Chemistry Teacher By Day, Rock Star By Night

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Sasha Alcott and Chris Viner of the New Hampshire rock duo "When Particles Collide." (Photo courtesy of Covington Portraits)
Sasha Alcott and Chris Viner of the New Hampshire rock duo "When Particles Collide." (Photo courtesy of Covington Portraits)

Teacher at an elite boarding school by day. Rock musician at night, on weekends and during the summer.

The duo in WBUR’s studios (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)
The duo in WBUR’s studios (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

That's the dual identity of Phillips Exeter Academy chemistry teacher Sasha Alcott, half of the husband-wife rock duo When Particles Collide. She's the band's singer, guitarist and bassist, and her husband Chris Viner plays drums. They live on the Phillips Exeter campus in New Hampshire, and when school's out they go on tour.

Alcott and Viner's latest album, "Photoelectric," is out this week, and before they hit the road for the summer they joined WBUR’s Sacha Pfeiffer.


Sasha Alcott and Chris Viner, When Particles Collide rock duo. Their latest album, "Photoelectric," is now available. They tweet at @WhenParticles.


On Alcott's dual identities:
Chris Viner: "There is a rocker version and a teacher version. The biggest difference is that on the drive from the school to the venue, within a minute-and-a-half of being on the road the makeup bag is out and we've got the lipstick, we've got the gloss, we've got the eyeliner, we've got the mascara. I don't think she even puts any makeup on when she goes into the classroom first thing in the morning. She's just ready to go, Plain Jane teacher."

On how Alcott's classroom and band wardrobes differ:
Sasha Alcott: "They have totally different color schemes. I wear a lot of bright pink, a lot of tighter clothes for the band, lots of big earrings, big pink earrings. I wear really bright lipstick on stage. And when I'm teaching I definitely look much more like a teacher. I dress like a teacher. And I'm always very excited when we're at the Goodwill and I find really great teacher clothes because I don't like to spend a lot of money on them!"

On how Alcott's students react to her being a rock musician:
SA: "Some of them, they hear that I'm in a band and they think, oh, it's like their dad's band that gets together once every few months and plays blues songs in the basement. And then every once in a while they'll find out that it's real and that we go on tour, we write our own songs, we put out records. And they'll say things like, 'Miss Alcott, you're, like, in a real band!' They're sort of shocked that it's something other than a hobby. I think the biggest thing for the kids is the fact that I'm an adult with a responsible job and I clearly know what I'm talking about when it comes to chemistry. They think it's pretty cool that I also do something that's fun and I seem to have fun in my life. And I think that's encouraging to teenagers who associate adulthood with [being] boring [and having] lots of responsibility. First of all, they're usually like, 'You're 40? What?!' And then they're like, 'Man, you have a cool life!' And I think, 'I know. It's awesome! Thank you!'"

On making rock music in a way that befits a high school teacher:
SA: "I don't want to sing about intoxication as a teacher...I feel a big responsibility to be honest and truthful, but also to not in any way advocate for behavior that I wouldn't want to advocate for in my classroom. It's a very difficult balance. In the video for the single from our previous record, the one right before Photoelectric, I'm in a leotard and I'm dancing, and it's not raunchy, but I'm definitely in a leotard and I'm definitely dancing. And so it does occur to you, okay, so if the trustees of the academy watch this video, is that going to be bad for the academy? Would that be bad for my career? Would that make anyone uncomfortable? So I have to imagine myself basically sitting next to a student, and if they watched it, who actually is going to be more embarrassed? And most of the time I actually think it would be the kid more than me. And then if I'm okay with it, in my mind, it's a pretty good litmus test."

On whether there's an intentional chemistry theme in the name of the band and its new album:
SA: "I think chemistry and physics both. I mean, I definitely was more interested in physical chemistry throughout my undergrad. And I've been sort of fascinated with this idea — and perhaps it pre-dates my studies in chemistry to when I would watch [the educational science TV show] "3-2-1 Contact" as a kid — that, really, contact is the reason  everything happens. I'm quoting the theme song, if anybody remembers it. But this idea that...the way music happens is you have these compression waves, which is a series of air particles colliding, and then that pushes something else, and it pushes something else, and those molecules actually have to hit these little pieces of hair in your ears. And the whole musical experience is based on this idea that particles have to collide."

On how being a chemistry teacher influences Alcott's music:
SA: "I think I write in a very block-oriented way. Like, I think I really dissect songs and I really think about them almost like building blocks, which I think is a very chemistry way to think about things. Like, well, I can take this part and move it over here, and then this can sit on top of this part, and then I can move this one around and change it a little bit. That sort of visualization of the nature of matter and how matter rearranges during chemical and physical processes — I think that I think the same way about parts of music."

On which came first for Alcott — music or teaching:
SA: "They actually happened about the same time. It was my last year in college and that's when I decided I wanted to be in a band — and I didn't know anything. I bought an electric bass and my friend and I just hammered out some two-note songs in the house that we lived in. And as soon as I graduated I didn't know exactly what I was going to do. I thought I would take some time off and play music. That's when I got a call from my former AP chemistry teacher from, actually, Phillips Andover, where I was a student. And he told me that I was not allowed to not do anything chemistry-related and that I needed to pack my bags and come back to the academy and teach for a year. And I listened, and that's how I wound up teaching."


The Boston Globe: When Particles Collide’s Sasha Alcott: One Rocking Chemistry Teacher

  • "With a new album launching, the singer/guitarist weighs being a Phillips Exeter Academy teacher by day and frontwoman for a rock duo by night."

Boston Herald: When Particles Collide Gives ‘Photoelectric’ A Charge

  • "Smart musicians have told me When Particles Collide needs a bassist. I respectfully call that idea nuts."

This segment aired on June 12, 2014.

Headshot of Sacha Pfeiffer

Sacha Pfeiffer Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.



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