Everyone loves a marsupial

Matthew Murphy’s pre-graduation project for Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts was one of the most grueling, and weirdest, on record.

With a punky pop outfit he’d formed at school, the Wombats, he recalls doing a dissertation three years ago that was also his final performance — playing the Midi Modern Music Festival in Beijing.

He says, “They didn’t have the money to get big-name bands, so it was all unsigned second-tier acts. And their ideawas to have ‘kids from the street’ so most of the groups were bad. And I mean truly horrible.”

His first reaction after touching down in Beijing was something like “Get me out of here,” says the 23-year-old. “There was so much pollution that just being there and breathing the air was like smoking 75 cigarettes a day.”

But the Wombats, who play Popscene in San Francisco Thursday, warmed to China after playing a bonus club gig in Shanghai, where the mostly Western-expat crowd sang along to every unreleased song. Murphy was stunned.

“They went on our Web site, downloaded all our tracks and learned all the lyrics before we got there,” the singer-guitarist says. “And no one was singing our songs back in the U.K. at that time. We didn’t have any fans until we went to China, where they were all loving us.” Now, Britain is gaga over the Wombats, who tour with a plush-toy wombat mascot named Cherub and have conquered the overseas charts with campy Buzzcocks-riffed sing-alongs like “Backfire at the Disco,” “Kill the Director” and “Let’s Dance to Joy Division.”

Murphy even received an approving nod from Macca himself when he played him an early version of “Patricia the Stripper” at LIPA; the cuts are all featured on the trio’s 14th Floor debut “A Guide to Love, Loss & Desperation.”

But Murphy says he was no class clown. “I was the miserable, depressed guy who always sat in the corner with a hangover. And for me, LIPA was a place where you could spend three years rehearsing and using the studios and the time you had on your hands to do stuff. So I didn’t really learn anything there.”

Except, perhaps, how to construct a perfect-pitched hook and O. Henry-like lyric, most based on his own sad-sack love life. Yes, a date really did clock him in the chops at a disco, and he really has gyrated to Joy Division, just for ironic humor’s sake.

And the wacky moniker? “We used to call each other ‘wombat’ and use it as kind of a derogatory term, like ‘What a wombat!’”

Murphy explains. “Plus, everyone just loves a pouched marsupial!”

IF YOU GO

The Wombats

Where: Popscene, 330 Ritch St., San Francisco

When: 10 p.m. Thursday

Tickets: $10 to $12

Contact: www.popscene-sf.com

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