8 Musicians With Incredibly Brainy Side Gigs

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

The Pink Floyd line “we don’t need no education” might hold true for some musicians, but for others that couldn’t be further from the truth. The musicians highlighted below didn’t just swing by a university to pick up an honorary diploma only after finding musical success. Nope, they put in the long hours to earn doctoral degrees and then picked up jobs with outfits such as NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense. Because as cool as having “rock star” on your Wikipedia page is, having “rocket scientist” follow it is just that much cooler.

1. BRIAN MAY

British guitarist Brian May could have easily called it a day when Queen’s recording career came to an end following the death of Freddie Mercury in 1991. While May continues to play live with his remaining bandmates, he has also embraced his interest in astrophysics.

May had abandoned his doctoral studies at the Imperial College of London in the mid-1970s to live the rock star life, but returned to complete his PhD in 2007. Since then, May has co-authored two books on the cosmos, and in 2015 collaborated with NASA as the New Horizons space probe passed by Pluto. If that weren’t impressive enough, May can lay claim to compiling the first high-quality stereo image of the dwarf planet. Not too shabby for a guy who had already made his mark with arena rock staples like “We Will Rock You” and “Stone Cold Crazy.”

2. MILO AUKERMAN

Punk rockers the Descendents weren’t joking around when they named their first album: 1982’s Milo Goes To College. Frontman Milo Aukerman put all those punk rock lyrics about binging on coffee to serious use, earning a doctorate in biology from UC San Diego and a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

For many years, Aukerman split his time, leading the Descendents while working as an adjunct professor at the University of Delaware and plant researcher with chemical company DuPont. The two chosen fields of study, punk rock and biochemistry, might not seem to have much in common, but Aukerman found many similarities. In 2011, he told The Scientist that in both fields, he was “always looking for discoveries that challenge current thinking.” Fans shouldn’t expect Aukerman to get too geeky with his lyrics though: “I will probably never ever write a song about DNA,” he said. In a 2016 interview with Spin, Aukerman shared that he's now dedicating his full-time life to music. “[Science has] gotten less and less interesting to me,” he said. “Also, working in a corporation has become a misery of sorts. As I was discovering this and realizing maybe I should just do music full-time, lo and behold, [my job] laid me off anyway.”

3. DEXTER HOLLAND


Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Orange County, California punk rockers The Offspring have been regularly touring and putting out albums since the mid-1980s. What fans might be surprised to learn though is that in between writing songs like “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy),” the band's lyricist and frontman Dexter Holland was working on HIV research.

In May 2017, Holland earned his PhD in molecular biology from the University of Southern California, completing a 175-page dissertation titled Discovery of Mature MicroRNA Sequences within the Protein-Coding Regions of Global HIV-1 Genomes: Predictions of Novel Mechanisms for Viral Infection and Pathogenicity. Lengthy scientific jargon thesis titles aside, Holland told Rolling Stone his focus was on the molecular dynamics of the HIV virus. "I am interested in virology and wanted to contribute in some small way to the knowledge which has been learned about HIV and AIDS,” Holland said.

4. JEFF “SKUNK” BAXTER

People fall into side gigs like dog-walking or crafting all the time. Finding yourself unexpectedly taking on a second job as a consultant in missile defense systems, on the other hand, is a little more out of the norm. Jeff “Skunk” Baxter spent much of the 1970s and '80s playing guitar with acts like the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, and Elton John. Since the mid-1990s though, Baxter has had a second job working with the Congressional Advisory Board on Missile Defense and consulting for General Atomics. And he landed those gigs almost entirely out of sheer luck.

Baxter credits his natural curiosity to look at technologies and how they can be improved upon as his springboard into the field of missile defense. The guitarist would regularly pick the brain of his next door neighbor, a retired engineer who had worked on the Pentagon's Sidewinder missile program. Baxter spent the next several years doing his own research and learning everything he could about the hardware developed for missile use. He would eventually submit his own proposal on how to improve the ship-based Aegis missile system to California Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher and the rest is history.

5. GREG GRAFFIN


Katie Stratton/Getty Images

For more than three decades, Bad Religion has held a spot as one of the most respected punk bands in the genre, with vocalist Greg Graffin commanding the stage. Graffin’s politically-charged lyrics have helped the band maintain a healthy following, but music isn’t Graffin’s only passion.

Since 2008, Graffin has split his time between playing with Bad Religion and teaching evolutionary biology at several universities. Graffin earned a PhD in zoology from Cornell University and has returned to his alma mater to teach courses on the subject. The punk rocker has co-authored three books on the subject of evolution and religion and taught life science courses at the University of California Los Angeles. Like other musicians who dabble in the sciences, Graffin has found parallels in the two. “If I’m behind a lectern or onstage, I’m just trying to provoke people to use and expand their minds a little,” Graffin told the San Diego Tribune.

6. PHILIP TAYLOR KRAMER

The life of Philip Taylor Kramer was one filled with both exceptional success and horrific tragedy. Kramer first made a name for himself in the 1970s playing bass with psychedelic rock band Iron Butterfly. He went on to play with other groups into the early 1980s, but would later leave music and find success in the field of computer engineering.

The musician’s father was a professor of electrical engineering and after a career in music, Kramer co-founded a company that produced significant work in missile guidance systems as well as computerized facial reconstruction models. Tragically, Kramer’s life was mysteriously cut short in 1995 when he disappeared after making a frantic call to his wife from the Los Angeles International Airport and telling her to meet him at a hotel.

The musician/computer engineer then called the police and said he was going to kill himself before abruptly hanging up. He wasn’t heard from again until his burned-out van was discovered in the bottom of a ravine four years later. The death was ruled a probable suicide, though some of Kramer’s closest family and friends suspected foul play.

7. JOHN PERRY BARLOW


C. Taylor Crothers/Getty Images

Deadheads will probably best know the name John Perry Barlow from the liner notes of Grateful Dead albums as a co-writer on a number of classics like “Mexicali Blues” and “Cassidy.” Further exploration would reveal that there are many sides to John Perry Barlow besides Grateful Dead lyricist. Barlow can be credited as a pioneer in the digital revolution, leading the way to preserve and protect internet freedoms as a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1990.

These days Barlow has shifted his focus to a new calling—pond scum. More specifically: algae. He is the vice president of Algae Systems, a company working to grow microalgae as a biofuel and convert sewage into a fertilizer.

8. TOM SCHOLZ

Rock band Boston had one of the best-selling debut albums in music history with their 1976 self-titled debut selling 17 million copies. Almost all of that success can be attributed to guitarist Tom Scholz’s background as a mechanical engineer.

Scholz had received both his bachelor's (1969) and master's degrees (1970) in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but he had dreams of rock n’ roll stardom. To pay the bills, Scholz took a job as a senior product design engineer at Polaroid. The young guitarist and engineer spent his paychecks and nights building his own basement recording studio and creating nearly every sound, except for the vocals and drums, of what would be Boston’s debut album. The DIY process was unheard of at the time and Epic, the band's record company, demanded that the demos be redone in a proper studio. Scholz refused to budge with nearly all of his original recordings eventually making it onto the highly-successful album.

10 Facts About Ken Miles, the Race Car Driver at the Center of Ford v Ferrari

Raycrosthwaite Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
Raycrosthwaite Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Though you’d be hard-pressed to find a car enthusiast who doesn't know the name Carroll Shelby, it wasn't until recently—with the release of Ford v Ferrari—that Shelby's teammate, Ken Miles, has been allowed to share the spotlight. The movie, which centers around the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mansa race that’s been the center of more than a few heated debates—has finally given Miles his due.

Director James Mangold said that the first cut of Ford v Ferrari was close to four hours long, but that he eventually had to cut it down to its final two-and-a-half-hour running time. Naturally, a lot of great material didn’t make it into the final cut, including some of the most interesting facts about Miles's life. Here are 10 fascinating facts that you won’t find in Ford v Ferrari.

1. Ken Miles started racing when he was just 11 years old.

Ken Miles was born on November 1, 1918 in Sutton Coldfield, England, a town located less than 10 miles north of Birmingham. At the ripe old age of 11, Miles started motorcycle racing on a 350 cc Triumph bike. A crash broke his nose and cost him three teeth—which led to him purchasing a larger motorcycle.

2. Ken Miles met his wife when he was a teenager.

When he was just 15 years old, Miles met a young woman named Mollie, then turned to a friend and said, “I’m going to marry that girl.” And he eventually did. The courtship was so all-consuming that at one point the headmaster of Miles's school called his parents and asked if there was something they could do about “this whole Mollie business.”

3. Ken Miles built his first car when he was 15 years old.

Miles was a busy teenager. When he was 15, he built an Austin 7 Special that he named “Nellie,” and some of the mechanical modifications he made on the car became signatures of his later vehicles. Mollie, who seemed to be a fan of the wooing, painted Nellie a British Racing Green. Miles sold Nellie during World War II, but continued to design cars after the war was over.

4. Ken Miles was a military man.

For seven years, Miles served in the British Territorial Army. His primary job was tank recovery, a job that required him to reclaim tanks and get them operational again. In 1944, he took part in the D-Day landings as part of a tank unit. Miles was also one of the first British soldiers at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, an experience he rarely talked about even though he was frequently photographed wearing his military coat.

5. Ken Miles loved American engines.

Christian Bale as Ken Miles in 'Ford v Ferrari' (2019)
Christian Bale as Ken Miles in James Mangold's Ford v Ferrari (2019).
Merrick Morton © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

During his military service, Miles found time to study and keep up with developments in engine technology. Separated from his racing friends, Miles had to work a little harder to share this love. In a letter to Motorsport Magazine, Miles went into the specifics about exactly what he loved about a new engine and how much potential he saw in it. He looked forward to designing his own supercharged version of the engine and installing it into a four-wheel drive vehicle.

6. Ken Miles understood how important physical fitness was for a driver before everyone else did.

Though physical fitness wasn’t as emphasized for drivers back then, Miles thought it was crucial, something we now know to be true. At five-foot-11-inches, Miles was a remarkably lean 147 pounds. Miles was an avid jogger who would carry two-pound weights in each hand.

7. Ken Miles once toilet-trained a cat—then was said to have done the same with a bobcat.

Miles once trained a cat to use the toilet. In addition to being a fun story he shared at parties, it was a fact that emphasized his stubbornness and his willingness to stick with a challenging assignment.

When Miles’s toilet-trained cat died, his friends sent him a wire telling him to go to the airport, where a new cat would be waiting for him. When he went to pick up the crate, Miles discovered that they’d sent him a bobcat. Carroll Shelby said in his biography that Miles was able to toilet train the bobcat as well (though Shelby was known for not letting the truth get in the way of a good story).

8. Ken Miles had a knack for sarcasm.

James T. Crow wrote an obituary for Ken Miles for Road & Track in which he wrote that Miles had "wit and charm like almost no one I’ve ever known. But if he could be elaborately polite, he also had a command of sarcasm that could make your teeth shrink." Crow’s obituary stands as one of the more complete reflections on who Miles was, and also observed that "It was said about [Miles] that he was his own worst enemy and this was undoubtedly true as he could have had almost anything he wanted if he could have been more tactful." Shelby at least was delighted by Miles’s total lack of tact.

9. Ken Miles saw himself as a mechanic first and a driver second.

Though he’s most remembered as a driver, Miles saw himself first and foremost as a mechanic. In A.J Baime’s book, Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans, Miles is quoted as saying “I am a mechanic. That has been the direction of my entire vocational life. Driving is a hobby, a relaxation for me, like golfing is to others.” Miles was hired on as the test driver and competition director for Shelby-American, a position that allowed him to use his mechanical expertise as well as his uncanny driving capability.

10. Ken Miles’s death changed the racing world.

On August 17, 1966, Ken Miles died when the Ford J-car he had been testing for almost an entire day at California's Riverside International Raceway flipped, crashed, and caught on fire, then broke into pieces and ejected Miles, who was killed instantly. But the J-car had been specifically designed to avoid this type of accident, and the damage done to the vehicle made it impossible to determine an exact cause for the crash.

"We really don't know what caused it," Carroll Shelby said. "The car just disintegrated. We have nobody to take his place. Nobody. He was our baseline, our guiding point. He was the backbone of our program. There will never be another Ken Miles."

Though it wasn’t uncommon for race car drivers to die in the 1960s, what was uncommon was the reaction Miles’s friends and family had to his death. Shelby said that it broke his heart when they lost Ken, and Shelby-American withdrew from Le Mans racing after 1967.

If there was a silver lining to Miles's death, it was that additional safety precautions—including a steel tube rollover cage—were implemented into the J-car's design that saved the lives of multiple other drivers, including a young Mario Andretti when he was involved in a similar crash a year later.

Ken Miles's death was a tragedy, for his young son and wife, for his team, and for the entirety of racing. Thanks to Ford v Ferrari though, Ken Miles is finally receiving the attention and recognition that should have been his all along.

11 Fun Facts About Dolly Parton

Brendon Thorne, Getty Images
Brendon Thorne, Getty Images

Over the past 50-some years, Dolly Parton has gone from a chipper country starlet to a worldwide icon of music and movies whose fans consistently pack a theme park designed (and named) in her honor. Dolly Parton is loved, lauded, and larger than life. But even her most devoted admirers might not know all there is to this Backwoods Barbie.

1. You won't find Dolly Parton on a Dollywood roller coaster.

Her theme park Dollywood offers a wide variety of attractions for all ages. Though she's owned it for more than 30 years, Parton has declined to partake in any of its rides. "My daddy used to say, 'I could never be a sailor. I could never be a miner. I could never be a pilot,' I am the same way," she once explained. "I have motion sickness. I could never ride some of these rides. I used to get sick on the school bus."

2. Dolly Parton once entered a Dolly Parton look-alike contest—and lost.


Getty Images

Apparently Parton doesn't do drag well. “At a Halloween contest years ago on Santa Monica Boulevard, where all the guys were dressed up like me, I just over-exaggerated my look and went in and just walked up on stage," she told ABC. "I didn’t win. I didn’t even come in close, I don’t think.”

3. Dolly Parton spent a fortune to recreate her childhood home.

Parton and her 11 siblings were raised in a small house in the mountains of Tennessee that lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. When Parton bought the place, she hired her brother Bobby to restore it to the way it looked when they were kids. "But we wanted it to be functional," she recounted on The Nate Berkus Show, "So I spent a couple million dollars making it look like I spent $50 on it! Even like in the bathroom, I made the bathroom so it looked like an outdoor toilet.” You do you, Dolly.

4. Dolly Parton won't apologize for Rhinestone.


Getty Images

Parton is well-known for her hit movies Steel Magnolias and 9 to 5, less so for the 1984 flop Rhinestone. The comedy musical about a country singer and a New York cabbie was critically reviled and fled from theaters in just four weeks. But while her co-star Sylvester Stallone has publicly regretted the vehicle, Parton declared in her autobiography My Life and Other Unfinished Business that she counts Rhinestone's soundtrack as some of her best work, especially "What a Heartache."

5. Dolly Parton is Miley Cyrus's godmother ... sort of.

"I'm her honorary godmother. I've known her since she was a baby," Parton told ABC of her close relationship with Miley Cyrus. "Her father (Billy Ray Cyrus) is a friend of mine. And when she was born, he said, 'You just have to be her godmother,' and I said, 'I accept.' We never did do a big ceremony, but I'm so proud of her, love her, and she's just like one of my own." Parton also played Aunt Dolly on Cyrus's series Hannah Montana.

6. Dolly Parton received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan.

A photo of Dolly Parton on stage
Getty Images

In the mid-2000s, Dollywood joined the ranks of family amusement parks participating in "Gay Days," a time when families with LGBTQ members are encouraged to celebrate together in a welcoming community environment. This riled the KKK, but their threats didn't scare Dolly. "I still get threats," she has admitted. "But like I said, I'm in business. I just don't feel like I have to explain myself. I love everybody."

7. Dolly Parton started her own "library" to promote literacy, and has given away more than 100 million books.

In 1995, the pop culture icon founded Dolly Parton's Imagination Library with the goal of encouraging literacy in her home state of Tennessee. Over the years, the program—built to mail children age-appropriate books—spread nationwide, as well as to Canada, the UK, and Australia. When word of the Imagination Library hit Reddit, the swarms of parents eager to sign their kids up crashed the Imagination Library site. It is now back on track, accepting new registrations and donations.

8. There's a statue of Dolly Parton in her hometown of Sevierville, Tennessee.

A stone's throw from Dollywood, Sevierville, Tennessee is where Parton grew up. Between stimulating tourism and her philanthropy, this proud native has given a lot back to her hometown. And Sevierville residents returned that appreciation with a life-sized bronze Dolly that sits barefoot, beaming, and cradling a guitar, just outside the county courthouse. The sculpture, made by local artist Jim Gray, was dedicated on May 3, 1987. Today it is the most popular stop on Sevierville's walking tour.

9. The cloned sheep Dolly was named after Dolly Parton.

In 1995 scientists successfully created a clone from an adult mammal's somatic cell. This game-changing breakthrough in biology was named Dolly. But what about Parton inspired this honor? Her own groundbreaking career? Some signature witticism or beloved lyric? Nope. It was her legendary bustline. English embryologist Ian Wilmut revealed, "Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell and we couldn't think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton's."

10. Dolly Parton turned down an offer from Elvis Presley.

After Parton made her own hit out of "I Will Always Love You," Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, reached out in hopes of having Presley cover it. But part of the deal demanded Parton surrender half of the publishing rights to the song. "Other people were saying, 'You're nuts. It's Elvis Presley. I'd give him all of it!'" Parton admitted, "But I said, 'I can't do that. Something in my heart says don't do that.' And I didn't do it and they didn't do it." It may have been for the best. Whitney Houston's cover for The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992 was a massive hit that has paid off again and again for Parton.

11. In 2018, Dolly Parton earned two Guinness World Records.

Parton is no stranger to breaking records. And on January 17, 2018 it was announced that she holds not one but two spot in the Guinness World Records 2018 edition: One for Most Decades With a Top 20 Hit on the US Hot Country Songs Chart (she beat out George Jones, Reba McEntire, and Elvis Presley for the honor) and the other for Most Hits on US Hot Country Songs Chart By a Female Artist (with a total of 107). Parton said she was "humbled and blessed."

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER