Scotland has Belle & Sebastian, Australia has the Lucksmiths and the Pacific Northwest has Math & Physics Club. The Puget Sound darlings share a common aesthetic with the former and a record label with the latter. While they never got out and toured the world to the extent of their colleagues, they’ve been releasing quality records for more than a decade. The Olympia by way of Seattle band (or vice versa) began as a trio, expanded to a quintet and then shrunk back down to a trio and now appear to have settled on being a quartet all the while releasing superbly crafted beautifully melancholy records. The band have just released a compilation that collects their first three EPs and some sundry B-sides. For those of us familiar with the band it’s a great reminder of how good those early songs were and for those not yet acquainted it serves as a great introductory and overview of one of indiepop’s well kept secrets.
Having lived in the PNW for about as long as Math & Physics Club has been around I feel like their records have been like soundtrack to my life up here. I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing them play live many times. After their recent in-store performance at Sonic Boom Records in Ballard I asked them if they wouldn’t mind answering a few questions for this blog. They kindly agreed. I hope you enjoy their insightful answers to my pedestrian questions, and if you happen to be in Seattle this summer the band will play a rare show at the Vera Project on August 8th. Also, be sure to pick up the new compilation In This Together from Matinée Recordings and Fika Recordings.
Do you recognize the Seattle of today compared to the one of 2005 when you released your first EP Weekends Away?
Ethan: It’s different, but we’re different too. You can definitely follow the threads from the past into the present, but I guess recently it’s gotten to be a heavier weave.
Charles: I recently visited Bellingham where I went to college, and I couldn’t remember the last time I was there. It was familiar in that I could still find my way around, and a few of the old shops were still there, but a lot was new and I felt out of place even though I’d lived there for 6 years of my life. Seattle is a bit like that for me now. We’ve taken a lot of time between albums and shows in recent years, and each time we come up for air it feels like I barely recognize the musical landscape.
What has it been like being a band that could be described as twee in a city known for lumberjacks and grunge? Who were some of the bands that you identified with back then?
Ethan: Well, we liked the Posies, the Dharma Bums, Beat Happening, Young Fresh Fellows, Lois, Tullycraft, the Fastbacks, and in a way I think we’ve always seen ourselves as an extension of that part of the local scene, rather than the grunge scene. More Popllama or K than Subpop, if that means anything. Although I guess we don’t sound like any of those bands, they’re part of our culture.
James: I’m really thankful we got the chance to see all those bands growing up. I think we probably learned a lot about the aesthetics of being in a band from watching people like Calvin Johnson or Jeremy Wilson from the Dharma Bums. There wasn’t much separation between the audience and the musicians. There was very few rock star personalities. One minute you’d be standing next to someone watching the show and the next minute they’d be up on stage playing.
Charles: I love how James described it there. I think more than anything we were exposed to bands that respected each other and their audience, and that’s what rubbed off in how we’ve approached being in a band.
Do you think that sounding so different from the what people expected a band from Seattle (or Olympia) to sound like helped you to get recognized in the beginning?
Ethan: I’m not sure if it helped or hurt. We like a lot of the same bands other people like, and that comes out in the music.
Charles: I think it’s fair to say it helped us in the beginning. We probably didn’t sound like a lot of the other demos that landed on desks at KEXP, for example. Sometimes getting people’s attention is half the battle.
The story is that you sent a demo tape to Jimmy at Matinee and quickly became the first American band on the label. What songs were on the demo and why do you think you’re the only band on that American record label? Do you have to speak with an accent when you talk to your label?
Ethan: Our first EP is basically identical to the demo, except we included Love Again on the EP instead of Nothing Really Happened. The demo version of Nothing Really Happened is on the new compilation. I think the story is, Mark Monnone from the Lucksmiths was staying with Jimmy when our demo arrived in the mail, and Mark talked him into giving us a chance.
James: I think that actually is a true story. We should ask Mark and Jimmy to tell us what happened that fabled night. Right when we were joining Matinee another American band called the Fairways was sort of calling it a day. I always loved their music and wished we’d had the chance to get to know them and play a few shows together.
Charles: I think some of that is Mark’s cheeky version of the story, but no doubt he was there when Jimmy got the demo. Whatever the real story, it couldn’t have worked out more perfectly for us. As for why we’re still the only American band on the label, you’d have to ask Jimmy, but if you look around the States there really aren’t a lot of bands doing a similar style of pop, which fits pretty neatly into Matinee’s aesthetic.
How were the first two EPs recorded, were they done by yourselves or did you go into a studio for them?
Ethan: They were mostly recorded at Silvermaple Studio, which is what we called James’ basement, and it consisted of an old computer with CoolEdit, a Mackie PA for preamps and reverb, and a couple of SM57s. The drums for the second EP were recorded in a friend’s basement because he could record more than two mics at a time! Some bits were recorded at Charles’ house, too. We mixed the first EP ourselves, and I think we mixed the second EP too, but our mix was so bad that the mastering engineer told us to redo it. Kevin had all the files on his laptop, but he was leaving for several weeks, so he remixed the whole EP from scratch in a day or two! I actually really like the sound of the early EPs.
James: There really is nothing more terrifying than having Barry Corliss listen to your mix and then point to the door and say come back for mastering when you have it fixed. We really had no idea what we were doing when it came to writing and recording music which was part of the fun. Not knowing how to do something meant there weren’t really any rules.
Charles: Though not following any rules also meant you got sent home to redo it by Barry! My favorite bit of nostalgia about recording those early EPs is that Kevin played the bass drum on Sixteen and Pretty with a spoon because he’d forgotten some piece of drum equipment that day. In all honesty, I used to feel sheepish about the lo-fi sound on the early recordings, but after having worked in a bunch of studios since then, I appreciate that we were somehow able to capture a feeling that’s not easy to replicate.
MAPC was originally five members, but Kevin Emerson (though Kevin still plays drums in the band) and Saundrah Humphrey left after the first album. Besides the obvious we’re now a three piece, how did the band change when they left?
Ethan: Mostly it streamlined our decision making. We’ve always made all our decisions together, so now there are only three people in all the email threads. Usually we figure out the details, and then see if Kevin’s available. And he almost always is. We’ve been playing together for so long, Kevin just knows what to play almost automatically. Before we went into the studio to record California, I think we only rehearsed twice!
James: I’m not entirely sure Kevin isn’t back to being a full time member of MAPC these days. We should ask him sometime!
Charles: At the time Kevin left, I don’t think we quite realized how much the band is really defined by the four of us. We’ve played with other drummers who are our friends and fine musicians, but there’s something about the four of us together that just feels like magic, if you’ll pardon the metaphysics. Luckily we’ve found a way to keep him close. And Saundrah was such a vital part of our early sound that we couldn’t help but change, and I think you can hear the difference in our sound after she left in 2007.
Not many bands stay together for ten plus years. How do you account for your longevity?
Ethan: Well, we’re friends. Some people have poker nights, or they get together to watch football games or something, but we have the band. And because we’re friends, we all know that family comes first, and so we just get together when we can. It’s not always easy, but when we get together, everything just falls into place. It sounds like us, and that’s really satisfying.
James: So there’s laughing and then there’s can’t catch your breath sort of laughing. I’ve probably laughed the hardest over the last ten years hanging out doing stuff with this band. We have a ton of fun when we get together and the music just flows easily for some magical reason.
Charles: I love you guys.
More bands should play in museums. I recently saw the Intelligence play the Frye and it reminded me of seeing you play SAM. I think you even covered the Stone Roses & Razorcuts at that performance. What were some of your more memorable shows in Seattle and elsewhere?
Ethan: We actually got to play our Razorcuts cover with Gregory Webster once! He sang A Is for Alphabet with us at San Francisco Popfest, but sadly the only evidence is a photograph of the top of Gregory’s head!
James: Museums, libraries, record stores, etc. are absolutely some of the coolest places we’ve had a chance to play. Our show at the Seattle Art Museum is probably one of my all time favorite live experiences along with the time we played at the same local public library Charles and I used to go to in Olympia when we were kids.
Charles: I love playing in alternative venues. I wish Seattle had more affordable makeshift music spaces. I’m still hoping to find a boat we can play on! Playing at Bumbershoot in the Sky Church in 2005 is one of my favorites. I couldn’t believe how packed it was, and we were playing on this huge stage and it was weird and wonderful.
I know Charles has been playing in Unlikely Friends with Dave from BOAT, but you included a brand new song (Coastal California, 1985) on the new compilation. So what does the future have in store for MAPC?
Ethan: We recorded another song at the same time as Coastal California, and we’re holding onto that for the future. We have a plan to record some new demos. We’re working up plans for a little tour in the Autumn but I think that’s still a secret. Also, Kevin and I have a side project called Northern Allies, which is more of a new wave postpunk sort of band. But Math and Physics Club seems to turn up opportunities for fun and adventure, which is all anyone can ask for, and it manages to stay alive somehow. I’m so thankful it does.
James: We don’t really have a roadmap drawn for MAPC. We’re just sort of letting it evolve organically and we’ll see where that takes us next.
Charles: Nothing so far has gone according to any plan we could have dreamed up. As long as it continues to be fun, we’ll keep doing it.