February 24, 2022

Five Minutes With … Ed Cackett, astrophysicist and multi-instrumentalist

Ask Ed Cackett if he’s an astronomer or astrophysicist, and he’s liable to come up with one of two responses, depending on how he’s feeling.

“We often joke when someone on a plane asks, ‘What do you do?’ that if you want to stop a conversation, you tell someone you're an astrophysicist. If you want to talk with someone, you say you're an astronomer,” said Cackett, associate professor of astronomy in Wayne State University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.


Ask him if there’s a connection between physics and music, though, and he’ll answer with a clear and emphatic, “definitely.”

“I mean, the production of music is all described by physics, right? Playing a bass guitar string or any string, for example. You can write down the equations that describe those vibrations. We have an entire course, actually, at Wayne State — The Sounds of Music — which deals with the physics of sound,” Cackett said. “There is absolutely a deep connection between physics and music. I'm not the only physicist in our department who likes to play music.”

But he is — to the best of this interviewer’s knowledge — the only one to form a family band with his wife and two children, play multiple instruments, and edit 12 songs/videos during the pandemic. Spend five minutes with Ed Cackett to learn about that, along with his lifelong love of music; growing up in Manchester, England, during the ‘90s; and more.

When did you first get into music?

An 8-year-old Ed Cackett playing the piano.

My parents told me that I drummed and bashed on things as a kid in the high chair. But I started music lessons and taking piano when I was 7 years old.

As a kid, I played piano a lot. The elementary school had sent us home with a piece of paper with a list of teachers who taught music outside of school. If we wanted to take private music lessons, these were the teachers and instruments. My parents asked if any of them sounded interesting to me. Of course, I picked the most expensive one, which I’m not sure how pleased they were about that. But they didn't bat an eyelid, at least in front of me, and they got a piano and I started lessons.

As a teenager, I wanted to start playing, sort of, rock band instruments. I asked for a bass guitar and got that for my 16th birthday. Ever since, I just keep on picking up instruments and wanting to learn a new one. Music has always been my outlet.

When did you go from bass to learning other instruments?

I had a guitar as a 10-year-old, so I noodled around. I knew some basic chords. That’s all I know on guitar. I can fudge my way through a few basic guitar parts on a song. I was in a marching band and school orchestras. I played brass instruments as a kid. I played the violin for five years. I’ve played a lot of instruments.

But I pretty much put music down when I did my Ph.D. I played piano still, but I didn’t have that outlet. Then my wife, Cat, bought for me — I think it was a Christmas or birthday present — lessons at the Ann Arbor Saline Music Center when I was a postdoc at the University of Michigan. I took bass lessons for a while. They got me playing in an adult band program — students taking lessons and they’d put them together in bands. I was playing in a blues band for a while. Then went back to England. Had the first kid and ended up at Wayne State. Well, that first kid got old enough to start taking guitar lessons. So, we went back to the Ann Arbor Saline Music Center and started taking guitar lessons with the same guy, Alex, who I'd had bass lessons with.

At some point, I was like, ‘I’ve always fancied drumming,’ so I bought an electric drum kit just to play around a bit. And then was like ‘Well, I do nothing but work and kids. I need to do something else.’ So about four or five years ago, I started taking drum lessons at the Music Center, and now I play every day, and my youngest kid is taking drum lessons, too.

Does this love of music, being a multi-instrumentalist, run in your family?

Ed Cackett learning tenor horn at age 10.

My dad played trumpet. His grandfather played in a military band in the early 1900s or late 1800s. I have a picture in one of our rooms of him in his military uniform. On my mom’s side, my grandmother played piano. Her dad played upright bass. My grandmother talked about playing piano with her dad playing upright bass when she was a kid, back in the 1920s.

What is your favorite type of music?

I have eclectic musical tastes, for sure. My dad was into jazz. I’d come home on a Sunday after church and my dad, who was not religious, would have that be his time he sat home, played music and read the paper. I’d come home and he’d often be playing Miles Davis. A variety and range of Miles Davis, from the 50s all the way to his later stuff.

As an 8- or 9-year-old kid, I totally got into The Modern Jazz Quartet, which is kind of a more easy listening type of jazz. As an elementary school-aged kid, I was interested in jazz. I totally got into blues, too. But of course, when I was a teenager, everyone was listening to Britpop, right? Oasis. Blur. Those bands. I grew up in Manchester. Oasis was from the area, so that was the band everyone was obsessed with. And you either liked Oasis or Blur; you weren’t supposed to like both.

Personally, I have to know … what was it like growing up in England as a teen in the ‘90s, especially with that music scene?

I don’t think, at the time, I realized that Americans thought so highly of British music, right? You just think it’s British music. It’s just music. I wasn’t aware of it, as you're not really aware of that sort of stuff as a 16-year-old anyway. And at 16, I started learning bass and I got into a band with kids in the last couple of years of high school. We were playing Blur, Oasis and that sort of stuff. You know, we thought highly of ourselves. We weren’t great. We used to pay to go to a warehouse that had practice rooms, rehearsal studios. Ian Brown of The Stone Roses was practicing in there one time we went. So, it was cool.

What was your first band name and style/genre? Other bands?

It was an indie rock band at 16. The name was Synergy. The drummer went to the dictionary to find what words might be a cool band name and that was what he came up with. We played one or two gigs, maybe in a pub. Then I went to college and I played in three different bands. Bass in each of them. Again, totally different styles.

Ed Cackett plays bass (far left) at an English pub in the '90s with his band All Day Breakfast.

Another band was called All Day Breakfast because breakfast was everyone’s favorite. You know, bacon and sausages and everything. So that was what we liked. We had a guy playing electric violin. We were playing, like, Aimee Mann, Calexico and, you know, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. Weird covers of stuff. That was one band.

Another band, with some of the same members, was called Pedestrian Island because we were middle of the road. We had a singer who was a great crooner and a guy who played piano. We did songs like the famous Eurythmics tune ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).’ We did other well-known songs such as The Commodores’ ‘Easy.’

And then the third band I was in was called Shave the Whale. That was heavier rock stuff. We played The Vines, Presidents of the United States of America, Queens of the Stone Age and that sort of stuff.

Around this same time, you met your future wife, Catriona (Cat). Was there an immediate musical connection?

Cat and I were in the same dormitory at college, essentially. We met the final year, even though we were there together the whole time. She was doing music stuff through the college, too, singing, choirs and musical theater. She has a fantastic voice. I think there was certainly a connection between our love of music. But we never really played together, actually. I played piano, but I didn’t feel like I played it well enough to accompany her.

This is a good story arc. So, all these years later, how did you, Cat and the kids then create a family band?

I started seeing people in the pandemic doing music videos from home. And I was like, ‘I can try that.’ For several years, since the kids were super young, we’ve done a family Christmas card that was always a video. It was a low-quality recording of usually one of the kids singing. I would do some backing on MIDI, drums, piano or bass.

I was bored watching TV every evening, and this would be something to do. I bought one of those Focusrite USB interfaces that allows you to plug in mics and stuff to a laptop. Then I bought a relatively good vocal mic. We already had MIDI stuff. So, I said, ‘Cat, why don’t you sing something?’ And she seemed to be into it. I was like, ‘Great, what songs can we record?’ We started looking for songs that would suit her voice and wouldn’t be too hard to play.

What was the song selection process like? What were the first few you recorded?

I’d hear something and add it to a playlist. We usually do a song Cat knows and will suit her voice. I can change the key of things, but we tried something more rocking, and she wasn’t really feeling that. We would look for songs that really didn’t have guitar in them because I’m not a guitarist. So, the first song we settled on was ‘Make You Feel My Love.’ I knew it was super famous from Adele, but I always knew of it from that Bob Dylan Time Out of Mind album in 1997. It was an album my dad got and played a lot. At the time, I was like ‘That Dylan. His voice is awful.’ And now I’m like, ‘Aw, man, Dylan’s voice is amazing.’ We thought we could do that and, for me, make the accompaniment more Dylan’s version and less Adele’s saccharin sweet stuff. It was a natural fit for Cat and one that I obviously liked.

Another early one we did was by the Spencer Davis Group because I saw that he had died. We did ‘Gimme Some Lovin’ because it was one of my favorite songs. I was totally obsessed with the Blues Brothers at one point. And if you listen to the original, it’s just so cool. There’s so much going on. There are a couple of different versions, but the one with all the extra percussion. I thought it’d be cool to get a groove and get the kids doing something. Why just be me and Cat, right? Can I get them involved? And that cool bit where everyone shouts, ‘Hey!’, anyone can do that. And then lots of different percussion parts.

You play music, but recording, sound engineering, mastering, video production and editing … did that come second nature or learned as you went along?

I had done, sort of, the odd thing on GarageBand before. So, I sort of knew the basics of what was going on. Again, all of it was trial and error. I think I’ve gotten better at it, for sure. I’ve learned how to use the full stereo width of stuff, try and place different instruments of the same pitch in different places so you can hear things better. I’ve read a few things, played and messed around with it. I’ve enjoyed that a lot. I probably spent as much, if not more, time mixing and mastering than I did recording. I’m a little quicker at it now. A lot of the stuff is drag and click and then listening to the result.

What song is your favorite you’ve done? And one you’d like to cover?

We did Bonnie Raitt’s ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ with just piano. I love that song. I think it’s the saddest song ever … That’s a perfect song to do acoustically. I learned to play the acoustic piano part properly for that one because you can’t fake it. Often when you record with a MIDI, if you make a mistake, you drag the bar to the right note. If you’re slightly out of time, you just drag it back into time. So, if I was going to play this acoustic piano, I’m going to have to play it right. It’s unforgiving. I’m proudest of having played that and not messed it up completely. And, of course, Cat sounds amazing on it! A song I’d really like to get to is ‘Sledgehammer,’ Peter Gabriel. That’s like a stretch goal. It’s such a beautifully produced song.

You then branched out from the family and jammed with some special guests? Can you tell me about them?

At the beginning of the pandemic, a friend of mine from high school who still lives in the UK was going outside to play his cello. Early on, they would do a minute’s applause for the National Health Service. Instead of doing that, he’d come out and play some classical music on his cello each week. I saw these on social media and wondered if he’d be interested in doing something. We did ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,’ the Sara Bareilles version of the Elton John song, and I arranged the cello part. Most of these things, I’ve transcribed the music and arranged the parts.

Other people we played with include Cat’s family, who are all hugely talented musicians. Cat’s cousin had done a few music videos during the pandemic. He said, ‘Maybe there’s something we can do together.’ So, we did ‘The Chain’ by Fleetwood Mac. He played all the guitar parts and did a brilliant, amazing job.

Then the guys from All Day Breakfast, one of them is in Australia now and the other one’s in London, got in contact and we were like ‘What can we try?’ So, we did that Wilco ‘Jesus, Etc.’ song. The guy playing guitar and singing also got his wife to play the violin.

Will you continue doing the music videos?

Yeah, I think we will. We’re certainly not doing them as often as we were. My other musical outlets are back. I was playing in a band called Geezer at the Ann Arbor Saline Music Center with other adults who learn instruments there, which stopped at the beginning of pandemic. That’s back again, so I'm now doing that every Saturday afternoon. I have that musical outlet now, so it’s less pressing. And we’re getting out of the house more now than we were at the beginning of the pandemic. It’s slowed down, but I still want to keep doing it.

Know a Wayne State University faculty or staff member we should spend Five Minutes With? Send along their name, contact information and a few sentences about the person to media@wayne.edu.

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