It seems like WE ARE SCIENTISTS have been around, well, forever. Smashing onto the scene with their second album With Love and Squalor, the American duo are now a decade deep and have six albums under their belts. Having released their latest, Helter Seltzer earlier this year, the band are currently in the middle of a mammoth UK tour. Clearly they love us Brits! We caught up with Keith Murray to check in on how 2016 has been for the band.
Hi WE ARE SCIENTISTS! We see you’ve been touring here there and everywhere as of late. What has been your favourite place to visit this year so far and how does it compare to other places you have visited over the years?
We just got back from a five-day trip to Ibiza, Spain, which as you might imagine is a pretty spectacular place to have to go to work. We played a lush, two-man acoustic set on the deck of the pool overlooking a gorgeous beach at a fabulous resort hotel and then spent the rest of our time on the island chartering boats, climbing rocks and guzzling liters of sangria. So yeah: Ibiza is a pretty high watermark for touring locales.
You’re currently on a massive UK tour in support of your latest album Helter Seltzer (24 headline shows is certainly impressive). How do UK crowds compare to US ones?
It’s mainly just the accents. In the United States, you have to play someplace pretty far afield, like Minnesota or Arkansas, to get a truly eyebrow-raising accent in the crowd. In the UK, though, everybody’s got a pretty bonkers accent. From London to Liverpool, from Glasgow to Guildford, everybody’s got an entertainment system right there in their mouths, for us.
That ended up sounding pretty sleazy. I didn’t mean it that way.
What is the most memorable UK show that you’ve played over the years and why?
We had a pretty crazy show in Glasgow a few years back. It was after our performance at T in the Park, and our friends in the amazing Glaswegian band PAWS invited us to come check out their set at a tiny bar in their hometown. We were meant to be flying out of Edinburgh the next morning, so we were slightly hesitant to upend our travel plans, but they sweetened the deal by offering to let us play a secret, last-minute set with them, and it turned out to be one of the hottest, sweatiest, craziest shows we’d played in ages. I enjoyed that night’s show for 100 people more than the festival set to 10,000, earlier in the day.
Helter Seltzer sees We Are Scientists side-step towards keyboards and a poppier sound. What sparked the idea to experiment with synths this time around? Did it steer the song-writing process in a different direction than you anticipated?
We’ve always been into synths. Our second record is chock-full of them, and we actually met Max Hart, the producer of Helter Seltzer, when we hired him to play keyboards on the tour for Brain Thrust Mastery. So, we didn’t really consider it a new direction or an experiment for ourselves. It was more like an indulgence in that particular mode, of which we’ve always been fans. These songs just seemed like they’d benefit from a more synthed-out pop production style, rather than from the raw, live approach that we occasionally employ. So, in that sense, it was sort of the opposite of what you’re asking – the production came into play once the songwriting had dictated the musical direction. There were a couple of nastier tunes that I liked a lot that didn’t make the final album cut simply because they didn’t gibe well with the rest of the record.
What was inspiring you lyrically? Do you try to weave a narrative into each of your songs?
I tend to try to be a little opaque with the lyrics. I never really want an explicit narrative to show itself; I’ve never been a fan of songwriters who go in for story-songs. I’m more “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” and less “Lady Madonna.” I’m more Billy Idol than Billy Joel. This album, overall, is about the tentative first steps in a relationship, about that stretch, early on, when you really have no idea whether a new romance is or is not going to evolve into something bigger. Since that sensation is a pretty universal one, I tried not to get too specific with the details, so that listeners could just mentally plug in the names, faces, and locations that were relevant to them and, hopefully, have it resonate a little more personally.
Also, what is a “seltzer” and why did you decide “Helter Seltzer” was the right name for the new album?
This question makes me so sad. It’s like being asked by a child, “What is warmth,” or “What is a mother’s love?” Seltzer is sparkling water, but better. Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, it’ll be lightly flavored with fruit oils, so there’s a hint of lime or raspberry or – if you accrued exceptional karma in a past life – grapefruit.
Helter Seltzer seemed like the right title for this album because it encompasses the dichotomy at the heart of the band. We’re pretty light, pop-friendly guys (“seltzer,” do you see?), but our music occasionally embraces the wild, the chaotic, the slightly dark (the “helter skelter,” as it were – DO YOU SEE?!). We also just like referencing Charles Manson whenever possible – it gives us an edge that undercuts our often-clownish demeanor.
Now that you have six albums worth of material behind you, how do you go about choosing what songs make your setlist? Do you change it with each show?
I’m definitely a singles-slave. When it’s up to me, I want the audience to hear every song that they came to hear, and to never experience the crushing boredom of being confronted with a minute of music they’re not already familiar with. I just pretty much line up the fifteen singles we’ve released and then sprinkle in a few fan-favorite album tracks. Chris is more of an aesthete and has a greater belief in the emotional and artistic strength of the audience, and so he’s much more inclined the mix the set list up and throw in some b-sides or songs from more obscure EPs or 7″. He is the better man.
You’ve always been very creative with your videos. Have you always had creative control and where do get your ideas from?
Yeah, we’ve always been very hands-on with our videos. With only a couple of exceptions, (when we were on a hard deadline, or something, and simply had to get a video done as efficiently as possible), all of the videos have been conceived by Chris and I, and have generally either been directed by us or by a very close friend of the band. It just seems like, as long as somebody’s getting to make a short little movie for our song, it ought to be us, right?
Poor Chris took a real beating in your vid for ‘Buckle’, but that said, it looked like a tonne of fun! What has been your favourite video that you have created over the course of your career?
We shot a video for Return The Favor in Miami with our good friend, the brilliant photographer Dan Monick (dmonick.com) – it was pretty much just three days of shooting a Lynchian noir film in seedy hotel rooms, on gorgeous beaches, and in creepy swamps. We also ate a lot of flan and sangria. It was an excellent time.
Your humour seems to permeate everything except your music itself. Have you ever been tempted to try to bring humour into the songs over the years?
No, humor songs are pretty gross. I hate them when bands do them, and I hate them when comedians do them. When we listen to Adam Sandler records in the van, we skip right past the music and get to the real artistic meat – sketches like “Fattie McGee” or “The Longest Pee.” You know, the deep stuff.
It’s been ten years since the band found international success with With Love And Squalor; with that in mind, how do you keep things fresh for yourselves as a band, in regards to both writing and touring?
It helps when the people you tour with are your actual friends. We’ve also recently begun treating our touring life more like actual tourism – stopping for long lunches at charming pubs or driving an hour out of our way to take in some particularly appealing vista. It’s a real pain in the ass for our tour manager, but it makes us happy – we have to assume that our child-like smiles make all of the extra work worth it, for him.
We Are Scientists album Helter Seltzer is out now. UK tour dates are above.