We Are Scientists Dance Around Nostalgia on ‘Huffy’

We Are Scientists' Keith Murray (l) and Chris Cain (Photo: Danny Lee Allen)

We Are Scientists initially had an album in the works for a 2020 release but when everything was put on hold around the pandemic they revisited their songs, rearranged a few things, and rode with Huffy (100% Records).

For the duo, of singer and guitarist Keith Murray and bassist Chris Cain, along with drummer Keith Carne, Huffy, the band’s seventh album and follow up to Megaplex in 2018, taps on nostalgia—the childhood bikes, and namesake of the album, that peaked in popularity during the ‘80s—and better days, now.

Hanging on catchy hooks and some necessary banter, Huffy is the perfect tincture for dealing with real-life, from “You’ve Lost Your Shit,” and that moment when avoiding confrontation comes to an explosive head through the high-fired infatuation of “Contact High” and the swagger of “Handshake Agreement.” Cascading over the rousing rock of “I Cut My Own Hair,” “Sentimental Education,” and “Pandemonium,” Huffy amuses even touching on the more glum theme of the countrified “Bought Myself a Grave.”

“The phenomenon that has recently begun in full force of people releasing the albums they made in quarantine that are very quiet and introspective, is the opposite of what I want right now,” says Murray. “I don’t want to hear other people be insular and depressive. I want a distraction from being trapped inside.”

American Songwriter spoke to Murray about making more songs than usual, 20 years of We Are Scientists and falling off that bike.

American Songwriter: How did Huffy start piecing together from the time of Megaplex?

Keith Murray: We’ve written really large in a variety of songs for this album, because initially, our thinking was that I was going to come out last year and as with everything plan sort of got delayed and rearranged, so we just kept reading and kept writing, and we ended up with just a really weird variety of songs. We sort of ended up wiggling the album down to this very specific crop of tunes that leave more uptempo rock songs than our last few records. We were just trying to think of descriptors for that kind of rock music and the best descriptor I could think of was Huffy.

We Are Scientists’ Chris Cain (l) and Keith Murray (Photo: Danny Lee Allen)

AS: The first thing that comes to mind with the word Huffy are the old bikes from the 1980s. How much of the album was centered around those childhood memories and any form of nostalgia, or not?

KM: We sort of self-deprecatingly began referring to it as that, just because rock often tends to lean toward this strident, tough nature, and we definitely don’t have that aspect at all. Ours is just a little more Huffy than that. I did also like the resonance of childhood bike riding and building my really pathetic ramps in my parent’s driveway out of plywood and cinder blocks that I would then fall off of and hurt myself. It just evoked something fun and whimsical as well, which I liked. It’s not so much aesthetic nostalgia, but more of that nagging longing sense that comes with nostalgia that’s always something that we like playing with and trying to actualize in our music. 

AS: At first glance, some of the song titles—“You’ve Lost Your Shit,” “Buy Myself a Grave”—would suggest remnants of 2020 were still sticking around. How did the past year, and all its chaos, impact the album?

KM: It is very funny that our own understanding of our songs always morphs in time and context, even just our own reference points. A big part of why we chose the songs that we chose sort of the more energetic, brash, loud, and kind of upbeat danceable songs was in direct response to sort of everybody being trapped and not being able to enjoy very loud upbeat dancing.

AS: Thinking of the time leading up to your debut, With Love and Squalor (2006), and now, do songs still come to you in the same way?

KM: My response to songwriting is very different than it was when we were first starting out, or even on the first few albums. I don’t really understand how it works. One minute, there isn’t something, and the next minute there is. That aspect of it still exists for me. I certainly don’t understand the prominence of songs any better than I used to, but that used to be coupled with a sense of terror of the unknown. If I don’t understand where these seeds come from then I have no control over it, or maybe this is the last song that I’ll ever write. Every song we wrote needed to have a specific application for the next album that we were making, so we would end up with exactly the number of songs we needed for an album. Our first album was exactly the 12 songs we had. I wouldn’t bother coming up with the basis on a song if it didn’t seem like something We Are Scientists could use. I would immediately throw it away. It ceased to have any utility in the world. These days, we still have that discretion about what We Are Scientists uses, but the fact that we don’t use everything doesn’t dissuade us anymore. Now, we have this other problem when we make albums of trying to figure out which songs make it on. These songs came together as Huffy because they felt the most of a piece with one another. We still have an affection for the album as an art form, but you don’t have to listen to the songs all together to get it, as if we’re living in a totally retrograde world where you need to listen to the album from the first song. You don’t need to listen to it front to back, but if you do, there’s a payoff to that as well.

AS: It’s interesting that you mention what “We Are Scientists could use” in terms of songs, or sound. I feel like you guys have never been loyal to any one genre, but there’s definitely a particular sound… where you know it’s a We Are Scientist song. How do you meet the fine line of making something the fans want to hear from the band and leaving the door open to experimenting, and basically do whatever you want, creatively?

KM: I don’t think we actively say to ourselves, ‘let’s try to change these things.’ I do think that we are naturally skewed toward trying to change what we do because we don’t have any devotion to any sound of ours. I think if there is any sense that We Are Scientists it comes externally, like from people’s assumptions of what we sound like. I would say we probably don’t share whatever assessment the public has of what our sound is. Sometimes we do think this song sounds like what people expect, for better or worse, or sometimes we throw out songs because it sounds like what people expect from us. There is an aspect of gauging our songs that involves meeting a nice ratio of quality and what we think people like from We Are Scientists. In the past decade or so, we have just gotten much better about producing stuff for personal pleasure. We feel less desperate in having albums as these treasures and trophies for ourselves. We have all this stuff that we love, so what do we think people that are interested in us will like of this batch, which is sort of a different way of thinking about grouping music. I like it much more than sort of desperately giving away a small quantity of songs, hoping they will make a product together.

AS: Now more than 20 years in with We Are Scientists, how does it all compute?

KM: We have a tendency not to compartmentalize segments of our careers. We definitely think of it as trajectory, not as stages. We’re always like, ‘Well, we just did this. What’s the next thing we’re up to?’ We probably could stand to be a little more strategic about things, but it’s definitely not in our nature to classify stages. I was just in the Bay Area, which is where Chris and I started We Are Scientists, in the basement of our house in Berkeley, and that made me very nostalgic. Then, it simultaneously telescoped time in different ways. It felt like yesterday that we were living there and working day jobs and playing music in the basement, but it also felt like eons ago. I was immediately taken back to it, and it felt utterly like yesterday.

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