Lead singer Keith Murray talks about expanding the band’s sound on their second album Brain Thrust Mastery, being bigger in Europe than the States, giving fake self-help presentations, making idiosyncratic videos, and what the early days of starting out where like.
So this tour just started up this week, right? How is it going?
Yeah, this is day three of the States. It was good. It’s been a really, really long time since we’ve played in America. We were not exactly sure what to expect, but both have been really packed and pretty enthusiastic. That’s good. I think we’re still used to thinking of ourselves as this success in Europe and then indie success here, so it’s always funny to come back and be like, oh, shit. Shows are amazing here.
Who are you touring with on this one?
For the last three shows we’ve had a band from L.A. called the Blood Arm, who are friends of ours. They’re working on their next album. They wanted to road test some of the new songs, so they asked if they could be tagged onto the L.A. area shows. We also have a band called the Morning Benders with us, who are from Oakland. After the Blood Arm are done, we have a band from Australia called Cut Off Your Hands as well.
Your second album came out a couple months ago. How does it feel to have number two out there?
It feels good. It feels good to be done with number two and to be riding the number two wave at this point. Yeah, no, it’s good. It’s definitely nice to have a set list that isn’t essentially one album’s worth of songs, just put in a different track order, which was what was happening after our first album came out. It’s nice to be able to choose which songs are worthy of being in a set list.
What’s the reception been like? What have you been hearing about the album?
It’s been really good. It was in the top 20 in the U.K. It was No. 11 when it came out in the U.K. The first single did better than any single we’ve had before. It got to like No. 15 or something, so it’s been really good. Better than we dared expect and as well as we hoped, for sure.
I love the title, Brain Thrust Mastery. How did you come up with that?
We came up with that phrase as sort of a name of a fake self-help lecture we were doing at universities in the U.K. We were on tour with the Kaiser Chiefs. During the day, we would go to local universities and set up in their student unions and give these fake self-help lectures. It was sort of modeled after an Anthony Robbins kind of thing.
We were trying to think of a title for our self-help lecture that was as vacuous but impressive sounding as Anthony Robbins’ Personal Power, or whatever. So, what we came up with was Brain Thrust Mastery, and then we got really attached to it. We also thought it was a funny comment on bands who give their album titles super important sounding titles as well.
How did those lectures go? What kinds of responses did you get?
They were really good [laughs]. One thing we weren’t anticipating is I guess self-help isn’t as big of an industry in the U.K. as it is in the States. I think they had less actual reference. We were making specific jokes that I think in the States would have gone over. They liked the fact that it was just really weird. Our presentation of it was just very strange. We had a PowerPoint presentation that was nonsensical. There was legitimately no way to parse any sense out of what we were doing. I think that is universal.
Also, as the lecture series went on, we sort of had a script for it, but after lecture number two we started using the bullet points in the PowerPoint presentation as guides and then improvising our way through it. It definitely got more surreal as the tour went on. It also got some press and stuff like that, so by the end people sort of knew what they were getting into. The first couple, some people showed up thinking we would be playing an acoustic set or something, and it was just us in suits with head mics on, giving a PowerPoint presentation.
What is that like being more successful in the U.K. and Europe than here in the States?
It sort of makes it feel somewhat less real. We go over there and suddenly everything’s a really huge deal, and then we come home. We’re definitely very happy with how well we do over here. We never thought we’d be as big over here as we ended up being, so it’s not to say that over here is a wasteland of cultural affection.
It is nice to come home and everything is a little bit more low key. I like playing small clubs, personally. It is nice to have tours make a lot of money, since that’s largely where we draw our income from, but I do like playing small clubs. These shows are really fun.
It’s nice to get the best of both worlds, where we go over there and we play really huge shows that sometimes after a while can stop feeling very intimate. Then we come over here and we get to play rowdy, small shows, which to me are the more fun shows. It definitely feels like the best of both worlds.
So on this record it was just you and Chris this time. How did that differ from your past work?
The first record, we weren’t signed to a label when we recorded it. We weren’t a particularly big band. I think our biggest headlining show before the record came out was like 200 people in New York. We thought that was a gigantic deal. We were the sort of band where we all had full-time jobs and the band was a hobby. We would meet maybe two or three times a week and practice for fun. We rarely played shows, and stuff like that. We had a lot of time to let songs ferment.
We would essentially write maybe a song a month. I would write a bunch of songs at home, and then when we would get together to practice, I would be like, “Oh, here’s something new to work on.” We would take a really long time to work on it, which had its blessings and curses with it. It was a pretty labor-intensive process, whereas this time we stopped touring.
We’re not very good at writing on the road, so when we finally stopped touring after two and a half years of touring on the last record, we only had a handful of songs written. I locked myself away in our practice space and every day sat down and wrote, which was a new experience for me. It was really fun.
I definitely vastly preferred it to the other method, which was work all day and then come home, and sometimes not feel like playing and sometimes feel like playing. It was cool to just say, “Today I’m going to go to our practice space again and knock around on bass, or keyboard or guitar, and see if I come up with anything.” It was a bigger part of our lives this time around.
How long did you spend on the recording?
The actual recording process was five weeks, I think. We did a week of drums and then four weeks of everything else in Sausalito, California.
Throughout that whole process, did you want to play around with stuff you weren’t able to do on the first record?
Yeah. The first record, like I said, we wrote those songs one at a time, not really thinking about them being a record. At that point, we were just a three-piece live band. That was the only way we existed. Every once in a while we would get a show at a terrible club in New York City. We wrote those songs to be played by three guys live. By the time we recorded that record, we were sort of entrenched in the idea of how those songs went.
This time, the songs had only existed in demo form. We hadn’t really played them live at all, so there was definitely a fluidity to the songs when we went into the studio. The last record took us three weeks to record. This one took two extra weeks, just because I think we were trying to be open to random ideas that came up. We spent a little more time messing around with different ideas in the studio, rather then deciding this is how this song must go, let’s shoehorn it in the studio.
The last record was a fairly spare record, which was fun and cool at the time. I feel like part of what made that record cool was we spent a lot of time making everything count as much as we possibly could, just because there was so few ingredients to every song. It was just one guitar, one bass, one drum kit, three voices. We tried to do as much as we could with just those things.
After a while, we started feeling like that palate was a little too spare for our tastes. We had spent enough time worrying how to make a song out of those ingredients. I think this time we were more open to saying, “We don’t need to restrict songwriting to whatever three guys in a room can do live.”
Is there anything on this new record you are particularly proud of?
Yeah, I like the stuff that sounds the least like our last record the most. There’s a song called “Lethal Enforcer” that’s sort of 80s new wave. It’s super heavy synth stuff. It has really tight, reverb drums, and stuff like that. It’s probably my favorite song we’ve ever written.
In general, I like this record more than the last record. I feel like there was more ambition involved in this record, which makes it more interesting to me. That song in particular, every time I hear it, it delights me [laughs].
How do you approach writing lyrics? You seem to be really funny people, yet are able to have a little more depth than your typical cookie cuttery type band.
Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t think there’s a real philosophy behind the lyrics. We do think lyrics are important, and in general we are pretty literarily focused guys. We’re big readers. I was an English lit major in college, but I never try to overthink lyrics.
I will say one philosophy we have, apart from the idea that joke songs are always terrible songs, is message songs are fairly distasteful. I never try to be pedantic in songs. But yeah, I don’t know. Lyric writing is just something I try to make more instinctive than overwrought, I would say. We definitely try not to have vacuous lyrics as well.
A little while ago you released the video for “Chick Lit,” which was a pretty interesting concept there. How did you come up with that?
Yeah, sort of to a fault we insist on coming up with our own content in all realms. It means we end up having videos where we’re herding Pomeranians on the high plane. Those are all our ideas.
I think our general philosophy as a band is that we’re in a pretty fortunate position. Our record label comes to us and demands that we make a video for the next single. They say, “Well, we have these directors lined up and here are some pitches they have for it.” I feel like we think to take somebody else’s pitch would be a waste of an opportunity. The idea is that we then get to say, “Well, actually what we were thinking is us, as cowboys, herding Pomeranians.” Then the label goes ahead and makes that happen. It’s an opportunity that shouldn’t just be thrown away. We definitely go out of our way to try to be active creators in all the stuff we do.
Both that video and the one for “After Hours” have animals in them. Were there any difficulties on set getting that to work out?
There wasn’t really a problem in the Pomeranian one. That field was in Dublin, and it was really cold and really windy. The dogs were pretty much cowering the entire time, so they weren’t causing many problems because they were so terrified and uncomfortable.
On the “After Hours” video, where I set Chris up on a date with a dog, he had spent the whole day hanging with the dog and petting the dog. In the scene where Chris and I are fighting, the dog went ballistic and only wanted to murder me for hurting him. So, that was interesting. That dog really, really wanted to destroy me. It wanted to tear my throat out. That’s why on the next video we only included dogs that could be kicked, like a soccer ball.
Yeah, I love your videos. Do you think that’s allowed you to stand out more and get more exposure that way?
I don’t know. We’re sort of a couple of minds. You’d actually be surprised at how little people like things. Not to say that they’re challenging, but they’re weird. I think they’re really entertaining. I like them. I think we turn some people off because they’re like, “I don’t get it. Why are these dudes doing this? This doesn’t make sense. Why aren’t they in a room playing the song, looking at the camera, trying to look cool? What is this bullshit? These are nerds.”
I think there is a population out there that is largely responsible for buying the bulk of the world’s records, who finds music through commercial radio and stuff like that, who aren’t very interested in the sort of absurdity that we embellish. So, I don’t know. I do think that the people who do like them find them very charming because they’re clearly very personal. I don’t mean revealing of our intimate thoughts, but that this is clearly what we like to do. They’re very idiosyncratic. They’re not a video that other bands make. They do have that appeal, but I do think their weirdness does tend to turn some people off. People who are into, say Celine Dion, might not like our videos.
Do you already have plans for your next one?
We are in fact planning the next video right now. I think as we speak Chris is on the phone with a potential director, trying to get him onboard with the idea we have, which I will not reveal because it’s too good to give away too early. If we make it happen, it will definitely be our best video.
So far, we’ve been using our videos as excuses to live dreams that we’ve had for a long time. In the video for “Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt,” we had a guy jump through a pane of glass, which I’ve always wanted to have. Then in the “After Hours” video, I got to smash a sponge sugar bottle on Chris’ head, which was also a longtime dream. If we do this one, there will be another cinematic dream fulfilled. Hopefully, it will work out.
When we actually came up with this idea, we thought our label was going to hate it and tell us no. Actually, their response was, “Yep, that video is pretty much you guys.” So, hopefully it will work out. They seem onboard with it.
Can you say what song it’s for?
Oh, yeah. It’s for a song called “Impatience.”
Oh, nice. Good choice there. So you’re down to only two permanent members now in the band. Have you been able to get a stable lineup for the other guys working out yet?
Yeah, the guys who are on tour with us, when we think about We Are Scientists, we think of those two guys. I think the reason they’re not considered official members is that Chris and I are signed to the label and the record was just Chris and I. Stuff like that.
If those guys left, we would feel really weird. Replacing them would feel strange again. We definitely don’t think of them as disposable or a rotating cast. These two guys are really awesome and really good friends of ours. They definitely are, if not legally and contractually, in We Are Scientists. They are part of the family, for sure.
Now the band has been around for quite a while, right?
Yeah, in some form or another. We didn’t start really doing it aggressively until maybe 2004. There has been a band in the world called We Are Scientists since 2001. We started in Berkley. Chris and I were living together in Berkley after we graduated from college with a third guy. I was on drums, Chris was playing bass, and another guy was singing and playing guitar. So, we’ve been around in different iterations for some time.
You play both drums and guitar then?
Yeah, but there is a reason I didn’t end up being the permanent drummer. There’s no way I’m going to end up being a professional band’s drummer anytime soon. I can play drums, but I’m by no means a drummer.
When you were first starting out in music, what did you start out on?
When I first started playing music, guitar has always been my main instrument. I didn’t really start singing until a band I was in in college my senior year. We didn’t have a singer, so I was like, “Well, I guess I’ll sing. I don’t know.” Even in that band, it was sort of the same deal. This guy Scott, who was an original member in We Are Scientists, was also in that band. Each of us sang half of the songs. We were like, “I guess we’ll both sing. We got nothing better to do.”
For the rest of the year, will you just be touring?
Yeah, we have a pretty full tour schedule that goes through mid December. Ideally, we’ll take a little break at the beginning of the new year, but we’ll see. Somehow these schedules just keep on piling up and piling up.
Will you be doing another stateside tour in the fall?
Yeah, we’ll definitely be back. We have a support slot for Kings of Leon, but it’s a good-sized tour and pretty long. I haven’t seen the actual routing for it yet. They haven’t sent it to us, but it’s long enough that it will cover all the major outlets for music in the States.
What’s the touring process like for you? Do you like being out on the road all the time?
Yeah, it’s fun. It certainly has its ups and downs. Chris and I both have very serious relationships, so we definitely miss our girlfriends pretty much all the time. There’s a lot of stupid down time on tour, where you show up at a venue to load in your equipment and then you don’t soundcheck until three hours. Then after you soundcheck, you have another three hours before you play.
You spend a lot of time killing time, but it’s fun. It’s cool to visit all the crazy places we’d never have gone to had we not been in this band. It’s the sort of the thing where we complain about it on a daily basis while we’re touring, but then when we’re off tour, we miss it.
Do you have any plans on what you want to do next after this album cycle is done?
We have a few plans for some things we’re trying to cook up. We do a lot of video stuff, like making video sketches and stuff like that. We’re trying to find a bigger outlet for that. We’ll definitely make another record when this tour’s done. That kind of thing.
We haven’t really had a good break since we started touring in 2005. After we stopped touring on the last record, we just went right into writing the new record, so it would be nice to have a little time off. We also tend to get bored when we’re not doing anything, so I can’t imagine we’d take a lot of time off.