This boffin girl was allowed into the We Are Scientists‘s secret backstage realm for an interview with the band shortly before they were due on stage at Washington’s Black Cat last Thursday the 21st. In the first half of the interview, we talk about their new album, the reception of the new material, their foray into television, and more. Of course, wherever We Are Scientists find themselves, humour follows. Listen below to the audio of this portion of the interview, and the transcription is below and beyond the cut.
**To save disk space, the audio file that originally went with this post has been removed.
Editor’s note: What a coincidence: Freelance Whales, the opener for the Fanfarlo show in Arlington in December, was going to be playing a sold-out show in the smaller Black Cat Backstage room the very same night. Unfortunately for us, all that separated us (chilling on a leather sofa in We Are Scientists’s break room) from Freelance Whales sound-checking was a single wall. Also, we were interrupted a bunch of times. I appear to be jinxed with poor interview recording conditions – apologies! Chris and Keith were real troopers throughout the long interview, and I sincerely thank them for their time and insights.
Many thanks also to Zane for setting up the interview and Maegan for sorting out my press pass.
Mary Chang here for There Goes the Fear, the UK music blog, and I am here interviewing We Are Scientists. Hello scientists. (laughs) That never gets old, because I work with scientists everyday in my day job, so…
Chris Cain: Hello. Ah, so you actually say it every morning when you go into work. (smiles)
Haha yeah, I wish! So it’s been about a year and a half since you stopped by Washington D.C., and this is the second of only three dates, right?
Chris: That’s true.
A short tour, right?
We feel very honoured and special that you chose Washington as one of three stops.
It was very close. You guys, uh, you guys narrowly edged out Fort Lauderdale [in Florida]. We did the mileage calculations and it just…who…this is actually closer…this was closer? (looks over to Keith for agreement)
Keith Murray: Yes.
Chris: So ultimately that’s what made the [decision]. We did had a slightly more lucrative offer from a club in Fort Lauderdale, but…
Keith: …the gas money would have been eaten it up.
Ok. So you played Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia last night. And so what was the vibe like?
It was pretty good actually. We were real nervous because we hadn’t played a show since All Points West [a summer music festival held in New Jersey], so we were rusty. And um so Danny played his first show with us. (gestures to Danny Allen, their interim drummer) Um, how long had it been since you played a show?
Danny Allen: Um…4 months? Or something?
Chris: Plenty of rust all around. But it went pretty well. And like rehearsals – we’d been rehearsing for a week together and they had just been atrocious.
Keith: They were really, really bad.
Chris: Dispiriting. We kind of came into this, into the show last night, with our heads hung low and our tails between our legs, assuming we were in for 3 or 4 days of, uh, just beatings. But I then, dunno, something happened, something clicked on stage. And it was a hell of a show. The fans were, um maybe, over appreciative. (laughs)
Keith: Some of them were fainting.
Chris: Yeah, they were kind. Although they kept saying, I heard so many times last night, “thank you guys so much for coming to Philly!” It’s like, what do you mean? It’s a major city. Don’t all bands go through Philly?
No, well I’ll just say this…
Chris: Are you going to claim the same thing about D.C.? Come on!
Everyone goes to New York.
Chris: Of course! But that’s one stop…
Yes, but D.C. shafted constantly.
Chris: It’s weird.
I think on the East Coast, Boston and New York are the most common stops.
But then how you get to…?
Then they go to Chicago. And then they go to Toronto.
But if you want to do a full tour of the States for a couple weeks, you’d want to do D.C. and Philly.
Yes, absolutely, yeah.
Keith: This [referring to his laptop] refuses to show me where that hotel is. [talking about where they're staying for the night]
Chris: Google Maps on mine picks it up fine…it does exist!
So even though it’s late, happy new year. Did you get a chance to enjoy the holidays?
Yeah. Oh yeah.
Did you get to go anywhere, did you do anything fun?
Chris: I went back to the state where I grew up, in Utah where my parents still live and hung out there for perhaps an excessive 2+ weeks. (looks at Keith) It was excessive. Elizabeth [Chris's girlfriend] and I were ready to kill each other by the end. And it had nothing to do with us! Uh…Keith went to Miami for a far more prudent
5-day vacation I think.
Keith: Yeah, I think…I got in the 25th but I left on the 30th.
Chris: Yeah, four nights.
So I’ve got to ask about your fourth album. Is it completed yet? There was a rumour that it was going to be released in February?
Keith: We certainly never said that.
Chris: No, we’ve always said spring. I think May is looking like a fairly solid release time, although we don’t have a actual week yet. You mentioned, you called it our fourth album, what are you considering, besides ‘Brain Thrust Mastery’ and ‘With Love and Squalor’?
The ‘Safety…’ album.
Chris: ‘Safety, Fun, and Learning…’? I guess that’s legitimate. I still feel like that was sort of a rough draft for us. I mean, I guess that was what we were doing at the time. But it’s so funny for an album that we printed maybe a 1,000 copies of on our own and still own 400 copies of them…that that would be considered alongside albums that have sold, you know, in some cases over 100,000 copies. I won’t name album names, because I don’t think the numbers necessarily tell the very true story.
So what can you divulge to us at this time about it? Beyond the humourous titles you’ve given out prior to this?
Chris: It is going to be called ‘Barbara’. The NME article, if you’ve read that, did misspell it.
Keith: They did?
Chris: Yeah, they spelled it like BAR BRA.
You mean like Barbra Streisand?
Chris: Yeah. In fact, it’s BAR BAR AH. Two “bars” and an “A”.
Ok, all right.
Keith: (quizzical) That’s how Barbra Streisand spells her name?
Chris: Yeah, that is a less popular but official spelling of “Barbara.” Yes, it’s a very poppy, hook-laden album. Um, it’s designed for a three-piece, unlike our last record which, uh, sort of compelled us or at least impelled us to bring a fourth guy into the live set-up, because there were a lot of synth parts or, you know, prominent second guitar parts. So this record we definitely, uh, just from a conceptual standpoint or from a planning stage, wanted it to be playable by a three-piece. Uh…I think that’s quite wonderful. And just in general, we sort of shrank from the more ambitious arrangements that ‘Brain Thrust Mastery’ featured.
Ok. Mmmhmm. What was your philosophy in recording the new album versus the ones that came before it? I mean, you mentioned writing it for the different kind of instrumentation.
Chris: We’ve definitely learned a lot from having recorded the amount we…I don’t want to say we’ve recorded a lot, compared to R.E.M., we haven’t…at all. But, um, the first album we recorded very much on the cheap, it was essentially speculation because we didn’t have a label and then we shopped that around and sold it to a label. On the second record we decided to go for a far more indulgent sort of approach, we recorded in a really nice studio in Sausalito in Northern California. Like a famous studio where, you know Metallica, who else…uh, Fleetwood Mac…all kinds of cool bands…
Keith: Huey Lewis and the News.
Chris: Huey Lewis and the News. Stevie Wonder. Uh, the Plant [Studios] was the name of it. It has [inaudible] now. And it was expensive, we were there for a month. Not an indulgent amount of time to record an record but it was an indulgent sort of…we wanted to get out of our, sort of…the cities where we had friends to be able to focus on this. So we spent a lot of money on that record, you know, maybe not compared to, again, to huge bands, but for us, it was an indulgence. This record, we were not doing that, but we also have learned what’s worth spending good money on, like a good sounding room. There are things that are absolutely worth the money, and there are things that are totally not worth the money. We recorded mostly in…whenever we could, in cities where we had free lodging for example. (laughs) Uh, we recorded at studios that weren’t very luxurious except in the equipment that they had, but didn’t like have amazing lounges or stuff like that. So…it was kind of…it was our most, uh…the money was better spent on this record than before.
Ok. Now I’ve read that on this fourth album…third, fourth album, whatever you want to call it…that you worked with the same producer [Ariel Rechtstaid, formerly of the '90s Los Angeles group the Hippos].
Chris: That’s right.
Tell me what it’s like working with him, now that you’ve worked with him multiple times.
Chris: He’s great. He’s…I would recommend him to almost any band. We’ve heard his, uh, folksy, really acoustic, uh, four-track indie recordings. And we’ve heard him do, like, crazy hip-hop stuff to sell to commercials, we’ve heard emo stuff, and we’ve heard heavier rock, and heard stuff that he’s done for us. He’s pretty amazing with whatever he does. We like him because you know, by now we’ve developed a really, uh, fluent sort of language with him, so it’s really easy to understand what he’s saying when he says something, and it’s really easy for us to communicate ourselves to him and he’ll get what we mean. And probably equally important is just that we trust his taste. But uh, he has a fantastic ability to convince you that stuff that you hate is actually really awesome and legitimately change your mind at a gut level about how you feel about a piece of music. He’s great.
Name me something that *that* happened to you on. (laughs)
Chris: What’s a good example of that…I don’t know… (all laugh) Uh…well, this isn’t a good example, I set up a, something…I hesitate to name something we hate of course …Keith was telling a story yesterday about how Ariel sort of really selling him on ‘Crash’ by Dave Matthews [Band] as being an amazing piece of recorded music. And just like pointing incredible production flourishes and… (looks at Keith)
Keith: Amazing group that Dave Matthews Band. (averts eyes as Chris and Mary laugh)
Chris: But it was something, you know, Keith had not really thought about since he probably first heard it.
I will have to rethink that…
Chris: Yeah, take a listen to ‘Crash.’
…because, yeah, that came out of my senior year of high school, and like, was not my thing at all. (laughs)
Chris: Yup. Exactly, exactly. Ariel…
Popular consensus, man. Yeah.
Chris: And he would be a great spokesperson for almost any piece of music he actually liked. Yeah, yeah. (smiles)
So, I know you played some songs from the new album at various places last year like All Points West and presumably last night also.
Chris: Hmm… (thoughtful)
What has been the reception like for the new songs compared to the old favourites like ‘The Great Escape’ and ‘Nobody Move…’
Chris: Yup, yup. Uh…
(loud crash from Black Cat Backstage next door scaring us half to death)
Chris: Holy…those assholes need to stop what they’re doing! It’s just not…You know there’s something wrong if it takes you this long to sound check…I’m gonna…I’m gonna come right out and say it. There is something desperately wrong! You cannot fix the night of the show…you can’t fix your band the night of the show. (laughs) And you have to do it in advance, and then you have to come play whatever you can do. Anyway…they’ll work right up until the moment of doors. Um, I don’t know, what was the reception like last night for the new…? (looks over at Keith) It seemed pretty even, right?
Keith: I mean, people obviously get more excited about hearing things they know they like.
Chris: Yeah. Certainly, recognisable stuff is always, um, an easy sell comparatively. But uh, it wasn’t like, wasn’t like stunned silence out there after the new songs.
“We hate you, don’t come back!“
Chris: “What the fuck?” (with clenched teeth) “That’s gonna go on the record with your name on it? Jeezus!”
I think I can safely say on behalf of your worldwide fanbase that We Are Scientists videos are always humourous affairs.
Off the top of my head, ‘Chick Lit’ with the Pomeranian corralling is definitely one of my favourites. Have you filmed any videos for the new material yet? Or have ideas on what you might want to do versus stuff you’ve already done?
Chris: We’re sort of in the process of scheduling our first video shoot for this record. The video will go to tv sometime in late February. We haven’t shot it yet.
American, or UK?
Um, I guess it will be serviced to U.S. as well. I feel like the push in the U.S. will be substantially closer to the release date than overseas.
Um but it will be of course on our YouTube page as well. Our idea for this one, um, is much less story-based and much more technology-based. It’s gonna be…I mean, we’re going to be green-screening everything, but we haven’t really decided what we’re going to put on the screen back there.
So this one is going to be a much more detailed-oriented thing where we’re sitting there and editing, trying to make it awesome. We’re working with some dudes who are great at this sort of thing so….very excited, very excited.
So, now I want to talk about the ‘Steve Wants His Money’ series.
Oh yes. The show that’s on everyone’s lips!
For those readers / viewers of the blog, the band filmed a series of, what do you call it, six mini-novellas I guess? On a quest to procure money they owed to a guy named Steve. So how did you guys get involved with this, did MTV UK call you up one day and said, “we want you to do a bunch of promo shots…”? Or how did this work?
Chris: Um no, we had been, we had been begging any tv station, um… (walks over to close the curtain ‘door’) Let’s keep the warmth in here! Um…any tv station who would give us money to make a show, for about a year. (Keith sneezes)
(to Keith) Bless you.
Chris: And MTV UK asked us in August of last year to put together a show. Um, and they said they wanted to air it in October. So it was a very quick turn-around. We basically wrote it in 2 weeks, and shot it in 4 days, and edited in a week, and it started airing. Uh, yeah. So it’s kinda…we shot a bunch of promo stuff back in 2008 that never really…which was a show called ‘Brain Thrust Mastery’ that was based on the lecture series that the album is named after as well. And we were trying to shop that around and kinda get that turned it into a real show, and that never really happened. Based on that they [MTV UK] I guess remembered us and said, “hey, do you want to do a show? You can!”
Now have you been bitten by the tv bug? Do you want to do more stuff like that?
Um, we’re trying to figure it out. I think we’re interested in it for sure. We’re…I guess the ‘Steve Wants His Money’ thing went to MTV’s satisfaction and they’re interested in doing something more.
Ok. Very cool.
Chris: Maybe like a half-hour thing. But we haven’t settled on any kind of concept or anything.
Ok, mmmhmmm, ok. That’s exciting though.
It’s like, definitely a new phase for We Are Scientists. Like getting into different media, sort of.
Chris: With our videos, we’ve always enjoyed, we’ve always enjoyed the visual medium as a totally separate thing from the music. I don’t know, it’d be a fun use of our time. There’s a lot of time when you’re on the road. You can write scripts. You can write scripts…
Is it a lot easier to write scripts versus music on the road? Because I’ve had varied opinions on this. Some bands don’t want to do it [write music] at all [on the road]. Some people like actually being in the hotel rooms and writing stuff.
Chris: Yeah, we actually don’t write music on the road at all. It remains to be seen whether…
Keith: I don’t think we’ve ever written music on the road.
Chris: (to Keith) Have we ever written scripts? I guess we were in the studio for ‘Steve Wants His Money’ so was that was kind of on the road…
Chris: That’s true. Yeah yeah, the written word and the open road, you know, that’s a marriage of convenience right there. (grins)
Stay tuned for the rest of this interview coming up next Monday…