Calis Lim
Mercury Staff

Inside one professor's life as a musician alongside his wife, son

One look at Michael Farmer’s office door is all you need to discern that he is a professor in Chinese studies. With a Mao Ze Dong meme displayed prominently at eye-level, it’s clear to see that he is a man with a sense of fun too. Scanning among the other amusing signs, however, one might miss the small picture of a graphic panda skeleton with the words “The Prof.Fuzz 63.”

The Prof.Fuzz 63 is his lo-fi rock band composed of his wife on the organ and vocals, his son on drums, and Farmer himself on guitar and vocals. With album names such as “Bang Me Hard! (To Get Inside)” and songs such as “S***water TX Blues,” which is self-described as a song “about the sad feeling one gets when plumbing goes bad,” this might not be the type of music one would expect from the professor.

Farmer said the band formed and came up with their unique name in fall 2014.

“Professor Fuzz is a nickname that was given to me about 20 years ago because I was already a professor at that point, and I like fuzz pedals for the guitar— things that make distortion noises — so they started calling me Professor Fuzz,” Farmer said.

As for the “63” part of the name, it’s ambiguous on purpose.

“When we put this band together, we wanted to have that as part of the name and I like the Miles Davis quintet, so we wanted to be the Professor Fuzz Sextet, but that needed 6 people,” Farmer said. “We only had three people, so we put them together and it became 6 and 3. It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Some people think it’s my birth year, but it’s not.  Other people don’t have any idea. So, we just tell them it gives us room to expand. We can add 60 more people without having to change the name.”

To date, they have played 187 shows while Farmer has simultaneously pieced together soundbites to form songs and created characters and stories based off of experiences to give the lyrics a life of their own. Although he has been active musically, Farmer has progressed academically as well.

He has been editing a journal for 10 years and has been working on a translation project for the better part of a decade. He has published articles and book chapters. He has won awards and fellowships, and all the while managed to keep up an active role in the band. As Farmer said, his academic career allows for flexibility of time, allowing him to pursue other passions as well.

“Everything on my professional resume seems to be going in the right direction and the band is my mental health hobby,” Farmer said. “It gives me something to do that’s not exactly related to my job but helps keep me happy. It gives me some kind of release, a time to be concentrating on something else, be doing other things.”

Although his music is a source of joy for himself, writing songs reveals the potentially unusual thoughts that are in his head, which Farmer said is the scariest part about making music with The Prof.Fuzz 63.

“As a professor, I’m supposed to be logical and rational and all these kinds of things, but inside my head I’ve got this voice that’s yelling ‘Panda attack, panda attack, panda attack’ or something else,” he said. “It’s a different side of me.”

Although it may seem that sitting in his office to engage in academia and going on stage to slam some chords have no overlap, Farmer said the opposite.

“They’re not completely exclusive processes,” Farmer said. “There is very much a creative element in researching and writing history. And there is a disciplined element to songwriting. It’s just that in songwriting I can make up stories that don’t have to have evidence that I can’t do if I’m writing an article or a book.”

The songs and articles he writes share subject matter as well. There are many threads of Asian influence throughout the music, as shown by their album “Chinese Folk Songs,” the song “Panda Attack,” and their band logo of a panda skeleton. This crossover is organic, Farmer said.

“I’ve spoken Chinese in more years than I have not spoken Chinese,” Farmer said. “I started learning Chinese when I was 21 years old. I’ve been going back and forth between Taiwan and the mainland for over 35 years. That is very much part of who I am. Asian stories and themes occasionally pop up in my songs. It’s simply because those things are always in my life.”

To find inspiration for his songs, he looks around, hears stories and picks up snippets of words and phrases, Farmer said. For the song “Panda Attack,” which was written in 2015, Farmer was in Taiwan for six months on a grant working on a translation project.

“It was kind of cold, kind of rainy, February, March-ish, I’m walking down the street in Taipei, holding an umbrella, the song comes into my mind, I’m holding up this phone up to my mouth and going ‘we went to the zoo to see Gu Gu, da da da da,’ starting to fill out the words and the guitar riffs,” he said. “I got back to the apartment, later that day — I bought a guitar that trip because I knew I was going to be there for 6 months — sat down, started figuring it out. Over the course of the next couple days, the song happened.”

With a three-day Christmas tour coming up, a new record that they are working on in January and multiple shows booked in the coming year, the band is staying busy and making money. In terms of the band’s future, while Farmer suspects he and his wife will continue to make music together, Brooks, his son, has a shelf life, Farmer said. 

“We joke he beats on stuff for room and board and his college tuition,” Farmer said. “At some point, he will longer need us for everyday survival things. He can go beat on stuff for somebody else if he wants.

Even if the band makes some alterations, it appears that the band will keep going.

“We have a new record we’re working towards, we’re always writing songs, and we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing until circumstances demand that we make a change,” Farmer said.