With wry humor, pens so sharp they could split hairs, and a belief that a romantic relationship is safest when it's static, W.A.S. has white-knuckled their way through several tours of the U.K. and the U.S., and won over a devout following in the process.
Here, lead singer Keith Murray talks about appearing on Letterman, the unique band name that causes foreheads to wrinkle, and the finer points of ignoring what's right in front of his eyes.
Here, lead singer Keith Murray talks about appearing on Letterman, the unique band name that causes foreheads to wrinkle, and the finer points of ignoring what's right in front of his eyes.
Shawna Ortega (Songfacts): The first song I wanted to ask you about is “Can't Lose.”
Keith Murray: All right. (laughing) Well, most of the songs on that first record came from a period of being in New York City. We lived in New York for a while. We didn't really exist on anybody's radar but our own and our parents', and I think we were just coming into our own as a band about the time we were writing those songs. I think that one was written about halfway through the writing of the songs on that record. We had started touring for the first time, doing actual extended tours, so we had a lot of friends who were in bands that we'd made on the road. A lot of them lived in New York. So I think we were becoming a scene of bands that still not a lot of people had really heard of. Like, there's Oxford Collapse, who became close friends of ours in New York at that time. We had just started really indulging in New York's social life a lot. I had just broken up with a really long-term girlfriend, so there was a lot of abandon involved. And as a person who's never been totally comfortable in non-considered abandon, I've spent a lot of time thinking about that abandon, how good for me it was or was not. Ultimately, I do think that being drunk all the time and being out constantly in that period was pretty good for me psychologically, although I was sort of losing my mind momentarily. So “Can't Lose” was at the height of that period of just being out all the time, rarely going to bed before the sun was up, and wondering how healthy it was to be doing that for the first time since we had moved to New York. A lot of that first record is also about indecision, and inability to actually make any real moves on anything. So that song is also considered that, as well.
Songfacts: Can you explain “Everybody says I ought to get over myself”? I mean, were people actually saying that to you?
Keith: Well, no… I've always had a problem with solipsism. I definitely spend a lot of time over-thinking everything. Even abandon for me involves consideration of abandon. And I spend a lot of time worrying about things that I shouldn't necessarily worry about. So that's just a reflection of that sentiment, not necessarily that people were confronting me about it. And in fact I think that line is a pretty good example of how great an importance I tended to place upon my consideration of myself, because I doubt anybody else even gave a shit. (laughing) You know, that total belief that it was so important that everybody else must be considering it, too.
Songfacts: Got it. Now, I know it was a while ago, but what is it like to be on Letterman?
Keith: We have been on twice. And I think the first time we'd ever actually even been on TV was on Letterman. So I think there was the general impression that we sort of appeared to be a deer in the headlights. But I don't think we really had nerves. I think we just didn't really know how to navigate it, and how do I play it? - not in the musical sense, but in the experiential sense. I think we were just like, “Uh, well, okay, I guess we play a song now? Look at camera? Don't look at camera? I'm gonna look at the floor” kind of thing. The second time was much, much, much more comfortable, because we had spent four years playing on TV with somewhat ludicrous frequency. So, yeah, the second time was, I would say, delightful. The first time was almost paralytic.
Songfacts: So did they just put you out there and then say, “Okay, go,” or did you get to meet him first and get a little comfortable?
Keith: No, no, not at all. They've been doing it for so long, and being a major network New York City TV show, it's incredibly unionized. So everything is very rigid, there are very specific time slots in which you will load in and set up, and do a certain number of rehearsals first for sound, then for camera. And then you do those rehearsals at about one or two in the afternoon. I think they shoot the show at 5 or something. You are kept sort of locked away in your dressing room away from the other guests, and then they give you a five-minute warning, you come downstairs - the first time you've been in the studio. You're connected to the show by a TV in your dressing room and you essentially watch late night TV at five in the afternoon. And then you go down and play. But everybody at Letterman is super, super nice. And their booking agent actually sent us a personal letter afterward thanking us for being there and stuff like that, which most of the shows don't do. Judging from their recent bookings, I think they're at least musically trying to lean toward a younger, cooler crowd these days.
Songfacts: Talk to me about “Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt,” which is one of the songs that you performed.
Keith: Right. The first record is kind of a theme record, and the general running themes are alcohol and sexual terror, in which the only decision made is to be totally indecisive at all times. That's sort of like a passivity that defines that album, perhaps most explicitly in the song titled “Inaction.” But that song is about a relationship that I was on the cusp of. It was very clear that something should have happened about three months prior, and just kept lingering because I would never possibly make a move on anything. And just getting the merits of being totally passive and indecisive because as long as there was no actual action taken, it was still very safe, and there was no threat that it could blow up in my face. Which, in fact, it did, because of that indecision and inaction.
Songfacts: So you're talking about indecision about moving it forward, or about ending it?
Keith: Moving it forward. Actually acknowledging that it even existed. (laughing)
Songfacts: Oh, shoot. (laughing) Okay. Well, you brought up the song “Inaction.” Can you talk to me about that? I've heard something about that's a song about getting started in this business.
Keith: It sort of is. I think “Inaction” is sort of like the ultimate distillation of that overriding theme, like getting our foot in the door. I would say more than professional, but just like the social ramifications of suddenly being a viable band, “viable” meaning that other people actually know you exist and give a shit about it, no matter how small a shit that is.
Songfacts: I don't know how comfortable you are with deconstructing your lyrics, but…
Keith: We can try.
Songfacts: The line about “I'm sick of waking up on your floor for the sixth or seventh night in a row.” What is that about?
Keith: That is largely delivered in total degrees, and an obscurity. But that is actually a pretty literal line. There was a girl that I was in a relationship with, a relationship that really wasn't happening, we were just totally hanging out and flirting without even acknowledging it was flirting. But she was a very, very good friend. So I would be in Manhattan or somewhere, out drinking until five in the morning, and then obviously not want to drive or take a 40-minute subway ride home. So it legitimately involved consistently sleeping on the floor of somebody's apartment with whom I should have been - not being grotesque about it - in bed with, or just gone home, and make a decision one way or the other about how it was going to go, rather than go to her house and be like, “Oh, well, I guess I'll lie here on the floor then, and I'll see you tomorrow.”
Songfacts: (laughing) These songs that you have seem kind of intense and serious, and yet the videos that you have are so crazy, and they're so fun. Who makes up what you're going to do in the video? And why is there such a disparity there?
Keith: Well, we come up with all the video content. We actually tried once to accept submissions for video concepts, and they were all so excruciatingly awful that we decided to never even consider this idea ever again. I think we're definitely not terribly interested in videos that are narrative portrayals of our songs. As ridiculous as it is for a man who's had a video in which he's a cowboy wrangling Pomeranians to say, that just seems kind of goofy stuff to do, but there's something just totally idiotic about story videos. Chris and I are very into film, and there was a period where we, prior to the band, both wanted to be filmmakers. So we like to take the opportunity of having a label give us a budget to shoot three minutes of film. We like to treat that as an opportunity to do something really weird and different and actually interesting, rather than just say, Well, let's make the video for this song the way any other crappy band who doesn't consider it an opportunity to make its own product of it. We don't consider the videos that related to the songs, we kind of want the song to not be totally at odds with the video. I think we like seeing videos as little movies for which these songs score, not necessarily the narrative starting point.
Songfacts: I think it's great that you guys do stuff like that, because so many bands, so many singers say it's such a pain to make the video. “Oh God, I've got a new release, now I've got to go and make a video out of it.” And on that same line, Chris is turning into a werewolf in “Impatience.” And I don't necessarily want you to explain the video to me, but the song, who was that directed at? And what was going on there?
Keith: It's sort of directed to a couple of people in general, but there's certainly one friend specifically. That's not necessarily a literal song, it's just like there were a series of instances in which this person demonstrated a total inability to behave anything like a moderately normal person in just relating to patience, and lost his cool several times over totally mundane issues. Like a grander frustration than was simply occurring at the time. So, of course, being the sort of person I am, I never actually had a conversation with this person about how annoying that was. Instead, I wrote a song about it and never actually discussed it with them.
Songfacts: So he doesn't know that this song was inspired by him?
Keith: I'm pretty sure he does, but not because we ever had a conversation about it. (laughing)
Songfacts: (laughing) Can you talk to me about the Pomeranian song, “Chick Lit”?
Keith: You want to talk about the video?
Songfacts: Well, are you guys actual cowboys? Were you uncomfortable on those horses? (laughing)
Keith: Yeah, we were deeply uncomfortable on the horses. The bigger issue, first of all, when we pitched the idea to the label, the first thing they asked was how confident we were as riders. We told them that both of us had been riding since we were, like, 10, and that we were not professional grade horsemen, but could hold our own. And of course the fact of the matter was I'd ridden a horse, like, once. But for insurance reasons we assured them that we were masterful on horses. And the whole thing was made worse by the fact that the video was shot on a hill in Ireland, and it had snowed there the day before, and then warmed up considerably. So the snow had melted and the ground was essentially marsh. It was really windy and cold, so the horses were battling essentially gale force winds, and were sinking into the mud with every step. So they were deeply unhappy, and the fact that we were climbing on top of them and not providing any guidance, which was only making them more irate. But yeah, we were afraid any time those horses were in the vicinity.
Songfacts: Well, if you had fallen off, at least it would have been soft, right?
Keith: (laughing) Yeah, I guess so.
Songfacts: Tell me about the song itself.
Keith: That song is lyrically sort of an embittered reaction, very specifically against one person who is a total hipster reactionary, who I've had a lot of conversations with, I've had a lot of dealings with, and whose opinions were specifically sprung fully formed from a sort of generalized ideal that he was perceiving as what was and was not cool. He was the kind of person that I could predict what he would and would not like simply based on what my whole team would enjoy. So I ended up having a lot of discussions with this person that ended up being a loggerhead because I tend to be sort of reactionary in the same way, or in an opposite way, whereas I tend to nastily refute things that I perceive as being very cool and popular because they're cool. And then a lot of times I'll end up coming around to it later and be like, “Oh, well, all those stupid hipsters are right about this one, I will concede.” But I think that song is just about a sort of self-acknowledged bitter refusal to follow the party line on hipsterdom, and music specifically.
Songfacts: “After Hours,” I read that that was about death. I personally don't see it, but…
Keith: No, it's definitely not about death at all. It's a song that was like a tortured poetry, that would be if that were about death. It's not at all. It's not at all. That's a fairly literal song, as well. That song essentially came from being on the road for two years, touring on that first record, and never really seeing the friends we have in New York, only seeing them once every four or five months for two days when we had a show in New York. And the intent that was put into ensuring that every amount of time that is wrung out of the few evenings that we had together, just trying to implement that hang-out time, sort of thinking of it as kind of a race against the clock at all times. That's a tone that is involved in a lot of my friendships now is that every time I see them I feel like there's always a sense of hurried camaraderie, where you meet each other and try to really, really choose the time you have for quality interaction as much as you can. That's sort of what that song's about. Especially in London - we have a lot of friends in London now, and London's a very early town, so everything closes at one or two, and the night from there on is sort of a race to find an after-hours bar or the house of someone willing to have a party after hours.
Songfacts: Got it. I saw a little interview with you saying you like the UK better a couple of years ago, because you guys were really touring a lot over there. Do you like the U.S. better now, because you're over here? (laughing)
Keith: No. That needs to be a more specific question than which do we like better. We enjoy playing in the UK better, and I think we tend to have a better time socially there, because we get away with a lot more - not like we pull fast ones or anything, but we're in a more prominent social position there and we get treated very well by clubs and organizations and stuff. We're involved in a lot more things over there, and when we go out we tend to have a bigger night there. There's no threat that any of us will move to the UK any time soon. When we're in the U.S. we do tend to spend a lot of time pining for the U.S. and so yeah, I prefer the U.S., but if I had to tour in either the U.S. or the UK, I would have to choose the UK now. I mean, the shows are just a lot more enthusiastic, I would say.
Songfacts: I understand that completely. Can you explain “We Are Scientists”?
Keith: (laughing) It's an antiquated usage at this point. The name itself came about when Chris and I and the original third member of We Are Scientists, who was the original singer and guitarist - his name was Scott - all moved from L.A. where we went to college, to San Francisco, and this was before we had the band. We were returning a trailer to U-Haul in San Francisco. And the guy who worked at U-Haul and was checking out the trailer sort of regarded us and noted that we were all pretty clearly non-athletic bespectacled dudes - we all looked fairly similar - asked if we were brothers initially. And we told him we weren't. And he sort of reconsidered us, and then asked if we were all scientists. So that name stuck. And then we had an idea later on for a sort of performance art band whose entire meaning was going to be that we were going to get a show at 954 Gilman, which was the big punk club in Berkeley where Green Day and Rancid started, and which was right down the street from the house we lived in, and so we would drive by it all the time. We were into punk and stuff, but we certainly weren't a strident part of any theme or political band movement. So we turned into a performance art thing where we wanted to insult the kids at the punk rock clubs on Gilman Street. It was going to be a multi-media extravaganza that would really destroy all their principles right before their eyes. But we never actually got a show there. (laughing) It was a misbegotten notion.
Songfacts: (laughing) But a good one all the same.
Keith: Oh yeah.
Songfacts: You guys re-did “Hoppipolla.”
Keith: Oh, yeah, "Hoppipolla" by Sigur Ros.
Songfacts: And you did that in Icelandic?
Keith: Yeah, that is one of the few Sigur Ros songs that's actually in a real language. There are a bunch of Sigur Ros songs that are just in their own invented… Well, I was going to editorialize and illuminate my feelings about singing in another language, but I won't. A lot of Sigur Ros's songs are in an invented language, but that one is actually in Icelandic.
Songfacts: You don't know how to speak that language, do you?
Keith: (laughing) I don't - I don't at all.
Songfacts: How did you do that?
Keith: Weirdly, the night before we did that we were in a hotel bar in London, and somehow - we must have known her through somebody - but somehow there was an Icelandic woman in the group we were hanging out with. She wrote down the lyrics to it and then we took a look at this and we're like, “Uh, that's not gonna work.” And then we all got together and wrote them down phonetically with her. She told us what he was saying, but I couldn't tell you what any one word meant. I was just singing the phonetics of it.
Songfacts: Are you planning on actually doing that for real and putting it on a CD or something?
Keith: Well, we actually put it out in the UK, we put out a record of like B sides and remixes, stuff like that, and it was called “Crap Attack.” You heard right. And that song is on there. But yeah, we get asked to do it a lot live, and there's no way I would ever be able to sing that song live. I have zero recollection of what the words are.
Songfacts: That's so funny. You guys do a really beautiful version of it, though, whatever it means.
Songfacts: Okay, and I have to clarify - vinyl LPs, you're selling these in the UK?
Keith: Yeah. I think some do exist in the U.S. We haven't had them - for the new record, I mean. I know they definitely exist in the U.S. for the first record. But people have been asking at shows for vinyl. So we talked to one of the guys from our label, and he said he had some on order. So I don't know if that means he's ordering them from the UK or if they are actually available in the U.S., and he'd be happy to get hold of them for us. But they do exist at the very least, and we'll be selling them at some shows later on.
Songfacts: Why vinyl? Nobody has turntables anymore, do they?
Keith: Are you kidding? Vinyl is actually on the upswing. As CD sales are down, vinyl sales are going up. And of course it's not huge sales, but actual sales of vinyl are increasing. I have a turntable. I'm not even like a vinyl hound. I don't say, Oh man, it sounds so pure, and all that crap. But I do like vinyl. I mean, there definitely is a phonic quality. And there is something fun and experientially appetizing about playing vinyl.
Songfacts: I was really resistant to switching over to CD myself back in the day, so I get it. Any songs in particular that you want to plug?
Keith: I'm a big fan of a song called “Lethal Enforcer” on the new album.
Songfacts: Can you give me a quick overview of that?
Keith: You know, it's just me thinking about why people - myself included - choose to stand behind certain aesthetic ideas that even to themselves are pretty vague and not produced within themselves. So it's just a question about how convicted people are about the ideas that in some cases they behave incredibly convinced about. And I think it's essentially us trying to be David Bowie momentarily. Although it becomes a little more like Hall-and-Oates-y glam. It's sort of like mid-‘70s Bowie meets Hall and Oates, I think. I like it a lot.
Keith Murray was interviewed on October 22 and 23, 2008. Visit the band's Website at wearescientists.com.