Yesterday, We Are Scientists played a free instore at the Virgin Megastore in Hollywood, California. What with their album being released that day, it only seems fitting that this Brooklyn-by-way-of-San-Francisco band should be back in the state of their origin. In their short time together, they’ve gone from a joke band, writing songs about Mothra, to international stars that are routinely featured in Blender, Spin and even Mad Magazine (it’s true).
But while the major music magazines are delighting in the trio, many blogs seem to like to pit them head to head against Morningwood and a hipster fight to the finish. But me? I’m thrilled. To me, We Are Scientists are proof that good music can rise to the top. They had no publicity company supporting them when Virgin took an interest. There was no media blitz that made the BBC radio DJs spin their singles almost every day after last year’s South By South West. Sure, Virgin’s got their back now; but for years they gathered a huge fanbase by touring and releasing some of the best pop music in years.
So for the second time since I started You Aint No Picasso, Keith Murray from We Are Scientists has done an interview with me. What a guy! (read the first interview here)
YANP: For starters, let’s get the record straight: did you all really get your name from a mover in LA?
Keith Murray: That is absolutely incorrect….it was a mover in San Francisco (laughs)
YANP: (laughs) Well then, let’s have the official story.
KM: The year we graduated, Chris and I moved to San Fran from LA., where we went to school. At that point we were with a friend of ours named Scott and we were all skinny, geeky white dudes. The guy who was checking out the UHaul truck that we’d rented to move all our stuff was examining it for damage and also, out of the corner of his eye, was reguarding us and noting our physiques and the fact that we were bespecticled nerds. At first he asked if we were brothers, which we denied. Then he asked if we were scientists, which we stupidly also denied. But then later on we were brewing on that and decided that it was a good band name. And because of the band name, decided it would be a true refusal of destiney to not form a band named ‘We Are Scientists.’
YANP: So the band name was around before the actual band?
KM: Not only did we have the band name, we had about twelve song titles before we ever played a note as a band. We all sat down at a bar one day and had a pretty grand scheme for what the band was going to be – unfortunately it never panned out that way. Initially the band was going to be a sort of flipping of the bird to all these punks at a place called Gilman Street, which is the big DIY punk club in Berkley, which is where we ended up living. We had huge designs for our rediculous stage shows, which never happened. But we did get a lot of good song titles, one of which was ‘Mothra vs. We Are Scientists’ which we actually did turn into a song. One of which was ‘The People Love Clooney’ which unfortunately never did become a song.
YANP: Oh nice (laughs). At what point would you say you got serious about the band? I know you don’t play the back catalogue a lot.
KM: (laughs) Right. The early stuff has been abandoned due to a certain ‘seriousness.’ But I think the refusal to play the back catalogue is legitimately out of bordom. I think if we weren’t tired of it, we wouldn’t mind playing ‘The Creeper’ or something like that. But the fact that it’s four years old has sapped any interest we have in it.
If what you’re asking is when we became serious ‘business-wise’ about the band, I’d say it was about six months ago when we were forced to sit down and put our names on a piece of paper that declared us business partners with an entity that could have us legally crushed were we were not serious about it.
YANP: Sounds like a good time to get serious (laughs)
KM: Yeah. Otherwise, we never really took it seriously. We all did a lot of other things which we found occupying, including our day jobs.
YANP: I’ve noticed that a lot of the older material seems to have a theme of being tired or dissatisfied with the way things are going, like in ‘Selective Memory,’ ‘This Scene is Dead,’ or ‘Inaction.’ Would you say that this a fair assessment, or not?
KM: That’s as keen an assessment as one could possibly make. There was a good period of about two years where pretty much every song was literally about doing nothing or the inability to do anything. Which I think are two different things, but when they’re verbally put down end up equating with one another.
But it’s a discussion I had with a bunch of other people, like friends that I have who are also songwriters, where I talk to them about things that they write about and they would have a broad palette of topics that they would tackle. I confessed that I was literally incapable of writing about anything other than the fact that nothing was happening and that there was no way to change that fact. Which I think I’ve gotten over, and now explore general gripes, rather than the specific gripe of incapacity. It’s nice to have moved beyond the woe of being incapable.
YANP: Makes sense (laughs)
KM: Yeah (laughs)
YANP: I want to ask you about something you said to me in our last interview. You said “if you are in a band, you should move to New York ASAFP.”
YANP: How do you think that New York has affected you all as a band? Would you say that there’s a New York sound?
KM: I would say that we haven’t been affected by a New York Sound because we haven’t really been embraced by New York itself. I don’t really feel like people regard us as a New York band, especially since Google advertises us as a California band.
I think the thing about New York, band-wise, is that when you move to NY, A.) you’re in the company of about three thousand bands that are way better than you are and who are doing way better things; and B.) the focus of the band is to do things that are…I feel like the interest of New York bands is to be cooler than all other bands and to push boundries in ways that other bands do not. But I feel like in LA, for better or worse, bands are interested in getting signed. I feel like the interest in LA is commercial, whereas the interest in New York is more academic. It’s more about getting applause from your peers. Now, whether or not your peers exist, in our case our peers don’t exist because no one recognizes that we’re from New York.
But the fact is that if you’re a pop band and you move to New York, you’re absolute rubbish and you will be utterly ignored. So you still have to step up your game. And I definetely think that happened with us. I think our arrangements have become a lot more interesting and I think we’re a lot more intellectual about it. Essentially our songs are pop songs, but our approach is a little more elaborate than it would be if we weren’t forced to examine them with the intisity that New York has forced us to.
YANP: What was the hardest part for you all when you were an unsigned band?
KM: To be honest, for us, being an unsigned band wasn’t that hard because none of us really wanted to be a signed band. I mean, we thought it would be cool to be a signed band. But we made minimal effort to rectify the situation. And we all had jobs that we really liked and if we had never been a successful band in terms of being signed, I feel like maybe we would have missed the opportunity to do something cool, but I don’t think we would have felt like failures because all our jobs were things that we were interested in and could probably make more money in than being in a band. But in terms of success and personal fulfillment, I don’t think we ever really had any real worries. It was something that was kind of on our mind, but it was never a do-or-die situation. We had jobs, and at night we would go play shows, and it was super fun but we weren’t really a real band. We said, ‘we can quit these jobs that we actually like doing, and go drive around in a van and play music – which is something we do for fun.’ But why would we bother doing that? Until we recorded these demos that people reacted to and we thought that this is a viable thing that we can do, and it’s something we like doing. So why would we not take advantage of this opportunity? I was working in the film industry before I started doing this and I could probably get a job in relatively the same place I was in when I left, if I leave this. So there seemed to be no reason not to do it.
For us, being unsigned was not particularly painful. But it’s a lot more fun now that we’re doing it for real.
YANP: On a somewhat related note: ideally, what band would you most like We Are Scientists’ career to wind up like?
KM: Oh man…It’s sorta hard because all the bands that I focus on are now our contemporaries, so it’s weird to base your career on people who are, max, a year or two ahead of you. I don’t know. I definetely think Franz Ferdinand have made a good little situation for themselves. They’re sort of impervious to outsiders. They make consistantly good albums, but there’s really nothing that anyone could say, good or bad about them that would really affect them. That’s really amazing for a band that’s on their second album. They kinda exist outside of the popular media. The media now has no choice but to celebrate them either way. I feel like their new album is not amazing. It has really good song and it has songs that are kinda mediocre. But you have no choice but to say ‘that is a solid album by Franz Ferdinand, they’re here and there is literally nothing we can do about that.’
But then on the other hand, you have your David Bowies who for no good reason at all other than personal interest change everything about them every single album. Which is pretty nice, and I think for a band like us who have a limited attention span, it is a good approach to it. It’s early to say, but I seriously doubt that our next album will sound much like our last album.
YANP: Well, I’ll be looking forward to it. Thanks again for the interview, Keith.
KM: No problem!