Professor and The Madman: Honoring the Roots of Punk Rock, Part 2

The conclusion of our interview with Alfie Agnew

The Professor and the Madman (Art: Ron Hart)

A brief recap:  Professor and the Madman is a quartet is composed of long time veterans of the underground music scenes of LA and London.

Singer, composer, guitarist Alfie Agnew from The Adolescents, Crash Kills Four and D.I.; singer, composer, guitarist Sean Elliott from D.I., Mind Over Four and Crash Kills Four; drummer Rat Scabies from The Damned and bass player Paul Gray from Eddie and the Hot Rods, The Damned and U.F.O. 

Séance is the forth studio album by the band, and their fifth over all offering – They’ve released one live album, 2019’s Live at the 100 Club, a recording of a gig they played in London. Séance is an epic offering that follows mankind from the primordial slime, to the current brink of disaster. In this portion of the interview, Agnew talks about the process of making Séance and the literature that informs his approach to music and life. 

 

How long did it take to write and record Séance?

A year, maybe 16 months. It’s hard to put an exact time stamp on it, since Sean and I write continuously. Some songs were written before the project took shape. In fact, we were going to run with the “Time Machine” concept before the “Séance” concept really blossomed. “Time Machine,” which includes “Man with Nothing to Lose,” which is the really the second half of “Time Machine,” came a bit before we committed to the “Séance” concept. “A Child’s Eyes” is a rewrite of a very old song, however, the vast majority of the album was written recently.

We always work from an idea, although sometimes the idea may be vague initially, more of a feeling. Life provides more than enough emotional fodder for ideas, and we write emotional music. There is life, death, heartbreak, happiness, sadness, ecstasy, hopes, dreams, nightmares, and everything in between. I can’t imagine why anyone would ever have “writer’s block.” Once our life experiences and emotions start creating a more or less fictional world or scenario, the inspiration is in full force and you can’t stop the momentum.

The arrangements of the individual songs happen both while writing, then later as we are producing the individual songs. Also, particularly when Sean and I are collaborating, arrangements typically get fleshed out or moved around. Arrangement is so important and can really make a difference in how effective a melody or progression (hence song) ultimately is.

The arrangements also reflect the diversity of our influences and musical backgrounds. It also reflects the idea of writing to a scenario. Maybe the easiest way to explain it is that we really write soundtracks! Look at an album like “Tommy” by The Who. It is very diverse musically because it is basically a soundtrack.

 

The guitar parts are really dense. How are they put together? 

Basic elements are composed, such as the basic progressions and melody, but a lot is improvised. We leave plenty of room for the musicians to write their parts. For example, Sean uses different chord voicings than I do, and the blend is 100% better than if he or I dictated those kinds of details. Maybe that is a theme here: Get the right personnel that can complement each other and produce something greater than the sum of the parts – i.e., “chemistry.” That advice is applicable for sports, business, and scientific research as well.

 

Do you write together, separately, or a combination of the two?

A combination of the two. Since the primordial ideas form in the “mind’s ear,” an idea always begins individually. But sooner or later, we’ll send each other ideas over the phone or what have you, and then the feedback loop gets rolling and the collaboration is in full force.

We often play right into the iPhone’s microphone, especially if I don’t have the time to flesh out an idea out and don’t want to forget it. If I have more time, I will lay down a quick demo at our own studio. The ideas that are of the highest level of quality tend to get stuck in my head — circulating in there 24 hours a day — and eventually they start to coalesce into actual songs. Then I demo them at Hollydale (our home studio) when I get a chance. 

The Professor and the Madman Séance, Fullertone Records 2020

What makes POTM unique? 

Honestly, I don’t know anyone personally who puts more time and effort into the songwriting process. We’re pretty meticulous. But I have to say that it is the unusual combination of influences – 1960s British Invasion, 1970s rock/prog/glam and ‘70s/’80s punk – that results in some pretty unique songs and albums!

 

Does LA have any influence on your music?

I think the surf influence is the main thing. People always cue in that there’s something unmistakably “California” about us. Sean and I are more “OC” or “suburb” than LA – more Brian Wilson/Beach Boys/Dick Dale than The Doors or Motley Crüe. Even during the punk times, while we were in D.I., we played a song called “I Hate Surfing in H.B.” D.I. and the Adolescents had a strong surf and skate connection.

 

Do you still have “day jobs”?

Indeed, we do. I’m a Professor of Mathematics at California State University and Sean owns and runs a real estate company. We don’t have a lot of down time! On one hand, you might think that our music must be sort of a hobby. Hopefully, after listening, it should be clear that we have a tremendous dedication and work ethic. It’s not how much free time you have, it’s what you do with the free time you do have.

 

You’ve written dozens of scholarly research articles on mathematics and physics and spend much of the spare time you do have, reading Russian and French literature. Do French or Russian writers inform your musical worldview?  

The more punk stuff has surely been influenced by authors like Solzhenitsyn, whose writings about life under the totalitarian communist regime of the last century made quite an impression on me as a young man. Together with the writing and films of Rod Serling and Gene Roddenberry — who illustrate the dark and light sides of human nature as well as anyone — I’ve developed a healthy fear of anti-individuality and authoritarianism. The original punk movement was most certainly against those mindsets. That’s part of the reason punk resonated so strongly with me. I probably should give a nod to George Orwell, too.

The absurdists and existentialists like Gogol, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Camus and Sartre have also been an influence. The deep ideas they coax out of their writings are timeless. I’ve been quite aware of existential angst (Sartre’s “Nausea”) since I was about seven. You can probably find a lot of Kierkegaard in there as well. I’ve probably written more about various forms of heartbreak, anxiety, and disenchantment than political themes.

However, I can’t be serious, negative, political, worried and angry all the time like some songwriters. You can’t avoid these things completely, but it’s best to get it out of your system. Otherwise it steals your life from you, and life is very short. I’d rather spend my time with people and things that I love and make me happy.  

 

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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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