The men of the Linus Pauling Quartet have never been great at math — there are five of them, after all. But that hasn’t stopped the long-running local stoner-rock troupe from taking a downright scientific approach to crafting its latest music. After celebrating the Eldritch horror of Lovecraft and the open-ended fantasy of Gygax in recent works, the band took inspiration for their new single, “Planck,” from the life and philosophy of a semi-obscure theoretical physicist whose most important breakthroughs were made well before the first guitar was electrified.
If that sounds a tad academic for a group of graying bong-rippers, it certainly should. Hell, the song is practically peer-reviewable: The majority of the lyrics were written by Brandon R. Brown, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of San Francisco. Just how did Brown hook up with a band that burns more bud than most of his students? Fittingly enough, it’s a relationship that started back in school.
“We went to high school together at Clear Creek High School in the Clear Lake area,” says LP4 guitarist and vocalist Clinton Heider of his pal, the professor. “We had some mutual friends, and we hung out and played together in proto-bands, I guess. He and I have stayed in touch over the years, and we had been corresponding about different things, and he said, ‘Well, I’m thinking about writing this book.’”
That book would become Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War, published last week by Oxford University Press. It’s a historical biography of Max Planck, a late 19th-century German physicist credited as the originator of quantum theory. Today, Planck is perhaps more celebrated for his discovery of Albert Einstein, but the author says Planck’s life story is every bit as exciting and groundbreaking as his more iconic protégé.
“I’ve been obsessed with him since I was about 19 and heard about him in college,” says Brown. “I got really interested in him because he wasn’t like his friend Einstein —he wasn’t necessarily a genius, at all. But he had a real skill for concentration, and he had a really flexible mind, especially considering stereotypes of a 19th-century Prussian, upright, well-established guy. He was incredibly flexible, and would take the new ideas if they made sense.”
Despite his journey into the farthest reaches of theoretical physics, however, Planck was hit hard by everyday realities. He lost children to the terrors of both World Wars, and even personally confronted Adolf Hitler — not something many Germans of his day lived to become proud of. Basically, Planck’s was just the sort of tragic, epic tale from which the Linus Pauling Quartet likes to draw inspiration.
“[LP4 guitarist] Ramon [Medina] had this song idea that was really just a melody; it didn’t have any lyrics or anything like that,” Heider says. “Ramon, who also knows Brandon from way back, had just read a review copy of his new book, and he had this idea: Why don’t we do a song about Max Planck and see if we can get Brandon to contribute some lyrical ideas? And we all thought it was a great idea, and he kind of became our muse for the song.”
Planck is Brown’s first book, so it’s only fitting that “Planck” contains his first recorded song lyrics, too. The group kicked ideas back and forth with the author via email for weeks before finalizing a gentle, poppy rock song featuring Planck’s philosophy on scientific discovery in the chorus: “Du musst glauben,” or, “Ye must have faith.”
“It seemed a little strange at first,” says Heider of the long-distance collaboration. “But as it developed and Brandon began to pass us these really nice phrases, the song really came together. I think we were able to translate it into a bit more of a universal feel, where someone who didn’t know who Planck was could still relate to it.”
It was certainly something new for Brown, too, who says that some of his university colleagues probably think he’s nuts for mixing physics with psychedelic rock. But maybe that’s half the point.
“I just thought it sounded like a lot of fun,” Brown says. “It’s not your typical academic thing, but I don’t like being the stuffy, typical academic. I don’t know of another song about Planck, and I have to say, I don’t think Max Planck would have liked it. He was a classical music fan. He loved Schubert and Schumann, and he was an incredible concert-grade pianist. I don’t know that he would love our tune, if push came to shove.”
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Then again, Planck probably never got to experience the joys of a solid toke session. For those that have, there’s more Linus Pauling Quartet music to come soon when the band drops their new album, Ampalanche. The, uh, quintet plans to get it recorded this summer and release it toward the end of the year on Italian label Vincebus Eruptum.
“We’re really excited about it,” Heider says. “I think it’s going to be a little bit more of a mixed record. It’s a little more melodic than its predecessor. The last record we put out was kind of skull-thumping monkey rock, for the most part. I would never want to use the word ‘subtle’ to describe anything that we do, but it’s probably a little more dynamic — at least that’s what we’re aiming for. “
And will any of those songs to come delve into the world of black-body radiation or quantum mechanics? Hey, no sense betting against it.
“I think the guys in the band, especially me and Ramon, have always been inspired by scientific ideas and characters,” Heider says. “Obviously, our band is named after one, so it’s kind of a recurring theme for us!”