"Everything's Going Great at the Moment But It Inevitably Might End Up Turning to Shit": An Interview with the Wombats
For their triumphant fourth full-length, UK alternative-rock stalwarts the Wombats traveled around the world to eventually settle down on a thrilling new direction for the immediate, catchy sound.
Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life
You'd be hard-pressed to find more of a crowd-pleasing band than the Wombats, both in a performative and a more general, musical sense. Their infectious live shows, ability to routinely execute danceable guitar hooks and their witty outlook on life have seen them outlive oh so many of their indie pop peers (Bloc Party, anyone?) to remain relevant in 2018.
Indeed, where pop-rock party bands were available on tap in the mid-late 2000's, the Wombats' brand has always been something of an anomaly. Where others opted for generic, though certainly appropriate, tales of love, the Liverpool trio spun stories characterized by a striking level of self-consciousness, spacey figurative language, and charming pop culture references.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that these stories have once again found their way onto the band's fourth record, Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life. Interestingly, the distinct character of the Wombats' sound and lyrics has transferred itself seamlessly into their lives beyond the parties and decadence of life as a 20-something living in England. On this release, the band take their lives as, for want of a better word, mature adults and put the same self-deprecating swagger into it. The trio's new lives have even seen them move to living in three separate countries from one another.
The band's sound itself has matured too, with lead singer Matthew "Murph" Murphy pointing to Radiohead as something of an influence on the record. In essence, it's The Wombats we know and love, but peeling back layers reveals a trio who effectively balances a desire to branch out with their existing identity as a band. PopMatters chats with lead singer and guitarist, Matthew Murphy, and drummer, Dan Haggis.
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What's it like to work on an album with band members who are literally in different countries from you?
Dan: It worked out OK in the end. Murph did quite a bit of writing over in L.A. He's got kind of a studio in his backyard. I've got a studio in London, and Tord (Øverland Knudsen, bass) has a little studio in Oslo. We just worked on things in our own time and then we all got together in Oslo. Tord's had a baby so it just kind of made sense for us to be there so he could be there for bedtime and breakfast with his daughter and stuff. We got to hang out with her as well which was really cool. She'd come into the studio when we were working on stuff, and she'd be headbanging along to things, and when she did, we knew we were onto something good. It was fine.
You can share songs and ideas, so we emailed each other stuff, and then we had four sessions in Oslo where we went in with no pre-existing ideas and started writing together. So it was kind of good to be doing things the whole time. Normally you can just say "Oh, we'll just do it tomorrow," or "We'll do it in a couple of days." Whereas when you actually go that far, when you go all the way to Oslo just to write, it's kind of more like having your work hats on and having a sense of urgency which was good. It made us more productive I think.
Murph: For me it was great. It wasn't like people were banging on my door saying "Hey let's rehearse." 65% of it I wrote in L.A. -- and then we had a trip to Oslo, and that's how we came up with four or five songs on the album.
You're known for talking quite bluntly about dysfunctional relationships and decadent lifestyles and the like with your music. Is that drawn from life experience or do you just kind of let your imaginations run wild?
Dan: It depends on the song. In general, it is based in reality and some sort of personal feeling. Sometimes it gets embellished a bit, twisted around, to make it a bit more interesting, but in general, it does normally start from a real place. It's easier to write lyrics when you feel it when it's actually happened, and you're speaking from experience. You just hope that people listening to the song who may have had similar experiences will find some connection with the lyrics, which I think is one really good thing about the best lyrics. There were a few songs on this album that we all chipped in on and wrote some lyrics together for the first time really, but that was more (wanting) to be more surreal, and not necessarily have like a flowing story that a lot of bands have. Kind of more painting pictures in words to give you an overall feeling rather than story.
You guys are embarking on a tour with Pixies and Weezer later in the year, how'd that come about?
Dan: Our agents put it forward, and we're fans of Weezer and Pixies, so when the opportunity came up, our inner 15-year-old selves went mental basically. It's such a good opportunity for us as well to be playing to new people who maybe haven't heard us before or whatever. We've never really done a proper support bill in the US or anywhere really.
Murph: Yeah we get to share a stage with two hugely inspiring bands for us. We're playing a 30-minute set, and then we get to watch them.
Dan: It's going to be really fun.
The album title for the new record is quite pointed. What inspired that?
Dan: [laughs] It was a song that we had, and we ended up scrapping the song but thought the title was cool. I think [Murph] started working on the song with the album title and then sent us over an email with about 20 album titles. There were a couple that was kind of cool, and we all just wrote back a couple that we thought were good and the one title that we all agreed on and we kept coming back to was Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life. It jumped out of the page and made sense for the album. You can read into it in different ways which gets you thinking a little bit. It's an unusual slant on people that you love and admire ... they can be the ones that ruin your life even if they don't mean to, which again is quite a standard Murph way to look at things: that everything's going great at the moment but it inevitably might end up turning to shit, but live for the moment and enjoy it while it's here.
There is this unique kind of wit in your lyrics, is that just Murph again or is that all you guys?
Dan: We're all quite similar in that sense definitely. I think that's why we're all such good friends, but in terms of the lyrics, that's definitely more from Murph. The way that the energy and the music, when we're together, couples with the lyrics -- it helps with the slant. Often the music ends up being quite upbeat and happy and energetic and all the rest of it. Maybe if it was more moody, melancholic music, the wit wouldn't come through in quite the same way, or the lyrics might take on a bit of a heavier meaning. When we end up getting in a room together, it usually ends up getting more and more energetic as we have fun and hang out.
How do you balance that wit with the more serious identity crises that we were talking about earlier?
Murph: I don't really know, to be honest. I feel like this album, lyrically, is just kind of about adulthood and trying to deal with the idea of being a respectable member of society and often failing at it. Sometimes that is quite funny, and sometimes it's not I guess. I don't know how I look for the darkness and the self-deprecation or humor, but I think that's something Northern English people have in them.
What changes when you've been in a band for as long as you guys have?
Dan: You know a bit more what to expect with each album, whereas when we put the first album out, and the first time we went to Australia we were like, "Whoa, people this far away know our stuff?" It's a mental dream, and you don't really know what's going on. After ten years of touring a lot, you know that making an album is one side of being in a band and once it comes out you just cross your fingers and hope that people really like it and if it goes well, you know that you're going to have the chance to tour in quite a few countries. You actually just feel more excited about it and less nervous maybe. We always just think how lucky we are to be doing what we're doing.
Murph: The older you get, the wiser you get, and I think for myself I like to stop having to lock myself in the studio for 12 hours banging my head against the wall. I just like letting what happens happen. Being easier on myself has produced a better album for us. Getting married, having babies, things like that ... you re-evaluate what's important and what's not, and you have a better perspective on life.
Along those lines, I read somewhere you guys wanted to create quite a laid-back record. How've you gone about achieving that?
Murph: It wasn't so much that I wanted it to be laid-back, like a Jack Johnson record or whatever, I just didn't want to make an album full of synthesizers and production wizardry. I just wanted it to rely on the songs and have a bit more swagger to it and maybe have it be a bit more sure of itself and represent where I am and where we are as a band. I think we achieved that. I was trying to make it a Wombats version of In Rainbows in the way that Radiohead broke from the tropes of instrumentation on that album.
Do you often look to your contemporaries for inspiration like that?
Murph: Not really, most albums we want to do whatever we want really at the time, but then I've realized that if we keep doing that, that's how we're going to produce one sound and I didn't want to do that again. So we've taken some fresh approaches and put these restrictions on ourselves. Things like trying real instruments like the organ instead of others we'd normally use.