Calculating Success : Phil Alvin has gained recognition for a math theory and is leading the Blasters on their busiest schedule since the late-’80s.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for The Times

Even his own mother once tried to convince young Phil Alvin of the terrible truth: Mathematics and rock ‘n’ roll . . . well, they just didn’t mix.

That was when he was just 15, years before he led a band called the Blasters to the top of the Los Angeles new music scene in the early 1980s, alongside such bands as X, Los Lobos, the Go Go’s and Black Flag. But even as singer Alvin and his younger brother, guitarist-songwriter Dave Alvin, were winning fans with the band’s passionate roots rock and the cult hits “Marie Marie” and “American Music,” numbers were filling Phil’s mind.

“Usually, I go back up to my room after a show, all wired up on adrenaline, and do mathematics until I go to sleep,” Phil Alvin says. “It’s just what I do. I’m happy doing it.”


He’ll probably return to his mathematical theorems again late Saturday night, after his performance with the Blasters at The Palomino in North Hollywood. The concert is just the latest sign that the band has entered a new period of activity.

“I hope to at least be playing 100 gigs a year, and I imagine 15 of them will be in the general L.A. area,” Alvin says.

That’s a high number for a band that has only been sporadically active since the late-1980s, when the Blasters were suffering through a series of lineup changes, and Alvin was slowing things down to fight a mathematics battle while studying and teaching at Cal State Long Beach.

That battle was over “anti-foundational set theory,” a controversial math subject too complex to delve into here. But it was the same battle that had caused him to leave his graduate studies at UCLA in 1979, the year he launched the Blasters.

So in the late ‘80s, just when the Blasters were perhaps at their greatest fame, Alvin chose to return to his mathematical studies full time. “You tell people, ‘I’m not taking these $25,000 gigs. I’m at Long Beach State writing a master’s thesis on anti-foundational set theory,’ they go ‘God, he’s lost his mind.’ Which I thought I had for the last two years.”

He has since returned to UCLA, now that his work in the subject has been recognized, at the same time leading the Blasters on their busiest schedule since the late-’80s.


His two passions “can blend quite naturally,” Alvin insists. “Musicians work at night, mathematicians work in the day.”

By early next year, the Blasters will have finished a new recording for Sony-CBS Records. It will be the first collection of new Blasters material since 1985’s “Hard Line” album, and will include new compositions by Alvin and new guitarist James Intveld.

Alvin is also set to release his second solo album next year, this one through High Tone Records. He had hoped to work again with avant jazzman Sun Ra, who died earlier this year and was a major force on Alvin’s 1986 tribute to American jazz and blues, “Unsung Stories.”

He still expects to enlist such Sun Ra sidemen as John Gilmore and Marshall Allen, who “I think are the best saxophone players alive.” Also on that solo record will be a track with Jerome Bowman, a street musician Alvin met one day in Pasadena.

“I’m trying to make a contemporary snake oil minstrel show with this record,” Alvin says.

The newest phase for the Blasters follows a few troubled years that saw the departure of Dave Alvin, the death of his first replacement Hollywood Fats, and a brief period with former X guitarist Billy Zoom.

Now playing drums in the band is David Carroll, replacing his friend Bill Bateman, who is playing with the Red Devils. Continuing on bass is John Bazz.


“The Blasters is whoever Johnny Bazz and I will play with,” Phil Alvin says. “That’s who’s been the Blasters since we were 14.”

The present lineup, he says, “is really excellent. It’s really the best band I’ve been in since the earlier days with David (Alvin).”

Alvin had offered his brother the chance to return to the Blasters. “He passed.”

Upcoming shows will inevitably focus on new material, Alvin says. But fans can expect to hear many of the older songs that created the band’s reputation.

“If somebody asks me to play it, they deserve that song,” Alvin says. “They deserve ‘American Music,’ and they deserve it with the intensity and abandon that it was originally played. And if you can’t do that, you’re no good.”


Who: The Blasters, with the Blazers.

Location: The Palomino, 6907 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

Hours: 9 p.m. Saturday.

Price: $9.50.

Call: (818) 764-4018.