In the middle of the umpteenth snowstorm to hit the Big Apple in 2014, QRO sat down over lunch to talk with Keith Murray of We Are Scientists. In the conversation with the singer/guitarist (bassist Chris Cain couldn’t make it because he had to pick up his kid from school, which had just been cut short due to the snow), Murray talked about their upcoming album, TV en Français, making it in New York (without a label or management), their big upcoming tour (which goes from Australia to Europe – though not enough Français dates…), even further places that they’ve played, never reusing jokes, crowd-pleasing set lists, ‘mo songs, mo problems,’ Crap, Steve, their signature hair, and more…
QRO: You’ve got a pretty hefty tour coming up, from beginning of March all the way through May, spanning three continents with barely a break…
Keith Murray: Oh god – don’t remind me… I’m just kidding.
QRO: Are you dying to get back on the road, or dreading it?
KM: It’s always a little of both. I do really, really love tour, and it’s been a long time since we’ve done a full-on tour like this. But when you’re sort of at this end of it, looking at it, telescoping into the future, it definitely seems pretty intense.
My girlfriend is much less excited about it than I am.
QRO: Are you going to any place you haven’t played before, like Australia?
KM: I know we’re going to Perth in Australia, which we haven’t played before. Way out there… I mean, I’m excited, but we’ll only be there for twelve hours.
That tour is going to be grueling. It’s a show every day.
QRO: And that’s Australia, a lot of distance between the cities…
KM: It’s gonna be getting up at four AM every day, to go to the airport, to fly five hours…
QRO: And you’re already gonna be jetlagged from going to Australia…
KM: Initially, we were gonna do the Australian leg first; it was gonna be the very beginning of the tour. And I was gonna go out four or five days early, just to even out – but nope, now we’re going straight after the U.S. tour…
We’re playing Baton Rouge, which we’ve eaten in before, but have never played. I didn’t like the place we ate in Baton Rouge. It’s called Louie’s. It was a big bone of contention between us – we got into this thing where we were doing Yelp reviews, and it was one of the places we reviewed. Chris and Danny [Lee Allen], our touring drummer, both really liked it, or at least ‘enjoyed its quirks,’ and I hated it. And for a long time we couldn’t agree on what was the mutual star rating for Louie’s should be.
‘We Are Scientists Reviews’ – every time we gave a star rating, we would list whether it was a unanimous review, and that one, it said, “Two out of three.”
[note: apparently the review was later changed from a two star to one star rating, unanimously agreed upon]
QRO: I saw four German dates on your tour, four Spanish dates, but only one French date – and this is the tour of TV en Français…
KM: We’re hoping to turn around our French… We’ve never really done particularly well in France.
QRO: Maybe it’s because you’re big in the U.K., and that makes the French unhappy…
KM: Might be. I think they tend to like more ambience and kind of like chilled music. Like, our friends Au Revoir Simone (QRO spotlight on) do quite well – perhaps because of their name. That was sort of our inspiration. They do pretty well in France. Not a coincidence. We’re hoping that TV en Français is gonna blow this thing up… [laughs]
QRO: You don’t think there’s gonna be a backlash in the U.K.? [laughs]
KM: You know, if it gets us more French dates, I don’t care. Frankly, I’d rather spend more time in France.
QRO: Ooh… [laughs] Though I suppose it’s because you haven’t spent that much time in France as you have in the U.K…
KM: Yeah, exactly. I just mean because it’s novel, not because it’s objectively better…
QRO: I’ve noticed some bands that have Spanish names, Yo La Tengo or Los Campesinos!, will have a bunch of Spanish or South American dates.
KM: We’re trying to do more in South America as well. We went to Columbia maybe a year ago, a year and a half ago? And it was amazing. So I keep on trying…
QRO: I’ve heard very good things, it’s just hard to set up a tour down there.
KM: It’s vaguely Australian, in that you can’t just drive around every place.
QRO: Have you ever played Mexico?
KM: We have; not in a really long time, but we did, maybe only once? I don’t know. I know we played a festival in Mexico City, maybe in 2006 or ’07. The only other band I remember on it was Phoenix (QRO spotlight on).
It was kind of a weird festival. It was up on a hill in Mexico City; it felt kind of haphazard. And afterward, we went to a party that was a Nokia event, and it was The Rapture, Art Brut – who are friends of ours (QRO spotlight on); that’s why we were going – The Rapture, Art Brut, and I wanna say like Kasabian playing this old, abandoned department store, with running escalators and stuff. It was really awesome – I remember just being like, ‘I wanna hang out in Mexico City – this place is awesome!’
QRO: I know that you guys are particularly big in the U.K. Have you noticed any consistent differences between American & British crowds?
KM: Not really. I don’t think it’s that the crowds are very different – I think it’s just their approach to radio is pretty different. They do forge playlists, but they tend not to be, maybe just because England is so small, they’re pretty quirky, whereas American playlists are pretty homogenous.
U.K. playlists on the radio are always really weird. They also seem like kind of based on the DJ themselves, in a lot of ways.
I think that’s the main difference. Crowds kinda everywhere are the same. I think, for us in the U.K., they tend to be a little rowdier, because we’re a bigger band, but the temperature in the room seems pretty similar.
QRO: Have you ever played Eastern Europe?
KM: Yeah, we did a tour with R.E.M. I think that’s the only time we’ve really played east of Vienna. We did Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. It was amazing. We did Ukraine with Muse, as well, which was also amazing.
When we were in Latvia – now, keep in mind, we pulled a crazy all-nighter; our bus call was ten AM, and we walked up to the bus at ten AM and left. And I remember thinking, ‘Man – we should move to Riga!’ Estonia’s really beautiful; Riga feels cool. Riga feels like what I thought what Berlin was going to be like. Berlin is really cool, but now it just kind of feels like Williamsburg.
QRO: Are you itching to have TV en Français out?
KM: Because we’ve been promoting it for so long, and I think just because the way the internet has changed the way releases go, I kinda keep forgetting that it’s not actually out. To me, I was like, ‘Wait – it’s not out ‘til March? That’s insane!’ So I’m just itching for it to be out, so that I can stop being wrong about whether or not it’s out…
QRO: [laughs] Have people told you that they’ve heard it, and you realize that they’ve heard it ‘illicitly’?
KM: I’ve definitely stopped thinking about whether or not people hearing it is illicit. I definitely hear albums before I’m supposed to.
And it doesn’t really bother me. I guess it should, because I care about the wellbeing of our labels, but I don’t really mind…
QRO: How did making it compare with making previous records?
KM: Well, it’s the first one we’ve ever done totally in New York City. So it felt pretty chilled out. Because when you go away to make album, you feel like you’re on a business trip. Everything you do is based around recording the album. You wake up, and you go to the studio, and you kill time. And if you’re in a cool town, maybe you can go out and do something, but you kinda try to take it easy.
In New York, we were essentially just living the way we do every day, but we’d be like, “Oh, man, it’s two o’clock – I guess I should go to the studio.” And then we’d go to the studio for two hours. If Chris was playing bass, I’d be like, “I’m just gonna go do some shopping…” So it felt really casual.
The guy who was producing it [Chris Coady] was an old friend of ours. He engineered the past two records as well. It almost felt more ‘social’ than ‘business’.
QRO: Are you already thinking about the next record?
KM: We finished TV en Français over a year ago. But we had fired our management, and Barbara (QRO review) had only been a one-album deal with the people who put it out. So we were kinda like, ‘We have to figure out what we’re doing.’
It took a while to find management, which was funny, because the very first guy we interviewed ended up being our manager. We were kinda like, ‘Man, I really like that guy, but we can’t possibly hire the first guy we talked to…’ And then, once we found a label, it just takes a long time for everything to be ironed out. And then they were like, ‘Well, we don’t want to put it out in November; we want to wait.’
QRO: I know that labels don’t like releasing November, especially December, even into January…
So it just kinda took a long time. So we made a seven-inch and an EP last year that came out before the album did (Business Casual).
But yeah, I’m definitely thinking about the next album. I’ve already written a couple of things. I’d kinda like to do something this summer. I don’t know if I want to record an album that quickly, but I’d like to really get the ball rolling. We’ll see.
QRO: Why did you record the record before you had management or a label?
KM: A couple of reasons. We only made one album with a label. We made our second album already signed to Virgin, because our first album came out on Virgin. And it really sucked. It was really a massive pain in the ass.
It didn’t feel like a ‘horror story’ or anything, and they kind of ultimately let us do what we wanted to, but it just felt like there was bureaucracy. Like they made us try working with other producers, which we kind of half-heartedly did, because we loved our producer. We had put in our contract that they had to let us work with the producer from the first album, Ariel Rechtshaid, who didn’t have any real credentials at the time – and now is one of the biggest producers in the business. Like he did Vampire Weekend’s album (QRO review) that just won a Grammy. But at that point, he had no credibility with our label, and they did not want us to do it with him, they did everything they could to get us to work with like these cheesy, cheesy, big producers who we didn’t like at all. So it just felt like there was an impediment to our getting the album done, and that was the A&R. And our manager was also kinda like, ‘I think you should listen to them’ and ‘Do you think there should be a chorus here?’ And we were like, ‘Just shut up!’
So we kind of figured this time, a) We wanted to do it on our own, and just make an album we wanted to make. And we also just wanted to hire our management and sign to a label based on the album, not based on, like, ‘Well, I know We Are Scientists, and I liked so-and-so album, so I’ll sign on with them,’ and then, when we give them the album, they’d be like, ‘Oh, that isn’t what I thought I was gonna get.’ We wanted to be like, ‘Look. You know our story; here’s the album. If you like the album, let’s do it. If you don’t like the album, that’s cool.’
That was the main reason we wanted to just have the album: to say, ‘Here’s where we’re going.’
QRO: How do you come up with set list(s)? Do you vary a lot, night-to-night, or stay mostly the same?
KM: We definitely don’t generally a totally preordained set list. We tend to do a lot of the same songs.
I tend to be pretty scared about not being audience-pleasing. So I generally panic and go like, ‘Oh, we need all these singles, and people like this one from this album, and this one from this album…’ I’m gonna try to not do that so much this time. I think I’d like our set lists to change up a bit more than they tend to. We definitely write a different set list all the time, but it’s usually within the same twenty songs. I’d like there to be like a bank of thirty that we pull from the mix. We tend to write them all immediately before we go on, but they tend to be very similar.
QRO: Do you get into arguments about the set lists, though?
KM: Not really. It generally tends to get left up to me, and then I’ll show them to people and be like, ‘What do you think about this?’ ‘Yeah, fine, whatever…’
I was told with a friend that we’re no longer allowed to end our sets with “After Hours”, because we’ve been ending with “After Hours” essentially since the second album. But it works so well as a last song, makes me mad. But I’ll figure something out…
QRO: For this upcoming tour, do you think you’ll be playing the same Français songs each night, and just varying the other stuff?
KM: I think we’re gonna learn every TV en Français song, and then play the singles and swap out newer ones. We’ll see – I guess we’ll feel it out; we’ll see how it goes… [laughs]
You don’t really want to be too indulgent [with the new]. If it were up to me, we’d just play the whole new album, and then a smattering of stuff. But, like I said, I live in terror of audience pleasure…
QRO: With each new record, is it harder to make a set list, since you’ve got more material, but not necessarily more time on stage?
KM: Unfortunately, it gets easier to just say, ‘Well, we have twelve singles now, or fifteen singles, so we can just make a set list of that.’ So that’s an easy trap to fall into, is that it’s easy to just be like, ‘Here’s three from the first album, and three from the second album…’
I think it’s harder to make a set list with as much breadth as it would have if we only had one album to choose from. ‘Here’s twelve songs that we have…’
I think the challenge with set lists, the more you have, is making them varied. Which seems counter-intuitive…
QRO: Yeah. ‘Mo songs, mo problems…’
When do you cut back on playing so many songs from the most recent record – is it a few tours after its release, or not until you’re touring the next record?
KM: I guess when an album’s quote-unquote ‘cycle’ is over, they all become part of the same pool again, I think? Probably just because of fatigue, but I also think, because I personally like our albums in their reverse chronological order. My favorite albums go backwards, so the first album is my least favorite album, the second one is my second least favorite… So I always just wanna play the newest songs, the songs from the latest couple of albums. So it’s kind of an effort to not just do that… [laughs]
QRO: When you listen to the older albums, are you like, ‘Oh, I should have done this or that…’?
KM: Not really. I just feel like they were made by a greener band. It’s not like I think there’s anything wrong. It’s just like, ‘Oh – we were figuring them out at that point.’
And they’re fun. I think the first album is super, super fun, I just don’t like the songs as much – I’m definitely not as proud of the songs as the newer songs.
QRO: Does that make it easier to play them live, that they’re fun?
KM: That was definitely how that album got written. ‘Cause at that point, we were only a live band; we had no money to record or anything like that. And we didn’t really have any fans, really, so when we would play a show, if there were ten people in the room, we wanted every song to be like, ‘Man, that was another fun song I could jump around to, if I needed to.’
I think we’re less slaves to that notion now. Now we’re just like, ‘What would I like my songwriting legacy to be? This twelve songs…’
QRO: But there are still songs that you know you have to play, like “It’s a Hit”?
KM: The thing is, it’s really fun to play those songs, because a) They are designed to be played live, and people react to them because they were big singles for us. So it’s never a bummer to play them live. I definitely would never listen to them now. Like, I wouldn’t sit down and put that album on, I don’t think.
It’s definitely always fun to play a song that makes people cheer and dance.
QRO: Does it ever get tiresome to do them in rehearsal?
KM: Yes – that is the worst! I think the worst aspect of our not having a permanent drummer is having to play all these old songs thousands of times. Ugh… it makes me wanna scream. So yeah, rehearsals are a real bummer…
QRO: Why don’t you guys have a permanent drummer? They just can’t break the bromance?…
KM: [laughs] That’s probably part of it…
Andy [Burrows] was theoretically going to be a permanent drummer, but he has all these side projects that keep taking up his time. [laughs] And he lives in England.
So both times he’s made an album with us, we’ve been like, ‘Alright – we’re doing this full-time.’ And then, between the time we’ve finished the album and when it comes out, he’s been working on all this stuff and is like, ‘Ohh… I can’t now…’ Goddammit… [laughs]
So that’s the main reason we don’t have a full-time drummer.
QRO: Are there any songs you don’t like to play anymore, or just don’t remember?
KM: There are a lot of songs I just don’t remember, for sure. We haven’t played the last three or four songs from the first album probably since that album came out, and I definitely don’t know how to play the last two, for sure. Like, I would have to sit down and, note-by-note, figure out what the hell I was doing for those songs…
There were a bunch on the second album that we never played, just ‘cause they were weird, sonically and arrangement-wise. We were like, ‘Nah, we don’t need to play that…’ That I would definitely need to figure out.
I can play everything on Barbara, and I can play everything on TV en Français.
QRO: Did you ever play anything from Crap Attack, the b-sides?
KM: I don’t think so. I can’t even remember what’s on Crap Attack…
No, we don’t. We should listen to some of those.
Oh, we just to play “Ram It Home” a lot. But we haven’t played that in ages. Man, we should reintegrate that! We played “Ram It Home” a few times on the Barbara tour in Europe. I think in Germany. ‘You know what Germans would probably like? “Ram It Home”. Let’s do it…’
QRO: I always thought ‘Crap Attack’ was a really good name for a b-sides record…
KM: Essentially what happened was, we had made a video for every song on the first album, and so we were kinda like, ‘You know what we should do? We should put it all on a DVD, and sell it at show. It’ll be a good thing to have at shows.’
So we asked the label for those videos, and they were like, ‘That’s a really good idea – you know what we should do? We should release that, and we should couple it with all your b-sides.’ And we were like, ‘Ehh…’ And then they were like, ‘And we should do remixes of them.’ And we were like, ‘Ehh…’ But, at that point, they had decided that was what was gonna happen.
And to their credit, I have to say, as much as I said before that EMI were a pain in the butt, they were really cool about kind of letting us do whatever we wanted. And when we said that our album was gonna be called ‘Crack Pipe’, we were like, ‘If you’re doing that, we’re gonna be calling it ‘Crap Attack’, and we’re putting a picture with a baby with crap on it,’ they were like, ‘Okay…’
That you’re saying that the album is crap is amazing. I definitely would not have put out a b-sides album, if they had let it up [to us]. I would have been like, ‘That seems like a thing we should do…’
The funniest part is that it charted higher than our first album in the U.K…
QRO: You’re kind of known for your funny banter during your shows. Do you plan any of that out beforehand?
KM: No. [laughs] Here’s the thing: I feel like it wouldn’t be very funny, if it were scripted. I don’t think reading that stuff is very funny. I think that it’s a) funny that we’re wasting that much time between songs, and b) that we feel like having a conversation at that point.
QRO: Do you at least reuse spoken material on a tour, i.e., ‘This story was good last night, let’s tell it again’?
KM: Definitely never done that. [laughs]
In fact, I’m sort of relieved, in a way, that Chris isn’t here for this interview, because one thing we really, really hate is when, if people ask like, ‘What does the album title mean?’ or whatever. Repeating answers in front of Chris makes me cringe. Like, it makes me so embarrassed, ‘Well the thing about TV en Français is…’
So we definitely never really repeat stories. It’s so embarrassing to be like, ‘Oh, I’m acting like I’ve got this great answer that I just came up with, but I actually said it fifteen minutes ago to a different guy, in front of Chris.’
QRO: Does he ever do that and annoy you?
KM: It’s not that it annoys me; it just feels embarrassing to do it. I definitely understand it; it just feels creepy.
It blows my mind when people do the same between-song banter. It cracks my mind. I don’t understand how they can do it without wanting to hang themselves.
QRO: This may sound odd, but do you feel any ‘pressure to be funny’?
KM: I guess never really at shows, ‘cause at shows, I think we kind of just get into that vibe anyway. But sometimes at in-stores, or if we’re doing a weird event, that doesn’t feel very good, or just feels like stilted. I think there are times when I feel like we ought to be funny, but the situation is not lending itself to it at all, and there is a weird sense that, ‘Man, we really outta be funnier, and people probably are expecting us to be funny, but this is not a place that I can be funny in…’
QRO: I was thinking particularly about your music videos – have you ever just wanted to do a ‘straight’ music video? You have funny videos, but you don’t have ‘funny songs’…
KM: I think doing a straight video would also make us feel like repeating answers in front of each other. I think we would just be too embarrassed to do it. I think it just feels kind of freaky.
We’re actually having a conversation with a director right now, about a video for “Make It Easy” (QRO review). I think it’s probably going to be our straightest video? But we’re trying to figure out how to make it weirder…
QRO: Are you going to do another season of [MTV U.K.’s] Steve Wants His Money Back?
KM: Probably not Steve Wants His Money. He got his money…
We’d like to figure something out. We haven’t really talked about it recently, just because we’ve been about the album. But yeah, we would like to do another show, at some point.
That show was really weird because it kind of came from something else that we had done. We did some videos promoting Brain Thrust Mastery (QRO review) – there was one bit where we were trying to get money for our self-help program that was called “Brain Thrust Mastery”. And we went into a bank, and we’re just pitching really bad ideas to the loan officer.
And the production company was like, ‘We love that – let’s do that!’ And we’re like, ‘Well, okay…’
That’s our thing: pretty much anytime someone says, ‘Let’s do this!’ We’re like, ‘Whatever it is you just said, let’s do it!’ We don’t even care – ultimately, we’re gonna make it weird. So whatever thing you want to put money into, we will make a weird version of that.
QRO: When did you start going grey?
KM: At like eighteen…
QRO: And how long has Chris had his mustache?
KM: I wanna say he grew it in 2004, maybe? Maybe 2003? I’m gonna guess 2004.
Yeah, it was a pretty bold move. I don’t remember how that happened. I just don’t remember what prompted him to grow, and then keep, a mustache for the rest of his life.
He’s shaved the mustache a couple times, but never for long. It creeps me out…
QRO: Do you think people wouldn’t recognize you without your trademark hairs?
KM: I don’t know – maybe not. Maybe not… [laughs]
He definitely looks totally different without his glasses or mustache. He could probably take both of those off and disappear – in a crowd of We Are Scientists fans…