It’s a (not so) warm fifty degrees Fahrenheit in New York City where Chris Cain, bassist and all-round funny man of power pop duo We are Scientists, chats to me on the phone. Helter Seltzer (released 22 April), is the fifth studio album of the band that’s been going strong for over ten years, all starting with critically acclaimed With Love and Squalor in 2005. “We’re pretty proud and grateful that we’ve been able to do it for this long, and that people have continued to retain interest in our music. We’re luckier than many bands.” However, Cain tells me that having such a big and loyal fan base can be a big responsibility. “They’ll do anything we say… we have absolute power and that can weigh heavily.” So what’s the weirdest thing they’ve commanded their fans to do? Naturally, to walk into the sea fully clothed.
“Of course, they indulged us! We immediately felt that it had been an unfair request, but you can’t show them that, otherwise they’ll become sad at having complied. You just gotta congratulate them and tell them another stupid thing to do!”
“we have absolute power and that can weigh heavily”
The adoring, complying fans want more music, and now Helter Seltzer has a noticeably different sound from previous albums. “Over the years we’ve slowly been inching our way towards cleaner, poppier production, and this record is definitely another step in that direction. Lots of the songs definitely do not qualify as guitar rock, but rather just pop songs with guitar in them. That’s probably the biggest change. The lyrical content is mostly our standard thoughtful and witty reflections on relationships that have passed and those that are brewing”. The name Helter Seltzer conjures up an image of hangovers at a fairground, so I ask him whether that’s a theme for this album, with track titles such as ‘Too Late,’ ‘Hold On’ and ‘Forgiveness’ (which sound basically like every student’s night out in Exeter). “In- deed, our album has been shown to cure hangovers!” They initially came up with the phrase as a “cute way” of describing their music. “It’s got two basic elements”, Cain explains.“‘Helter Skelter’ has its Beatles and Charles Manson reference, and of course the actual phrase has the meaning of lawlessness and mayhem and so forth. So that’s kind of the rocky side of things, and then ‘Seltzer’, which is not actually a common beverage in the UK”, (it’s simply water with bubbles in it) “It’s very common as a refreshing, alternative to soda pop or other less healthy beverages. Here in the States it’s become quite a craze, loads of flavours but none of the calories or anything, just magical chemistry flavouring.”
That contrast represents their tendency to appreciate a “good clean melody” and desire to appeal to a broad swathe of listeners, with their “interest in rockin’ out hard” which perhaps “can be slightly off-putting to a more buttoned up listener. It’s a gently oxymoronic phrase that has specific reference. It’s important to us.”
The conversation turns to the topic of songwriting, a process I have always met with increasing difficulty, but it’s not the same for We Are Scientists. “We’ve never really had a dry spell, but it’s not like a constant thing. It seems to me that some songwriters have an open portal to their muse, there’s constantly material in their psyche and they’re always strumming little ideas into their iPhones, and must just have hundreds of unrecorded songs, but that’s definitely not how it works for us. We’ll schedule time to sit there and just mess around and see what comes out.” In terms of writing, the songs usually start with lead singer and guitarist Keith Murray, a chord progression and vocal melody, and sometimes a single word or phrase. “Usually lyrics are very last minute, and completed in the studio. The initial months is just fleshing out arrangements and a basic melody over the top. A lot of elements get added in the studio, like synthesisers and specific drum samples: they’re not something we give any thought to until we’re actually in the studio.”
“indeed, Our Album has been show to cure hangovers”
Often musicians are inspired by the music they listen to. For Cain, surprisingly, it’s the opposite. “I don’t think it explicitly in influences us at all, we definitely don’t make a conscious e‑ ort to write in a mode of other artists, or to write a song like ‘Summer of ‘69’ or whatever, but it would be naïve to suppose that the stuff we listen to doesn’t creep into what we’re writing or the way we play it”. Cain reveals he’s been listening to some country western and folk recently, which doesn’t hold any obvious connection to the sound on the new album, “but maybe the next one!” he jokes.
Helter Seltzer is out now.