Photo Credit: Ted Leather
We Are Scientists are not scientists. Rather, they are a New-York based rock group that has been making music—and making people laugh—since 2000. The band first made waves in 2005, when their major label debut With Love and Squalor became a sleeper hit in the United Kingdom; It was certified Gold there and spun off three of the band’s five UK Top 40 singles.
On their earlier albums like Squalor, We Are Scientists boasted the post-punk-revival swagger shared by bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Bravery. Their latest release, Megaplex, takes on a groovier, glossier synthpop vibe while maintaining the band’s signature energy. If you watch any of the silly videos they’ve made, or check out their blog, you’ll learn that they’re not just stellar musicians—they’re stellar comedians, as well. This combination makes their concerts larger-than-life.
We recently had the chance to chat with lead vocalist and guitarist Keith Murray on the phone. Our conversation covered everything from the real meaning of “No Wait at Five Leaves” to the live-action Scooby-Doo movie to Jason Voorhees. Follow along with the fun below.
TYF: You guys recently performed at Firefly. What are some of your favorite memories from that experience?
Keith Murray: This is going to sound like I’m undermining how much fun Firefly was, but I’m not. It was a great festival. Arctic Monkeys are spectacular; I hadn’t seen Jimmy Eat World in ages and they were great. But I have to say that my favorite, my most relished memory of that day, was in the lead-up to arriving at Firefly. We stopped at a local Delaware supermarket—not anything special, just some chain supermarket that we don’t have in New York—and got a massive bag of industrially made popcorn, and that popcorn stayed with us for days. It was one of the most glorious touring experiences I’ve ever had. (Laughs) Gorging myself on chemically treated popcorn. It was delicious.
TYF: That sounds fantastic. (Laughs) Earlier this year, you guys released your most recent album, Megaplex. One of the songs on that is album is “One In One Out,” which has a very cool music video. What was the experience of filming that like?
Murray: We filmed it with our friend Jared, who has filmed… I think four videos for us now. So we have a pretty genial on-set interaction with him. It was lots of fun. He actually plays our mom, who comes in and yells at us at the end, gives us cheese and crackers. We filmed it at our friend Ash’s studio, which is where we recorded the actual album, so it kind of just felt like a bunch of friends hanging out—kind of like making a movie in middle school. I used to cajole my friends into making horror movies on my video cameras; in some senses, it kind of felt like that. We pretty much knew everybody in the crew. It was all pretty casual and pretty fun.
TYF: That’s awesome. By any chance, do you remember any of the premises of these horror movies that you used to make in middle school?
Murray: (Laughs) I know there was one that I made with my friend Kevin. I guess this would’ve been in elementary school. That was called The Snot. I think it’s an obvious—I call it an homage, not a rip-off—to The Blob. And it also… Did you ever see Creepshow 2, by chance?
TYF: I have not seen Creepshow 2.
Murray: Creepshow 2 features a similar sort of Blob rip-off about this oil slick on a lake that is murderous. I think [my movie] was actually a little more of a rip-off of that feature in Creepshow 2, which I think is called The Raft. But yeah, essentially, my friend Kevin sneezes; his mucus falls into a toxically charged, irradiated body of water and turns into a sentient killing machine.
TYF: Wow, that’s so great. Another one of the songs on that album is called “No Wait at Five Leaves”; what’s the meaning of that title?
Murray: Five Leaves is a restaurant in Greenpoint in Brooklyn, where I live. It was one of the earliest hyper-hipster places that really demonstrated how the neighborhood was changing from just being “a cool place” to being, like, “a destination” with high-end culinary spots. For a long time, people in Manhattan would never come to Brooklyn—well, maybe they’d pop by to be like, “Oh, isn’t it cute and quirky that you live in Hipster Zone?” But now, Williamsburg is more desirable for bankers, designers, and affluent people than even Manhattan. And I think the price of real estate per foot is actually higher in Williamsburg than anywhere in Manhattan. So anyway, Five Leaves was sort of the beginning of that, food-wise. And it’s good—I like Five Leaves, and I go there—but it’s also very annoying because there’s always a giant wait at Five Leaves. Like, anytime you walk by Five Leaves, there is a line—outside and around the corner—of very overdressed people waiting to get inside. My friend Tim and I will often go there for breakfast. He lives right across the street, and so when we have breakfast together, we’ll go there because he’s lazy and I’m generous. When we go, which is usually about 9:00 AM on a weekday, it’s sort of the only time there’s not a line at Five Leaves. And that always feels really good. It kind of feels like we’re beating the system (laughs), getting something wonderful without all of the anticipated work and wait that you would have expected. And I thought that felt a bit like a ridiculous metaphor for the sentiment of that song, which is sort of about not really wanting to be made to wait for something that you’re anxiously longing for. That was a long-winded explanation of how the title relates to the song.
TYF: That’s a really cool story.
Murray: Thanks. I made it up myself just now. (Laughs) Kidding.
TYF: I read that you wrote the majority of the songs on the album through this songwriting challenge called “Song Challenge.” Can you tell me bit more about that?
Murray: I mean, it’s mainly an excuse for a bunch of friends to hang out. You sort of dedicate a day to this project. Sometimes we’ll do it once a week. I haven’t done it in maybe six months now. But the idea is that you dedicate 10 hours in a day to writing 10 songs, and at the end of the day, everybody who’s participated in it meets up, and you play the recordings of the song that you’ve been working on all day. Largely, it’s a social event that’s punctuated by people playing songs that they’ve written. The idea behind it is that often, when you’re trying to write songs—especially when you do it professionally—it’s difficult to dampen the idea that as you’re writing this song, you’re also doing your job, and you want the song to be as good as possible because the fortune of your band depends on you writing another song. The idea behind this is stripping that away and just being like, “Well, you don’t have time to really be very precious about it. Your goal right now is to write ten songs that will entertain the people who are hanging out drunkenly.” So it sort of is just a good reframing of songwriting to take you out of that sensibility wherein songwriting needs to be a highly crafted, focused enterprise. The songs people bring to Song Challenge are often quite silly and frivolous and fun, which can be as exciting as hearing a wonderful epic. I feel like a lot of songs have evolved from those songwriting challenge songs because these songs will often have an air of excitement that is hard to conjure when you’re trying to write a song pointedly as a business move.
TYF: We Are Scientists often incorporates comedy into their live set. On that note, what’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened at one of your shows?
Murray: Uh… I don’t know. We are often so deeply in the moment that we generally don’t really remember anything that we talk about. Our tour manager, for the past four years now, I guess, has been recording our shows specifically because he wants to capture all of the dialogue between songs. He keeps on promising that one day he’s going to edit the best of them together and make an album for us to release, but at this point, he must have something like 150 We Are Scientists shows. I don’t think he’s ever actually going to get through all that stuff. But yeah, to sort of answer your question, I don’t really remember half of the funny things. I know that I think they’re funny at the time, but then I’m like, “What were we talking about?” (Laughs)
TYF: Have you ever gone back and watched any of the videos?
Murray: Not really. I am definitely one of those people that cringes when I watch myself on video. I definitely have that phenomenon where you hear your recorded voice and it sounds alien to you. That’s definitely how I feel when I watch myself doing… well, doing almost anything. I definitely don’t like to watch our TV appearances or anything like that. I like it better from my point of view onstage (laughs).
TYF: On the We Are Scientists blog, you have some very interesting articles. In one of these, you mentioned that you were disappointed with the Scooby-Doo live action film in 2002 and that you think there should be a “Scooby-Doo Redo.” On that note, if you were to direct your own “Scooby-Doo Redo,” what would the setting be? What monsters would be terrorizing the town? Would you make a cameo? What’s your vision?
Murray: (Laughs) That’s a good one. I would resist the urge to utterly modernize the Scooby-Doo classics. My initial inclination was that there would have to be some sort of technical aspect to it, and that maybe there was, like, a supernatural infestation in some tech phenomenon. But I think I like it better when Scooby-Doo is kind of ragtag. You know, the Mystery Machine breaks down in a swamp and they just go to the nearest shack for aid and meet a swamp demon. I think I would like to set mine in a swamp where the Mystery Machine breaks down. So maybe it takes place in New Orleans. You know, New Orleans—like Williamsburg 10, 15 years ago—is experiencing a pretty good culinary and mixology rebirth. So maybe they’re there on a cocktail tour. Maybe they’re a little more sophisticated than they were back in the day. (Laughs) But yeah, I’d like to think they somehow end up on a bayou airboat ride and meet a swamp demon. Played by me.
TYF: Fantastic. On another article on that page, you have a list of things that should be on European currency, and you proposed that Nostradamus should be placed on the Euro. On that note, do you have a favorite conspiracy theory, by any chance?
Murray: Hmm… I’m not a huge conspiracy guy. Maybe four or five years ago, I got really into this documentary that’s on YouTube. It’s called “The Winged Beatle,” and it explores the pretty rote and rudimentary and hackneyed conspiracy theory that Paul McCartney died midway through the Beatles’ career and was replaced by a stand-in. I’m not really that interested in that theory, but the documentary itself is so harebrained. It’s very odd and kind of poorly made, so that’s incredibly gripping and entertaining. But at the very end, it ends with a cliffhanger. Like, it literally makes a declarative statement either way about the Paul McCartney thing. And to be honest, I don’t even remember whether they had decided that it was or was not Paul McCartney. I just remember that it ends with a freeze frame of… I think, like, a briefcase being thrown and the question “Or was he?” It threatened that there was going to be a Part II, but there never, as far as I know, was a Part II. So my conspiracy theory is that the Beatles people people killed this documentary filmmaker. That’s a conspiracy I’m beginning right now.
TYF: I will have to look that up myself.
Murray: It’s way longer than you think it ought to be. I feel like it’s, like, 85 minutes long, which seems pretty long for a terrible YouTube video.
TYF: That is very long for a terrible YouTube video.
Murray: Well, stay for the ending. It’s got a great finish. (Laughs)
TYF: You guys are called We Are Scientists, obviously; if you were actually a scientist, what type of science would you want to study?
Murray: That’s a good question. I think nanotech, mainly because… Well, I guess it’s not real nanotechnology in Jason X, the latest Friday the 13th film, which I think was, at this point, about 18 years ago. In Jason X, which takes place in the future… I don’t know if you’ve seen it…
TYF: I have not.
Murray: …They have biometric nanotechnology that is used for medical applications, and that’s how the previously deceased Jason gets revived. And of course, they fall into the pretty basic, I think, misunderstanding that nanotech robots will look like ants. It zooms in and all these little tiny robotic ants are healing Jason Voorhees and bringing him back to life. And that is what I would like to do. I would like to create an army of biotech ants who can revive already supernatural fictional serial killers.
TYF: Isn’t that what we all aspire to do someday?
Murray: I think so. Not many people are brave enough to come and say it out loud, but you know what? I’m gonna take one for the team. I’m sure there’s going to be all kinds of blowback.
TYF: Indeed. All right; is there anything else that you would like to say to the readers and fans before we wrap up the interview?
Murray: Um, I would just like to say, “Lock your doors,” because if my scientific research pans out, there are going to be several undead murderers roaming the earth in due time.