Three albums in twenty years: surely Bubblemath, from Minneapolis, can't be considered discographical workaholics. Nevertheless, they are one of the most original and surprising voices in today's progressive rock scene, with a style combining the intricacy of avant-prog with an incurable propension for melodic catchiness.
Unceasingly devoted to science-heavy imageries, they chose the title of their first self-released album "Such Fine Particles Of The Universe" so that it could be written using only symbols of chemical elements. Their second Lp, which came out for the leading avant-prog label Cuneiform Records, has a palindromic title which references chemistry and bio-tech.
Their latest release, "Turf Ascension", came out a few weeks ago: a perfect occasion for asking some questions to the band's keyboardist and lyricist, Kai Esbensen.
First of all: your name. I find that "Bubblemath" really suits your music perfectly, but... Where does it come from? And what's the origin of your new album's title, "Turf Ascension"? No palindromes or chemical puns this time?
The name "Bubblemath" is an homage to the branch of physics that deals with the mathematics of surface tension and boundary interfaces, and the forces that govern those things. When I first came up with the name "Bubblemath" in 1995, the World Wide Web was still brand new, and there was no such thing as "search-engine optimization" yet; and I thought it would be important that a band name should be unique enough that when someone searched for it, they would only find things relevant to that band name. Plus, I wanted a band name that would be strange enough to stand out, on lists with other band names. The name "Bubblemath" checked all those boxes! Plus, it perfectly encapsulates the music of Bubblemath -- "math" of course reflecting our tendency toward intricate, timing-focused compositions; and "bubble" reflecting the cute, catchy, quirky hook-driven melodic pop sensibility permeating it all. And, speaking of surface tension, the title Turf Ascension is a spoonerism of the pronunciation of the first track on the album, "Surface Tension". A few years ago, in rehearsal, we were about to play that song, and our guitarist Blake Albinson referred to it as "Turf Ascension" instead of "Surface Tension", and we all laughed. And I thought that would be a great title for the album, because all the songs deal with "ascending' some kind of "turf" in one way or another; sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively, and sometimes both! So it was a great fit.
Since your very first album, your music stroke me as quirky and mind-bending. Is it a sensation you look for, or is that headeachy character (which, surprisingly, doesn't bust tunefuleness) just a channel to make other feelings expressible?
It's certainly true that Bubblemath music fits the category of "cerebral" or "complicated", but we don't tend to think of it that way. The best way to explain it is to say that we want to write music that engages us when we play, and entertains us when we listen back. We have somewhat short attention spans, I suppose. But ultimately, we just want the music to be fun and interesting. And the way that manifests, for us, is the sound of Bubblemath. Hopefully it doesn't give too many people a headache!
This album has the longest track you ever published, and all the other tracks are somewhere around the 10-minutes mark... On the contrary, the first record had much shorter songs and your second one some short and some long. Listening to this latest release, I find your music got more nuanced and slowly-evolving, at least if compared to the continuous "what's going on now!?" feel of your shorter tracks. What pushed you to explore this - let's say - more "patient" direction?
I think it has to do with an urge to challenge ourselves to stay engaged and entertained, musically, without falling back on our traditional methods for doing so. In the past, especially on our first album, we would switch gears and change moods very rapidly in order to keep things interesting for ourselves. There's nothing wrong with that, of course; but I think we ended up missing out on some opportunities to let certain themes develop and evolve. It is easy for us to switch things up and change rapidly to maintain our own interest, but the challenge is, "how do we keep things interesting without relying so much on our typical rapidfire-mood-shift technique?" And that challenge is interesting to us, in and of itself. The challenge of a challenge! Plus, it's been nice to hear where these themes take us, when we allow them to evolve at their own pace.
An element I really enjoy and definitely sets you aside from many other past and contemporary prog bands is your attention to timbres. I often find myself asking to me "where the hell does this sound come from?", both with guitar and keyboard parts. How do you choose and design the sounds?
Thank you for saying so, and I'm delighted that you noticed! I always create synthesizer sounds from scratch, because I want to make sure everything sounds as fresh as possible. Also, I often blend different synthesizers together, so that when synthesizer experts listen to the music they cannot identify any specific synthesizer model as having made the sounds! It keeps the listeners on their toes. As for the guitar parts, Blake Albinson and Jon Smith take great care to craft unique guitar tones with their amps and effects. And these uniquely-crafted guitar and keyboard timbres often play together in such a way that makes it difficult to discern which instrument is playing what line. You can hear all the lines, of course; we make sure to mix our records in such a way that the individual parts can be heard and understood. But when taken as a whole, the sounds are not always instantly identifiable as to which instrument is playing which line.
When I listen to your music, I hear things that remind me of many bands: Gentle Giant, Genesis, Echolyn, Cardiacs (yes, I know they were not direct influences on your sound!), even Rage Against the Machine and Dream Theater...! But you never really sound as any of them. What are the main experiences that shaped your approach to creating music? I don't mean just other artists, but also things you did, or events in your life as a band...
We all have significantly different backgrounds of music that inspired us, that we grew up listening to. Each of us has favorite music that the others don't like. So lots of differing, often incompatible, things that we each like. But at the same time, we all tend to be disappointed by the same things: predictable chord changes, lyrical cliches, and so on. So while we don't always agree on what we like, we almost always agree on what we don't like. And that is what binds us, and brings us together, to create the music of Bubblemath. We are always striving to push ourselves to create music that we find interesting in fun ways, too, so that definitely drives our inspiration when writing new tracks. Again, we're very much driven by the desire to keep ourselves from getting bored, so we're always striving to consider new compositional approaches to things.
How do your compositions get born? Do you write them, do they come up during sessions, from one single author, with a DAW...?
For our first album, a lot of the music was written by one or two of us, and we'd bring it into rehearsal and teach the other band members how it goes. The songs developed collaboratively, of course; but their inception did not emerge from the band as a whole very often. For Edit Peptide, there was some of that going on still, but also we allowed each other to come up with our own ideas for each other's songs; plus, a good amount of the music developed out of the band playing together and seeing how we could shake things up. For Turf Ascension, the songs emerged very, very collaboratively -- this is why we have credited all the music to "Bubblemath" this time, and not to individually-named songwriters. And, honestly, I wish we had done that from the beginning. Because even if I write an entire song all by myself, and I teach the band how it goes, and I tell them what to play, the way the band plays and the decisions they each make are what drive the end product that gets recorded, and that's because of the whole band being who we are. So it really just makes the most sense to credit everyone with all the music.
Your songs surely have tons of words for a prog band! How much do you perceive a link between lyrics and music in your songs?
In so many songs I hear, by other bands, the lyrics come across almost as an afterthought. Like, such good music is out there, and when it came time to writing their lyrics it's as if those bands thought "just say anything, it'll be fine, nobody cares". But I care! And that has always bothered me, especially if I really like the music for a song - I feel extra disappointed when the quality of the lyrics doesn't match the quality of the music. And I wanted to make sure that that never happened with Bubblemath. So, really, my main goal when writing lyrics is to make sure that the lyrics of Bubblemath deserve the music of Bubblemath. Whether or not I am successful at that is up to the individual listeners, of course. But as far as my own opinion is concerned, the lyrics on Turf Ascension definitely satisfy that goal.
Your first record, "Such Fine Particles Of The Universe", came out 20 years ago. How has the progressive rock world changed during all this time?
I think that there is much more tolerance — I'd even say "acceptance" — of progressive rock these days, than there was 20 years ago. And when I say "progressive rock" I mean it in the most literal sense of "progressive", which is to say, not a rehash of music of the 1970s, but music that finds its own reward in pushing boundaries and challenging people's expectations in a modern way. I think that with the ease of home recording and so much new music coming out all the time, that it is easier than ever to find really interesting stuff, and I think that there are more people ready and willing to be an appreciative audience for that. More than ever before, honestly. Of course, the world of music itself has changed as well, and unfortunately recorded music is essentially valueless these days, in a straight-up monetary way. Streaming has killed physical sales, and has by and large killed "the album" as its own presentational artform. I'm all for changing with the modern times and not trying to cling to an outdated paradigm, but there's definitely something to be said for the value of hearing a sequence of songs in a specific order, in the way that the artist intended. I lament that those days are disappearing, if they're not in fact gone already.
And you, how did you change in these two decades? Musically speaking, I mean!
My body decided to take all the hair from my head and convert it into belly-fat. Oh! Musically-speaking... right; sorry! Musically-speaking, we are much more easygoing with each other, when it comes to being open to accepting one another's ideas, and collaborating, and letting the songs evolve in directions that we maybe didn't initially intend. We used to be fairly high-stress and possessive about our own ideas, and that certainly served a purpose, but it often did so at the expense of everyone feeling heard. Nowadays, we all feel heard, and our writing sessions are much more enjoyable as a result.
There was a 15-years span between your first album and your second, then five years between the second and the third: if I do the math and extrapolate a progression your next record is coming out in... 1 year and 8 months?! guess I'm being overoptimistic?
Haha, not enough datapoints! Extrapolation inconclusive! No, but seriously, it would be pretty entertaining if we had this grand plan all this time, where we knew we were going to continuously reduce the time between albums by a consistent factor. But, alas, that is not the case. I have no idea when the next album will be. We do have plenty of new music in the works, though; we are definitely not lacking in ideas or material potential! It's worth mentioning that Turf Ascension would have come out even sooner if it weren't for the pandemic interfering with our momentum. Who knows what the future brings, now, given the uncertainty of our unstable pandemic-tinted world? It's all so hard to say. But, anyway, sure. Let's shoot for sometime in 2024 for the next album. Why not? No promises, though!
A 15-then-5-years gap between releases suggests that Bubblemath is not giving you a full-time job as alt-prog-rockers. What do you do for a living, and how do you conciliate with your being a band?
Yep, we all have non-Bubblemath day jobs that command most of our focus. Bassist Jay Burritt installs hardwood flooring. Drummer James Flagg does audio/video production and voiceover work. Singer/guitarist Jon Smith teaches music and production at a public school. Guitarist Blake Albinson is a chauffeur for a private transportation service. And I am the leader of a quality assurance department in the software industry. These jobs are how we make ends meet, and fund our lives, and fund Bubblemath; which, ironically, takes quite a bit of time away from Bubblemath!
Any chance of hearing your new tracks live (mabe online)...?
We would love to play some festivals, of course. Hopefully in the coming year. Otherwise, we are thinking of doing a virtual/online performance at some point. Follow us on Facebook, for updates!