Professor and the Madman

History

Here comes the freakout ...

PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN

 

BIOGRAPHY

 

Alfie Agnew - vocals/guitar/keyboards (Adolescents, D.I.)

Sean Elliott – vocals/guitar/keyboards (D.I., Mind Over Four)

Paul Gray – bass (The Damned, Eddie & The Hot Rods, UFO)

Rat Scabies – drums (The Damned, The Mutants)

 

            Rainswept cobblestone streets.  Impending psychosis.  A noose hanging from the rafters.  Violence just beyond the shadows.  All atmospheric touchstones in the world of PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN.  Inspired by Universal horror movies, the literature of Edgar Allan Poe, and the chaos of the world around them, the four veteran musicians who comprise PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN are ready for the curtain to rise on their world debut.  The group comprises co-frontmen Alfie Agnew and Sean Elliott, alongside the legendary rhythm section of drummer Rat Scabies and bassist Paul Gray.

            The origins of PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN reach back to the early 1990s, when both Alfie and Sean were guitarists in the Southern California punk band, D.I.  Playing together, the pair hit if off immediately, both musically and personality-wise.  They both loved punk but also felt confined by its strict parameters.  Sean taught Alfie jazz chords.  Alfie played Sean some of his piano-based compositions.  The two realized they could collaborate and write songs more musically adventurous than the D.I. mold.  But other life pursuits derailed the emerging partnership.   Alfie had been trying to balance touring with D.I. while attending college, but he realized it wasn’t working.  He made the decision to focus on his university studies and in 1994 he left Los Angeles for graduate school at Oregon State University in Corvallis, OR.  He quit playing in bands for the next two decades, although he did continue his musical explorations as a prodigious listener.

            Sean stayed the course.  He has played in bands consistently since grade school.  Sean begins his story: “I grew up in Newport Beach.  I originally started playing guitar when I was about 8 years old.  My first job was as a parking lot attendant at the Balboa Market, where I would make sure tourists didn’t get away with parking their cars for free and heading down to the beach.  My brother gave me a guitar to occupy my time while I would sit out there.  Dick Dale used to shop at that market and every Saturday he would show me something new and he essentially taught me how to play my first chords.”

            Unsurprisingly, Sean developed a love for surf music and already had a band together in sixth grade.  His mother acted as the band’s designated driver, transporting the youths to gigs and waiting outside so she could escort the boys out of the club.  The following year, Sean discovered punk rock and formed The Critens, a punk rock cover band that still plays live to this day.  By 1987, Sean was playing bass and touring with Mind Over Four, a group signed to Caroline Records which began life as a psychedelic punk band before evolving into a more traditional heavy metal group.  The following year found him in D.I., a long-running Southern California punk band with whom he stayed from 1988-1992.  Sean played guitar on three D.I. albums, Team GoonTragedy Again, and Live at the Dive, all on Triple X Records.  In 1995, he regrouped with his former D.I. bassist John “Bosco” Calabro in a new band called Crash Kills Four.  CK4 featured John Knight on drums, who, due to the close-knit nature of the Orange County punk scene, had previously played with Alfie in their middle school band, Almost 21.  After Sean’s stint in CK4, he began composing music for television.  He also found time to return to touring duties with D.I. from 2000-2001. 

            Long after Sean’s departure, Crash Kills Four would be the band that brought Alfie out of retirement.  After earning his PhD in 1999 at Oregon State University, followed by two more years of post-doctorate work at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX, Alfie accepted an assistant professorship in mathematics at Cal-State Fullerton and returned to Southern California in 2001.  In 2010, he rose to the level of full Professor in the department.  Thus was born “The Professor” in PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN. 

            In 2012, his old D.I. bandmate John “Bosco” Calabro found Alfie on Facebook and invited him to pick up his guitar again and record some tracks for a Crash Kills Four album with John Knight.  For the sake of posterity, the longtime punk brethren wanted to put on tape the previously unrecorded repertoire of Almost 21 (all songs co-written by Alfie), and various tunes written by different lineups of Crash Kills Four in the 1990s.  Live shows followed.

            In 2014, stoked to see his old friend back on the scene, Sean asked Alfie to guest on bass for a one-off gig by The Critens.  During the course of rehearsals, Alfie confided that he was again feeling boxed in by the strict punk rulebook of Crash Kills Four.  Sean suggested that they should FINALLY start doing some original music together, either within The Critens or as a completely new combo.  Alfie explains, “Sean and I have always been prolific songwriters, and we write in whatever style fits our mood at that time.  We would need a lot of freedom and control in order to not be creatively stifled, and we vowed never to stifle each other.  So we decided to form a two-man band, PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN, where we would play all the instruments, write all the songs, and answer to nobody but ourselves.  We started demoing a lot of tunes in Garage Band on my laptop.  The model is very much Lennon-McCartney: One of us brings up a song or song idea we’ve written, then we collaborate on it to completion in my studio.  For the most part, we alternate lead vocal duties on our albums.”  He concludes, “We both grew up listening to proper albums, a format that has a beginning, middle and end.  We strive to recreate that experience.  Sean and I use old school techniques to layer effects and odd sounds into the mix.   For maximum impact it’s best to listen on headphones with the volume cranked LOUD.”

            An unexpected third member arrived as a Christmas gift in 2015.  Alfie and Sean were playing a holiday-themed gig with The Critens, introducing The Damned’s “Smash It Up” as an encore, when founding Damned drummer Rat Scabies was coaxed on stage to join them.  Scabies happened to be in town and some friends had brought him to the show.  Alfie, Sean and Rat were exhilarated by the performance.  To such a degree that they all convened at Alfie’s home studio, Hollydale, to take a shot at recording a song together.  Pleased with the results, Rat offered to drum on all the tracks for PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN’s first album.   Sessions were recorded via file sharing.  Alfie and Sean in Orange County, Rat in London. 

            A debut album, Elixir 1: Good Evening, Sir!, was released digitally in July 2016.  It marked only the second time Alfie and Sean had ever played together on the same record (the first being  D.I.’s Live at the Dive, a concert recorded in 1991 but released in 1993).  True to their mission statement, Elixir 1 covered a kaleidoscopic range of styles.  Sean’s “Desperate Man” and “Dearest Foe” are framed by acoustic and electric guitar interplay, both featuring lyrics that express pain, isolation, and impending violence.  “Dearest Foe” is the more intricately crafted of the pair, with Beach Boys harmonies appearing briefly at its midpoint before the guitars ramp up and Sean seeks bloody vengeance.  “I can change your mind from sane to madness,” he threatens, leaving little doubt as to which side of the PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN equation he lands on.  Sean’s “Haunted House” takes a different approach, setting ghostly imagery and a Dr. Jekyll-inspired monologue to a jaunty Britpop beat.  Britpop likely lads Blur are also conjured on Alfie’s “Filmstar,” a Carnivalesque pop tune that shares more than its name with Suede’s famous single. “Devil’s Bargain” expands the sonic palette further with ghostly organ and brief interludes of piano, flute and piccolo.  But before you get the impression that Alfie and Sean have totally forsaken their punk rock roots, set your mind at ease.  Alfie’s “The Snake” is a coiled pop/punk beast built on muscular drumming and undeniably catchy power chords, while “Nightmare,” the album’s single, is an instant Death Rock classic which perfectly recreates the ferocity of classic Southern California punk albums like T.S.O.L.’s Dance With Me (1981) and 45 Grave’s Sleep In Safety (1983).  

            PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN’s second album, Elixir 2: Election, released on November 8, 2016, broadened the themes of the debut.  Sean’s harrowing “Cell” revisits the painful isolation of several of his songs from the first album.  “All alone again, hanging in my basement, waiting for someone to cut me down,” he delivers with despondency.   Elsewhere, Sean rages against the machine.  Writing from the point of view of Greg Stillson, a character in Stephen King’s 1979 novel The Dead Zone, he voices contempt for big money politics on the raging, slash ‘n’ burn pyrotechnics of “President” and “Peace Bombs.”  The lyric “We won’t have enemies any more when I drop my peace bombs” comes across as alarmingly prescient.  Elixir 2’s biggest out-of-leftfield sleeper is Alfie’s “Faces,” a track that sounds like a lost British Invasion rave-up.  Rat’s drumming recalls Keith Moon’s controlled chaos and Alfie delivers a super catchy melody cut from the same cloth as mod-era The Who and The Creation. 

            Alfie’s musical dexterity should come as no surprise when taking his Southern California punk lineage into consideration.  He is the younger brother of Rikk Agnew (Social Distortion, Adolescents, Christian Death, D.I., 45 Grave) and Frank Agnew (Social Distortion, Adolescents, Legal Weapon, T.S.O.L., 45 Grave).  Alfie absorbed his brothers’ passion for music by osmosis, having been immersed in the sounds of The British Invasion, bubblegum and Prog rock, before a cultural shift brought the sounds of CBGB and British punk into their family’s home in Fullerton, CA.  Alfie was soon learning guitar from his brothers, and by the time he hit puberty he was being snuck into concerts at The Starwood in Los Angeles and other punk meccas.  At age 14, already a veteran performer from his time in Almost 21, Alfie joined his brother Rikk in D.I.  and contributed to sessions and played live shows with the band from 1983 to 1987.  Towards the end of his time in D.I., Alfie replaced his brother Frank in Adolescents, recording and touring during the group’s Brats in Battalions period. 

            Which brings us back to the present.  The only member of the PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN we haven’t yet covered is bassist Paul Gray.  Paul was brought into the fold when Sean found him on Facebook.  Although he hadn’t communicated with Rat since a run of Damned reunion shows in the early ‘90s, Paul was open to the idea of listening to a few demos Alfie and Sean had written for a third LP.   Paul liked what he heard and agreed to take part in the project.  He appears on eight of the ten tracks on Elixir III: Disintegrate Me.  He also re-recorded the basslines for a digital re-release of Elixir I’s single, “Nightmare.”

            Rat and Paul played together on two classic Damned albums, 1980’s The Black Album and 1982’s Strawberries.   Prior to The Damned, Paul was the bassist for Eddie & The Hot Rods, a poppy, high-energy rock outfit now widely recognized as a crucial link between Britain’s pub rock scene and the punk explosion.  They are best remembered for “Do Anything You Wanna Do,” a #9 UK hit in 1977.  Immediately following his time in The Damned, Paul joined long-running English rock band UFO for four years.  Presently, Rat also records and plays live with The Mutants, a rock group which includes Chris Constantinou (The Wolfmen, Sinéad O’Connor, Adam Ant), Paul Frazer (Black Futures, Subsource), and a revolving cast of guest musicians.  The Mutants’ third album, Your Desert My Mind, was released in October, 2016.

            Since Rat and Paul reside in the UK, the studio lineup of PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN have yet to make their live debut.  Instead, PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN’s current live lineup includes Alfie, Sean, Mark Tolbert (guitar and backing vocals), Frank Agnew (bass and backing vocals), and Nick Scalzo (drums). 

            The idea of a UK tour with Rat and Paul remains a distinct possibility.  To be continued ...