The 'Secret Life' of musician Tom Scholz
The Boston guitarist is notoriously press-shy, but he opened up his studio for NOVA to discuss his scientific passions.
Fri, Jun 13, 2014 at 02:00 PM
Tom Scholz of the band Boston demonstrating a trademark guitar solo during NOVA's "Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers." (Photo: NOVA)
When Boston's megahit "More Than a Feeling" was rocking the radio in 1976, Tom Scholz was working as a product engineer at Polaroid, a job he didn't quit until the band became headliners. That's one of the facts the rarely interviewed rock icon reveals in the PBS/NOVA series "Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers," which is now available online.
The latest in a roster of "Secret Life" subjects such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Mayim Bialik, and Bill Nye, Scholz offers a behind-the-scenes look at his life, his gear (including his own inventions), and his music, performing parts of "More Than A Feeling" and "Foreplay." Series creator Joshua Seftel and producer Tom Miller got Scholz to open up about his creative process and his unexpected rise from MIT to the top of the charts, and share a sneak preview of Boston's first album in 12 years, "Life, Love & Hope," which the band is now supporting on tour.
MNN: Where did you get the idea for "The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers"? What was your approach? Did you get everyone you wanted?
Josh Seftel: The original idea was very simple. Why does everyone know all the details of Kim Kardashian's life, but next to nothing about people who have some of the greatest impact on our world —scientists and engineers? So we profile scientists and engineers and explore the work that they do...and we show what they do when they take off their lab coats. It turns out that the same scientist who's trying to cure a disease during the week might also be a professional wrestler on the weekend!
Tom Miller: We think our approach is a way to engage with an audience that might not be consuming a whole lot of science media otherwise. And we're trying to get them excited about it. We've been thrilled with every person we've been able to profile in our four seasons (more than 60 profiles so far). One person we still hope to profile (someday!) is Queen guitarist/astrophysicist Brian May.
Why was it important to include Tom Scholz?
Miller: Well, number one, he's Tom Scholz! And we wanted to show that an amazing musician, a certified guitar god if there ever was one, was actually applying Newtonian physics in the way that he played and recorded his music.
Seftel: It was his idea to wear his MIT T-shirt (he's got two degrees in engineering from MIT) and to hold his guitar during our interview with him. It's hard to imagine a better visual to encapsulate what we're trying to do with our series.
Tom is 'not rock star-ish', he says. Is it shyness or something else? Did you have to convince him to participate?
Seftel: Tom's approach has always been to let his music do the talking. He doesn't do much media and Boston doesn't even make music videos (and never has). Turns out, Tom is a lifelong "NOVA" fan, and he wanted to get the chance to talk about his engineering.
Miller: Out of literally thousands of media requests, we were one of the very small handful that Tom wanted to do, which was incredibly lucky for us.
When did you film the interview? How long did it take?
Seftel: We filmed the interview at Tom's studio in January and he couldn't have been more gracious.
Miller: He gave us six hours of his time between the interview and showing us his studio and the amazing music-making devices that he's invented. His wife, Kim, even brought us cookies...again, we were lucky.
What was the most surprising thing you learned, and the audience will learn about him?
Miller: Probably the thing that stands out is that Tom was insecure about whether his music would really be embraced by an audience. He was still taking multiple leaves of absence from his engineering job at Polaroid to do Boston's first mega-tours. He was worried that his music might not pan out for the long term.
Seftel: He wanted to make sure he'd still have Polaroid to fall back on. Mllions of albums later, it obviously turned out that he didn't need it.
Was he different than you expected? Or live up to your expectations?
Seftel: Tom was friendly and forthcoming and funny, too. In a way, it was surprising since he doesn't do a lot of media. But he seemed totally comfortable with us and excited about telling his story.
Miller: We were originally scheduled to interview him in a studio in New York City, but that didn't work out. He then offered to let us interview him in his studio, which added to his comfort level and gave us the chance to have him tour us (and our audience) around his studio. We knew that was a pretty rare opportunity.
Did you hear any of the new album? If so, any take on it?
Miller: Well, as lifelong Boston fans, when Tom's guitar kicks in, you definitely know you're listening to Boston.
Seftel: It's a fantastic and unique sound, always has been.
Was there anything he wouldn't discuss?
Seftel: Nope. He answered all the questions we asked him.
Miller: He was great!
Do you think there's a correlation between scientific and musical (or other artistic) genius?
Seftel: Absolutely. There's a huge crossover there. Creativity is creativity, no matter what your medium is. In science and engineering, your work involves creating something that wasn't there before. And it's the same for musicians and other artists.
Miller: Originality is absolutely the key in both areas. And we've seen that again and again because a bunch of our subjects have also been musicians or various other kinds of artists.
What's the takeaway for the audience?
Seftel: Science is cool. And it's all around us.
Miller: Engage with it, and with the people who do science — you'll have some fun and maybe learn a thing or two while you're at it.
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