Few interviewees made us laugh as much as the ever-entertaining Keith Murray, guitarist and lead vocalist of New York-based indie rock group We Are Scientists. That same wit and humor are key parts of the band’s live performances as well – they’re known for cracking up crowds with kooky, tongue-in-cheek stage antics between songs. But they don’t joke around when it comes to rocking out. Their performances are fast and fierce, and they’ve won the band a cult following in the US and overseas.
In this 2006 chat Murray opens up about everything from the band’s name to their facial hair. It’s a fun and funny look back at the group just before they blew up with the release of their major label debut With Live and Squalor. If you like what you read be sure to catch We Are Scientists back on the road for a handful of shows this year.
Ticketmaster: Where did the band name come from?
Keith Murray of We Are Scientists: It came from right when we graduated from college. We had moved up to San Francisco and were dropping off the U-Haul van that we had rented. You know how the guy comes out and gives the least possible inspection of the vehicle to make sure it still has wheels and stuff like that? He came out and was half doing his job and half trying to make conversation. We were all standing around. We were skinny, really dorky, bespectacled, and pretty weak looking. He asked if we were all brothers, and we reported that we were not in fact brothers. He paused and looked us up and down again, and he asked, “Well, are you scientists?” as if it followed logically. It had to be one of those two to explain our look. So we stupidly told him that we were not scientists. Now I kind of wish we had just lied and gone on a riff about our work in nanotech. We sort of decided that would be a nice band name. So we formed the band so that there would be a band with that name.
Ticketmaster: With Love and Squalor has already been released in the UK, and you’ve earned a sizable following there. The album’s US release date (January 16, 2006) is coming up. Being from the US, are you eager to have your music heard in the States finally?
Keith Murray of We Are Scientists: It’s pretty funny, because for a while we almost forgot that the US was an actual musical market. We had been in the UK for so long and had not really thought about the US at all, which was really not the plan. Initially, the album was supposed to come out at the same time in the UK and the US, but it just kept snowballing in the UK. So it seemed unreasonable for us to even take a second off to play a tiny little show in the US when the album was coming out in the UK and we had singles coming out and radio play and MTV play. Every once in a while we’d come back and scratch our heads and say, “Oh, yeah. Not one of these people has ever heard a We Are Scientists song.” So now we’ve got the whole process to start over again here, which is kind of exciting actually. It’s like when you think back on the mistakes you’ve made in your past and you wonder, “What would’ve happened if….” It’s sort of like It’s a Wonderful Life. What if we had not died in the US but had instead formed a band and toured? Now we get to see what that alternate reality is like.
Ticketmaster: Do you feel more in your element writing and recording new songs or performing them on stage?
Keith Murray of We Are Scientists: At this point, we’re definitely not a studio band. We all pretty much hate being in a studio. So it’s definitely not the recording…Up until now, pretty much all of our recordings have been on our own dime and in crappy studios…A lot of bands go into the studio and sit around and check out all these different options and all these directions a song can go in, whereas we just go in and say, “Alright, here’s how the song goes. We’re gonna record it. Let’s do it.” We still haven’t recorded a major-label-budget album. We recorded this album before we were signed. So maybe next time if we have some time and money and a decent studio, we may sit around and check out all of our options while we’re in the studio. But at this point we still really like being in our rehearsal space working out all the arrangements there…Most of all, we do like playing live just because it feels like you’re not doing something in a total vacuum. It’s slightly less solipsistic when you’re actually interacting with people than when it is just you sitting in front of your laptop, recording a song, thinking it’s genius. This way you get affirmation that it is genius.
Ticketmaster: You recently made your national TV debut on The Late Show with David Letterman. How was that? Were you nervous?
Keith Murray of We Are Scientists: I was nervous more about the fact that it was a one-shot deal. I kept worrying about things like my string breaking or the battery in my pedal going out. We’ve definitely played those songs many times in the past six months, but there is still a good chance that we could mess up. After a while you start psyching yourself out. Your mind doesn’t really have to think about playing those songs, so you start thinking about other things like the fact that Paul Shaffer is standing three feet from you, bobbing his head while you’re playing. I think they should sort of bar him from the stage while you’re playing…although it was delighting me. A lot of people keep asking me what I was looking at to the right. It was Paul Shaffer, standing right there. But it was great and totally surreal to be walking down the hall and have Jim Carrey yell, “We Are Scientists!” I feel now that our work is done. I can just sit in my apartment for the rest of my life.
Ticketmaster: Tell me about the jobs you guys held before We Are Scientists became a fulltime gig.
Keith Murray of We Are Scientists: It’s sort of weird because we all had jobs that were sort of career-track jobs. I think a lot of bands when they work their day job while they’re trying to be a band are always thinking, “I can’t wait till we get signed so I can drop this lame job.” But for us, for the most part, when it started to seem like a distinct possibility that the band was going in a direction that would involve the need to lose the day job…I started dreading it. I worked for IFC Films, which is the theatrical film division of the Independent Film Channel. And I really, really liked the job…Chris, our bass player, worked at an ad agency for a while. Michael, our drummer, wrote database software for a Japanese bank. He was the one who wasn’t too unhappy about quitting his job although he made way, way more money than the rest of us. I think I’m the only person who’s currently making more money doing the band than he was before he quit the job. Everyone else took a pretty steep pay cut for the band, especially Michael, who reminds us every once in a while about how he could be sipping champagne right now in a hot tub.
Ticketmaster: Do you have a favorite scientist or scientific theory?
Keith Murray of We Are Scientists: I think an aspect of science that plays itself out the most with us is inertial issues. When we are not in motion, we will not begin to move until someone forces us to. And then once we get going…well, I guess that’s where the comparison ends because we stop pretty easily without much prompting.
Ticketmaster: Your drummer Michael won a Beard of the Year Award recently. Did that create some jealousy among the other band members?
Keith Murray of We Are Scientists: Well, when we started the band we all drew straws as to who would have what facial-hair feature. Michael got beard, Chris got moustache and I got clean shaven. It’s like with the Superfriends, where Batman gets batarangs and Superman gets heat vision. We’ve all got our individual thing that makes each of us special, but Batman has to get pretty pissed off when everyone keeps on lauding Superman’s heat vision. It gets pretty old after a while. You know, once again, let’s talk about Chris’s moustache. Yeah, it’s great. Let’s talk about Michael’s beard. Let’s give him an award. But you know what? I took a hit for the group and I keep my face clean. So if someone could just talk about my cheeks for a while…All I want is a little equity.
Check out We are Scientists live below!