MATH ROCK: The Blasters play Felton this Friday. Phil Alvin is second from left.
Rocking the Polynomials
Egghead by day, Blaster by night: that's the Phil Alvin way
By Paul M. Davis
THERE ARE certain stereotypes associated with folks who turn out muscular, blues-inflected roots rock as the Blasters do. These stereotypes converge around the vision of the roadhouse, where boozy weekend warriors escape to play sturdy late-model rock & roll like their lives depended on it. Blasters frontman Phil Alvin defies such stereotypes, having maintained a notable musical career while also working in mathematical semantics—two fascinations that have often proven difficult to reconcile.
"I'm at my happiest when I play music and do mathematics in harmony with one another," Alvin says. "Mathematics and music are always naturally in harmony, but often the lifestyles clash. Mathematicians make money working for industry or a college, but getting up at eight in the morning when you've played all night is tough."
Alvin's sophisticated field of mathematics involves the building blocks of artificial intelligence, specifically translating the subtleties of human language into something machines can understand. As he explains, "It's a big topic right now in mathematical research, in computer intelligence and brain research, even."
Alvin hasn't always been consumed by such heady concerns. When he and his brother Dave formed the Blasters in 1979, they were young bucks from Downey, Calif., serving up raw slabs of rockabilly-infused roots music. Drawing energy, if not attitude, from the nascent punk rock scene, the Blasters were an anomaly. It's now common for bands to graft the energy of punk rock onto various forms of American roots music, but it wasn't at the time. The band found a natural ally in L.A. punk act X, and built a devoted following until disbanding in 1985. Dave Alvin went on to a successful solo career, while Phil turned his attentions to mathematics, ultimately earning a Ph.D. from UCLA. While Phil released solo albums and toured intermittently, it wasn't until he reformed the Blasters in 2005, sans Dave, that his music career returned to the forefront.
The reconstituted Blasters have toured regularly since then, but their recording output remains as intermittent as ever. They've only released five full-length studio albums in 31 years—four in the '80s and 2005's 4-11-44—and while the band has new material, the current transitional state of the music industry has Alvin questioning the album format. "It's less the problem of the music and more the problem of 'What does it mean to record now?'" Alvin says. "Albums came about because of the technology and the materials that were available. The mode of having an album every 18 months—there was nothing natural to music about it. Now you can just release songs one at a time. We're debating what to do about that. Do we make an album? Do we just do one song at a time?"
Though the Blasters have yet to figure out the best route to distribute their new material, Alvin welcomes these transitions. "I never had any love for the abuse of record companies," he says. "Web networking and live gigs are blending into what music was before it was usurped by the record companies. The gigs manifest themselves without any traditional promotion, like they did when we were on the street corner. We've watched the record industry turn back to the musicians, instead of the furniture companies that we called the record companies."
The record industry's seismic shifts currently invigorate Alvin in ways that mathematics do not. "Last year I was really locked into some mathematical things, and I'm waiting to get back to that mode," he says. "I've been concentrating for the last eight months more on music. Music has been changing rapidly since the mid '90s, and unfortunately mathematics hasn't changed as much.
"It's a really good time for music right now," he adds. "There's a lot of action, both stylistically and with the business paradigm. Plus, I love to play. I would play for free. You can catch me at the store with the guitar or hanging around in a parking lot feeling the pulse of what's going on."
THE BLASTERS play Friday, Aug. 27, at 8pm at Don Quixote's, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. Tickets are $16 advance/$18 door. For info call 831.603.2294 or visit www.donquixotesmusic.info.
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