At first glance, there’s nothing spectacular about the name of the band Professor and the Madman. This is, after all, punk rock, where fake titles, such as "Captain Sensible," are run-of-the-mill, as are outlandish band monikers. This is all fairly standard punk stuff. Nothing to see here. Move along.
Except that there is something different going on here, because Professor and the Madman’s co-frontman Alfie Agnew is a real, live, genuine professor. He’s a faculty member at CSU Fullerton, and has risen as far up that institution’s food chain as it is possible to rise. He’s a bona fide professor.
Not only that, but Agnew’s name, particularly his last name, is well known in OC punk circles. He and his brothers Frank and Rikk are vets of the scene, playing in bands such as DI and The Adolescents. Alfie Agnew had a great time doing that until he turned 18 and then, unusually for a punk musician, his thoughts turned to more serious matters. Off he went to college and, eventually, he found himself teaching in Fullerton.
“I’m in the math department — teaching and research is the majority of my workload,” Agnew says. “My degrees are in mathematics and physics, and in particular I deal with the mathematics of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. I publish papers in math and physics journals, and things like that. I have a couple of different projects going at the moment and I’ve had a few going in the past. Probably the most interesting thing is I’m working with a group that’s associated with an international collaboration that’s studying gravitational waves. That’s received a lot of press in the last couple of years, because the first ever detection of a gravitational wave in human history was announced back in the fall of 2015.”
Yeah, that’s not your standard punk rock nihilism and general dissatisfaction, is it? We don’t normally enter an interview with a punk musician and expect to be discussing gravitational waves, but there you go. We roll with it. To be fair, Agnew probably wasn’t expecting to be discussing gravitational waves back when he was in his teens and hanging around divey venues.
“I got out of music in the early ’90s when I pursued graduate school,” he says. “I went up to Oregon, and there wasn’t much of a music scene up there. Even if there was, I wouldn’t have had the time to participate. So I was out of it for 20 years. A couple of old mates from DI realized I was back in town, and reached out to me to lay some tracks down because they were recording some old tunes for posterity.”
So after two decades out of music completely, Agnew picked up his guitar again, restrung the rusting neck and gave it a go. After a short while, during which he worked on his muscles and dexterity, he was back at a level that was perfectly adequate when playing in a punk band.
“It was like, ‘Oh my God, what was I doing not playing all these years?’” he says. “It’s like losing your religion and getting it back. A good buddy of mine from back in the DI days, Sean Elliott, reached out to me to say that he plays in a fun cover band and they needed a bass player. I stayed up that night learning the songs, went the next day, and we had a blast. We decided to do our own project. As much as we loved the punk scene, it was always limiting. We made a pact that we would start a new band, and we would allow ourselves to do whatever we want. We don’t give a damn if anybody likes it. We want to please ourselves and do what our hearts tell us to do. That’s when Professor and the Madman was born.”
The debut album from Professor and the Madman, Disintegrate Me, is released this week, and a quick scan of the credits reveals that former The Damned players Rat Scabies and Paul Gray (the latter also of Eddie & the Hot Rods and UFO) also are on there. How did they rope those old punks in?
“Sean and I are huge Damned fans — always have been,” Agnew says. “A mutual friend of ours was a friend of Rat’s from OC. When Rat was out one time, Rat came out and sat in on the drums for [The Damned tune] ‘Smash It Up.’ We had a blast, and the next day we were starting to record the first Professor and the Madman album and we thought Rat would be perfect for the songs. We reached out to him, he had the time, came up, we all had a blast, and the rest is history. He’s played on all of the tracks so far.”
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Agnew says that he’s incredibly happy with the album, essentially his first real musical output in 20 years. And he’s excited to be playing both the Viper Room and Alex’s Bar this week. Sadly, Gray and Scabies won’t be there — they’re in the U.K., so there’s a slightly different, U.S.-centric version of the band. But there’s a lot more to come.
“We want to see how the release goes and how the reception is — so far it’s been really good,” Agnew says. “A lot of good reviews, and some radio play. If the interest is out there, we’ll do some traveling over the summer. There is some planning that has to go on. We’re not 18-year-old full-time musicians.”
That’s right. And after all, the Professor has a class to teach.