The funny, peculiar world of We Are Scientists
We Are Scientists mix killer tunes with comedy shtick. But if there's one thing they take seriously it's music. By Tim Walker
Friday 09 May 2008
Girls at a We Are Scientists show can't stop going on about how cute the band are. Boys, meanwhile, go on about how funny they are. Both are liable to agree that, as well as being cute and funny, We Are Scientists have some killer tunes.
When they played an acoustic show as part of Jo Whiley's Little Noise Sessions at the Union Chapel last year, the band almost upstaged special guests Bono and the Edge, interrupting one of their own infectious hits with a hilarious skit about meeting the U2 frontman. Backstage, apparently, Bono was a little put out by the amount of female attention lavished on the young New Yorkers. "Bono was pretty pissed off," says singer/guitarist Keith Murray. "He was shrieking. He has a surprisingly high-pitched voice; it almost sounds like it's been sped up or something."
No less than four Radio 1 DJs (including Whiley) have made We Are Scientists' latest single "After Hours" their single of the week. The band seem rather less enthused by this than their record company chaperone, but that's not to say they're unexcitable. This morning, blinking the sleep from his eyes in the breakfast bar at Shoreditch House, bassist Chris Cain is either the more reticent or the more hung-over of the pair. But he perks up a bit once his granola yoghurt and pineapple juice arrive. Murray, meanwhile, is excited by every aspect of the place – the great view of the city, his cheese omelette ("delicious!"), the pool tables, the little bottle his grapefruit juice arrives in ("and it's not even prohibitively expensive! I have to get membership to this place!").
We Are Scientists' new album, Brain Thrust Mastery, ought to thrust the band firmly into the brains of the British public. "After Hours" is just one of a number of gems on a record that runs from the crotch-grinding Eighties keyboard riff of "Lethal Enforcer", to the gentle balladry of "Spoken For", which will doubtless break many a hopeful groupie's heart.
Murray, the particularly cute one, and Cain, by all accounts the particularly funny one, met at college in California when both turned up to a friend's place to watch Dawson's Creek; although, Murray insists, "that was actually the only episode of Dawson's Creek I ever saw." They bonded over comedy, film and, eventually, music and moved to New York in 2000 when they decided to take the band seriously (and persuading these two to take anything seriously is something of an achievement). Thus their sound is trans-American: New York dancefloors fill to the sound of their post-punk guitars, while the sunny vocal harmonies are pure West Coast. Their look, Murray claims, is Midwestern: "I'm trying to look like someone who works in a seedy motel in Detroit in the 1970s," is how he describes it. "But that's kind of fallen apart since I got my hair cut."
The band's 2005 debut album, With Love and Squalor, was a hit in the UK before it was even released back in America and, the pair say, they're still more popular this side of the pond: "Our profile is bigger over here," says Murray. "Bands like us just aren't on the radio in the US. But I think everyone who is into our sort of music in America knows who we are."
Last year, the band's original drummer, Michael Tapper, decided to call it a day. "It wasn't artistic differences," says Murray. "It was lifestyle-intention differences. Michael didn't really feel like doing another two years on the road." Even during the recording of Brain Thrust Mastery, Tapper, who is on eight of the album's 11 tracks, was at home in Los Angeles while Cain and Murray were in Brooklyn. Currently filling the drummer's stool is Adam Arronson, who interrupted his honeymoon to rejoin the band in the UK – such is the allure of the We Are Scientists tour-bus: "He literally just flew from his honeymoon in Mexico, leaving his wife there, presumably never to see her again!", says Murray, wide-eyed with the shock of it all. "Maybe it was meeting Bono that did it," growls Cain in reply. "He was definitely the most excited to meet Bono."
Also part of the new line-up is keyboard player and pedal-steel pro Max Hart, whose instrumental contributions reflect the more melodic approach of the new album. "On the last record all the songs were ghettoised in the dance post-punk genre," says Murray, who is enjoying the more tuneful tone of Brain Thrust Mastery. "The songs on the new album are quite deliberately vague. It tends to make me cringe when I try to tell specific stories. So a lot of the songs are about a very specific moment that I've wilfully turned into something more obscure, like modern art. They're abstract. I've taken what would've been a still life and just spattered paint on it."
The new album's title was the subject of some debate. Ever the pranksters, the band disseminated some false names online, among them What # of $ Do That Cost? and You Bang, She Bangs, You Want Some... Unh!, "Our manager became very attached to one of our patently false album titles, and really would not let up about how great a name it was," says Murray. "Do Smoke Detectors Detect the Smell of Smoke?. It's a bit of a mouthful, both physically and philosophically."
The name Brain Thrust Mastery comes from the lunchtime seminars the duo gave in university lecture halls during their last UK tour. An unmusical blend of self-help and sketch comedy, the format was so successful that it has been picked up by a television company and turned into a series of six 10-minute episodes to be shown on the band's website. The series (also entitled Brain Thrust Mastery) has a simple premise: Keith and Chris play two guys called Keith and Chris, who are in a band called We Are Scientists, with a sideline in self-help seminars. The premise differs from reality only slightly: in the show, the guys want to quit music and become full-time self-help gurus.
"It's unlike anything you've ever seen," says Cain. So, nothing like The Monkees or Flight of the Conchords, then? "No," says Murray, "but you could use those shows as a shorthand to guide you through the darkness to this project. We're not writing a theme tune, like: 'It's Beraaayne Thrust Mastereeeee... UH!' Although," he reflects, "that's actually pretty good." Cain ponders for a moment, then agrees: "Yeah, maybe we should use that."
Comedy is another of those rare topics that We Are Scientists appear to take very seriously: "Stand-up comedy is pretty low," Murray argues. "Sketch comedy, though, is rarified. Improv is the worst. Not just the worst form of comedy, but the absolute worst thing there is."
And what does Brain Thrust Mastery mean? "It allows people to insert their own interpretations," says Cain. "Everyone can find special meaning in the words 'Brain Thrust Mastery'."
We Are Scientists tour the UK from 10 to 17 May; 'Brain Thrust Mastery' is out now on EMI
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