“I’ve waited four years for this!” yells the teenager barging through the bouncing O2 Academy Brixton throng to the opening synth twinkles of ‘Techno Fan’, “FOUR YEARS!” It’s a scene that’s being repeated around Europe, where The Wombats – frontman Matthew ‘Murph’ Murphy, hyperactive bassist Tord Knudsen and wisecracking drummer Dan Haggis – have been met with heroes’ welcomes from their public. The lager flingers of Bristol go equally insane. The snogging couples of Cologne jump enthusiastically into the frugging mass. And in Berlin, they appear to mistake The Wombats for Bring Me The Horizon. “The crowd there were doing circle pits from the word go and they never stopped,” says Murph, hunched, hungover, in a back bar at Cologne’s 2000-capacity E-Werk. “They did it to everything, they were circle-pitting to ‘Little Miss Pipedream’ which is the only slow one we’re playing at the moment. There was one guy who didn’t have a top on who was completely ripped, I just didn’t know that we had fans like that. It was great – they act like metalheads but they aren’t.”
Putting your finger on what a Wombats fan looks like is not easy. The trio are among the last – and among the most enduringly popular – of the bouncy alt-pop class of 2007 that included The Pigeon Detectives, The Fratellis and The Holloways. It’s the generation of bands written off as ‘landfill indie’ by a particular type of cultural commentator, pariahs for being late to the pointy shoe party. But that’s not the real story. Their second album, ‘This Modern Glitch’, hit Number Three in the charts in 2011, eight places ahead of the peak achieved by 2007 debut ‘A Guide To Love, Loss & Desperation’. Last month, ‘Glitterbug’ – their third – reached Number Five, and the band announced a tour involving a show at London’s 7,300 capacity Alexandra Palace – not too shabby for three has-beens. “It was pretty disparaging to be lumped in with that ‘landfill indie’ thing, being surrounded by other bands in company that I wasn’t really too happy being surrounded by, or that I thought we were better than,” says Murph. “I think a few people went quite sour towards the band at the end of that first album.”
Key to their success this time is evolution. Ignoring the chance to align with the next generation of good-time indie bands – Peace, Superfood, Circa Waves et al – The Wombats instead clung to the coats of Bastille producer Mark Crew who, in a Battersea studio, slathered the record with the same sort of epic bluster and quasi-EDM synths. It means it can slip edgelessly into the mainstream alongside Bastille, David Guetta and The 1975. Which is fine by Murph. “I don’t think in terms of ‘indie’ really,” he says. “Should I? There’s something about the word ‘indie’ that doesn’t excite me any more. It puts a limitation on what I think we’re capable of. I think we’re a pop band. But I do think this album sounds a bit more leftfield than the second one. Maybe we will do weirder stuff, but the idea of me staring down at my guitar pedals and no-one dancing isn’t very appealing to me. I’d prefer people to be going completely ape-shit and dancing around to songs they’ve heard on the radio a lot.”
Oddly, for songs designed to get people dancing, ‘Glitterbug’ is a record borne of darkness. The album tells of abusive relationships, parties spiraling into drug-crazed paranoia, downers, loneliness and romantic affairs so epically disastrous they could’ve been written by Sophocles. It’s a record coloured by infidelity, drugs, lust and long dark nights of the soul. And it all sprung from Murph circling the globe creating drama for himself.
“I need to keep moving to find inspiration,” he says. “I went to Barcelona for a week and I’d just sit in a square and get drunk – the song ‘Pink Lemonade’ came from that. I just upped and fucked off and my girlfriend at the time, she went out and I had these ideas that she was fucking other people. I actually forced the paranoia…. Sometimes I purposefully fuck myself up to get a song out of it I suppose. I wouldn’t purposely fuck up a relationship but I do tend to say, ‘Right I’m gonna go away for a while now’.”
The album traces the fall of a relationship in London and the rise of a new one in LA, where Murph would disappear for long stretches to hang out with friends and write. His Hollywood A-list adventures went as far as once inadvertently spilling red wine on Twilight star Robert Pattinson. But mostly, Murph’s California was a place of spiritual exploration. “Being in LA, you end up in a fucking tarot reader’s place,” he says. “I went to one and he got some things scarily correct. One of them was ‘you have to stop playing the victim at some point. There’s going to be a point where you choose not to do that and it’s going to influence the rest of your life’. I’m still waiting for it.”
‘Glitterbug’ certainly paints Murph as a victim – mostly of his ineptitude around women. In the album’s lyrics, tangled webs emerge, half fiction, half real life. ‘Curveballs’ is about discovering your partner favours an open relationship, to the point where there are “six hands in one bed”. ‘Isabel’, inspired by someone he met on “a bizarre night in Las Vegas”, is about going out with someone far more rock’n’roll than him: “God, you must be the biggest caner this world has ever seen”. And there are numerous examples of romantic self-degradation, whether feeling inadequate next to a woman on ‘Your Body Is A Weapon’, going broke trying to keep someone happy on ‘Emoticons’, forseeing the nightmare break-up from the start on first single ‘Greek Tragedy’ or even, on ‘Be Your Shadow’, violence: “kiss me with your fist, it’s alright, wrap your hands around my throat, I won’t mind”. 50 Shades Of Grey has a lot to answer for.
“‘Be Your Shadow’ was kind of positive to me,” explains Murph. “I guess there was some kind of ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ button that I was trying to push. Isn’t that like the essence of being romantic? Just being prepared to take as much shit as someone can throw at you and then still be loving back? I never thought about it as being in an abusive relationship. It’s more of a twisted way of saying ‘I’d do anything to stay with you’. Maybe it’s a love of playing the victim as well.”
Murph certainly tortured himself writing ‘Glitterbug’. “On this album most of the creative process is me freaking out in a room in Stoke Newington until 6am,” he says. “There were kind of a lot of late nights and chain smoking and losing the plot about a couple of words.” It reminded him of something Paul McCartney told him, in a one-to-one when he was a student at the former Beatle’s Liverpool Institute For Performing Arts. “He said he spent two weeks trying to find one word once,” Murph remembers. “And it was ‘boat’.”
Hard living plays its part on the album too. There are references to “Vicodin on Sunday night” in ‘Give Me A Try’ and ‘This Is Not A Party’ details that wrecking point around dawn when “Edward’s on the big white telephone to God/Charlie’s coming on to every person he can touch”. You know, the point when Uber should have an automated enforced pick-up service for your own good. It sounds a lot like the party started to turn sour. “In 2013 there was one very odd weekend,” Murph nods. “It was in my old apartment in Shoreditch, there were four parties that happened in one night. There was like this revolving circuit of friends that would come and then they’d go somewhere else, then somewhere else. It was like being at Alton Towers going to different rides – just a very weird night. And Vicodin was used because the chorus was just too cheery. I was like ‘let’s shove something miserable in there’. Everyone loves downers in LA, it’s very strange.” Did it start to feel as though the lifestyle was controlling you? “I think as a band we’re pretty good at moderating all of that stuff,” Murph says. “But the first and second album especially, you kind of get dragged around a little bit and you’re doing things that are essentially fun but you don’t know if you’re in control of everything that’s going on. Maybe that’s actually what the album’s about – losing that control and becoming accepting of it.”
When The Wombats first bounded onto the scene, there was an element of merry prankster about them; they used to cover the Postman Pat theme in Norwegian. They had a cuddly wombat, Cherub, who they claimed was their fourth member. Things seem a bit more serious now. Ask Murph which acts he feels aligned to and he’ll drop some surprising names: Morrissey, The Smashing Pumpkins, Depeche Mode, [The Cure’s] Robert Smith, “all doomed romantics in a way”. And though they may be far more upbeat than their influences, in truth The Wombats are creeping bitterness, frustration, melancholy and inadequacy – real life, basically – into the mainstream, much as their heroes did.
The turmoil that influenced the album is, however, over for now. Murph’s in a stable transatlantic relationship, and the band’s calculated bid to align themselves with the sound of the biggest ‘indie’ names of the 2010s is a gamble that seems to be paying off, even if Murph insists The Wombats “aren’t in the world” of Bastille, The 1975 et al. Is the singer approaching a state of – gasp! – contentment? “I feel like there’s hope in that respect,” he chuckles. “I am looking forward to hopefully settling down and being an adult sometime. I just feel like I might be addicted to the push and pull and how exciting it can be when it fucking blows up in your face.”