Photo: Matilda Finn

The Fictional Life of the Wombats

Arguing with your label about Vicodin. Creating a fictional life to write songs about. Embracing "weird crystal-worship party lovers." Just another day in the life of the Wombats.
The Wombats
Bright Antenna

Why did the Wombats take four years between releasing their first and second full-lengths? “‘cos the first batch of songs I wrote were shit,” Murph jokes.

Murph is the accepted nickname of Matthew Murphy, who, along with fellow multi-instrumentalists Dan Haggis and Tord Øverland Knudsen, form the Wombats, who have slowly come into prominence as one of the smartest, most dexterous pop groups in existence. They love dance-y synths but will never go EDM. They play guitar-driven covers of Leona Lewis songs but have a sound that’s much more expansive that of a mere rock band. Murph once told us that he is often compared to Droopy the Dog, due to his “understated enthusiasm and general inner misery.”

“Let it be known,” he continues, “[that] this bares no reflection on my manhood.”

The trio’s last album, This Modern Glitch, came out in 2011 and the band launched a hugely expansive tour to promote it, including multiple legs through North America. Murph’s biting, self-deprecating lyrics has helped endear the group to millions, but those that know Murph know that he is not one to rest on his laurels, much less be happy with the way things are. He constantly wants to push himself to do better, and part of that drive has helped lead to Glitterbug, the band’s long-awaited third album.

So why yet another long wait between releases? “We toured [This Modern Glitch] for about two years after its release,” he tells us, “doing festivals and stuff, so I guess the writing process really started late 2012. It kind of took us a year and a half to write that one, but with [Glitterbug], it was the recording process that took ages. We wanted to work with Mark Crew who did the Bastille stuff, but he was locked in to other projects, so we only did like two weeks on and then there was a three week gap and then two weeks back and so on. This album really probably could have come out last summer. But we thought ‘Why rush a good thing?'”

Indeed, Glitterbug shines ever brighter than the band’s last already-polished efforts, Crew’s anthemic pop sheen bringing the tragic wit of Murph’s lyrics into full focus. “I dream in technicolor and I live in black and white” he opines on “This is Not a Party”, another feel-good anti-party song in a discography that’s full of them.

Yet instead of finding uplift in downbeat scenarios as he did on Modern Glitch, Murph’s lyrical perspective has shifted towards the more immeditately releatable, forgoing character studies and woe-is-me catharsis in favor of songs dealing with rejection and love that’s more unrequited than not. Murph notes how “down” the second album felt for him, at least psychologically. “It’s nice to hear what people think of the album or where they think it fits (it’s really exciting to me), but lyrically I wanted [this one] to be a bit raunchier, maybe use the word ‘sexy’ very sparingly, talking slightly more open about what life is like to be young in the U.K. or Los Angeles or New York. Also, this album is the first I’ve had with a strong theme throughout the album for me, as the first and second albums are just collections of songs.

“There’s a bigger story that goes throughout the whole album which I hope kind of comes across,” he continues. “At the time of writing, I had a steady girlfriend and I was living in London, I could go out for a nice dinner if I wanted to; there was no struggle, so I had to create one. I had to create this whole fictional life in L.A.”

When asked about his Los Angeles experiences, he notes how he has dealt with “the dark parts of L.A.” ranging from the Hollywood strip to people who kept trying to sell their brand instead of having conversations. “The way I think of L.A.,” he notes, “I haven’t experienced enough of the down and out kind of dark side in my personal life. I’ve only experienced the spiritual kind of weird crystal-worship party lovers kind of side. Maybe that has influenced my thoughts a little bit.”

This leads to one of Glitterbug‘s more unique aspects: an absolute fascination with the pharmaceutical. The group had a modest hit with the ballad “Anti-D” back in 2011, but on this disc, Murph compares a girl to ecstasy on “Greek Tragedy” and a relationship to “Vicodin on Sunday night” on the towering “Give Me a Try”. When pressed about how this perspective came into being, Murph doesn’t flinch:

“As you get old and care less about other people, especially now in 2015 with drug culture things, I have been a part of that and to some degree I am part of that or whatever, and I’ve found it’s influenced me a lot [in] the way I try to think. The ecstasy bit, I don’t know: it just seems like a really nice way of describing feelings. It’s a big way of conveying yours feelings towards someone else, especially someone else who’s probably of similar age. The Vicodin line in ‘Give Me a Try’: that song itself sounds positive, and I wanted to put that line in there ‘cos there’s something a little bit dark and cheesy about someone giving Vicodin on Sunday nights, like maybe with a girlfriend or something; there’s something a little depressing about that. That one word really made the chorus. Our record label was like, ‘You need to change the word Vicodin’ but I said that there was no other alternative that I could find. It wasn’t like a branding thing.”

This wasn’t the only challenge the group ran into during the on-and-off recording process. When asked about his favorite song pm the new disc, Murph jokes that “I actually haven’t listened to the album and I don’t like it,” but when pressed, digs the dirt on how hard it was finding compromise on certain tracks: “I think the first song that was written for the album was called ‘Headspace’, this low kind of ballad. After that I got back to L.A. Then we kept on writing, then came ‘Isabel’, then there were about four or five different versions of that song and it meant a great deal to me. We never actually got it to a point where anyone was happy with it, so this one version wasn’t quite working or this big pop ballad thing isn’t really working, and it was like ‘We just got to sit this back, we’re gonna put these chords down and build something around them,’ and the way it turned out when the pressure was on just made it my favorite song on the album, as it was so close to never being there.”

Asked if this issue in dealing with multiple versions of the same song comes up during the process, Murph notes that “We as a band, whenever we put parameters in place, that’s when we come up with our most creative stuff. When you have like 500 instruments, everyone goes fucking wild and that’s when no one gets happy ‘cos there’s so much shit going on around it.”

Once the album is out, the band will once again become road warriors and tour the living hell out of it just as they always do. For only their third full-length in eight years, the still has a lot to look back on. When pressed about any regrets he has along the way, Murph notes that “My biggest regret is maybe, ya know, being a bit submissive in certain aspects in my career and not just saying ‘Hey, I’m not gonna play ball with this’ or saying ‘Hey, I have a vision’ and fighting for it maybe a little bit harder.”

And proudest accomplishment? “This is the obvious answer, but I think my proudest accomplishment is probably this album. It’s actually the recording process that got fucked up but we got through it and it enriched the album even more.”

In other words, Murph is kinda hopin’ you might give him a try.

Splash image: press photo by Matilda Finn