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She Blinded Me With Scientists

Brooklyn trio looks to increase its American audience

By Brian Baker · September 1st, 2010 · Music
Dichotomy looms so large for We Are Scientists that it’s almost a provisional member. They’re a California band that’s lived in New York for nearly a decade. The members are inveterate smartasses in interviews and between songs on stage, although their finely honed sense of humor rarely comes through in the music in any obvious way (like, say, They Might Be Giants). And the band has become a sensation in the U.K. (they even have a television show, the fictional reality spoof Steve Wants His Money, on MTV UK) while remaining something of a cultish phenomenon here at home.

It is WAS’s British popularity that has pushed the group (vocalist/guitarist Keith Murray, bassist/vocalist Chris Cain and new drummer Andy Burrows) to premiere its new album Barbara to its U.K. audience first. With an Indie Pop sound that folds in the frenetic verve of Franz Ferdinand and XTC, the classic Pop energy of 10CC and the Rock bluster of Oasis, it’s not hard to understand WAS’s appeal to British listeners.

“There’s been a sense-making build to it,” says Cain from the band’s current U.K. trek. “We’ve never really gotten a lot bigger than we were on the first record (2002’s Safety, Fun and Learning (In That Order)), in terms of how many tickets we can sell, but our familiarity to the average Brit has continued to increase. Today, our on-the-street recognizability in the U.K. is roughly the same as Harrison Ford’s.”

Still, given WAS’s infectious melodicism and freewheeling Indie Pop spirit, it’s a little surprising that the band hasn’t attracted domestic fans of The Shins or Franz Ferdinand. It’s not like the Brits know something we don’t.

“Certain songs may have more traction in one place or the other, but for the most part they’re all the same dorky, hyper-intelligent, hard-grooving, goodtime bunch of kids,” Cain says of the band’s British fanbase. “(With) radiant American smiles … you can’t really miss (in England) as an American band.”

If any album could break WAS to a broader U.S.

audience, Barbara seems to fit the bill. A good many early reviews have cited Barbara as something of a return to the form of WAS’s 2005 sophomore album, With Love and Squalor, which was the band’s British breakthrough release, selling well over 100,000 units and nearly cracking the U.K. Top 10. To a certain extent, Cain agrees with the assessment.

“Well, it’s a return to some of the arrangement ideas of With Love and Squalor, principally the idea of making the songs sound like something that three guys could play live, and indeed to have the live set sound roughly like the album without using any backing tracks or shadowy dudes standing in the wings playing carefully-tucked keyboards,” he says. “But Barbara isn’t a return to the songwriting of With Love and Squalor — it’s the next step … for all of music!”

Clearly, Cain and Murray didn’t set out with any particular deliberation to make Barbara an outstanding work in the We Are Scientist catalog, although it has the potential to achieve that distinction. They did have a general goal in mind for the material on Barbara, although it had more to do with their touring plans than a grand studio design.

“We wanted to get back to playing as a three-piece — that was the prime directive, formally speaking, of the record,” Cain says. “Beyond that, our influence was unchanged: Making great music to work out to, drive assertively to and hold political rallies to. I think we probably started to incorporate some new things, if only because we’d been alive another year or two and listening to music during that time. The primary conscious influence of We Are Scientists remains, as ever, B.B. King.”

Which is, as ever, a good example of the band’s nudge-wink interview style. While B.B. King is likely an exceptional role model for every human being (work actively and live creatively and comfortably well into your eighties), Cain and Murray have claimed any number of influences over the past dozen years, including David Bowie, The Rapture, Franz Ferdinand and The Velvet Underground. And when it comes to the live translation, WAS looks inward for the guidance in bringing Barbara to the stage.

“We tend to play everything fairly fast live and then slow it down,” Cain says. “Right now we’re in the midst of that groping period, where we’ve captured the new songs as really fun, exciting, upbeat thrashers, and we’re trying to re-discover them as the groove-heavy tunes they sometimes are on the record.”

So, We Are Scientist is on the eve of an American tour to introduce their homeland to Barbara, an album that has already been wildly embraced by the band’s British fan base. Cain recognizes that the cult appeal of the band’s early EPs and four previous albums will bring out the faithful but that they may have to step up their game just slightly to expand that number significantly.

“Well, the smiles come up short, for sure,” Cain says of the aforementioned on-stage personality embraced in the U.K. and its impact in the U.S. “I think it’s going to depend on lightning-hot live shows. Which, fortunately, we’ve got.”

WE ARE SCIENTISTS headlines the final MidPoint Indie Summer concert on Fountain Square Friday. The free, 7 p.m. show also features The Seedy Seeds, Hazle Weatherfield and Okay Lindon. Go here for lineup details.



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