When beloved Northwest band Math & Physics Club lost their guitarist James Werle to cancer in 2018, it was music that helped them heal. As part of KEXP's Music Heals: Beyond Cancer programming, KEXP’s Janice Headley spoke to surviving band members Charles Bert, Ethan Jones, and Kevin Emerson about how music got them through their grief, and how James continues to inspire them in their new projects, Field School and Model Shop.
When Math & Physics Club burst onto the music scene in 2004, their effervescent jangle-pop easily won the hearts of many. Sadly, the band ended in 2018, when guitarist and co-founder James Werle died from cancer. Surviving band members vocalist/guitarist Charles Bert, bassist Ethan Jones, and drummer Kevin Emerson spoke with KEXP recently, remembering those days shortly after James’s passing:
Charles: I remember, distinctly, not wanting to touch my guitar, like, at all. It was just sort of a visceral reaction. And, for at least a couple of weeks, I would come down into my music room and just sort of sit and not do anything. I mean, it was really, really hard. I remember, Ethan, at one point, you reached out and you were like, I'm thinking of singing a song at the memorial, and you asked me if I wanted to play with you. And I was like, I don't think I can do that. Like, I hadn't touched my guitar and I didn't want to. It just sounded way too hard.
Ethan: I wanted to sing "You are the Everything" by R.E.M. at his memorial. And we ended up doing it. The three of us, trading off harmonies and singing verses.
Charles: I have a memory of the three of us, a couple of hours before the memorial in my living room, and that was the only time we'd run through it. And Ethan had his mandolin and, Kevin, I can't remember if we set up a little snare for you or something, but I just... I remember sitting there in a sunny living room, running through this song. It was very surreal. You know, it was a really difficult time, but it also felt really good.
The song held a particular resonance, as R.E.M. was one of the bands Charles and James discovered together as middle school students…
Charles: When I met him, he was into Twisted Sister and Bruce Springsteen. [laughs] He carried the Bruce Springsteen for the rest of his life, but he dropped the Twisted Sister, thankfully. And I was into stuff like, you know, Top 40, like... Chicago and whatever was on the radio then. We started being friends around that time and it moved through us getting into college radio and R.E.M. was kind of the big touchpoint for us.
Charles: I have memories of us riding in the back of a truck, listening to that song with friends, and, you know, it's a really meaningful song. I would say I was really obsessed with that for that short time when we were going to play it, and so that really helped me get through that period.
Just months after performing at James’s memorial service, the remaining members of Math & Physics Club reconvened once again at KEXP’s annual Death & Music concert, held in November of 2018. The band covered a song by Beat Happening, and premiered a track so new, it was still untitiled the night of its performance.
Charles: "Indian Summer" by Beat Happening is another really iconic song for us. So, for us to do that was really meaningful. But we also had a song that was in the works when he died. I reworked the lyrics to sort of fit the moment about James and about grief, and so we ended up doing that at Death & Music, too.
That song became titled "Indian Ocean (The End of Everything)," and it was pressed as a 7” single in 2019 as the very last Math & Physics Club release.
Charles: We'd started that song in a hotel room when we were in Perth and we talked that summer about, let's record it this fall, and obviously we never got to do that. I became obsessed with like, you know, we need to put this song out. I had a rough recording of James playing it, but obviously, we didn't have a finished track. We all talked, and Ethan decided that he could learn James's part, which I think is really courageous. We went to the studio, I think it was May or June the following year. And, we had a picture of James with us in the studio, and here's Ethan playing his guitar and the riff that he made up. It was pretty powerful.
Ethan: James was always fascinating to me because he played guitar in a really melodic way, but in a very atmospheric way and it's always really counterintuitive to the way I would play something. So, it was weird to sort of apply myself in that way, to actually figure out, how is he doing this? There was some editing that I had to do, just because I don't think there was ever a complete recording all the way through the song. So, it did feel like a bit of a collaboration in that way.
Kevin: Yeah, I remember that recording. When we were in the room, the three of us playing together, I remember feeling like, this is a studio day. We're doing our fun studio thing. But then, sitting in the control room and we're listening back to the track, but Ethan's in there playing the James part... then it started to get... spooky. Once we got to the part where we were putting his parts down, it got a little more... just sort of emotional and surreal, like, Oh, okay, like the missing piece of the band, our missing band member was more... present. So, it was heavy.
Charles: That gave me chills. Kevin. There's not really words for those kinds of moments. It was pretty cool. It felt really good. Like, we were doing it right or something. Honoring him in a way we were hoping.
Charles: And, you know, these steps were really important for me. Like after Death & Music, I felt like there was still this huge void. It's like, what happens now? And then we had this project where we were still a band. We were still together, we were still talking, we still had something to do. And we had this really important goal. And that gave me focus. And when it was done, I mean, I was really proud of it. We put on the B-side a song that I'd written about James, another song that was just sort of about grief. And it felt like a really good capper for us, like a way to close the chapter, that we could feel good about. And then, you know, close the door and move on to whatever came next.
It took a little time, but eventually, Charles, Ethan, and Kevin began playing music again, though not necessarily with each other (due to COVID, and Charles living in Olympia while Ethan and Kevin live in Seattle).
Last year, Charles re-emerged with the solo project Field School, releasing his debut album When Summer Comes.
Kevin and Ethan formed the band Model Shop with bassist Jen Fox, also releasing their debut album last year, titled Love Interest.
Ethan: The Model Shop album and the Field School album just happened to come out the same week, both on Spanish labels. And that was not planned at all. It's just how we both got to the finish line at the same time.
And though it might not be Math & Physics Club anymore, James continues to influence his former bandmates to this day.
Ethan: When we started working on the Model Shop album, it was still about six months after he died. One of the songs that Kevin brought was "Letters to Melissa." I tried to write a part that I thought was sort of "James-y," and I don't know that it was that successful, but that continued to be an inspiration for me.
Ethan: After he died... his father-in-law writes poetry, and he sent us all some poems in the mail. I tried to write a poem back that ended up becoming the lyrics for a song for Model Shop called "Millionaires." And it's not really about James specifically, but it was just sort of, you know, thinking about life.
For Kevin, James’s memory echoes in the Model Shop song “Lucky.”
Kevin: There's a real big piece of MAPC-sound in there. When the words came later, they are really about, like, coming out of loss and disappointment and heartache, and having that sort of euphoric moment of "we're going to do something again," like this could be reborn and could be new. So yeah, that definitely is deeply connected to our experience with James.
And with Field School, Charles has had to learn how to write on his own:
Charles: Up to this point, almost everything that I had done in music was with James. From the time we were teenagers, before we could play instruments. James was the one who said, Hey, you've got to learn guitar. We've got to make a band, you know, here's chords. You've got to sing. Like, everything. In my life, I've owned — well, I've played — primarily two guitars. The first one I bought with James when I was 21, and the second one he left me when he died. And that's what I play in Field School. So, every day when I pick up his guitar, he's there with me. When I'm writing songs, sometimes I consciously feel like, Oh, he left another song in here for me.
While James is gone – at far too young of an age – he lives on in the music he created with his friends, and the inspiration he left them with to continue on.
Charles: One of the reasons I named the band Field School is because, you go to field school to try things out that you've learned in practice. And it's like, okay, here's all the stuff that you've learned and carried with you in your life. And now, you've got to do it on your own. And so I've tried to carry that spirit with it. But yeah, it's been a challenge. I feel like he's here with me every day... because he is.
Field School is currently working on a new EP. Model Shop were also recently in the studio, recording new songs. They'll be playing July 21st at the Rabbit Box Theatre in Pike Place Market, with Guest Directors and Loose Wing.
The "Indian Ocean (The End of Everything)" / "In Dreams" 7" single will be released December 13th via Matinée Recordings.
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