Math rock and prog have a lot in common. In either camp, you’re sure to find odd time signatures, flurries of notes, and strange, ironic fashion trends. We’re big fans of both, and to be honest we differentiate between the two less and less as time goes on. Plus, we already covered prog’s place in the birth of math rock with our History of Math Rock series.
Separating such close-knit musical distinctions might seem pointless at first. Throw a capo on the fifth fret, and prog strangely turns to midwest math simply due to the higher register. Toss in some double bass drumming though, people think it’s kind of proggy again. Granted that it’s all a matter of perspective, from here it seems so many of these ‘boundaries’ are defined by tone or technique, like bebop or… djent?
So lately we’ve been curious what people more removed from the whole debacle might think. We spend our days talking to people in the bands – what if we tried another sample group? Why not reach out to a label head, award winning producer, or a trusted playlist editor?
How about all three?
Let’s start with Rebeca Alcaraz, a renowned playlist curator best known for her work under the social media handle @prog.me. This November, Rebeca published a double-tiered playlist of bedroom prog and math releases, which you can check out below. We’re honored to present her insights on the matter. So what is it about prog?
Rebeca:When I hear the term prog, I think of the words challenge and improvement. Prog music comprehends all that music that arises in response to an evenness in sound and, although we find its origins in the late 1960s within the desire of taking rock and roll to a higher level, today we can apply the term to other genres. For me, the term includes all the music that presents a constant challenge to established and common sounds. However, far from presenting itself as a contrast or as an opposite to that popular sound within a genre, prog music is, by definition, the progress, improvement or evolution of that sound.
In this way, I understand the term as a creative alternative that implies the enrichment of music by including different elements such as the mixture of other genres, the execution in odd times signatures and the incorporation of other musical instruments, etc.The term prog has more to do with doing something new by pushing the musical limits of the time and less with the strict repetition of the characteristic sound of the genre and of the time. “Prog music” describes all that music that reflects a complete exercise of creative freedom within a genre.
FB: What comes to mind when you hear the term math rock?
Rebeca:When I hear the term math rock I think of the phrases: rhythmic richness and organized chaos. I think math rock is that genre of music that you can listen to and fully identify but that is, at the same time, difficult to explain in a clear way.
So, far from trying to describe it, I consider that when I think of math rock I think of a rhythmic richness that is sometimes difficult to unravel at first listen because it is full of abrupt and sudden changes but that, ultimately, is perfectly structured. The influences it has from jazz, progressive rock, emo (among other genres and subgenres), makes it a controlled and organized creative chaos.
FB: Brilliant. Can bands be both?
Rebeca:Absolutely, there are ways to be both. I think that innovation should be the constant in any creative process, including musical composition. It is true that all bands and musicians start from somewhere and are inclined to develop in a specific genre, however, the challenge there must be to transform what they know and take it to the next level by including their own personal essence.
At the end of the day, the music discloses many of the musician’s personal influences, however it can reveal other aspects as well. Music can show much of the personal growth and learning of musicians over the years and, more importantly, it can give them the opportunity to experiment with their sound in endless directions and in new ways. For these reasons I think that there will always be a way to innovate or to be progressive within math rock and also within many other genres and sub-genres as well. The key is to get away from this strict repetition of the same resource; the starting point is just that; the direction we decide to take next is what should be the priority.
Of course, there are some bands that have embraced their creative freedom and managed to give their music unique features. Luminism, are a band from Atlanta, GA and their new EP “East Coast Emo” perfectly describes this idea of pushing the genre to another level. Their music is a flawless mix of rock, electronic music and kind of a jazz, pop and RnB vibe (especially within the voice of the vocalist). They´re amazing!
Other examples are Nito, Stage Kids, Thank You Scientist, Strawberry Girls, CHON, The Most, Paranoid Void, Haisuinonasa, Monobody, Granite Hands, Jardín de La Croix, Moray Pringle… There are so many bands. For me, the difference is that the term prog, in general (not prog rock or prog metal), is not a genre. So maybe we should think of this term as a reminder that it is possible to create a different sound within math rock or any other genre and take it to the next level – there is no difference but a creative opportunity.
Obviously, we were correct in assuming Rebeca would be a fantastic voice for the conversation. Her answer to our final question (not to mention all the others) helps designate not only expertise but gargantuan levels of dedication to the craft as well. When it comes to playlists, we can barely put together a top 50. So without further fuss, the final question: how does genre factor into her curation process?
Rebeca:It varies a lot. When I create playlists, I think more about their purpose. If I make them according to a genre or a subgenre, my motivation is more inclined to discover new bands. I spend a lot of time searching for new songs and, ultimately, having them concentrated in one place makes listening to them more accessible.
On the other hand, when I create playlists without prioritizing a specific genre or subgenre, I respond to a more personal need, perhaps linked to my state of mind, to the time I have available, to the place where I am and also to my personal activities at a certain moment.
I do not listen to the same music when I am at work or in the car as when I am resting at home. In general, my playlists respond more to specific needs, such as searching and discovering new artists, or to inspiring me, calm me down, etc. There are times for everything.
Next up we have Max Cayer, head honcho of Coup Sur Coup records. Earlier this year, Max helped hook us up with bands like Things Amazing, Horse Torso, and Coeur Atomique. He’s always whispering cool stuff in our ears about behind the scenes stuff, and we wanted to get his take on the discussion. So what’s the first thing that comes to mind when he hears math rock?
Max:I wanna say the million of American Don copy cats that followed in the wake of Don Caballero‘s 1999 album, but that would be nitpicking. Math rock makes me think of polyrhythms. For some reason i’m always imaging a ship engine room with multiple engines working at different speeds, all coming together to make this big vessel move… i don’t really know why it’s what comes up to mind, but that’s what it makes me think of. I think of great musicians pushing the envelope.
On the flip side, I also think of how for a hot minute, everyone was all sounding the same. It was getting on my nerve a bit, all this tapping. Tapping is cool, but too much of a good thing can make you sick.
FB: How about the term ‘prog?’
Max:Long keyboard solos and musicians dressed in capes. Again, I’m slightly kidding here. I was born in the province of Quebec, and in Canada, and Prog Rock was a big deal there. A very big deal. All those old hippies I use to work with in warehouses that would go on and on about Genesis and Gentle Giant. But I also think of the ultimate Prog bands, King Crimson and Rush. Those guys pretty much defined what it was all about. Wrote the rule book, threw it out the window, and rewrote it over and over again. I also think of Voïvod, who definitely were Prog. I think of stuff like Pink Floyd, although some might say it’s not really Prog rock, but to me that’s Prog right there: mind bending music, highly conceptual lyrical content, trail blazers.
Prog doesn’t always equate insane musicianship. I also think of more modern bands like Porcupine Tree. Tortoise is definitely Prog in my book. I’m a big Peter Gabriel fan as well, same for Adrian Belew.
FB: Does you find yourself listening to one more than the other? For any particular reason?
Max:Other than having their heyday in different eras, I don’t think there’s a huge difference between the two. Mind blowing musicianship, but also overindulgence in spades, on both sides of the coin. But it’s 50/50.
Like I mentioned earlier, I sort of grew tired of all the math rock bands that all sounded the same and all that tapping for a while, but whatever. It’s cool, it’s not because I was tired of it that it’s a bad thing necessarily. I tend to be a much bigger fan of older stuff. Don Cab was the first band of that genre that I really got into, so I’m a big fan of the more punkish sounding stuff. Nothing against the new stuff, I released a lot of the newer sounding math rock on the label, but mid 90’s mid west bands is were it’s at for me. Don Cab, June of 44, Rodan, Six Horse, etc.
I’m also a huge fan of the more aggressive bands of the the math realm like Car Bomb, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Botch… hell, even Gorguts is pretty mathy. I mean, I could go on and on, but I would take too much space, so I’ll just stop here.
We found no lies to be detected in Max’s assessment of the early 90’s heyday. 2021 was full of surprises though, and shook loose the death-grip many of us maintained on the proto-math stalwarts of yore. Max’s label is still stacked with modern math rock cred, with bands like Sloth and Turtle, Creta Bourzia, and Poison Arrows on it’s roster. He’s even worked with our beloved William Covert on solo records, who still pops in for articles every now and again.
Last up, we have Grammy winning producer Marcel Fernandez. I worked with him on Childspeak‘s Indulgent Endeavors in 2017, and we’ve been friends ever since. He’s an incomparably great engineer, with high-brow credits like ZZ Top and Foo Fighters from his storied stint as chief engineer at Seattle’s Robert Lang studios. Equally expansive is his place within the Venezuelan punk scene, where he helped launch bands like The Zeta, Piso 23, and many more.
We finally caught up on Christmas Day, and I was once again captured by Marcel’s level of foresight and general wisdom. He’s always been a busy guy, and he brings this immense amount of experience to every situation, whatever he is doing… including our silly questions.
FB: When did you first work with RX Bandits?
Marcel:I contacted RX Bandits probably early 2000’s I think. I did promotion for their shows, I was their promoter for South America pretty much for the first time. They went to Vz one time, then a tour where we did Panama, Brazil, and Venezuela again. Me and Matt recorded an album just burning time to go to the airport we did it back in my studio back in Venezuela, an acoustic album that Matt has. When I moved to LA, they asked if I could go with them on tour to mix them, and we kept working together and I mixed a live DVD they put on sale a coupe years ago.
FB: Would you consider that kind of your first exposure to math rock? Or were you aware of it at the time?
Marcel:I knew the term, but I was not all the way into it. Because not all the math rock is something I can enjoy – when you find a mixture like RX that’s really musical, but still have crazy tempos and things like that, it’s cool, but on the other hand you have these guys are just thinking numbers when they play music and it becomes a little boring, and they lose me. That’s one thing about RX Bandits, it can be really technical but there’s things with for example the drummer… it just has this swag. It doesn’t sound too technical, it has swag and flow and it’s just cool the way they put it together.
FB: Yeah, I mean they’re like a progressive… ska band?
Marcel:Yeah, I wouldn’t call it ska but yeah… like prog meets progressive reggae or something like that.
FB: Do you feel the same way with prog where sometimes it’s a little over analytical?
Marcel: Yeah, there’s a fine line when it becomes actually boring. I do really enjoy some prog stuff. You can feel when the guy is overthinking what he’s playing, and that’s when they lose me pretty much. I still enjoy Rush a lot, I listen to them but lately I’ve been going with playlists and discovering music and not searching. Letting the algorithms work their way into me a little bit, and I’ve been really pleased for some reason.
FB: When you take on a project do you think about a genre, or do you wait for something to make you feel an emotion? Do you feel like recording anyone these days at all?
Marcel:I’m at a point where if I’m going to do a record it’s to have fun and/or enjoy profits. Maybe if there are really cool people are involved, or I really like the music, we’ll see but right now if I’m going to do a record it’s because I know I’ll have a blast. It won’t feel like I’m working. If it feels like I’m working and I’m struggling with musicians ego or things like that, and I’m not getting paid for it, I just won’t do it.
Back in the day you do a record because you like the people, music, or payment. You cannot have the three of them. There’s always gonna be a sacrifice. So right now I gotta have good music or good people, and I won’t give a shit about the payment pretty much. I have to feel like I’m covering my time, but I won’t have expectations that I used to have. Like this album has to do good, good numbers and good exposure. Things that when it was a career were a concern to me. So if they promote it, my name and my brand gets promoted.
But right now dude I would just want to make an album for the three of us having fun in the room and releasing it. I wouldn’t give a shit if it gets reviews in a magazine. I used to care, and try to do things for my career, especially with the pressure I’d get from emigration to work with famous people so they could keep renewing my visa. But right now, I got this grammy and I can use this celebrity shit to carry the Visa… but I don’t care about staying in the states anymore. I get to now work things I think are cool, and not think about what emigration thinks and all that.
FB: You’re also doing a dog blog, right?
Marcel:Yeah, I actually want to focus on that for now. I want to learn the skills to get it going properly and overcome those barriers. I want to focus on that and maybe push people… well, push is not the right word, but I want to maybe let the people know that it’s okay to quit whatever is making their life miserable.
It’s kind of a risk move money wise but I think the time is now. I’ve seen so many people at the marinas with dreams that they’re frustrated with because they get old and they retire to see the world, but their buddies don’t want to see shit. They get sick and die. I see these amazing people with big dreams of cruising, but they wait too much, till the time is right, but the time is over. They just stay at the marina. I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to wait until the time is right.
FB: That situation has definitely come up a lot… I imagine a lot of us have our own marinas to look out on. Last question here, and it’s kind of a dumb one. When you first met us, did you think Childspeak was prog or math rock?
Marcel:Uh… (laughs) you guys like to swing in between the two. One thing that Bri told me was describing you guys as ‘baby prog,’ and I liked that description because there are all of these different parts, but you guys do whatever you want. You blend a little bit of both and make it your thing.
Like we said, we always ask the people closest to us! Sometimes it helps to get a perspective from further out. We’ll let everyone get back to being experts in there respective fields now. We really appreciated everyone’s time, and maybe even learned a thing or two. Time to drink some water.
Alright, back to work on that Top 25 list! If you wanna help keep the site up to date and/or literally buy us a coffee, do it here! Thanks again, for that. We may or may not have time for a Tuesday Music Dump this week but if not, we’ll see you Friday.