New York indie-rockers We Are Scientists have provided their audience with many a laugh throughout their career, as well as some of the biggest indie anthems of the noughties, earning them a reputation as one of the most charming bands around and a spot pretty high up on the ‘Bands to Grab A Pint With Before You Die’ list (you don’t have one of those?). After a successful co-headline European tour with Irish rockers Ash late last year, the guys are back with their fifth studio album Helter Seltzer, two new brilliant singles already having been released, and an extensive tour of both sides of the pond kicking off this month. I caught up with bassist Chris Cain to talk Helter Seltzer, crazy music video concepts and near-death experiences…
You’ve been a band for over 10 years now with a loyal following, do you feel you can be more experimental with your music now than when first getting started?
I don’t know… On the one hand there’s fan expectation that you don’t want to completely fail I guess, but on the other hand there’s also the fact that people don’t necessarily need you to remake your old stuff. I guess to a degree you’ve proven yourself as an artist and one becomes a little more confident with instinct with each record. So to some degree yes, to some degree no, how’s that for an equivocating answer?
Definitely keeps you thinking. So you’re about to tour the UK, how do you weigh up the setlist for your new shows? Do you feel like you always have to include all the crowd pleasers like ‘The Great Escape’ or do you prefer to mix it up?
We definitely feel like we need to include the crowdpleasers. I think from almost every perspective we feel compelled to do that, if we went to see a band that we loved and they didn’t play their hits I think we’d be very upset. As performers we love the reaction that the old songs get, even if you write a new song that is in every way superior to your old beloved tunes, it’s never going to be able to connect with a fan the same way as something that they heard when they first fell in love or when having their first child or whatever. These songs that connect with people at crucial parts of their lives and also have the benefit of marinating for five years or ten years, those are always going to have more of an impact than a new piece of music. So we’re absolutely aware of it and we’re eager to exploit it, and we do!
What’s your favourite song to play live?
That’s a good question. Right now I want to play our new songs live, we’ve just been rehearsing the four or five new ones that we’re going to be playing during the UK shows and it’s super fun to play those because it’s a different kind of atmosphere than the old songs. We’re still learning to play our part and sing it well at the same time which is an exciting difficulty factor. But the nice thing about the old songs is that there’s a freedom that comes with playing them that allows you to lean a little more heavily on your antics on stage, you can dance around or whatever. If you’ve got your brow screwed up trying to remember how the bridge goes, it’s hard to also be visibly having fun.
You’ve had a great career so far. But out of all the shows, tours and recording sessions, if We Are Scientists were to write an autobiography what funny story from your career would you most want to be included?
I would want it to be composed almost primarily of funny stories to be honest, so choosing just one [laughs] let’s see…
The climax of funny stories…
I don’t know if we’ve experienced that one yet, but we’ve had some pretty funny ones! As they say, comedy is tragedy plus time and all of our funny stories are definitely ones that in the moment were either excruciatingly painful, or really upsetting or awkward. We were on a plane back from Albuquerque to New York a year and a half or so ago, and the pilot came on the PA and explained that we needed to watch the flight crew who would be demonstrating procedures for a crash landing. The flight crew looked just as surprised as we were! Everybody went silent while they demonstrated to a MUCH greater degree than you’re used to all of the specific things that you needed to know for a crash, all these really grim details…
Just what you want to hear…
Yeah! So I pulled out my phone to write an email to my son thinking, wow this might be the last thing I ever write or say to him, and I didn’t even realise how scared I was until I started trying to type – my thumbs were vibrating. I remember thinking shit, and over the next five minutes I managed to get down some really pathetic sentences telling him “I hope you have a great life!” We thought we were going to die. In the end we descended very rapidly, a kind of cartoon-ish death spiral, and then just ended up landing on a runway! And they didn’t say anything, the entire time the flight crew had no idea what was going on, they all assumed we were crashing too. They never explained what happened – then a week later they sent us an email with 25,000 air miles saying, ‘We understand you had a traumatic experience, please enjoy these miles!’ So that was a terrifying and brutal experience but, I don’t know – actually it’s not even that funny in the telling…
But at least now you know what to do in that situation, I suppose!
It’s funny because you’re talking to the person who clearly survived!
Speaking of crazy moments, your music videos always have equally crazy concepts. How do you come up with ideas for these, and how come you drew the short straw for the ‘Buckle’ video?
Everybody always assumes I drew the short straw – I don’t understand, I WON the coin toss. Keith and I BOTH wanted to be pumped with food and fake glass, it was a very fulfilling five or six hours of my life. How do we come up with our concepts? Usually they’re forged in the crucible of very short time. So we absolutely need to come up with something and shoot it within one or two weeks. We’re often perversely motivated by the title of the song, we rarely take into account what the lyrics are actually talking about, so we do like to refer to it in some way in the video. Then a dash of wish fulfillment goes in there, where we always try to just do something that we either wanted to do on our own, or we think it seems fun to do, or think it would be cool to have on video of ourselves. Inevitably they’re very uncomfortable to film.
But they always come out great. For the last question we’re going to get deep – TV en Francais was pretty hard hitting, providing a compelling real story with truthful lyrics. How would you compare the forthcoming Helter Seltzer?
I think Helter Seltzer is equally derived from real-life events, but in most of the songs I think the lyrics have been a little more generalised, so like passed through a kind of generalisation filter with the aim of making them more widely applicable. That’s a difficult sort of balancing act when writing lyrics for pop music. You want to include enough details to make them ring true and give them the texture of reality, but you also want to make them generic enough so that they can apply to a lot of different people’s situation, so that a lot of people will be able to listen and think this is getting at exactly what I’m going through right now. Doing that well is quite difficult, but I think Keith is among the best.
Helter Seltzer is released on the 22nd April via 100% Records