picture by Sam Wells

CONJURING THE SPIRIT OF THE PAST- Professor And The Madman’s Sean Elliott On The Quartet’s New 1970s-Inspired Concept Album ‘Seance’

Though mostly written and recorded before the waking nightmare we’ve come to know as 2020, Professor and the Madman’s new album seems oddly prescient.

Depicting a world riven with destruction and confusion, it’s an old fashioned concept album, with an intricate back story running through all 12 tracks.

Originally formed as a duo by multi-instrumentalist former West Coast punks and DI bandmates Sean Elliott and Alfie AgnewPATM is now a truly transatlantic affair having acquired the legendary Damned rhythm section of Rat Scabies and Paul Gray.

Rat got on board early on, contributing drums from London through the wonders of file-sharing, while Paul – having re-joined The Damned – was recruited via Facebook for the band’s last studio album, the grungy Disintegrate Me.

The quartet’s new collaboration, Seance, feels more ambitious in every sense, eclectic and multi-layered, it sees the band advancing further into prog-rock territory.

In a wide-ranging interview, guitarist and co-songwriter, Sean tells Matt Catchpole how he and Alfie drew from ’60s and ’70s influences  to create an album that’s more a theatrical experience than a mere collection of songs.

He also outlines his growing disenchantment with punk and reveals exclusively the subject of the band’s next project.

Seance album cover designed by Cliff Mott

With the wind howling and my dodgy electric lamp flickering, as dusk draws in on a gloomy September evening, conditions feel eerily suitable for a seance as I dial into Zoom for my appointment with Sean Elliott.

Wildfires are raging near Sean’s home in Fullerton, southern Califonia, and as a presidential election approaches, the US seems more divided than ever with riots across the country and militias gathering in support of both left and right causes.

“You know man, this world has always been like this,” Sean says, when I point out that PATM’s album appears to have weirdly foreseen this chaos.

“When there’s elections going on – it’s the same in your country too – no-one’s paying attention to what’s really going on. That’s why I hate politics. If you’ve heard the election record {Elixir, Vol II: Election} we put out four years ago – that’s what that was all about that, just crazy politicians. They don’t give a fuck about us, that’s for certain and that’s worldwide – that’s not just us.”

Despite its references to a blasted and chaotic world, Sean says Seance is not an expressly political record and he’s really not that bothered who wins the election in November.

“Trump doesn’t scare me the way he scares other people. I don’t think he’s the right choice, but no matter who you put in there it’s going to be horrible. I choose just to not pay attention to it and write music,” he affirms.

“I’m certainly not going to lose a friend over who they vote for. That seems to be the most ridiculous thing in the world. If someone votes for Trump, great, it doesn’t matter to me. I vote Independent anyway.”

Instead, Sean says the album aims to re-create the experience he and Alfie had in their teens, when buying an album, taking it home and listening to it, felt like a real event.

“The world just seemed so much more intriguing when we were growing up – you went out and picked up an album and it was so exciting,” he explains.

Partners in prog – PATM co-frontmen Sean Elliott and Alfie Agnew – picture by John Gilhooley

“The old Alice Cooper albums were my favourite, you always felt like you were in some kind of haunted mansion. It was the same with old Elton John records, The Beatles records, Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon – they all had a kind of personality to them, whereas a lot of the records nowadays, it’s like turn on the tape machine, bang out the same song 10 different ways and call it an album.”

Though this high concept approach, might seem anathema to fans of the pair’s work in DI, Sean argues he and Alfie approach writing and recording with the true punk spirit of “no rules” and “anything goes”.

“We produced and engineered this record ourselves and we left a lot of stuff in there that an engineer might take out. There’s a lot of hiss, there’s feedback, amps buzzing, that we just left in there like the old albums did, because you couldn’t get rid of it back then.

“We were a little concerned, because we don’t consider ourselves to be professional engineers, but we knew what we wanted it to sound like and it just came alive and we’re both really happy with it.”

So what’s the over-arching story behind the record?

“If you were watching this as a play,” Sean explains in his relaxed So-Cal drawl. “It starts with All The Lonely Souls – that would be some non-Earthly beings looking down on a world that’s now destroyed.

“That’s the beginning of the story – fade into a group of people missing friends who have passed on and when they go to a seance they end up on this journey that takes you through the whole record.

“At the end – I don’t know if I’m giving too much away here – they find that they’ve been on hold all this whole time. So all of the stories you just came through are imaginary and planted there by the people at the beginning who saved the world from destruction.”

While Sean and Alfie write all the songs between them, they are quick to acknowledge the contribution of Paul and Rat, who lay down their parts with little or no guidance or instruction.

“In Professor and the Madman everyone does what they feel that song needs and then we just mix it. No-one really dictates what the song is supposed to sound like,” Sean explains.

“We usually have an idea of what to expect from Paul and Rat, but when they don’t do what we’re expecting it’s even better.

“We don’t over-produce because there’s a spirit to the first take. And if there’s a couple of flubs – we just leave ‘em in. We use digital recording as a necessity because it’s easier to send to Paul and Rat, but we don’t spend much time editing stuff out.”

Paul Gray’s bouncing bass is particularly to the fore on the new record.

The Cardiff-based former UFO and Eddie and the Hot Rods musician, is clearly no believer in the old adage that a bassist’s doing a good job when you don’t notice them.

Paul Gray and Sean Elliott rock the 100 Club – picture by Sam Wells

“Paul is basically a lead bassist,” Sean enthuses. “He’s never been a rhythm section guy.

“He plays perfectly with Rat, ‘cos they come from that same old school style – they basically fuse jazz with rock. We write our songs with them in mind, so it makes it easier for them to just go off and do whatever they want to do. Again, we don’t dictate to them.”

Not that Rat, who’s put drums on every PATM album so far, is exactly welcoming of direction.

“He does exactly what he’s gonna do and he’s funny about it,” Sean says. “He’s like: ‘Do you wanna play my drums?’

“We look at it this way – we’re lucky enough to have them and we sought after them, so why would we say ‘Hey you’re doing it wrong’?”

Rat’s induction into PATM is attributed to “dumb luck”.

Sean and and Alfie were playing covers at a reunion show in Costa Mesa and Rat, who was friendly with another of the musicians performing that night happened to be in the audience.

“Smash It Up was actually in our set. So I asked him: ‘Do you wanna come up and play? We play it right – we won’t make an ass out of ya,’ says Sean smiling at the memory.

“He got up there and this is how we connected, just a total fluke.”

Rat ended up going into the studio with the pair and drumming on Devil’s Bargain off the band’s Elixir Vol I: Good Evening Sir! album.

And just like like that, the duo became a trio, with other musicians guesting on bass until Paul became a full time member.

Good Evening Sir! – Alfie and Sean were quick to capture the talents of the inimitable Mr Scabies

Alfie, who also featured in notable punk outfit The Adolescents, was out of music for a number of years before eventually hooking up again with Sean.

A scientist, whose recent work involves the creation of gravitation waves, he’s a maths professor at Cal State in Fullerton.

The band’s name is a nod to his career and also to the novel The Professor and The Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester.

Sean’s also carved out a successful second career in real estate, meaning the pair are lucky enough to have no financial constraints on their creative freedom.

“We’re not doing this for the money,” Sean affirms. “This is for art. This is for something to be remembered.”

It’s a far cry from their DI days when the pair began to feel constrained by hardcore punk’s back to basics approach.

“Back in the day when Alfie and I played in DI together we would talk about doing an album like this. But we were super limited with DI, simply because the record company wouldn’t allow us to try anything outside of the punk rock form. It was ‘We want another Johnny’s Got A Problem or Stick To Your Guns’.”

Sean became increasingly disenchanted with the harcore scene around ’91-’92 as things grew more regimented and violent.

“Punk as I remember it was an outlet to be an individual. With all our friends you didn’t need a leather jacket and spiky hair to be a punk. We were kind of the rejects who didn’t fit in with the kind of cliques that were around.

“I really started to notice when I started touring that punk was just becoming an excuse to be an asshole. There was a lot of hate that I saw that didn’t exist in my punk world.”

He started to fall out of love with the the type of music he was playing.

“With hardcore everything’s gotta be a hundred miles an hour – The Damned’s stuff wasn’t that fast, The Sex Pistols weren’t that fast, The Clash weren’t a fast band.

“It just got faster and harder and louder and the music got worse and worse as it went on. And punk rock albums today don’t even resemble punk rock to me.”

What began as movement to celebrate individuality, became more uniform as it was swallowed up by the mainstream.

“Punk is now more of a fashion than a lifestyle,” Sean affirms. “The band needs to look a certain way. I remember our band ended up trying out be in some Dockers commercial – we were told to ‘dress punk’ on this little call sheet that we got.

“I thought I’m not ‘dressing punk’. I went and got a sharkskin suit and wore that instead – apparently we didn’t look punk enough, ‘cos we didn’t get the commercial.

“It’s stuff like that, which drives me nuts, guys sitting in an office in New York deciding what the new punk look should be, or what punk’s supposed to sound like.”

To Sean and Alfie, PATM is about avoiding such strictures, doing what feels right in the moment and to hell with the consequences.

“There’s no real arguing between us, because anything goes,” he explains. “If someone has an idea we’ll go with it. If Alf wants to put horns in, it’s like ‘they’re in there, let’s go with it!’. If I want to start screaming halfway through a song, it’s going in. So there’s really nothing to argue about. We’ll decide at the end if it’s good or not.

“We don’t give a rat’s ass if anyone likes it or not. But we’ve been lucky that all of our ideas do tend to work out.”

PATM from left: Rat Scabies. Sean Elliott, Alfie Agnew and Paul Gray

Both Sean and Alfie hail from musical families and began playing and writing from an early age,.

Avid record collectors, they share many influences, but Sean says it’s the differences between them that shows up in their writing.

“Even though Alf and I are alike in a lot of ways, we’re complete opposites in others, so almost by default it ends up with a Jekyll and Hyde feel,” he concedes.

That’s most evident on the new album in the song Time Machine/With Nothing To Lose – where two distinct voices play off against one another.

“It’s two songs merged together,” says Sean. “Alfie sings the first half, I sing the second. It’s the story of a professor that’s had enough of this world and wants to build a time machine to get out – and a bum overhearing him and wanting to go on the trip with him – that’s how the whole thing fuses together.”

Another standout track is the hard rocking Two Tickets To The Afterlife, which is the closest the band gets to those old Alice Cooper records.

“We were trying for that sort late ‘60s hard rock sound. I’ve heard a few people call it late ‘80s Sunset Strip metal,” Sean laughs. “That’s not really what we were going for. We didn’t use high output amplifiers like Marshalls, we used clean amps turned up full blast, like The Beatles would use.”

The album flits between multiple styles, from Kinks-style music hall pop, to Beatles-esque orchestration and layered Beach Boys-influenced surf rock.

It lends the album a deliberately old-fashioned theatricality.

“I learned something by reading about the making of Sgt Pepper’s… ,” Sean explains, “By becoming Sgt Pepper’s {Lonely Hearts Club Band} as opposed to The Beatles they could do anything they wanted.

“We’ve taken that approach and given everyone a character. I certainly see the story in my head like with Man With Nothing To Lose and with Two Tickets To The Afterlife – so yeah I do think visually and I know Alfie does.

Sean Elliott – picture by Sam Wells

“That’s what we want from these records, we want you to be able to visualise something in your head, like you would with a book.”

The album even comes with its own board game, as the band hope to encourage a shared lsitening experience.

“We put the board game on there, so maybe people can spend some time together,” Sean says.” It’s about maybe bringing back a little bit of the old world.. something to do other than just stare at a computer or a phone all day. We just want to make music fun.”

PATM’s progression mirrors that of The Damned, who quickly tired of three chord punk, as other band members began to contribute to the songwriting.

“Obviously, my favourite Damned albums are the ones with Rat and  Paul Gray on them,” Sean affirms. “Live At Shepperton, The Black Album, Friday 13th and Strawberries.

“Both Rat and Paul understand the concept, whereas someone who only listens to one style of music probably wouldn’t understand what we’re getting at.

“Rat’s very well versed in music. Even though he’s this ‘legendary punk rock drummer,’ he’s way more than that. I consider him more like Ginger Baker or Gene Krupa.”

While being thousands of miles apart doesn’t hold the band back in terms of recording, live performances are a logistical headache, particularly in the midst of a global COVID-19 pandemic.

To date the quartet have played just one live show, in August 2018, which spawned their Live at the 100 Club album.

Sean is understandably cagey about the chances of the band appearing on stage together again, but doesn’t rule it out completely.

“I would love to say yeah and I’m sure everyone would probably be up for it, but with the way things are right now, scheduling it is tough,” he admits. “The 100 Club just all came together perfectly. I’d like to do it again, but I just don’t know how realistic it is to plan for that.”

While promoting Seance is obviously the top priority for now, Sean does let slip that the theme and much of the music for the band’s next album is already in place.

And despite not wanting to give too much away, he does release a tempting titbit about the controversial twins at the heart of project.

“I can tell you this much – it has to do with the story of The Kray brothers – that’s the working theme of this next one,” he reveals.

“My Dad lived in London for years, so I spent about six months over there in probably ’84-’85 and he would tell me the stories of the Krays.”

The rise and fall of Ronnie and Reggie and all the lurid goings-on of gangland London on the ’60s – seems like perfect fodder for the twisted PATM treatment and a mouth-watering prospect to be sure.

  • Séance is released on the band’s own Fullertone Records label on November 13. Pre-order: here
  • For more about Professor and the Madman visit them on Facebook, Twitter or their website 

About the author

Full time journalist, music lover (obvs) and truly terrible guitarist. You can find Matt on twitter @matcatch