Liverpudlian band The Wombats have been crafting catchy alt-pop songs for years – like the band’s debut single “Kill the Director” and later hit “Let’s Dance To Joy Division” – but the group’s latest album, Glitterbug, finds them at their wittiest and danciest yet. We chat with singer and lead songwriter Matthew Murphy about Jimmy Webb, classical guitar and having one-on-one writing lessons with Sir Paul McCartney.
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On your last two albums, you seemed to address a lot of specific people and situations. How much of what you write about is actually part of your life, and how much of it do you make up?
One hundred percent of it is part of my life, but sometimes things need embellishing to make them more exciting for the listener. Ninety-five percent of it is based on real experiences. I struggle to write songs without something happening in real life to inspire it.
How long have you been writing songs?
Since I was about 15 or 16. My dad was really into The Eagles and The Beatles and played them in the car all the time on the way to school. I guess I kind of grew up going in my ears. He was pretty adamant about me playing classical guitar, so I played classical guitar for while, but I never practiced much, and I didn’t really love it that much. Then I got my electric guitar. I’ve never really loved the electric guitar that much either, but I fell in love with writing songs and things.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
Yeah, it was called “Fire Escape.” That song wasn’t that bad, but some of the ones that followed it were truly dreadful. It seems like I had a fluke start. To be honest, it took a few good years of writing to really hone it all in, I suppose.
What’s your typical songwriting process?
Well, I have a room in London I go to. There’s a piano there, a cheap keyboard there, there’s a guitar amplifier there, there’s a guitar there. There’s microphones there, and I can add a little delay or reverb to it, and that’s pretty much it. Then I’ll record things on my phone. I don’t use Pro Tools or Logic or stuff like that. I’m learning my process is a bit archaic, but I can’t imagine writing any other way, to be honest. For me, when it all happens at once, it’s exciting. I was talking to a friend yesterday in Atlanta, and he’s the same as me. He was like, “When you start writing on the computer, your brain’s gonna have to get used to everything going left to right.” And I’ve never thought about that. Fucking hell, I can’t imagine writing in that way, but I guess I’m gonna have to learn. I don’t think it would help me, certainly melodically.
In terms of writing lyrics, do you come up with ideas here and there and string them together later on, or do you like to sit down and write everything in one go?
For me, the concept is always the most important part of the song. The concept and the title. If I’ve got a good title, I believe more in what I’m singing and what chords or riffs or melodies are happening. Also the lyrics that fall off from that title or general concept. I have notes of cool titles in my phone. I’ll go look at that and go and play around with various titles. For me, titles are the cool bit. If it’s got a cool title, it’s generally a good song.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
Eagles, Lennon/McCartney, things like that when I was growing up. But then I became obsessed with Radiohead. Jimmy Webb, maybe. The recurring question that comes up, like, “What’s your favorite song ever?” and most artists are like, “How could I possibly answer that?”. I just go “‘Wichita Lineman’ by Jimmy Webb.” It kind of is my favorite song. Elliot Smith, as well, is a big influence on the darker side of me. But I feel if I borrow too much from his kind of thing, it doesn’t really work in The Wombats.
So do you think “Wichita Lineman” is the best song ever written?
I think it is “Wichita Lineman.” It’s got the best lyric ever, really. “I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time.” I feel like the best lyrics in contemporary songs have to do with opposites. I really like that. The music is amazing. The chord progression is quite intricate and weird. I’m not musically gifted enough to do anything that complicated. I love it.
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, who would you work with?
It would be interesting to write with John Lennon or Paul McCartney. I actually had a one-on-one writing session with Paul McCartney, but there wasn’t a collaborative element to it. We just talked. At the university I went to to study music, he gave a personal class for each songwriting student each year, so that was awesome. I’d also be very interested in seeing Max Martin work. I kinda wanna say Adele, but not Adele; someone similar to Adele. I personally feel like a fairly moody woman on a piano anyway, so I feel that I’d work pretty well with someone like that.
Your lyrics often seem to be somewhat negative and dark, but the melodies are very upbeat. Is that a dichotomy you consciously try to create?
It’s not conscious, no. When we started the band, on a lot of our earlier songs, I felt like we were trying to rip off someone. I just didn’t feel like it was working. And I was just like, “We have a finite amount of time on this planet, so why am I gonna sit and write depressive music? I can make the music happy.” The Strokes had just come out; it was pretty much upbeat and in-your-face. People wanted to dance and get drunk and fall over with a cup of JD in their hand. So I kind of did that with the music, but lyrically everything connected to the Elliot Smith-esque stuff. I just thought the best policy was to make everyone have fun, but feed them with some very small, serious subject matter. I don’t know how well that works. Sometimes it feels like that’s overlooked in this band, in a general sense. That doesn’t mean I’m gonna stop doing it.
In the studio, do you usually have a full song ready to go when you go in, or do you work together as a band to flesh things out?
The rest of the band is really good at the production aspects, so when we go into the studio we generally have a good idea of how we want things to sound. The problem is deciding whether we just make it sound a bit better or we completely try to do something else with it. That’s the problem of having people who are good at production in the band. Some times I wish they weren’t (laughs). But obviously it’s extremely helpful with demoing and things like that.
What has been your proudest moment as a songwriter so far?
Sometimes people you respect will say nice things, like Paul McCartney, who said he loved “Moving to New York.” We were all obsessed with Ron Sexsmith for a while. He comes to our shows. I’m friendly with Alt-J, and Joe was saying he remembers hearing one of our songs on the radio and thinking, “I wanna do that and be in a band.” Things like that really mean a lot to me. “Give Me a Try,” the single out here at the moment, with that one, I figured out how to write a positive song. That song came into existence after a long writing stint for this third album. To me, that was exciting. It opened a whole new world, which maybe I’ll go down a bit further, maybe not.