Caroline Sullivan meets We Are Scientists

New York's We Are Scientists are taking nerd-pop to the next level, finds Caroline Sullivan

How's this for a pop predicament? You've just been to see a band, and later find yourself in the same club as the group, who are enjoying a post-show celebration. You're seized by the urge to present them with a little gift to thank them for a good evening. But it's midnight, the shops are shut - what to do? Then you notice the dispenser in the loo ...

Keith Murray, singer with New York trio We Are Scientists, tells the story with characteristic effacement. "We were in a bar in Glasgow after a gig, and we got pretty drunk. I went to the bathroom, and there was some guy who'd just seen us and really liked us. There was a machine that sold stuff, sex toys and things ... " he gathers himself as bassist Chris Cain and drummer Michael Tapper break into grins. "So the guy bought me a cock ring as a token of his affection."

He returns with relief to the goat's cheese he's been pushing around his plate in a café in England's least rock'n'roll town, Tunbridge Wells. If only his Glasgow fan could see him now, napkin tidily on lap and cutlery making neat incisions through the cheese. "This is very nice," Murray says happily, of the lace-doily tearoom where we meet. Minutes earlier, they'd passed up a sawdusty 18th-century pub because it wasn't "English enough".

Their erudite interest in their surroundings makes even Anglophiles like the Strokes seem like gauche tourists. (Cain, evidently a connoisseur, declares the café's clotted cream to be "disappointing".) Even so, there have been misunderstandings with the British audiences. They've toured here four times this year, and still, complains Cain, "People here just don't get our humour. They're very literal indeed here. The myth that the British sense of humour is dry really is a myth." An American insisting that Brits just don't "get" them - how about that?

Since Kaiser Chiefs proved that catchy tunes can take a group a long way, there has been a sense of inevitability about We Are Scientists' trajectory. Though most of the UK still hasn't heard of them or their melody-saturated, 1980s-hued music, they've won over people who can change that. Radio 1's influential Zane Lowe has made both their singles Records of the Week, NME editor Conor McNicholas has tipped them and BBC 6 Music's Steve Lamacq booked them for a session as soon as he saw them at the South By Southwest festival last spring. Even L'Uomo Vogue have stuck their oar in. A band can be assured they're happening when Italian style mags want to photograph them in silly clothes, an episode Murray recalls with bemusement. "I don't know why everybody thinks we're gigantic nerds, but the photographer took one look at us and decided we'd be dressed as academics. I came in wearing a burgundy sweater-vest, and they took that off me and put on an uglier burgundy sweater-vest. Same item, they just didn't want it to be mine."

We Are Scientists are already so quirky - moustaches, tweed and blazers all playing a sporadic part - that decking them out as "nerds" was only taking their look to its logical conclusion. As image goes, Murray almost throws a spanner in the works by being classically handsome, but it doesn't change the basic proposition: three indie-geeks who've got more in the way of brains than looks. Take the rhythm section of Cain and Tapper, both dead ringers for geography teachers. In the moustachioed Cain's case, he also draws comparisons with people's fathers. "This kid in Birmingham came to a show with a picture of his dad, because he thought he looked just like me. And the next show, he turned up with his dad, and he did look like me."

The professorial impression is amplified by a bookishness (Cain also has an English degree from Pomona, where all three first met) and a sideline in zany wit. "Early on, we were something of a novelty band," admits Murray. "We never thought we'd be in a band, any of us. We were over-educated, and Chris and I wanted to be writers." (They kept that writerly edge with their album title: Love and Squalor was lifted from a short story, For Esme, with Love and Squalor, by Salinger.) "We'd played in campus bands, but we never thought we'd go anywhere. I hate to divulge this, but we were sci-fi themed at one point. We formed a band about being scientists who were going to fight monsters, and we were going to make huge papier-maché monsters who were going to fight each other."

Luckily, cooler heads prevailed. After university, the trio realised they were too good to waste time joking, and moved to New York in 2000 to pursue music wholeheartedly. Once settled in Brooklyn, which was becoming the crucible of New York's new-music scene, they found themselves "one degree away from pretty much every other band". I take it this means they knew everyone, but weren't part of the get-signed-quick storm that swept the likes of the Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs to premature fame.

They persevered, writing songs containing what Murray calls "a core of existential despair, though I have a distaste for lyrics like teenage diary pages. I try to be obtuse, more than anything else, and if there's a sense of despair, that's why." Four years of dogged touring and winning over the college-radio set suddenly came to fruition this year. The flashpoint was South By Southwest, where the qualities that made them outsiders also made them the name on everybody's lips.

It's easy to work out why British promoters keep asking them back. For a taster of both the music and the personalities, go to Among its features are an interview with a groundhog, "classic Christmas jokes" and much more in that vein, which demands either a Monty Pythonish love of the absurd or gritted-teeth tolerance. As an insight into pop's next-biggish-thing, it's almost too enlightening. "Yeah, but we're not a comedy group," says Tapper, as they push back their chairs and prepare to head to the gig. "Our zany personalities don't bring people to our shows. Kids hear the music on the radio and come."

· We Are Scientists' debut album Love and Squalor is out now


Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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