own age had been hanging out there for two years and had a pack of friends already selected. So I ended up being invited by a mutual friend to a screening of ‘Dawson’s Creek’ in Chris’ dorm room. So essentially I met Chris at his own ‘Dawson’s Creek’ party. You can imagine I was not terribly impressed. At this point I can’t remember how ironic the party was – I’m sure there was an aspect of irony to it, but I do know that he watched every week.
Do you two really get on well as it seems?
I think part of the reason we’ve been doing this so long is that we are legitimately best friends. We foolishly hang out when we’re in New York City – we got back two days ago and I hung out with him yesterday. I think it’s legitimate, that sort of dynamic is more why we’re in a band together than him saying to me: ‘You’re the best guitar player I’ve ever seen, I’ve got to be in a band with you’. He did say that though. [laughs]
What do each of you bring to the mix?
The songs definitely are more influenced by me but the tenor of the entire presentation of the band is really heavily influenced by Chris. I feel as if Chris is sort of more the face of the band than I am – not because he gets more face time in interviews and stuff like that, but because he leads the way in the general tone of our interviews and press releases and things like that. We write our own press releases which means often times they’re not terribly helpful. But I think our idea for the band is that we really want to avoid boring people.
Everything seems very hands on – from those press releases to music videos.
We had been trying to be a creative team in different media before the band really took off. The We Are Scientists website initially had almost nothing to do with the band at all – We Are Scientists just became the umbrella name for our organisation and the website was just a creative writing website of ours, and at one point we thought we wanted to make films, and at another point we thought we wanted to publish magazines. But I think the fact that now we’re in a band with some visibility, we can make our own videos and write things like press releases that hopefully people will have to read – that sort of makes it feel to not be involved would be an incredibly wasted opportunity.
Going back to early days, before the visibility, why did you form the band in the first place? To get women?
No, I think we formed the band mainly out of boredom – we started the band with our friend Scott who also went to the same college. After we graduated, we all moved up to the Bay area together and for the first time in our lives had demeaning fulltime jobs. So when we would get off work, the options were either sit around our house and drink beer – which I suspect is the practise of most recent university graduates – or go downstairs and start trying to play rock music. I had owned a drum kit and some equipment and was really the only person in the band who actually knew how to play anything. So it was sort of a process of me teaching myself how to play drums, Chris learning how to play bass, and Scott learning how to write songs and play guitar – he was initially the singer in the band.
How did you do a Dave Grohl and go from drums to front man?
I had been a guitar player long before I was a drummer. I’d sort of bought the drums because it had been so hard to find a good drummer that one day I decided I should just learn drums and be the drummer in the band. I never actually got very good at playing drums – I realised it’s hard to find a good drummer because drums are really hard.
So you’re saying it’s easier to write songs and play guitar than bash on stuff?
[Laughs] For me it is. It’s more intuitive. I’d been in a few bands before hand where I’d just played guitar and didn’t really want to sing very much, but We Are Scientists was really the first band I actually wrote songs for. It took a long time to get any good at it – our first sets of songs were pretty terrible. We had a song about George Clooney and how popular he was at the time – it was called ‘The People Want Clooney’. [laughs]
You have a knack for writing short, snappy, happy songs. Do you have any epic, depressing, morbid songs in you?
For better or for worse, our idea for We Are Scientists is that we want our songs to be chirpy, upbeat, poppy, really fun tunes. I think mainly because we like playing them live. But some of my favourite songs on our records are the slow ones, like on the last record my favourite is ‘Lethal Enforcer’ and on this record ‘Pittsburgh’ is my favourite one. But I always get really nervous and self conscious when we play them live because my gauge of how excited people are by the show involves whether or not they’re leaping. It’s really hard to leap to a slow song, so I always just have to trust that people are enjoying it until the end when they applaud. So, yeah, the four minutes while we’re playing ‘Pittsburgh’ are always really wracked with tension for me.
I think maybe they’re my favourite ones because they evoke a sensibility that is fairly rare in the songs that we put on our records. Part of it may just be the novelty. I think there is something potent to the atmospheric, slightly more emotionally-weighted tunes, but playing upbeat songs that people jump around to is infinitely more fun live. I think the idea for our shows is that we want them to feel like a party, so we tend to write songs that lend themselves to that atmosphere.
No serious U2-style political songs on the horizon then?
I don’t think that kind of presentation would strike either of us as terribly interesting. I think the hard part about our “fun” take on things risks undermining the seriousness of what we do. I think we take our music very seriously – every time we write sort of a funny piece to go on our website, we put a lot of effort into it, we’re not nonchalant about it. But it’s not terribly interesting to moan about personal issues that aren’t really anybody else’s problem [laughs]
That also rules out the “My girlfriend left me and I want to kill myself” album.
I guess, if I went through a really traumatic breakup and couldn’t really write about anything else and it became a therapeutic thing, you might get that album, I don’t know [laughs]. Never say never, but I certainly wouldn’t be excited if I broke up with my girlfriend tomorrow because the outcome would inevitably be a great breakup album: ‘There’s a silver lining, now we get a breakup album’.
You did write a soccer anthem for England though, which isn’t something one would expect – even from you.
It came about because we were doing a show on BBC Radio 1 and it involved a live performance aspect but they only wanted one song from our album and then their adamant request was that the other song we play be something that was a work in progress or had never been played before. This was in June so football fever was in the air and I had just done another radio show in which we reviewed the latest singles and several new football anthems had come out that were terrible. Someone needed to write a good one. The ones I heard were embarrassing in the extreme, and it sort of started an on-air fight between me and one of the presenters who was partly responsible for one of the songs [laughs].
Can we expect to hear that song in South Africa any time soon? Are you planning on coming here?
We would really love to. We had a phone call with our management yesterday to talk about what’s happening during the next few months and I did bring up the fact that Chris and I are doing a couple of hours of South African press today and that had better mean we’re ultimately going to South Africa. It would be a real tease to let me talk to you and then not let me come. So we would really really love to come.
- This article originally appeared on EntertainmentAfrica.com.