One of the names in the new wave of progressive rock bands that keeps coming up these days is Minnesota's Bubblemath. Combining muscular musical dexterity, witty lyrics and vocal harmonies, and jazz overtones, this five-piece ensemble continues to expand their fan base. Pete Pardo had a chance to catch up with keyboard player, vocalist, and chief lyricist Kai Esbensen regarding the band's music, history, and assorted other tidbits.
Sea of Tranquility: How has reception been to the new CD so far in the prog community?
Kai Esbensen: Excellent, actually. Which is great just in and of itself, of course. But also because it's immensely satisfying to know that we're "giving something back to the community", as it were. Before Bubblemath, I'd always been on the consumer-end of the prog world... taking and taking and TAKING.
I mean, it's one thing to thank all the bands that have put out such great music over the years. But I've always felt a little sad that I wasn't able to thank my fellow prog-fans for making it all possible in the first place. You know? As awesome and inspiring as the great prog bands are, those bands would never have been able to make their albums if it weren't for the ravenous throngs of prog fans. I recognized that back when I was
just a fan myself, and now that I've got a band that the fans seem to enjoy... well... it's pretty cool to be able to give something back.
Anyway, I'm glad that so many members of the prog community enjoy it, and I
guarantee they'll enjoy our second CD even more!
Sea of Tranquility: Can you tell us a little bit about the band, for those who are new to you?
Kai: Four of the five of us slogged through the hallways of the same high school. Although, since we were in different graduating classes, we were never all in the same hallways at the same time. Being musicians with a similar distaste for popular standards of composition, however, we shared several mutual friends. Which is how we were initially introduced.
The first real incarnations of Bubblemath began in September of 1992. A couple of the songs on our CD were actually written back in those early days. We kept having bad luck with drummers, though... and we spent most
of the '90s searching for the right one. It wasn't until October 1998 that our current, and definitive, drummer, James, answered our ad.
What do we do? We try to write the music we wish we could hear. As they say, if you want something done, do it your own damn bloody self. So we did.
Sea of Tranquility: Some influences are apparent in the bands music, like Gentle Giant, a bit >of jazz, maybe Frank Zappa, King Crimson. What groups did you grow up
listening to that influenced your music?
Kai: We were mostly influenced by what we DIDN'T like, actually. A shared sense
of disgust, and an urgency to do something about it, is really what's had the strongest impact on the music we write. I mean, we certainly appreciate aspects of the "Big Five", as they are known. But we have some
extremely deep dissatisfactions with things, and those are what predominantly guide the Bubblemath path.
It's funny about the Zappa comparisons we get. Mostly, I'd imagine, it's because people notice what they consider to be off-color lyrical
images. Since I'm the lyricist for 99% of Bubblemath's tunes, I have to insist that Bubblemath lyrics are not all that off-color. And when they are, they're not off-color for off-color's sake. A great deal of care and
consideration goes into into every word. A strong and memorable product is crucial to the Bubblemath mission, and strong lyrical imagery is an integral part of that mission.
Oh, I'm glad you mentioned jazz in your question. So many people fail to notice the emphasis we put on thick, chewy, jazz chord stacks.
So thick and chewy!
Great... now I'm all hungry.
Sea of Tranquility: Me too, I guess!? Anyway, back to the album, what is the meaning behind the CD's title?
Kai: When it came time to decide on a graphic concept for the album, we knew we wanted it to be as thoughtful and carefully involved as our music is. We had to make sure we slathered quality over all aspects of our product. So we needed an album title that would lend itself to an elaborate package design. After a great deal of brainstorming, we got the idea to use the standard periodic table of the elements and try to spell something kind of self-referential, using only authentic element symbols from the table. This is a lot harder that you might think... for example, you can't spell things like "periodic" or "table" or "element" or "chemical". Eventually Blake and I came up with "Such Fine Particles of
the Universe" and salvation was ours! It works especially well because the adjective "fine" works double-duty as
meaning both "very good" as well as "very small".
Sea of Tranquility: Where did you get the idea behing the CD packaging? Pretty unique...
Kai: Thanks! Yeah, like I said, we wanted something that would lend itself to an elaborate package design. So, once we settled on "Such Fine Particles of the Universe" as the title, we started to think about how to present it. The idea of die-cutting the symbols out of the table on the back, and embossing them onto the front, came pretty naturally out of that.
Sea of Tranquility: Kind of like some of the old "imaginative" prog LP'die-cut's back in the 70's...
Kai: Yes. The salt-to-stars background scheme served the spirit of the title pretty well, I thought. I actually took all those salt pictures myself with my video microscope. I took the cell photos in the inside of the booklet, too. Those are all authentic, by the way, those cells. That's actually Jay's blood, for example.
Jon and I designed the booklet, all those individual graphic themes for each song.
Sea of Tranquility: What are some of your favorite tracks on the CD, and why?
Kai: I have a favorite composition on the CD, and a favorite track on the CD. They are not the same. My favorite TRACK on the CD is "Doll Hammer" -- it just turned out so phenomenally well. I always smile when I hear it. My favorite composition on the CD, however, is "Cells Out". It's just
a better song, compositionally.
Sea of Tranquility: What is the live prog scene like in Minnesota?
Kai: A friend of mine actually refers to Minneapolis as "Minneaprogless". If
that answers your question.
Sea of Tranquility: Sadly, it does...
Kai: Yeah, there's almost no audience for what we do here. That's where the internet comes in! We're selling about 100 CDs a month, and about 60% of those sales come from outside the United States. We're hoping to start doing some small regional tours in the U.S. pretty
soon here to help rustle up some better name recognition.
Sea of Tranquility: Some new and upcoming release in the genre are starting to make
mainstream news, like Peter Gabriel, Spock's Beard, Porcupine Tree, Flower Kings, and Symphony X. What do you think the near future holds for these bands as well as Bubblemath as far as wider recognition?
Kai: Well, I wouldn't say that Peter Gabriel's career is exactly starved for recognition...! As easy as it is to find fault with his compositions over the last 20 years, I do appreciate the approach he took on his latest CD. I think it will force people into accepting music that doesn't do what they expect it to do. And that's always a good thing. I don't own any CDs by those other bands, so I don't know how good they are. But I would hazard that the more people are forced to be aware of
non-typical music, the better for the progressive music scene in general. And the healthier the progressive scene, the better it is
for the bands who make the music, and, in the end, the better for the fans!
Sea of Tranquility: Well put!
Kai: It's been a slow process for bands that don't fit into the mainstream, battling through the 80s and 90s. But I think that, particularly thanks to the internet, more people will be able to find their way into the music their souls crave. An appreciation for compositional intrigue isn't just reserved for middle-aged white males remembering the heyday of the progressive '70s. It's something that is in the blood. Every day new 12-year-old kids
all over the world are suddenly realizing that they hate the radio. So they seek out options online. This helps the progressive community grow, which helps the bands, which helps the fans, which helps the community grow
more. It's a trickle, but it's an endless trickle. And the fact that more and more progressive bands are making ripples in the mainstream shows that the flow is steadily increasing.
Sea of Tranquility: Have the numerous festivals helped prog in your opinion?
Kai: Definitely. It's the same rules as with any marketing campaign: Expose more people to certain products and services, and more people will purchase those products and services.