Sunday, January 21, 2018

Enter Professor and the Madman's musical laboratory

Sean Elliott, left, and Alfie Agnew. (John Gilhooley photo)

By Andy

It all comes down to “The Black Album.”

That 1980 Damned masterpiece that lunges forth with a glorious amalgamation of styles that are firmly anchored in the punk and goth realms.

The record pricked up the ears of those entrenched in the Orange County punk scene back in the day, specifically members of TSOL and the Adolescents. They would have gladly rolled out a red carpet for Dave Vanian, Captain Sensible, Paul Gray and Rat Scabies if those influential Brits stepped foot into their OC neighborhoods. (Actually, three fourths of that lineup played with the Damned when they invaded the Cuckoo’s Nest in Costa Mesa in 1979, and the album’s full lineup graced the stage of Godzilla’s in the San Fernando Valley in 1982.)

Pluck out Scabies and Gray on drums and bass, respectively, and pair them with former DI guitarists and Professor and the Madman creators Alfie Agnew and Sean Elliott and you've got the fearsome foursome that will unleash the band's own creepy, punk, rock, pop concoction, "Disintegrate Me," on Feb. 23 on FullerTone Records. (Get it, the OC punk hotbed Fullerton?)

Alfie is the youngest of the famed Agnew brothers -- Rikk and Frank tugged the youngster into the punk fold in the early '80s while they were plying their trade in bands like the Adolescents, Social Distortion, TSOL, Christian Death, 45 Grave, Legal Weapon and more.

"We had our hands in everything, for sure. It was awesome -- still is," said Alfie during a phone interview on Jan. 13.

Sounds from those bands ooze onto Professor and the Madman's landscape and operating table, along with nods to the Beatles, Pink Floyd and others.

"The Black Album" has always been one of the main musical adventures at the forefront of what the Agnews and Elliott have sonically brought to life.

"Let's face it, what we all really want to see is 'The Black Album' lineup play a show," Alfie said with laugh.

While that may never happen, Gray has rejoined the band that also features original members Vanian and Sensible ... so they're close.

Clockwise from top left, Gray, Elliott, Scabies and Agnew. (Courtesy of Professor and the Madman)

While Gray is new to the Professor and the Madman fold, Scabies played on the band's first two albums, sending in drum tracks from England. Gray fired off his bass tracks from Wales.

Elliott and Agnew -- who's a mathematics professor at Cal-State Fullerton -- befriended Scabies when he tagged along with a friend to a gig of their cover band, The Critens, while he was in Los Angeles in December of 2015. He was lured up on stage to play on their cover of "Smash it Up" and a bond was instantly formed.

They cranked out a pair of Professor and the Madman albums and then hooked up with Gray to produce the new one. With Scabies and Gray living in the UK, the latest LP is mainly a studio project, so no live shows with the quartet are presently on the docket and would have to happen in the UK, Agnew said.

They are organizing some LA-area shows with local musicians, including the older Agnew brothers.

Agnew said that he and Elliott (who both supply vocals, guitars and keyboards to Professor and the Madman) are compulsive writers, listeners and players, and they knew they were on the right track when they started forming the songs and people doled out positive feedback.

The duo had been out of contact for awhile, but reconnected in 2014 when Elliott asked Agnew to play bass for a Critens show. It didn't stop there.

Agnew added: "Inevitably, you put a couple chemicals together, they're going to react."

Check out the following Q and A with Agnew:

*** Growing up in your family, you guys had your fingers on a lot of different styles of music. And obviously, The Damned are gonna be one of the main ones in there. There's touches of Damned all over the place. So what's it like playing on a record and knowing Scabies and Paul Gray, that must be a dream come true for you, and especially your brothers have gotta be stoked?

Alfie: Oh yeah, absolutely.

Sean Elliott, the Madman, is a longtime friend and huge Damned fan, and same here. We would sit around and talk about in early forms of the project, kinda like, 'Yeah, wouldn't this be perfect if we had 'The Black Album's' rhythm section playing for us?' etc etc. And then, within a couple of years, it was happening (laughs). It's hard to explain, I mean we just kinda giggle when we talk about it because it's just so perfect.

First of all, our writing style is really complementary to their style. But also just the fact that we're big fans of that rhythm section. Yeah, you couldn't script it any better. We just go, 'Wow, how lucky are we?'

*** Just me hearing about it and knowing your guys' pedigree, I'm stoked. So for you to actually be in the middle of it, wow, what a perfect match.

Alfie: When I told my brothers about it, they just kinda looked at me like, 'Are you joking?' (laughs)

*** That's what I thought. I can see you guys all sitting around, just going 'What the hell?'


*** Right out of the gate, the first song ('Nightmare'), you can hear Paul Gray's signature clanky bass.

Alfie: That Rickenbacker sound. It's the same exact bass guitars that he's using on those recordings -- he kept those Rickenbackers the whole time. You know, with all their imperfections and glory, it just gives it that trademark, like you said.

That first track in particular: although that track, Sean and I played that, he wrote it and played it back in '80s in DI before I left the band, so it's not that we contrived it to be a 'Black Album'-sounding song by any stretch. I probably didn't have 'The Black Album' in my head when it was written, but it just goes to show how much of a general influence that material was.

And fast forward to the last couple years, when we contacted Paul Gray and said, 'Hey, what do you think about playing on a couple of our tracks? We've got Rat playing on them, and we just think it would sound perfect if you did as well.' 'Nightmare' was the first one that we sent him, because we thought, 'OK, if we get him to agree with one, that would be the obvious one,' because, like you said, it's just the perfect palate for him to go and do his thing. And we were right: he sent it back with just a quick little bass line and a note saying, 'Yeah, this is really cool, tell me more.' And we heard it and we went, 'Aww, my God,' it was more Paul Gray than we expected. And it was like, OK, immediately scrap the old bass line that I put down or whatever, we gotta have him in here, this is turning out exactly like we imagined-- if not better.


*** ('Nightmare') It's got an OC style and it's got a Damned style and you put those two together... even hearing early Adolescents and TSOL and stuff like that, that's got Damned imprinted all over it. It's in there somewhere.

Alfie: Obviously, The Damned's gotta be at the top of the list in terms of influence. But in terms of local influences, obviously, the Adolescents 'Blue' album, but a huge one for me in particular, but also Sean, is the TSOL 'Dance with Me' album. That was huge. And to some extent also, the 'Only Theatre of Pain' Christian Death album. Ron Emory, I always dug his guitar style; his chord choices and his playing was very different from most of the punk bands that were around at that time. And I think that's what made their work really attractive. If you listen to some of the songs off 'Dance with Me,' (like) 'The Triangle,' try to figure it out on guitar and it's not just kind of running barre chords up and down the neck, he's doing some interesting stuff.

*** Obviously, we all loved the first (TSOL) EP, and then when that came out, it was like, 'Forget the first EP,' this is insane. Thinking back on it, it didn't really freak anybody out too much in that it was taken up a notch and in a different territory. It was almost just like, we're just along for the ride no matter what, 'cause it's just so damned good. I loved the guitar parts, like you said, I was always intrigued by that, and (Mike) Roche's bass is just crazy on a lot of those songs too. The whole thing, it was just the perfect album. 


*** What was a thing or two that you learned from those experiences playing in DI and other bands that you're able to apply to where you're at now? It's many years, but I'm sure there's some things that kind of paved the path for you.

Alfie: I think probably what's informing the Professor and the Madman project the most from those years is probably my early early experiences with punk. So going back before things started going into the hardcore, and punk was very much kind of finding itself, you know, not well-defined yet. So I was probably a very young kid at this point, a little kid, literally, and just hanging out with my older brothers, going to these really impromptu gigs and stuff like that, and parties, as kind of a little-kid mascot.

The thing with punk back then is that unlike when it started to evolve more into a hardcore-only kind of feel, it was the 'none of the above,' it was the letter D in the multiple choice. Punk was really, out here anyway, it was those people who just said, 'You know what? I don't like the options available to me ... I don't dig disco. Hard rock and prog and all that is cool, but I'm kinda wanting something different, just not feeling it. I wanna do something different and creative and I'm just not the same as these other people, and I don't fit into any of their categories.' So you'd go to a punk party or show and you would see someone with maybe short hair and very bizarre dress, and you would see a rocker-looking guy with hair halfway down his back, you would see some freaks or nerds-- and then everyone just got along and did their thing. And the entertainment was usually like some sort of variety show: you would get a Ramones-like band, and then you would get a guy up there doing weird stuff, some sort of weird poetry performance-art thing, and then you would get some sort of new wavy kind of thing. It was just really tolerant and open and experimental and creative. And it lost that the deeper you got into the '80s.

I think at some point, when I went through my hardcore years, and coming out of that in the late '80s and '90s, I started getting older, I started getting a lot of music experience under my belt. And like TSOL and some of these other bands, I really wanted to expand out, and it became increasingly hard to do so because punk had really become, unfortunately, the thing that it tried to avoid. The thing that led to its creation was that sort of that unpredictable-ness ... it became really predictable. And not tolerant --- it was just like people came to a punk show to see one thing, and if you can't slam to it, go home.

So, I think going back, trying to rediscover that sort of tolerance and creativity to (go) where the passion is currently and not to give a damn. 'Cause back in the early days, you did stuff and sometimes in spite of the conventional.

We decided, 'You know what? We don't care if nobody else on the planet likes what we do.' We're gonna do what we want, exactly how we want it, with who exactly we wanna do it. If we could get Paul Gray and Rat Scabies, that's because they're the perfect people for the music we're writing. Not because of anything else. You know, it's funny, because that's what Social D, the Adolescents and all those early bands did that made them so popular. They did what they wanted to do, there was no punk guide at the time, it was being invented. That's what I think has informed me the most.


*** One of the things that grabbed me first while listening to these tracks was how this could easily have fit in back there in the early days, because it's got a mixed bag of a lot of different styles and influences and attitude. It kind of takes me back to going to see a gig at the Whisky or Godzilla's where there was like 4-5 types of different bands on the bill and you paid attention to each one of them. Maybe you came away with your favorites, but I was just as moved and blown away by maybe the band that wasn't my favorite musically but I liked their attitude or some of the sounds they had going, or even visually. 

Alfie: I think you nailed it, that's absolutely right. That's something I think that was so great about our scene back in the day. It was actually entertaining that way.

So, Professor and the Madman, every single song that we do is because we actually are truly inspired by it and we truly dig it -- it is something we created. We're doing just exactly what we want, and I think what you're hearing on the album -- and different sounds -- are probably those things throughout 49 years, those are the things I think that resonated with us the most. So in some sense, it's a reflection of all our experiences and the things we've enjoyed the most about music.


*** (I rambled on about how I appreciate how the songs of all styles strike you equally.)

Alfie: I'd like to think that there's nothing on there that's devoid of interest. If it's not the story and the lyrics or hopefully musically, there's nothing dull. Anything we found that was a little mundane never got off the cutting-room floor. We really wanted to make sure that everything was quality, that any song on there could be a single, because we don't have to rush these albums out.

This is all just self-indulgence and I think that's when music is the best. It's when somebody comes in and says, 'OK, boys, you gotta start pumping out X, Y and Z at this fast rate because time is money' or something like that... I understand some of the realities of that, but Sean and I are not in a position to need to obey that. We can completely let the music be in charge, because we have day jobs -- we're OK with that now, we don't have to make music for our food. We do it purely for our pleasure and what we hope is the pleasure of the listeners out there.

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