The Thank You Scientist crew.
Your fretless guitar—the Vigier Surfreter—doesn’t have fret markers or lines on the fretboard. Is it hard to find the right notes?
It’s actually not that bad! You just go for it and feel it out. You just have to keep your ears open. If you sit with it for a couple of days you’ll be like, “Ah, this isn’t so scary.” Muscle memory and playing other fretless instruments helps as well. I play a Japanese instrument called the shamisen, too, which has no frets and it’s got a really weird scale—the instrument is very long and thin—and from playing that I got used to feeling the distance between pitches.
Thank You Scientist doesn’t sound like Frank Zappa, but there are a lot of Zappa-isms in your music. Was he a big influence?
I was obsessed with Zappa for a long time. He was one of those turning-point musicians. Everybody can pinpoint some musicians that shaped where they went musically. Through Zappa I got into exploring fusion and classical music. I spent a lot of time picking apart stuff on his records—all the weird musical figures and cool rhythmic stuff. He was definitely a big influence. Aesthetically I don’t think we have much in common with him, but there are certainly moments in there that are a nod to Frank.
How do you approach composing for Thank You Scientist’s unique instrumentation?
Our writing process is pretty painstaking and I think that is what makes it work. To generalize the way we write tunes, we get together and maybe we’ll start with a guitar idea. Someone will say, “This melody will go with that.” Someone else will say, “Oh, well this harmony will sound really cool.” Someone else will say, “Let’s use this chord instead.” And it blossoms out from there. A lot of times it starts with a guitar or a vocal idea that I wrote with the singer, or just a riff or a groove, and we throw in our own ideas and pull it every which way and try different possibilities and make sure it’s working.
Afterwards we always score everything and that is where we fine-tune everything. We make sure that the horns are doing the right articulations, that everyone is agreeing on the harmonies, dynamics, and all that stuff. Writing it down is a very helpful part in mapping all these acoustic instruments we have in the band. It streamlines the process, it keeps that organic sound, and keeps everybody involved in writing. We function like a regular rock band functions, but we’re able to fine-tune afterwards because we write everything out.
It’s unusual for a rock band to write everything out.
Yeah, it is a little unusual and it definitely makes things easier in the studio. But with more musicians there is more margin for error, especially with the extra acoustic instruments, it’s very easy to have little things that you don’t realize sneak by. When you write them out you’re like, “Oh okay. Maybe I should play the 9th of this chord instead,” or whatever. We take care of all that stuff and put it under a microscope afterward. That is very helpful for the process.
When you compose in odd meters, are you thinking “odd meter” or is it more organic?
We don’t try to force it. Basically, our thing is if it sounds cool, we do it. A lot of times it ends up being an odd meter but it’s never like, “Let’s write something in 15.” It comes from jamming and throwing cool curve balls at each other, making it fun. Odin [Alvarez], our drummer, is a big part of that process, too. A lot of times we’ll come up with a cool odd-time riff and he’ll say, “Oooh, maybe it will sound cool if I play this time signature against that on the drums or if I play it straight, like a very Zeppelin-esque four underneath, just lay it down and have this odd-time stuff cycling over the top.” We just play with it until we think it sounds really cool—until it’s something that we would listen to and think is fun. And a lot of times it ends up being in an odd time signature, but we try to keep it organic. You don’t want it to sound like, “How many time signatures can we play in?”
On a “Salesman’s Guide to Non-Existence,” the bridge section sounds a lot like “Frame by Frame” by King Crimson, from Discipline.
Yeah, that is one of my favorite records. It probably subconsciously seeped in. I love those broken, angular interlocking things that Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp did in ’80s-era Crimson. Those Gamelan-type things. I love those. That was definitely a nod to them. No doubt.
We’re all big Michael Jackson fans. I am a big MJ fan and big Prince fan. I remember writing that—it’s got all this weirdness at the beginning—so we were like, “Let’s throw a curve ball in there. Just go in a completely different direction to that first verse.” There’s another quote in that tune, too, we also quote “The Chicken” [composed by Pee Wee Ellis and popularized by Jaco Pastorius]. So having the opportunity to sneak in things like that was really cool.