By Deb Draisin
New York City’s We Are Scientists - vocalist Keith Murray and bassist Chris Cain - originally came together in 1999 while living in Berkeley, California. After utilizing a series of session drummers, WAS has used drummer Keith Carne in the studio and for live dates since 2013. The band's latest effort is “Lobes”, the sister album to “Huffy,” both written at the height of the covid pandemic. "Lobes" was released in January, 2023, and videos for “Lucky Just to Be Here” and “Turn it Up” can be viewed on their YouTube page. Jersey Beat's Deb Draisin sat down with Keith Carne to talk about the band’s unique songwriting process, their jumpstart to the year, and cats – because, well, CATS.
Q: The new album is out, the North American tour is coming, and two videos are out – let’s talk about it all. Whose cat is in the “Not Another Word” video, by the way?
K: Keith Murray has two amazing rescue cats named Chuck (Bemelman) and Dewey Paws who are official unofficial mascots - (laughing) they’re like Keith and his wife (Sari)’s kids. I think the cat that made it into that video is Dewey Paws. (Editor’s Note: The cats have their own Instagram tag, in case you care as much as I do: @deweyandchuck.)
Q: So cute! How is it to work with animals – are they more obedient than the people? (both laugh)
K: Um, they can be! They typically tend to drink a bit less beer than the people do.
Q: Less beer, less cigarette breaks, right?
K: Yeah! I’m highly allergic to cats, actually. But, for whatever miraculous reason, my antihistamine receptors are a lot less sensitive to Dewey, the orange cat, so therefore, he’s my favorite.
Q: Because he doesn’t make you sneeze, right?
K: Yes, but he’s also really, startingly human. Keith and Sari think that he lived in a bodega.
Q: He’s super friendly?
K: Exactly. When they took him in off the street, he wasn’t shy at all around humans. If you sit in a certain way in their living room, you’re just gonna get sat on by Dewey, whether you like it or not.
Q: I love a cat like that!
K: He’s like a mix between a piglet, a dog, and a human, you know? The reason I’m not talking as much about Chuck, even though I have as much affection for him…
Q: Did you and Chuck get into an argument or something?
K: Yeah, yeah, see: he prefers Taylor Swift, I prefer…no, no, he’s just really skittish.
Q: I used to have two cats like that. They wouldn’t talk to anyone else but us, and people used to get really insulted. I’d be like “I promise, it’s nothing personal!” They were rescues, too. My husband found them abandoned in a box at the track where he worked.
K: Well, good for you for taking them in.
Q: We couldn’t leave them, they were so tiny. There were four, but two of them were mortally wounded, so they went to the pound, and we took the ones in that were gonna survive.
K: Aw, that’s so sad!
Q: Yeah, it was. People are heartless.
K: People are wild. Other Keith and Sari (just so you know, I am not speaking in the third person)…
Q: (laughing) Yes, I know that there are two of you!
K: They got really big into rescuing cats off the street, because they found so many in their neighborhood, and it became a passion.
Q: It’s a sweet thing to do, but it can be quite the undertaking, because they can be skittish, or they can be violently defensive.
K: Sari bought this elaborate trap system so that she could safely and securely catch a stray. She participates in a program in which she takes the to get spayed or neutered. The ones that were injured or really small would go to a foster home. It’s just a big community outreach thing, so.
Q: That’s what the pros do. By the way, when you and Other Keith are together, how do people differentiate which one of you they are addressing?
K: It’s kinda like being back in middle school, if you remember what the boys were like.
Q: KC, KM, Asshole, Dickhead… (both laugh).
K: We refer to each other mostly by last names. It’s never really an issue just amongst ourselves – it’s mostly an issue when we’re dealing with front of house. We just have the sound techs refer to me by my last name.
Q: Oh, okay, that makes complete sense. So, obviously, you’re a vet now, but what was it like ten years ago coming into an already established who had been through a couple of drummers, never having anybody who had really stuck.
K: Well, thanks for that question, actually. You know, the reason why I got recommended to step into the touring position, and then possibly recording from there, was because one of my good friends, and their former member, Max Hart, just knew that I would get along insanely well with Keith and Chris. I’m really passionate about cinema, and they are as well - I don’t know if that much is obvious.
Q: Yes, it is.
K: So, it really was kind of like I’d found two of my older brothers, or something like that – because there is a little bit of an age difference between us. But my biggest concerns were usually, up until that point, musical. I had been on tour a ton with a lot of different projects, but most of those were with people with whom I had longstanding relationships – either out of college, or just playing locally around New York.
There was also the sensitivity perspective – I didn’t want to come in and seem too big for my britches, like “Well, I’m the new guy in town, former drummers, whatever!” They’ve maintained a wonderful relationship with Andy Burrows, and he comes and sits in with us in London, stuff like that. It’s almost like a sports position: I want to do everything in my power for them to want me to be at every show in the same way that a new quarterback doesn’t want to sit on the bench. Not only might you get replaced that way, but you’re just missing out on all the fun.
And so, trying to balance those things were the biggest challenges I faced, but Keith and Chris made it incredibly easy, because fifty minutes out of an hour, we were talking about a movie or a book – we’re all big readers. There are not very many people who like the same adult contemporary things as me.
Q: Or read anything at all, yeah.
K: People are not big readers anymore, especially now with podcasts and audiobooks – even things that people used to read are now largely just audible.
Q: Have you gotten into audiobooks? I haven’t. I downloaded one, because it was an artist dictating their own autobiography, which made sense to me, but I haven’t listened to it yet, because I don’t know how I feel about ingesting a book that way.
K: Yeah, we go back and forth on that. I listen to audiobooks sometimes, and I’m big into podcasts. Most of the time that we spend on the road is spent in the van, and we spend long drives listening to them. What was once a very insular and personal activity, like reading, can now be a communal activity. So, we listen to a lot of, like, spy, silly horror or action novels.
Q: I just downloaded a podcast that I didn’t know was out there. I just bought one of those big iPods – don’t laugh at me, I know it’s a dinosaur, but sometimes you don’t want to drain your phone battery by streaming, okay? They come in handy.
K: It’s true.
Q: It fits everything, so I thought “Okay, let me go pick up some podcasts.” And I found Vincent Price acting out a bunch of episodes of “The Saint”. I was like “This is the fucking coolest thing in the world.” Highly recommend, might be fun for you guys to take on tour.
K: Yeah, wow! Thanks for the heads-up, we’ll check those out, that’s cool.
Q: In February, you hit the UK, which is where you got into the band in the first place – full circle. What are your favorite and least favorite things about touring there?
K: Just being on any tour really is wonderful, but you never get to soak up the experiences of the cities themselves.
Q: I know, it’s a lot of backstage areas and parking lots.
K: Exactly, so what I really like about it is it’s a way to scout locations for trips that, say, I’d like to take with my wife, Hayley. For example, we will always go from Milan right to Zurich, and you’re passing, in that four-hour drive, the most fertile soil in the world, and the hills are alive, but I’m dead inside, because I’m in this bus.
Q: Beautiful land. So you’re there texting her photos, saying “Hey Babe, check this out!”
K: Yeah, and that’s great. I also love being able to extend tours, have her come over.
Q: That was going to be my suggestion. Like, I don’t know what your guys’ schedule is, but it’s like, alright, if you’ve got a week off, why not have Hayley meet me at the end of the tour, and then travel together.
K: She and I have spent about four long weekends together in London, and it’s great, because I’m super familiar with that city, so we really get to explore it together. But, all that aside, it’s really just wonderful to be on a tour. We played this one-off show in New York in February. Half of my gear is in We Are Scientists’ lock-up space, half is in my home office. So much of each individual local show is about making sure to retrieve everything from its living space, but when you’re on tour, everything you need is right there.
Q: It’s a machine.
K: Totally, and then all of your energy can just go into making it a better performance, a tighter hang onstage.
Q: So does a show like that one-off in New York feel chaotic to you?
K: The part that felt chaotic, and that I was the most stressed about, was opening all of the cases to my equipment, and realizing what I did, or did not, forget. And this is after an entire morning of trying to plan this stuff. Long story short, cut to the chase: no, I didn’t forget anything of consequence.
D: That’s good.
K: You know, even at a show where we’re performing six brand new songs that have a lot of samples and moving parts, even considering all that stuff, it was the physical preparation aspect that made me the most nervous. After soundcheck, I was chillin’.
Q: Most drummers don’t super love to play to backing tracks, do they?
K: You’re right, a lot of musicians don’t, because it tends to take the soul away from a lot of the live performance.
Q: That’s the biggest complaint that I’ve heard from other musicians, that it doesn’t feel like it has that nitty-gritty live feel to it – that it feels too tailored.
K: Well, what’s good about it is that I design all of the tracks in terms of how they get performed, and we really try not to do a thing where I hit a pad and the whole song sorta falls into line. Most of the things that we’re doing, I’m performing on a pad, and I have edited in two measured clips, or a section of a drone – mostly because it’s like an ethical dance for all of us. You want to be able to play to the room, so, if everyone is throwing out a ton of energy while still varying tempos.
Q: Doesn’t speeding things up happen naturally when you’re live?
K: It certainly can. A lot of my background comes from playing jazz music.
Q: Oh, you’re a freeform guy!
K: Yeah, and so I like very much to have that flexibility, but, of course, you know, when you’re a three-piece, largely guitar-driven, rock band, you need to have some atmospherics to fill in the background.
Q: Sure, yeah.
K: One of my favorite aspects of a live performance is that I get to figure out which things from the record need to be included in order for this song to sound like itself, but also how am I going to make it happen comfortably onstage? We don’t use a computer, it’s just a sample that’s been preloaded that I’m performing along with. That’s of course no shade to the people who do use backing tracks, it’s just a thing that we try to avoid.
Q: You’re going to get so much hate mail now (both laugh).
K: Every band operates differently, you know?
Q: Well, there are different reasons for doing things a certain way, and you’re right: as a three-piece, you’ve got to fill the room. So, in fleshing out “Lobes”, as far as concept, recording, song structure, what role do you play? Heavy, moderate?
K: That’s very much based upon my interest in the song. Keith is such an incredible songwriter, and he comes in with a fully developed idea for each song. In the very beginning of the “Lobes” process, Keith sent Chris and I a batch of fifty songs, and we ranked them from favorite to least favorite using a pre-agreed-upon numbering system - that’s how we decided which songs were going to get recorded. Keith and Chris took our votes, as well as those from our manager and other trusted people, and prioritized the list like that, so that was step one. And then, it became clearer to me that I had developed stronger convictions for certain songs over others, and the band made those tracks available to me in every way. I proposed some reharmonizations, and we rewrote a few parts. I don’t actually know whether or not they used them all, but they were open to hearing any suggestions that I wanted to make.
A lot of my role, though, is basically to say “This is great, I like this perspective, but have you ever thought about this perspective, or that one?” How that relates to drums is by movement: simplifying, complexifying, developing all sorts of fills, stuff like that. So, sometimes it’s a very specific musicological approach. And then, sometimes, I would just give them permission to say “Yeah, fuck it, this song doesn’t need a bridge. You know that riff that happens? I just wanna hear that for like twenty bars, or whatever, and then we can take that and expand it.” And then, sometimes, it’s just helpful to have a third voice in the room that hasn’t already been pouring over this stuff, you know?
Q: Not too long after you joined is when the band first went to a major, right? That must have been a game-changer as well, as far as artistic freedom, timeline – it’s probably a well-oiled machine at this point, yet you’re still writing the same way: Keith bringing in a stack of songs.
K: Yeah, he goes on these amazingly – one might call them masochistic – productive sessions, called songwriting challenges. He does them with a few other musicians who are part of this scene here in New York, and overseas as well. The idea of this challenge is to write either ten songs or twenty songs – some ridiculous number – between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.. The idea is to half remove from them, to give yourself permission to just write any old idea and move on from it, to not belabor that idea. And then, at 8:00 p.m., everyone gets together and plays the recordings of their songs.
It’s a great way to get together with other musicians and stuff, but that, essentially, leads to him saying “Okay, well I’ve written - let’s say - a hundred songs for the song challenge over the course of this year, and I’ve written fifteen songs independently of that which are sort of these diamonds in the rough, which I’ve labored more over.”
Keith just gives you this amazing back catalogue of ideas to pull from. And sometimes you wind up, like, Frankensteining some ideas together, or changing the key of this one part and putting it somewhere else. It just makes you feel like you’re not starting from scratch every recording period – it allows you to hit the ground running.
Q: Right, I get that. So, what would you say is kinda the vibe for this album, what are you guys going for?
K: Good question. So, “Lobes” was actually written during the same recording push as our previous record, “Huffy”. All the session took place in the late winter, spring, summer, of 2020, while we had a studio – right at the beginning of covid. Keith and Chris took a lot of time after that, bought the parts home, and continued to polish them. They decided to separate the songs based upon vibes. “Huff” became all of the rock-oriented songs, and “Lobes” became more of the dance-y, pop, synth and keyboard-driven songs.
Q: Yep, I noticed that.
K: Yeah, so that’s essentially what defined those recording sessions for us. We got faced with this opportunity where we were supposed to lose access to the studio that we had, but the studio’s owner got stuck in the UK, so we had access for months longer than we thought we would. That makes a huge difference when you’re recording drums, because you need the room to sound good, you need proper microphones and such.
Q: Sure, absolutely.
K: So, we said “Okay, we’ve got twenty-five songs, le’ts just try to get drums on everything that we can.” We would do two songs a day, and, meanwhile the reports are coming in: “Oh, there’s this virus in China, will it hit us?” We worked until around March 15 – at one point, we were all riding bikes into the studio so we wouldn’t have to take public transportation, and we weren’t seeing anybody else. After each session, we would isolate for ten days, then go back into the studio to finish another portion. Covid, ironically, gave us this sort of incredible runway to allow the ideas to develop. But the craziest thing about that was, when the record came out, and we had to learn them live, I had absolutely no idea where a lot of these songs were gonna go.
Q: It had been two years! Did you find the songs changed – did they morph for that reason?
K: A lot of them changed characteristically, like I would remember an alternate idea for a drum part. The bridge for “Operator Error” is a great example of this. It was a groove that I had been working on, and developing on my own, with drum students. So I was like “Hey, you know, I’ve been shedding this idea, let me just lay it down for you guys with the click track”, and then I would find it in the songs, or whatever. “Bought Myself a Grave”, off the previous record, was very much like. These were ideas that I had vague recollections of, like “Was that a dream? Did I really do that?”, and then they’d wind up being the driving force of a different section of a song.
But, for the most part, many of the songs’ core identities were all completely well-established by the time I was playing drums on them. There were certain things, like, I always have my Go Pro around, and I’m always trying to get studio footage for the ‘gram, or just for my own practice, to get better at my instrument. They would take snippets of those, and, when played back, a lot of my footage didn’t match what you heard on the recordings – and that was all by design. It was recorded in a way that allowed Keith and Chris to have as much flexibility as possible. Given the covid aspect of things, we didn’t know what could happen: maybe I would have to be out of the studio for two weeks because I caught this crazy virus that was going around.
Q: Yeah, there was a lot of uncertainty.
K: Totally. So, it was a really, really interesting recording process. And, ironically, it wound up allowing us to put those ideas in which weren’t a part of those songs earlier. It allowed us to make pivots and changes, and really look at the song in the perspective of what should this be, now that we have it recorded, not just sticking to this preconceived notion.
Q: Does it feel like a different record?
K: Yeah, because we didn’t know there was going to be two records, you know? So, it very much feels like two completely different things with their own identities. I should mention that we also did a few recording sessions here, in my drum studio in midtown. This is my world, where I teach via remote sessions. You know, we needed to get drums for a few more tracks, so we did some stuff here and then added to it. But yeah, it does feel like a different record, with a different perspective, than when we started.
Q: And what’s that like, to return to a song that you’ve grown so much with, and then return to playing it live – does it feel different? You relate to it completely differently, right?
K: Yeah, but it’s exciting, and it’s inspiring. There are a lot of songs that I like playing live more than I even like the way that they sound on recordings. I mean, how often do you have a favorite band, and you’re like “Oh, I prefer the live version of this song”?
Q: Which ones do you prefer live?
K: That’s a good question. I really love the way that “Settled Accounts” sounds on the recording, but it takes on a new life, and new meaning, live. I also think I prefer the live version of “Lucky Just to Be Here”. We’ve decided to kind of extend the drone at the very beginning of the song, and it makes it feel more lived in, and experimental. It’s also a song that we’re opening a lot of the sets with. And so, it’s like a new mood for us. Usually, with Scientists, we want to come out like a cannon blast, and capitalize off of everyone’s energy. It’s not very much like us to allow tension to rise, and yet, “Lucky Just to Be Here” is a perfect example of a song which naturally wants that to happen, I think. So, we’re trying to embrace that at our live shows, and it’s creating a different live atmosphere for our shows.
Q: Are you finding that the build-up is really exciting for the crowd? Is it hooking them in?
K: It was at that one-off in New York! I’ll get back to you on the next leg, Debbie, but I think that it makes for a better, and slightly more dramatic show, and, shit, it’s fine to be theatrical these days, you know? (smiles). I mean, I think it’s a cool thing to finally be embracing.
Q: Bands are re-embracing that now.
K: Yeah, we’re not trying to sashay across the bandstand, you know? But to say “Oh, this is a beautiful drone, and if I do this, it sounds like a spaceship taking off”, or whatever, let’s think of the set that way. It’s certainly how I often like to think of my own playing on a set, like a ninety-minute arc, you know? And I think a lot of the best bands think of their live sets that way.
Q: Sounds great! Can’t wait to see what you guys get up to this summer – hoping there will be some livestreams, so everybody can join in.
K: I hope so too!
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