Quit Your Day Job

Quit Your Day Job: Professor Murder

New York quartet Professor Murder make post-punk dance-funk ‘n’ dub piled with synths, chanty vocals, scattershot Liars percussion and more cowbells than your average dairy farm. Since 2004, the band’s released two EP’s (including 2006’s ‘Gum-approved five-song Professor Murder Rides the Subway) and mellotronically destroyed at CMJ. You know, Professor Murder may very well ride the subway to work: drummer Andy Craven’s in publishing; sampling keyboardist and electronic drummer Jesse Cohen’s a photo archivist (wonder if he bumps into fellow electro investigator John Fell Ryan?), and multi-instrumental vocalist Michael Bell-Smith’s a visual artist. I spoke with melodica-toting bassist Tony P., who joked that his fellow Murderers chose him as “band rep” because, “My job is a little different and makes us all look like do-gooders.” Or, maybe, befitting the band’s professorial nametag, he’s a teacher — specifically, Social Studies and Science (et al) at a middle school in Bushwick. (Considering the band’s penchant for whistles and infectiously shouty sing-a-longs, too bad he’s not ordering up pushups in the gym.)

It’s been a while since the band’s offered new sounds. As a stopgap, take a listen to “Robbery At The Jam Sesh,” a great mixtape that appears after our discussion. I’ve seen it posted elsewhere, but not with the note and clues that Jesse (aka photo archivist) passed along: “We went to the Brothers Studio in Greenpoint and recorded lots and lots of live instrumental jams, which we cut up into dozens of loops and then sent to Caps & Jones, who used them along with other tracks and vocals and everything else to make this mix. The mix also has a preview of our single ‘Dutch Hex,’ which will be coming out sometime soon on the new Brothers Label, run out of the Brothers Studio.”

More specifically, expect “Dutch Hex” later this summer. According to the band, there are currently no plans for a full-length.

STEREOGUM: Where in Bushwick do you teach?

TP: PS/IS 384.

STEREOGUM: What grade?

TP: Right now I teach 6th grade Science and Social Studies. I’ve taught 2nd and 3rd as well, and next year I’ll be doing 7th, too. Next year I’m going to teach just Social Studies … which I’m looking forward to. When I did 2nd and 3rd I had to teach everything and that drove me crazy.

STEREOGUM: That’s a pretty big range. What are the major differences between 2nd/3rd and 6th? How does your role as teacher shift depending on the year?

TP: I think the biggest difference is in the development of a stronger personality between the lower and upper grades, which is something I like, but it can also be a hassle when they develop nasty attitudes to go with their new personalities. There’s a lot more psychological work with the 6th graders. The 2nd/3rd graders haven’t quite figured out all the tricks yet on how to get over on the teacher, whereas the 6th graders are really coming into their prime in that regard.

STEREOGUM: What tricks are most popular?

TP: Lots of forged signatures. One thing the 6th are good at is finding ways to get out of class without cutting: 20-minute bathroom visits, mysterious ailments, etc. They leave their things around the school on purpose and then take forever to find them. They are also much harder to catch in a lie: They always have their story straight, it can be fairly impressive. One favorite of mine was when a kid took my really nice pen and wrote his name on it, then presented it to me as his new pen. That wasn’t so much smart, but it’s funny in retrospect.

STEREOGUM: You seem most excited about the History/Social Studies.

TP: History was and is definitely my thing subject-wise. I loved it when I was a kid and majored in it in college.

STEREOGUM: What about it first caught your interest? What specific areas interest you now?

TP: I’ve been into history forever. My mom teaches it and my dad’s an archivist, so I definitely grew up around it. I read this series of bios of famous Americans when I was seven or so, and I was hooked after that. I took a ton of different classes in college and made up a focus at the last minute: “Peoples In Times Of Revolution.” It’s just my thing.

STEREOGUM: How many students do you have per class?

TP: I’ve been pretty lucky to work with smaller class sizes. The biggest I’ve had in four years was maybe 22-23.

STEREOGUM: Ever chaperon a dance?

TP: No, we have had some wicked parties, though, with food, dancing, sitting around on chairs. They basically party like adults.

STEREOGUM: Is this your first teaching job? Or have you taught elsewhere?

TP: It’s the only place I’ve taught. I did the NY Teaching Fellows program and got randomly sent there on an interview five years ago and I’ve been there since.

STEREOGUM: Did you go get a teaching degree?

TP: I didn’t. The program I did takes people out of other jobs and makes them teachers. All it took me from was working at a bookstore, so it wasn’t a drastic career shift or anything.

STEREOGUM: In what bookstore did you work?

TP: Shakespeare and Co.

STEREOGUM: Did you always plan to eventually teach, or did it just sorta happen?

TP: Definitely didn’t always plan it, but everyone in my family is either a teacher or a librarian, and I was a librarian in college, so it was only a matter of time.

STEREOGUM: I’ve interviewed a few other teachers for this column: folks in Oneida, Sam Champion, and am about to talk with Mäximo Park. I know you can only speak for yourself, but is it the summer that makes this job appealing to you, or something else?

TP: The summers are bonus, no question. I don’t know if I could do it without the long breaks. Plus, it’s nice to be able to do a week tour and not have to take time off and whatnot.

STEREOGUM: Does “Professor Murder” come from your status as an educator?

TP: No, Mike and I came up with it back in college long before my teaching days.

STEREOGUM: There’s the Mr. Show reference … David Cross fans?

TP: We were really into it at the time and it seemed like a cool random left field name — now its a little too popular to seem weird or random anymore.

STEREOGUM: Do your students know about the band?

TP: Not yet but I’m bracing myself — they’re very active on the Internet.

STEREOGUM: What are they doing right now in their courses?

TP: Right now they’re going crazy because we have 1.5 days left, so mostly running from room to room and avoiding work.

STEREOGUM: I taught as a grad student and the students didn’t really use libraries for research. It’s all on-line. Do you see this, too?

TP: Definitely. They hate books and want to do everything on line. I think in 10-15 years every kid everywhere will have a laptop. It’s just the way things are headed.

STEREOGUM: So far what’s been your most gratifying teaching moment?

TP: Hmmm, probably helping kids with their reading, or maybe seeing kids I taught move from grade to grade and grow up…

STEREOGUM: Favorite songs about teaching?

TP: “Jeremy,” Pearl Jam; “The Welcome Back, Kotter Theme”; “Top Ten,” Gregory Isaacs.

STEREOGUM: Ever use music in the classroom?

TP: Never used music. I’ve definitely talked about it with different kids over the years; they’re continually amazed that I don’t just listen to country and heavy metal since I’m white.

STEREOGUM: Oh, any final projects?

TP: No final project this semester. Finishing this year feels like a final project.

Professor Murder – “Robbery At The Jam Sesh” (MP3)


[The Professors, left to right: Jesse Cohen (purple), Andy Craven (red),Michael Bell-Smith (blue), Tony P. (black)]