The Exchange: The Beths meet Professor James Gimzewski

The Arts and Sciences used to share much of the same intellectual space. Only recently have they diverged to the degree that they seem diametrically opposed. The Exchange is our attempt to rekindle some of the dialogue that occurred between the two fields.

In this installment, we’ve brought together Jonathan Pearce from The Beths and UCLA Prof. James Gimzewski.

The Beths hail from the vibrant and deeply collaborative music community of Auckland, New Zealand. The band consists of lead vocalist and guitarist Elizabeth Stokes, guitarist Jonathan Pearce, and drummer Tristan Deck. Their blend of propulsive, sing-along choruses, four-part vocal arrangements, and wry, introspective lyrics has earned them fans around the world, as well as opening slots for indie rock titans like The Breeders, Pixies, Weezer, and Death Cab for Cutie. 

Their latest album, Jump Rope Gazers, dropped in July accompanied by a new video (see below).

James Gimzewski, UCLA Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry. He is a fellow of Britain’s Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific academy. Professor Gimzewski applies nanotechnology to real-life problems in areas such as nano-medicine, where his research may lead to more effective treatments for cancer and other diseases and, he hopes, more personalized medical treatment. His research overlaps chemistry, nanotechnology, physics, biology, medicine, engineering and art.


The Beths.
Professor James Gimzewski.

Jonathan Pearce (The Beths): Scientists and musicians share a pattern where we dedicate long stints of our working life to a single project, which can and often will disappoint our expectations, or simply fail. How can we deal with that on a mental health and emotional level? Where can we get the strength to try again?

Prof. James Gimzewski: At the start of my career in science, submitting a manuscript for publication in a good journal was a hit-and-miss process. When I received a rejection, either from the editor or referee, that gave me a sinking feeling, sadness and sometimes anger. The same was happened when for applying for a grant. So when I got a paper accepted or a grant awarded, I was elated and over-the-moon. Such emotional ups and downs were not healthy. until Then one day, in 2002, I started to do yoga and meditation. Later I also started Zen meditation. I learned of the middle way, middle mind and started to notice messages that passed by in my mind. There is the negative and positive mind which can take over, causing a kind of bipolarity.

By doing yoga and meditation every day, I eventually overcame the overly positive or negative emotional outbreaks. In fact, the middle mind helped in other ways. For instance, I became more persistent and patient about my work. So rather than accept rejection, I would respond to rejection by arguing in a clear and logical manner. This often resulted in the rejected paper being accepted even though it could take many months of back-and-forth conversation. I also realized that sometimes the research was fundamentally in the wrong direction and needed to terminate it, move on and try some new approach without sadness or hanging on to a dear horse.

I suggest musicians could also try this approach of training the mind to be in the middle. Maybe, new music could also result from it; maybe you would get insights into what you are doing in a clear and illuminating manner.

Prof. James Gimzewski: My question has to do with the adrenaline and endorphins released when you perform with a big audience. I know the feeling from giving large public talks. After such events, I imagine the band is wired. Surrounded by fans and all that, how do you come down from the high? What do you do after, party? Or do you get used to the buzz of the energy of the audience? What’s your process?

Jonathan Pearce (The Beths): When I come off stage, I do feel like I’m on an elevated plane of emotion and energy, and the only people on my level are the three others who were on stage with me. This can lead to some pretty anti-social interactions, even with friends and loved ones who might be with us, but we do have a process. We will almost always have a little chat between ourselves in the band before talking to anyone else. We might share a few in-jokes, and when the show has felt good, we compliment each other on standout moments.

If the show hasn’t gone well in our estimation, we will try to help each other. But we have found through experience that in any case the best thing to do, after having that moment of reflection, is to go out to the merch table. Chatting to people after the show, and having a job to do, be it signing autographs or even putting payments through and organising our stock, is a good way to come back to earth after the main event. This has developed into an important part of our process, because in our mind, the highs and especially the lows of the performance are greatly exaggerated. This can be really bad for our mental health in a way that compounds over the course of a long tour.

Sometimes a reflexive feeling of dread develops around the show, which as you can imagine, becomes a feedback loop of negativity. But we have learned that those perceptions are rarely aligned with the audience’s experience, and can even be objectively wrong! A classic example of this is our perception of the tempos, or speed we performed the songs at – an area of performance with which The Beths have an unmitigated obsession. We almost always play ‘too fast’, even when it feels slow.

Debate rages: if our perception was that the song was too slow, was the audience in that headspace with us? Was it too slow for the moment? Watching social media posts after the fact, we are almost always completely mistaken about how fast or slow we were playing.

So after a show, when our senses are heightened and our opinion of ourselves is skewed in the extreme, we try to be grounded, and remember that nothing is ever as bad, or as good, or as important as we think it is.


For more information about Prof. James Gimzewski visit his Royal Society page or his Academy of Error lecture or his TEDx Talk.

For more information about The Beths:  Facebook | Bandcamp | SoundCloud | Twitter | Instagram | YouTube

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