The Wombats are one of the most long-lasting bands from the mid-2000s British guitar rock revival. With them on their way to New Zealand, we looked into their story, and what it takes to outlive The Kaiser Chiefs.
There’s a line in one of The Wombats’ first hits, ‘Let’s Dance to Joy Division’, that goes “Everything is going wrong, but we’re so happy”. They sing it over and over. The sentiment is everywhere on the band’s debut album, A Guide to Love, Loss, and Desperation, and it’s mirrored in the music’s exuberance. It’s a kind of joyful nihilism. The feeling of giving up, set to lyrics that make giving up sound like freedom. ‘Let’s Dance’ finishes with the couplet “Let the love tear us apart/I’ve found the cure for a broken heart”.
It turns out that sense of liberation couldn’t last. If A Guide is set during the carefree peak of the party, the band’s latest record, Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life, is set somewhere during the morning after. The intoxicants are wearing off. There’s a strange indistinct pain in their kidney region. Their tongue feels like it’s made of sawdust. Whereas A Guide might’ve talked about thoughtlessly guzzling pills and liquor and making bad decisions, Beautiful People is more world-weary. A line about the “pills in my pocket” on ‘I Only Wear Black’ moves on to the chorus “Sometimes you win but generally, you lose”. Real life is starting to reassert itself.
The Wombats are now in their mid-30s and those feelings are probably familiar to anyone approaching that age. You still feel young in some ways, but suddenly you can’t turn your neck all the way to the left. The habits that used to come off as loveable flaws suddenly aren’t so cute. Breakups used to be another bad drama in the shitty rom-com of your mid-20s. Now they’re laced with more desperation and met with extra dollops of badly concealed disappointment from your peers. Parties subtract too much from your liver and add too much to your weight.
The band wasn’t meant to last long enough to be talking about this stuff. When their debut record came out in November 2007, many saw them as another blip in that era’s unending wave of uptempo British guitar rock. Pitchfork’s review urged readers to “crank up the A/C and turn up the volume; one suspects that this record, like summer itself, has a limited shelf life.”
That was 11 years ago. The Wombats are still around, and the two biggest singles from that album – ‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘Moving to New York’ – have 67 million and 42 million Spotify plays respectively. Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life charted at number 5 in the UK – the band’s highest ever placing, despite many having predicted their decline years ago. While contemporaries from the UK’s post-punk revival like Bloc Party have fizzled out, the Liverpudlians have kept going. Why? Maybe because there was a little more depth and irony to their music than a band like The Kaiser Chiefs. Maybe because their music is more fun. Maybe it’s actually because they grew up.
When The Wombats first started out, they used to cover ‘Postman Pat’ in Norwegian. They carried around a soft toy wombat called Cherub, who they claimed was their fourth member. Their name itself was taken from calling each other “wombat” when they made stupid mistakes in their student accommodation, and the band’s songs felt rooted in student culture.
Things have gotten more serious. In the last few years, Wombats frontman Matthew Murphy has moved to LA and gotten, according to his Instagram feed at least, extremely happily married. Bassist Tord Øverland Knudsen has a baby, and much of Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life was recorded in Oslo so he could be near his family.
That could be a death knell for some bands, but settling down and getting a bit jaded has somehow extended The Wombats’ life. One of Beautiful People’s singles, ‘Lemon to a Knife Fight’, was inspired by a fight Murphy had with his wife on Mulholland Drive. Their lyrics may reflect a darker side to hedonism, but that’s better than a 15-year-old band still singing saccharine songs about taking too many pills and spewing in a gutter outside an Edinburgh club. Maybe it’s tempered the pure pop of their early work, but life becoming more complicated has made The Wombats’ music more interesting.
One other, completely different, reason the band has survived so long: they’re surprisingly, disproportionately popular in Australia. Nobody loves The Wombats like Australians. Wombats albums have charted higher in the lucky country in recent years than they have in the US, Europe, or even their native UK. The band sells out shows over there and regularly headlines festivals like Splendour in the Grass and The Falls, much to the bewilderment of some critics.
The band is betting that some of that popularity has seeped across the Tasman. They’re playing The Powerstation on November 22, on the tail end of their long-running Beautiful People tour.
There’s a chance the show is a one-off. Murphy is talking about recording a new Wombats album early next year, but there have been times recently when his allegiance to the band seems to have been starting to fray. He’s started a new band and has talked in interviews about pausing to work on other people’s music. It feels like there’s a chance all this growing up could be leading to Murphy growing out of his band. See them now while you still can, just in case.
This content is brought to you by Warner Music NZ. The Wombats play Auckland’s Powerstation on 22 November 2018. Buy tickets here.