Photograph by Gary Leonard
Punk and Polynomials
Phil Alvin: egghead by day, rock star by night
By Paul M. Davis
Certain stereotypes are associated with folks who turn out the kind of muscular, blues-inflected roots-rock of the Blasters, often converging around the vision of the roadhouse, where boozy weekend warriors escape to play sturdy, late-model rock 'n' roll like their lives depended on it. Blasters frontman Phil Alvin defies such stereotypes, having maintained a notable musical career while also working in mathematical semantics, two fascinations that have often proven difficult to reconcile.
"I'm at my happiest when I play music and do mathematics in harmony with one another," says Alvin, whose sophisticated field of mathematics involves the building blocks of artificial intelligence—specifically, translating the subtleties of human language into something machines can understand. "Mathematics and music are always naturally in harmony," he adds, "but often the lifestyles clash."
Alvin hasn't always been consumed by such heady concerns. When he and his brother Dave formed the Blasters in 1979, they were young bucks from Downey, serving up raw slabs of rockabilly-infused roots music grafted with punk rock energy. The band built a devoted following until disbanding in 1985; Dave went on to a successful solo career, while Phil turned his attentions to mathematics, ultimately earning a doctorate from UCLA. While Phil released solo albums and toured intermittently, it wasn't until he reformed the Blasters in 2005, sans Dave, that his music career returned to the forefront.
The reconstituted Blasters have toured regularly since, and while the band has new material, the current transitional state of the music industry has Alvin questioning the album format. "It's less the problem of the music and more the problem of 'What does it mean to record now?'" Alvin says. Though the Blasters have yet to figure out the best route to distribute their new material, Alvin welcomes these transitions. "I never had any love for the abuse of record companies," he says. "It's a really good time for music right now. There's a lot of action, both stylistically and with the business paradigm. Plus, I love to play."
The Blasters tear up the Hopmonk Tavern on Saturday, Aug. 28. 230 Petaluma Ave., Sebastopol. 8pm. $20; 21 and over. 707.829.7300.
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