We Are Scientists – band, myth, defying the indie odds.
That might be a strange way to start this article, but it’ll make sense soon. In April this year, they released their latest studio album, Megaplex via 100% Records. Megaplex was produced with Max Hart and recorded at Atomic Heart Studio in New York City. This arrives two years since their last effort, Helter Seltzer. Whilst I know it might be a tad late to review Megaplex as a fresh record, I’ve been musing over it a lot. But, I’ve also been reflecting on my own personal journey with We Are Scientists, a band who arrived in my life by accident.
For this article, I’ll be looking at the first six studio albums (and one compilation record) released by We Are Scientists (WAS for short). They are primarily a duo, with guitarist/vocalist Keith Murray and bassist/vocalist Chris Cain forming the core unit of WAS. Now, I’m going to be starting with their releases from With Love and Squalor onwards, which is not the official start of their career. Their first release was Safety, Fun and Learning (In That Order), released via Devious Semantics. However, in the promo information for Megaplex, they refer to their latest record as their sixth studio record. So, if they can pass over that, I’ll be doing the same.
With Love from Squalor, released 2005/2006 via Virgin Records
My first experience with the band, sort of on the sly as well. Back in 2005, before streaming became the major player in the music world, there were few online music sites in the UK. The ones that were available at the time, were (to be frank) – shite. Apart from Pandora that is, and that was never technically available in the UK. Pandora is a US-based streaming service, which at the time, had a loophole for people outside the US to tune in to. This was in the days before people were able to detect your geographical location and I sort of miss them. All you needed was a zip code, nothing more. I used 90210, which I only knew from the TV show called Beverly Hills 90210. A little shady, but I was young and searching for bands.
It was through this service that I first heard “Can’t Lose”.
My first thought was – “how is this UK band on this US service”? Their sound was unlike anything that was coming out at the time. Emo was on the rise. Somehow, Fall Out Boy was being hailed as the saviour of Rock ‘n’ Roll. These were dark days indeed. But in the middle of this, We Are Scientists released their own vision of the world. With Love from Squalor is an album that is bathed in anxieties, paranoia and regret. It’s a powerful and unique record from that time, one that yielded three singles. These songs were “Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurts” (released twice as a single), “The Great Escape” and “It’s A Hit”.
For a short period of time, you couldn’t move for these songs. They were everywhere. They were being laden with worthy praise and all was rosy in the garden of WAS. The twelve tracks of With Love from Squalor are some of my favourite songs from them. Sometimes, your first impressions are amongst your favourite from a band. This includes the wonderful “The Scene is Dead”, a song which can make the hairs on my neck stand to attention. It was an album that gave me high hopes for the future of WAS.
Crap Attack, released 2006 on EMI Records
Crap Attack is a compilation album (AKA – it’s a cash in. It’s composed of B-sides, remixes and rarities that was released to capitalise on the early success of We Are Scientists. With acoustic versions of tracks from With Love from Squalor and remixes of tracks from that period, it is not the most essential record to be honest. Hey, I’m not dumping on it (pun intended), but there is a whiff of a money grab to this album. The essential stuff from this record though are the cover versions.
If I’m honest, this is not an essential We Are Scientists release.
Covering “Hoppípolla” by Sigur Rós was a genius move, their rework is one of my favorite covers of all time. Stripping the song to an acoustic track is a genius move, opening it to a new audience. As much as I love the original, I prefer this version. They also do a sublime version of “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes, one that is dripping with traditional Rock ‘n’ Roll charm. It’s also has a post-punk edge, which adds new depth to their sound. For these two tracks alone, it’s worth checking out.
Brain Thrust Mastery, released 2008 on EMI Records
We Are Scientists were on a roll in the UK in 2008. In the UK, Brain Thrust Mastery is their biggest hit record. It reached number 11 and there was a huge promotion machine behind it. Once again, you couldn’t move without hearing songs such as “After Hours” and “Chick Lit”. The sense of pressure being piled on them was sort of worrying to be honest. For me, this is due to Brain Thrust Mastery being a sidewards step for the band.
At that point, not much time had passed between each record and they released a lot of music in a short period.
I’m all for bands releasing new material whilst the iron is hot. But the album had a very difficult birth. New label EMI (who had merged with Virgin records) were not happy with the band working with producer Ariel Rechtshaid once again. Also, drummer Michael Tapper left before work had started on the record. This feeling of conflict comes across on Brain Thrust Mastery, you can sense something was not right and there is something missing. I don’t for one second think it’s the lack of Tapper. If anything, the lack of a full-time drummer freed them to be honest. There is a dark shadow over Brain Thrust Mastery, which has never really been resolved. It’s not a bad record, but you could tell that all was not well in the state of WAS.
Barbara, released 2010 via PIAS/Master Swan
For some bands, the third studio album of their career is their most difficult. This is due to the fact you’ve got your whole life to write enough songs for your debut and some of your second record. Usually, the third record is created under pressure. Third albums tend to be written on the road, given less focus, and are subject to the pressure of expectation. If that wasn’t already enough pressure on the release Barbara, it was also the first album from WAS after splitting from EMI. This was a good move for all concerned, the relationship between WAS and EMI had soured and was not healthy. For this record, Messers Cain and Murray worked with ex-Razorlight member Andy Burrows.
Barbara is a stripped back record, an album which removes the pop veneer that was added to Brain Thrust Mastery. This is not to say that pop is not the best style for WAS. In fact, their pop sensibilities are one of the strongest cards in their musical deck. But it hadn’t worked on their last album, so they concentrated on being a three-piece guitar band. The back to basics approach gives Barbara a different feeling, one that’s best described as refocused. Barbara steadied their ship, helping them re-evaluate their own idea and reclaim their brand. It’s a dark horse, an album that is sometimes overlooked. But it’s the one I return to more and more as the years go by.
TV en Français, released 2014 via 100% Records/Dine Alone
Four years would pass before We Are Scientists released another record. In 2013, the band dropped a teaser EP with Business Causal, but people were waiting for a record. That record arrived in the form of TV en Français. Now, here is my confession – the next two albums are as new to me as Megaplex. I was out of the loop with WAS, they had fallen off my radar and I missed this and Helter Seltzer upon their initial releases. However, I’ve now purchased both and have given them a once over.
What I was not expecting from We Are Scientists here was a shock, boy was I wrong.
If I had have heard TV en Français upon its original release, it would have been in my top twenty records of 2014. I feel a sense of shame that I missed it the first time around. Featuring guest performances from Tim Wheeler from Ash, Anthony Rossomando from The Dirty Pretty Things, Rose Elinor Dougall from the Pipettes, and producer Chris Coady, this record has a communal feeling. There is a sense of harmony on this record, songs such as “Make It Easy” and “Return the Favour” are already moving up my WAS top tracks. I love the summery vibe of the music, the wistful and beautiful nature of the record. If there was an album that deserved the description lost gem, it would be TV en Français.
Helter Seltzer, released 2016 via 100% Records
Helter Seltzer once again finds WAS without a drummer, with Andy Burrows leaving the band to focus on his solo career. But that is something that has never seemed to have bothered the band before, WAS are resilient if nothing else. Musically, Helter Seltzer is a decent collection of songs, with more emphasis on their guitar sound than on their pop-centric, electronic leanings.
The more I listen to Helter Seltzer, the more I wonder about its construction and the circumstances behind its completion. The Wikipedia article on the record doesn’t give much information, just a list of the singles and TV show appearances. On Metacritic, there are six professional reviews, three positive and three negative articles. The UK chart position was still within the top 50, so it’s still a successful record for them. But how does it sound, how does it feel?
Well, it’s a bit of an enigma to be honest.
Ironically, I’ve not had as much time with this record as I’ve had with their latest album. I only purchased it just over a week ago. Also, I purchased TV en Français at the same time, but Helter Seltzer is proving a harder album to access. I feel like I’m so close to understanding this record, but I’m missing that final key. If this was a full review, I would deem it to be a work in progress. The mystery will have to continue for a little longer here….
Megaplex, released 2018 via 100% Records
The first thing about Megaplex that I noticed was the style. From the album cover to the music, WAS have gone for a pop veneer to their sound here. Starting with the incredibly catchy “One In, One Out”, WAS turn on the charm from the start, with the hard-indie style of “Your Light Has Changed” which is one of my songs of the year. You also have the heartbreaking “KIT”, another contender for best of 2018 and it seems that WAS have hit a rich vein of form. But whilst each song has the genetic coding that makes WAS tick, they are all incredibly unique as well.
And that’s the key to Megaplex, it showcases the best of We Are Scientists.
The songwriting has always been the key thing for me with WAS, when they get it right, they are unbeatable. For 90% of Megaplex, they reach and achieve that high standard. The only track which feels like a filler, is sadly the ending track, “Properties of Perception”. It just feels a little weak after those stunning songs that preceded it, which is a bit of a shame. However, it doesn’t change the fact that Megaplex is my most played album of 2018 so far. It’s a bit of a charmer, you think you can put it to the side, but you just want to return to it more and more.
So, what does the future hold for We Are Scientists?
As I finish writing this, they’ve just finished touring Europe, which will be followed by a US tour. Hopefully, Megaplex will be reaching fans both old and new, because it’s a stunning record. Looking over all of their records has reminded me how special and unique they sound. Those songs were incredibly important to me at one point, so that was a little joy and writing this article has been such a blast. I have found a deeper respect for these strange guys, fell back in love with their early material, and found a contender for my own record of the year. Completing this piece has also brought two old albums to my attention, so I’ve had thirty new songs from WAS this year! But my biggest discovery is something I already knew…
We Are Scientists have released some of the best indie music you’ll ever hear.
Owner of more Frank Zappa music than one human needs, two cats and looked after by an Angel, Eddie Carter thinks about music more than a Geordie should. Hailing from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK, Eddie spends most of his time surrounded by CD’s and records. He also writes for All The Time I Was Listening to My Own Wall of Sound, his beard is grey and not long enough – also, he wants a pint.