They’re from the U.K., not Australia, these Wombats. In fact, U.K. fans and critics are going so wild over this trio’s eclectic brand of what I call Indie Doo Wop that their Liverpudlian origins have encouraged comparisons to their legendary local forbears, The Beatles. There are seven letters in the bands’ names and they both have contagious melodies, harmonies, and lyrics. Though The Wombats met at Liverpool’s Performing Arts Academy founded by Paul McCartney, the comparisons end there; The Beatles operated with more personnel and Wombats are higher on the food chain.
Before their packed show at Paris’s fine indie music venue La Maroquinerie Thursday night, I had the opportunity to talk with The Wombats’ Dan Haggis (drums, vocals, keyboards) and Tord Knudsen, which sounds like “Thor” in conversation (bass, keyboard, vocals), while Matthew Murphy (lead vocals, guitar) was off munching baguettes and communing with the Muse. We talked about their birth, thanks to the midwife of alcohol; their growth in popularity up to their recent debut release; their nuanced sound and lyrics; and their future plans.
The Birth of The Wombats
The pogo-able pieces they play have been about four years in the making.
Tord, the bass-playing Norseman, Dan, and “Murph” Murphy met at the Liverpool Performing Arts Academy through friends of friends in the dormitories. Yet, they didn’t work their harmonies out in course projects. They met as probably most great troubadours do: around their pints of mead.
As Dan summed it up after a few anecdotes about parties and cricket games, “I guess the theme here is we’re an alcohol-induced band.” I wondered if all the other great art school-born bands were conceived the same way? But I can’t imagine David Byrne playing cricket, and I’d wager the Gang of Four met at a young Marxist reading group.
I followed up on the choice of a marsupial for a name and learned that for these three poly-instrumentalists destined to become The Wombats, the jolly magnetism of social drinking was nearly inseparable from musical creativity and animal fetishes.
“After a few hazy nights together drinking, we wrote that song about the goat,” Dan chuckled.
“The day of the first show, the promoter asked us for our name. We said we didn’t have one one yet. He said, ‘Just give me anything,’ and Dan offered, ‘The Wombats.’” Added Tord. “Actually there were several animals in the running: Goats, a rhinoceros, wombats. Our first song was 'Ode to Charles the Goat.' It was just the three of us having a laugh.”
From Playing Schools to Top of the Charts
So The Wombats stuck, and after a year, they shrugged their shoulders and let history happen. This week the popular New Music Express chart in the UK showed their hit “Let’s Dance to Joy Division” knocking out the Hives for the top single in the land. They mentioned they had already been on a small U.S. tour, playing in tiny bars for a few enthusiastic fans. I wondered if the number and size of the venues wouldn’t triple the next time around.
Earlier this year the much sought after band signed to UK label 14th Floor. “We got signed,” Dan says, “because we did a ridiculous amount of touring and already had a fan base.”
Their first album, A Guide to Love, Loss, and Desperation is out this week. Fourteenth Floor had the honors partly due to an A&R connection they had worked with releasing singles in the past. While “quite a few” labels had come knocking at their door after they played SxSW in Austin last March, they are confident that 14th Floor (which has a lot of singer-songwriters on their roster) was right for them simply because their middle-man “totally gets who we are.”
“We had complete control with this record,” Dan says. “We negotiated the contract that way. The label told us what they would like, but we had the last say.”
Indie Doo Wop/Wombat Rock
But about what sound exactly did the Wombats have the last say? As with a lot of popular music, the Wombats’ sound is a socially acceptable form of addiction and pleasure. They give you contagious Doo wop harmonies, memorable melodic hooks, a driving rhythm, and smart lyrics. There’s something comfortable and familiar about their sound, which will at times draw comparisons to The Strokes guitars and the Franz Ferdinand Bass, occasional Forward Russia! rhythms. Yet their ability to incorporate keyboards, strings, and harmonicas, to pen grin-worthy lyrics, and layer harmonies will defy easy classifications. When you ask the guys about their influences their identity makes sense.
They’ve been playing in bands since they were 15 or 16. I asked what were they listening to in those formative years which often play an unconscious role in a band’s composition of sounds.
“This!” says Tord pointing a finger heavenward. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was playing. We chuckled.
“I’d listen to this upstairs,” Dan explains. “Then I’d go downstairs and listen to Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac! Actually, I listened to a lot of classic rock: Rolling Stones, Cream… We’re all fans of Radiohead. I also listed to harder things like Rage Against the Machine and Deftones.”
“Yeah,” Tord interjects, “I had a period of black metal!”
“I also had a Skate punk phase,” Tord continues. “No Effects, Green Day, and then I got in to the Norwegian Radiohead — Motorcycle. They’re really important for me, because I still think they were different than anything else.”
And what about my Doo Wop tag? Are these guys fans of The Platters and boybands?! Not exactly.
“We like the Beach Boys,” Dan admits.
But in fact, these guys were in several different bands when they first started. They both played some metal. Dan was in a folk trio! Let’s not forget that Joe Strummer, before the 101’ers and The Clash, was a folk singer who insisted on being called “Woody.” Dan, Tord, and Murphy, like the Platters, the early Beatles, and the Beach Boys, have a love for “woooahhs” and “oooooayyoooos.” But what sets them apart is their ability to lay those harmonies down over pop-punk rhythms, indie jangle guitars, and sporadic OMD-induced new wave synth-pop. Listen closely and you hear echoes of the last 30 years of Anglo-American (and some Norwegian) pop-rock.
But that’s the sound of instruments and voices. One loses an important portal of appreciation if one forgets their lyrics. These are the exclusive work of the gifted lyricist Murphy. They give The Wombats an ironic identity, a cleverness that some bands (as much as they might want it) can never attain, forcing them by default to rock out to overly earnest appeals to love, heartache, power, corruption, and lies.
My pretentious literary sensibility requires me to point out a couple of Shakespeare references in their songs. Not only are they Shakespeare references but they’re played to great humorous effect.
In “Lost in the Post,” Murphy sings of a love never meant to be, one who “wanted Mary Poppins, I took her to King Lear.” Then in “Lost in a Forest,” a song about a disappointing rave outside Leeds, Murphy asks, “Am I in a scene from Midsummer night’s dream?”
But Shakespeare or no, the important thing is these guys give us playful sometimes darkly humorous lyrics against a rollickingly poppy — I persist, pogoable — sound. And there they are in elite company with bands like The Smiths.
When one listens to the lyrics of “Let’s Dance to Joy Division,” for example, echoes of “Girlfriend in a Coma,” resonate in the mind’s ear. “Let’s Dance to Joy Division and Celebrate the Irony/Everything is Going Wrong, But we’re so Happy.”
“Yeah,” Dan and Tord agree in unison. “Our sound is fairly upbeat, but then when you listen to the words, it’s sometimes kind of dark. That song is like people dancing and having fun to songs they really find quite depressing.”
“It’s about people dancing to Love will tear us apart… been havin’ a hard week, then letting loose. The ridiculousness of life gets you down, but it’s kind of like the music can get you out of it.” Some people choose alcohol or drugs, others choose Joy Division, others still the Wombats.
They say the lyrics and the sound are of equal importance to them. They like that “you can listen to the album again and again and find new things.”
The Code of the Wombat
The Wombats are on a roll. But where are they going? What do they want? Why do they do this? The rock 'n' roll dream to take over the world?
“We never had a set goal,” Dan waxes modest. “We like to live one day at a time,” Carpe Diem Dead Poet’s Society style.
He continues: “We want to keep on doing music full time. We don’t want to be a flash in the pan.”
As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote to Walt Whitman after having read Leaves of Grass, I great you at the beginning of a great career.