Kody Holmes, frontman for the indierock outfit The Brave Optimistic, chatted with our own Song River about music, math, and the new album, Oh, Odonata, which comes out tomorrow!
by Song River
Song River for YabYum: Reading over your bio, Kody, have you taken a new look at how things add up? Songwriting/playing to higher math. Why?
Kody Holmes: Looking back, my whole life has been reevaluating how things add up. I certainly never planned on studying higher mathematics. I got into my math PhD program with a sociology degree, which is crazy. But I feel like every time I reevaluate I get a little closer to the truth, or at least my truth.
As to how songwriting plays into higher math, I could go so many directions with that. Higher math isn’t about numbers. It’s about ideas and their consequences. It’s about relationships. Music is very much the same way. Certain notes sound good together because of the way their sound waves interact and fit into each other. You can model this mathematically, but even just hearing it and knowing it sounds good, at that point you’ve already done the math. It’s innate; it’s a part of you. I had opportunities to take it further on this record though. For example, on one song I coded software to randomly place a drum hit using something called a Beta distribution. As the beat is placed in each measure, the points at which the drum hit takes place are added together and divided by the number of measures, an average. Each measure a new average is taken, and eventually the drum hit settles on a particular beat of the measure. It’s the law of large numbers in music-form. I love opportunities to combine math and music, and it’s crazy how naturally and subtly math can be incorporated.
SR: A long desert Valley dweller, you’ve experienced many changes here haven’t you about how music is played and received?
KH: It’s really felt like it, but my perspective is a limited one. I feel like many of the changes could have been more of me growing up than the scene actually changing. In high school, an early variant of The Brave Optimistic was playing with bands like The Summer Set and Anarbor. I grew up with a lot of the guys in that scene, and then pop-rock seemed huge here. Maybe if I was in high school now, going to see friends play, it would feel the same. But to me that scene really seemed to die as a lot of those bands were signed and the others broke up. All the venues we used to play closed too. Everything from ChyroArts to the One Place. We used to go see shows at the Mason Jar (which is now the location of The Rebel Lounge). I’m glad that place finally reopened under a new name.
SR: What have been some of the largest changes you’ve witnessed? How have you found them to be? Positive/Negative?
KH: One change that seemed very real at the time was the drop in the numbers of touring acts coming through. This seemed to be a very real thing, especially after that controversial immigration bill a few years back. In my view, the scene really rose to the challenge after some initial struggles. Local acts have become very self-sufficient. Bands like Playboy Manbaby, Fairy Bones, and Captain Squeegee – they all have their own little cult followings. Every show is this experience of not only sound, but also culture.
SR: You said that leaving Phoenix and going to Nebraska was a bittersweet mix, how so? Seems there is a bit of a story here.
KH: It was bittersweet in many ways. I’m leaving behind an amazing family. It’s large, we’re all very close, and almost everyone is still in Phoenix. We have four generations of Phoenicians still living in our family. That’s remarkable. Even now that I’m living in Lincoln, it doesn’t feel real. I can’t imagine living anywhere but Arizona. Also, unlike the album lyrics purport, I’m not fleeing Phoenix to escape the memories of a girl. My current girlfriend was probably the hardest thing to leave.
At the same time, I think Nebraska is awesome. I always loved Saddle Creek Records and the Omaha/Lincoln scene. Completely separate from that, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln became an obvious first choice for me when I decided to pursue a math PhD. It just fit all my academic interests perfectly. I am excited to be here, but also really sad about everything I’m leaving behind.
SR: Can you share some of the musicians you’ve written for, and the song titles?
KH: I’ve always written either as a producer or as a favor to bands, but I’ve never been officially credited, so I don’t want to rear my head and take credit now. I guess it’s basically ghostwriting, but all those experiences were very collaborative. I never felt like I was giving someone else my vision. Instead, I was helping them realize their own. Nothing I’ve ever written for an artist has ever become a huge radio single or anything, so the answer wouldn’t be too interesting anyway.
SR: Which ones were some of your favorites? Anyone in particular more memorable in its final outcome and production?
KH: I did get to write a rap verse once, and I think it turned out decent. That’s still probably my favorite contribution to date. It was just so out of my wheelhouse, which is fun. I have enjoyed every project though. I love writing. I love storytelling. I just hate most of what is required of a professional musician, so I’ve been very happy hiding in the background and just doing the things I like the most.
SR: You refer to your music as more of a hobby?
KH: It definitely is. I haven’t made serious money off of music for about three years. At one point it was my entire income, but I was honestly miserable. I eventually realized that, at least for me, anything I love too strongly could not be my job. Having something you love that passionately as a profession, it just strangles the life out of it. Math is great in that respect, because I enjoy it and it stimulates me, but it’s also not a burning passion. More often than not, math is a perfect bridge that gives me new ways to interact with some of my more intense passions like music and biology. It’s also a pretty reliable way to make money.
SR: Why the creation then of the album?
KH: I suppose my answer to your last question sort of answers this too. Hobby makes it sound like a passing interest, but it’s not. Music is a very serious passion of mine, which is why it’s now a “hobby.” As for why I’m finally making a full-length record, it had a lot to do with helping me deal with leaving home for a new town. It was also the perfect time to get music out of my system, temporarily. Graduate school can be grueling. I don’t want to be too distracted. Fortunately, the process of making the record was also grueling. I’m more than a little burned out, so I probably won’t even think of writing another song for at least another six months. So yeah, it buys me a semester of focus.
SR: The album is a story. Relay the connecting dots.
KH: The album is structured to chronicle a relationship. The very first song is about some down-on-his-luck, young Phoenix-Metro bus passenger who fantasizes about a girl seated across from him. He’s too afraid to talk to her because he is embarrassed by his current life circumstances, but of course she’s on the same bus. I love that song, because it really spoke to some of my insecurities while I lived at my parents’ house, preparing for grad school. If you buy into my mild embellishment that the album relays a cohesive story, then somehow things work out between the two of them. Sparks fly. Then things get shaky. Eventually our protagonist is heartbroken and flees his hometown for a math degree in Nebraska. The album is definitely structured in a way that makes this story coherent, but a few songs are admittedly tangential detours. Those are just songs that I really wanted to write and put on record.
SR: Kody you chose to release a song, one at a time, prior to the full-length album. Are you creating videos to go along with the tracks as well?
KH: It’s actually a song every three days. Some of the musicians who helped on the record unofficially voted on their favorites. There were five songs consistently mentioned, so I decided to put them all out as singles before the record drops. No videos, unfortunately. I don’t have the stamina or time to put that all together myself. I also don’t have the money to pass that job onto someone else, and I’m not really into asking for favors. I’ll probably put the audio tracks on YouTube eventually though. That seems to be an interesting marketing strategy some bands take on these days.
SR: How brave in truth is the, Brave Optimistic?
KH: I don’t know if I’m all that brave in the traditional sense. I do think there’s something to be said about someone who is always open to the truth (or what appears to be the truth), no matter how scary or uncomfortable it may seem. I’ve always tried to be skeptical, scrutinizing and honest with myself. I’m maybe brave in that sense.
SR: Words mean something. As you took adjectives and decided they were nouns… what was the drive behind your development into songwriting?
KH: I first started learning guitar in 6th or 7th grade. Pretty early on, I got curious and tried my hand at songwriting. I found it completely impossible. It reminds me of when I was a kid. I wanted to learn to wiggle my ears, but I just couldn’t find the muscle. I never could figure it out, and it frustrated me. Songwriting was similar. Then, freshman year of high school, one of my friends chose to end his life. I wasn’t really sure how to deal with those emotions, and one night I just sat down and wrote a song about how I felt. It came together so quickly and naturally. The song was terrible, but Paul McCartney’s first song was terrible. That’s just how it is. But I found the muscle, and it’s been this incredible way to express how I’m feeling ever since. I never felt good with my words, when I’m interacting socially. So songwriting is a cool way to set things straight about who I am and what’s going on in my head.
SR: As music lovers listened to your completed album and support its release; is traveling back and forth between Nebraska and Arizona possible? If not, how do your propose to connect your audience to who you are?
KH: There won’t be much traveling back and forth, except maybe for winter and summer break. But Arizona really isn’t missing much in that sense. I haven’t played live in years. It became this incredibly stressful thing for me. I would have a bad taste in my mouth for weeks just because I sang one note a little off or forgot part of a verse. And live sets will never be perfect, so there’s really no escaping that. I haven’t found a way to escape the self-hatred, so I just stopped playing live. That’s why I could not have recorded my album with anyone but Dan. He knows how to talk me off a ledge, when I want to trash a song or a part because I don’t feel like it’s perfect. He’s given me a lot of confidence through the years. It also helps working closely with musicians like Timothy O’Brien and Alex Dorr, who basically wrote the record alongside my heavy hand. Every part they write is mind-blowing good. It gives me something to like about the songs, even when I dislike my contributions.
How will I connect with audiences? The Internet. This would have been the case in AZ, just as it is in Nebraska. What that’s going to look like? I’m not really sure. I’m hoping to gauge the response to my album first. I don’t have the time to be making YouTube videos that get ten views. At the same time, music is my favorite way to interact with people, so I really want to have an opportunity to reach out to listeners and interact. I want to hear what they’re getting out of the lyrics, and see if they notice all the goofy “Easter Eggs” I’ve hidden in the album for my own amusement.
SR: Eventual long-term goal. As your hobby of songwriting is obviously a part of your passion, how are you planning on combining both entities of writing and math?
KH: I already mentioned some ways I incorporated math into the album, in terms of composition and production. I also use a lot of math and science terms in the lyrics. Part of the beauty of math is the precision of language used. I feel like there are ways I can really use this to my advantage as a songwriter. There are a lot of really cool concepts that I can relate to feelings and situations in life. The song “Isaac Newton on the Human Condition” is definitely the best example of this. I take concepts from physics and mathematics and apply it to relationships. I was especially excited to reference the “Coastline Paradox” in that song. It’s a really cool thing. I suggest looking it up. Math heavy lyrics are new to me, but I really liked it. I’d like to continue to play with that.
I know if UNL ever trusts me with a differential equations class, I’ll be bringing in my guitar to explain beating and resonance. One of my advisors, Dr. Richard Rebarber, is also a super talented musician. He has a great band called Floating Opera. So I’m sure there will be ample opportunities to think about how I might further combine math and music. It may be to educate and it may be to make my music more awesome. Maybe both.
SR: Never stop learning, never stop growing. Are we looking down the road at Professor Holmes… mathematician and songwriter by chance…Watson?
KH: That describes Dr. Rebarber pretty well. I would be proud to stand in his shoes one day. We’ll see if I’m really smart and diligent enough to earn a mathematics PhD. It’s no small thing. But I’ll be teaching starting this fall, so I already feel like this weird blend of academic and entertainer. It’s not all that unusual of a thing. Brian May, the guitarist for Queen, has a PhD in astrophysics. John Urschel is a lineman for the Ravens and publishes math papers in the offseason. Mathematics seems to be a welcoming place for those who want to live a double life.
SR: In truth, Kody, are you an optimist?
KH: I think so. I tend to think very highly of people. I think people are very smart and are full of kindness. Sometimes I’m disappointed, but I think high expectations bring a lot out of people. They bring a lot out of me.
The new release – Oh, Odonata – will be available on Aug. 18th. Until then, you can preview tracks here.
Follow The Brave Optimistic on Facebook here.