We Are Scientists’ Keith Murray talks new synth-centric record ‘Lobes’

We Are Scientists formed more than 20 years ago when Keith Murray and Chris Cain were college students just outside of Los Angeles. After they relocated to New York City, the duo’s breakthrough full-length With Love And Squalor met the dance-rock moment in 2005 with hits like “Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt.”

As singer-guitarist Murray told me via Zoom just before the late January release of their 8th record called Lobes, the band has continued experimenting with the creative balance of his bend toward “infectiously boppy and upbeat songs” and Cain’s proclivity for creating “more complex, interesting songs.” Contrasted with We Are Scientists’ more straightforward rock record Huffy released not even 16 months prior, Lobes is a synth-heavy collection of songs, most of which were born out of Murray’s futzing around solo on keyboards during lockdown.

Hear clips of my interview with Keith Murray about the sound and feel of Lobes, the band’s sweet spot in terms of album length, plus eerily accurate AI bots that “get” him. Listen to Lobes in full.

We Are Scientists · Lobes

On the Record: A Q&A With Keith Murray of We Are Scientists

Celia Gregory: Hi, Keith, cool to meet you. I hope you’re enjoying your sort of victory lap with the new record. How are you feeling? I mean, this is your eighth, right?

KM: This is our eighth record. You would think by eight you’d stop being utterly stressed out around releases, But you don’t.

CG: Can you catch us up on when you first started writing these songs and what was happening? I don’t want to make any assumptions because of when it’s coming out that this is like a pandemic era record. You tell us.

KM: A small handful of the songs sort of precede the pandemic. We were about to begin recording a record just as the pandemic hit. We had like moved into a studio and had just begun the recording process for what became our last album, Huffy, just as everything got shut down. Initially, everything was put on hold. Chris and I were not in one another’s pod initially, so for a few months I was still going into this studio, which was owned by a friend who was trapped out of the country because he’s not a U.S. citizen. So he was trapped in Ireland. And so I very graciously told him that I would keep an eye on his studio.

So I went in and sort of continued writing. I didn’t really want to do any work on the album that was at hand without Chris. So I just kind of sat in there. He had a big bank of keyboards, which I used as a means of writing in ways I wouldn’t normally write in this room. I wrote a few more keyboard based songs. I think in that era I wrote “Lucky Just to Be Here” and “Here Goes,” which are very synth-forward tunes.

Then when Chris and I decided, “If we get COVID, we’re getting COVID together,” he and I started meeting in the studio again. That was when we kind of said, “You know what? Why don’t we sort the songs that we now have into sort of more guitar-centric songs and synth-centric songs.” The guitar-centric songs became Huffy, and the five or six songs that were very synthesized became the beginnings of Lobes, and we set those aside and said we would come back to them after Huffy was finished.

CG: It sounds like you knew even though you’d had this burst of creativity, that it sounded different and you wanted more cohesion with the batches of songs that you had. Was the idea to make the records sound different, in 2021 and this one?

KM: I guess that was sort of the rubric we applied almost artificially. We’ve definitely never been a band that really sat down and said, “We’re going to make this specific album.” We actually have said that sometimes and it’s never worked out that way. We always end up sort of just making our albums a snapshot of those two years of our lives. Somehow that always feels actually more cohesive and exhaustive rather than saying, “You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to try to create this little rock opera that is thematically coherent.”

Part of the decision was that we also started ending up with more good songs than we wanted to cram onto a single album. I like making ten-song albums because there are always ten songs that I’m crazily excited about. There aren’t necessarily always 16 songs that I know for sure deserve to be on an album. We always want a very short album — that’s a means of quality control that we deploy, but usually that means throwing out the other, you know, 70 songs we’d written in the past two years. This time, we definitely knew we didn’t want to do that because some of our favorite songs were the ones that we’d earmarked for Lobes. But at that point it just kind of became a process of how do we write four other songs for this record that will join these six songs that we have? And I think we did that. I think right now my two favorite songs on the record are “Turn It Up” and “Less From You,” which were the two last songs, maybe, that we wrote.

CG: And is it because you were able to start to finish write those together? Whereas before those were sort of stems that you’d messed around on the synths by yourself… did that feel more special to be able to dedicate time together to fleshing out Lobes?

KM: I think a big part of what I like about those songs is that they’re very exuberant, which is a sensibility that I am a huge sucker for. I like lean toward the infectiously boppy, upbeat songs, and I think Chris leans toward like the more complex, interesting songs. I think those two songs were birthed because I knew we had a big chunk of an album already done that I thought already had the big singles on it. “Operator Error” and “Human Resources” were probably the two songs that I thought were the very best songs out of Huffy and Lobes‘s existing songs.

So I was like, “This is already done. We just need some good songs to finish it.” I don’t want to use this as an excuse to phone in the rest of the album, but I felt a little bit care free, which is always a boon in songwriting. There’s nothing worse than feeling like, “Oh man, an album just came out and now we have to start writing a new album. I hope we have enough good songs for a new album.” That’s a good recipe for writer’s block. Being playful really helped those songs.

CG: I’m just thinking if I have any part in writing your obit, I’m going to say “Keith Murray: Sucker for Exuberance.”

KM: [Laughs] Yeah.

On Synth Songs and Set Lists

CG: You actually proceeded my question, which was how do you normally compose? Because this felt more synthetic, had you previously fucked around on keyboards and then decided to keep that part and then flesh it out? Or do you normally write on a stringed instrument?

KM: I guess apart from our first record, when we owned no synthesizers, we’ve definitely always written with synths. Actually, I think on our first record, part of our means of making up for the fact that we had no synths in an era in which synths we’re very on trend, was our deployment of backing vocals. I think we always treated the rhythm section harmonies as kind of a synth replacement. They were always either acting as chordal pads, or kind of doing a counter melody that a synth lead would play. So we’ve definitely always thought with that sort of arrangement in mind.

Maybe the less we worry about having enough good songs to fill a setlist, the more comfortable we are writing songs that we don’t necessarily ever have to play live. And I think that’s when interesting arrangements start to rear their head more on the album. We’ve definitely got 25 fun songs to play live. So we can’t play every song on Lobes, no big deal. Unfortunately, I think Lobes is the rare album that I’m very sad that we probably won’t play every song live. We had an album release show in Brooklyn on release day and we played six songs from Lobes and that felt like a measure of restraint. We were like, “I want to play so many more, but is that too indulgent?” And I don’t think we’d played a show since Huffy came out in Brooklyn. So in some ways it also kind of felt like a Huffy release show, we wanted to showcase that record as well.

On The Lobes vs. Huffy Imagery

CG: Yeah, I mean, what a what a blitz for both of those to come out in these crazy times. With this one, especially the music videos accompanying these singles, it’s actually very heavy on West Coast imagery — beachy, driving-around-L.A. vibes. But you’re a quintessential New York band, so square that for listeners of this record. Was it just about the esthetic or was there actual influence? Because didn’t you spend some of this time in the pandemic apart, right, not in New York?

KM: Yeah. For a big stretch of the pandemic, I was in Miami, which is where my family lives and I grew up. I went down there and figured that if I wasn’t really leaving the house, I should not really leave the house two blocks from the beach. And Chris went to Utah, which is where his family is from. We tracked most of Huffy and some of Lobes in New York in that aforementioned studio and then sort of retreated to our ancestral homes to do all the post-production work. Especially because Huffy was such an energetic kind of daytime record, I started very strongly associating it with Miami. A lot of my vocals were done down in Miami. A lot of the accouterment on it that give it its zest ended up feeling very Miami to me. We ended up making that a very “Jetskis and speedboats” album.

We have thought of Lobes as the opposite side of that coin. It’s kind of like the nighttime comedown after a big day drinking margaritas on speedboats and I guess sort of the opposite of Miami while keeping the same spirit. The desert is still very sunny, but in a kind of dangerous, life-stripping way. So that was where that idea for imagery came from.

We also met outside of Los Angeles. We went to school in very eastern L.A. so it didn’t necessarily feel like we were copying imagery that was not part of We Are Scientists. Fundament. Weirdly, still a lot of people think that we are a California band despite never really having done anything of note when we were. As a band in California, nobody never heard of us.

On The Eerie Accuracy of AI Songwriting

CG: OK, since you’re giving us so much art, what is something in science that either excites or scares you right now?

KM: I, like, everyone else am pretty arm’s length enticed by AI art production. I haven’t not asked chat bots to write songs in the style of We Are Scientists and they nail it pretty well. There’s a lot of drinking in them and a lot of, like, emotional anxiety that is incredibly petty, Nothing terribly life abating. The chat bot understands that about me, that I’m going to really worry about incredibly minor issues.

I like that when the computer overlords begin their reign, I’ll at least know that they get me. And that’s an element that I wouldn’t have anticipated in post-apocalyptic scenarios that appear in cinema and literature. You don’t really get the sense that the computers know the human batteries that they’re harvesting.

CG: But you feel seen and understood.

KM: Yeah, and I like that.