A&E

Science, songs and The Ten Thousand Ways

Local biologist and physicist find musical chemistry

By day, Trisha Stan and Greg Bentsen are a professor of biology and a graduate student working in quantum engineering, respectively. By night, they swap the lab coats for guitars and mandolins, writing and performing as an award-winning Americana and folk-pop duo called The Ten Thousand Ways.

Their mutual love of science and music brought them together a few years back when Stan (who earned her doctorate in immunology at Stanford University in 2014, then worked as a fellow in Stanford's Program for Writing and Rhetoric) invited Bentsen to be a guest physicist on the podcast she co-founded with a group of Stanford scientists: "Goggles Optional." The podcast is designed to share the latest scientific research in a lighthearted, understandable way, for an audience of scientists and laypeople alike. Stan has long had a knack for making science-themed parodies of popular songs, which Bentsen witnessed during his first guest spot, when she parodied Iggy Azalea.

"I discovered live on the air that she played music," Bentsen said in a recent interview. He, a longtime musician, quickly proposed that they join forces. Stan was unsure until Bensten impressed her with his Backstreet Boys impersonation. They then collaborated on a space-themed parody of the song "Falling Slowly" (from the film "Once") and found that Bentsen's guitar skills and vocal harmonies complimented Stan's voice perfectly.

"There was some chemistry that just hit. We kind of knew right away there was something special about the way that we worked together," Bentsen said. Soon the pair was meeting every weekend to work on songs, and while the science parodies were fun, they decided to try their hands at original music, settling into an Americana and folk-tinged style showcasing their ever-so-sweet harmonies.

As a science-parody band, they called themselves, alternately, The Shifty Paradigms or The Heisenberg Uncertainties.

"Those were great names," Stan said, "But we decided we should have a less nerdy name for the original music." Ultimately, though, they went with a band name that still carries scientific connotations. For that onerous decision-making process, the two went to a bar.

"Trisha, being the super-organized scientist that she is, brought a bunch of Post-It notes. We were going to write out all the names on Post-It notes and organize them all on the bar in front of us," Bentsen said,

None of that night's ideas proved satisfactory. The next day, Stan texted Bentsen a note of encouragement, reminding him of Thomas Edison who, after coming up with 10,000 unsuccessful versions of the light bulb, said, "'Well I haven't found 10,000 ways to fail, I've just found 10,000 ways that didn't work.' Then one or both of us was like, 'Oh my God, that's the name!" Bentsen said. "Thank you, Post-It notes."

"And Thomas Edison," Stan added. "This is the most Silicon Valley band name story: We went to a bar with a bunch of Post-It notes and we 'ideated' and then we optimized and then we looked to Edison for guidance."

They tested and perfected their live sound at area open-mic nights.

"The open-mic circuit in the Bay Area is a great community of people who are really talented and supportive and encouraging of one another. It was really exciting to find out about this community," Stan said.

The band has played at coffee houses, cafes and art galleries, and joined the Palo Alto branch of the West Coast Songwriters group, from whom they've won several awards. On April 2, they'll play at Palo Alto coffee shop Backyard Brew.

Stan was raised in rural Western Kansas, listening to country music and harmonizing with her sister. In third grade, she won a prize for an instrumental song she wrote about her pet chinchilla. Bentsen played guitar, drums and saxophone, and briefly considered majoring in music before falling in love with physics, but didn't consider himself a songwriter until recently.

"I hadn't taken it anywhere until Trisha and I met," he said. With The Ten Thousand Ways, he plays acoustic guitar and occasionally piano, while Stan usually plays mandolin and ukulele. Their sound is a blend of influences as well as voices, with Stan mostly gravitating toward acoustic, harmony-driven acts such as Nickel Creek, Shovels and Rope, and The Lone Bellow. Both cited the now-defunct country-folk duo The Civil Wars as a strong influence.

"I love male-female 'cute' duos a lot. I think I love them even more since starting this duo," Stan said.

"I grew up listening to Boston and Styx and, obviously, The Beatles. I bring a little bit more of that rougher rock-and-roll vibe, which sometimes gets tamped out," Bentsen said. "But it's a cool combo."

They're currently in the process of recording their first E.P., working with several producers. With an abundance of songs written over the past few years, they had to narrow it down to five for their upcoming debut recording.

"Again with the Post-It notes!" Stan laughed. "This time it was a sushi bar: We went and wrote out all our songs."

Once the recording is complete, the duo plans to make at least a small batch of CDs in addition to distributing it through digital channels such as iTunes and Spotify, with hopes of growing their fan base and supporting future endeavors.

"Each time you drop a new product you get another wave of interest -- that kind of feels like a business-y, gross thing to say," Bentsen said, apologetically.

"We're excited to have something tangible out in the world," Stan said.

Despite their dedication to their original music, the two still take pleasure in science-based song comedy, participating in "Nerd Nites" at venues including San Jose's Tech Museum of Innovation, and performing as the house band for Tested.com's live show at San Francisco's Castro Theatre and at "taste of science" events around the Bay Area.

The taste of science festival, a national event (formerly Pint of Science, its name in the U.K.), has a similar goal to the "Goggles Optional" podcast. It hosts fun-filled events at bars and restaurants with scientists presenting concepts in engaging, accessible ways (most of the volunteer organizers for the local branch are Stanford scientists).

At a recent taste of science fundraiser at Pieology in Palo Alto, The Ten Thousand Ways treated diners to several of their parody hits, including "Marty," an ode to Stanford's self-driving Delorean. The car is, appropriately, named after the main character in "Back to the Future," and the song, equally appropriately, is a parody of the song featured prominently in that film: "Johnny B. Goode" by the late Chuck Berry (or was it his cousin, Marvin?)

At this year's taste of science festival, coming up April 23-29, events will be held all over, including at The Patio in Palo Alto, where a Stanford anthropologist and NASA doctor will speak; Molly Magee's in Mountain View, which will host talks by a Stanford geneticist and sleep scientist; and Freewheel Brewing Company in Redwood City, where on April 26, in addition to talks on the power of mushrooms and an ancient beer recipe, The Ten Thousand Ways will provide a science lecture (including parody songs), followed by an extended set featuring their original music. Their topic, Stan said, will be the end of the world. "We'll talk about various apocalyptic scenarios and how we think the world might or might not end. And sing about it."

For more information on The Ten Thousand Ways, go to The Ten Thousand Ways. For more information on the taste of science festival, go to taste of science. For more information on "Goggles Optional," go here.

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