The Wombats are shunning their glitzy pop of old for a more guitary, organic affair.
Once upon a time the Wombats wore white jeans and fluoroplastic sunglasses, and taught us all to dance to Joy Division. You know what they say; the past is another country.
For a lot of us, bands can seem to exist out of time. Like Kate Hudson's character says in Almost Famous, you can go down to the record store and visit them anytime. Just as they were ten years ago. It turns out that sometimes the band themselves feel the same way. For a while, at least.
Back in November on the way to shoot the video for ‘Lemon to a Knife Fight', the lead single off new album ‘Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life', The Wombats' frontman Murph likened being in a band to being caught in a phase of arrested development. You're suspended in time until one day you turn around and the world has shifted on its axis, and you wonder where you've been for ten years.
Reminded of this now across a transatlantic phone line, he laughs. For a while there, the Wombats were all consuming. It paid off, but so has this new phase - the one that almost approximates something like conventional adulthood. Sometime between writing ‘Glitterbug' and ‘Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life' the veil lifted. Murph, having relocated to the US, now finds himself living in Los Angeles with a wife and a dog. The full package. That's put things on a more even keel.
"I think I kind of approach music and songs and the band - everything - with a healthier outlook," he says. "You know, I feel like I have a family in LA now, a dog to look after, and a wife, and it's given me a better perspective on life. Rather than me just squealing away in a dark room with a guitar and a piano, writing songs and thinking that that's literally my entire life. I guess now I know my life has many facets of which the Wombats is a large but nevertheless single part."
That newly gained equilibrium has all come out in the wash. Where ‘Glitterbug' was sparkling and hyperactive, on ‘Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life' the Wombats purposefully went for something a little more laid back. While it still features the odd synthesizer and is practically brimming with sleek guitar riffs, there's a musical tenderness to the album that its predecessor didn't have. Tracks like ‘Ice Cream' and the Strokes-tinged ‘I Only Wear Black' are lush and dreamlike, while album closer ‘I Don't Know Why I Like You But I Do' is a sweeping, melodic exposition of romantic fixation.The album's second single, ‘Turn', is the only outlier, Murph explains.
"A song like ‘Turn' which does have quite a synth-y bass to it, seems to be the cousin to ‘Glitterbug'," he says. He maintains that it's the exception that proves the rule, though. "I didn't want to do another synth-y album; I wanted to focus more on great songs and kind of make it a bit more guitar-y."
There were very conscious decisions to be made when it came to the direction of album number four, it seems.
"For me, it was just about trying to do something more organic, rather than dialling everything up to eleven. I was certainly more thinking of a Wombats take on [Radiohead's] ‘In Rainbows' or something, rather than trying to just have a big massive-sounding major-label album for radio. It was kind of important to me that we didn't go down that route this time," Murph says. He hasn't come over all po-faced, though. For all the short shrift the word sometimes provokes, The Wombats still happily consider themselves a pop band. "I don't mean that we wanted to do a more indie or left-leaning album, we just wanted to do something that didn't rely so much on modern production trickery and things like that," he clarifies.
With the record so freshly minted, the band haven't had a lot of time to appreciate it for what it is yet. "I haven't really spent that much time with it, listening to it and working out what kind of album it is for me," Murph says, "but it definitely resonates more with me than the last album."
For all his newfound balance, some things just won't shift. A decade on from their debut, and that familiar sense of being out of your depth still makes its way into The Wombats' lyrics. "Yeah," Murph laughs. "I think that's just me, really." Then, he reconsiders. "Or maybe that's just one of the main themes that resonates with me as a songwriter, I guess."
That ‘main theme' has produced some of the Wombats' most affecting work to date. Arguably, the centrepiece that those songs feed into and bloom out of is ‘Anti-D', from 2011's ‘This Modern Glitch'. The song features the lines "I've thrown away my Citalopram, although I felt as grim as the reaper man", giving a stark and brutally honest glimpse into depression, medication, and coping methods. Even now it remains an emotional king hit, with its soaring strings and vocal harmonies. "That was my swan song, I guess," Murph says.
The swan-song's heart bled into tracks like ‘Headspace' on ‘Glitterbug', and now seeps through on ‘Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life'. ‘Lethal Combination' describes a co-dependent relationship "too lost for therapy" while ‘Out Of My Head' is a study in alienation and intoxication, woozy and darkly introspective. On the latter, a deep bass groove provides a counterweight to Murph's vocal, as he sings about losing his mind - or wanting to, perhaps. He's trying to keep a grip on something solid, but it's slipping out of reach. Sometimes you just need a little break from yourself. Many of the Wombats fans can appreciate that, it seems.
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein reports, with shockwaves rippling through the creative industries and fan communities as more and more allegations surfaced about artists, one Twitter user developed an antidote. "If anyone has any nice allegations against a celebrity that would be great too," someone with the handle @BAKKOOONN tweeted. One by one amusing, heartwarming stories trickled through. The Wombats' fans, never ones to rest on their laurels, joined the conversation. They posted tweets about the kindness of the band, their personability. Several of them mentioned Murph's readiness to talk about mental illness, and to listen to them talk back.
"On Facebook and Instagram and things like that we get a lot of nice messages. We try and make an effort to talk to our fans after every show - unless it's been a fucking shit, awful show and I just want to curl up into my little coffin-slash-bunk on the bus and go to sleep - and I'm always more than happy to talk about it," he says.
"Depression and anxiety have affected me in fairly profound ways, and eighty percent of the population suffer from it at some point in their lives. I don't understand why there's such a stigma to it, and why we all just can't talk about it if literally eight out of ten of us are gonna suffer from it in our lives."
He lets this thought hang in the air for a moment. Then, he says decisively; "We should at least feel eighty percent more confident to talk about it, anyway."
Until we've reached that point, at least there's someone to sing the swan songs for us.
The Wombats' album ‘Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life’ is out 9th February. Taken from the February issue of Dork, out now.