Five Academically Successful Punk Musicians Who Prove Headbanging Isn’t That Bad for Your Brain Cells

They don’t just have punk down to a science. They also have science down to a science
Five Academically Successful Punk Musicians Who Prove Headbanging Isn’t That Bad for Your Brain Cells

Maybe playing songs with four chords lends itself to thinking about the four nucleotides of DNA. Maybe launching a fat gob of spit toward the crowd gives you a perfect opportunity to calculate the arc length of a parabola. Maybe limiting songs to two minutes just gives you more time to get work done. Whatever it is, it turns out the punk world contains an impressive amount of figures with advanced degrees.

Well, not that impressive an amount — you’ve got to expand out to metal and rock in general to get an impressive amount together really. But still…

Honorable Mention: Brian May, Lead Guitarist of Queen

There’s nothing punk about Queen, but Bohemian Rhapsody is arguably the most headbanged-to piece of music of all time, as famously, neck-destroyingly enjoyed in Wayne’s World. Brian May was in the middle of a PhD in astrophysics when his band Queen became so huge that he felt he had to abandon his studies. May took a sabbatical from academia from 1974 to 2006, and finally submitted his PhD thesis in 2007, 37 years after starting it. The intervening decades had obviously seen a lot of advances in science, so he essentially had to do a whole additional paper catching up on it all.

Dexter Holland, Lead Singer of The Offspring

Considering he’s written some impressively dumb songs (not a diss in any way), Holland is hella bright. Shortly after forming the band as a teenager, he graduated as high school valedictorian, describing math as “just as exciting as punk rock.” He got a Masters in molecular biology from the University of Southern California, and was studying for a PhD, focusing on HIV research, when The Offspring blew up. He abandoned his studies for several decades, before successfully completing his PhD in 2017, publishing the paper “Discovery of Mature MicroRNA Sequences within the Protein-Coding Regions of Global HIV-1 Genomes: Predictions of Novel Mechanisms for Viral Infection and Pathogenicity.” As all the homies say, his IQ’s pretty high (for a white guy).

Not to mention, one of the other early members of The Offspring also has a PhD — original drummer James Lilja left in 1987 to go to medical school, and is now a gynecological oncologist. In 2018, he was in court being sued for medical malpractice when one of the jurors went into cardiac arrest. Lilja leapt into action and used CPR and a defibrillator to save his life, which led to a mistrial — the judge ruled the jurors would be biased having witnessed an act of spontaneous heroism.

Milo Aukerman, Lead Singer of Descendents

While Descendents don’t enjoy the household-name status of, say, The Offspring, within the punk world they’re bona-fide legends. Frontman Aukerman’s face is tattooed on Travis Barker’s leg, while bands from Geen Day to Foo Fighters have cited them as huge influences. Aukerman’s academia was never hidden away — the band’s second album is called Milo Goes to College, due to his decision to leave the band to focus on his studies.

He completed a PhD in biology at the University of California, San Diego in 1992 and was a working scientist for several years, including stints for chemical giants DuPont and as an adjunct professor at the University of Delaware. The band’s touring schedule was for many years dependent on how many vacation days Aukerman had left. He’s now left full-time science for music, but is a scientist through and through — in 2012 he told Pure Volume: “I’ve often felt the urge to swab certain ‘hotspots’ of microbial activity (my microphone, for example, or Bill (Stevenson, drummer)’s shoes) and inoculate a Petri dish to see if I can figure out what bacterial species populate our stage and van.”

Greg Graffin, Lead Singer of Bad Religion

Bad Religion spearheaded the California-centered punk revival that led to bands like The Offspring and Green Day, both through their musical influence and by guitarist Brett Gurewitz founding the label Epitaph Records. Vocalist Graffin, the only constant member of the band due to Gurewitz’s occasional departures, is a biologist by training, completing a PhD in zoology at Cornell in 1990. During his time with the band he has also lectured at both Cornell and UCLA and authored several books on evolution and atheism. In 2008, he was given the Rushdie Award for Cultural Humanism by Harvard University, and in 2011 a bird from the late Cretaceous period was named after him (Qiliania graffini) by a punk-loving paleontologist in honor of both his musical and scientific achievements. 

Blöthar the Berserker, Lead Singer of GWAR

Metal/hardcore/comedy veterans GWAR originally grew out of the punk band Death Piggy — they were a joke opening act for themselves, but became more popular than the original band. They don’t tend to be thought of as intellectual powerhouses due to, among many other things, spraying audience members with fake pee and having a member called Balsac the Jaws of Death. However, current lead singer Blöthar the Berserker, when not wearing multiple sets of antlers and painted-on abs, is an academic and university lecturer. Michael Bishop has been in and out of the band (and other acts) in various stints since 1987, taking over frontmonster duties in 2015 following the death of original vocalist Dave Brockie, and has a PhD in music, specializing in ethnography, performance studies and regional identity. His dissertation was entitled “A Socioesthetics of Punk: Theorizing Personal Narrative, History and Place.”

Wagner Lamounier, Original Vocalist of Sepultura

Thrash/groove-metal giants Sepultura have a Ship of Theseus-style lineup, the original members having all long since departed. While they were never a punk band, founders Max and Igor Cavalera got into metal via punk — Max Cavalera has cited Finnish hardcore band Terveet Kädet as his favorite act ever —  and the era when their profile was the highest, the mid-1990s, was when they were experimenting with industrial metal and hardcore punk sounds. The first vocalist they recruited in 1984, Wagner “Antichrist” Lamounier, left to form the black metal band Sarcófago and is now a professor of applied economics and statistics at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil. 

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