Chemistry and music have more in common than you might think, Jim Phillips says, and he should know.
Phillips, who has taught chemistry at UW-Eau Claire for 21 years and has a longtime interest in making music, has just released his debut album, “Phase I.” The CD features a sound that’s all his own while offering shades of his musical influences, notably the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band and Jackson Browne along with contemporary indie groups such as Milwaukee-based Field Report.
In explaining how his profession and pastime go together, he said he has long realized the arts and the sciences have their similarities, particularly in the extended process that leads to a final product.
“What I found is that the synergy (in music) is what really goes on in my research lab,” he said recently in a conversation at an Eau Claire coffee shop. “When I explain to my colleagues what this is like, it’s like, think about the last research paper you wrote.”
That journey entails the idea, crafting the proposal, obtaining the money to pursue it, working through the initial idea and pulling it all together.
“And that last phase of the final product is a lot of work,” he said.
Inspiration as well as perspiration figures into the effort.
“The flip side of that is that there’s a lot more creativity in scientific research than people understand,” he continued. “And there’s a whole lot of ... you’ve got to come up with this idea and, ‘Hey, I want to investigate this little part of nature and see if it is the way I think it is’ or, ‘Hey, why does that work that way, or will this be this way?’”
Phillips recorded the album at Pine Hollow studios, with studio owner Evan Middlesworth co-producing.
Performers on the disc include Phillips, vocals and guitar; Lucas Fischer, lead guitar; John Lebrun, drums; Julie Majkowski, flute; and Dan Zerr, bass and harmony vocals; with contributions from Paul Brandt, Laura Goetz, Jennifer Hazen and his son, Ben Phillips.
Phillips first picked up a guitar in junior high school, and his skills are largely self-taught, although he’s taken some lessons through the years.
He first realized the similarities of science and music while earning his bachelor’s degree at Middlebury College in Vermont. A lecture from a physics professor on connections between the arts and the sciences had a major impact.
“That was the life-changing moment for me that made me decide to become a scientist,” he said.
His undergraduate work included a music composition minor, through which he adapted the systematic approach to art that science requires.
“I started thinking about music as more than lyrics and a set of chords,” he added. “Saying here is the song, here’s this element, there’s a melody here, this is what the rhythm’s going to be, trying to put a bigger picture together.”
Zerr, who has a master’s degree in environmental science and in his undergraduate work majored in biology and chemistry, said he could see how Phillips would apply his scientific background to his music.
“Chemistry is very poetic almost in a mathematical kind of sense, and I think that probably lends itself to how Jim sees things,” he said. “He has a vision of how all this stuff is going to go together in much the way you might look at chemical compounds or molecules and see how they interact and how they work together.”
For a time Phillips’ interest in music faded as he concentrated on his academic responsibilities and raising a family. But he eventually got back into it, playing at open mic nights and as a bassist with other musicians. Two or three years ago he found himself writing music again. Looking back at past compositions, he found he had a body of material to work with.
After Phillips had worked on the songs for a while, “Some friends of mine really sort of nudged me and said, ‘You know, you need to make a record.’”
The final impetus came when he turned 50 years old.
“So whether it’s a debut album or the culmination of a midlife crisis is a matter of where you’re standing, I guess,’” he said with a smile.
Although Phillips found writing lyrics more challenging than writing the music, a creative spark ignited for him.
“It was really maybe three years ago where I got this rhythm for writing lyrics,” he said. “And I finally got to the point where I could get a song idea and sit down and just write it out very quickly. And that followed maybe 25 years of writer’s block.”
That happened, he said, after going to a different internal place that hints at where music and chemistry diverge.
“Probably I think what’s different is that sort of turning off the brain and turning on the heart,” he said. “As a scientist I’m going to think things analytically, and I want to write something down here that’s profound and intellectual and making some incredible social statement and maybe shifting that to, how do I feel today? What’s getting on my nerves today? What am I happy about today? ... And I just found that to be a very cathartic experience.”
A line in the notes of “Phase I” clarifies that point: “These songs are personal; mostly generalized snapshots of day-to-day triumphs and troubles.”
Fischer, lead guitarist on the album, said he saw in Phillips’ lyrics “a simplicity … that everyone can kind of relate to, while still kind of getting a little deep. He is expressing some feelings and thoughts.”
As rewarding as Phillips found recording, he’s especially excited at the opportunity to play in front of audiences.
“Because ultimately for me my passion is live music,” he said. “When I was in the studio with those headphones, I was terrified every second and I was far more nervous in there than I am in front of a big group of people. And maybe that just comes from teaching — I go out and stand in front of 50 to 100 people every day and talk about what I know about and relate to people.”
In describing his musical reference points, Phillips pointed to the artists he heard when he was younger, in some cases those his older brothers introduced to him.
For instance, he’s a “hard-core” Dead fan, and the Allmans are “kind of my bread and butter.” He hasn’t necessarily agreed with friends who have said they hear a lot of the Dead influence in his music, pointing out his songs run four minutes rather than on the jam-band clock. But he acknowledged the open, melodic sound, “and when we play live we tend to jam a little more.”
The nod to iconic songsmith Browne, he said, comes from “the sort of introspective lyrics and the kind of variety of calm down folk songs with the more uptempo kind of rocking stuff.”
Zerr and Fischer said that while making the record Phillips gave them some latitude to stretch out instrumentally.
“I think that teaching and the interactive environment he’s used to from his day job certainly bled into what we were doing in the studio,” Zerr said.
“He kind of gave us a lot of free rein to hone our parts,” Fischer observed.
(In addition to their work on “Phase I,” Zerr and Fischer can be heard in numerous other local musical settings. They play together in the bands Eggplant Heroes and Hey Joe. Zerr also performs in the band Bugbear, and he leads Dan and Friends. Fischer’s other alliances include Rhythm Posse, Poor Man’s Ridge, AcoustiHoo and Code Blue.)
Phillips hasn’t confined his music to the past. Notably, his children, Ben and daughter Maggie, have opened his eyes to the current musical scene. He especially admires the talents of Field Report’s leader, former Eau Claire resident Christopher Porterfield, who was in the first band he played with “way back when.”
Now that “Phase I” is out, Phillips said he’s hoping to get a regular rotation for shows and a consistent backing-band lineup. While he plans to enjoy his recording achievement, he also will look at his next batch of songs and decide if they reach the same “level of maturity” as the “Phase I” material. He also will continue devoting his attention to his teaching gig.
“I’m only eight years from retirement,” he said, quickly adding: “I’m a workaholic. I don’t know if I’ll ever stop because I really love working with students.”
After all, he added, “One of the apprehensions about this is that it starts to look a little bit more businesslike, and it’s like, let’s not screw up a good hobby.”