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Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – Keith Murray, We Are Scientists

In Does Rock 'N' Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz a grizzled artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them. This week: Keith Murray, frontman of We Are Scientists, who are set to commemorate the (in their words) “50th anniversary” of their 2005 debut album ‘With Love and Squalor’ with a series of live performances.

1: Name three of your songs which share their titles with retro video games.

“There’s ‘Altered Beast’, ‘Ghouls’ – which is a cleaned-up title reference to ‘Ghouls ‘n Ghosts’, and we had a B-side called ‘Dig Dug’, although I don’t know if that got released. Do I lose points for not knowing that? (Laughs)”

CORRECT. ‘Dig Dug’ is the B-side to ‘After Hours’. We’d also have accepted  ‘Gauntlet’ and ‘Lethal Enforcer’ – which is close enough to the 1992 arcade shoot ‘em up Lethal Enforcers.

“Good string of song titles – not especially helpful to listeners trying to remember the name of the song they want to listen to! On our second album ‘Brain Thrust Mastery’, we were getting into ‘80s synths and nostalgically looking back at late ‘80s/early ‘90s tech. Naming the songs in that way kept us in that mindset, but we got stuck referring to them as such and when we tried to rename them something relevant to the lyrics, it felt trite so we kept the very unhelpful song titles.”

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2: You delivered Arctic Monkeys’ Brit award winner’s acceptance speech in 2006. Can you name any of the acts they beat?

“I never had any clue who they were up against. In fact – this will demonstrate holistic lifelong ignorance rather than killed brain cells –  when they asked me to do that speech, I had no idea what a Brit was. I’m holding the award, but its importance was totally lost on me. But I think that helped me deliver a blithe speech for them and kept me from being at all nervous about how effectively I was torpedoing their career. And, as you see, they’ve never recovered!”

WRONG. They beat Kaiser Chiefs, James Blunt, The Magic Numbers and KT Tunstall.

“If I’d thought about that for two minutes, I could have at least come up with James Blunt, KT Tunstall and The Magic Numbers – no offence to Kaiser Chiefs!”

“At that point on our tour with them, I almost felt like I was in the Arctic Monkeys accepting our well-earned award anyway! They were being taken to film their acceptance speech looking sullen and uncomfortable – they didn’t want to do it. When they saw me, they cheered up because I was an easy mark to convince to do it! At the Brits, people were murmuring to each other that they didn’t know Arctic Monkeys were actually American – especially as they were winning British Breakthrough Act (Laughs).”

3: In your MTV comedy series Steve Wants His Money, what idea do you pitch to improve NME?

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“That it ought to be printed on edible fruit lettering.”

CORRECT. Edible pages.

“(Laughs) It seemed like a good idea at the time, but in a digital world, you’re going to have to sell your fruit lettering separately. Maybe this could be the thing that brings magazines back. People decided they didn’t like print anymore because they can’t eat it!  I haven’t done the market research but I think every week the berry flavour should reflect the heritage of whatever act is on the cover.”

Any tips on how to boost our clicks in the digital age?

“If laptops and phones could squirt out a fruit puree, it would definitely help!”

4: What album did you once cover live in its entirety?

Weezer’s Green Album?”

CORRECT.

“I haven’t the foggiest idea what made us do that! It was Chris [Cain, We Are Scientists’ bassist]; Youth Group’s Danny Allen – our touring drummer at the time; Dev Hynes and Chairlift’s Aaron Pfenning.”

“Dev and I were really into the Weezer song ‘Pork and Beans’ which is on the Red Album – which is not a pure and beautiful album like the Green Album. We did play ‘Pork and Beans’ and ‘We Are All on Drugs’ in the greatest hits encore (Laughs). It was just an excuse to go and play ‘Hash Pipe’ and ‘Crab’ with those guys.”

Ever meet Weezer?

“We’re good friends with Matt Sharp, the bassist from the first two Weezer albums which everybody regards as their artistic triumphs. I like to needle him about how good the Green Album is because he isn’t on it and it makes him angry. (Laughs). NME asked us to interview Rivers Cuomo at Reading festival one year. He kept us waiting for 45 minutes – our management were upset because we should have been getting ready to play – before emerging brushing his teeth, looking confused about what was going on. The ‘interview’ was just us telling Rivers what we liked about Weezer, because we clearly didn’t know anything about We Are Scientists, so his curiosity was stymied by lack of awareness. Eventually we said: ‘We’ve got to go and play a show now’ to which he boggled: ‘Oh, you guys are playing?!’. It did not go well! (Laughs)”

We Are Scientists 2019
Credit: Emily Dorio

5: Which beloved thespian threatened to strangle Chris Cain at the 2010 NME Awards?

“Danny Dyer.”

CORRECT. For pretending to confuse him with The OC actor Adam Brody.

“We’d no idea who he was and everyone filming it was actually very scared saying: ‘I don’t think you outta be joking with this guy – he’ll definitely flip you over a table!’. But he was cool. The idea was to misidentify people to their faces, so we’d pretend to think Dev [Hynes] was called Devendra Banhart and his band [Lightspeed Champion] was called Buzz Lightyear. When I introduced Franz Ferdinand as ‘Frank Ferdinand and this little brother Jesse’, they thought I was having a medical issue all of a sudden! (Laughs)”

“The first time I had any understanding that people outside of those coming to see our shows had awareness of We Are Scientists was when I was waiting to present an NME award and Noel Gallagher turned to me and said: ‘Scientist, right?’. That may have been as much information as he knew and could gather on us – but it was enough for me!”

6: Name any of the fake album titles you circulated before 2008’s ‘Brain Thrust Mastery’.

“(Laughs) I have no idea! We played a series of shows for other bands under the name Beat Up Old Fellas, so maybe that was one we gave?”

WRONG. You could have had ‘What # of $ Do That Cost?’, ‘You Bang, She Bangs, You Want Some… Unh!’ or ‘Do Smoke Detectors Detect the Smell of Smoke?’. 

“That last one probably should have been the title! I don’t know what’s wrong with us! (Laughs)”

During the tour before that record, you gave a series of lunchtime self-help seminars in university lecture halls.

“One thing I like about us is we tend to have bad ideas that we see through to their illogical conclusion. Everybody who showed up to those initial lectures was extremely confused about what we were doing. By the end, we were improvising most of it but to do that at noon meant we had to get drunk – that was a rough patch of tour! (Laughs). Part of what sold it was that we were openly drinking onstage at noon in front of everyone while telling them how to fix their life.”

7: What are the cover versions on your 2006 B-side compilation ‘Crap Attack’ album?

“So there’s ‘Be My Baby’, originally by The Ronettes,  the Sigur Rós song ‘Hoppípolla’ and….oh man! I want to pretend ‘Ram It Home’ is a cover of somebody else, but it’s not. (Laughs) I don’t know – that’s annoying!”

WRONG. You missed Art Brut’s ‘Bang Bang Rock & Roll’ and Bela B’s ‘Sie hat was vermisst’.

“I didn’t know those were on ‘Crap Attack’! (Laughs) It’s funny because I find covers despicable and craven. Could there be a safer move than getting adulation by playing a song people already like?  But we’d put out four singles before our first album came out – each had to have two B-sides. When we signed to EMI, they gave us money to record some B-sides – weirdly, it cost more to record our C-grade material than ‘With Love and Squalor’! In our defence, ‘Be My Baby’ was the only song we toured live, Sigur Rós was for the BBC’s Live Lounge and ‘Bang Bang Rock & Roll’ was because we toured with Art Brut and it seemed like a pure idea to cover each others’ songs as a split seven inch.”

8: You released a World Cup song ‘Goal! England’ in 2010. Who was the England team captain that year?

“Rooney?”

WRONG. It was Steven Gerrard.

“I’ve never heard of that guy! I’ve no idea what Rooney’s full name is – we just reference him in the track. In our song, he’s got the heat and the feet!”

It’s Wayne Rooney, husband of famed Instagram supersleuth Coleen Rooney, aka WAGatha Christie.

“In the great ‘American vs British football?’ debate, you guys definitely have better player drama! American football drama is sad stuff like dog fights, people getting brain damage and beating up spouses. You guys just have that insane, fun, sexy stuff – and petty moments like people pretending to be hurt when they’re actually not.”

 9: What prop appears on the cover of your 2002 debut EP ‘Bitchin’’?

(Laughs) Is it a stuffed raven?”

WRONG. It’s a globe. Didn’t you originally start as a concept band about fighting monsters?

“True. We dressed as lab workers in jumpsuits and all our songs were about fighting monsters. We had a song called ‘Mothra Vs. We Are Scientists’, and another – unrecorded – which didn’t fit the genre called ‘The People Want Clooney’, about how cinema audiences love George Clooney. The three of us – me, Chris, and Scott Lamb – who left to join Buzzfeed – lived together in a house in Berkeley, California after graduating university, decided to start a band and wanted to write dumb, punk songs about fighting monsters. We’d write the titles first. It was fun to write a title like ‘Attack of the Giant Awesome’, then try and come up with who the Giant Awesome is and why we have to fight him.”

10: You’re celebrating your debut album ‘With Love and Squalor’’s “50th anniversary”. What number did it reach in the UK charts when it was released in 2005?

“Oof! I’m going to guess forty… seven? It didn’t make the Top 40, right?”

WRONG. But close – 43.

“I’m not giving it enough credit – it did better than I thought! We made ‘With Love and Squalor’ in an appropriately squalid situation. We recorded it with Ariel Rechtshaid before he was a huge producer, because he was our manager’s roommate at the time who said: ‘I know a dum-dum who’ll record some demos for you’. In that era touring in the UK, it felt like every third show we played was at the Cardiff Barfly – where you’d walk down the street and see three separate fights breaking out and somebody vomiting on the sidewalk (Laughs). At the time [Pete Doherty’s The Libertines stand-in and later Dirty Pretty Things member] Anthony Rossomando’s apartment was where everyone hung out. Every time you went, some neighbour would be in tears begging us to shut the hell up!”

Bonus science question! What is the only letter that’s not in the periodic table?

“Woah! Pfft! I have no idea. Y?”

WRONG. It’s J.

“That’s a good one to leave out of the periodic table. Who needs it?!”

How did you feel about the constant references to you being geeks in the beginning?

“We were specifically angling ourselves in that manner. Very early on, there was a lot of knitwear and polyester going on! Being a band in New York was really fun but everyone was so desperate to be hip and cool which annoyed us, so we saw ourselves as an antidote to that (Laughs). But I remember our first NME Introducing feature specifically referred to us as nerds and I was like: ‘Awww, c’mon– we’re not nerds!’”

The verdict: 4/10

“Look, it’s not a great score. But I never in my life knew whatever the captain of the England football team is so I don’t consider that failing. The rest I should have known – but I feel the dice were weighted against me! (Laughs)”

We Are Scientists’ ‘With Love and Squalor’ 50th Anniversary Tour begins on Wednesday 4 December 2019 at  O2 Academy 2, Leicester, UK. Full dates are here.

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