The Ever New: Introducing WOMPS
Ahead of an appearance at Brew at the Bog, Glasgow duo WOMPS look forward to dropping their debut in June, and reflect on their fertile collaboration, recording with Steve Albini, and shaking off labels
It’s a hot mid-March in Austin, Texas. Ewan Grant and Owen Wicksted of WOMPS, joined by touring bassist Scott McCall, are enjoying a well-earned craft brew on the deck of a bar called Cheer Up Charlie’s. This is the furthest west they’ve traveled – their usual North American haunts are Brooklyn bars where they found audiences that helped springboard them to Chicago and Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio, where the prolific engineer recorded their debut LP, Our Fertile Forever.
The album will drop on the 10th of June – the band will then tour the UK, appear at a few European festivals (starting with Brew at the Bog), then return for a trip through the US. Right now, after playing their first show at SxSW – a wake-up wail that got broad-backed Texan bikers and owlish audiophiles dancing and bobbing – they’re happy to be away from the Glaswegian supermarkets that (for now) keep them regrettably employed, and doing instead the things that led to the formation of WOMPS: hammering out loud, melodic rock and turning each other on to new music.
“We like to think we write great pop songs, but we’re not that good at it,” says Wicksted with a chuckle. His comment may be humble and just a bit deflective, but it lands near the truth. While songs like Dreams on Demand and Ritalin can be searing and screechy, the first track off the debut album, Plasticine, spills the secret to WOMPS’ success: by exactly the fifth note plucked on bass, you know that Grant and Wicksted are melodic craftsmen. Behind every splash, whine, and shouted chorus, a tuneful pop sensibility directs these songs down the ear canal to that part of the brain that says 'hell yes' and 'thank you'.
The band’s viscera might echo classic Dead Kennedys, but they’ve been shaped by the crash and suck of successive breakers: new wave, grunge, new new wave, 2000s indie and screamo – but perhaps most evidently The Cure, The Smiths, or The Cribs. Unlike those bands, though, WOMPS boast that uniquely Scottish sense of melody. “It’s because of our accents, they go up and down,” Grant says. “I guess we just put that into our songs.”
The demise of Algernon Doll and aspiring to Surfer Rosa
WOMPS is quite far from the sound of Grant's former introspective solo venture turned power trio, Algernon Doll; that outfit could be unabashedly grungy but more often trebly, atmospheric and ambient. Some of Algernon Doll's harder moments (like Fellate) might have been ground up and tossed into what’s now become WOMPS’ wheelhouse, but this is undeniably a departure – a state these two seem very, very comfortable with.
Algernon Doll was “mainly a solo project,” Grant explains a week later, over Skype. He wrote and played all the parts himself, so the drums in particular could sound off. “With that stuff I knew what it was going to sound like before I recorded it,” he says, dissatisfaction on his tongue even now. His collaboration with and respect for Wicksted opened up a new – yes, fertile – space.
Fueled by their collaboration and cross-pollination, what most defines this new sound is their straightforward performance ethic, whether onstage or in the studio. “We did it all live,” Grant says – not so much because of the cost of recording at Electric Audio, which was “affordable,” but to “stay real.”
They cite another Albini production – Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, also recorded live – as a model, and while you won’t hear too much fumbling or any studio banter on Our Fertile Forever, the live ethic is evident, especially on songs like the hard-hitting Another Cell and the peaky Ritalin.
Grant and Wicksted arrived in Chicago nervous to work with the prolific Albini, but he dispelled any anxiety with a straightforward, unobtrusive approach, and plenty of “fluffy coffees,” a studio staple. “He just gave us a pencil and some paper and told us to write down everything we wanted to do with our record,” says Grant. “You just have to tell him.”
Preferring the label of recording engineer to producer, Albini positions mics and mixes – “in five minutes” – and keeps bands playing until he senses they’re tired out. WOMPS recorded Our Fertile Forever over five days – all live – and even recorded four or five tracks in one night, on a fluffy-fueled roll.
Seeking the “real” in the studio, they do the same onstage. “We don’t have any set guitar and drum parts,” Grant explains, “so sometimes it can go horribly wrong.” But this elasticity also allows the songs to change, and keep up with the band as they seek something else, something new.
Grant and Wicksted insist on freedom, and talk often, though never with the self-surety of a manifesto, of avoiding one style or another. They’ve even steered clear of generic affiliations in their band art. It’s the artist’s balancing act – to love what’s been done, but to avoid repeating it. After all, once coined, labels can only limit. Grant and Wicksted respect DIY, for example, but the label and mentality can trap bands. “DIY’s great but if you can get help, why would you turn that down?” Wicksted remarks. The freedom of isolation is not the kind of freedom they’re after. “Just get drunk and give someone a cigarette when they need a cigarette,” Grant says. “That’s how we got everything.”
They allude even to friends and fellow bands who questioned their decision to tour in the US and come to a festival like Sx. Some of this comes from public blowback for the dissolution of Algernon Doll – “people are still mad,” Grant says – but some comes from what they call a “Scottish mentality” – they cite Mark Renton’s infamous Trainspotting monologue. They speak of Glasgow bands that would “love to be really big in Glasgow,” but burn out playing the same venues and scrapping with other local acts for fans.
“We can still play in Glasgow for 20 people or something,” Wicksted says, but they seem to earn fans more quickly in America – more diverse audiences, people ready to dance, to love you or cut you down, who come out with no expectation but to hear new music. That’s why WOMPS are here in Texas: they had to get out, get back on the road. “We had no other option.”
Finding a home in Brooklyn
As the first artists signed to Brooklyn-based Displaced Records, WOMPS have no idea what to expect when their LP drops in June, but anticipate a slightly better reception in Europe and the US than at home in the UK. “Glasgow’s … strange. Very strange,” is all Grant can manage to say. But they’re hopeful – looking to models of success like the Jarman brothers – that they could blast out a space preserving the lo-fi realness of DIY while avoiding its self-imposed restrictions, accessing the range and mobility of bands that have exploded out of Glasgow, but avoiding the opposite perils of hype and its concomitant expectations. “We’re just going to do what we’re going to do,” Grant says. “We want to keep it something we could change.”
And change they will – they’re already changing, letting the road and their playlists shape them. They don’t have concrete plans for the next LP, but ideas percolate. Glasgow’s own Pastels and Morrissey's old day job will likely have an influence. “We want to make a really pop album, but we won’t. It’s us, so we won’t be able to,” Grant says.
Abandoning plans for a double LP
His comment is typical in that it balances his acknowledgement of the inevitability of failure – in some form or another – with a leap into the possible. Their debut's title indicates a spirit of possibility that counterbalances the often angsty lyrics. “It’s glass half full, I guess,” says Grant. He also lets slip that there was a lot of material that didn’t make it onto this LP, most of it “punk stuff.” At one point, he and Wicksted had considered releasing it as a double-LP or separate album; the second, darker part called Our Futile Forever.
They decided against rendering their glass-half-full mentality a most ephemeral optimism, hinted at when Grant drifts back to what provoked the album, including the cuts that didn’t make it: “How the human brain copes with ‘forever,’” he says, with an awed tremor audible over 5,300 kilometres and a Skype connection – “It’s terrifying.” Melody, howls, womps, live audiences, and The Ever New – these are his answers to that terror, pressed into every track on Our Fertile Forever. “It’s the only way you can do it,” he says. “We do it by passing our time making art and making records.”