At first, The Wombats were a joke they didn’t want anyone to find funny.
“For our first gig we wore jesters’ hats with sunglasses,” says guitarist/singer Matthew ‘Murph’ Murphy.
“They had bells on the end,” adds drummer/singer Dan Haggis.
Murph: “In the middle of the songs we’d break into uncontrollable screaming. The idea was not to be funny.”
Dan: “If people laughed we’d be like ‘ah we dogged it’. We wanted it to die on its feet. Literally people would just stand there and there’d be this awful silence. You know like in The Office when there’s a dreadful silence, and the next day we’d be like ‘Ah that was amazing that bit, wasn’t it?’ We still love dying on our feet sometimes.”
Murph: “It was a lot of silliness. The idea of the band was to be stupid. We were just idiots.”
But this was back in 2003, when The Wombats were enrolled in Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute Of Performing Arts (LIPA). Local lads Murph and Dan, despite playing cricket against each other for their respective schools near Strawberry Fields, only actually met each other at LIPA aged 19 when Murph turned up trolleyed at Dan’s flat. Murph thought Dan was “a complete muppet with pink and grey hair”, Dan (quite rightly) thought Murph was a “fellow piss-head”. So naturally they started playing gigs together (at The Cavern Club, notably) before they nabbed bassist Tord Øverland Knudsen (fresh at LIPA from his hometown of Elverum in Norway) from the seven other bands he’d joined within a fortnight of arriving. Armed with such early wonky pop classics as ‘The Ostrich Song’ and a tune now only remembered by the band as “the standing at the bus stop one”, the three — plus an American guitarist called Ben who was in the band for a few months, whose speciality was a Mexican “areeeeba!” noise — embarked on four years of tall tales of boys and girls and marsupials.
“We fiddled ourselves a gig in a place called Hannah’s Bar in Liverpool,” Murph recalls, “and we didn’t really have a name and me and Dan went through a period of calling each other Wombo.”
Dan: “Basically Wombo the Wombat was a fictional kind of character in our daily talk.”
Murph. “We used to call each other ‘stupid wombats’ as well, and then we needed a name for this first gig so Dan was like ‘just call us The Wombats’.”
Dan: “And the guy just laughed and went ‘yeah, that’s funny, that’ll do for now’.”
But it wasn’t too long before Liverpool had to start taking The Wombats very seriously indeed. Ditching the sanatorium moods and comedy outfits (although they went through a “stripe period” before settling on their trademark primary colour t-shirt look) they set about playing their infectious punka pop deviance around Liverpool and beyond. Their gigs were laced with a cappella intros, between-song stand-up and Facts Of The Day (did you know that rabbits aren’t nocturnal, they’re crepuscular? Not until you went to a Wombats gig you didn’t). They took every gig they were offered, whichever corner of the country it was in (using Dan's granny's Postman Pat van to get there); if plotted on a map, their travels would look like the crazed scrawlings of a madman.
Over the next two and a half years of casual gigging (about one gig a fortnight) they played at a pub in London called Lark In The Park under the impression it was a big open-air festival; they played the legendary Three Fat Fish in Exeter; they got management offers from tattooed amphetamine maniacs at 3am in Tottington; and they were selected by LIPA to go to China to play to 20,000 people at Beijing’s Midi festival: “It was basically kids from the streets, that was the idea of the festival,” says Dan. “For some reason we were the ‘kids from the streets’ from the UK. It was amazing”.
Things got even bigger last March when they were invited to play Canadian Music Week: a far cry from their first gig outside Liverpool two years previously, in a remote Norwegian fishing village called Stord.
“My girlfriend’s from there,” Dan explains, “and I basically played with her in a band as well, a kind of folk trio thing. They suggested doing some gigs together over in Norway and I wanted to go there for the summer anyway so we said ‘yeah that’d be brilliant’. It ended up with us playing in the centre of Stord — if you can imagine an island in the fjords, and us playing the one pub in the centre. The night was billed as country rock and all these people came to it and a couple of these elder members of Norwegian society came, but they left shouting ‘this is the worst music I’ve ever heard!’”
Meanwhile, back in Liverpool they launched their own club night, ‘Little Miss Pipedream’, at the Liverpool Carling Academy. They had a regular place to play and Murph’s songwriting could evolve. Not too far off the ‘silly’ bracket, but certainly towards the more ‘heartfelt’.
The KIDS label got to hear of the stir going on up in the ‘Pool after Radio One’s Rob Da Bank played ‘Happily Screwed’ in October 2005; by this time they already had seven self-financed EPs under their belts, all recorded at LIPA’s freely available studios. And a touchingly warped pop collection they were, largely based on Murph’s foiled romantic encounters. So ‘Patricia The Stripper’ is about “erm… let’s not talk about that… she was called Trisha and it was my 18th birthday and she was pretty old and it was bad and I shouldn’t talk about it”. ‘Lost In The Post’ with its hilarious ‘Go to Santa!’ breakdown refrain, is “a bit of a teenage love gone wrong” and ‘Moving To New York’ is “about a girl me and Tord had relations with from Norway, I can’t remember what happened. I was out with her the day before and then the next day I was in a bar and she was there kissing another girl. So I threw a bit of a wobbler”. And the less said about the face-slapping nightclub embarrassment that spawned ‘Backfire At The Disco’ the better.
KIDS realised that a lot of these songs had sparking great pop tunes whacked all over them — The Wombats come 2006 had more hits than www.letslockparishiltonbackup.com. They started by releasing ‘Lost In The Post’ in June 2006 (in snazzy air-mail packaging) and followed it with ‘Moving To New York’ as the ‘Bats following in Liverpool began startling local promoters. By the release of third single ‘Backfire At The Disco’ in April 2007 the band not only gained major video rotation on MTV2 for their rip-off of Cliff Richard’s ‘Wired For Sound’ promo, but also became the first officially unsigned act to sell out Liverpool’s Carling Academy and have thus been declared fully-fledged local heroes.
Luckily, the entire indie nation was beginning to see their point. After supporting Kaiser Chiefs in Europe and Babyshambles on their Christmas 2006 UK tour, The Wombats signed to 14th Floor Records mid-way through what scientists believe to be the longest and most excruciating UK tour known to rock: 50 dates with around 4 days off. “We asked them to book us a ‘ridiculous’ tour,” says Dan, “it’s the biggest tour anyone’s ever booked. We were going to do it without drinking but me and Murph lasted until about the twentieth date then I fell off the wagon, got run over by it a few times and vomited all over the hotel room”). And simultaneously, latest single ‘Kill The Director’ became not just another dancefloor hit but a real-life big boys chart hit too, hitting Number 35 in June 2007. Not bad for a song inspired by a shonky romantic comedy with Jude sodding Law in it.
“It’s about my current girlfriend and that film The Holiday,” Murph explains. “We were in the Lake District and we went to this posh cinema in Bowness where you go for a meal first then you go and watch the film. That was the only film on and it was absolutely appalling but it seemed quite apt, the cheesiness of it all, when actually things were just horrendous. It definitely didn’t mirror my life.”
Next stop for these wild, wibbly Wombat boys is a rampage around a recording studio to record an album Murph hopes will bring them “world domination”, and promises will be “fun, with dark undertones thrown in there. There’s a few dark undertones in the lyrics, especially the new songs, a bit of self-deprecation going on, it kinda feels dark to me.”
Ardent fans, however, might be concerned at the non-appearance anywhere on the record or artwork of one Cherub, a cuddly Wombat who has graced Murph’s guitar amp during recent live shows, being introduced fondly to the crowd at each show. Cherub came into their lives as a free gift that came with the crate of Wombat Hill wine their label bought them to celebrate signing their contract and left their lives a few short months later when someone nicked it from the stage at KOKO.
“He’s got his own Myspace now,” says Murph. “That person who took him made a Myspace and then added most of our friends.”
You could always order another crate of the wine.
Dan: “We’ve done that and the guy didn’t put one in. They’re like £27 a go, we’ve ordered six of them but the last instalment of the wine has been and gone with out a cuddly Cherub to speak of.”
Jesters, ostriches, madmen, rollerskates, rom-coms, strippers, lesbians, chart hits, boys, girls and cuddly marsupials. You have to wonder – what would Paul McCartney have made of what he’s spawned?
“ My only encounter with him was in LIPA,” says Murph. “We had this one-on-one songwriting tutorial, we just talked about songs and I played him some and he said some things. It was when he was going through the whole divorce thing and he had to keep running out to speak to his lawyer on the phone. So he darted out, came back in, then — no word of a lie — I said ‘this song’s about falling in love with a whore, it’s called ‘Patricia The Stripper’’ and he said ‘oh, I could imagine that’s a bad thing to do.”
The Wombats: you really HAVE to be there.