Friday, November 2, 2007
INTERVIEW: MATH & PHYSICS CLUB
Okay, so the Squaregirls have admitted to having crushes on bands in the past (see our recent post about Le Switch). But honestly, with so many good bands out there, can we really be expected to give our loyalty to just one? With the release of their lovely new EP, “Baby, I’m Yours,” Math & Physics Club have been the subject of the majority of our infatuation lately.
Founding members James and Charles grew up in Olympia, Washington, listening to huge amounts of Beat Happening, Teenage Fanclub, the Stone Roses (they do a fantastic cover of “Sally Cinnamon”), the Housemartins, and the Posies. Last (but not least) to join the band Ethan (bass) shares these affinities, particularly for the Posies. Kevin (drums) grew up playing jazz. Saundrah was classically trained in violin and viola. She was also part of an Americana group, and an experimental "Wall of Sound" band before joining Math & Physics Club. Collectively, they make excellent use of their various influences and backgrounds to create recordings that will fit perfectly in your collection alongside any of the aforementioned bands.
Squaregirl Marion was lucky enough to sit down with four of the quintet for a chat at the Crocodile Café in Seattle. After some clamoring over my digital recording device, we got right down to the serious, hard-hitting interview. Well, sort of.
SQGM: So you are all mathematicians, and physicists?
Kevin: We met in Cambridge in ’82. Charles had just been snubbed for the Nobel ... again.
SQGM: And that’s when you figured, forget academia, let’s start a band?
James: Well, the academic spotlight was getting to us, we wanted to kind of step away from that a little bit...
SQGM: Okay, in all seriousness. I’m curious, as an outsider: The Pacific Northwest seems so welcoming to anyone who wants to start a band. Is this really the case?
Charles: I think it is, Seattle just seems like a really supportive community.
James: I don’t know if it is just like people genuinely like you and they are willing to listen to you, or if they’re just really polite, maybe a little bit of both. Of course there is a little bit of competition, there always is, but we are pretty much able to avoid that. For the most part we are able to be around generally nice, supportive people. Plus, there is a huge tradition in the Northwest of DIY all-ages shows. That ethic is kind of underlying in everything.
Kevin: Yeah, maybe if you were in Minnesota or something, you know, everybody likes curling. Here, though, getting a band together is just the thing that people do. People don’t do it cause they want to make it big; it’s just a way that people hang out with their friends. You don’t always play the greatest gigs when you’re starting out, but you can get them. And you meet bands really fast.
James: Kevin’s probably the best one to talk to about this with cause he’s from Boston. We’re all from the Northwest, so he can tell you how it compares to a different town.
Kevin: Yeah, it’s very different. It’s way more cutthroat to even get a band [together]. Trying to book a show in Boston is a nightmare. There are many fewer places that you’d want to play. In Seattle there are a lot of places where you think, “It’d be alright to play there.” And in Boston you’re connected to New York and Philadelphia, and there is a big label thing going on. A lot of nights get booked up for up-and-coming label acts.
SQGM: It seems like this is a place where you can really feel comfortable experimenting. Even if you don’t know a particular style of music that well, you can still get something going?
James: Yeah, there are a lot of really small places that are really open to that.
Kevin: Of course, it does help, if you want to try something really wacky, to have some friends that are willing to go and watch it.
Charles: And if you are in a smaller band, or if you are underage, there is a really good house party circuit here.
James: That we never really figured out how to tap into.
Kevin: Although a house show was the first show that we ever played as a full band. It was Ethan’s friend who set it up, though.
SQGM: Wasn’t it something like you played two shows and then were signed to Matinee?
Kevin: It was one show, although that’s not really accurate. It was the first show we played as a band with the five of us, but James and Charles had been working on stuff for a while.
James: Yeah, it appeared as though this happened overnight, but it was actually something that had been coming together for a while.
Charles: The big goal for James and I was to put out a record, so instead of focusing on getting out and playing shows, we were more focused on finding someone to help us put out our record. We would have liked to have had shows too, but we didn’t really put our energy into that; we put our energy into getting a demo together and sending that out.
Ethan: Kevin, Saundrah and I joined probably within a three-month period of each other. I was the last one to join. Charles and James had put together songs, and when I heard an early incarnation of the band playing, I knew I really wanted to be a part of that. We were all able to put our mark on the EP, but they really shaped it.
Charles: The funny thing is though, talking about how supportive it is, we couldn’t find people to play with us for so long. We’d go see bands that we liked, and there would be tons of people there, but we just couldn’t figure out how to connect with them. And we didn’t know anyone.
James: I can’t tell you how many times me and Charles would go to a show, and we’d have this material, a disk, in the back of our pockets. We’d be sweating with pure raw nerve, not wanting to go up and look like an idiot for talking to somebody. There was this divide between us and someone in a proper band playing a show.
Charles: We were just nervous to take that step and become, you know, a band. It seemed like such a huge thing to us.
SQGM: Was it more being intimidated of actually talking to people in the scene, or “Oh my God, this will make us a real band?”
James: I don’t know, that’s a good question. Probably a little of both. We were just shy, I think; we didn’t really know anybody.
Charles: We didn’t consider ourselves very good musicians and didn’t want to go up to someone and be like, “Hey man, do you know anybody? We’ve got this band.”
James: Right, you could go up and talk to people after shows, and people are always really nice. You could go up and talk to Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow after a Posies show, but it’s really different when you want to hand them something that you’ve done. Then it becomes about, are you abusing a relationship to further your musical goals?
SQGM: And where do you draw the line?
Charles: One thing that’s really different for us as opposed to other bands who are just starting out is that we only had a demo, but we were able to gain the support of Three Imaginary Girls and KEXP. So we never really had to hit the streets, except for our very first show at the Hideaway, before Ethan joined the band. We didn’t really have to create something out of completely nothing. We already had these people supporting us. Then people look at you a little differently. That probably affected how we transitioned into the scene.
SQGM: I’m sure, but I’m sure there was also a tremendous amount of work that went into the project before you got it to Three Imaginary Girls and KEXP?
James: Yes, a lot of work, but you know not any more or less than any other band. Just done a little bit differently.
Charles: You know, other bands play tons of shows, hone their skills that way. We were just kind of doing that in our basement, writing songs and practicing them. We didn’t really play them for anybody.
James: On occasion we’d play them for our girlfriends, or a group of friends, and at the end it would be like, “Well, are we going to go out to dinner now?” or “Hey, nice place you have here.” It was never anything about the music. So that made it even harder to go up to an actual musician and say, “Here, listen to this.”
Charles: That’s why the internet has been so revolutionary. You can just drop an mp3 out there and wait for somebody to come along.
Kevin: Yeah, with me it was like, “Hey, I just moved here from Boston and I don’t know anyone, so you guys wanna play?”
James: That was the biggest coup, scoring Kevin.
Kevin: Yeah, until you found out my hidden past.
The term “funk” is thrown around the table.
SQGM: You were in a funk band?
Kevin: No, I was a jazz drummer, and I played in a soul band in Boston, but I wouldn’t call it funk. All my life, I had only done this high-concept drumming. I was trying to write pop songs on my own, so I really just wanted to play drums in a pop band. These guys were the perfect fit. Some people have held that [past] against the band actually.
Charles: But we always thought when we were trying to get a band together, the most important thing would be to get a good drummer.
James: There are a ton of drummers, but it’s tough to find one that fits. You have all of these people with so much ability and they want to put every ounce of that into every song. But Kevin, and really everyone in this band, seems to have the ability to pull back depending on what’s needed for each song. And he looks good, does he not?
It is mutually agreed upon that Kevin looks good.
James: There was a time when we were in San Francisco at this crowded dessert place and we were waiting outside, and Kevin just went up to these two random people and talked them into coming to our show.
Kevin: Yeah, you caught me not only when I decided that I wanted to play drums in a pop band, but also when I went crazy.
James: Are you familiar with the A-Team?
Charles: Oh God.
Kevin: She’s going to print this.
Ethan: Stop talking.
James: If you were to line up the five members of the A-Team, and the five members of the Math & Physics Club, I think it would be unanimous that Kevin would be Faceman.
Kevin: That’s not so bad. I don’t get the leather jacket, though. I would want the faux leather jacket.
Ethan: I think James would be Murdock.
James: Yeah, I’m pretty much Murdock.
Charles: Ethan, you’re B.A. cause we have to knock you out to fly you anywhere.
James: Yeah, Ethan’s B.A. That makes [Charles] the Colonel by default.
Charles: And then Saundrah is Amy, I guess.
James: Yeah, yeah definitely. Just like on the A-Team, Amy doesn’t make appearances every time.
Charles: You know she’s there, you just don’t know where.
Saundrah is, in fact, at dinner with Tullycraft at this point.
SQGM: On that note, was it always the intention to have a girl in the band, or more, we need a violinist, and she’s really good?
Charles: No, we didn’t really have a plan in mind except we thought we would like to have some strings — cello, violin, somebody who did something a little different. Saundrah came up on Craigslist, and I remember reading her influences and thinking, “Oh, this could be cool.” So we just started emailing. She’s the first to admit she was never really into this kind of pop music, but she has a really great ear for melody and knowing what fits in what spot.
SQGM: It sounds like an interesting dynamic with the various musical backgrounds contained in the band. How does that affect the songwriting process?
Kevin: I think it’s impossible for five people to work together collectively without some chatter here and there, but if there were growing pains they were relatively minor. We were able to get the right sound pretty quick. We sort of immediately had the right sound, and then it was more a matter of just kind of guiding that sound along. And people saying, “Well what about this? Or this? Or this?” We got lucky.
Charles: There was definitely a transition from where James and I were controlling everything. We had all these songs that were all done, [but] we had to go from that to “Okay, how do we introduce songs? Where are they coming from? Who’s writing what?”
Kevin: The rest of us were sort of feeling that out. We were in various stages of our own creative process and determining what we wanted to contribute.
Charles: Plus, James and I had known each other since we were kids, and didn’t know any of them.
James: The first two EPs were kind of written before we had the rest of the band in place.
SQGM: I was actually wondering about that. So the first EP was pretty much together when the band was assembled; it just became about adding the missing components?
James: For the first EP, Charles and I even wrote bass lines, and drum parts, rough as they were.
Kevin: And I just rewrote them.
James: Yeah, we pretty much just dumped everything.
Kevin: Although I still play that little drum beat of yours in the middle of “Weekends Away.”
Charles: Most of the time it’s like, “I’m kind of feeling like this or something,” but that was one where we were like, “Do a Johnny Cash shuffle beat thing,” and he just came up with this (mimes the particular drum beat) and we were like, “Yeah!”
James: Cause that was something we couldn’t come up with on our little drum machine.
Charles: If we could we wouldn’t even talk to you [Kevin].
Kevin: You guys would be so much leaner.
James: Right before we all met, I actually found online, for free, a complete sampling of some vintage drum set that had good brush sounds, but there was no need to use them once we found [Kevin], so we just shelved it.
Kevin: I should have never spent that 7-50 on a set of brushes.
James: No, there is just no way to compare what we were trying to do with live drums.
SQGM: Well, on that note, can you talk about “Do You Keep a Diary” from the new EP. What made you decide to present an electropop song?
Charles: Yeah, you have to talk to Ethan about that.
SQGM: Okay, I was going to ask whose idea it was, cause personally I think it sounds great.
Ethan: Wait till you hear it tonight!
SQGM: Oh, is it going to be the full-on electronic version?
Ethan: No, it’s going to be a different version.
Charles: Did you hear it in Santa Barbara?
SQGM: I did.
Charles: So you heard the acoustic version.
Ethan: This version tonight is just going to be way more disco.
SQGM: Oh yes, a live band discofied version of an electropop song is the just kind of thing I like to see!
Kevin: Yeah, that one’s all Jones (Ethan).
Ethan: I like that kind of music, too. We tried that one out for the album. I thought it was a good song that had a good chorus, but it just wasn’t happening.
Charles: It sounded like a Stone Roses rip-off.
Ethan: It sounded like the Byrds to me. Which is fine, but...
SQGM: Sure, nothing wrong with sounding like the Byrds, but if you have the ability to take something in a more surprising direction...
Charles: (to Ethan) Did you have the EP version back then?
Ethan: Well, I had my first demo of it before the album came out. I just put it together tapping drum sounds on my keyboard. Actually, the funny thing about that is that the bass on that version is a stand-up bass sampled from a mellotron.
Charles: Ethan just passed that [song] around like “Hey, I did something fun with this. We don’t have to do anything with it...”
James: I think [Charles] and I heard it first, and I thought it was awesome. It totally made me more interested in the song. We talked about it for the album, but didn’t do anything with it, and Ethan just kept working on it. Then we had the EP and we figured it would be a good place to try it.
SQGM: Yeah, I like that it’s completely unexpected, and it works.
James: We do have an acoustic version of that song as well.
SQGM: Cool, for the B-sides collection?
Charles: For the EP comp.
Kevin: We recorded it live in studio.
James: Yeah, we did it all live in one take.
Kevin: Yeah, actually that’s the song I’m most proud of just because I didn’t think we’d be able to do it.
James: I’m most proud of that as well. It was just pure musicianship.
At this point the band members had last-minute things to do to prepare for their show later in the evening. I thanked them for their time, and they could not have been any more gracious. So the infatuation grows.
Baby I'm Yours - Math & Physics Club