We Are Scientists clearly didn’t get the memo. Almost 20 years and six albums into their career, bands are supposed to start sounding tired, bored, and fresh out of ideas. But with Megaplex, the duo of singer-guitarist Keith Murray and bassist Chris Cain have released one of their strongest albums yet.
On a rainy afternoon in late April, just days after the LP’s release, we spoke to them at Rough Trade East about outdoor nudity, furry conventions, premium cocktails, and climatology. During brief lapses into seriousness, we even spoke about music. But their dry sense of humour infiltrated even the most earnest moments.
Welcome back to the UK. What is it that keeps luring you back? It can’t be this weather…
Chris Cain: At this point we have favourite places in most towns and a lot of friends who live here. We’ve “settled” the UK, the way Europeans “settled” North America when they went there 400 years ago.
So you’ve planted a We Are Scientists flag somewhere?
Chris: Right in the midst of a flourishing society, and now we claim it as our own.
What would a We Are Scientists society be like?
Keith Murray: A lot of premium cocktails.
Chris: Cinemas on every corner. That about covers it.
Keith: It would be a lot warmer than this.
Chris: It would have a more temperate climate, for sure, possibly on the equator, otherwise it would just be England.
Seriously though, you have a really big following in the UK. What do you attribute that to?
Keith: I think it’s largely just down to the fact that when our first album came out, indie rock was treated as mainstream here so we got a lot of radio play, we got a lot of MTV “flips”. I think it was just very good timing.
Come on, you can take some credit. You’ve sustained that popularity, so it’s not just down to timing.
Keith: OK, it’s our top-notch songs, maybe the best songs in the music biz.
Chris: It’s been said. Everyone says that.
Keith: Yeah, that’s what I heard, which would explain it. When everybody’s saying that about you, you’re probably going to do well.
OK that’s more like it. So, what is a “megaplex”?
Chris: There are a couple of different meanings and we weren’t committed to one. We did like that it had a certain ambivalence, but the most common meaning where we’re from is a cinema with multiple screening rooms, essentially. And we did like the idea of various entertainments being offered under one roof, which has an obvious compatibility with the album, but also just that they’re quite different and maybe appeal to different audiences, the way a 10-screen megaplex would try to have movies for everybody. We recently discovered that in Spain a megaplex is a protein drink, which is a nice connotation.
Turns out it’s also the name of a furry convention in Florida.
Keith: That’s cool too. Getting your rocks off in your own particular style.
I quite like their slogan: “furry fun in the Florida sun”.
Chris: We could have put that on the front of the record – if only someone would say it of We Are Scientists.
But the cover does have a sticker on it that says something like “the newest record ever released”. How hands on are you with that sense of humour?
Chris: We’re pretty involved in that stuff. Our label likes for that to represent the band’s personality to whatever degree possible. Even down to – I don’t want to spoil the surprise here, but – if you look at the catalogue number it’s BOOBIES, but in numbers.
Obviously the sense of humour is an important part of who you are.
Chris: It’s who we are. Whether you choose to convey much of your personality beyond the actual songs as a band is up to you. Some bands, perhaps wisely, choose not to reveal much of their true selves.
Keith: I would advise them to keep it a secret.
Chris: But we’re sharers, definitionally we like to share.
And you’ve now shared 10 new songs, which sound quite different to the indie rock stuff you were playing when you started off.
Chris: On our last record, Helter Seltzer, we started this movement toward a more purely poppy sound on some of the tracks. TV en Francais is still pretty much indie rock, I guess, but the change hasn’t been quite as jarring as it might seem if you hadn’t listened to us in 10 years. I think it just represents our curiosity to try new sounds that we haven’t “mastered” as we have the basic ones. And then also we continue obviously to listen to new music other people are putting out and that inevitably, even if it doesn’t have a gigantic inspirational effect on you, will have some subconscious effect. You can’t help but react to your surroundings…
Keith: …To the music of the age. It would definitely speak pretty poorly of us as musicians if our primary interest in music was still in the music of 2004.
Chris: And I think you can be a little too enthusiastic about that and just chase whatever sounds good, which I don’t think we’re doing. But you can also, I think, be too resistant and that’s when you get stuff that sounds kind of weirdly retro. I do think you find some artists who have, with some calculation, said: ‘Ah, I will be resisting and we will record all on tape and it will sound totally different from what all these other assholes are doing now.’ And, you know, we’re not obstinate enough to do that either. We’re just rolling along, making our songs.
Has the approach to making those songs changed as much as the way they sound?
Keith: It’s sort of evolved as we’ve gotten better at recording stuff on our own at home, messing around with software, like writing as we record has sort of taken over. Before it was definitely a little more ‘I have an idea for a riff and a melody, now let’s figure it out as a band.’ So that has definitely changed.
Chris: We’re able to do a lot more of the production stuff on our own in rough draft form, whereas before we were sort of limited to guitar, bass, and drums at home and then we’d get to the studio and say: ’Now what do we need to throw on to make this interesting or crazy?’ Now we can do that at home, which means we have more time to do that and so I think maybe we’re able to extract more variety these days.
You had something like 90 songs to choose from for Megaplex. Does that mean you’ve also become more prolific?
Keith: For similar reasons, I think we’re getting better at harnessing ideas as they come, whereas before when I used to walk around singing things into my voice recorder on the street and then I’d listen back to it, often I couldn’t remember what I thought was good about it. It’s nice that we’re better at saying: ‘Oh, I have an idea, let me figure out what’s good about it and turn it into a song right now.’
But you’ve picked only 10 songs for the album. Looking back at your previous albums it seems like you like to keep them short and to the point.
Chris: Yeah. We actually had a couple of other tracks that we recorded that the record label really wanted us to put on, which is a sensible position because 30 minutes is a pretty short thing. But we’d vastly prefer that someone get to the end and be hungry for more than get three quarters of the way through and not have the energy to finish it – that would definitely bum us out. So we have a couple more songs that we’ll put out in some way in the next couple of months, but we want the album to stand alone as a very consumable piece of pie.
Keith: A potent piece of pie.
One of the most potent ingredients is the new single, Heart Is A Weapon. Keith, you spend a lot of the video walking around outside, naked. Is that something you like doing in real life?
Keith: When I can, I do. Unfortunately it’s frowned upon in the city. I have to go to the country, where it’s a more natural state. So, yes, I do.
In all seriousness, was it a difficult video to make? It all seems to be shot in a single take.
Keith: Yeah, it sucked, it was awful. We did maybe 12 takes over the course of the day.
Chris: Because he had to get dressed every time and we didn’t know what light we wanted so we shot it at all different times of the day. And it was also really cold. I was bundled up – mittens, big hat, ski goggles – laughing my ass off. Luckily we didn’t use the sound from the shoot because it’s just me cackling the whole time. I would have ruined every take.
Keith: It was definitely pretty amazing that by the end of it I didn’t feel distressingly cold anymore, maybe that’s because my body decided it was dead, but I do remember at one point I couldn’t feel my feet at all, but I was also like: ‘But it’s not that cold out, why can’t I feel my feet?’ That said, it’s incredibly rare for We Are Scientists to shoot a video and not be desperately cold. Like the It’s A Hit video in which we’re just wearing boxing shorts, that was a winter day in a warehouse in New York and I don’t think they even bothered having heaters.
Chris: It was fucking crazy cold. And then the Chick Lit video, which appears to take place in the American West was shot in Ireland and the ground that looks like dry grass is actually wet boggy ground…
Keith: …Because there’d been snow on the mountain three days earlier.
Chris: You could still see little patches in places and so I remember this one scene where I’m shaving in a creek and that water was only unfrozen because it was moving.
Keith: So Heart Is A Weapon was nothing new.
What’s new though is Chris singing lead vocals on a song. Chris, what was it like “keening on” You Failed?
Chris: It was really hard, it was physically taxing just to sing a whole song’s worth of vocal parts over and over again which one inevitably has to do for a proper recording. It took a real toll on my vocal anatomy in a way that gave me a great appreciation for Keith’s ability to knock out a few songs a day, including often many harmonies on his part. So it was an education, and at the end of it they failed me out of school.
Keith, aren’t you worried Chris is going to edge you out of the band now that he sings lead too?
Keith: Nah, I’ve taken small steps – I poison him a little bit every day so his health is never quite up to the standards of touring…
Chris: …But he drinks as much as I do, so…
Keith: …When I say poison, I mean I buy him another pint along with mine.
Chris: That’s self-defeating.
You’re about to embark on what looks like three months of non-stop touring that you’ve called the Megaplexpedition. How you do you feel looking ahead at a schedule like that?
Chris: Fear. Great fear. It’s exciting mainly, daunting to some degree. I think mostly because we both have families at this point and it’s tough to be away that much, it’s quite a disruption. And also our families are trained at this, but that doesn’t make being away easy by any means. In terms of the touring itself, it’s pretty fun. Most of these places we’ve been to a few times and have favourite little spots we like to visit. And then there are a couple of new places we’ve never been on this run, like Krakow and Warsaw, and it seems like every time we go to Italy we play different little towns. So we’re excited. Things are also going much better in continental Europe than they have on the last few records. We’ve got a great German label who’s doing an amazing job in the whole continental region so it’s exciting to look forward to those shows in a way we couldn’t reasonably have done in the past.
When you tour for such long stretches, do you reach a point where fatigue just takes control?
Keith: I kind of feel like you die a week and a half in and then your body just walks through it.
Chris: It’s the re-entry that’s painful. Once you’re back in the tour world, you’re just always under-fed and under-slept and over-alcoholed.
Keith: Yeah, you definitely stop being able to tell that you’re dead.
Chris: Like you lose symptoms, like a hangover, that should be dogging you constantly. After a couple of weeks, you’re like: ‘Yeah, I guess I’m just always hungover.’
We Are Scientists’ new album Megaplex is out now. The band are performing at the following UK festivals this summer: Tex Fest (28 June – 1 July), Truck Festival (19 – 22 July), Nozstock: The Hidden Valley (20 – 22 July), Blackthorn Festival (20 – 22 July), Neverworld (2 – 5 August), Bestival (2 – 5 August), and Greenbelt Festival (24 – 27 August).
Interview with We Are Scientists at Rough Trade East on 30th April 2018 by Nils van der Linden.