Published on Blurt-Online.com – Wed. Jun 16, 2010
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]