For many people, their first exposure to Invalids was indirect: a YouTube video of Pete Davis, founding member, covering the Tera Melos track “A Spoonful of Slurry” in a bedroom, walls stripped bare, with a mirror or doorway in the background to his left. I’ve always found something endearing about that video: Davis tapping away in his bedroom, the top of his head cropped out-of-frame so that he looks mostly beard, sweater, and checkerboard guitar. It has all the hallmarks of early YouTube—the vertical video, 2012 video quality, and above all that, a kind of earnestness amplified by the fact that Davis absolutely nails it. Every angular melody, every jittering stop, Davis coolly strums, bobs, and taps in perfect unison.
And for awhile, that was Invalids. Their first album, Eunoia (2012), was written with programmed drums and original members, bassist Nick Shaw and Davis, living on opposite sides of the country. While their touring wasn’t extensive for obvious reasons, the online following for Eunoia was notable, and it makes sense why. At a time when the genre felt like it may have been crystallizing into a canonical “math rock sound,” bands like Invalids were coming up with new ways to push against the listener’s expectations. Pop-punk vocals, songs that didn’t rest their hats on lyrical tropes, energetic and eclectic two-handed tapping—in 2012, bands like Invalids took the pulse of math rock and offered the genre a different sensibility, one that built on archetypes, but refused to cling to them.
All of this to say: there’s something about Invalids that has always felt earnest. Displays of technicality muted by smart song structure, charmingly-imperfect vocals, quirky melodic through-lines—all of this couched by a not-so-serious, playful demeanor makes their music feel organic and explorative, often revelatory. However, Invalids had been primarily a pet project—one that pushed on our expectations, sure—but a pet project nonetheless. It was something people stumbled upon when trolling Bandcamp, or heard about through the grapevine on forums. They didn’t do extensive US tours or anything of the kind, and after their 2014 release Strengths, the band went quiet.
However, in 2018, six years after the two-man show of Eunoia and four years after Strengths, Invalids took on more members. With Davis wanting to make Invalids into more than a bedroom gig, he took on Joe Scala for drums (and the occasional glockenspiel), recruited Raymond Bonanno for bass and vocals in place of Nick Shaw, and took on Brock Benzel for a second guitar and vocals. One need not look any further than their Audiotree session to see just how much this paid off. The band plays off of each other mesmerizingly, weaving parts together in a way that feels both freeing and intelligent. The music, off the most recent EP Fulfillment, is thrilling, a masterclass on using tension to create musical propulsion. Not simply a development for Invalids as a band, Fulfillment hints at new directions for the genre as a whole—deeper jazz harmony, more fluid rhythmic ideas, a kind of effortless and entertaining complexity that feels saccharine and novel and, most importantly, fun.
Among new members is Pennsylvania-based musician/composer/arranger Brock Benzel. While Brock might not be quite the math rock-inclined household name as Pete Davis and other math rock darlings, Brock boasts an impressive performance record: as of 2019 Brock has played guitar in and/or written music for Good Game, Floral, Canada, and—most important for us here and now—Invalids. And it’s easy to see why Pete Davis let Brock into the band. Brock’s Instagram is replete with videos of them tapping away at elegant riffs and playing beautifully-rich sections of solo compositions. Their work has an ineffable quality about it, as if it feels both new and nostalgic at the same time. Falling more in-line with guitarists like TTNG’s Tim Collis than Tera Melos’s Nick Reinhart, Brock plays the kind of melodies that make you wish you’d written something even half as infectious.
In writing a longer piece on the development of math rock as a genre, I asked Brock for an interview to help my research. While initially I didn’t intend for the interview to be public, Brock’s thoughtful responses, genuineness, and insight proved too important to keep to myself. In it, Brock demonstrates not only a knowledge that goes far beyond the norm, but an understanding about the musical culture surrounding them, their work, and their bands that only comes from deep immersion and careful thinking. Though we talk about musical development and Invalids, the conversation often becomes about music in the abstract, about art, and about Brock, modest as they are.
FB: A lot of contemporary musicians that get asked to comment on “math rock”—I’m thinking particularly of, say, those in Hella and Tera Melos—disavow that label entirely. Nick Reinhart, for example, almost exclusively calls their band “weirdo punk” and Spencer Seim has described Hella’s music as “tripping out”. What do you think of when we say math rock? I think it would be cool if you could identify a few things in this answer: some bands or hybrids of bands that you think embody that sound to you, some tonal qualities you think of when you think of “math rock” bands that interest you, and what you believe the overall project of that loose genre might be.
BB: Despite the friction vis-á-vis “math rock” as ideal/preferred terminology, bands like Tera Melos or Hella I believe approach describing their respective sounds in a way that funnels into what it means to be a math rock band. That is, to them, what they do is what it is, and that is simply “something else.” It’s not just rock, jazz, or punk but rather something that falls between the cracks of commonplace descriptors. These types of descriptions lean closer to the avant-garde in that the music becomes more difficult to reduce into just metadata or a couple consistent elements. To me, that allows the music and musicians to embrace and reflect their humanity and personality in the music without necessarily preconceiving notions of how complex or dynamic it must be. To say “my band plays freak-out music” hits closer to an engaging feeling than “my band plays intricate rock music with lots of starting and stopping, a variety of difficult techniques, etc.” When I think of specific bands in the genre, I think of it coming from two sides, one raw, unhinged, inspired by punk (Hella, Tera Melos) the other more careful, delicate, often inspired by indie or jazz (TTNG, Maps & Atlases). Of course the two cross into each other often, but those two sub-archetypes provided a welcoming means of approach when I first started listening to math rock. The tonal qualities that separate these artists from more run-of-the-mill counterparts range from off-kilter harmonies and cadences to creative ways of rearranging the traditional “rock band” format (roles of instruments, interplay between them, etc.).
FB: On the opposite end of the spectrum, what bands/sounds/tones feel like they are “too easy” or “too obvious” or even “cliche for the genre”? You don’t have to throw anybody under the bus here unless you feel like you want to. What I’m more interested in is the musical qualities that you feel are uninspired, played-out, or trite at this point in the genre’s lifespan.
BB: We must remain grateful for the internet as it has brought the community together and amplified it thoroughly. However, like any niche interest, the larger the base becomes, the larger the risk of homogenization. That we can say there are trite or played-out sounds happening in math rock is a bit of a double-edged sword. It’s great that math rock is more accessible to people every day but occasionally runs the risk of being too copycatted and made redundant. To me there are a lot of uninspiring instrumental groups running what Invalids boys and I like to call the “weather-channel math rock” sound. It’s effectively easy-listening, not straying far from a formulaic and generally not-too-adventurous approach. While trite biases may hover over some creators in the genre, at the end of the day there’s nothing wrong with that sound; no one sits down and says “today I’m going to write a formulaic song” so there must be inspiration at its heart, even if it’s not the best. This happens in every genre as it grows, and often the greats in the style rise to precedence.
FB: If one of the signature qualities of Jazz is improvisation and live performance, how do you see that resonating among math rock bands now? In what ways do you feel that bands like, say, CHON, have moved the genre out away from the improvisational and into the rigidly-composed? Beyond that, how has that affected the genre’s musical sophistication?
BB: Most improvisation I see in math rock bands lately takes the Tera Melos route: towards noisy, chaotic group music often without strict form but within songs with strict forms. Sometimes bands will lay on more ambient improv sections too. Math rock rarely has solos in my opinion. I think CHON took math rock in a direction that hybridized the general modern prog appeal, which more often than not abandons improvisation outside of perhaps guitar solo format. But I also think CHON’s role has moved more towards “Lo-Fi Chill Hip Hop Beats To Study And Relax To” territory. It kind of embodies the easy-listening vibe I described earlier, but has enough technical acrobatics to keep tons of people engaged. While I may not always love it, they are doing more for math rock’s accessibility than most bands today, and I respect that a lot.
FB: As we know we’ve had all kinds of bands that get thrown into this genre. Some like Slint are thought of as more atmospheric, Don Cab is a little more glitchy, Storm and Stress is nearly atonal, Tera Melos is surfy, and obviously bands like Daughters or Dillinger Escape Plan push into the heavier spectrum. When you say that you want to push math rock harmony in a different direction, which direction is that? What do we mean when we say “harmony” in the traditional sense versus where you want the music to go?
BB: I would like to employ more rich jazz harmony into contexts like Invalids, Good Game, which (I’d like to think) hybridize the TTNG pretty/indie approach and the Tera Melos spastic/raw approach. Many math rock bands on the pretty/indie side stick to pretty familiar territory harmonically, often writing the same harmonies but with characteristic math rock guitar tapping or odd time signatures. I think this style has more potential with richer harmonies, also putting jazz type harmonies in a new context. Given that math rock often falls between the cracks of other styles, I think it can act as a vehicle towards fusing with almost any other style and pull it off.
FB: Obviously technique-wise, tapping has become a staple for most, if not all, math rock bands—how do you feel that technique impacts harmony and, by extension, how do you feel that technique influences the creative goals of math rock musicians?
BB: This is a great question because the staple math rock techniques put harmony in a different context from a compositional approach. Often tappers use open tunings, which can sound delightful in their key. However, this makes it more difficult to branch into tension and release sometimes because the bias is so heavily towards the release side without having the tension in the first place. This is where so much safe, uninspired math rock comes from in my opinion. I personally love playing in alternate tunings, but I still treat them almost like standard tuning in that I should have a wide enough vocabulary to create those tense moments so the tuning doesn’t become a one-dimensional tool. It shouldn’t be a crutch, but more an asset to be paired with all one’s other creative assets. From a tapping perspective, this approach has challenged what I know and reinvented the way I play. Tapping itself has more to it than I think a lot of people realize; it just requires a lot of exploration. In a way it’s very pianistic, nearly changing the guitar’s role as a common instrument in a rock setting.
FB: Turning to Invalids, could you try and trace for me the musical/harmonic timeline of Invalids as a band? Obviously it was a two-piece for a long time, but from the perspective of someone like you who went to music school and has a rich knowledge of harmony, could you describe what you think the main musical foci are on, say, Eunoia, versus Fulfillment?
BB: Invalids has retained a distinct motivic perspective on every release. Usually there is a core harmonic theme that is explored in various ways. Since I joined, I have sprinkled some harmonic ideas into Pete’s head, and he embraces them when writing new songs. Sometimes it’s as straightforward as me showing him a harmonic situation I enjoy, and he’ll put it in the context of one of our songs. The Invalids boys are also always eager to try new things, so I’m delighted to contribute my harmonic knowledge.
FB: With that answer in mind, how is the band looking to develop that sound? What are some musical qualities that you believe are unique to Invalids in some capacity? If it’s possible, I’d be interested in either ways you all write that you think have a big impact or certain kinds of harmonic ideas that you try to indulge in/avoid.
BB: As I mentioned before, I think Invalids has a unique approach to the indie/emo vibe as well as the raw/spastic vibe that meets them in the middle. Every new song tries something a way we haven’t done it before or puts us out of our comfort zone in some way. One thing I noticed when I first started learning Invalids songs when I was in high school was that every song uses tapping in a different way than the one before it. As a result the learning curve for performing it becomes very steep but also incredibly rewarding from a performing and listening perspective because it’s always developing and changing. With regard to new harmonic situations we want to employ, we mainly want to find new ways of creating tension as mentioned before. New harmonic situations means the songs can never sound the same as each other in my opinion.
FB: From your music and talking with you about other music, I’d like to hear more about your theories of melody and rhythm. I would characterize early Invalids stuff, even though a little chaotic and crazy, to be pretty conventionally melodic—some of the stuff even borders on pop punk-y, and Pete has even gotten on the #defendfourfour train. In what ways would you like to see the melodic sophistication of math rock bands—Invalids included—progress, change, and develop?
BB: I often find myself at odds with where melody should go to grow in math rock. I believe wholeheartedly that an honest yet accessible melodic framework can tie together chaos because people relate the most to melody, human voice, lyrics, etc. That pop punk style of vocal melody gives the listener enough context to allow the instrumentals to push their boundaries. You can get away with a lot if the melody is catchy or familiar, even wild harmonic situations or sporadic rhythms. It also conveys a certain attitude that the instrumentals alone might not. I would like to see melodies explore more key changes, like jazz. The great thing about melody is that it pulls the harmony with it. If you change key in the melody, the harmony has to adapt to that situation (unless you are going for some crazy polytonal business, which would be a whole other type of exciting): two birds one stone. A lot of math rock isn’t very melodically sophisticated, so that could develop more, but it also doesn’t need to be super sophisticated.
FB: You’re also in Good Game—in what ways do you view the musical project of that band to be different from Invalids and, by extension, other popular math rock bands?
BB: Good Game is even more rigorous with the harmony developments. That’s where most of my writing goes, and I try to write songs in a way that I haven’t heard other bands do. I want to combine that pop punk attitude with jazz harmony through the lens of math rock. It is fairly similar to Invalids, but with more emphasis on the harmony as you mentioned in that one video. I have never heard a band combine those things in this way, and I so dearly want to hear someone do it, so we are doing it ourselves. The subject matter of new Good Game songs is also quite different from that of Invalids or most math rock bands for that matter. I have been exploring writing about topics that aren’t the typical emo sad unrequited love business and venture more into self-identity, gender identity, and other attitudes/topics I find underrepresented in the genre.
FB: Rhythm has always had an intricate, vital role in the sonic texture of math rock. Obviously the name is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the genre’s penchant for odd times and shifting signatures. How has the rhythmic component of math rock pushed its harmonic component? I know we’re speaking in broad strokes here, but do you believe the “math rock sound,” that ephemeral thing, has been pushed in a certain harmonic direction because of, in spite of, or alongside the rhythm section?
BB: I think rhythm has pushed the genre as a whole forward so much. It’s the pulse that makes the music’s heart beat. I would argue that it hasn’t had a large effect on harmony. If anything, complex rhythms have allowed many bands to forgo exploring richer harmonies because the rhythms themselves are enough to stimulate them or the listener. If you are hanging out on a normal major chord, it becomes a lot more interesting when the guitar plays in 5/8 and the drums play in 4/4, so harmony can take a backseat in that case. Pairing the rich harmony with the rich rhythms makes my heart smile.
FB: Mirroring that, Invalids is a band that has undergone some changes relatively recently—new members, more shows, a new(ish) EP—and you are among those new changes. How do you believe your understanding of music is shaping the band? What are some ways that you believe you personally are pushing the band in a musical direction it hadn’t explored before?
BB: The Invalids boys and I have spent a lot of time together; we know a lot more about each other than most people do, so I believe there’s a lot of subconscious understanding going into making new music together knowing so much about who is going to play. We are all sort of similar brands of strange when you get down to it, but we also toss ideas around to each other often. Just the other day we were all in a room together and came up with at least 3 new ideas for a song within minutes. I personally think my impact is most obvious in how the harmonic vocabulary of the band is developing. Sometimes it’s as simple as a technical idea like “what if you tapped a note and pulled off another note you just tapped at the same time” kind of stuff where we explore the physicality of our hands on the instrument.
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