This Saturday at Elastic Arts, local chamber pop band Mira Mira returns to the stage to celebrate the release of their long-awaited sophomore effort, Music For Scientists. In keeping with the scientific symmetry, the album release event coincides with National DNA Day and, as an opening act, noted University of Chicago physicist Sidney Nagel will be performing physics demonstrations. (Hey, who doesn't love a good physics demonstration on a Saturday night?)
RFC recently caught up with Mira Mira leader Charlie Williams to discuss more about his band's latest effort and his newfound obsession with all things science.
As the press materials suggested, my first thought upon hearing Music For Scientists was definitely, "These songs aren’t about science!”...explain further the motivation of how/why you choose that title. Is it a somewhat irreverent reference or is it a serious effort to challenge the perception that there's more to science and the lives of scientists than just wearing lab coats and figuring out abstract equations?
The idea came from a trip to the Field Museum, the "backstage" part where the real research happens; where I saw scientists, curators, and volunteer lab workers all focused diligently on these tasks, like assembling a snake skeleton or prepping skunks for taxidermy. From everyone, there came this overriding sense of these being people focused on the task at hand, and doing something they both love and are highly competent at. And that's how I approach music-making, and how I think this music is best listened to.
And, yes...People tend to think of science as this sterile, unemotional, data-driven wasteland. Which is how it looks if you don't approach the world scientifically, if for example you think you can make something be true if you really, really want it to be true. But once you look into science, it's as dramatic as any other human endeavor. In some ways more so, because it gives us things like airplanes and antibiotics. So rather than just numbers and formulae, it's people struggling to make sense of the world, to wrestle from nature secrets for better, fuller living.
So that might be a long-winded way of saying, yes, I think of music and science as having more overlap than you might think. Specifically this music, which I put a lot of intuitive energy into creating, but also a lot of detail-polishing after the fact.
Regardless of how it's interpreted, it's certainly a very intricate and textured effort, how long did it take to complete the recording of the album?
I've been working on this album as an idea for about two and a half years...and promising that it's almost done and will come out any minute now— really this time!— for about two years. Some of the songs have been kicking around since just after Midnight for You came out in 2005, but they were really just little embryos then. It's been a bit of a long process, but the record kept improving throughout it, so I let it do what it wanted to do. I'm glad I did, the whole thing really holds together now in a way it wouldn't have before. And I had so much great collaboration with the other members of the band. That was really rewarding.
Besides random scientific references, what other creative inspirations do you draw from?
A lot of my songs are inspired by composite characters. Past relationships, or imagined relationships, have always played a big role. Sometimes that's been problematic with my real life— you write a beautiful song about something that never happened, but it can still be threatening to someone you're trying to build a relationship with. And I'm always being inspired by other people's music. Andrew Bird's Noble Beast could easily have been called "Music for Scientists" if he were a bit less subtle. He's got loads of science in there.
Tell us more about Saturday's CD release party (am especially intrigued by the notion of "physics demonstrations" at the event)
Well, from the start of it I tried to plan the kind of launch party I'd like to go to, myself. I wanted to avoid the typical, you get invited to your friend's band's CD release party, and it's on a bill with 4 bands and you go because it's your friend. And they play the whole album and you go home. Or you don't go because it's $15 and then all the beers will be $6. So, I thought of avoiding that combined with creating something really memorable, and specific to this event. And I looked around, and Elastic was the perfect space for it, and they were open to the idea. And I asked Sid Nagel about doing his celebrated physics demonstrations, and he graciously agreed to do it— he's a physicist at the University of Chicago, and kind of a big deal— and he's doing it on my promise that it won't be an audience of scientists. So that's the best opening act I could possibly ask for. And Elastic doesn't have a liquor license, so it's BYOB. I might sell ice cream sandwiches at the break. And we have some guest musicians playing and singing with us, which makes it all feel like 60% indie-rock show and 40% art-song recital. I might print up lyric sheets.