As he starts his ‘400th’ trip to the UK, Chris Cain of US indie-rockers We Are Scientists tells Tim Hughes he feels like a conquering king
Their name may sum up images of Bunsen burners and bubbling test tubes, but musical boffins We Are Scientists are more at home in the studio than the laboratory.
That’s not to say the New York indie-rockers aren’t capable of great breakthroughs though. Take their new album.
Released this week, TV en Français finds the playful duo of Keith Murray and Chris Cain at their melodic post-punk best. Augmented by ex-Razorlight sticksman Andy Burrows on drums and keys, the band’s release coincides with what they amusingly claim is their 400th visit to the UK. How, I ask, does it feel?
“Like King Richard returning from the Crusades!” laughs Chris, adding, uncertainly, “He made it back, right?
“No, but in all seriousness, it feels like a king must feel when he's been away from his country for a while on some kind of mission, and he's finally coming back to his beloved people.”
So how do they feel they have changed over that time? “I think we’ve gotten better at what we do, for one thing,” he says. “Nobody would ever have accused us of mastery back in 2005. We were a bunch of muck-ups – charismatic, yes, but muck-ups. Now we only muck up a normal amount. Well, for musicians, which admittedly is more than non-musicians. But we’re right on par for musicians, you see, as muck-ups. Which feels good!”
It is 14 years since We Are Scientists first picked up their musical scalpels. The name, for what it’s worth, dates back to a misunderstanding over the rental of a truck. “A stranger asked us if we were brothers,” Chris explains. “We said ‘no’. Then he asked if we were scientists. It was the beginning of everything.”
They broke through five years later with their major label debut album, With Love & Squalor. The album, a compulsive slab of indie-dance, went gold in the UK. It was followed by two more long players before their current release: 2008’s Brain Thrust Mastery and 2010’s Barbara, as well as crowd-pleasing singles After Hours, Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt, The Great Escape, It’s a Hit and Chick Lit. Then there are the sold-out tours and acclaimed appearances at Reading, Glastonbury, T in the Park, V and the Isle of Wight festivals.
Andy joined the previously all-American band following the departure of original drummer Michael Tapper, now a member of Los Angeles group Fool’s Gold. So how, I wonder, has their token Brit settled in? Has he perhaps got the other two drinking tea and eating English muffins?
Chris laughs. “No, in fact we regularly taunt him with a totally put-on disrespect for all things British.
“The versions of ourselves that we become around Andy find everything British inexplicable, ridiculous and maddening. In fact, we quite like British things, but we can’t let Andy know that.”
TV en Français follows the release of their five-track EP Business Casual, and was recorded in New York City with super-producer Chris Coady (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Yuck, Beach House).
“It’s great,” says Chris with trademark enthusiasm. “It’s largely mid-tempo, produced immaculately, rich with hooks and lyrics that resonate, with plenty of variety but the coherence to hang together as a single work. Chris Coady made it with us. He engineered our last two albums, at least bits of them; on this outing we handed him the car keys and said, ‘You ready to drive this tank?’. ‘I’ve driven bigger,’ he said, metaphorically, and then off we went.”
And it’s not really in French is it? “It’s not, no,” he admits. “The idea behind the title refers to how being in a relationship with someone can feel like watching TV in French (for us, because we don’t speak French). You understand the basics of what’s going on, because you’ve got the equivalent of images on a TV, but you miss so much subtlety and nuance that failure is inevitable. That’s the idea there.”
As well as playing a gig at the O2 Academy, tonight, the band will also grace the stage at Truck Store – Cowley Road’s independent music emporium. Let’s hope it goes smoother than one fateful trip to play in Switzerland.
“I got left in the middle of a field after a festival,” he grimaces. “I had no ID, money, or phone – just a bus key, but no bus. I had 36 hours ’till our next gig in Munich, and I made it, but it was awful. Though, in a way, I think it’s funny when I look back on it.
“There’s been funnier stuff, for sure, but we’re still locked in litigation with one party or another because of it, so I shouldn’t talk about it.”
And what’s the worst they’ve ever behaved? “If there’s any chance this periodical will be read in The Hague, I really can’t risk speaking of that time,” he smiles.
With a huge fanbase on both sides of the Atlantic, there aren’t many indie-rock fans who haven’t heard of this erudite California-born outfit. But, how would he describe their music to the uninitiated?
He pauses, smiles, and, in typically understated style, declares: “I’d say to him or her, ‘This might save you!’”
So what can Oxford gig-goers expect from the show? “We will redefine their understanding of entertainment!” he grins.
“We’re a bigger band in the UK, so the level of frenzy is definitely higher for us there,” he goes on. “Or maybe they’re just a better damn crowd!”
Popular, then, intelligent, even, but scientists? Perhaps not. If they WERE professors, however, what would they put their scientific powers to – good or evil?
“Well, you set out to do good, of course, but then you find out that evil pays better, and the lines get blurry. Ya gotta eat, you know? Ya gotta eat lobster every night... if possible.”
We Are Scientists play the O2 Academy, Oxford tonight.
Tickets £15 from ticketweb.co.uk