Punk Band Algebra Mothers Enjoys A Resurgence, With A Little Help From Jack White In the 1970s, Algebra Mothers earned a cult following in their native Detroit. Now they're enjoying newfound popularity with the release of past recordings.
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Punk Band Algebra Mothers Enjoys A Resurgence, With A Little Help From Jack White

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Punk Band Algebra Mothers Enjoys A Resurgence, With A Little Help From Jack White

Punk Band Algebra Mothers Enjoys A Resurgence, With A Little Help From Jack White

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Finally today, we visit with a band that formed at Detroit's Cass Tech High School in the late 1970s and made a big splash on the local punk scene with a single 7-inch record.


ALGEBRA MOTHERS: (Singing) Hey, pretty cheesecake girl. (Unintelligible). I guess it's all the same. (Unintelligible) to find you (unintelligible)

GONYEA: The band is called the Algebra Mothers. They also go by the A-Moms. And that first single, "Strawberry Cheesecake," earned them a cult following. They toured around with some well-known punk bands. Then the new music stopped, and they disappeared for the next 40 years - that is, until Jack White's label, Third Man Records, reissued that first single along with more than a dozen tracks recorded in various home studios and live venues back in the '70s and '80s. The album is called "The Algebra Mothers," and it was released at the end of last year. Joining me now from WDET in Detroit are two members of the original band, Ralph Valdez and Gerald Collins.

Welcome to both of you guys.


RALPH VALDEZ: Hey, Don. Good to be here.

GONYEA: So, Ralph, I want to start with you and an acknowledgement that we know each other.


GONYEA: In another lifetime, we worked together at WDET. I was doing the morning news for Morning Edition, and you hosted a music show and helped raise money, right?

VALDEZ: Yeah, I did. I wore a few different hats. Yeah. I was on the air, and I was also behind the scenes in development.

GONYEA: And I never suspected that you had this amazing past life. You never said anything.

VALDEZ: I guess I was just busy with so many other things. Yeah.

GONYEA: So, Gerald, there were four of you in the A-Moms. Is that correct - four?

COLLINS: It was four original members, and then we picked up a drummer real quickly and became a five-piece and pretty much were a five-piece most of the time we ran. Every now and then, we'd go out as a four-piece, but pretty much.

GONYEA: And you were the guitarist and the writer.

COLLINS: Yes. I was guitarist and one of the writers. And Ralph was the bassist and also a writer.

GONYEA: All right. And, Gerald, the name, the Algebra Mothers - where does that come from?

COLLINS: Well, it came from a dream. One of our high school classmates had a dream about some teenage unwed mothers...

VALDEZ: Teenage moms.

COLLINS: ...And - that were terrorizing a school using protractors and T-squares and...

VALDEZ: T-squares (laughter).

COLLINS: It seemed to make no sense...

GONYEA: (Laughter).

COLLINS: But it also seemed like a great idea to just grab for a band name.

GONYEA: I may have had that dream.


GONYEA: So let's hear another A-Moms song. This one kicks off the album. It's called "Car Sick."


ALGEBRA MOTHERS: (Singing) You want to take me for a ride? Well, I tell you I'm tired. I don't need no trip 'cause I've been 'round everywhere and seen everything. I don't need your black lipstick because I'm carsick. I want to throw up, so if you don't leave me alone, I'll do it in your face.

GONYEA: So, Ralph, how's it feel to listen to this song so many years later? What memories does it conjure up?

VALDEZ: Oh, it's a lot of fun. You know, and it makes me think of how Detroit the band was. You know, the punk scene kind of brought us together, but we were always very Detroit-oriented. You know, there were a lot of bands that we played with that kind of came from the suburbs and such, and that's fine. But I do take pride the fact that we were all inner-city kids who kind of met at Cass Tech and brought together through this punk energy some great songs. And that song that Gerald wrote just is one of the ones that feels very Detroit to me.

GONYEA: Gerald, you've got to help me. What are the lyrics?

COLLINS: You want to take me for a ride? Well, I'll tell you I'm tired. I don't need no trip because I've been around everywhere. I've seen everything. I don't need your black lipstick because I'm car sick.

VALDEZ: Car sick (laughter). I want to throw up.

COLLINS: It's kind of a commentary on, like, trendiness and somehow, like, blending it into a car analogy.

GONYEA: (Laughter).


ALGEBRA MOTHERS: (Singing) I don't want to move. I want to stagnate. I want to stagnate. I want to stagnate.

VALDEZ: The other thing that makes the band, I think, real Detroit is just he writes a lot - you know, his songs references - like in "Strawberry Cheesecake," it talks about city bus rides. And there's just a lot of Detroit elements, I think, that come through in his writing. You know, I think we were actually never that angry or rebellious as much as we were excited by the energy of the music and...

COLLINS: Yeah, that's true.

VALDEZ: ...The return to sort of the Top 40 energy that we grew up on. And, you know, we were so blessed to grow up in a city like Detroit that had such great diversity in Top 40 where you could hear Funkadelic next to Johnny Cash and The Temptations next to Alice Cooper. You know, just all this great music made us really appreciate things. But when punk came around, it was, like, it's time to go back to the even earlier roots of The Kinks and The Stones.

COLLINS: Right. I felt like it was an opportunity to get back to a time in my life when I listened and got excited about this music, but I was too young to participate in - the stuff that I had been listening to when I was 8 and 9 years old. The early British Invasion stuff was all gone by the time I was a teenager, and when punk came around, it kind of felt like, wow, I get a chance to go back in time and play a music that I wish I had gotten to play in then. So it was a lot of fun.

GONYEA: I'd like you to each kind of talk about something else. Punk rock in the - in its early days was mostly, you know, kind of pasty white guys from the U.K...

VALDEZ: (Laughter).

GONYEA: ...And you guys were very much not that. Was that just an accident, or was that by design? Or is that just Detroit?

VALDEZ: Yeah. We stood out for a lot of reasons. But our crazy chemistry of oddballs kind of mixing races and genders and nationalities and influence - it was always natural and organic and never calculated. And we had just by chance of our friendships Mexican American, African American - original drummer was Filipino. We had two women. Just, you know, gay, straight - everybody was involved in part of the mix. And, you know, as the years went on, even more.

GONYEA: All right. Gerald, can I get you to pick a favorite from the new album? We'll play a little bit of it, and then you can talk us through it. And, Ralph, you can jump in too at any time.


GONYEA: But Gerald, go ahead. Pick a favorite.

COLLINS: Pick a favorite. "Swan Song" I like a lot.


GONYEA: So talk about what we're hearing.

COLLINS: This is one of the few that was recorded in a studio, and it just seems to really have the right mix of catchy, bouncy, danceable - and yet, at the same time, doesn't sound like anything else.

GONYEA: Ralph, any thoughts?

VALDEZ: I have a hard time talking over that solo because it's so badass (laughter). I love Gerald's guitar playing. You know, it's just unlike anything else. He just brings in so much energy, grit and melody all at the same time. And yeah, he's just - he's an amazing guitarist.

And so, yeah, that song, "Swan Song," is a perfect ending to the album. And I also like "In And Out Of Order." There's just so many great songs on the album. I wish they were - some of them were, you know, not basement recordings or live recordings. But I think that adds to the low-fidelity punk rock edge of it all, hopefully.

COLLINS: And the drums - I just wanted to comment on the drums to this song...

VALDEZ: Oh, yeah.

COLLINS: ...Are one of the things that I think everybody always gets caught by. It's just, like (laughter), out of this world. I mean, it's pretty wild.

VALDEZ: It's like an octopus is playing the drums.



GONYEA: I've got a good feeling about this, guys. It feels like you might be coming back just when you need it the most.

COLLINS: Thank you.

VALDEZ: (Laughter).

GONYEA: That was Ralph Valdez and Gerald Collins, two members of the band Algebra Mothers. They join me from member station WDET in Detroit.

Thanks, both of you guys.

VALDEZ: Oh, thank you, Don.

COLLINS: Thank you.


ALGEBRA MOTHERS: (Singing) You know, I got to meet you. I always (unintelligible). Seen this in photographs. Now let's describe it now. (Unintelligible) personalities. You're just an actress. I knew it all along, but I'm just a machine that's saying 504, 504...

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