Shop our Big Takeover store for back issues, t-shirts & CDs
Follow The Big Takeover
Photo by Dan Monick
Keith Murray and Chris Cain’s friendship dates back to their college days of the late ’90s and it’s that friendship that’s allowed We Are Scientists to be a highly functioning band for the better part of 20 years. With a sound rooted in the early aughts-style guitars that plays alongside ’80s-influenced keys and beats, We Are Scientists worked on – and recorded – two albums worth of material during the downtime caused by the pandemic. While 2021’s Huffy is more, straight-ahead guitar rock (“Contact High,” “Fault Lines”) and reminiscent of the band’s earlier days, the new release, Lobes, is driven by synths and post-punk, new wave rhythms.
On the eve of Lobes release, singer/guitarist Murray joined me via Zoom from his NYC house to discuss the longevity of his friendship with his bandmate, how the pandemic gave We Are Scientists the opportunity to experiment in the studio, and the challenges of creating a crowd-pleasing setlist with an extensive back catalog to choose from.
When you were a kid, what do you remember your parents listening to in the car?
KEITH: My dad was more of an acoustic singer/songwriter type vibes – Harry Chapin, The Kingston Trio. My mom was definitely more into contemporary pop radio, still real parent stuff like Hall & Oates, a lot of Christopher Cross in the car, that kind of stuff. I have very specific sensory associations with that era of soft pop. I always think of my mom’s beige, late ’70 Dodge Dart. Now, I really want a ’70s Dodge Dart, obviously.
I bet if I listened to some of that acoustic singer/songwriter stuff, I’d be able to still singalong to all the words. The stuff my mom listened to, I later then incorporated into my own listenership. That’s unfair, I could sing it all now but that’s because I’ve still been plowing through it constantly.
A bunch of festival lineups have been announced recently. We Are Scientists are not on any of those bills. Is that the kind of thing you’ve enjoyed doing in the past? Do you like to do festivals and is it something you’d be interested in if given the opportunity?
KEITH: I wouldn’t say festivals are my favorite venue. They’re fun largely because you see other bands that you don’t get to run into all that often. Especially in the UK and Europe where we spend a lot more of our time and don’t get really get to socialize very often, it’s a good means of getting a hang out in. Festivals are always a little weird. You end up sitting around all day and then you’re very rushed in your one-hour set up, play, get off stage. We do tend to play way more festivals in Europe than in the U.S., sadly.
We Are Scientists has been together for over 20 years. There’s not a lot of bands that have lasted that long.
KEITH: I think a big part of it is purely friendship. Chris and I were shooting stuff for a video recently and afterwards we went for a drink by my house. A friend, who’s in some other bands, came in with his wife and he was like, “Every time I run into these guys, they’re just hanging out together. I don’t really understand it. You’re really the only band I know of that are in a band because they would be hanging out with each other anyway.” It’s true. We’ll be on tour for months and get home and two days later it’ll be like, “What are you doing? Want to go get a drink?” I recognize that’s not normal but it doesn’t feel abnormal. I guess it’s weird that we haven’t gotten on each other’s nerves as much as you would think.
Did you find that the last couple of years, because of the pandemic, has allowed you the opportunity to be more creative or have you been on the pace of working as you were pre-pandemic?
KEITH: I think it gave us the opportunity to be differently creative just because 4 of the last 20 years or so, we’ve been on that two-year cycle. Write some songs, by the end of that year record those songs, spend the next year touring the album of those songs. When touring stops, start writing again. We were essentially in the midst of that cycle when the pandemic hit. We were just beginning to record our last record as everything shut down. That made us stop and think, “Is there any reason we need to think about working on that schedule now?” We actually got way more time in the studio because of the pandemic. The studio owner is a friend of ours who’s in an Irish band but he lives in New York. They were on tour when it hit and he wasn’t allowed to come home. We essentially, as good friends, said, “Oh, we’ll watch your studio for you.” For a while, we were staying totally separated and I was just going into that studio 3 or 4 times a week and just messing around, not even working on the record. Just seeing how I operate when I’m not working in my home office. I think it gave us a little more breathing room creatively, I think we made a lot of decisions that we wouldn’t have because they weren’t obvious creative moves for us. I think the reason there’s so much more synth on this record is because we had more time to figure out how to integrate it organically into what we normally ordinarily would do without making it seem like a jarring stylistic shift. I think we luxuriated in creativity a little more especially because we were not luxuriating in much else.
With the studio at your disposal, is there a follow up to Lobes already written and recorded?
KEITH: During the pandemic, we pretty much worked on Huffy, our last record, and Lobes. Now we are back on the standard cycle. We spent so much time doing all the promo stuff for Huffy and then immediately went to work. We had a few songs from Lobes written, maybe 6 by the time Huffy was out. But then, after Huffy, we still had to finish the remaining songs. Now we’re back on the old cycle.
I often hear bands who are promoting new music saying, “This is the best album we’ve made.” Are you always trying to one up what you did the last time or are you just trying to create something that stays true to the We Are Scientists brand that listeners have come to expect?
KEITH: That’s interesting. I have always felt, “This is the best thing we’ve ever done.” Part of that is simply being wrapped up in it and the gratification you get from passionately working on something. I definitely don’t think we ever think, while we’re writing a record, we need to write something that slots into what our fans expect. Once we starting to get to production, sometimes we think, “Are we being indulgent in ways that other people don’t necessarily want to follow us?” That’s a question we ask ourselves.
On the question of whether I philosophically think every record we make needs to be our best, I guess when I step back, I don’t think every record should need to be the best thing we’ve ever done. I guess I’d feel weird about releasing a record that I wasn’t at least excited enough about that I thought wasn’t our best. I would take it as a bad sign if I was like, “Yeah, this is pretty good. It’s definitely good enough that people should hear it.” That would probably mean it’s a bad record.
Is “Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt” the song that garners the biggest crowd response when you play it live?
KEITH: I think, from our first record, “Great Escape,” for some reason, despite having lower listens on Spotify, seems to get the rowdier response. I think the 4 songs that I feel like we could never not play at a show are probably “Nobody Move,” “Great Escape,” “After Hours,” and “Buckle.” Every time I’m like, “Oh yeah, people just got excited for that.”
I’ve talked to bands who are surprised that, a decade into their career, the first song they ever released is still the one that people react to the most. Do you find it interesting that songs that you wrote 20 years ago are the ones that are resonating with people when you’re releasing new albums every couple of years?
KEITH: As an aside, it does seem like that is a weirdly prevalent phenomenon. It’s like The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside.” I don’t think that’s nearly their best song but when I’m at a festival and The Killers play, even I’m like, “Oh, right, of course.” That’s not even my favorite song on that record but there’s something about how closely associated that song is with my experience with The Killers. There’s something very gratifying about seeing The Killers play that song.
So, specifically with us, I think there is something, as much as I think I’m a way better songwriter now than I was then, there probably is something in being an idiot who doesn’t know what he’s doing writing a song that uses a little more id than is in some of the music now. I try to not ever put that throttle on songwriting now but I’m also not as stupid as I was then. I think there are a lot of elements in the craft and in my person and the way I thought in general that probably made songs more primally exciting in some ways. I think probably what drove a lot of my songwriting back then was shit that I couldn’t put my finger on and just funnel into the music. Now, I think I’m much more considerate about everything in my life and I understand my thought process better much less my songwriting habits and payoffs. That said, I definitely don’t resent those songs at all. I would never sit down at home and play “Nobody Move” on a guitar. But, when we’re playing them live, the fact that people are having fun makes me have fun.
Because you’ve got so much material, how do you create a setlist when playing live? How do you balance playing new material versus old material? Do you try to play a lot of new songs or do you sprinkle in one or two?
KEITH: We tend to be pretty egalitarian amongst the career. When I write the setlist, and I do think Chris and I have somewhat different setlist philosophies, I’m a much more populist setlist writer. I really like knowing 100% that the audience is getting what they came for. Lagging moments in setlists worry me, even when I go see other bands. If I sense that the audience interest in lagging, I start sweating a little bit more. I think Chris is much more confident. I think if Chris wrote all the setlists, we’d probably play more b-sides. I think he’s excited about that kind of thing. We were just talking the other day. We have an album release show and we were talking about what new songs we wanted to play. He was like, “I think it’s cool to play songs people have never heard. I like going to shows and bands are like, ‘Here’s a brand new song.’” I was like, “I hate that.” I hate that moment in a set. I’m the guy that goes and buys another beer but he loves it. Setlists are definitely an inexact science. When I write them, they tend to usually have maybe 4 songs from the first record and 5 songs from the latest record and then kind of an even sprinkling from every record in between.
We did a tour with R.E.M. in maybe 2010 and they were touring their new record. I definitely sense the audience being less interested in the new record but as that tour went on, and I started hearing those songs over and over, I found myself being like, “No dummies, this song is great.” I understand 100% the inclination to be like, “Oh, I don’t really know. It’s either good or it’s not good. I don’t know. They’re playing ‘Losing My Religion’ in two songs, I’m going to go get a beer real quick.”
When it comes to sequencing an album, do you have certain ideas like, “Let’s make sure song one is the one that hooks them and song two is this and song three is the hit”?
KEITH: Yeah, sequencing is it’s own demonic trade. Every time we make a record, every member of the band, we ask our mixer, we ask our manager, and everybody comes up with an utterly different sequence. By the end, we’ve heard so many different iterations so many times that it sort of starts feeling arbitrary. Being able to look at streaming numbers is such a disastrous development. I think Chris is a little more like, “I don’t know, I like mixing it up and the biggest song should probably be last. Isn’t that fun? Isn’t that a weird place for us to put it?” I always look at the songs that are number 10 on our records and they always have the lowest listens and it makes me really sad for those songs. So it starts to become triage. What song am I going to feel the least awful about the fewest people listening to and I know it? I don’t want to think that way. That honestly was part of the initial inclination not to put all of these songs that we had written for Huffy not on Huffy because five of them are going to be ignored if we put out a 16 song record. I’d rather give all of these songs that I’m so invested in a good fighting chance.
You can kind of assume the last song on a CD is just, by virtue of listener tendencies, going to get skipped the most often. But, it’s brutal to think that people are going to only click on these couple of songs. It makes me sad.
You’re doing a lot of things from a marketing perspective, whether it’s making short videos for Instagram or starting a podcast or starting a Discord group. Is that all you and Chris or do you have a marketing team that you sit down with and strategize? “Okay, we need to have a new video on Instagram today.”
KEITH: Stuff like radio playlisting is 100% out of our hands, we definitely have teams that do that. That’s simply the mechanism by which that occurs. We’re more hands on with press stuff. In general, we’ll write our own press releases so that they’re in our voice. With social media, our management company does have a social media branch to advise us but we’re fairly untamable as a social media presence. Things like the existence of our Discord channel is because they are like, “You guys should do this. There’s no reason you shouldn’t.” But then we keep on doing it in ways that they think is stupid. Our TikTok use is flies in the face of all the advice that we’ve been given for how to do TikTok. The way TikTok seems to work best is kind of incompatible with the character of the band that we’ve forged over 20 years. I think it would be unappealing to try watch us try to contort ourselves into something that clearly was inorganic. But, that means we end up doing a lot of stuff on TikTok that is probably flying into a void but we enjoy doing. I think with outward facing media, it’s important to us that it seems to be enjoyable for us. We don’t ever want to be that artist that publicly moans about the needs of the day. Nobody has ever enjoyed making a music video. It’s the worst thing to do but everybody does it and nobody pretends that they’re miserable in a music video. So don’t go on TikTok and be miserable. I mean, Morrissey should go on TikTok and be miserable but that’s the brand.
While TikTok wasn’t around 20 years ago, I feel like the content you’re producing is on brand with the band you’ve always been. You’ve always appeared to have fun in videos and interviews.
KEITH: I’m sure if TikTok had been around 20 years ago, we would be better at doing the thing that Tiktok specifically does well just because that would be the way our minds worked. We’re just not seasoned to think about what Tiktok delivers as an entertainment format. I’ll get sucked into TikTok. I watch a lot of animal rescue videos and a lot of children falling down videos. I can’t get enough. Tiktok does that well. But, I’m not filming myself rescuing dogs that have been caught in mountain cat snares and stuff. Unfortunately, I can’t make the sort of TikTok video that I love.
Our new album Lobes has arrived. Do us a favor and check it for errors.♬ original sound – wearescientists
What comes first: the songs, the album title, or the album art?
KEITH: Almost always, we’ll have completed an album before we start thinking about titles. We’ll occasionally have album titles that will be working titles and they’ll almost always change. In fact, Lobes was almost going to be the title for what became Huffy but then we took the songs off Huffy that we thought were the most _Lobes_-ian tunes. We were in that rare place where we knew we had an album title but then it was like, “Shit, now we have to come up with another album title.” The artwork becomes a terrifying deadline that’s looming on the horizon for us.
With streaming the way most people consume music, the traditional album covers may not be as relevant as they were when physical media dominated. Maybe it’s time to rethink album covers. Maybe they can be more rectangular than square. Maybe they can be animated since you’re viewing on a device.
KEITH: We sort of did the inverse of that with Huffy. With Huffy, the cover is essentially a tiled bathroom wall and it came with stickers that you could put on the wall as graffiti. The problem that gave us was when we had to create the digital album cover, we were like, “Now we’re just arbitrarily making a Huffy cover with stickers all over it.” I think we chose wisely but it was funny that we had the opposite problem with that. It didn’t effectively represent the album cover that anyone else would ever see in their real life.
Is there a plan for videos for any of the songs on Lobes?
KEITH: Because of marketing mandates, we didn’t make any full-length videos. We made a series of one-minute visual accompaniments. We also did one huge, long-form video for the album, for YouTube that is essentially the album cover having come to life. The album cover is a car with a neon sign that says “Lobes” with a picturesque Los Angeles sunset. And, the video just follows that car throughout L.A.
We are making the first full-length video as we speak to come out on the release date.
(Since the time this interview took place, We Are Scientists released a video for “Turn It Up”.)
Does the release date still have the same excitement for you 20 years into your career?
KEITH: The nature of the way releases work now has sort of diluted the release date. When our first record came out, probably a facet of this is that it was out on a major label, we had pretty much finished every aspect of the marketing for it, like all the videos and photos, months and months before the album came out. There then became a long wait for the album release. Now, for the past two months, we’ve been doing nothing but prepping for the album release. We put out five songs before the album came out, each with a minute-long little video. Twice a week we’ll remind people that that song is available to stream. For me, who already knows every song on the record and has lived with it for a year, I kind of forget that the album’s not already out. Most of the album is out and I have the album on my phone and I listen to it all the time. Now that we have an album-release show, you would think that would make it feel more like a release date, but now I keep thinking, “Oh, we have a show on January 20. Oh shit, the album’s out that day too. Okay, that’s interesting.” I’m so busy rehearsing for the show that I forgot the album’s coming out.
What does the rest of the year look like for you?
KEITH: It looks like the U.S. tour is going to be in the autumn. I think we’re probably going to be in Europe for festivals throughout the summer so probably not much U.S. stuff before that fall tour.
If you do play festivals in Europe, are there any bands that you haven’t had a chance to see that you’d be super excited about to check out?
KEITH: There’s a band called Magdalena Bay that put out a record, I don’t know if it was last year or the year before, and I’ve just been trying to see them at every turn and I keep getting foiled. They’re from L.A. but they grew up in Miami. I grew up in Miami and I spent a bunch of the pandemic down there. Several times they went down there for a hometown show and every time I missed them by like a day. No bands ever come to Miami. I grew up thinking local bands were really good, which they weren’t, because no real bands ever came down to Miami. Finally, there’s this one band that is maximizing the Miami payoff and I missed it every single time. They played in London one day before we got to London last time. I would love to be on a bill with Magdalena Bay just to finally see them.
I was reading something I wrote about your album Barbara and I mentioned that it sort of reminded me, at times, of Duran Duran. I think it would be great to see you on a festival bill with them.
KEITH: I wonder if I want to see 2023 Duran Duran? I’m not sure. I haven’t given their latest album a listen. Duran Duran is a band that is fundamentally in my DNA and then I later came back to and listened to of my own accord. A question I often get is, “What was the first record you ever owned?” I think “Hungry Like the Wolf” might be the first thing I ever made my parents buy me. I do very specifically remember being a pretty small kid liking “Hungry Like the Wolf.” Duran Duran are 100% fundamental about how I think about pop music.
More in interviews