I'll admit it - I've always thought of engineering students as being less artistically inclined than liberal arts majors. So last year, when I learned that UW-Madison's annual "Battle of the Bands" was run by Polygon, the student council of the College of Engineering, I considered it an unlikely exception to the rule.
Then, last week, I talked to Andy Isham, 28, who writes songs, sings and plays guitar for the Madison garage-rock band the Treats. There I was at Mother Fool's Coffeehouse with the Decemberists' "Engine Driver" playing in the background, listening to a young, emotional artist tell me how he dreams about music and how he once drove aimlessly to the West Coast in his '88 Chevy Nova in search of himself.
And how he earned a degree in mechanical engineering.
By the end of our conversation, I'd gathered enough evidence to disprove my theory. It turns out the Treats are an all-engineering band. Andy's brother Don, who plays drums, is an industrial engineer. Bass player Tim Payne is of the electrical persuasion.
I learned that the Treats use their engineering skills as a framework for constructing songs. They build many of their own instruments - even their amps. They obsess over the technical details of their home recording studio. They even use odd technical words to describe their songwriting.
"We use a palette of tones that is not standard," says Isham. "At every crossroad in songwriting, there's an obvious or safe choice and a choice that is not so obvious. We try to avoid an automatic design."
The Treats' recently completed second album, Reservoir Tales, is made up of 18 songs that inject dreamy moods into garage-rock compositions that are at once heavy and catchy.
The dream influences are authentic. At least a half-dozen Treats songs originated in Isham's dreams.
"Before I was thinking about music all the time," he says, "my dreams were much more visual."
Now Isham keeps a small MP3 recorder under his bed, ready to capture melodies that come to him in the middle of the night.
Isham shares songwriting duties with brother Don, who penned five of the songs on Reservoir Tales.
"Both of us subscribe to the idea that catchy is not a bad thing," says Isham. "There has to be this melodic sense that sticks with you."
Isham says his brother is the reason he got involved in music.
"Don started playing guitar when I was in high school, and I always thought it was pretty amazing. It definitely held a mystique for me."
Andy and Don got an apartment together on Orchard Street when they were both engineering students at UW-Madison.
"That's where we started playing music together," recalls Isham. "For the most part the neighbors didn't like it. We had eggs thrown at our window more than once. But our bass player, Tim, lived in the adjacent house. He liked it enough to come over and ask if he could join us."
Two years ago, the Treats' career nearly came to an abrupt halt. Isham fell off a roof and shattered his wrist.
"I was told I probably wouldn't play guitar again," he says. "I went through months of intense, all-day rehabilitation. I rehabilitated it to play music instead of just to function.
"It's finally improved to the point where it's not noticeable anymore. So my determination to make something good of it is about thirty-fold. It feels like a privilege now to even try."
Engineering principles continue to influence the band's music. They exert themselves at unexpected moments, as when Isham discusses collaborating with his brother.
"We're both very opinionated. We kept up a daily stream of communication while we were writing this album. I think it annealed the process."
"What was that word you just used?" I asked.
"Anneal," he repeated.
I continued to look puzzled.
"Oh," said Isham, catching himself. "I guess that's an engineering term."
According to an online engineering dictionary, "anneal" means to heat a metal to a temperature slightly below its melting point, then cool it gradually so as to soften it thoroughly.
Isham then translated the term for the benefit of my liberal arts brain.
"Uh, tempers - it tempered the process."
Turns out engineers speak the language of music after all.