By Alyssa Meza
It is 7:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night at The Bottom Lounge. A line of emo, hipster and suburban-looking teenagers are already lined up outside for the 17 and over We Are Scientists show at 11 p.m. on July 21.
Though often billed as a band more popular in the United Kingdom, We Are Scientists have still garnered a loyal following here in the states through their steady four-album career, which is obvious from the three-hour-early line. From the youthful exuberance of With Love & Squalor to their most recent, and perhaps more refined, new album Barbara, the band continues to do things the way they like them, whether it’s a television show or what they drink on tour.
Which is not to say they are high-maintenance or demanding in the least. Keith Murray is the definition of laid-back while casually sitting on the edge of a sofa in high-top red-and-white basketball shoes, drink in hand, describing the band’s latest efforts in music and comedy. They are just doing what they love to do, for better or worse.
Alyssa Meza: How is the city treating you?
Keith Murray: For some reason I feel like every time we come here we are really rushed and never actually get to hang out. So I don’t know Chicago very well at all, despite the number of times I have technically visited. Chicago is in one of those weird positions were there are not many other very convenient towns to hit nearby, so you end up with long drives the next day. I feel like we almost never get to hang out after shows. My cousin used to have a restaurant downtown where we sometimes went after shows.
What was it called?
I actually don’t remember because it was very short-lived. I think it was called Anthony’s, which is his name. We have not really done the nightlife in Chicago thing. Our next show is in Denver, and even though it is two days from now, it is like a 16-hour drive from here, so we probably won’t get to hang out. Chicago continues to elude. I will have to take what I can get.
Any special requests when you do a show?
We definitely are very partial to margaritas. We are very fickle drinkers; we get into one very specific thing. Margaritas have been a long running thing. We are pretty temperamental. We try to switch it up so we are not drinking that same thing every time, but we have been drinking margaritas every night of this tour. When we got here they gave us whiskey and vodka, and we were like “Oh, okay I guess…Nope! Give them the whiskey lets get a Margarita.”
How is Barbara, a progression or not, from your previous albums?
I think it is more a progression than a departure. I feel like it is a document of us whittling the thing we do. The first record was pretty spare arrangements wise, but very busy with the few stuff that we added. And then the second record constituted a little more ambitious arrangements. I think we got more confident on the second record. On the first record we were concerned with making it upbeat and dancey and as immediate as possible. And on the second record I think we tried to veer towards the quality of the song resting more so on the actual craft. On this one I think we wanted to make immediate songs again but I think because of the process of making the last record that these songs are better crafted, but still have the same spirit of delivery.
I read a review of the record that described Barbara as if the band operated under “If it is not broken, don’t fix it” attitude. What do you think of that statement?
I definitely disagree with that sentiment, not even being directed towards us as a band, I don’t believe in it. I think it is a pretty boring way to operate. The thing about us that suggests that might be an aspect of our philosophy is that we sort of know what we like. We got to the success level that we are at late enough as a band; we were a band for seven years before anybody knew who we were even in New York City. So I think we had a lot of time to change up what we did and kind of figure out what We Are Scientists did.
I would say the experimentations are more interesting for the band then they are for the listeners. I think that the songs that differentiate themselves stylistically from the rest of the songs on the record and stuff that preceded it, like "Pittsburgh" and "Foreign Kicks", come out of needing as a songwriter to do something different, sort of as a palate cleanser. I would say that 90 percent of the songs that I write just to do something else are not good enough to be on our records. So the songs on the record where the experimentation actually worked out, we go “Oh, this actually is good. I guess we’ll put it on!”
What do you think of being labeled as a band more popular in the U.K.?
I would not necessarily describe it as a label; it is legitimately just a statement of fact. There is no emotional reaction to people recognizing that is true. I sometimes theoretically feel like I should be annoyed by the fact that we are so much bigger in the U.K., but I honestly think that the only reason that is, is sort of hubris. Our friends have to rest assured that we are as big as we are in the U.K., and we do very well here and they know that. But it is sort of annoying that we have to be, “But no, we actually are bigger in the U.K.”
But that is nothing to complain about, we like the size that we are in the United States. These shows are really fun. I think it is really refreshing, in a non-condescending way. They feel really personal. The excitability is because of the crowd, not because it’s big mass of people in a theater. There are certainly far less fortunate bands in the world.
How did "Goal! England," the cheer for the U.K. soccer team, come about?
We were doing a radio show on BBC Radio 1 for a guy named Zane Lowe, who is a big DJ there. Radio 1 is sort of the commanding force of radio in the U.K. for mainstream rock music. The idea is to get in bed with Radio 1 and your career does very well; and Radio 1 has always been very kind to us. So if radio one asks you to do something you at least consider it. Essentially what they wanted was for us to write a song to play on the radio, which was mildly annoying because we had just finished writing an entire record. And of course we were told this the day before. So the fact that we were in the UK, which is such a mad football, or soccer country. And having only just been introduced to the phenomena of the football anthem, we felt it would be an easy and fun and topical song to do. We pointedly made it as idiotic as possible. We were in the U.K. Needed a song. Thought a football song would be the thing to do. And of course, since it was going to be on British radio, it had better be for the English soccer team.
How did it go? Did the U.K. fans like it?
It went really really annoyingly well. Radio 1 had been kind to us with radio play, but they played the hell out of that song. They played it more than our actual single.
Are you guys still doing "Steve Wants His Money"?
It aired six months ago, it came out in December or January. It was a series of shorts, and there were seven of them. Those were done, those were played. MTV wanted us to do an actual long form show, but I think, as maybe becoming apparent about the nature of this business, is that people want things when it is exciting. So of course they wanted us to make it while we were promoting our record, which was totally impossible. So we had to say, no, not as a final no, but not right then. Maybe in August. Our preference would be to do something for MTV. In our experience they say do whatever the hell you want, and here is enough money to do the thing that you want to do, now go do it. Nobody is getting rich off of it. “Okay lets make the stupidest thing ever and put it on your channel! Yay!”
It seems lucky that you get to work with people who let you do whatever you want.
I would say that is sort of our Achilles heel in entertainment. We are not really good at doing things unless they are kind of on our own terms. I don’t think we are difficult to deal with, it’s not “My way, or the highway.” I think we are just bad at figuring out how to do other peoples things. We are just good at doing the thing we like to do, and we know how to craft that. Our skill set does not include delivering other people’s stuff well. I would not hire me to do a movie. I would not say, “Keith Murray should be an actor!” The things that we are good at are inventing things that we try to sell well and deliver well.