Brendan Britton (right) performs with his brother Ben (left) in the group Triangle Forest. Photo courtesy of Brendan Britton.
As the lead singer of Providence synth-pop act Triangle Forest, Brendan Britton has shared the stage with acts such as Shiny Toy Guns and Silversun Pickups. The group, which also features Britton’s brother Ben, won the 2007 WBRU Rock Hunt, a Rhode Island talent search contest held annually by the radio station, and their song “Rockagon” received considerable airplay on the station.
In addition to his music career, Britton is a professor at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI), where he teaches two astronomy courses at the college’s flagship Knight Campus in Warwick. He first started as an adjunct in 2006 and became an assistant professor two years later.
We spoke with Britton at CCRI earlier about his dual careers in music and teaching. He told us this was the first time he had ever done an interview that has touched upon both of those aspects of his life.
Which came first, your professorship at CCRI or the formation of Triangle Forest?
Brendan Britton: Actually, Triangle Forest came first. The year Triangle Forest started was 2005, if you can believe that, and I was not teaching here. I started the band with my brother, because I had moved back to Providence after grad school.
We formed the band, and shortly after, I started teaching here adjunct. I started here as a full time, assistant professor in 2008.
How did you first become interested in astronomy and physics?
BB: In high school, I was always sort of a musician/art kid, but I took a strong interest in science because I had this really amazing physics professor who was really funny and clever and witty, and it got me super-psyched on physics. I had always been a Star Wars geek and into space movies, so it made a lot of sense.
I plowed through college and grad school and afterwards I needed a job, like many of you guys experience after college. The first job I got was in cognitive science, but an adjunct teaching gig came up here. I started teaching astronomy and it worked because the students liked my classes and they asked me to apply for the full-time gig.
There are a lot of others musicians who are also in academics. Do you know any?
BB: In just academics, tons. Even here at CCRI. One of the professors I love is Chris Brooks, and he’s a really cool guy who teaches English and he’s a fantastic lap-steel guitar player and bass player. We always talk about music.
A thing people don’t recognize is that especially in physics, there’s a lot of interest by physicists in music, because if you know physics it gives you an extra insight into the vibrations of strings. For me, the reason I love synthesizers is because synthesizers are half signal processing physics and half music and fun and dancing.
What are your musical influences?
BB: I’m in the band with my brother, and we grew up with cassette tapes and I still love cassette tapes to this day. The first two cassette tapes that we ever got were the soundtrack to Bright Lights, Big City which features bands like Depeche Mode, New Order, Prince, Donald Fagen, M/A/R/R/S, all these cool ’80s legends, and the other tape we got was Mötley Crüe’s Shout At the Devil. So there’s my influences right there.
I love Depeche Mode and New Order and a lot of classic ‘80s synth bands, but I like the ethos of rock ‘n’ roll. Over time, I’ve gotten into other types of synth acts that I thought were really cool. A band like Chromeo is really awesome, or the British band Add N to (X). Anything with a vocoder I like.
BB: I think it’s awesome. Growing up as a little shaver in the ‘80s, the future to me seemed like neon signs and synthesizers and flying cars and I wanted that future. Then in the ‘90s, all this awesome music came into play like grunge and punk had a resurgence. I got into those types of music, but I wanted to see the music of the future being involved with synthesizers. The fact that it’s coming back now makes me feel like “Yes!”
There have been times, especially in the 2000s when we we doing Triangle Forest, where it felt to me like there was so little interest in synthesizer bands that they wouldn’t come out with cool new models of synthesizers because there just weren’t enough kids going out to Guitar Center and buying them. There would be all these cool pedals for guitars, but no cool effects racks for synths.
Now the fact that I see people liking the music and I see more bands using synthesizers, it gets me really excited. I even have a rule of thumb: if I go see a show, if there’s a synthesizer, I’ll be like “okay this band’s cool, I’ll check them out.”
Brendan Britton in the second floor physics hallway at the Community College of Rhode Island’s Knight Campus in Warwick. | Photo by: Megan Phelps for 45s and 40s.
How have you split your time between being in Triangle Forest and being a professor at CCRI?
BB: The reality of it is that I don’t sleep much and I probably don’t eat as much as I should, either.
Teaching here is awesome. Some people hate their job, but I can say when I come to work that I’m having a blast. I’m meeting cool people, I’m talking to them about space, black holes, quasars and rotating galaxies. There’s nothing not to like about that, but it does take up a ton of time. It’s really hard to do both. To be a good musician, you have to constantly be playing. Really good bands that I love, like Pixies or Sonic Youth, played every day and that’s why they got so good.
For me and my brother, it’s tough because we’re playing maybe two to three times a week and I want to play more, but I also need to teach and make a living, and astronomy is important to me. It’s hard and I think a lot about it. I’m always trying to shave another hour out of my day so I can go to my studio.
What are the classes you teach at CCRI?
BB: I have two main courses. One is a class on the Solar System, and it’s sort of thinly veiled planetary geology. That’s the class where we learn about the geological history of the surface of Mars, why Jupiter has thin rings and Saturn has thick rings and why Pluto isn’t a planet anymore. Then I teach a class called Stars and Galaxies, where we look at the bigger picture of the universe; How galaxies work, the physics of stars and nuclear fusion and things like black holes, spacetime and relativity.
I was hired to teach astronomy and physics because my undergraduate degree is a dual degree in physics and astronomy, but I happen to know a lot more about astronomy because that’s what I went to grad school for. I love teaching these courses, it’s wonderful.
We also have a beautiful telescope, the Margaret M. Jacoby Observatory. Every Wednesday, we have a public opening where anyone can come for free and look through the telescope.
Have any of your students recognized you as the lead singer of Triangle Forest?
BB: Oh yeah, definitely. This semester started off really funny. I’m giving my spiel on astronomy versus astrology and we’re getting into it, and the hand goes up and they go “Can I ask you a non-astronomy related question?” and I said all right, sure. And they’re like “Are you in a band?”
In fact, when I first started, I can remember seeing a student looking at the Triangle Forest website in class, but I’m not sure if they realized that their professor was actually the person in that band. I think they were just checking on a show that was happening that weekend. I think maybe halfway through the semester, they suddenly put it together.
Usually it gives me a few more street cred points, so they’ll be willing to listen to me talk about math a little bit longer.
Have you ever used music in your classes, and if so, how?
BB: No. I have a strict rule about this: I don’t write songs about astronomy and I don’t really try to crossover between one or the other. I kind of feel like the music is its thing and the teaching of astronomy is its own thing. When I’m here teaching astronomy, I’m doing the best job I can and I don’t want kids to get distracted by the music thing.
When I first started teaching, I would actually go to great pains not to talk about the two things. I wouldn’t talk about work when I was doing music stuff and I wouldn’t talk about band stuff when I was in school, but the more I tried to keep them separate or secret, the more people wanted to know about the other thing.
I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve let my guard down and I’m like “Yeah, I’m in a band. We’re playing this weekend, come see us.” I’m trying to be less formal and laid back about it.
Britton leads a study session in a CCRI conference room. | Photo by: Megan Phelps for 45s and 40s.
Triangle Forest won the 2007 WBRU Rock Hunt. What was it like to win that?
BB: It was a great honor. At the time, it wasn’t a super big deal to us because we weren’t psychologically caught up in the winning of it so much. We did it because someone who was associated with the radio station suggested the people liked us and we should do it. So we said sure, we’ll play any gig.
When we won, it was surprising. It was cool. The one nice thing that came out of it was that we got to play some really great shows with some big acts. We got to play with Shiny Toy Guns and The Bravery and Silversun Pickups.
What was it like to play those kinds of big shows?
BB: When we played with Shiny Toy Guns and The Bravery, Xiaojue [Hu] was playing bass in the band at the time. So it was me, my brother and Xiaojue. We’re sort of a chill bunch and they gave us our own beer tent with our very own keg of beer. Shiny Toy Guns has got their own tent and their own bus and The Bravery does, and we’re not anywhere on that scale, we’re just little guys. Suddenly the three of us are sitting in this epic beer tent with a keg of beer, and we’re all kind of looking at it like “should we get trashed before we go on stage?”
Honestly, we almost felt out of place. I think where we feel at home is when we’re playing like a little art gallery. So to to suddenly be on a big stage with all those people, of course it’s a rush and it’s fun and it’s exciting, but it almost felt a little surreal.
Your album Hostile Takeover came out almost 10 years ago. Are you planning to record a second album?
BB: Actually, the album is recorded. I have more than 10 songs at our studio recorded. The problem is that I’m a stubborn bastard and I should really get them professionally mastered, but I don’t want to get them freshly mastered because I want to do it myself. The physicist in me is like “this is an exercise in signal processing.”
The reality of it is that you really have to be a skilled engineer to master an album and make it sound good. So I keep taking stabs and we’ll keep putting out songs online. I haven’t released an album because I kind of feel like CDs are dead and no one’s going to carry around a CD.
We want to put this album out and we have it more or less ready to go. I would just like it to be mastered a little better, because the band has a lot bass and I want the bass to sound really rich. Sometimes I listen to the tracks and I think it doesn’t sound the way it does live, so I want to get the mix a little better.I think if we do release it, it will be on a little USB stick.
The most recent song on your Bandcamp is called “Pluto.” Did you write that song before the New Horizons probe went past Pluto or was it in the making before it arrived?
BB: It’s funny that you mention this, because I just said that I try not to write about songs about astronomy, but I broke that rule for “Pluto.”
Here’s the reason why: When the New Horizons image of Pluto came back for the first time, it was a big moment for me. For 10 years, I’ve been teaching Pluto to my classes and the funny joke is when it’s time to talk about Pluto, I queue up the slide and it’s basically a picture of a disco ball because the old photo of Pluto from Hubble Telescope was not well resolved. It just looked like a blur. It looked like a white sphere with little patches or squares on it.
The whole time I’m teaching this, you think about it and your students are thinking about it with you. We’re just wondering “What is Pluto going to look like?” It’s been at the edge of our solar system for 4.6 billion years floating around the sun in the dark. We’ve known about for 50 to 100 years and we don’t know what it looks like. So I was obviously very excited when New Horizons was about to beam that first image back.
When the image came back and I saw that it had a lot of cool surface geology, the thing that really struck me was that heart shape, Regio Tombaugh, the plane of erosional ice at its surface. It just struck me that to see Pluto for the first time, and it was like a little icy heart and the edge of the solar system.
I thought that was so cool, so symbolic. It’s like a love letter from Pluto. Like, “Hey I’ve been out here in the dark this whole time and you’ve just never been able to see me before.” I kind of thought that was a cool metaphor for our band In the same way that we’ve always been a small town band that makes really fun music, but because we take a long time to release albums and because we’re not very ambitious on social media, we’ve just been kind of chugging along in the dark making our fun tunes. I thought “I feel like there’s something about Pluto that’s a lot like Triangle Forest.” That was went I had to break down and say, okay, I’m writing about Pluto.
After this show at AS220, does Triangle Forest have any other plans for this year?
BB: Yeah. We’re going to play a show in New York in May at this club called Pianos in S oHo. During the summers, we have a big push for music because my teaching schedule is reduced, so I usually spend much more time in my studio.
We’re going to play the Providence Art Festival. That’s going to be really fun, that’s a big outdoor stage. We’ll probably have a few other shows and probably just focus on solidifying some of those recordings. I’ll probably take another stab at the mastering to see if we could get out more of those tracks.
Triangle Forest performs with The Viennagram, Twenty Four Hours and Lovesick at AS220 on 115 Empire Street in Providence, R.I. on April 22. Doors open at 9 p.m., tickets are $5. For more information, go to AS220.org.