Posted On 05 Mar 2018
Professor and the Madman’s co-frontmen are Alfie Agnew (The Adolescents, D.I.) and Sean Elliott (D.I., Mind Over Four). P&TM’s studio lineup has Alfie and Sean backed by the legendary rhythm section of Rat Scabies (ex-Damned) and Paul Gray (current bassist in the Damned, ex-Eddie & the Hot Rods, Johnny Thunders, UFO). Since Rat and Paul live in the UK, for live dates Alfie and Sean are backed by Frank Agnew (Social Distortion, 45 Grave, Adolescents, T.S.O.L, Legal Weapon) on bass, Mark Tolbert (Doggy Style) on guitar, and Nick Scalzo on drums.
From their histories, you would expect P&TM to be a full-throttle punk band, but while their new music definitely has a strong punk vibe, it also encompasses British Invasion, Britpop, power pop, and even prog, goth and country.
The group’s debut physical release, Disintegrate Me, (LP/CD/DL) was released on Feb. 23 via FullerTone Records/Alliance Distribution. The album was co-produced by the band and David M. Allen (The Cure, Sisters of Mercy, The Damned).
Learn more about Professor and the Madman in the following All Access interview:
Thanks for your time! Where does this interview find you today? What is one song that you are loving right now? What is a song that you & Sean disagree about loving right now?
Hello! President’s Day holiday in my house in Fullerton, hub of P&TM mania ☺. Yesterday I went to see Steve Soto, Eric Leach, and Greg Antista’s acoustic sets in Downtown Fullerton. Steve and I were reminiscing about all the wonderful time we spent as youngsters honing our chops by doing harmonies from the early Beatles albums. That inspired me to get out my old Beatles vinyl out, and one of my all-time faves, “Yes It Is,” is now pretty much lodged in my brain. I also have Soto’s “Songs About Girls and Earthquakes” going as well. As far as Sean and I disagreeing, we actually have such similar tastes that it’s a challenging question! Probably some of the softer ’80s stuff like Modern English’s “Ink & Paper,” which is a fave of mine. But Sean loves a good hook as well, so I could be wrong on that. I’m partial to goth/dark/moody as well (Gitane Demone, Sisters of Mercy, Mission UK, Bauhaus, Christian Death, darker Depeche Mode, etc.), and I’ve never noticed an interest in that genre from Sean.
How has 2018 been treating you? What is one musical goal that you have for this year?
2018 has been great. We’re really excited to release the new album Disintegrate Me this week. The addition of bassist Paul Gray, who is currently also playing bass with The Damned, has really added something special to the goodness that Sean, Rat, and I were already doing. We really went ‘all out’ on the range of musical styles on the album. I’m excited to see what the reaction will be when we go out and perform it live this month. Other than that, a big goal is to follow it up with another solid release before 2018 is done. Disintegrate Me took a lot of time and effort; it will take a lot to keep up with the torrid release pace we’ve been on for the last year and a half. Three albums in 18 months!
Can you recall the moment when you thought you could be in a band together? Was it hard to come up with a name that you all thought would fit your sound and who you are? How did you pick this one?
In 1990, upon the conclusion of a European tour, my old band D.I. started rehearsals for U.S. dates with Sean rejoining the band. Sean and I hit it off immediately — both musically and personally — and it was really a great time for D.I. I imagine we both thought that we could do something really special musically if we were to start a fresh project, but shortly after that realization, I had to decide between university and touring. I chose to leave D.I. and the Adolescents to go back to school. Fast forward to about 2015, and I had gotten back into performing music thanks to a John Bosco and John Knight punk band called Crash Kills 4. Sean also reached out around that time to see if I would be open to performing in a punk cover band, The Critens. The magic returned immediately. It didn’t take long for us to decide to start a new project that was all ours, and with no predefined boundaries (something we had always been stifled with to some degree). We both liked the good/evil dichotomy concept (Jekyll/Hyde, etc.), and at some point the Professor and the Madman idea came up (possibly via my wife Victoria!), and since Sean is certainly a Madman, that seemed the most apt.
What has the growth been like for this band since first forming?
It’s been huge. We started putting tunes together during Critens rehearsals and then we went into my home studio to work up demos. Next the collaborations with Rat and Paul fell into place. The group took on a life of its own with so many fortuitous developments that we could never have predicted. Three albums in 18 months and now we’re on to live shows.
You are about to release your debut physical release called Disintegrate Me. Can you describe what it was like putting this collection together? Any challenges or unexpected surprises?
Sean and I had the basic concept and demos going for most of the material. Paul getting involved was a massive surprise. When his tracks came back from Cardiff (Wales) we were just blown away. Rat has appeared on all the albums so we were accustomed to getting blown away with the drum tracks he would send from London. I mean, Sean and I realized the material we had written was strong, but those guys really add something very special to the mix. It’s that same musicality and energy you hear when they were together on The Damned’s The Black Album, “Friday the 13th” EP, and Strawberries, when we were all youngsters. Those guys still have ”IT” by the truckload!
Sean and I write a LOT of music, so deciding what to collect together for an album takes some care. Tunes like “Useless,” “Wishes”and “Machines,” we knew we wanted to release asap. Others, like “Electroconvulsive Therapy” and “Space Walrus,” were written or came together at the time we were putting the album together. We definitely like our albums to be a journey, a rollercoaster, not monotone in sound or style or tempo. Lastly, doing collaborations across an ocean is, of course, a challenge, but by no means a problem. We are all savvy enough to leverage the technology, and Rat and Paul are consummate professionals. We all seem to understand the music without saying much. It’s really quite amazing and refreshing.
What was it like working with your producer David M. Allen who has worked with so many well-known bands over the years?
David Allen is a great guy. Smart, interesting, and as you point out, very accomplished. He has great ideas. Sean and I actually co-produced the record with David, so we would stuff back and forth for input regarding the mixes. Rat records his drums with Allen at his studio. Sean was able to get across the pond and meet with him in person. It’s an honor really!
While this may be difficult, can you pick out a few of your favorite tracks on this new album and tell us how they came to be on it?
Love them all (of course), different amounts at different times of the day. But I am really tickled by how “Demented Love Song” came out. I had brought in this upbeat love song, kind of with a Crowded House-goes-country vibe. By the time the Madman (Sean) had put his touch to it, it had turned into a humorous song about a neighborhood admirer who perhaps takes his infatuation a bit too far. I think the track has a lot charm, both musically and lyrically. We added the Brian Wilson/Beach Boys a capella bit right at the last minute, which just adds to the creepiness. “Electroconvulsive Therapy” is another special tune — haunting, mesmerizing, brilliant.
Generally, how do you guys go about putting a song together? Do you work separately or together?
It’s very Lennon-McCartney (massive influences for both of us). The seed idea usually originates with one of us, but we work a lot together. By the time we share these ideas, mull them over, and start demoing ideas in the studio, they really turn into co-written tunes. The other person may add a whole part or lyrics, and/or maybe a key riff or lead. We understand each other musically so we spark off each other’s ideas effortlessly. Most days I wake up in the morning with multiple song ideas in my head. I can’t turn that off. I have far more ideas for quality tunes than actual tunes I’ve completed. But the development of these seeds into full blown completed songs is done together.
Alfie, I am curious to know if you feel like your day job as a mathematician translates over at all to the world of music? Which do you think gives you the most joy right now?
It does translate in some ways. I think my proficiency in both stems from the same source. Mathematics can be thought of as the science of patterns (or even the absence thereof). Music is the sonic version of that. The overlap can be seen in certain patterns that seem to be more natural or preferred (say, certain scales). Similarly, Nature seems to have singled out certain mathematical constructions in their connection to physical reality. Although sometimes I suspect all the patterns show up somewhere in nature, and all sonic patterns (in the right hands) can make music.
What can you tease our readers about your upcoming five area concerts? What can fans expect from one of your live shows?
Perhaps the most important thing to mention is that Rat and Paul won’t be joining us. They live in the UK and have other commitments (Paul is currently touring with the Damend in the UK and Rat is working on a new solo album and has commitments with a band called The Mutants). Although we would love to do a couple of special shows with them on stage, probably in the UK, it really is a studio collaboration. For stateside live shows, Sean and I have put together a strong group consisting of the two of us, my multi-talented brother Frank Agnew (Adolescents, TSOL, 45 Grave, and many more), Mark Tolbert (Doggy Style, Crash Kills Four), and local drummer Nick Scalzo (The Critens). We do a short, memorable, powerful set including tunes from all three of our records. We’re loud and old school and we don’t apologize for it!
What do think ultimately makes for an ideal show for Professor And The Madman?
We’re not snobby but ideally we need a strong sound system. We integrate a lot of instruments (three guitars, keyboard, drums) and a lot of vocals. We use vocal effects at times to match the album as closely as possible, but some venues can’t accommodate all that. The music is much more complex than what we were playing in the old punk days. We are hoping that the wave of positive press we’ve been getting will allow us to put our act on bigger stages where we can have the live act match the album in scope.
How creatively involved were you with the making of your music video for “Space Walrus”?
We were very involved. The lead person was Diana Bird, a really creative and brilliant friend from the local scene. We got together at Hollydale Studios after preliminary discussions, and the three of us hashed out 90% of it right there. Diana and my brother Frank took care of the props, logistics, video editing, etc. It was impressive to watch.
Why do you think FullerTone Records is the right company to represent you and your music today?
FullerTone is a P&TM creation, and it’s absolutely the right vehicle for our music. One thing Sean and I insisted on when forming this band was creative control. When you own your own publishing and your record label, you have the ability to manifest your creative vision. We didn’t want to have to compromise and I believe Disintegrate Me is evidence of that success. Of course, we would be quite happy to rely on the expertise of larger companies at the promotion and distribution level, but it’s not necessary. We want to create great music. Whatever happens after that, we’ll see. We’ve already received requests from outside artist to remix tracks from the album. Robbie Fields from Posh Boy Records was taken by the song “Wishes” and we’ve agreed to release a remix (done expertly by longtime LA producer Geza X) on his label.
How important do you think social media has been to this band? Do all you help to maintain all your sites or is one of you more into it all? Or do you rely on your PR/management team to handle it all?
It’s been very important. Everybody, young and old, pretty much relies on Facebook, etc., to stay up on what’s happening in the music scene. You have to generate interest and try to rise above the noise. We work as a group really. Our PR guy is key though. Sean and I are by no means social media experts.
Who would you love to work with in the future? Who are some of your favorite artists right now? What do you think would be a dream collaboration for this group?
I am very lucky to already have the perfect collaborators. Honestly, as far as I’m concerned, Sean and I will work together as long as we’re above ground. I can say that both of us would like nothing more than to keep working with Rat and Paul. We really believe this is the perfect combination for the songs we write. More locally, I love working with my brother Frank and the rest of the live band. Frank, my other brother Rikk, and Steve Soto, they were all such important figures in my life and in my music. I would love to work with them. I would love to do something with Gitane Demone, a great friend and fellow jazz lover. If I had a “make a wish list” that I could use beyond that … names like Peter Murphy, Damon Albarn, Ray and Dave Davies, David Bowie (sigh…I know), Wayne Hussey, Steve Kilbey, and many more come to mind that are intriguing.
We are living in a trying time right now so I am curious how you think being in this band gives you the most joy in life today? Do you think that music being created today is going to reflect this challenging time?
Yes, the times are strange at best. Big changes are on the horizon, and it’s hard to tell whether they will ultimately be good or bad. I do believe in the human spirit and that basic goodness and decency tips the balance for the (perhaps silent) majority. I think we have to try and demonstrate that on a daily basis. People want that, but it seems to be hard for them to live it, and they need to be shown how. We all need good leaders and mentors, and perhaps there isn’t enough of that right now.
Music absolutely gives me the most joy. I stopped being an active practitioner of music for about 20 years when I was building my academic career, and for all the satisfaction and interest my mathematical career provides, there was a big hole left by the absence of the music. Not to sound too fluffy, but the music provides for my emotional/spiritual self while the math serves the same purpose intellectually. I finally understand what all the talk about “balance” is about.
These days, I don’t notice the music reflecting the times, which isn’t good. Back in the ’80s, music was replete with criticism about the state of the world and of governments, economic inequality, lack of freedoms, etc. It was almost a pleasure to throw on a Duran Duran record to NOT hear about all of that from time to time! As much as I really like and get on well with the younger generation, they are in some ways too respectful of authority and should be more suspicious. As a college professor I appreciate that, but as a citizen, I worry.
What do you hope is the message of your music? What do you hope people continue to take away from your songs? What do you hope they take away from one of your shows?
Our music is a kaleidoscope of feelings, thoughts, stories and textures. It exists more to experience rather than to instruct. It is there for the listener to share in our hopes, fears, anxieties, pleasures, experiences, triumphs, failures, anger. It is there as a ringing phone, waiting for you to pick up and CONNECT with us. A message in a bottle released to prospective listeners.
Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers about yourselves or your music?
As you can see, I can wax on and on, hahahaha! So, I’ll give your eyes a break and leave it here. Thank you very much for the thoughtful and interesting questions! First rate!