Analogue Music | We Are Scientists

We Are Scientists

By Matt Conner

Keith Murray and Chris Cain were finally ready to own the entire recording process.

Nearly twenty years have passed since We Are Scientists first released an independent batch of demos titled Safety, Fun, and Learning (In That Order). Since then, six proper studio albums have followed suit, bringing their ever-expansive rock sound to the masses while simultaneously allowing Cain and Murray to learn on the go. Each new release bringing them closer to keeping the entire process in house.

Huffy is the band's seventh studio album (Masterswan Records), their first release in three years and the only self-produced release in the WAS catalog. It's taken some time for the band's members to work up the nerve to follow through on their desire to give it a go, and a global pandemic gave them every reason to take their time and learn what they didn't already know.

Coming together on their own has allowed We Are Scientists to find a "middle ground" of their personal leanings, which makes Huffy perhaps the best amalgam of the duo's tastes. It's a captivating sonic compromise, one that Murray tells us all about in our latest feature.

Analogue: How has the band been holding up creatively in this larger season of uncertainty?

Keith Murray: On the one hand, I feel like we were in a uniquely good position—for us, I mean—to go through this at this exact moment. We’d been ramping up over the last decade or so toward trying to be far more self-sufficient as producers and engineers and self-recordists. On every album, we’ve been more and more hands-on in the technical aspects of everything.

Huffy was the first album that we’d planted the flag and said, ‘Let’s just see what happens if we try to produce this ourselves.’ The worst case scenario is that we’ll have wasted a couple grand and a month of time. If it doesn’t work out, we can always go to Max Hart, who produced our last couple records and who we love, and just say, ‘We tried it but it was a failure. Can we use these as demos and make a record?’

"We tend to be gut workers. We like to dive into immediate ideas that may or may not have any value at all."

So we started that process in 2020 just before everything shut down, and it gave us that space and time to be in the studio and figure things out without any deadlines existing at all. Suddenly there was no pressure except what came from ourselves.

So that was a positive aspect of it. In the past, our albums have felt like a prelude to the touring cycle, so the negative is that we had no real excuse to tour again. That part was removed from any aspect of music-making. It brought it back to feeling like a hobby, to be honest. It felt like we were doing it again for us.

Analogue: This journey toward ownership of the sound… what has that done for the music as you look back at your learning curve?

Keith: It’s funny. I think the two types of producers we always talk to and always reject on every album. There are the ones who are like, ‘I think you’re such a great live band that I just want to set up microphones in the room and record you live and that’s the record.’ We are highly susceptible to that notion but we’ve grown into that theory that albums are one thing and live is another thing. We’re so interested in pop production and stuff that we like messing with things in a studio and that the live version doesn’t have to sound like the one we want to listen to at home.

The other producers we reject are the ones who say it doesn’t have to be anything like the live band. They just want to go gonzo with all drum machines and synths, which we’re also very interested in, but we’re self-aware enough and aware enough of our audience that it seems like the wrong move. We’ve definitely heard enough rock bands make straight-up pop records that we strongly dislike. [Laughs]

We’re like, ‘No, we don’t want to do that.’ I think self-producing has been about finding that middle ground. Our demos often just sound like much more interesting versions of us live, I think. I think its’ been about both—using studio tools but also having it sound like the three of us.

Analogue: The way you talk about having your own sound and the general longevity you’ve enjoyed, do you ever think about those things as a band and how far you’ve come?

Keith: To be honest, we almost never really have discussions about career arc. We have a lot of discussions about the immediate next thing we want to do or how we should be approaching the next thing on our plate. But it’s maybe astoundingly rare for us to have a big picture conversation. I think that’s part of why our sound is what it is. For better or worse, we tend to be gut workers. We like to dive into immediate ideas that may or may not have any value at all.

We got this manager back when we were on Virgin Records who was a heavy hitter in the industry. His big complaint to us all the time was, ‘You guys throw out good ideas for lunch.’ That doesn’t really make sense. I don’t think you throw things out normally for lunch.

Analogue: But the sentiment was clear. [Laughs]

Keith: Yeah, he said we’d get very interested in very stupid ideas that we would immediately pounce on and want to attack without really imagining the longer arc.

One of the joke titles we had for our second album was Do Smoke Detectors Detect the Small of Smoke? For some reason, he was so smitten with that album title. [Laughs] We had to keep promising him that it wasn’t going to be the title and that it was a joke. The fact we said it could be an album title blew his mind and he never got over the fact that we didn’t use it. We called it Brain Thrust Mastery, so it’s not like we named it a normal album title. I don’t know.

I think the naming of our second record really encapsulates the way we operate. We told our manager it was Do Smoke Detectors Detect The Smell of Smoke? He loved it and so we said, ‘No, we’re going with Brain Thrust Mastery.’ [Laughs]

Analogue: Given the ownership here and that you didn’t go to another producer, do you feel like there’s a specific area of growth that stands out most about Huffy?

Keith: I think it goes back to the production balance I was talking about. The tug-of-war that exists pretty nicely between Chris and I as self-producers is that I gear toward simplicity almost all the time and he veers toward complexity. When I say complexity, I don’t mean the kitchen sink. I just think he errs on the side of what we can do to keep the listener from being bored. I think I veer more toward Please Please Me and he skews more toward Abbey Road-era Beatles.

The balance of that is the thing we like most about the production that we’ve been doing on this record. It’s feeling like it’s very lush and lots of ideas happening all the time without it feeling bloated or overcooked.

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