When We Are Scientists first began making waves in the press with their second album With Love and Squalor in 2006, the group wound up being pegged as one of the most prototypical indie rock groups out there: a trio that played quirky-smart guitar rock songs that sounded like fellow power-pop enthusiasts the New Pornographers with maybe a bit more caffeine and a few rays of sunshine rubbed off the sheen. The group could get goofy, but they never played up the comedy too deliberately.
While some TV appearances followed for this NYC-by-way-of-California trio (which later slimmed down to be just a tight duo), the group really hit it in 2008 with their underrated third disc Brain Thrust Mastery, wherein the song “After Hours” became a Top 20 hit in the UK, got roped in to movie soundtracks like Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and became an indie hit within its own right. The guys were flying high, but the muted response which greeted 2010’s Barbara took the band back a bit, and thus they took their longest recording break since their 2002 debut before entering the studio again.
Of course, fans of the group will not be disappointed with TV en Francais, their latest, as it retains their surprisingly deft mixture of the poppy and the heartfelt, all under the guise of good times and half-smirked smiles. Of course, while TV‘s sound indicates that the group is turning into true pop-rock warhorses, member Keith Murray now faces the unusual and delightful challenge of tackling PopMatters’ 20 Questions, here discussing the greatness of Tusk, some great advice from his high school drama teacher, and the correlation he has between Macbeth and BASEketball.
* * *
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene is a real doozy. I’m not sure what the last film was, but it was most likely on an airplane, and it was probably not even all that great a film. I almost cried while watching Star Trek Into Darkness on the flight home from London last night, and that film was a total stinker. I was really tired, though.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Hmm. Maybe MacBeth? In that I have aspirations toward grandeur, but am also pretty easily bullied, and submit to peer pressure? I guess I’m not nearly as ruthless as he is, thankfully. Maybe, then, “Coop” Cooper, from BASEketball? He’s an inventive, likable buffoon with a quick wit, but a bit of a petty streak.
3. The greatest album, ever?
I’m really ashamed to say it, because it’s a something of a hipster cliché these days, but Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk is just an unbeatable collection of heart-rending ballads, rousing sing-alongs, and weirdo experiments. It’s simultaneously really raw-feeling and incredibly manicured and meticulous. I guess it’s hard to know what it sounded like to the average listener when it was released, but today it somehow manages to feel both familiar and inventive, which is an incredibly enviable thing to pull off.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
If we’re going with the original series, Star Wars for sure—it felt more playful and batshit crazy, whereas I always found Star Trek a bit stuffy. As far as the reboots go, the new Star Trek series is totally on top. Episodes One through Three of Star Wars are just excruciating.
5. Your ideal brain food?
I think just having a couple of bottles of beer and a bass guitar does it for me. I can lounge around and noodle for hours. Maybe the most important ingredient in songwriting for me, though, is solitude—if I think anyone can hear what I’m doing at all, I get really self-conscious and clam up.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I’m not sure I’m understanding the question, but I’ll make a stab at it. I’m extremely proud of having written and hosted the Fly Awards this last week, mainly because it’s such a strange and unexpected thing for us to have done. If you had told the 15-year-old me that I’d someday play “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” with R.E.M. at an arena in Madrid, it would have seemed implausible, for sure, but at least it would make theoretical sense, in that I was an aspiring musician. If you’d told me that I’d someday host and write comedic bits for a British awards ceremony, though ... well that just wouldn’t have made any sense, and I love that. I’m similarly proud of our having done a tour of universities, delivering a fake self-help seminar. That’s just weird.
7. You want to be remembered for ...?
I’d like to be remembered for writing very serious music but not taking ourselves seriously at all. The cult of seriousness that surrounds artists and musicians, specifically, has always really put me off. There’s nothing less appealing to me than someone who’s pretentious and self-congratulatory, regardless of whether their work theoretically justifies that sort of self-regard.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Weezer for their melodies, David Foster Wallace for his fusion of precision and emotion, Trey Parker and Matt Stone for their singular vision, Fleetwood Mac for the ache they’re able to evoke.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.
10. Your hidden talents ...?
I’m a pretty good imitator of other singers, which is weird, because I’m pretty bad at imitating other people’s speech.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
Mike Moyna, my high school theater teacher, taught me that quitting as a means of avoid potential embarrassment is a tremendous self-condemnation. In my junior year, I tried out for a high school play, just as a means of hanging out with some other friends who were going to be in or around the production. When I got cast in the lead role, I tendered my immediate resignation, out of fear. Mr. Moyna pulled me out of class and gave me the “Who Dares, Wins” lecture, and I’ve been trying to apply it, ever since.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
When I was maybe 15, my older sister’s boyfriend loaned me his Tascam Portastudio 4-track cassetterecorder and never asked for it back. I’m not sure whether that counts as theft or borrowing, but I learned to write songs on that thing, and it was the device that helped me recognize that creating your own art is about 1000 times more exciting than performing someone else’s.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or ...?
Holy cow, I’m ashamed to say it, but I feel best in Hanes ComfortSoft V-neck T-shirts. I don’t know how, but they’ve sort of become my uniform. If I could just wear those and a pair of black Nudie jeans every day of my life, I’d be happy, sartorially.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
I’m pretty luckily in that I really like doing this sort of thing with Chris Cain, my bandmate. He’s a pretty great co-conspirator, in that our tastes generally exist within the same world, but veer off just enough to get us into aesthetic arguments pretty frequently, without their diverging into outright rancor. He’s also funny as hell. I guess I’d also love to go with Dev Hynes (Blood Orange, Lightspeed Champion). He’s somehow really great at making everything exciting seem even more mind-blowing. It’s one thing I’m really hoping he doesn’t lose now that his star is on the rise—his approach to everything with wide eyes and huge enthusiasm is always really inspiring.
15. Time travel: where, when, and why?
Shoot, maybe to Paris in the 1920s? I recently got into a big “Lost Generation” kick and reread all of the Paris-centric work by that gang. I guess I can just watch Midnight in Paris, if I want to partake of this particular fantasy. Otherwise, New York in the mid-‘70s would be great, just hanging out with the Ramones and Blondie and Television and Lou Reed and Woody Allen and Richard Hell, and Abel Ferrara and all of the scum and slime would have been pretty exhilarating, I’ll bet.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation, or Prozac?
Hmm. Like, you mean, a hit man to take me out? I guess I’d choose spa vacation, but I’m pretty phobic of things like massages and manicures and hot tubs. If can just lie on a beach and drink blended beverages, I’m generally pretty good.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or ...?
Margaritas. Give me margaritas, all the time, anywhere.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
I’m absolutely a city guy. New York is my favorite place in the world, no doubt. I moved here in 2001, and, ever since the band has been our primary concern, I’ve been convinced that I ought take advantage of my freedom to live all over the world. As much as I love London, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Madrid, Riga, Rome, St. Petersburg, etc., I just can’t bring myself to live anywhere else. I’d miss NYC too much.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
How about we cut it out, with the drone strikes, you jackass?
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
I’ve got a few new songs brewing for the next album, and I’d love for Chris and I to knuckle down on writing a formal comedic proposition, but it’s pretty hard to focus on anything new and creative when we’re in full-bore album-promotion mode and are about to launch on four months of tour.
// Notes from the Road
"Merle Haggard, St. Vincent, and the Flaming Lips headed up another eclectic year at Ohio's Nelsonville Music Festival.READ the article