Friday, February 23, 2018

From Punk to Ph.D. and Back Again: A Chat with Alfie Agnew of Professor and the Madman

Left to right: Rat Scabies, Sean Elliott, Alfie Agnew and Paul Gray of Professor and the Madman (photo courtesy of Prime Mover Media)

There are supergroups, and then there are SUPERGROUPS.

Quite possibly the best band to spring out of the legendary Orange County, CA music scene in recent years, Professor And The Madman was formed in 2015 by guitarists Alfie Agnew (D.I./The Adolescents/Crash Kills Four/The Critens) and Sean Elliott (D.I./Mind Over Four/The Critens). The band’s extraordinary third album, Disintegrate Me, finds the duo joined by one of the greatest rhythm sections of all time – Damned bassist Paul Gray (UFO/Eddie And The Hot Rods) and former Damned drummer Rat Scabies (The Mutants/Sonny Vincent).

Co-produced by the legendary David M. Allen (The Cure/The Damned/The Sisters of Mercy) and released today on the band’s own Fullertone Recordings label, Disintegrate Me is as incredible as the personnel list suggests. It is an album that effortlessly stands alongside the greatest records unleashed during the early 80s heyday of SoCal Punk (The Adolescents’ self-titled “Blue” album, T.S.O.L.’s Dance With Me, Christian Death’s Only Theatre Of Pain, 45 Grave’s Sleep In Safety) and showcases everything that fans of the Gray/Scabies sound first fell in love with nearly 40 years ago.

Disintegrate Me represents a major creative milestone for Agnew, who returned to music earlier this decade following a 20-year absence that saw him pursue a career in academia. (Currently, he is a Professor of Mathematics at Cal State Fullerton.) His introduction to Punk came in the late 70s thanks to his brothers, Rikk (The Adolescents/D.I./Christian Death/Social Distortion/Gitane DeMone Quartet) and Frank (The Adolescents/T.S.O.L./45 Grave/Social Distortion/Legal Weapon). He recently took a break from his demanding schedule at the university for the following interview.

It really seems like this record is the one you’re pushing forward the most with the band. Why is now the time to really step up this project and focus a lot more attention on it?

It’s kind of part of the whole evolution of the project. Sean and I hooked back up after a long time. We were in D.I. together; he and I overlapped [in the band] in the early ‘90s and really hit it off musically and personally. It was good collaborating with him, but then we went our separate ways. He actually hit me up to play bass for a gig he was doing around 2014. Out of that, we kind of [thought of] doing some collaboration on some original music. We talked about it and played around with it, but we really started getting to work probably in 2015. We started writing a bunch of songs and bringing stuff to the table and collaborating. Then, a sort of strange thing happened; at a gig we were playing [with The Critens], Rat Scabies was there. At that show, we covered ‘Smash It Up;’ both Sean and I are huge Damned fans. He ended up coming on stage and playing it with us, which really kind of made my year! Sean and I were in the midst of recording our first Professor and the Madman record; Sean said, ‘Hey, Rat. We’ve got some stuff that we think would be right up your alley. Why don’t you come out to Alfie’s studio and lay down some tracks?’ He’s all, ‘What the heck? Let me come by!’ He really dug the music and dug playing. He kind of joined up with us and did that first album [Elixir 1: Good Evening, Sir!], which we released in the summer of 2016. Then, we released another one [Elixir II: Election] with Rat on Election Day in 2016. 

That December, Sean reached out to Paul Gray. Our favorite rhythm section is probably Paul Gray and Rat – The Black Album, the Friday 13th EP, Strawberries. We were like, ‘Holy cow! How would this song sound if you had both Paul and Rat on there?’ Sean, being the madman he is, just reached out to Paul on Facebook and said, ‘Paul, you don’t know me that well, but what do you think of us maybe sending you some tracks and seeing if you want to play on these?’ We sent him the ‘Nightmare’ song, and his reply was basically a quick do-up of what he would do on it. We were like, ‘Holy cow!’ We knew it would be pretty special. He was like, ‘Yeah, I love it, man! It sounds good.’ Our all-time favorite rhythm section was on board for the third album; we were like, ‘Maybe there’s something to this.’ Before, it was Sean and I. We’re really creative people; we compulsively write music and work well together. We were just going to write stuff and put it out because it was 2016 and we could do it so cheaply without needing a record label. We really didn’t care too much about pushing and publicity and all that, but once we started seeing the direction it was going with Rat and Paul joining up – early reviews of our stuff were pretty positive – we thought, ‘Maybe we should take it seriously.’

When was your first introduction to The Damned and specifically that rhythm section?

I might have been seven or eight years old, and Rikk brought that first album in my room and said, ‘Alfie, you’ve got to hear this!’ I was 10 years younger than Rikk, but he was always sharing stuff with Frank and me and turning us on to new music. As a little kid, I was just tripping out at the cover of that first Damned album with Captain [Sensible] covered in cake and Rat licking it! When The Black Album came out, I remember Frank saying, ‘Al, you’ve gotta hear this!’ 

I loved Rat’s style, especially as it started to evolve from the early raw stuff to The Black Album and Strawberries through to Phantasmagoria. He started refining his style a lot. He still had that energetic ‘I’m going to ride on my crash cymbal’ kind of style, but his fills and things like that started to get more refined. It was a bit Jazzy in a way; he started incorporating some real tasty drumming. He would take what was happening vocally into account and really synched up with the bass. To me, Rat started hitting his peak around The Black Album. And Paul Gray…I’ve never heard him not be incredibly creative with his bass playing. The Rickenbacker sound completely suits him. He reminds me a lot of Paul McCartney, which might be surprising to some people. Paul can’t sit still on his fretboard; he’s always moving.

How much opportunity have the four of you had up to this point to physically be in the same room together?

Believe it or not, zero! (laughs) Rat, Sean and I have been in the same room together, but really only for a couple of songs off the first album. Then, Rat went back home to London. When he’s out here doing stuff with The Mutants, we’ll hook up with him and stuff, but he hasn’t been out here a whole lot. So just a little bit with Rat and not at all with Paul. We’ve been to old Damned shows and we’d meet him, but we haven’t sat down in a room with Paul this millennium. There’s a lot of email communication; we’ve done some Skyping with Paul and Rat. I think it’s all on our minds that if Sean and I can get out to the UK and get some interesting shows lined up, there’s a definite possibility that the four of us would do live shows. Stateside, we have a different live lineup with Sean and me, my brother Frank and a couple of other people because it’s not practical to fly Paul in and Rat out and deal with work visas, which is not trivial nowadays. It’s very much an internet-age collaboration.

How active is the current live band you have in the States?

We’re not super active; we play probably an average of a show a month. With this third album, like you’ve noticed, we’ve really been raising it to a new level, both in terms of production and PR and stuff like that, That’s taken a lot of time between Sean and me; we both have day jobs. The live band is something that we’ve been slowly getting together. We pretty much think we have the right personnel now stateside; we got together a group of people who have that weird combination of being gifted enough to be able to play music of that complexity so that it sounds something like the album live, but at the same time they are able to be in the same room together and not want to kill each other! (laughs) That’s a tough thing; musicians aren’t always able to get along. We’ve been hitting it pretty hard; we just had a four-hour rehearsal last night to really get some of the new stuff down. I think we’re going to start pushing that aspect of it more.

There was a long period where you weren’t doing music. I guess Crash Kills Four was your first jump back into it –

That’s exactly right.

Here we are in 2018, and you’ve got this album and you’re doing press. If you compare 2018 to, say, the early 90s, what have been the biggest changes in how a band like Professor and the Madman can market themselves and do records?

It’s funny; some things have become a lot easier, and there are things that have become a lot more difficult. I’m still learning a lot about this, to be honest. First of all, just the whole DIY thing wasn’t easy to do back in the 80s and 90s. If you wanted to release records for real, you needed to be on some kind of corporate label, really. If you were willing to go more underground – like Epitaph back in those times – you could kind of do that, but there really wasnt wide distribution and wide exposure. Particularly in Punk, you were stuck dealing with very local, subsidiary-at-best labels. 

With PR for that genre I was in, it was more about subculture or specialized magazines; the readership wasn’t that wide. Punk remained rather small for a long time because of that, even though it clearly had some appeal because by the time it diffused out to the wider world and so-called ‘normal’ people, they adopted it. Now, every frat boy and sorority girl has piercings and tattoos and listens to edgy music. (laughs) We were just a little too early – before you had bands like Green Day, which became very large and successful from a commercial point of view. The difference now is that you don’t need all of that; you can be your own record label. You can just get some relatively inexpensive gear and make your own album. That is a big plus. That’s the way Sean and I did Professor and the Madman. 

One of the things we never liked, even when we were having some success with D.I. and other bands, was that you always had to give up artist control, and that’s just miserable. We wanted to have the first, middle and last say on everything regarding Professor and the Madman, and we were able to do that because it’s cheap to produce recordings now. Whatever costs there are, we can cover that because Sean and I both make a living. That’s the good thing; the other side of it is that everyone else can do that, too! (laughs). From a PR perspective, it’s really hard to rise above all the noise out there. There’s a lot of good stuff out there, and that’s a great thing. As a consumer, this is just fantastic. It’s such a blessing that it’s almost a curse. Everything’s out there; all you have to do is go on the internet, and you don’t even have to pay. (laughs). I think the challenge really is PR. Also, producing income is something you just can’t do with record sales anymore. Unless you’re selling millions, that’s just not a source of income. You have to do extensive touring and sell merchandise or maybe do these GoFundMe-type things. That’s where the artist can actually fund their music.

Last summer was the 30th anniversary of The Adolescents’ Brats In Battalions album. That ’86/’87 era was an interesting time for a lot of bands in the California scene. There was that first blast in the early 80s with those classic album, but then different bands moved on to do different things. The Adolescents reformed in ‘86/’87. In some ways, that era kind of gets overlooked. How do you characterize where things were – not only with The Adolescents, but with the entire Orange County Punk scene – during that period of time?

That’s actually very perceptive, because it was changing a lot. It was definitely a new generation. My brother Rikk’s generation were starting to figure out Punk in ‘76/’77 – not only homegrown stuff, but all the way to the UK scene. From what I remember from the very early days in the late 70s – because Rikk would sneak me into shows when I was nine or something because he knew the bouncers – it was more like variety shows than like six Hardcore bands for six 30-minute sets. You would have all sorts of strange, different people. In a given night, you might see Black Randy and the Metrosquad and The Screamers and then maybe a couple [of bands] that would later be known as Hardcore Punk or something. My teenage years were around, say, ’83 to ’88. Punk had changed a lot, particularly in Southern California. It started to homogenize. Oddly enough, the whole point of Punk seemed to be to not do that. Inevitably, it did.

I think by the time I came around, the style of music that Punk became locally – Black Flag, Circle Jerks, D.I. – was really kind of that. It had to be faster, it had to be energetic and it had to be somewhat irreverent. You lost that variety, which I think was a real shame. Even in D.I., we had some variety in our tunes, but even that became less acceptable somehow. Think of Mommy’s Little Monster-era Social Distortion. Fantastic stuff, but I noticed when D.I. would play with Social Distortion and we did a particularly heavy and fast set, the crowd would respond much more to us than to what Social Distortion was playing. They’re actually fairly musical; in terms of beats per minute and the speed, they weren’t that fast for the music of the day. While D.I. was kind of increasing the speed and the energy, Social Distortion was doing what they’ve always done and done well. I loved it, but it was blowing me away to see the crowd not responding as much to that stuff. It was the early beginnings of Speed Metal and Slayer and that kind of stuff emerging. There was just more and more speed and energy.

I think Brats in Battalions was a great album – of course, I’m biased because I’m one of the guitar players on it – but it might have done better either later or earlier. I don’t think it quite had the style that was currently preferred in an increasingly narrow Punk scene of  86/’87. When we went on road trips and stuff, it was still very well-received, but I think that had a lot to do with the name ‘The Adolescents.’ They always do well to this day, and I think that’s ultimately because of the ‘Blue’ album and the respect for it.

A lot of the SoCal/Orange County musicians from way back when are still doing music that’s relevant now. There’s T.S.O.L. and obviously Rikk, and then there’s your new record. In some cases, we’re talking about guys who’ve been doing this 40 years. What is it about that particular scene and that particular era that has enabled so many of you to have this level of longevity?

I don’t know; we’re pretty lucky that way. Rikk was such an incredibly powerful and key force in the 80s ‘Alternative’ scene. I think his contributions to the ‘Blue’ album are primary. People know ‘Kids Of The Black Hole’ and ‘Amoeba,’ and that’s right out of Rikk’s brain. He was huge in defining what most people come to think about the ‘O.C. sound.’ Obviously, you have Mike Ness and some other contributors as well, but I think Rikk sits on the top there – and I don’t think that’s just [me] being his brother. He also made a really, really major and early contribution to the Goth scene with Christian Death. When you listen to that music – that first album, Only Theatre Of Pain, is one of my favorites – that was so different from the ‘Blue’ stuff with The Adolescents. If he just did the ‘Blue’ album with The Adolescents, he would be well-known and respected – but then, he turned around and did the Christian Death thing, which was way ahead of its time. Goth wasn’t a thing then. Just the musical style, instrumentation and the gear was completely different from The Adolescents’ stuff. At the time time he was doing that, he was doing the All By Myself solo album, which I’m a big fan of. It was not quite Adolescents but certainly not Goth. He started writing and creating without a certain genre in mind. It’s kind of like Professor ad the Madman and what we do. We couldn’t care less if anyone likes it; we don’t care if we’re not staying in a single genre. We’re absolutely doing music to please ourselves and make it the highest-possible quality. That’s what Rikk was doing with Christian Death and All By Myself. I think he had matured to the point where he was really doing art.

It’s the same thing with Jack [Grisham] and Ron Emory and T.S.O.L. At some point, they got into music, they were young, there was a scene and they wrote for it because it was natural. But like all artists, they started to grow. I think the ones who were really talented and had some good timing became somewhat legendary; therefore, people care. It might be a diminished number – I don’t know – compared to 1982, but I think people care about what those people do even 30 or 40 years later.

I know I do!

Yeah, for sure - me, too! I have to tell you, it pleased me when I listened to the most recent T.S.O.L. album [The Trigger Complex]. Frank played a very key role in that; you can hear him all of the place on that [with] his writing style. He loves 60s Pop, and you can hear a lot of those hooks. I like the fact that they aren’t afraid to sort of do what turns them on, whether that’s 60s Pop hooks or whatever. A lot of musicians – especially ones who are later in their careers – often try to recapture their early sound, but the reality is that you cant. You don’t step in the same river twice, because the waters inside are different now. What made, for example, the ‘Blue’ album magical was they did the right thing at the right time. To try to re-do the ‘Blue’ album would be doing the right thing at the wrong time. If The Adolescents tried to contrive something when they were doing the ‘Blue’ album, they would not have created it.

What’s really hard is that an artist or a musician has to constantly re-prove themselves; they’ll never be able to just re-do what they did before in the future. If you do something more genuine and new, you risk getting booed and all that stuff. That’s why a lot of people don’t do it. From the perspective of Professor and the Madman, we don’t care. If we get booed off the stage, we’re still getting our paycheck at the end of the month from our jobs! (laughs) We really have the freedom financially, but we’re also mature. We’re not trying to make a living off of it. If this album took off and allowed me to retire from my professorship early and become wealthy and make music for a living, would I do it? Of course I would, but I don’t need that to happen, so it really frees me up creatively.

*Portions of this interview were edited for space and clarity. 

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