THE THOUSAND-MILE OIL CHANGE We Are Scientists

After
riding the major label bus for two albums and nearly five years, for their latest
effort the NYC buzzband opted for a new set of wheels.

 

BY ANNAMARYA SCACCIA

 

“Obviously, it’s no secret that labels have not done great
financially in the last couple of years,” says We Are Scientists’ Chris Cain,
“and to give them the benefit of the doubt, may be entirely due to the MP3, piracy
and theft, [which] may have to do with their failure to adapt to those things
and take advantage of opportunities, but let’s
just say it was not their fault.”

 

So begins the tale of the indie-rock outfit’s departure from
Virgin Records and its parent company, EMI, in the fall of 2009. In “dire
financial straits,” says Cain, the label, like many others sporting financial
black-eyes, had a hard time supporting their years-old contracts, attempting to
hold back the cash while trying to cash in – and this was enough to make the Brooklyn
(by way of California) act jump ship. “It’s a combination of them not wanting
to cough up the money that our contract entitled us to and them wanting more
from us – wanting a piece of merch, wanting a piece of touring, the ‘360-deal’,”
says the 33-year old, Utah-born bassist. “And they wanted it in perpetuity
after we fought the label for something like three years. So it was just all
kinds of crazy plans.”

 

Their reason for leaving their label shouldn’t come as a
surprise to those following the current anemic condition of the music industry.
With labels seemingly unaware of how to coexist monetarily in this heavy
digital age, the increasingly frequent contractual inclusion of the “360-deal”
(aka “Multiple Rights Deals”) that Cain mentioned is leaving a bitter taste in
artists’ mouths. And while labels assert these deals allow the signing of
various artists instead on focusing on insta-hits and larger profits alone,
it’s not iniquitous to say it seems more like a reaction to their pecuniary
woes, is it?

 

“That’s the kind of deals labels are making right now
because they need to have a serious investment in the bands, so if they do put
money into it, they’re gonna reap a real substantial portion of their rewards,”
says Cain, “but it just didn’t make sense for a band at our spot on the ladder.
Unfortunately, a label has already done the most important thing for us, which
is dump a whole lot of money into the initial album, and help you get known. So
now we got the fanbase, we don’t really need a label anymore.”

 

According to the band’s salt-and-pepper shaggy-haired vocalist/guitarist
Keith Murray, We Are Scientists was fortunate enough to lawfully leave the
label, “due to a contract renegotiation” involving their switch from technically-defunct
Virgin US to EMI’s Virgin UK. This “break
up”  left them open to delve into other possibilities
and, ultimately, the group decided to release their fourth studio effort, Barbara, on their own label, Masterswan
Recordings, with June 15 (US) and June 14 (UK) street dates.

 

The first album to be recorded with ex-Razorlight drummer
Andy Burrows (Burrows and interim drummer Danny Allen will tour with the band),
Barbara is a sort of exodus from the danceable but down-trodden workings
of their last two records – 2005’s official debut With Love and Squalor and
2008’s  Brain Thrust Mastery. (WAS originally debuted in 2002 with
the self-released Safety, Fun, and Learning [In That Order], which, Cain
says, was a result of ” a
band in their early stages fucking around with recording and kind of giving
fans something to take home… but it wasn’t really a well-considered
record.”)  Written entirely in Athens, Georgia by Murray (New York,
he says, was “over-stimulating”), and recorded in Los Angeles, New York and
London to coincide with Burrows’ schedule, Barbara ultimately consumed
three full months of studio time with lengthy breaks in between sessions. It’s
the auditory equivalent of a metaphorical weight lifted off the shoulders,
nearly forty minutes’ worth of fresh air, with the band trading in the
worrisome cadence that previously dotted refrains such as With Love and
Squalor
‘s “Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt” and Brain Thrust Mastery‘s “Ghouls” for bright symphonies, even while shifting from ardent mid-tempo numbers
(“Pittsburgh,” “Foreign Kicks”) to poppy dancefloor anthems (“Break It Up,”
“Rules Don’t Stop,” “I Don’t Bite,” “Jack and Ginger”).

 

For the cropped, dark-haired Cain, who sports glasses and neaten
threads, the breaks between each session gave them an opportunity to reevaluate
what was previously laid down and rerecord anything not up to par. Also, he
says, the different studios provided different vibes, so much so that they
rerecorded drums in New York that they’d done
earlier London
because “the room sounded kind of cool for certain few songs.”

 

“[Barbara’s]
definitely gone beyond my initial intentions,” says the modish Murray. “The band mandate
at the beginning of the writing process was to create an album of short,
up-beat, danceable, hook-laden tunes, and nothing more. That the final
vibe has as much breadth as it does, vibe-wise, was a pleasant surprise.”

 

“I feel pretty amazing about Barbara,” he goes on.  “I am normally fairly shy about
self-promotion and tend to be apologetic for forcing my work upon the world,
but the fact that I’m legitimately slightly cocky about this record is a good
sign, I think.”

 

But why release Barbara on Masterswan rather than sign with a new label? According to Murray, when
shopping the record, smaller labels didn’t offer services that We Are
Scientists wasn’t capable of performing and, despite the financial temptations,
signing to another major wouldn’t mend the issues they faced with EMI. “I guess
that contracts like the one we signed with Virgin in 2005 just don’t exist
anymore,” says the 32-year-old native Floridian. “It makes sense that advances
would have to come down, and that’s fine for us, but newer aspects of the
industry, like those truly odious 360-deals…simply [are] a no-go for us. We
weren’t even willing to have that kind of discussion.”

 

And, as Murray
implies, there is a certain freedom involved with taking your fate into your
own hands. “We’re lucky that our success, especially in the UK, allowed us to
hire an enthusiastic, top-tier gang of distributors, PR agents, radio
promoters, marketing teams, etc., who essentially do the work that your
ordinary label might, but, in this case, we’re ultimately in charge. Which is
nice, obviously,” he says.

 

This consequential label separation is, of course, not unique
to We Are Scientists – erstwhile labelmates Radiohead departed EMI nearly four
years ago, citing the label’s new ownership as the cause, according to a
December 2007 article in the UK’s
Observer Music Monthly. The British
act then self-released their seventh studio album, In Rainbows, as a pay-what-you-wish type music download, and
following it with a physical release (2003’s Hail to the Thief was their last record for EMI). But despite the
number of artists cutting the master strings and pursuing other ventures, is
the type of deal that Cain and Murray walked away from detrimental to new bands
signing into it?

 

“Not necessarily,” says Cain. “I think a label, when it
effectively works a band, it definitely turn[s] a band that would have never
made a dollar into a very popular band. There are projects that are perfect for
labels.”

 

“Oils are changing, as they have to,” the musician continues.
“I think they’re becoming more and more about working smaller bands for smaller
rewards and just at a smaller level. For a long time, there was tons of money
[spent] on a lot of different bands and there was the assumption that when 10
percent of those bands get fairly big, that would more than make up for all the
expenditure. I think it used to [be true], but now if they just did the same
thing they did even five years ago – I mean, nowadays, selling a million
records is really a huge, huge deal. It really was not in the ‘90s.”

 

[Photo Credit: Dan Monick]

 

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