A look into the anatomy of an international supergroup
Although they have a low profile, Professor and the Madman could be considered a punk rock supergroup.
The quartet is composed of long time veterans of the underground music scenes of LA and London. The American songwriters and twin lead guitarists are Alfie Agnew from The Adolescents, Crash Kills Four and D.I. and Sean Elliott from D.I., Mind Over Four and Crash Kills Four. The English rhythm section is drummer Rat Scabies from The Damned and bass player Paul Gray from Eddie and the Hot Rods, The Damned and U.F.O.
Agnew and Elliott have been collaborating in Orange County’s punk scene since they were teenagers, with time out when Agnew went back to school to get a degree in Math – he’s the professor in Professor and The Madman. The songs the duo writes cover the entire history of British and American pop – surf, rock, metal, punk, pop and even a hint of folk. At an early LA gig, they asked Rat Scabies to come on stage for a cover of The Damned’s “Smash It Up.” He joined in and was soon adding tracks to the band’s first album – Elixir I: Good Evening, Sir! Since then, they’ve recorded and released five more albums, including their most recent offering, Séance.
Séance is a rock opera of sorts. The songs tell stories of death, resurrection and salvation that can be understood on a personal, political and spiritual level. It follows mankind from the primordial slime, to the current brink of disaster. It’s lyrically and musically dense, with the twin guitar attack of Agnew and Elliott supported by the solid rhythms of Gray and Scabies. Elliott and Agnew trade lead vocals and layer up harmonies as they deliver an apocalyptic epic that moves from a whisper to a scream, before finishing with a quiet prayer for humanity’s survival. Agnew opened up to share the band’s history and creative process with The Globe. This is the first part of the interview.
The scenario you describe in Séance is apocalyptic. Do you have any thoughts on the events that have unfolded since you finished recording?
You know, it’s a funny thing. A similar thing happened with our Election Day 2016 release, Elixir II: Election. A lot of people said “You nailed it about Trump,” but we wrote those songs shortly before he hit the scene. The story is really based on the rising politician in Stephen King’s novel The Dead Zone, not Trump. But yes, maybe Sean and I can feel the “earthquakes” before they happen!
With regard to Séance, I believe there is a definite feeling in the world right now that things are spiraling out of control, a collective anxiety that we’re hurtling toward some endgame. The theme of Séance is very sympathetic with that idea, since it presents just such an endgame. I won’t say this is an accident, but it is not intentional. Sean and I must have sensitive antennae.
How did the scenario that Séance covers develop?
Sean and I both have very active and lucid imaginations. We grew up on Serling, Roddenberry, King, Bradbury, Poe, horror flicks, 1970s suspense TV shows. We allow our ideas to develop at their own pace, honing them as we go along. This time it started with the song “Séance,” which contains the core of the album’s scenario. We just fire ideas back and forth and they just start taking on a life of their own. It’s pretty effortless, really, and a hell of a lot of fun!
How do you assemble the tracks? How much freedom do Rat Scabies and Paul Gray have in the parts they contribute?
Rat and Paul have complete freedom. After hearing the demos, they completely write their own parts for the songs. They have a sound that is totally unique. If they played “Louie Louie,” it would still sound like Rat and Paul. That’s why we wanted them and only them on the project. Sean and I just hand them tunes, get out of the way, and watch the magic happen!
On a practical note, we lay down demos to a click track and send the files over to them to record along to. They send the tracks back and Sean and I lay the final tracks on it, clean and polish, and eventually send it out into the world. Although we usually don’t have the luxury of being able to record alongside Rat and Paul in an actual studio, we do have the luxury of being able to spend an unlimited amount of time in our own well-equipped studio.
How did you make the connection with Rat Scabies?
Rat has friends and connections in Southern California. He showed up with a local friend to an “ugly Xmas sweater shindig” at this little club where Sean and I were performing. We asked Rat if he wanted to come up and play “Smash it Up,” and surprisingly, he said, “Sure,” instead of punching us in the face! Made my year. A couple of days later, he was in our studio recording “The Devil’s Bargain” – from our first release Elixir I: Good Evening, Sir! – and making the first PATM album with us. He’s a really, really cool dude. Funny, too. I could talk with him for hours.
VIDEO: The Damned “Looking At You” (Live 1988)
How did you make the connection with Paul Gray?
Sean and I made it a point to keep up with Paul’s activities on Facebook. Eventually, Sean reached out to him and sent him our song “Nightmare.” Sean said something like, “Hey, what would you do with this?” Paul liked the tune, absolutely nailed the bass part as expected, and we said, “There’s more where that came from!” The rest is history. Again, Paul is a great, great guy. I consider him a very good friend – easy to talk to and as nice as they get. You just don’t expect people that are so talented and well known to be so down to earth.
We send Paul a demo with scratch guitars and Rat’s drums. Paul is great at bouncing off Rat, and Sean and I try to leave plenty of harmonic room. He plays the bass like a trumpet, a lead instrument, yet can simultaneously keep the song trucking along with a solid rhythmic foundation. It’s quite remarkable!
VIDEO: The Professor and The Madman “Time Machine”