Take I Monster’s electronic veteran Dean Honer, gradually introduce soulful folkie Kevin Pearce, and heat gently over a Bunsen burner. The result? The Sound Of Science – a successful bonding and a new album of scientific delights
“When I first started thinking about this album, my boys were eight or nine years old,” says Dean Honer, his beard bristling in the late afternoon Sheffield sunshine. “And watching kids’ TV with them was torture. Every other song seemed to be ‘The Wheels On The Bus Go Round And Round’. Whereas I don’t think it was like that in the 1970s. Things like the ‘Play Away’ records were quite charming and considered.
“But I’m not sure how I started thinking about a science album for kids – whether it was specifically to do with bad kids’ music or more to do with the whole anti-science movement that was emerging. I remember thinking, ‘Actually, science is really important in general education’, and I just started pulling it all together. At the time, I didn’t know if anyone else had ever made one. Now, I think someone has, actually… but I haven’t heard it.”
“It was an American band,” adds Kevin Pearce, pacing around his kitchen table. They each furrow their brows in adjacent windows with impressive synchronicity, trying to remember the name of the mystery combo. Could it be They Might Be Giants? They’ve made a few kids’ albums over the years.
“Yeah, that’s them!” exclaims Pearce. “I haven’t heard it either.”
“Anyway, that was the idea,” smiles Honer. “Trying to give parents something to listen to with their kids, and hoping they both might enjoy it.”
The Sound Of Science make a curious combo. Multitasking electro-powerhouse Dean Honer – Top 10 chart star with The All Seeing I, one half of poptastic Sheffield duo I Monster, one-time Britney Spears producer. And tousle-haired Essex folkie, Kevin Pearce – Radio 2 favourite, endorsed by “Whispering” Bob Harris, compared to Cat Stevens and Richie Havens.
And yet it’s somehow unsurprising that from this collision of musical backgrounds comes ‘The Sound Of Science’. The records they adore, those 1970s BBC albums with Big Ted and Johnny Ball on their covers, made a virtue of fusing rustic charm with radiophonic oddness.
Their own album follows in this proud tradition. Pearce’s finger-picking chords have been squeezed through Honer’s electronic mangle (“Heeeeeave!”) to produce a dozen shiny synth nuggets. The ‘Earth Side’ has songs about photosynthesis and the water cycle. The ‘Space Side’ covers gravity and black holes. It’s great.
“I was born in 1965, so I went to school from 1970 onwards,” remembers Honer. “They’d bring in the big telly and show you educational programmes and most of them seemed to have Radiophonic Workshop soundtracks. At the time, I wasn’t thinking, ‘What’s this wacky music?’, but it just becomes part of you.”
So what about the youthful Kevin? Unless he’s chanced upon the folk world’s most effective skincare regime, his childhood was surely more about Mr Blobby than Mr Benn.
“I’ve always been interested in all music,” he explains. “It can be one man and a guitar, it can be three people on synthesisers or it can be an orchestra. And I’ve learned a lot from Dean. He’ll say, ‘Go and have a listen to Bruce Haack’.”
And their own scientific backgrounds? Were they both bespectacled school spoffs, jotting down the result of covalent-bonding experiments in their notebooks?
“I was quite disinterested at school,” admits Pearce. “Not primary school. That was exciting. I learnt about dinosaurs. But secondary school… I didn’t relate to the whole atmosphere, except for one teacher – Mr Lewis. He was my physics teacher and he was amazing. He’d show us a great video about volcanoes, then he’d say, ‘Right, you’ve enjoyed that – now do me a favour and answer some questions from the textbook’. So it was a good trade-off. I remember thinking I’d really like to go and see a live volcano. I still never have.”
“I wasn’t scientifically academic – I was more into English,” recalls Honer. “But I enjoyed it. The Bunsen burners on the tables and the rubber hoses going into the desks. And now I’ve got a proper telescope in the garden! I’d always wanted one. It’s massive – it’s got an eight-inch mirror and stands about five feet tall. I just like sitting out there, having a smoke and scanning the skies for interesting stuff. The moon and the planets. Stars get a bit boring, although globular clusters can be really good.”
Despite the current 200-mile commute, they are both Essex lads at heart.
“I was born and brought up in east London until I was six, in a tiny maisonette in Canning Town,” says Honer. “But then Newham Council built houses in Essex, so we ended up moving to Stanford-le-Hope. As a teenager, I started going out to clubs like Croc’s in Rayleigh, which had a real underground electronic scene. I used to see loads of great bands there every week.”
Essex? Circa 1981? Let’s take a wild stab at Depeche Mode.
“Yeah, they had a residency. At school, I was the singer in this little punk band called Energy, playing youth clubs,” Honer continues. “Then we went to see Depeche Mode and Blancmange, and it was, ‘Oh wow – this sounds amazing. There’s no drummer!’. Doing gigs was such a hassle because you had to carry the fucking drum kit everywhere. So we split the band up, and two of us bought synths and a Dr Rhythm drum machine. We never actually released anything, but we recorded onto a cassette player, just experimenting.
“Then I met a girl on holiday in Spain and moved to London with her. Her brother, Russell Senior, was in Pulp, so we were also visiting him in Sheffield. And we started to think, ‘What are we doing in London, doing shitty jobs and having no money? Sheffield’s so much better.’ So we moved here when I was 19 and it was amazing. This was about 1983. I set up a little studio, went to university, and I’m still here.”
Pearce, meanwhile, has been open about the transforming effect of music on a Colchester childhood marred by shyness.
“I’m not a naturally loud or confident person,” he says. “But when I play gigs, I put a hat on. Create a character. And that gives you the freedom to do or say whatever you want. Then literally when you walk offstage you’re back to who you are. I’ve found it a good skill in life. When I go into situations I’m dreading, I just think, ‘Put your performing hat on for a bit and you’ll be able to cope’. And then I go home and hyperventilate.”
Their first collaboration came in 2010, under the guise of Skywatchers. With I Monster comrade-in-arms Jarrod Gosling completing the trio, they produced ‘The Skywatchers Handbook’, an immaculate synthesis of folk and electronica. To steal some deliciously purple prose from the PR blurb: “It begins in a field of lonely Victorian flowers. Electronic and scientific pulses cross-pollinate with the vibrations of bucolic wooden instruments. The old and the new. The wood and the alloy.”
“I was starting to take music a bit more seriously and my manager at the time used to manage All Seeing I,” recalls Pearce. “So we started out with Dean remixing my track ‘Dead Flowers For Her’, and that became a Skywatchers song. And we went from there.”
“Skywatchers is actually an important part of the genesis of ‘The Sound Of Science’,” adds Dean. “That album had quite a bit of science in it, but it wasn’t aimed at children. And with the ‘The Sound Of Science’, the original idea was to make it quite retro – going back to the folkiness of ‘Play Away’ – so most of the songs started with Kevin’s guitar chords. Then gradually, as I produced it up, it became more electronic.”
It’s covalent bonding in musical form, isn’t it? As you said, the wood and the alloy. Pearce nods.
“Yeah. I come from a real rootsy background, playing in folk clubs to people with big beards and knitted jumpers. But it all marries up so well.”
So how well do they really know each other? Let’s turn this into ‘Mr And Mrs’… I ask Pearce to tell me something about Honer.
“Ooh, he keeps his cards very close to his chest. But he’s a bit of a fine-whisky connoisseur. He’s got quite a knowledge. Occasionally, if I’m staying, he’ll bring them all out and we’ll both have a little one.”
Flipping the game round, I ask Honer to reveal something about Pearce.
“He’s a very keen golfer. Despite once having a heart attack on the course.”
What the fuck? How have I missed this?
“It was 19 April 2018,” nods Kevin earnestly. “Completely out of the blue. I started getting pains down one arm. I plodded on for a few minutes, but then it spread to my chest and neck. It’s a weird pain. Like someone is pulling your chest out through your back. I sat down and tried to get my breath and it subsided. But then it came back, five times stronger. I went over, and that was it. The next thing I remember is being in an ambulance on my way to hospital.
“They said they would keep me in overnight, but 10 days later I was still there. An MRI scan found scarring of the heart muscle, which pretty much confirmed I’d had a heart attack. I was only in my early 30s at the time, and it was most likely caused by a blood clot. It was terrifying, but as it went on I got quite geeky about researching it all. They decided to monitor me, so for the last three years I’ve had a thing the size of a USB chip inserted at the top of my ribcage.”
“Yeah, he’s like the Six Million Dollar Man now,” chuckles Honer. “He’s got this chip in his chest that sends data out.”
“I’m a cyborg,” laughs Pearce. “And it seems, at the moment, that my heart is functioning OK.”
So has it changed him? He pauses thoughtfully.
“It’s like there’s life before it, then life after it. I don’t really remember the ‘me’ from before. I’m much more positive now. Much healthier, too – I’ve lost five stone since it happened.”
I recall Wilko Johnson saying that on the day he got his cancer diagnosis, the flowers outside the clinic were suddenly the brightest, most colourful he had ever seen.
“That’s such a good way to put it. I’m like that with trees. I get this stupid, overwhelming happiness from trees. And it’s made me love music more than ever. But I’ve also taken a lot of pressure off myself. When I was younger, it was ‘I want success!’ But now I’m much more enjoying just picking up the guitar and playing.
“And I wouldn’t change it. Everyone says it’s great that I recovered, but I feel more like I un-covered. I uncovered part of myself I didn’t know was there. A much more positive and humble person. The sun shines a lot brighter now than it did before. Although that’s probably because of global warming.”
Which brings us neatly back to ‘The Sound Of Science’. There’s even a track called ‘Global Warming’, proving that – for all the inspiration it takes from Big Ted and Johnny Ball’s 1970s exploits – this is very much an album about contemporary concerns. And it was a 2018 intervention from the academic world that provided the impetus to complete the project.
“We got an offer from the University of Sheffield to take part in their Festival Of The Mind, where they link up academics and artists,” recalls Honer. “So they asked me if I had anything, and ‘The Sound Of Science’ was almost fully formed. We put a four-piece band together to play the songs and we had Professor Duncan Cameron and Dr Nate Adams doing bits in between each song. So we’d play ‘Everything’s Made Of Atoms’ and they’d bring out some equipment and do an experiment for the kids in the audience.”
“There was a little explosion!” smiles Pearce. The pair of them are suddenly incredibly animated. “You know the little plastic balls from kids’ ball pools? Nate blew loads of those out of a canister.”
“And they had a glass tube with a speaker at one end,” adds Honer. “They’d send a sine wave down it and the flames would form into the shape of the wave. A Flame Organ, they called it.”
They’re back to being kids again, beaming with undisguised glee. Mr Lewis would be proud. The finished album maintains this youthful zest. Where else could you find the Verve Children’s Choir of Sheffield on backing vocals for Add N To (X)’s Steven Claydon? And closing track ‘A Total Solar Eclipse’ boasts heartwarming narration from eight-year-old twins Henry and Ellis Goddard.
So is there scope for a second volume? After all, they’re busy men. Honer, as we speak, is planning a reissue of ‘Frogman’, a dystopian spoken word project with contributions from both Russell Senior and the Ellis twins’ Dad, Will – aka post-punk experimentalist Supreme Vagabond Craftsman. Pearce, meanwhile, is basking in the success of another offshoot project – a soulful new album recorded under his Sun Cutter moniker has reached the German Top 20.
“My best mate keeps texting ‘Hasselhoff’ to me,” he smiles wryly. “But yes, we’ve spoken about ‘The Sound Of Science’ Volume 2.”
Keep your exercise books handy, class. It seems this particular experiment has yet to reach its conclusion.
‘The Sound Of Science’ is out on Castles In Space