Music, Math Define
Five for Fighting


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John Ondrasik

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From breakout hit “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” to the poignant “100 Years,” Five for Fighting has been winning over fans for more than a decade. What you may not know is John Ondrasik—who is literally the whole “band”—actually once was fighting to get through his applied science and mathematics majors at UCLA, the former received from the Department of Applied Science and Engineering. Son of a physicist, he grew up in southern California, where NASA was coming up with some of its marvels. “My father was an astrophysicist at the Jet Propulsion Lab in the early seventies, working on the Mariner missions,” he recalls. “On Sundays I would head to Pasadena and play Star Trek on the Jet Propulsion Lab main frame with the old punch cards. I always had a fascination with science, especially astronomy.”

In fact, his greatest sadness is the decline of the space program. “The dividends we received are immeasurable,” he says. “Humanity has always had the explorer gene. It’s where the heart and mind soar.”

John Ondrasik performing for the troops aboard the USS Carl Vinson. Image: Five For Fighting

And he has even done some exploring of his own. “I discovered volcanoes on Titan,” he says. “I remember my dad bringing home the first pictures and as a young kid I told him that moon had volcanoes. He said that was impossible but I was later proven right. Turns out they were methane volcanoes. I’m still waiting for my Nobel Prize.”

But he also discovered a love of music early on. His mechanical inclination meant he could play many instruments, which is one of the reasons people think Five for Fighting is a band when much of the music is Ondrasik on his own, playing each instrument. The other reason would be the name Five for Fighting—which doesn’t represent the number of band members but a hockey reference concerning time spent in the penalty box.

What elements learned at UCLA come in handy in Ondrasik’s musical career today? The high-level math gave him critical problem-solving skills, and his work with computers can be found in much of what he does. Using the ProTools program to record his albums, he says: “I’m very comfortable behind a computer, and also understand that lyrics that take six months to get right are nothing compared to the years mathematicians spend going back to the drawing board.”

And Ondrasik actually spent time in college and beyond at the family business—one that involved inventing shopping carts.

Considering the scientific minds of Ondrasik, Boston’s Tom Scholz, and Styx’s James Young, are engineers musical shoo-ins? “It’s no coincidence that many icons of classical music were also mathematicians and scientists,” Ondrasik says. “It’s where the creative meets the cerebral. It’s the desire to create or discover something brand new that is unique. Does that apply to rock-n-roll and pop music? That may be debatable.”

What most probably will not debate is how cerebral Ondrasik is when it comes to his lyrics. Taking on Superman, he pondered the fear and loneliness that comes with that job. In four minutes, he explained the life of a man near 100 years old—forcing us to look at how we spend our own lives. It seems multi-talented Ondrasik is spending his living a dream.

Eric Butterman is an independent writer.

Humanity has always had the explorer gene. It’s where the heart and mind soar.

John Ondrasik,
Five for Fighting

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December 2013

by Eric Butterman, ASME.org