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Professor and The Madmen – Alfie Agnew talks to The Punk Lounge

Professor and The Madman is the sonic masterwork of Alfie Agnew and Sean Elliot (Adolescents, D.I.) who have enlisted the musical creative help of Paul Gray (The Damned, Eddie & the Hot Rods) and Rat Scabies (The Damned, The Mutants) to create a melodic musical journey that you’ve never really experienced all put together like this.  All four members are doing a once-in-a-lifetime show at the legendary 100 Club in London on 10 August. I was lucky enough to be able to chat with Alfie and Rat to get some background on what brought about this fantastic musical collaboration and see if I could get any hints of what we might be in store for when they finally take the stage together in August for the first and only time.  Read on!

 

Erin: Alfie, hello!

Alfie: Hi! How are you doing?

Erin: I’m doing alright. I can’t complain too much!

Alfie: That’s good!

Erin: Thank you so much for taking the time out to chat with me about your amazing band!

Alfie: Sure, no problem.

Erin: I’m just gonna get right into it — how did you guys meet up and form the band?

Alfie: Sean and I go way back.  We go back to D.I., back in the late ‘80s / early ‘90s.  Sean actually replaced me in D.I.

Erin: Oh yeah!  That’s right!

Alfie: At some point, I kind of split off from D.I. to do the school thing and it became impossible to tour and attend classes and take college exams and all that and the band very wisely picked up Sean.  At some point, I think it was in 1990, D.I. was going to do a full U.S. and European tour and Sean couldn’t do the European leg of the tour so they asked me and I agreed. I mean, heck, the opportunity to get a free trip overseas, the school could wait for a while! At that point, he was kind of showing me the newer songs and when I got back, both he and I were in the band at the same time for about a year or something. We did a lot of road trips in the States after the European tour and we just clicked right away, both personality-wise and musically.  Sean is a really talented, creative guy, and I’m not too shabby myself, so it was clear that if we put our heads together we could do some pretty cool stuff. But life and school and things kind of took me away again, but we remained friends even though we weren’t in touch a whole lot in between then and 2014. In 2014, he reached out to me because he needed someone to fill in on bass for this old band he had that he kind of pulls out of the closet for fun once in a while. He needed someone to play a gig on a Saturday and he called me Thursday night: “Here are the songs, can you come play them with us on Saturday?  We aren’t going to have the time to practice or anything.” And here I am saying, “Hey Sean, I haven’t played in like 20 years! He goes, “Oh nonsense! You’ll be fine!” And then he hung up on me! So, I showed up on Saturday, with a bass, which as you know isn’t even my primary instrument and we pulled it off and it was great and we realized the magic was still there. He then said, “You’ve got to join us permanently!”  I thought, alright, sure! In this band, we play a lot of covers and it’s just for fun. Inevitably, whenever he and I get together it’s, like “Hey, I have this new riff,” and “Hey, I have this idea for these lyrics,” so pretty quickly we were writing original tunes again and figured we have to do something with our originals, just like we should have done back in the early ‘90s.  There was a 20-year delay but Professor and the Madman were born.

Erin: So how did you get to know Rat (Scabies) and Paul (Gray) and get them involved?

Alfie: Sean and I have always been massive Damned fans.  My first sounds and images of punk rock were the first Damned album.  You know, I’m a 7-year-old kid hanging out in my bedroom and my older brother Rikk brought in the first Damned album and said, “Alfie, you gotta check this out!” And I looked at the cover and there’s Captain with cake all over his head and Rat licking it off so you can imagine to a spirited 7-year-old that this was like the coolest thing in the world.  We put on “New Rose” and the music totally matched. That made a HUGE impression. It started a lifelong love for punk rock. Sean has also always been a massive fan of the Damned, and just the sound of the Damned has always been a part of our musical ideas. In particular, we were getting a little older and a bit more seasoned musically when The Black Album came out, and that’s when Paul was in the band.  Sean and I agree Rat & Paul might be the best rhythm section in punk, if not in all of the music, in relation to what we like.  There’s something about how those two sound together! Rat really riding heavy on cymbals like a freight train, and Paul just all over the neck with his Rickenbacker sound. 

Erin: Yes! That foundation!  Very melodic.

Alfie: Super melodic!  As fate would have it, we were playing a buddy’s venue with that one band I mentioned that did the punk covers, they were called the Critens, and it turns out that a friend of ours from the area, Darren McNamee, who is the singer from Electric Cool-Aide is buddies with Rat.  When Rat comes over to California for the Mutants, he will often spend a couple of days with Darren. Darren comes to our shows, we go to Darren’s shows, and Darren brought Rat along at some point and we played “Smash It Up” and “Disco Man” as part of the set and afterwards Darren introduced us and we said to Rat, “If you wanna grab the sticks and play “Smash It Up” to close the set you’re more than welcome to!” Here’s a couple of fans from thousands of miles away just putting him on the spot and he’s like, “Yeah, no problem mate!”  He came on, did great and pretty much made my year.  Sean later asked Darren for Rat’s number as we were recording and wanted to know if he wanted to meet us at our studio.  Rat was like, “Sure, why not?”  He came to our studio and he played on “Devil’s Bargain” from the album Good Evening, Sir! and just nailed the song in only one or two takes.  He was just able to capture it. On the way out he says, “If you got any other things going on, I’d be interested.” Rat was heading back to London and we agreed to send the tracks over the internet.  We would send it over to David Allen’s studio and Rat would go over and record the drums and send it back to us. We released the first album Good Evening, Sir! in 2016. A few months later we released the second album Elixir II: Election. Around Christmas of 2016, Sean and I were talking about how fantastic it was having Rat on board and the only thing that could make it perfect is if Paul Gray was in the mix as well! Sean reached out to Paul through social media and Paul came back and asked us to send some tracks and he would check them out. Sean sent him the song “Nightmare,” and Paul sent it back with a bassline.

Erin: How cool is that?

Alfie: I know!  We then told him we’ve got a lot more if you’re interested. For our third and latest album, Disintegrate Me, Paul is on the whole thing.  We put a lot of time and effort into this album. And that is kind of the story of getting them on board.

Erin: Crazy!  That is a really good story!  It’s totally one of those dreams-can-come-true scenarios!  When and why did you start playing music?

Alfie: Wow.  You know, to be honest, I have no memories of NOT playing music.  In my family, there’s my eldest brother Rikk, then my sister Toni, then another brother, Frank, and finally me.  Rikk kind of led the charge. He got into music when he was a teenager and was pretty much a natural at it.  He can play any instrument. He’s about ten years older than me, Frank is about five years older than me. Frank started playing to kind of give Rikk someone to jam with.   By the time I came along, Rikk was playing guitar and keyboards, Frank was playing the bass, and they needed a drummer to complete the trio.  My first instrument was actually drums!  At some point, I lost my drum set but that’s another story. Without an instrument, I turned to guitar because we had a couple of guitars at the house.  It was something I could play without having to buy anything. I can’t remember never playing an instrument and I also can’t remember ever NOT writing songs. It’s just something I did.  

Erin: Just second nature.  Something you’ve always done?

Alfie: ALWAYS.  If we were bored, we would go grab the older beater acoustic and start playing around with notes and sounds, and then it would start to build up and make sense, and all of a sudden you had a song.  It’s kind of weird.

Erin: I know you and all of your siblings are musically diverse.  That’s so cool to be able to grow up in a family like that where it’s almost some type of amazing genetic mutation that you are all interested and musically gifted from birth.  Who are your major influences? What is inspiring you today?

Alfie: TONS of influences, because as you might know, if you’re into playing music you’re into listening to music and I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t listening to music.  To this day, I have music on all the time. If not, I’m writing or playing music. I’m used to that. I would say early on, I was HUGELY influenced by the ‘60s. The British Invasion, the Beatles obviously, the Kinks were a huge influence, and even stateside the Beach Boys.  I remember listening to a lot of that stuff. Before punk hit the scene, I was very into progressive rock stuff. Bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and Genesis — just prog rock stuff that was around at the time.  Rikk was pretty much my main source of music and most of my influences came through him early on.  Throw the Monkees in there, David Bowie, that’s kind of what I remember off the top of my head. Then, when punk came around, my main influence was the Damned and they were sort of the big craze. In Orange County, it seemed that that Damned were sort of number one.

Erin: Wow! Really?

Alfie: Yeah!  Which was kind of unusual.  I don’t know what it was. Something funny about Orange County.  Most of the people I talked to it was like, “Oh yeah I love the Damned!”  Which was interesting and I don’t know if it was because they were the first band to release out here or what. The Damned were just always the most attractive to me. They had more atmosphere and personality. I like the Sex Pistols, I like the Clash, but they were a little bit more one dimensional.

Erin: Yes!  Exactly.  The Damned have always been able to do something a bit broader and it’s so melodic and in certain parts theatrical and it’s able to hold your attention and leave you wanting more or to see what they are going to come out with or develop next.

Alfie: Yes. You mentioned the melodic part about it.  If you compare the sort of heyday of Orange County and Los Angeles, you listen to a band like the Circle Jerks and Black Flag, which are characteristically L.A., and then you listen to bands like the Adolescents and T.S.O.L., which are characteristically Orange County and they are MUCH more melodic. They use backing vocals but are still incredibly edgy.  If you’re familiar with T.S.O.L.’s Dance with Me album, the music is a bit more creepy and instead of just pounding out power chords there’s a mood set to it.  I liked a lot of bands like the Mission U.K., Sisters of Mercy, Siouxsie and the Banshees, you know that moodier, darker stuff. Some of the hardcore bands as well.  Even going back to early punk, I should say I was a huge fan of Generation X. My list of influences is pretty long. As I’ve gotten older, I listen to a lot more jazz and Avant-garde stuff. Sort of filling things out rather than kind of picking up new things, to be honest. I still listen to a lot of punk. In the ‘80s, when I was a teenager, I went through a hardcore phase ‑ GBH and bands like that. I really loved all the ‘70s and ‘80s punk. Pretty much, whatever floats my boat. Even stuff as diverse as, let’s say, Massive Attack.  I love them. I probably wouldn’t have been into it as a 14-year-old mohawked guy but that’s the great thing about punk for me; it’s what I like and everyone else can sod off!

Erin: Exactly!  I find the best thing about getting older is not caring or giving a shit what anyone thinks, especially about my diverse taste in music!  Your album Disintegrate Me which was released in February, I thought it was such a musical landscape because you open with “Nightmare” which is so raw and fast, then you have “Wishes” which by the way is probably my favorite song on the album, it’s so melodic with jangly guitars, and then you’ve got slower, moodier numbers like “Space Walrus,” and even a country number, “Demented Love Song”!  I think that one is brilliant! You explained a bit earlier about how the songs came about with your rhythm section, but how did you and Sean come up with such a musically diverse album? Was it everyone contributing a little bit of what they are into or what?

Alfie: I think it’s a reflection of our tastes and how many ideas are contained within each of us.  About 90% of Sean’s influences are mine as well, so it’s kind of whatever mood we’re in. “Demented Love Song” is a good example.  When I had originally written and demoed it, it sounded more like a country-leaning Crowded House song. Then, Sean being the Madman is like, “That’s great Alf, but a cute little love song ain’t gonna cut it! Let’s put a warped sensibility in there!” We always collaborate so after he got a hold of it, he had changed some of the musical elements, and I loved it and then he came back with these different lyrics about a well-meaning, almost lovable but demented stalker!

Erin: Which is great!  It really is!

Alfie: Oh, absolutely!  “Machines” and Nightmare” are examples of songs I wrote with a band like D.I. in mind. There are times when I wake up and I have a lot of energy and I’m like, “I wanna pound out some power chords with a lot of distortion!”  “Space Walrus” was a song that Sean really took the lead on and we called it “Space Walrus” because it’s actually a combination of “Space Oddity” by David Bowie and “I Am the Walrus” by the Beatles!  When you listen to the keyboard at the very beginning it’s that same kind of droning organ at the beginning of “I Am the Walrus.”  And he made no bones about it. The lyrics are a complete rip-off of “Space Oddity” and that’s on purpose ‑ it’s more of a comic song than anything.  I like a lot of melancholy, jangly pop. That’s one of my favourite types of music. “Wishes” was just an outgrowth of me liking that. “Electroconvulsive Therapy” shows more of Sean’s darker side with the screaming and the story and all that.  A psychiatrist might say we have problems or multiple personalities.

Erin: And that’s how you get the personalities out is through writing music!

Alfie: Then we send it over to Paul and Rat and they turn it into something awesome!

Erin: You and Sean write all the songs and then Rat & Paul contribute the bassline and drum track then?

Alfie: Yes. We demo out the bass and drums as Sean plays those instruments, just to give them an idea and then we send tracks over with that stuff missing and we say, “Do your thing!” They go ahead and do their interpretation and it is not a small addition. What they add in is better. What they add is not what ANYONE else could add.

Erin: It’s completely unique.  Is this the final chapter in the series of the albums you’ve done?

Alfie: I sure hope not.  

Erin: OK, good!  I saw something on your Facebook or band webpage that this was the third in the series of albums you guys have been doing, so I was wondering if it’s a final or ongoing chapter or what.  Are you planning on doing more?

Alfie: We probably have enough material to go in and record three more chapters of the series, to be honest.  Again, writing is kind of compulsive for us. The only reasons we don’t have six albums out is a because of a lack of time and money. We’ve already started thinking about which material we want to put together for the fourth album.  To be honest, Disintegrate Me was really the first album we did right, so to speak, in regards to the publicity/marketing, putting a live show together, etc.  Between the band and our day jobs, all of our time is taken up, unfortunately. We haven’t made much progress on the next album yet but we will.  We’ve gotten away a little bit from having the songs strongly themed from album to album.  I don’t know if you’ve heard the first album but it’s very goth, and there’s a string throughout it that is basically a Faustian tale.  Guy sells his soul and at the end, the devil wants his payback. That story runs through the whole album. It’s almost like a soundtrack in that way.  The second album (Elixir Vol. II: Election) is inspired by a movie that both Sean and I really love, “The Dead Zone,” which is based on a novel by Stephen King.  Great role for Christopher Walken, who plays a lovable character for a change! Martin Sheen plays this kind of insane but popular politician, and then Christopher Walken’s character is in a car accident and when he comes to he realizes he has psychic abilities and can see everyone’s futures — how they will die and things like that.  He basically sees Martin Sheen’s character pushing the big “red button” and ending the world, just a crazy dude. Not so crazy nowadays though is it?

Erin: Scarily, no. I’m not unhappy that I’m no longer living in the United States, I can tell you that for sure.

Alfie: I don’t blame you.  

Erin: It’s like a really bad joke.

Alfie: Or bad dream!

Erin: Exactly!  A bad dream is a much better analogy.  

Alfie: I feel you there.  The funny thing was that while developing this concept, probably winter or spring of 2016 when Trump became a REAL candidate, we were going by “The Dead Zone,” and we wrote this kind of story based on THAT.  Basically, this guy going up through the political ranks and having his idea of his “destiny” and sort of getting there. Then the song “Cell” at the end kind of talks about his disintegration when he ends up pushing the button and hanging himself. All throughout the album is this story based on that and then when the album came out, which was literally on Election Day (November 6,) 2016, Trump got elected.  Everyone that listens to the album says, “Oh wow! You wrote that about Trump!” No, we wrote that BEFORE. Not saying that we have a sixth sense but it’s a very strange coincidence. The latest album doesn’t really have a theme like that. You have a guy that’s going through these different things and it’s much looser. I’m not sure if we’re going to get back to the themes or go in another direction like we did with the last album.

Erin: I’m sure it will be fantastic no matter which direction you guys take it in.  I know you’ve got the big show coming up August 10 at the legendary 100 Club in London. Your Facebook band page states it’s the only time the studio lineup (Alfie, Sean, Paul and Rat,) will ever play live, so how did you guys put this together?

Alfie: Madman (Sean,) just started contacting people and reaching out like he does.  By far, our biggest fanbase is in the U.K. Not surprising really! Sean and I had always thought that our music would translate better overseas.  Things are far more categorized over here in the States, and that’s why I found myself not really feeling “inside” the punk scene out here as much.  That’s not true of everybody. Most of the people who were into punk either much later or much earlier get it. (The band’s music.) The ones that kind of just showed up during the hardcore phase just to go to shows and fight and whatever, I don’t really relate to those people as much.  They’re out of it completely or have a very narrow view of music.

Erin: And if you write or play anything outside of what they think that music scene is “supposed to be,” you’re immediately outcast, which I never agreed with or condoned.

Alfie: It makes no sense.  It’s exactly the same nonsense I went through when I was a young punk, getting yelled at by passersby and stuff like that.  So, they’ve become the non-punks to the early punks! It’s really ironic, that spirit that is so not punk.

Erin: They are missing out on so much AMAZING music!

Alfie: They really are!  I think it’s more of a character flaw and by some ironic twist of fate, they just latched onto punk to have their non-punk character flaws come out. I think our band has translated well in the U.K. going by sales and the reception to the music, and it’s going well in Europe and even in Australia.  They “get” it.  People over here get it as well, not to be too harsh on the U.S., I’m just saying I’m not sure it’s going to satisfy the person who’s most self-claiming to be punk right now!  I’m sorry, what was the original question? (We start laughing.)

Erin: How did you guys put the big 100 Club show together?  How did you decide to play at the 100 Club?

Alfie: Right.  We thought it was a no-brainer to try and do a U.K. show as that was realistically the only way we could get the studio lineup live.  Paul doesn’t do a lot of travelling. Just like getting Paul and Rat on board in the first place, we always had the idea that if we could go over there and do a show that is convenient for them we’d jump on it.  Of course, everyone that likes the band would like to see that happen, so that’s another thing that motivated us. I should give a shout out to Kevin Shepard who’s been unbelievably helpful to us and been as good of a friend to the band as one can have, and he ultimately got us in contact with the 100 Club.  From what I’ve been told, they heard the music and said, “Yeah! That sounds great! Let’s put on this show!” Sean and I have just been busy trying to make it happen and it’s going to happen, it looks like!

Erin: I’m super excited to hopefully make it to your show as my husband’s band is on tour during then and plays the 100 Club the night after you and I’m trying to convince him to make sure we get to London a bit early to catch you guys playing!  I’m trying to make it coincide with his tour schedule haha!

Alfie: Fantastic!  That would be great.

Erin: I’ve heard you will be recording this show and releasing it as a limited edition vinyl LP, right?

Alfie: Yes.  They have a great soundboard so why not run the mics through the board and record it?  Sean and I have a studio back here and as long as everything goes off well technically, we can edit and fix it and make sort of a sonic memory of it if people are interested!  Sean has a pledge going (https://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/liveat100club ,) to see if there’s enough interest and we will produce it, print it out on vinyl and all that good stuff and it would be a great way to capture it.

Erin: That will be super, super cool and I’m keeping an eye out for that!  OK, this is my last question. How do you think the internet enhances or destroys the creativity of the mind?  

Alfie: WOW.  Ok, great question.  I think the enhancing part is really easy; pretty much in any field, having such wide-ranging exposure to so much raw data about a particular topic is a great thing.  During the day, I work in mathematics and I have access to most of the world’s ideas.  A lot of times people have ideas that are parallel, and, for example in science, it might take 80 years for one to realize that the idea or theory was published in some small, Austrian journal and you might not have ever discovered it and now it’s easily found in several clicks. Of course, like everything, there’s a flipside to that. In some sense, it makes it easier for large institutions to target and feed people that aren’t maybe looking around or looking more into what they’re individual interests are.  It could have a homogenizing effect at the same time. I have faith that there are enough human beings interested in their own existence that will always look to the left and to the right of what they’re being fed. Everything just happens on a much larger scale. Just the volume of information has changed. I think at the end of the day, the effect of it will be based largely on the individual and the character that they have at that moment in time. I think Professor and the Madman is a good example. There would be one song with Rat and that’s it, without the internet. There’s just no way to afford flying back and forth to do tracks and edits.

Erin: Well perfect!  Thank you so much for taking the time to have this fantastic chat and I hope to see you play in August!

Alfie: Thank you so much!

 

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