Second Album Mastery?
The highly anticipated second album from We Are Scientists, Brain Thrust Mastery, hit the shelves in the United States in mid-May after being available in the U.K and Europe since early spring. The Brooklyn-based band's first album, With Love and Squalor, earned great reviews and a strong following in the U.S., but not the more mainstream success that greeted it overseas. On Mastery, the band returns with a more layered, darker sound, without completely shifting away from the hook-driven songwriting of their debut.
KGB recently caught up with bassist and vocalist Chris Cain on the phone before a gig in Southampton, England, to discuss the new record and their success across the pond. The band plays a string of North American dates in July and August, including New York shows on July 31 at the Music Hall of Williamsburg and August 1 at the Bowery Ballroom.
Michael Liss: You haven't been back here in a while have you?
Chris Cain: It's been a couple months. Actually, I flew back for a weekend about a month ago. I needed a bagel. Sometimes you wake up and you want a bagel for breakfast.
ML: You guys have stationed yourself in London for a while, leading up to and since the British release?
CC: We were camped out in London for about a month leading up to the release, and then we've been touring and doing promotion. We're also shooting a TV pilot, and I think that's going to start airing on a little channel called the internet.
ML: What kind of show is it going to be?
CC: It's a comedy. The characters are Keith and myself as the dudes from We Are Scientists. We're in London and we are really desperate to flip the popularity the band has achieved into a successful career in inspirational lecturing. So we've got this whole con that we work on, and we very consistently fuck up interviews and appearances by trying to force Brain Thrust Mastery, our system for self-improvement, onto people who simply like the music.
ML: So it does tie back around to the second album?
SS: Oh my God, in so many ways. It's probably the finest piece of cross-marketing the world has yet beheld.
ML: Has it been more fun hanging out as a rock band in the U.K. than it is back in New York?
CC: Well, it's more fun in some ways. The shows are bigger and more exciting. But New York's a fine town, and we do miss it. We miss many aspects. Just not the anonymity! [Laughing.] My God, the crippling anonymity of walking around the streets of New York!
ML: So you get to be a bigger star over there?
CC: Oh, shit yes. [Laughs.] There's just no comparison.
ML: How did you guys end up releasing the album over there a few months before here?
CC: They wanted to wait in the States until we'd be around, so we could tailor our campaign to live appearances. We do so much better in the U.K. and Europe, so had to make that the priority. The U.S. date was chosen to bridge the gap between the March release in the rest of the world, and the time we can actually push it this summer in the States. Basically, they didn't want to force every fan of We Are Scientists in the United States to illegally download it. They wanted to give people at least some plausible chance to pay for it.
ML: So you guys actually sell more copies in the U.K. than in the States?
CC: Oh yeah, definitely.
ML: There are a lot of American bands, especially from New York, who for whatever reason become a lot more successful in the U.K. than back here.
CC: I think part of it is a fairly straightforward taste issue. The types of music that are generally considered indie rock in the U.S. are quite mainstream here in the U.K. Over here, we actually get played on mainstream, daytime radio. That doesn't happen in the States.
ML: There's also such a bigger system over there of releasing singles and music press that we don't have, where everything's so much more the corporate, mainstream stuff.
CC: Yeah, it does seem like the music culture here in the U.K. is a lot more vibrant. There are several pretty influential and widely read weekly music magazines here, which obviously there aren't in the U.S. And radio turns over artists really quickly, which has its downside as well. But it just means you can get popular really quickly, and then if the fans are loyal to your music, you can stay that way.
ML: How have they been reacting to the new material?
CC: They seem to like it. I think the fans have been less problematic that these fucking critics. [Laughs.] The critical response hasn't actually been that bad. I think it's just largely based on the fact that this record is not quite as immediately enjoyable as the last record. This might sound stupid and cliché, but this one really has a lot more depth. You start to get it after you've heard the songs 5 or 6 times, and they're still interesting 50 times later, whereas the last record I think tended to burn out much quicker than that.
ML: On the last record, the music seemed to be much more hook-driven, whereas this one, the music seems to be more chords and more layers.
CC: It definitely has way more thought put into production and mood. The last record, we just wanted to record something that sounded like us on stage if we were really good. On this record, we wanted to make the best-sounding, most awesome record we could conceive of in every way. They started in different places, and I think the results are quite different as well. But fans seem to be really getting it. Maybe half the fans still prefer the first record, but a surprisingly high number are very eager to tell us that they love this new one.
ML: They also seem very thematically different. I think of the first one as kind of a confusing, drunken, slightly messy night out in Williamsburg or something, and this album seems to be much more about figuring out the consequences the next morning, working out what just happened.
CC: Yeah, I think that's not a bad way of summarizing. This one's definitely darker. Although there are moments, songs like the first single, Ã¢â‚¬Å“After Hours,Ã¢â‚¬Âù that I think channel a very similar mood to the last record.
ML: Is the video to Ã¢â‚¬Å“After HoursÃ¢â‚¬Âù the bass player's revenge, where it seems like the lead singer gets the hot chick, but it doesn't quite work that way?
CC: Exactly. We needed to up-end that cliché. For some reason people are under the impression that the lead singer always gets the girl. It's just not true.
ML: How far into the recording process of the second album where you when [original drummer] Michael [Tapper] left the band?
CC: We were essentially finished. We did end up doing a little more work on it after he left, and ended up recording drums on three of the songs with another drummer. But he drums on the vast majority of the album, and was also there for the entirety of the writing process.
ML: Now that you're out there touring and promoting, does it feel different being a duo than a trio?
CC: It does. We're also sort of a four-piece now, on stage. In a live sense, it feels foreign and more crowded. In a creative sense, it's actually really nice to just have a two-person discussion. There's just less room for disagreement. Three people are not exactly enough to be comfortable for two-to-one to carry most arguments, so you really have to get unanimity anyway. This tends to make everything a bit easier.
ML: As the music industry is shifting, are there enough new opportunities to be reaching the fans directly, or is it really a palpable change?
CC: It is quite a palpable change from our standpoint, having done the last record during what were maybe the final days of the old studio/record label system, and right now doing this album during a substantial downsizing phase. It does make a difference. But yeah, there are 1,000 ways to reach fans now. Bands aren't going to disappear, music isn't going to disappear. It's just the way it gets distributed and marketed will change.
ML: Does it seem weird being a New York band with the priority being overseas, as opposed to back here?
CC: I've gotten used to it by now. Any weirdness has certainly dissipated. I will say there are many definite advantages to doing it this way. It's not bad to be essentially unknown in your home town. And if you're going to make money on one side of the Atlantic and spend it on the other, you should definitely do it the way we're doing it.
ML: No question about that. Though obviously you guys have your strong following in New York. I was at the Warsaw show at the end of your last tour, and you guys just ripped the roof off.
CC: It was a great show. We love playing in New York, and New York is maybe one of two cities in the U.S. where it has a similar feel to what it feels like over here. The problem is, it's just not enough to justify spending the time in the States. I'd say D.C. and maybe, to a lesser degree, in LA. And then we do okay in Chicago and San Francisco, and then going down even another level of club size, Seattle and Oregon. But it's such a big country, to try to string together that number of cities is difficult.
ML: Does this in any way, even subconsciously, influence the sound or the writing, or how you present yourself as a band?
CC: I don't think so. I don't know if it's possible to know how an audience is going to react to a certain type of music, unless you're being purely derivative. We definitely don't spend any time trying to second-guess our audience. We just assume that they're with us because they appreciate our taste and our musical choices, and we try to make those choices. And hopefully it will work again.
ML: Now that you're playing them live, have songs on the new album started to go in a different direction or come into their own for you?
CC: Definitely. There's a lot of changes going on, just by virtue of the fact that on stage we only have four people. So we have to make adjustments. A lot of it is deciding what's really important, what's really skeletal, and what is kind of window dressing.
ML: With your live performances now of the With Love and Squalor material, which sounds like it could have been recorded essentially live, are you keeping that stripped down, or have you been changing the sounds of those songs?
CC: For the most part, we have beefed up those songs with an additional part. We were initially very resistant to that, but we've gradually taken the time to figure out interesting things that could be happening.
ML: After two years of playing those songs one way, it must be nice to play them a bit differently now.
CC: Yes, it's fucking fantastic. It's really enjoyable for us. I'd like to think that these kids who are seeing us for the fourth time also find the change at least interesting and enjoyable.
ML: Are there bootlegs of your current shows out there?
CC: There are actually some very high-quality bootlegs, because we've partnered with this company that records the show, and they have a truck with a big mixer outside. They have this amazing CD burner of the future that's pumping out discs. They literally start selling them like 10 minutes after the show. It sounds great. We're doing that for four shows, and the discs are available at all the shows.
ML: They must end up on the internet. Do you see that as part of the plus of it, another way of promoting the band by bootlegging yourself?
CC: Oh, yeah. I think live recordings getting out there Ã¢â‚¬â€œ I can't really imagine a downside to that. It doesn't really compete with the studio recordings, because it's going to sound quite different. And of course, if it's a good show, that helps you sell tickets in the future, which is crucial. We wouldn't want to put a stop to that.
ML: Are you excited about playing homecoming shows in July after all this traipsing around Europe?
CC: Absolutely. The New York fans are great. I definitely wish we were able to do that kind of thing in more cities in the U.S.