Trapped in a touring van somewhere in backwoods Missouri with a barely functional cell phone, Sean Smith seems surprisingly uninterested in discussing the "Scottish underdog mentality."
"I don't really relate to that concept, to be honest," he says, and the subsequent sigh says a lot. As the bassist for the Glasgow-via-Edinburgh outfit We Were Promised Jetpacks, Smith has likely grown a tad bored of his band's perpetual association with the current wave of high-intensity post-punk coming out of Scotland — a pack populated by the earnest likes of Frightened Rabbit and The Twilight Sad. Yes, the Jetpacks came up idolizing those groups, and yes, they're quite pleased to now call them friends. But as they trek across America in support of their sophomore album In the Pit of the Stomach, Smith and his bandmates won't be ringing up their forbearers for any Scotsmen survival tips.
"Yeah, we don't really talk to those guys about stuff like that," Smith says. "We still have great respect for those bands and stay in touch, but it's more likely we'll just talk to them about football or something."
In fact, aside from meaning "soccer" when they say "football," there's nothing particularly U.K.-centric about We Were Promised Jetpacks these days. Aided by steady touring and some savvy TV licensing deals on shows as disparate as One Tree Hill and Sons of Anarchy, singer-guitarist Adam Thompson's raw, heart-on-sleeve tunes have resonated with American audiences since the band's 2009 debut, These Four Walls. And that record sounds like a fly-by-night basement recording compared to the scope and ambition of In the Pit of the Stomach.
"Yeah, it was definitely kind of a night-and-day thing between the two," Smith says. "Obviously the production is much better [on In the Pit of the Stomach]. And being in a real studio, we had two weeks in there to work out our parts and how everything could fit together, rather than basically playing live off the floor like the first record.
"I can't really think of anything that wasn't better this time around, except that it cost a hell of a lot more money," he says, laughing.
Released last fall, In the Pit's bigger budget also revealed a notable shift toward a more American brand of moody angst — whether it's the inspired adrenalin rush of Jimmy Eat World (with whom the Jetpacks toured in 2010) or the more deliberate, crescendoing post-rock of Explosions in the Sky (tourmates for part of this upcoming U.S. leg).
The influence of the latter band — a veteran instrumental act out of Austin — is particularly evident on new WWPJ tracks like "Keeping Warm" and "Act on Impulse," which give their melodies a lot of elbow room for the atmospheres to swirl around and sink in. It's probably not a coincidence, then, that Smith mentions playing with Explosions in the Sky as one of things he is most looking forward to on this spring tour.
"They're definitely one of our favorite bands," he says. "Our tour manager, Esteban [Rey], does a lot of the artwork for them, so he kind of introduced us to their music a while back. I had heard of them but didn't really know their stuff. Now we're all huge fans."
The Jetpacks were also in Explosions in the Sky's hometown earlier this month, making the rounds at South by Southwest. On one hand, this is hardly a unique way for an indie band to promote itself. But as Smith sees it, We Were Promised Jetpacks is not a band with the agenda of being the "next big thing," anyway. It's more about mixing it up, shaking off regional misconceptions, and finding new fans, wherever they may be.
"I don't really think it matters at all where you're from anymore," says Smith. "A lot of times you have Scottish bands that come over to the States and do well, and they can't catch a break back home. So you never know. It's a very gradual thing, I suppose, and right now we're quite happy. I don't think any of us are hoping for that one big hit where you're playing to bigger crowds but they only want to hear the one song, you know? So we're pleased to just keep doing what we're doing, get to work on the next album, and see what happens next."
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