Science songster interview #9: Rishi Nag

Professor Karmadillo, a.k.a. Rishi Nag

SAS&M: I UNDERSTAND THAT PROFESSOR KARMADILLO IS A MUSICAL ACT LED BY YOU, AND THAT IT GREW OUT OF A BAND CALLED KARMADILLO, ALSO LED BY YOU. PLEASE DESCRIBE THE ORIGINS OF THESE GROUPS AND HOW THEY RELATE TO EACH OTHER. ARE ALL OF THE PERSONNEL AND INSTRUMENTS THE SAME?

The story starts after I had spent a couple of years as a volunteer in South America – lecturing and updating the Computer Science course at the University of Guyana on the North coast of South America. After my stint there I went travelling for a few months and when visiting a museum of musical instruments in La Paz discovered an instrument called the charango, a guitar like instrument where the body was traditionally made from the shell of an armadillo. Later I found a musical shop where they sold cheap wooden ones – as this was quite small (it’s bigger than a ukulele but still quite portable) and cheap I picked it up. I paid some buskers to tune it for me and show me some chords on it – it worked out OK as an impromptu musical lesson with teacher and student not speaking the same language! When I returned to England I wrote some songs on it while I was settling back and decided to make this instrument the focus of my new musical project. I have always been in bands or performing wherever I’ve been – and given the origin of the charango, Karmadillo seemed like the name that worked.

Karmadillo has been around for ten years or so – I started working with a bass player James and then we added a multi-talented Kate to the roster. Well, she was invited to help record one song and then didn’t leave so she became part of the band! However, since then it has become a one man band where I create and play along with backing tracks or acoustically as the situation demands. Personnel and organisation wise this is also how Professor Karmadillo works. I will write the song, collaborate with others on backing tracks and recordings and then take it on the road.

Professor Karmadillo started after I wrote a song about an Arabidopsis plant for the GeekPop festival, which received a lot of positive feedback. At the time I was learning about genetics and I wanted to try and capture the emotional impact coming across new (to me) ideas the science had on me. This kind of unleashed a floodgate of song ideas. It felt awkward squeezing these into the normal Karmadillo show, so I created Professor Karmadillo as an artistic space to explore science songwriting. This was quite liberating as it meant I didn’t feel quite so self-conscious singing about the standard model of particle physics in front of a pub audience if they knew what to expect.

SAS&M: THE GEEKPOP FESTIVAL SEEMS TO TAKE PLACE MOSTLY ONLINE. DOES IT ALSO INCLUDE ACTUAL STAGES WITH LIVE PERFORMANCES? HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED IN IT?

The GeekPop festival is an online event mostly, and they also feature science songs in their podcast at http://geekpop.co.uk. Getting involved was quite easy – I got in touch with Hayley, the organiser when I heard about it. As well as the podcast and online festival, they do have live performances and which I have been very kindly invited to play at a couple of times. However, every time I was due to play a gig I ended up getting a letter saying I had a knee operation scheduled that week! I had cruciate ligament and torn cartilage trouble which took a couple of procedures to rectify. I’d love to actually play one of their live gigs but I’m worried if I get invited to play a live event again something will go wrong again as well!

SAS&M: WHAT IS THE NATURE OF YOUR DAY JOB? YOU ARE A BIOINFORMATICIAN, RIGHT?

That’s correct, I am a bioinformatician, and this year I started working on the Ensembl project. It’s a joint project between the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the EBI just outside Cambridge. Essentially our team works of genome annotation – lots of Perl running on lots of computers processing lots of data! The information we create goes into a genome browser at http://www.ensembl.org. The first species I’ve processed has been the Southern Platyfish, which will be released next month. Look out for it! As with many bioinformaticians though, I didn’t start out that way. My degree was in mathematics, moved into speech recognition systems and then into noise cancellation DSP programming. Last year I was working with plant samples that Charles Darwin himself had picked that were stored in the Herbarium at Cambridge. Being able to touch these relics of the history of evolutionary science really filled me with a sense of awe. It’s been neat – I’m working with those one minute and then using contemporary technologies to help piece together the evolutionary tree at the genetic level the next.

SAS&M: MOST PRACTICING SCIENTISTS WHO WRITE SCIENCE SONGS FOCUS THEIR WRITING ON THE TOPICS OF THEIR RESEARCH AND TEACHING. YOUR SONGS SEEM PRETTY DIVERSE CONTENT-WISE, HOWEVER. WHERE DO YOUR SONG IDEAS COME FROM?

The diversity of the topics is probably a reflection of the varied environments I’ve worked in. I read a lot of news items. On one level it’s what I find interesting, but it also has to be something that evokes an emotional colour in me to give the music a direction. So the one on Brownian Motion was an upbeat bouncy number and The Phylogenetic Tree is a more slow number.

SAS&M: IF POSSIBLE, GIVE US AN EXAMPLE OF A GOOD IDEA FOR A NOT-YET-WRITTEN SCIENCE SONG.

Well I keep hearing there are songs that have been written about quantum mechanics but everytime I look for them on Google they’re not there.

SAS&M: YOU SHOULD CHECK THE SING ABOUT SCIENCE DATABASE! MOVING ON, WHICH OTHER SCIENCE SONGSTERS DO YOU LIKE AND/OR ADMIRE, AND WHY?

Probably my fave science songsters are The Intercontinental Music Lab – not the incontinent as I tried to spell it the first time round. They’re a collective spread across the globe, so they cover a range of topics from space exploration to endangered species and there’s a nice range of musical styles, but done in a way that works for me. Dr Martin Austwick is a bit mellower – the fact he released an album in a petri dish sleeve speaks for itself! Helen Arney is great for comedy value. Both of these I think do a nice job of observing the quirkiness of science and the nerd lifestyle. Finally, he’s only done a couple of songs but there’s an astronomer called Andrew Pontzen who should do more – he did a couple of fabulous ones at the last GeekPop. The lyrics were nice and hardcore science, and with nice jazz-inpired music, which I really loved.

SAS&M: YOUR WEBSITE SUGGESTS THAT YOU WANT TO CONVINCE THE GENERAL PUBLIC THAT SCIENCE IS FUN AND INTERESTING. DO YOU FEEL THAT A LACK OF PUBLIC INTEREST IN AND KNOWLEDGE OF SCIENCE IS A SERIOUS PROBLEM IN THE UK? HAVE YOU GOTTEN ANY FEEDBACK THAT YOU’RE CHANGING PEOPLE’S ATTITUDES ABOUT SCIENCE?

RN: I was in part inspired to start Professor Karmadillo by an interview I read with Ben Goldacre, who writes a column called Bad Science for the Guardian newspaper in the UK. He was talking about the trouble he had persuading editors that there were a huge number of people who had studied and were interested in science but maybe weren’t working as scientists who had to put up with ‘Flapjacks give you cancer’ style headlines as mainstream media’s sole headline interest in scientific achievements. I want to do is rekindle people’s interest in science. I think there is the issue though that you need access to mainstream shows. What I have really been successful about is enthusing scientists about their own work – it’s been great to hear that scientists have passing on my songs between each other. I think there is a public awareness of science. As climate change and evolution demonstrate, people are mostly happy enough with science and the toys and benefits it provides I think as long as it doesn’t make them have to change their world view.

SAS&M: ANY FINAL COMMENTS?

RN: Firstly, thanks for asking for the interview. My wife and I had a lovely little girl this year so I’m taking some time out while we try and catch up on sleep. But I’ve got some great ideas for next year!

[Related: Rishi Nag interview at EasternBlot.net; Rishi Nag interview at The Node]

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2 Responses to Science songster interview #9: Rishi Nag

  1. Kevin says:

    Great post

  2. Pingback: Interview posted on Singing With Science | Professor Karmadillo

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