The Wombats make their case for the despair of the suburbs in their video for "Anti D".
Within the butterfly-breaking cogs of the music industry, big numbers can bring big problems. And The Wombats numbers got big, fast: their 2007 debut, Guide To Love, Loss And Desperation went platinum in the UK; their indie dancefloor smashes "Kill The Director, "Lets Dance To Joy Division (winner of the 2008 NME Award for Best Dancefloor Filler), "Backfire At The Disco" and "Moving To New York reached over 300,000 combined sales and a two-year tour during which The Wombats, finding themselves Liverpools biggest exports in a decade, played to well over a million people, culminating in a massive homecoming Liverpool Arena show for 10,000 ecstatic local fans of their dark-yet-exuberant, infectious alt-pop.
Big numbers. Big gigs. But for a band with the intense work ethic of The Wombats who, in the build-up to their breakthrough hit "Kill The Director" in 2007, played 50 tiny pub and club shows around the UK in almost as many days, the road eventually took its toll. Having continued their breakneck schedule for 18 months solid, they came off of a mammoth US tour in 2008 "pretty broken... physically and mentally."
"We did a couple of months too long," says drummer Dan Haggis. "I had problems with my arms so every night going up onstage hurt, so it wasnt really that enjoyable. I had a gig where I didnt want anyone to look at me. I sat on the drums at Glasgow and you start feeling guilty because you think you should be having the best night of your life but I didnt know why I was there."
Over the summer of 2008, between festival dates, two more singles were recorded the stop-gap classic "My Circuitboard City" and their sardonic (anti-)Christmas song "Is This Christmas?" before singer Matthew "Murph" Murphy sat down to begin writing new material for album two. But in his new home in London, Murph found the loneliness, dislocation and routine of being off the road and writing in a big city difficult to cope with. Hed simply become too accustomed to the adulation of the stage.
"My downfall was I got used to it," Murph admits of his life on the road. "And then when it all stopped it was a bit of a reality bite-back and I had to level myself out. It was my general unhappiness of not being on the road and being in a new city."
The few gigs that the band did play occasionally ended in near-death experiences. On his way home from a show in Skegness, Murph almost flipped his car on an icy motorway but emerged miraculously unscathed (the incident inspired a new song called "Motorphobia"). And during a trip to Dubai to play Liverpool Sound City, Haggis had his own four-wheeled run-in with the reaper.
"We went dune buggy racing with no insurance, no anything," says Haggis. "They just went 'Have you done this before? and we went 'No, not really and they went 'Great! Put this on! We stuck this helmet on and went off over these dunes having a great time and ended up going too fast over one of them and basically coming off and crashing quite badly."
With so much alienation and vehicular trauma around, its perhaps no wonder the first batch of songs Murph wrote in London and delivered to the record label in February 2009 were met with some concern. Lyrically they were the bleakest tracks Murph had ever written (he doesnt expand on their subject matter) and musically they were heavier than heaven and louder than war.
"The initial thought was to do things relatively far away from what youd be known for or what your comfort zone is," he says, "which is maybe a good thing, but the first batch of songs that the label heard, they were like 'who the hell is this?"
Bassist Tord verland-Knudsen chips in. "They were much grungier. More like the '90s grunge thing, for those first four songs. We needed to get the energy back, make heavier music."
Or, more accurately, Murph needed to get his Merseyside Mojo back. "I went back to my mum and dads house to recapture whatever former glory was once there. It was kind of miserable being locked away in a room for eight hours every day with just a little lampshade and piano. You kind of go round the bend; there was no reality to draw from. So I had to go up to Liverpool and get back to getting slaughtered and doing recreational things in order to find anything to draw on."
Back in Liverpool, The Wombats Mk 2 instantly clicked. They plumped for a synthier sound, Murphs keyboard often replacing the lead guitar, and the tunes poured forth in ever more innovative and colourful guises. Tracks such as "Perfect Disease" (a working title) took on the sonorous disco moods of Depeche Mode and Echo & The Bunnymen, lashed to The Killers arena pop sensibilities. Often only their intense catchiness marked these songs out as traditionally "Wombats" at all: no matter where the sonics strayed, the tunes were always glint-in-the-sunlight perfect, better even than the dancefloor killers of their first chart onslaught.
"I felt like I was rebelling against what we were as a band," Murph explains. "Somehow weve come back 'round and amalgamated bits of that into the newer stuff and itll hopefully make it better. There are songs that are akin to the first album but it feels like weve escalated. Im 100 percent certain that some of the songs on this album are the best weve ever put out."
The first single, "Tokyo (Vampires And Wolves)," certainly fits that category an instant radio hit thats so insanely catchy its impossible not to spin again the second its finished. "Its just a bit angsty," says Murph. "The new album hasnt got anything to do with touring; it just represents escapism and wanting to run away."
This new batch of songs finds Murphs lyrics developing a depth and personal confessional slant thats rare in modern song-writing take the blunt and startling theme of "Anti-D" for starters, in which Murph likens himself to an anti-depressant. But fans of his more story-based writing will find much to enjoy in the synth-rock, disco-destroying brilliance of "I Never Knew I Was A Techno Fan" the tune where "Mr Brightside" chats up La Roux in a drug-swamped Hoxton dive bar. Key line: "Im in debt to you/But dont feed me plant food."
"Thats more of a story," Murph says. "I went to a minimal techno rave in Shoreditch with my girlfriend. It was dirty; I didnt stay there for long. Ive never seen a longer queue for the toilets in my life. People had their hands up going 'I actually need a wee and everyone in the queue would go 'Go on then."
The resulting album, The Wombats proudly present... This Modern Glitch, has been recorded through 2010 over three sessions with separate producers, all in L.A. first U2 and R.E.M. producer Jacknife Lee brought his precise technological nous to 'Anti-D, then Eric Valentine helped them put together "Tokyo (Vampires And Wolves)" and "Techno Fan." Muse knob-twiddler Rich Costey joined forces with additional creative input from TV On The Radios Dave Sitek and John Hill (Santogold, M.I.A., Devo) to complete a record that will shock, impress and spin opinion on this most uncompromising of 21st- Century pop bands.
Already the album has provided two of the bands biggest airplay hits to date with its first two singles "Tokyo (Vampires & Wolves)" and "Jump Into The Fog," while their new single, "Anti-D," looks set to surpass them both.
"You take the electro and you take the grunge and you put it together with what we used to do on the first album," says verland-Knudsen. "Thats what the album is."
Haggis nods, a sparkle in his eye. "Its gonna be a whirlwind adventure."