Los Angeles: a city of contrasts. On one hand, a metropolis of aspirations, a place which offers the transient a tantalising glimpse of glamour and permanence. On the other, many dreams drift away, deserted within an urban personification of unfulfilled ambitions. It might not seem like the most obvious place around which to theme an album for a band rooted in Liverpool (albeit via Norway in the case of bassist Tord Øverland Knudsen, or onto London for frontman Matthew ‘Murph’ Murphy), but that’s precisely what The Wombats have done with their third set Glitterbug, a collection which follows their top five hit This Modern Glitch.
Completed by drummer Dan Haggis, The Wombats have a long association with Los Angeles. They’ve played in and around the city numerous times since the release of their debut A Guide To Love, Loss and Desperation, and even recorded their second album This Modern Glitch there too. For the band’s core songwriter Murph it also proved to be a fount of inspiration, which gradually mutated into a magnetic attraction.
“Along with Liverpool and London, Los Angeles is my favourite place in the world, but I used to hate it,” admits Murph. Part of the appeal was its versatility: the ability to experience “the opulence and anxiety” of the city or the rejuvenating qualities of the easily accessible countryside that lies just outside its borders.
As the process of working on a new album drifted over the horizon, Murph’s internal dialogue took on a questioning tone, notably: what was it that inspired him to write in the first place? He soon realised that his greatest strength was writing about both the romance and the failings of modern relationships. The first new song, Isabelle, placed those issues within the realm of a seductive new location.
“That was based on an idea of going through tumultuous times with a fictional woman from L.A.,” he explains. “That became the main inspiration for most of the songs, this false world that I’d created for myself. As time progressed, I’d go to L.A. more and more, and the idea kept on building. The album’s about the envy and the struggle and the pretence and the worry and the fear that L.A. – and every major city in the world – encompasses.”
“The album’s about the envy and the struggle and the pretence and the worry and the fear that L.A. encompasses.”
Instrumentally, most of the songs took one of two directions: back in Liverpool, Tord and Dan’s rush of creativity would result in them delivering backing tracks as a foundation for Murph to then build upon in L.A. or London; alternatively Murph would develop the essence of a song on guitar or piano for the band to collectively flesh out – a process that had served them so well in the past. The slick Eighties synth grooves of Headspace, for example, originated as an initial idea from Tord before Murph expanded it into one of the album’s strongest moments: “I wanted that whole song to feel like you were driving a Cadillac, coming down or hungover. Like an antidote to The Boys of Summer.”
In January 2014, approximately halfway through the writing process, events conspired to curve full-circle from fiction into fact when Murph started dating a seemingly unattainable woman from the city. It was, he admits almost gleefully, a decidedly creepy coincidence. And so imaginary stories evolved into real life concerns: the fading embers of his relationship back in London and the challenges of maintaining a long distance relationship.
Be Your Shadow is a prime example of a lyric about the reality of that person, and Give Me A Try was written after she returned home from visiting Murph in London. “I was distraught. I just felt like a part of me was missing,” he shudders. “I really love that song. It’s special to me because it has a far more positive outlook than what you’ve heard from us in the past.”
When it came to recording, The Wombats changed course from the plan which dictated This Modern Glitch. Instead of collaborating with an army of star names, the majority of the album was recorded at Bastille producer Mark Crew’s studio in Battersea. Vitally, Crew exuded a calming influence to counteract the band’s shared collection of irrational neuroses.
Glitterbug certainly demonstrates that their efforts have resulted in the band’s finest album to date. Your Body is a Weapon – inspired by the sight of a disinterested pap snapping Harry Styles after an awards party – was first to emerge when it was released as a stop-gap sweetener to the band’s devoted fanbase. The rest of the album is just as compelling.
Excitingly for the band, Emoticons is a track which is often met with a “is that you guys?” reaction when played to outsiders; the elastic bass that permeates Be Your Shadow imbues the track with a pulsating disco rhythm; while Greek Tragedy floats an East Asian-infused synth riff over booming, distorted drum beats. Collectively it snakes subconsciously into the leftfield but it’s recognisably The Wombats.
Another of the album’s key moments comes with This is Not a Party. Although The Wombats had previously been renowned as a band who could party as hard as anyone, some “fairly sizeable” nights out in the summer of 2013 saw Murph seesaw from celebratory hedonism to a borderline existential crisis – all of which he has documented here.
“Those nights were a lot of fun, but they came with a hefty price,” he summarises. “They led me to question what the hell we were all doing and, more importantly, why we were doing it? This song was one of the easiest to write and most challenging to record. I also decided to name-drop everyone involved, and no-one has complained yet. Apart from Charlie.”
Despite the album’s focus on L.A. and the band’s growing geographical displacement, The Wombats remain a Liverpudlian band at heart. Tord and Dan still live there, with the band’s rehearsal room also in the locality. Similarly Murph is proud of his roots, despite plotting a move to Los Angeles in the longer term. “I’m actually excited about how much of an awful struggle I’m going to have to make it a reality,” he laughs. “It’s going to be great.”
For now, though, all thoughts are focused on the band’s return with Glitterbug. It’s taken a while due to the recording schedule, two solid years of touring as well as 2014 delivering yet another hectic summer schedule of European festival dates, but The Wombats are truly thrilled by the prospect of the wider world finally hearing it.
“This album is the reconciliation,” affirms Murph defiantly. “They say your first album is luck, your second is a rebellion and your third is what defines you. As proud as I am of the first two albums, I think Glitterbug will be what defines The Wombats.”