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Progressive Rock Interviews


Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Kai Esbensen of Bubblemath from 2017

Can you catch the readers up on the history of your involvement in music – both individually and as a band?

Surely! When I was 12-years old my grandmother got me a Devo record for Christmas, and my whole entire life up to that point did one big massive spit-take. I couldn't believe what I was hearing; that music could be so weird and so catchy at the same time. I knew right then and there that I wanted to be in a band.

I started transcribing Devo songs to be played by saxophone in seventh grade, but it wasn't until I was in eighth grade that I got my first synthesizer: a Yamaha CS01-II, which I still have to this day. It's a great sounding little thing, but I wanted something with a little more kick to it. Later that summer my grandmother gave me $500 "for college" and within 36-hours I had spent it all on a gently-used Moog Liberation. I still have that one, too. I use it quite extensively on the song "Destiny Repeats Itself" on our Edit Peptide album.

Once I had my two synths and my total disregard for college firmly secured, I started recruiting friends to be in a band with me: "Oh, you play tuba in marching band? You should play bass." And "Oh, you're tall! You should play drums, so people will be able to see you behind the kit." This selection process seemed quite sensible at the time.

My first band was called "DNA Splice," and I've been in a band ever since. DNA Splice members came and went, and morphed into a band called "Outmusic" in the early 1990s. Outmusic then morphed to include eventual Bubblemath members Blake, Jay, Jon. We officially became Bubblemath in September 1995, ten years after I started DNA Splice. (Perhaps interesting to note: Outmusic actually recorded an album that never got released, but it had a few songs on it that were later re-recorded for Bubblemath's first album.)

Bubblemath itself went through a few drummers before completely and totally lucking out with James, who answered our classified ad in the local free press in late September, 1998. James auditioned later that week, and we immediately conscripted him into the fold.

MSJ: If you weren't involved in music what do you think you'd be doing?

Well, my first answer would be writing lyrics. But that's probably cheating, what with lyrics being under the auspices of music-involvement and all. Strictly non-musically -speaking, I probably would have ended up as a meteorologist; with a focus on severe-storm morphology and water vapor dynamics.


How did the name of the group originate?

The name Bubblemath is a tip of the hat to the branch of physics that deals with the mathematics behind the surface tensions of bubbles. When it came time to think of a band name, back in the day, the world wide web was just first getting started. The concept of search-engine-optimization was completely foreign, and I thought it would be future-crucial to have a band name that when searched for would only yield band-relevant results. "Bubblemath" fit the bill.


Who would you see as your musical influences?

Devo, Genesis, the Gershwin brothers, the Circle Jerks, and the Go-Go's. Probably Weird Al, a little bit.

What's ahead for you?

We plan to release lots more new music, and we plan to do so much more efficiently this time.


I know many artists hate to have their music pigeonholed or labeled, but how would you describe your music?

Avant prog-pop jazzcore, with a penchant for science and humor.


Are there musicians with whom you would like to play in the future?

Pipe dream? Tony Banks, no question. More realistically, it'd be fun to write something with my friend Nils Frykdahl (of Free Salamander Exhibit and Faun Fables) someday.


Do you think that illegal downloading or streaming of music is a help or hindrance to the careers of musicians?

That's a hard one for me to answer. The availability of streaming is so convenient for the consumer; and consumers are your base. So the exposure you can get is fantastic. But the payout, of course, leaves much to be desired. It seems, more and more, that touring and playing shows is where it's at these days. The music itself almost serving merely as a beacon, to get people to want to experience your live shows.


In a related question, how do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them or posting them online?

I'm okay with it. Financially speaking, I don't think it hurts anything. Most audience recordings are so bad that only superfans would even bother with them. And superfans have already bought whatever they can of your stuff. They just love you, and they want more. I can't fault them for that. As I nonchalantly shove a thousand Devo and Genesis bootlegs under the couch with my foot.

On the other hand, there is the non-financial impact of playing a particularly bad show, and then that gets posted online for all eternity. But that's just how it goes. As a band you just have to play the show, leave your ego at the door, and learn to laugh at your eternally-preserved mistakes.


If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch nemesis and why?

This is gonna get a lot of haters, I bet, but my arch nemesis would be... aw, man... I don't wanna name names. But...okay, think of famous minimalist composers. My arch-nemesis would be a minimalist composer. Or, actually, let's just say that my arch-nemesis would be minimalism itself. That feels better.

I tend to lean pretty heavily toward maximalism. And by that I mean, obviously, not simply maximalism for the sake of maximalism; there have to be tasteful compositional choices made at every turn. But I suppose that falls under the definition of maximalism - cerebral maximalism, anyway.

Minimalism, to me, just sounds like a cat sat on a sequencer for eight-minutes. With all due respect for cats and where they sit, of course. Minimalism can make for inoffensive hold-music while on the phone waiting for an insurance agent to inevitably betray you; but I find no redeeming intellectual value in it, personally.

MSJ: If you were to put together your ultimate band (a band you'd like to hear or catch live), who would be in it and why?

Courtney Swain on vocals, Esperanza Spalding on bass, Hiromi Uehara on keys, Annie Clark on guitar, and Bubblemath's very own James Flagg on drums. Why? Because they are all top of their class, and they would almost certainly write my new favorite songs. Also, as long as I'm inventing this band, I get to name it: Ultraband-2000.


If you were in charge of assembling a music festival and wanted it to be the ultimate one from your point of view who would be playing?

Well, certainly Ultraband-2000, as invented above. Charming Hostess. Gentle Giant. Genesis. Yes. Devo. Paul McCartney. Poe. Jesca Hoop. Ooh, and Bubblemath.


What was the last CD you bought and/or what have you been listening to lately?

The latest Bent Knee record, Land Animal. That record is a triumph.


Have you read any good books lately?

Currently reading An Everlasting Meal, by Tamar Adler. Highly recommended, if you're into kitchen/cooking stuff - beautifully written. She has a true love of food; and not just a love for the end result of a plated meal, but a love of the entire process.


What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment?

Yes! And by that, I mean that I just saw Yes on September eighth. Or, I guess, officially, it's "Yes: Featuring Anderson, Wakeman, and Rabin." But they played pretty much everything I could have wanted. And way better than the other -- perfectly legitimate, mind you, just not as good in my opinion -- the other incarnation of Yes with Steve Howe and Geoff Downes. No offense to Downes, but... c'mon... Rick Wakeman, ya know?


Do you remember your first concert?

Yup! It was Corrosion of Conformity, the day after I turned 15. The t-shirt I got at that show lasted about 12 years; really well-made shirt.


Have you come across any new gear recently that you love?

It's a few years old now, so I'm not sure how "new" it can be considered, but I utterly adore my DSI Pro-2 synthesizer - best synthesizer I've ever owned. And I've owned an embarrassingly copious quantity of synths.


Do you have a musical “guilty pleasure?”

Hah! Actually, yes. I love -- and I do mean love -- I love the chewy, gritty, swooping/sweeping synth bass line in the chorus of "Party in the U.S.A." That synth line tears it up, man. I don't care what anyone says. For what it is, that bit is badass.


What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?

Probably the show we played in Reno, NV, in the summer of 2005. Not only did nobody come -- and I mean literally zero people -- to see us, but when we started playing, the bartender and the sound guy left. So we were playing to a completely empty venue. I was laughing so hard I couldn't breathe.


If you could sit down to dinner with any three people, living or dead, for food and conversation, with whom would you be dining?

Probably my mom, my dad, and my eldest brother; all of whom have passed away.

I never met my eldest brother, as he died before I was born. But I would like to have the opportunity to get to know him directly. 

And my parents because I'd like to be able to tell them to their faces how much I appreciate the way they brought me up. You know, you tend to take good parenting for granted when you are the recipient of it. I'm sure my parents knew they were great, but they certainly never heard it from me directly. And now that I have been in the world and witnessed some unambiguously horrible parenting, I'd like to be able to look my parents in the eye and tell them straight up how awesome they are. And not just as parents, but as people. Also, they might like a chance to talk to my brother!


What would be on the menu?

Wow, great question. And a bit of a rabbit hole we're about to go down because I'm a pretty solid home cook, and my mom passed away too soon to experience the full gamut of my armchair-amateur excellence in the kitchen. So I'd have to do all the cooking. I think she'd really dig it.

The menu would be several courses, and I'd make it thematic based on the music of the Big Band era, which was my parents' era. So, playful plays on Big Band references or song titles. Things like "Begin the Linguine," or "Artie Slaw." For beverages, I'd invent "Moonlight Seren-Ade," which, as I'm inventing it right now, would probably be lavender lemonade slush with homemade violet liqueur, a smoked salt rim, and a bit of riboflavin or quinine so when served under a blacklight it glows. And of course there'd have to be "Blue Champagne." I mean, come on.


Are there any closing thoughts you would like to get out there?

Yes, actually. We are so humbled and grateful for the kindhearted, supportive, and enthusiastic reception that Edit Peptide has gotten from the prog rock community; both from existing fans and brand new fans. It's been such a fantastic experience as it is; and that has been compounded by the fact that we know we have given something back to the community that is valued and appreciated. We appreciate everyone's appreciation! And we hope we continue to earn everyone's support with our third album.

MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2017  Volume 5 at
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