Quest for the Cupcake

Getting sweet with Seattle indie-pop comers Math and Physics Club.

Indie pop and cupcakes go together like Belle & Sebastian. Gathered around a large table at Ballard's Verité Coffee, the five members of Math and Physics Club show the trappings of a pop group: cute, polite, and bespectacled, with two members from indie-pop-happy Olympia. And they're just as shy and perky in person as they are on the recently released EP Weekends Away (Matinée); its cover image alone—a vintage photograph of no one in particular—bears the imprint of global pop like a back issue of Chickfactor. And they're all gawking at my lemon cupcake as they tend to their chocolate and angel food ones.

During an earlier in-store at Sonic Boom, vocalist/guitarist Charles Bert asked the cozy crowd, "Is everybody having a good day?" He sounded so earnest, I wanted to yell out, "Yes, I am! Thank you for asking!" "I thought the rain might threaten attendance," he explains from the stage. With a few swaps of instruments and quiet murmuring, the quintet breezes through a brief set, one they've been working to fill out of late. Math and Physics Club have been a little bewildered by the amount of attention they've received—notably from KEXP morning show host John Richards, who spun their demo before the disc's release. "Once we found out the record was going to come out and Richards started playing us, people were offering us shows and we were totally unprepared," says Bert. "We could only play six songs and had to get a set together."

Bassist Ethan Jones pipes in, "I've been in bands where you try and try and can't find a show."

"Years of gigging without any record-label interest," adds drummer Kevin Emerson.

"Yeah, three years and no radio play at all," says violinist Saundrah Humphrey, "We feel very lucky."

"Weekends Away" is ruddy-cheeked with love's blush. Bert wends his way through lines like "You kiss my cheek and my knees turn week" ("Love, Again"), his swallowed oh oh ohs sounding like Morrissey choking on despair and livened by Prozac. "Sixteen and Pretty" is moony and romantic, as Bert seems to wistfully pen journal entries à la Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson: "I'm kissing my first kiss/I'm wishing my first wish . . . We're sneaking out till dawn/Out across the neighbor's lawn/The smell of grass and cigarettes/Pirouettes around our heads." With tambourine and flippant little guitar chords, "Weekends Away" becomes as much a relationship metaphor as a frisky road trip: "I read the map while you do all the driving."

"James [Werle, guitarist] and I grew up listening to the same stuff," says Bert. "Certainly all the pop references that you're thinking of are going in there: Belle & Sebastian, the Lucksmiths, Elliott Smith, Beat Happening, the Softies. Growing up in Olympia, certainly for me, was a reason to pick up the guitar in the first place."

Surprisingly, the famous Book Your Own Life nature of Olympia didn't make it any easier to find bandmates. In August 2004, Emerson, primarily a jazz player, placed an ad on craigslist after moving to Seattle from Boston. Humphrey, who'd played with both experimental and folk bands and had put her own bandmates-wanted ad online, joined a few weeks later. Jones, an Evergreen grad, approached Math and Physics Club after an open-mike performance at EMP. "My primary instrument is the guitar," he says. "But when I saw them play, I liked what they were doing and I saw that they didn't have a bassist and I wanted to play bass."

"I didn't even pick up the guitar until college, and James slightly before that," says Bert. "We had a band in Bellingham, where we went to college. Life gets in the way; James was in the Peace Corps for two years. We always kept in touch. We ended up back in the same city a few years ago and started writing more. The intention was always to put together a band, but we didn't have a big group of people to draw from, which was a struggle until these guys . . . appeared."

"It all happened last August," Werle adds. "All of our dreams came true." The band giggles at the canned nature of his statement, and he deadpans into the microphone: "All of our musical dreams came true. It was fantastic."

That they appeared is a bit of a mystery, considering the seemingly small number of indie-pop bands pocketed around the states. To wit, Math and Physics Club is the only American band on Santa Barbara, Calif.'s Euro-focused Matinée label. "It's funny," Bert says, "James and I would go to shows with all these people [there] and it seemed like there were all these bands, and yet we could never find anyone to play with who wanted to do the same sound."

For now, the band is eager to release another EP this summer, perhaps a few in a row before committing to a full album, à la Scot-pop heroes B&S. Just listening to the group chatter, from their dates with Australia's Lucksmiths to Minneapolis art-stars Trip Shakespeare, it's obvious they're fans. "Back in the old days, the Posies and Beat Happening were our lifeline," Werle says. "We'd gravitate toward them. [They were] kind of like our food." To which Jones adds, "I think I saw the Posies play live more in the '90s than I probably saw my parents."

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Math and Physics Club play Sunset Tavern with the Lucksmiths and Tullycraft at 8 p.m. Wed., May 4. $10.

 
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