Saturday, 23 November 2013

Math and Physics Club: Indietracks and Allo Darlin saved our lives

What more do you need to know about the majesty of Math and Physics Club that you can't find on their wonderful new album 'Our Hearts Beat Out Loud'?

Over the space of ten songs, Math and Physics Club have managed to work me up into such a lather that I've pretty much assigned all other records released this year to the bin. The standard MAPC sound is here in the world-weary 'Tied to a Stone', but there are further signs that the band are willing to soak up influences old and new in the shape of the excellent single 'Long Drag' and 'We Won't Keep Secrets'.

Meanwhile, 'We Won't Run from Anyone' isn't the paean to football hooliganism you might think it would be from these big, bad bruisers, but three and half moments of the sweetest reverie, with - gasp - and hint of country in there.

Such is the confidence coursing through this band, that they don't flinch from calling a song 'I Know It's Over', and then rip-off the harmonica solo from a Housemartins track, whilst 'Thank God I Met You' is a sweet folk/bluegrass number, set around the strength one person can bring.

But it's probably 'That's What Love Is' that really hits the spot. A pretty straightforward pop song has a lot going for it, in my opinion, and this is one of the best. Hope, despair, love, hate - it's all in here and drives 'Our Hearts Beat Out Loud' to new heights.

Eighteen months ago, Math and Physics Club were on their backsides, with annoying real life getting in the way of more important stuff like making music. One trip to Europe and a stunning third album later and they sound in their best ever form. If they ever threaten to quit again, I'm moving them all into my garden shed until they agree to carry on. Think on, Math and Physics Club, think on...

You can buy 'Our Hearts Beat Out Loud', which is out on Matinee now.
Charles, James and Ethan agreed to do an interview around the new album and all things MAPC. Here's what they had to say...

Tell me about the new album - how did it come about? And what are the big themes?

Ethan: I think the album is about love. Anything worth doing is going to be about love, really. I dunno what do you guys think?

James:  I don't think any of us would mind leaving things open wide to listeners own thematic interpretations.  For me, this album is significant in that we were even able to make it. We'll all now pushing into our 40s and life is a lot more complicated than when we started out as a band in 2004. MAPC is a pretty special thing for all of us and the pure joy we get from making music together keeps it all alive.

Charles: [wipes away tear]

James: Don’t cry, brother.  Here’s a tissue.

You very nearly split a couple of years ago, didn't you? What made you change your mind?

Ethan: We all have our busy and full outside lives, but this really beautiful thing happens when we all get together that just doesn't exist outside of the band.  It's like spending summers up on indie-pop Brokeback. I wish I could quit you guys. 

James: Its totally true.  After almost 10 years of playing together, we've totally gone Brokeback.  Just don't tell my wife.

Charles: Hmmm…

Ethan: In between our first and second albums, Charles had twins, James had a daughter and built a house, Kevin had a daughter and his career as writer started to take off so he left the band to concentrate on that.  Saundrah left the band. Things started to look pretty bleak for our future. We thought ‘I Shouldn't Look As Good As I Do’ would be our last chance, so we wanted to make a shiny pop album while we could. We talked Kevin back to record, but the process was more fun for some of us than others for various reasons. That could have been the end, but we'd always wanted to play in the UK. So that was a light to the future.

After that album came out I toured the west coast, the UK and the Continent with Eux Autres, I was listening to a lot of Donovan, especially his album Open Road. I love the live, spontaneous sound of that record and I started thinking about how I wished MAPC could do something like that. And then, at the end of the tour, I was standing in the security line at Heathrow waiting to fly home, and there was Donovan!  He was walked past all by himself, so I said 'Hey Donovan!' And he stopped and spun around, looked at me and said in a very kind and calm way, just the way you'd imagine, 'Hello.' And he stopped and talked to me for a couple of minutes. He was so kind and thoughtful, and asked me questions too, and was very encouraging about making music. It was like a visitation and so I had this epiphany. I knew then we had to do it. That's how it happened from my perspective. Of course the album doesn't sound much like Open Road in the end but that was a major inspiration for me.

Anyway, a few months later, we in Math and Physics Club had so much fun playing in the UK that we came back energized, and new ideas began to germinate.

Charles: I remember sitting in Kevin’s backyard and talking about whether we should play a proper final show or not. It was that close to happening. For me it was two things that really changed my outlook: One was the UK tour and Indietracks. Getting that type of response from people so far away from home, it was just really meaningful. The other was hearing ‘Capricornia’ by Allo Darlin’ when it came out. It just sounded so brilliant, and the first thing I did was pick up my guitar and try to write a song, which as a songwriter is about as high of a compliment as I can give. It was both a spark and a challenge, I guess. All of the sudden I was writing songs in flurries again and we started talking about recording another full length, which I never expected to happen after the last one.

Talk me through the evolution of the band - how have you changed over the last decade, and what is the main difference between the three albums?

James:  Musical virtuosity has never really been a skill either Charles or I have claimed to possess. If pressed, we probably couldn't name the notes or chords we're playing most of the time! We both just go by ear a lot.   Ethan and Kevin are much more accomplished musicians and have brought a lot of that understanding of proper music theory to our recording sessions over the years. This time around we did make a conscious decision to go in and try to capture the stripped down sound of us just picking up instruments and playing live in a room together without all the digital gadgetry in the middle mucking stuff up.   That approach felt really comfortable. It brought us back full circle to our very first basement recording efforts.

Ethan: The first album is our sound at that time, but a little smoother thanks to the superb production and engineering by Kevin Suggs.  Kevin does the live in-studio sound for KEXP, our local listener-supported radio station, and we'd worked with him before.  We were still very green, and listening back to it now, I hear a sort of bashfulness that was very natural and genuine at the time.  There are very few tricks on that album. We recorded it at Avast in Seattle with their big API board and a lot of room mics. For our second album we wanted to make something shinier and bigger sounding, and Martin Feveyear did just what we asked him to do. It's a great big sounding album, thanks to his SSL board, close mic'ing and a focus on getting just the right take and feel.  It's very professional sounding, but in the process I think we went a few steps too far away from our core sound. That wasn't Martin's fault though. He gets great sounds, and really worked on our performances with us. And he's hilarious.  For this album, we had the confidence to take more control - something we haven't really done since our early EPs. We played a show in Olympia with Mark Monnone and the Smittens and the guy who did the sound was Bob Schwenkler, who turned out also to run the studio at Dub Narcotic.  We talked with him about it, and suddenly this dream of recording at Dub Narcotic seemed within reach.  Bob has a great presence in the studio - calm, confident, encouraging. Very centered.  We recorded this album to 16 track 2" tape. The Electrodyne console at Dub Narcotic is almost identical to the console made for Frank Sinatra's personal studio, and it happens to be hooked up to the same type of tape machine as his was, and I think that really gave our album a little extra ring-a-ding-ding.

Charles: Pretty sure that’s why my vocals came out ‘mmmmm...’ all the way.

How was recording in the Dub Narcotic studio? Does it have an "aura"? Did that affect you?

Ethan:  It was definitely a big deal to us to record there, but it's only been in this location for a few years.  It's not like we were recording in Calvin's basement, where the studio used to be years ago. It's a very 'Olympia' feeling studio, though, so maybe we're not as attuned to the 'aura' since we all have connections there.  But it's a great place to work, casual but professional. We all felt comfortable there, and I think that came through in the recording. There were always people in and out of the studio, the people from LAKE were around a bit, Karl Blau came through a few times, and of course Calvin Johnson.  Once we were recording a quiet acoustic guitar part, and Bob stopped the take and was like 'wait what's that sound coming through the mic?' and it turned out to be Calvin singing loudly to himself while doing the dishes. Bob had to ask him to keep it down! I kind of thought we should have just kept his voice in there as a little souvenir.  Calvin is the nicest guy though.  Years ago when I worked at Rainy Day Records, it was a Sunday morning I think, and the store was empty. My co-worker and I took turns spinning 45s from the used bin, and she and I were dancing behind the counter, just goofing around. This went on for like an hour, and then I heard a voice behind me say 'Excuse me...' Scared me to death because I thought the store was empty. And it was Calvin, in to pick up a special order. And he complimented my dance moves! That's one of the greatest compliments I've ever received.  Especially if you've ever seen Calvin dance.

James:  Ethan, I didn't know that!  One thing about Ethan is he’s always good for crazy stories from his multiple past lives. We had a great experience at Dub Narcotic. The building itself is also pretty interesting.  It used to be a Jewish Synagogue for ages until Calvin Johnson bought it several years ago and converted the space into K Records Headquarters. The studio is in the basement which used to be used for community events. There's a beautiful Star of David stained glass window above the front entrance I remember seeing as a kid driving by on the way to the local public library up the street. One of the coolest things about recording at Dub Narcotic was finally getting a chance to take a close up look at that window!

You last toured the UK around 18 months ago - will you be coming back, or is life getting in the way?

Ethan: Of course it's a challenge to get the time and coordinate schedules, but I think we'd all do it in a heartbeat. The challenge is to make the trip pay for itself, or save up the money for long enough that we can take a loss. In the meantime if any bands out there need assistance with record production or touring, I'm probably available! Music is my only job right now, and anyway, if I was already over in the UK it would be easier to get the other guys over.

Charles: I don’t know, are you offering a slot in your annual all-dayer?


Which new bands are you listening to at the moment? Do you think the "scene" is pretty healthy?

James:  With a couple of little girls scampering around our house, I'm listening to a live stage performance of Mary Poppins and the soundtrack from the Sound of Music pretty much non-stop. Is that healthy? I don't really know.

Ethan:  I like Yakuri Cable and the Seabirds. I want to hear more from those bands. Still waiting for more from Last Leaves, too. I really like the new Azure Blue and Bubblegum Lemonade albums. I've seen some cool indie pop bands from the Phillippines and Indonesia on YouTube too. I always like Lisle Mitnik's projects.  He gets such cool sounds. And when we played at the NYC Popfest this year, we got to meet The Very Most and I've been exploring their catalog. There are tons of great bands around if you keep an open ear.

Charles: Matinee has been on fire this year with a bunch of really cool releases, which is good because without Jimmy keeping me stocked up I’m not sure how much new music I’d hear. I used to be so much more proactive about seeking out music, but I just don’t have a lot of time to do that anymore. But as Ethan said, we were at NYC Popfest this year and the scene felt pretty vibrant to me!

Tell me a secret about Math and Physics Club that no-one knows.

Ethan: We actually will keep secrets!

James:  I will let you in on one little secret. The official tea of the band is Sainsbury's Red Label. It is truly the finest, if not the most underrated, tea on the market today. Perhaps Sainsbury's would be interested in sponsoring our next UK tour?

Charles: C’mon James, what happened to the first rule of Math and Physics Club?

No comments: