I recently had some friends ask what I meant by Math Rock, and I must admit it is a type of guitar music about which I am still learning.
A very brief summary is that Math Rock is a sub-genre that emerged from the Hardcore scene of the mid 1980s. Some bands moved away from the distorted loud guitars and steady 4/4 beat of Rock ‘n’ Roll, to incorporate different time signatures and tempos, stopping and starting songs mid-way through, or changing the rhythm entirely. I also notice that a lot of bands use similar chords as Jazz musicians.
The term Math Rock was coined due to the musicians having to count the beat, for example,
“1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1, 2, 3, 4 …” etc
Instead of the conventional,
“1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4 …”
However, as the adage states, ‘show, don’t tell,’ so here are but a few examples.
To kick off, a band I did know, Slint, formed in Kentucky, USA in the late 1980s. This track, ‘Breadcrumb Trail’ is from their seminal second album, ‘Spiderland’ (1991).
In the same year, Don Caballero were formed, in Pittsburg, USA, and are purely instrumental. Their third album, ‘What Burns Never Returns’ (1998) is highly regarded, and I’ve chosen one track from that LP.
At the end of the 1990s, a band from Illinois called American Football formed, released a self-titled debut album, then split up. This song, ‘Never meant’ is much praised among fans.
Now let’s move over to my neck of the woods, Asia, because Math Rock is global.
Tricot is a band that I mentioned in an IELTS blog. They were formed in Kyoto back in 2010, and have so far released six LPs including ‘Jodeki’ from December 2021. This video is for the song ‘Setsuyakuka’.They play music with stronger lead lines, pop-music hooks, and make a perfect introduction to Math Rock.
Also from Japan are Paranoid Void. The following video is a track from their LP ‘Literary Math’ (2017). This album may require a few plays to be fully appreciated. A lot of reviewers feel it lacks a certain punch, but try it for that laid-back feel, or if you need to study.
The video also show the guitarist’s pedal board, a collection of effects to create different guitar sounds.
Finally, let’s go to Taiwan and listen to ‘Elephant Gym’, a band blending bass lead lines and irregular, angular guitars. This is a live video and you can see how the bassist uses a technique called tapping, sometimes playing the strings on the neck of her bass with her right hand.
Be sure to let me know what you think. Are you in a Math Rock band, or are you interested in starting one ? Or is it simply not your cup of tea ? Thank you for taking the time to read this blog.
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At some point between the end of May and the beginning of June, Richard Marshall was struck by a severe case of the Berlin paranoia, and apart from the journey to and from work, he was practically unable to leave his flat.
The causes were easy to ascertain; one was not speaking German. This meant that all but the most basic transactions required a translator or he would be, and feel, utterly helpless.
He shopped in the small Spar store, being able to pick up items and see the price on the till display, but he couldn’t open a bank account, pay a bill, understand why a train had stopped in a tunnel, why a street was closed, read any official letters or get a proper job.
Biberkopf was now a painful, humiliating ordeal, more and more work from the lazy chef, and being all but ignored by all other members of staff. He was certain that Walter, the owner, looked right through him as if he wasn’t even there. Jolande, the cute waitress, had recently started seeing a customer who drove an expensive car, and now she barely acknowledged his presence. He responded in the only way he knew how; by being completely silent and refusing to speak to anyone, creating an impenetrable wall that kept everyone out. He was good at keeping things in.
There were also sleepless nights worrying about his interrupted studies, and it now being too late to get onto a course when term started in September. He would have to wait another year.
There was also the certainty that he would never meet a woman, that he would go to bed alone and wake up alone every day for the rest of his life.
He didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything, or rather, felt that he simply couldn’t.
After about three weeks he knew he had to snap out of it, or leave Berlin. He also knew that the life he had here was far better than one he could expect back in London, but washing up for a living was hardly living. The Orwellian honeymoon period was well over.
He was thinking about this, standing by a giant, industrial pot of potatoes that he had to peel, when he put his mind to a problem posed by Chris and Daniel; what to name the band.
He thought of some tag lines, based around the fact that three of them were from Russia, coming up with things like ‘Country & Eastern’ and such like. Then he threw the potato he was peeling into the sink of greasy water and smiled. He ordered a beer from the first waitress who came into the kitchen and though it took an eternity to arrive, he didn’t mind. He had the band’s name. It gave him a reason to go to the Czar Bar where, even if Chris wasn’t working, he’d be drinking. That had become a certainty.
Chris knew all about the paranoia, having experienced it himself.
He’d spoken to others and it was quite common, a sense of homelessness mixed with a feeling of having no home, being unwanted and uncared for. A realisation that he would never understand the language and would be cheated and laughed at and insulted. Most of the time, Chris had been with Marina or Claudia, then his own Ute, and then Monika, who would help him.
But he had his own freakouts. He had once turned a plastic bag inside out, because it had English writing on it and he felt it marked him out as a target for fascists and skinheads.
His answer to Richard was to drink. Richard had noticed that Chris’ answer to everything now seemed to be to drink.
As expected, Chris was holding court, on his favoured end stool, Andrei listening to him while Olga was busy with customers.
“Richard !” cried Chris, immediately ordering him a beer and vodka. Richard welcomed them, knowing that there would be many more before he staggered home.
After the initial moments of hysteria, when Chris filled him in on what he had missed over the last weeks, Richard made an announcement concerning the band. Chris called Andrei back, as it affected him directly.
“The name of the band is,” said Richard, copying Chris’ talent for building excitement, “Sawhead The Bear.”
“YES!” screamed Chris, eyes lighting up. Andrei looked puzzled,
“What is ‘Sawhead’ ?” Chris had a reply ready,
“Nothing ! Everything ! Doesn’t matter. What a great name, what a perfect name, it is the only name for the band. Well, drinks all round, vodka ! Hey, Jake, just in time, you must be able to smell vodka.”
Jake swayed over to them,
“Yeah, I can smell something!”
Andrei was busy translating, as best he could, the nonsensical ‘Sawhead’ into Russian. Olga looked even more puzzled and turned to Richard, going up close to him and asking him something in German, but he didn’t listen, he just wanted to grab her, but Andrei, being built like the Kremlin, probably would have raised an objection.
Chris meanwhile told him what Olga had wanted, namely, how on earth he came up with such a peculiar name ?
“I was at work,” was all he said, and Chris understood,
“Making the Camembert ?” he asked, referring to one of the nightly duties, covering the half blocks of cheese in egg and breadcrumbs, ready for deep-frying.
The remainder of the night was spent toasting the new band name, with Andrei greeting each new customer with,
“Yes, Sawhead ?”
Needless to say, both Richard and Chris awoke with very sore heads. Chris suddenly understood the band name. As he was getting dressed, he looked out of the window and saw Johan’s girlfriend, Veronica, walk across the Hof and enter the door of her boyfriend’s block.
He suddenly understood something else, as well. Even with a thumping sore head, Veronica was a sight for sore eyes.
Chris took Daniel to meet the Russians at their squat in a remote area of disused offices and railway shunting yards. The area looked like a post-apocalyptic film set: large empty streets save for a few burnt out cars. The buildings all with broken windows, doors hanging off rusted hinges, half derelict and foreboding.
They alighted at Ostkreuz, a major intersection S-Bahn station with several different levels and platforms confusingly set out with various exits leading to metal walkways and staircases.
Daniel noticed the Teutonic water tower, resembling a Prussian army helmet, and desperately tried to memorise other landmarks, in case he should need to come back alone, but he was lost even before he had left the station.
Chris had been here several times now, helping the Russians with carrying stock to the bar, and one or two social calls, and knew that finding the building was just the first problem. The next was getting in.
The address was Pfarrstrasse, but the entrance was actually on the street around the corner, Kaskelstrasse. The building took up a whole block, dozens of flats that had been left to decay and were now squatted.
Chris tried the street door, but knew it was always locked and even the idea of an intercom was laughable.
The first time Andrei had been waiting for him, looking out of a window, and he threw down a bunch of keys. The second time, Chris had to wait for someone to arrive, then, in German, explain who he was and why he was here. Despite living in a squat of his own and having to go over to Richard’s flat to shower, Chris still looked and dressed several notches above the squatters here, who were proudly unkempt, unwashed and untrusting.
Chris shouted up and they waited, shouted again and continued waiting. Daniel looked around, uneasily, not sure what he was doing here, wherever ‘here’ was.
He was experiencing the Czar Bar syndrome. Plans and ideas were expounded, inspired by the atmosphere and the vodka, but when they came to be implemented, there was a sudden lack of enthusiasm, a frequent lack of memory.
For five minutes they waited, and Daniel was prepared to put it down to a good idea that hadn’t panned out, when Chris saw Boris walking towards them with a plastic bag, obviously containing beer cans.
Daniel had met Andrei, Olga and Sascha, but Chris had pointed out that Boris would be the heart of any band, he was the musician, the one who would lift them out of the rehearsal room and onto the stage and then . . .
But Daniel wasn’t prepared for the voice.
Boris was tall and reserved, with dark, tangled, curled hair which he kept meticulously clean with his own home-made shampoo of beer and eggs. Chris even joked if the beers were for them or his hair.
“Ah, yes, yes, the beers, yes is for both, hahahaha.”
The voice was incredibly deep, an accent perfect for a late night horror program voice-over.
Boris let them in and they walked up three long steep flights of stairs, then along a corridor, where he opened another door. Inside, there was a lot of noise and activity.
The door opened straight onto a kitchen area, a large table in the centre of the room. Around this sat Sascha and his German girlfriend, Trudi, who was playing with her black and blue dyed hair. Andrei was shouting in Russian and Olga was screaming back, but they both stopped when they saw the guests, Olga going over and offering her hand to be kissed.
Another long-haired man was in the background, opening some packets of food. Daniel pointed to him and said to Chris,
“He looks like Charlie George,” referring to the Arsenal footballer from the early 1970s.
Boris was a big English football fan and amazed Daniel by picking up on the reference. Their friendship was assured. And the poor Russian, with no German or English, was forever after known as Charlie George.
The three potential band members, Boris, Andrei and Sascha, all had good albeit basic English. Of the three, Andrei was the one the others turned to, in order to clarify or translate a difficult word. However, their German was only basic, at best. Olga was doing well in her new language, but had no English. Trudi was quite fluent in English, when she spoke, which was hardly ever. She professed having zero desire to learn Russian.
“It is hard language to learn,” sympathised Boris. “But it used to be much worse. In English, you have one flower, then another word for two flowers . . . In Russian, too, we had same, but then we had another word for three flowers. After the Revolution, they say we going to make easier . . . “
“Yeah,” Daniel jumped in, “no more flowers!”
Boris had a laugh as disconcerting as his voice, but it was starting to grow on Daniel.
Charlie George brought some dried fish over, and invited Chris and Daniel to take one. They did, then watched how the others picked them up and slapped them hard onto the table, so hard that is caused some empty beer cans to topple over. Andrei saw their bemusement,
“It to make sure they dead.”
Then the vodka came out.
Some hours later, Daniel and a distinctly tipsy Chris left to walk under the railway bridges and along the wastelands to get the Czar Bar opened.
It had been decided that a new band should be formed, and that Daniel should come over on Saturday for a first rehearsal. Walking with Chris, he knew he would never be able to find it again, but Chris wasn’t listening. He was planning.
His income was directly proportional to the amount of customers, or rather, how much they drank, or rather, how much they paid for how much they drank. His expenses were drastically reduced, needing no rent or daily travel money, but he still wanted to be able to buy larger items, or have enough to fly home, if needed, to complete the degree which, by degrees, was seeming less and less probable.
He thought of the stage in the Czar Bar, how it was going to waste, as the only people who used it were themselves wasted, spread out and sleeping, until Jake would unceremoniously kick them up, then out.
The answer was obvious; a house band. Gigs, concerts. Get a whole new crowd in, not just the usual ragbag assortment of punks and squatters and shitkickers, a word he had heard Jake use, and was now part of his daily vocabulary.
What was better, and economically advantageous, was that it would have to be on the nights that he and Jake worked, as neither Boris nor Andrei would want to work and play, and Micha and Serge, the other Russians who got a night or two per week, were unlikely to want the extra effort it would involve.
His enthusiasm to tell Jake made him walk along at such a pace, that Daniel had a hard time keeping up.
Daniel was both excited, and on a nice alcohol buzz, but was concerned over an issue or two. While he was sure he would be able to come up with lyrics, he had never sung before and was wondering if he had any ability. Another point was that, as he sat quietly around the table, getting to know his new friends, and impressing them by his knowledge of Russian authors and of St Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospect, he had noticed how Olga looked at Andrei and then at Boris, and the loving way that Boris gazed upon Olga. There was going to be trouble there, he thought. But, until that happened, he was going to get a band started and, according to Chris who had already appointed himself manager, they had a guaranteed residency lined up.
Chris and Richard met Daniel at the small kiosk situated in one of the exit tunnels of Rosenthaler Platz U-Bahn. Daniel was looking at the window display which had miniature bottles of cheap and nasty looking hooch, labels and brands he had never seen before, alcohol he had never seen before.
They greeted and went straight to the club, a slight embarrassment at meeting away from the Czar Bar, as if that were their only common ground. The club was quite small, quite dark, one stage to the right, the bar opposite, and that was where they all headed.
By now, Richard and Chris could recognize many faces. Willem Dafoe was there, smiling broadly at each and every thing. Arizona Al was in another discussion with technicians about sound levels, but came over to say, “Hi,” and to meet Daniel,
“Cool, fresh blood, it’s getting kinda stale around here,” he admitted. ”Oh, Dude, listen, you can’t come onstage and blow me tonight, it’s a more conservative joint, here,” then he was dragged away by Bryan on a matter of the utmost urgency.
Daniel stood with his mouth open, not exactly sure what he was getting involved in.
Again, the room was half full at most when the first act went on. A petite, visibly terrified French girl played guitar and sang to the floorboards. Her between song banter was monosyllabic and mumbled, but she charmed everyone, winning them over with her nervousness and talent which was unmistakable, just hidden by a cloak of shyness.
But it was downhill after that. Singer-songwriters came and went, some bands played, more solo artists. Willem Dafoe played the exact same set with the exact same mannerisms and orchestrated spontaneity as before.
Bryan ‘Moonface’ came up to the bar with a young lady, and was speaking to her about Kafka, specifically ‘Metamorphosis’,
“It’s about a man who wakes up one morning and he’s been turned into a woman.”
“Oh, that sounds cool.”
Daniel exclaimed, “Fuck me,” loud enough to get Bryan’s attention, but ‘Moonface’ was too busy impressing his new friend with his broad knowledge of World Literature.
Richard and Chris played ‘name the influence’ as some bands were ripping off R.E.M., others Nirvana, while one electronic combo tried a reversal of Big Black, by playing a loud, Grunge song on keyboards and drum machines. It was a novelty for half a minute, but unfortunately went on for several.
Daniel wasn’t having as much fun as his companions. He had been expecting a great evening, but, despite the ever flowing beer, he was bored and that made him angry and frustrated. Which, of course, just made Richard and Chris laugh even more.
He got louder with his abuse and thought nothing of talking over an acoustic set. By the time Arizona went on, Daniel had just about had enough, but stayed because Al was the main reason they were there, although the sexualised parting words still played in his mind.
Tonight, Arizona Al announced, he was going to try some ‘mellow, chill-out vibes’. The absence of a guitar alarmed Richard, and Chris had a very bad feeling, which was confirmed by the opening note which continued without variation, while Arizona gradually added more single notes, together with some indistinct sound effects.
Daniel simply turned his back to the stage and ordered three vodkas. Arizona was now on his second song, a variation of the first, with even less going on.
Daniel turned to Chris,
“You enjoying this shit ?”
“Not at all.”
“Czar Bar open ?”
“Yep. Andrei working. And Olga.”
“Olga ?” asked Richard.
“Let’s go,” said Daniel, finishing his beer and walking out. Chris and Richard followed, both giving a wave to Arizona as he played on, with a surprised and hurt look on his face. Richard was already on damage control, telling Chris that they could say that their friend had to get a connection. Chris shrugged his shoulders,
“Or we could just say that he was shit.”
“Yeah, you could.”
Daniel was asking how to get to the bar. Chris explained,
“We’ll take the U-Bahn and change at Alex. U5. Five stops, total.”
Walking to the U5 platform, Daniel put his arms around the two others,
“Right, we need to get laid tonight. Agreed ?”
“Not even a question,” replied Chris.
“Tonight ?” repeated Richard, “anytime this decade would work for me.”
They walked down the escalators and waited on the platform. Daniel took out his cigarettes and passed them around.
“So, pussy action. What’s the deal ? Chris, you must get a nice bit of snatch, working the bar, hey ?”
“Have you been in the Czar Bar ?”
“Yeah, fair enough. Thought they’d be a few more girls in, tonight. Not much doing, was there ? Couple of knackered old slappers. I’d have liked that French bird, but she’d scarpered. ‘Bout you, Rich ?”
“Going through a fallow period. Got the seed, but no where to plant it.”
“We’re both going through an adjustment,” Chris intervened. “I was dumped by my girlfriend and Richard . . . “ the later himself completed the ellipsis,
“Is hung up on a girl who just isn’t interested,”
Daniel turned to him,
“Didn’t you have any other girlfriends ?”
“No. I was saving myself for her.”
“Ah, well, that’s the problem. To get a girl, you have to have a girl.”
“Thanks, Buddha, great advice.”
“Naw, listen. It’s like an auction. You put a piece up, no one’s interested, it gets tossed. Pun intended. But, someone likes it, others get interested. Get it ?”
“So,” asked Richard, trying to follow the logic, “if Lorelei had known I had a girlfriend, she’d have been more interested ?”
“Couldn’t have been less interested,” quipped Chris.
“Oy, shut it, you,” threatened Daniel.
“Oh, I see, he can get away with the insults, but I say something and I get the ‘I can kill you with one fingernail’ shit ?”
“Yeah. He’s not a plonker like you,” clarified Daniel with a subtle wink at Richard.
“He has a point, there, he has several points there,” added Richard. Daniel continued,
“You just gotta get a girl first, any girl. You can do that, can’t ya ?” Richard just shrugged. “Fuck me,” concluded Daniel.
“He may have to. Oh, come on, that was funny. OK, I know, I’ll shut it.” Chris walked off a little down the platform.
On the train, they continued the seminar, Daniel giving advice to Richard, and then learnt why Chris was dumped.
“She heard you say she were shit in bed ? Fuck, that’s hard. Now, tonight; I know that Al’s yer pal and all that guff, but . . . fucking hell, what a stinking pile of shit. I’ve heard some wank in my time, but that . . . “
“It’s part of the Berlin scene,” began Richard. “Anybody can get up and do something.”
“Problem is,” continued Chris, “most people do and most people aren’t overburdened with talent.”
“Not tonight, anyway,” laughed Daniel. “Thanks, guys, for taking me. Load of bollocks, but still thanks.”
They all laughed. Chris, followed by Richard, began to give more sage Berlin advice,
“Never presume that because it’s office hours, offices will be open.”
“Don’t touch Schultheiss beer. I know the logo is real inviting, but your stomach won’t thank you for it.”
Chris picked up the slack,
“Following on from there, don’t ever drink from the tap, despite all the assurances,”
“He’s right. May as well just drink out of the toilet bowl.”
More laughter. Then Daniel returned to the former subject of performing in Berlin.
“I mean, I could do better than that.”
“Well, then,” challenged Richard, “do it.”
“Yeah, but I don’t know any musicians, or anybody, just you two tossers.”
“But we know people,” argued Richard
“Oh, yeah, like that guy with the fucking pumpkin head ? No, thanks. Man turning into a woman. Fucking idiot.”
“No,” said Chris calmly. “The Russians. Andrei is a bass player. Boris is a fucking wild hot gypsy guitarist. Another guy who lives with them, Sascha, is a drummer. They’ve all played in bands, always looking for a singer. We’ll see some, if not all, of them tonight. Time to put up or shut up. Or are you just all talk ?”