Ah, one of life’s biggest mysteries. Superseded only by: ‘what is the meaning of life?’, ‘how can a massive cockwomble like Donald Trump become the president of the most of the powerful country on Earth?’, ‘What is Kanye West?’ and ‘what did Andrew Ridgeley actually do in Wham?’
This could prove to be a very useful chapter to refer to in conjunction with chapter six: ‘How To Explain To A Work Colleague What Kind Of Band You’re In’.
So, Math rock. Cool. That’s easy enough to fathom. Wait a second…
Mathematical rock music? Maths and music?!
It conjures up an image of Carol Vorderman fronting Def Leppard. Or a drum kit made entirely out of calculators. Or worse, Carol Vorderman playing a drum kit made entirely out of calculators, whilst their one-armed drummer has a much needed beach holiday in Magaluf.
It’s not that by the way. I actually kind of wish it was, but it isn’t.
Right, let’s work this out together. Imagine The Beatles. Lovely, clean-cut, suit wearing, image-conscious Beatles, with their tidy bowl cuts, clean, chorus-laden guitars and beaming smiles. Picture them playing their glorious, harmony-lead classic pop songs to an audience cram-packed full of screaming girls at Shea Stadium in New York. Got that? Cool.
Now, to make it clearer I’m going to drop in the elements of math rock into that image.
Imagine that Ringo Starr has a bushy beard, a plaid shirt, tatty black skinny jeans and a pair of white Converse trainers. As do John, Paul, and George. None of them are smiling – in fact it looks like they would all rather be anywhere on this god forsaken earth than on a stage right now.
George and John have a vast array of effects pedals in front of them that flash and make loud and weird noises, and those glorious clean chorus sounds are now a wall of shit-inducing white noise.
The four vocal microphone stands and microphones have been removed from the front of the stage and are now being used to amplify Ringo’s second floor tom, cowbell and additional crash and china cymbals. The packed audience of screaming girls have transformed into a sparse crowd of shy men in their 30’s wearing plaid shirts, skinny jeans and stroking their patchy beards, whilst nodding in quiet approval.
And Shea Stadium is now a shed in Rochdale.
But they’re still playing ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, right? Wrong! They’re playing the humorously titled ‘I Want To Hold Your Gland’. In 15/8.
What is this 15/8 nonsense anyway?
Ok, so in this section we’ll imagine Queen’s wonderful bass-and-drum-driven song ‘Another One Bites The Dust’.
“What is this 15/8 nonsense anyway?”
That drum beat pounds along in a understated, but affective pattern – bass drum, snare, bass drum, snare (or to put it in a slightly more juvenile fashion: bum-crack-bum-crack). Each drum/bum hit is on the beat. The bar follows four beats and then begins again, and so on. This is called a “4/4 time signature”. Lovely stuff. Thanks Queen. Thueen.
I’d perhaps poorly estimate that about 95% of chart hits over the last 50 years have been in a 4/4 time signature. This is mainly due the fact that it allows everyone to nod their head and tap their foot in a regular, straightforward pattern. It flows proper nice, like.
Just do not mention “4/4” to a math rock fanatic. It’s like handing a cracker loaded with Boursin to a vampire, as you simultaneously open their bedroom curtains in the middle of the day. 4/4 time signatures are deemed straightforward and boring to a math rock fanatic. Who wants to fucking nod their head in time? These people want to hear complicated, noisy music and dance like they’ve just walked too close to a bonfire and inadvertently set fire to their leg. Hence the element of ‘math’.
“The bearded men stood at the side and at the back of the venue are stunned; you can just about make out their little prematurely balding heads nodding confidently out of time.”
Maths is not easy. Unless you’re intelligent, then it’s probably a piece of piss. I, however, still need to use my fingers to count.
So then, let’s add some extra beats to make it – for example – seven beats to the bar. Instantly, this makes it much harder to nod to. Add to that some irregular stops and dissonant chords and we are beginning to cook with gas. A safer alternative to that pesky leg burning bonfire.
Now then, it’s all as well having a singular bar of 7/4, but quite honestly we need to keep alternating those tricky time signatures. We cannot, under any circumstances, let this audience of twelve we have get too comfortable – or in this case, bored.
So, let’s do a count of six beats, then three bars in 9/8, then an abrupt stop for two beats, and then two stabby bars in 13/8, then a bar in 4/4 – woah! careful now – but then, KABOOM!!! Four bastard bars of mother fucking 7/4 with an off-beat disco stomp!
The bearded men stood at the side and at the back of the venue are stunned; you can just about make out their little prematurely balding heads nodding confidently out of time.
The three people who look like they enjoy The Kaiser Chiefs, talking in-depth and enthusiastically about the Britain’s Got Talent and getting smashed on four pints of Fosters have made a swift exit whilst pointing at their ears and mouthing, “what’s this shit?! It’s too loud!”
But that one hugely enthusiastic guy you get without fail at every single gig, right at the front – with both straps of his rucksack tightly in place – is absolutely losing his shit. He is dancing like a cowboy has opened fire at his feet, but with an AK-47. So far he has twice fallen across your guitarists pedals and hit the tuner, and now he’s knocked over that incredibly poorly placed pint that’d been left carelessly right next to the four-way extension plug.
This, my friends, is deemed a success – true confirmation that you are in a genuine math rock band.
Man the merch stand, quick! It’s time to turn away somebody who wants a medium t-shirt, but obviously you only have one XS ladies shirt and 15 XXXXLs – big enough to host a circus – left in bright orange (this part will be covered in more detail in the two-part chapter ‘Touring in a Math Rock Band’).
So, that’s math rock then. I think. Is it?! I just tend to tell people my band were like King Crimson, but heavier and without vocals.