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Interview: Keith Murray of We Are Scientists

We Are Scientists will be releasing their new full-length album, Barbara, next week.  Their lead singer Keith was kind enough to take some time to speak with us regarding the album, what else the band is up to, and what they think of social media.  He used the word ‘freewheeling’ twice, and ‘facile’ once – and we appreciate his candor and willingness to talk to us.

Tympanogram: I was looking at the interview you did with The Music Slut the other day.  The name of your new album is Barbara, and you told them it was because you wanted it to be more universal and not representative of somebody specific.  Now what if someone doesn’t know anyone named Barbara; will that affect their enjoyment of the album?

Keith Murray: I think ideally it works best if you don’t know someone named Barbara.  The choice of the name Barbara was sort of angled at having a name that didn’t seem strange at all; it seemed like a familiar name without having any specific real world attributes to put to it, whereas if we had named it ‘Jennifer,’ most likely you would know a Jennifer or a Heather.

I think those without a Barbara in their lives will get the most out of it.  I feel like knowing a Barbara has the same effect as reading a book after seeing the film adaptation.  You’re always going to see Tom Hanks as the serial killer.

T: But what if people have a grandmother named Barbara?  That could also be a pretty big turn off.

KM: I actually think that would be a delicious subversion of the album.  I think it adds something perverse and taboo that makes the record a little more spicy than it otherwise might be.

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T: Andy [Burrows], your drummer, has been an official member of the band for almost a year.  I saw on Wikipedia that it was last August.

KM: I would say it was a little earlier than that.  It is actually coming up on a year that we actually agreed to go ahead and dive in.  I think it may have been even May that we had the ‘handshake.’

T: I was wondering how that conversation went.  Is it like sitting Marcia Brady down to ask her to go steady, or is it a parent/kid dynamic like ‘now we’re going to trust you with the keys to the car.’

KM: He was initially the aggressor in the conversation. We had pitched the idea of him doing a song or two on the record. Our idea was that we would have several different of our drummer friends be handpicked for specific songs and maybe have as many as five or six different drummers on the record.  So we had initially pitched that idea to him, and he was excited about that.  And then when he left his former band, he called us up and gave us the ‘hard sell’ about doing the entire record.

Initially it was just such a dramatic change in plans for us that we didn’t know what to think.  We knew we loved him and wanted him to play on the record, but suddenly it’s an entirely different animal once you decide that you’re moving from being a two-piece and allocating drum parts to different guys than doing it as a band.  But I think we ultimately got very excited about the idea of it being a band making this record, and having it be three guys who have come together Voltron-like, to make a record.

And literally the conversation involved him having mentioned that he wanted to do it, us sitting down for drinks – never actually talking about making the record – and him at some point excusing himself to go to the restroom, and when he left Chris turned to me and said, “So, he’s making this record, right?”  Ultimately there was no real business conversation.

T: So that makes you guys more the Marcia Brady in this story.

KM: Yeah, yeah. Certainly more than the parent dynamic.

T: He left to go to the bathroom, and you decided you were going to sleep with him, right then and there.

KM: Exactly.

T: So I’ve been hearing “Rules Don’t Stop” for probably about the last 10 weeks because I bought MLB 10: The Show for my PlayStation.

KM: Oh, cool.  It’s only called “Rules” on that, isn’t it? Weird.

T: How much control do you guys have over that kind of thing, if any?

KM: We definitely do have 100 percent control – even more than we initially had.  I mean, with EMI there would occasionally be times when they would NOT want to because the money was not enough. With us, now that we own the master recordings of Barbara – and we have a publishing deal with Sony – they are more than happy to license our songs anywhere that we agree to.  Essentially their job is to throw every possible licensing opportunity at us and we pick and choose.

We put a song from our first record called “The Great Escape” on a driving game called Burnout that came out in 2005. We weren’t really thinking about that and said, “I don’t know. I like driving games. It’s fun to drive to a good song, so that’s fine.”  But the number of people that came to shows and mentioned having heard us first on Burnout: Revenge was fairly staggering.  Video games are generally a good move, especially because we do like video games.

T: A lot of the songs on Brain Thrust Mastery were named after video games.

KM: That’s true.  Initially our idea was that every single song was going to be named after a video game, but it ended up being very, very confusing.  We only left the names that somehow became the name of that song for us apart from any video game, whereas had we actually named a song “Ms. Pac-Man,” it might be harder.

T: “Chick Lit” would probably make a terrible video game.

KM: I suspect it would.  Very little gunplay.

T: You guys have been a lot more successful in the UK than you have been here in the States.  Do you have any idea of why that might be?

KM: I think that the main reason is just that the nature of their radio play.  The way they choose records is much more freewheeling over there than it is in the US, where every radio station is programmed by one guy at Viacom somewhere.  I think there’s a lot of room for idiosyncrasies in programming.  And also, when our first record came out that sort of indie guitar rock thing was what they were playing on mainstream radio whereas not really quite so much in the US.  So I think we just fit in more with mainstream radio there than we did here.  I think it literally just comes down to the fact that we were on all their commercial radio stations and MTV because we fit in.

T: And you are doing “Steve Wants His Money” now.  I went on MTVUK website and they wouldn’t let me look at it, so I had to go onto YouTube and it was all pixeled – like a scrambled porn channel.

KM: The deal we made with MTV was that they would own the European rights and we would own the rest of the world’s rights.  I think that because it played on MTV once and then became an online thing, they were urging us not to go ahead and throw ours up on YouTube.  They were the investor.

At some point, we are going to make it available worldwide.  It may literally just be something like we post it on YouTube or post it in serial form on our website or something.  For now we’re just trying to respect MTV’s financial investment, and haven’t really gotten around to figuring out what the next move for that is.

T: Was that your idea or did they you approach you about that?

KM: We had done an episodic series as a promotional tool for Brain Thrust Mastery, and it sort of stemmed from this stage show we had done at universities that was like a faux-self help course.  So the fake self help course begat this episodic series about us being in the band, trying to be self help gurus, and the production team that made that series decided that they could sell it; so we ended up not using it for promotional purposes because that would essentially make it worthless because it had already been posted online.

So we never got to use the original – the Brain Thrust Mastery series for promotion – and by the time MTV decided that they wanted to go ahead and do something with us the album Brain Thrust Mastery had already been out for a year and a half so it seemed redundant.  So their take on it was “Let’s just make something totally new.”  The idea of making a show with us was brought to them by a production company, but the Steve Wants His Money stage of it was sort of their digestion of that production company’s pitch.  And they’re saying “Well, let’s do this sort of thing.  Write a show, and we’ll do our best from there.”

T: So when it finally comes to the States, and Hollywood gets its hands on it, who is going to play you in the American remake?  Do you have someone in mind?

KM: I think it’s going to have to be George Clooney.

T: You have the similar hair color at least.

KM: Absolutely.  And the arched eyebrows.  I think Chris will be played by Stephen Colbert, but he’ll have to grow a mustache.

T: We used to listen to listen to With Love and Squalor – about 4 years ago – when we were drinking and had a lot less responsibilities.

KM: Sure.  It’s an irresponsible record, that’s for sure.

T: Does it still seem interesting to you when you guys play songs from it now?  You’ve obviously expanded from just talking about boozing and girls.

KM: I’m going to lie: our interest in those topics has not waned one little bit.  I would say that our personal responsibility levels have only plummeted since we wrote that first record.  When we wrote that first record, we all had full-time jobs.  Now our full time job IS babes and booze.

T: I was wondering if you find that social media is helpful, a necessary evil or a burden.

KM: [Yelling in background] Sorry. We are visiting some friends of ours from the band Bishop Allen who have moved upstate, and one of them just got home, so there was much excitement.

In terms of social media, I feel like we are very good at using it creatively and entertainingly, but ultimately uselessly.  I feel like a lot of people love our Twitter and Facebook, but I feel like we are very poor at promoting ourselves through them, and pretty good at making them facile entertainment destinations.

T: Last one: what about talking to us? Do you mind talking to blogs?  Does it make the promotion end of the process more difficult knowing that you’ve got to talk to, let’s say a dozen blogs about the album – especially when it’s guys like us who don’t have the same following as traditional media?

KM: I feel like the nature of blogs and perhaps the fact that you don’t especially feel like you have to be catering to millions of readers in order to survive kind of generally lends a more freewheeling aspect to your interviews that bigger, more stayed media outlets would normally have.  I would also say that we are not predisposed to doing normal, straight Q-and-A interviews.  I think we like to chat and digress, which bloggers tend to indulge far more.

T: Yeah, we’re far less professional.

KM: Well, I feel like what you’re aiming for is not streamlined, pure information interviews.

T: Thank you very much for your time.  We appreciate it.  And next time you’re on tour, make sure to come to Rochester/Buffalo – more Western New York next time.

KM: We’ve played Buffalo before, so I would imagine we shall return.

Barbara is out this coming Monday or Tuesday, depending on where you live in the world, and their latest single, Nice Guys, is out today or tomorrow – again depending on where you live.  The band is also on tour throughout Europe and the US throughout the summer, and you can get those dates on their site, or their MySpace.