Interview with co-frontman Alfie Agnew | By Janelle Jones
With their latest album – the super-eclectic, mesmerizing Disintegrate Me, out now on Fullertone Recordings – in tow, Professor And The Madman seem to have their lineup and focus totally cemented.
“We’ve really stepped it up on this third one,” co-frontman Alfie Agnew—who helms vocals, guitar, bass, and keyboard—says enthusiastically. “I think it’s the best thing we’ve done.” He adds that he and his fellow frontman Sean Elliott “have done some classic albums with D.I. and the Adolescents. I think the resume, not to pat myself on the back, isn’t too shabby. But I think the Professor And The Madman stuff is the best stuff we’ve come up with.”
For those unfamiliar, the “brain trust” of the band, Agnew and Elliott, played together in Southern California in the ‘80s and ‘90s before Agnew left music for a while to pursue his education, becoming a mathematics professor and working at Cal State Fullerton. He hooked up with Elliott again when the latter needed someone to fill in on bass at a show he was playing. That really sparked something among the two, and Agnew recalls thinking, “‘I’d love to do a project where I can be unlimited again, sort of like in the early punk days.’” He elaborates, “What I remember and what I loved about [that era] was it was the option that was ‘none of the above.’ It could be anything.”
He says the two wanted to “do something where we can just not give a damn about what anyone thinks, and Professor And The Madman was born.”
The band’s name comes from the novel “The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary” by Simon Winchester, but it’s also a nod to Agnew’s profession and the fact that Elliott is a bit of a “hellraiser,” to use Agnew’s term. It fits their “reputations a little bit,” he says, and it fits the band’s stylings as well. “Both of us are intrigued by the doppelgänger, binary opposite idea,” Agnew explains.
Their material utilizes that dichotomy often and quite well, as they add musical and lyrical ideas that may seem contrary to each other. For instance, on Disintegrate Me, happy-sounding songs like “Faces” and the funny, disturbing “Demented Love Song” belie the more serious—or in the latter song’s case, darker—side of the lyrics. “A lot of our music is a little bipolar as well,” Agnew asserts. “Just like life. Life is bittersweet.”
Now, onto that other intriguing part of the band: the rest of the lineup. Agnew explains that drummer Rat Scabies of The Damned fame came into the fold early on, about two years ago, and played on the first album, 2016’s Elixir 1: Good Evening, Sir! He recorded at Dave Allen’s studio in London, who’s done records for The Cure, Depeche Mode, and The Sisters Of Mercy. Agnew says The Damned’s The Black Album from 1980 was a huge influence on Professor And The Madman. He relates that he and Elliott mused in the early stages of the band, “If we could just pick our ideal rhythm section, it would be the Black Album rhythm section.”
They completed this quest about a year ago with the addition of bassist Paul Gray. Elliott got in touch with Gray, asking if he’d listen to some material. They sent him “Nightmare”—which is now the opener on Disintegrate Me—and Gray sent something back the next week. “We heard it,” Agnew remembers, “and said, ‘Holy cow, we have the Black Album rhythm section.’ We were so stoked.” Gray enjoyed the experience, so they decided to work on this most recent album together as well.
Since Agnew and Elliott are in Southern California, while Scabies is in London and Gray resides in Cardiff, Wales, these are strictly the studio players, but Agnew and Elliott have compiled a worthy lineup to play U.S. shows: themselves alongside Agnew’s older brother and SoCal punk forefather, Frank Agnew, on keyboard, guitar, and backing vocals; Mark Tolbert on bass and backing vocals; and Nick Scalzo on drums. “We wanna make sure the live act lives up to the recordings, so we got the best musicians around that we can lay our hands on—that we can get along with,” Agnew laughs. “We’ve really started to work on it to where people will be blown away when they see us live.”