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INTERVIEW – JEFF MARTIN, The Tea Party – September 2014

| 3 October 2014 | Reply

INTERVIEW – JEFF MARTIN, The Tea Party – September 2014
By Shane Pinnegar

Jeff Martin The Tea Party 01

I make my way into the room in Fremantle with candles flickering and exotic instruments and artworks adorning the walls. At one end of the large, polished floorboarded room sits a Gnostic Altar, next to it is an original painting by Aleister Crowley – ‘The Beast’ himself – and several by Rosaleen Norton – ‘The Witch Of King’s Cross’. A jazz record plays softly in the background.

This is Jeff Martin’s West Australian bolthole: the room features a drum sound “like fucking Bonham,” he says with glee as he shows me around the paintings and describes recording in the room for Sarah McLeod’s [of The Superjesus, The Tea Party’s support act for the upcoming tour] newest, top secret project. There’s an adjoining studio, bedrooms, and – best of all – a room full of guitars and similar shaped instruments – many of them antiques.

As the skies darken and a storm brews outside, Martin bids me take a seat and pours himself a vodka lime & soda before taking his place opposite. He rolls what appears to be a cigarillo, before looking up with eyes like obsidian and declaring himself ready to start.

We’re here to talk about The Tea Party, the band he loves that fell apart acrimoniously in 2005 with bassist and keyboardist Stuart Chatwood, drummer Jeff Burrows and Martin all loudly proclaiming they’d never work together again.

Hatchets were buried – and not in each others backs – in 2011, when the trio reunited to tour, and they released the Live From Australia album the following year. Finally, a full ten years since the release of their last studio album Seven Circles, comes The Ocean At The End, an epic rock n’ roll album sprinkled with world music and electronica influences, spiritual and occult-inflected lyrics, and all the power, majesty and eclecticism of latterday Led Zeppelin.

Jeff Martin with Sarah McLeod

Jeff Martin with Sarah McLeod

Martin is a magnetic presence, his those deep, dark eyes making him look like he is always thinking deeper and darker thoughts than you. In this rather gothic room where occult images line the walls it’s hardly a stretch to imagine him a charismatic high priest or cult leader.

He says it is “humbling and validating” to see how The Ocean At The End was received on release, insisting that making this record the equal of the bands previous work was an imperative for The Tea Party before they’d agree to release it.

“Yeah, absolutely! Because the three of us were in absolute agreement: we acknowledged what we’ve achieved in the past, statements like The Edges Of Twilight and Transmission, monumental not only in our lives but other people’s lives.

“Basically, I think our philosophy was that we didn’t HAVE TO make a record. We don’t need the money – it’s not about that. It’s just about pushing ourselves. The three of us for those seven years that we were apart [had] what seemed like insurmountable differences in the beginning, and [saying] ‘well The Tea Party will never get back together’… [as] every year goes by, and you just can’t help but miss something like that.

“Here it is in a nutshell:” he continues in his sonorous baritone, “when we decided to get back together, there was three things that we needed to prove. The first thing was, the band live – you know, with all the legend [surrounding their live performances], could we go back on stage and be that band still? And take it further?!

“And basically on the reformation tour here in Australia in 2012 we proved that to ourselves and I think we proved that to the fans – both old and new – which was wonderful because a band like The Tea Party, you’re away for a while, it’s great that all the die hard fans came back in droves and all that stuff, but I’m playing the Hordern Pavilion in front of a sold-out crowd of 5 or 6 thousand people and the first 20 rows are all 20 year olds.

“It was like, ‘yes!’, because The Tea Party is not a ‘90s band. It’s not nostalgic. It’s like, if we were [ever] going to make new music, it’s now – where we’re at now. But, the second thing that we had to prove – or, perhaps, find again, was that beautiful friendship that we had and that respect and that love and that trust for one another.

The Tea Party 01

“Without going into detail – because it’s been discussed enough – I needed to prove to myself and to Jeff and Stuart that I could once again be the captain of the ship. And, yes, so I managed to do that and then once that trust was [back], and they knew they had the captain again it’s like, ‘now let’s start the writing process and think about the recording studio and everything.’

“I was living in Byron Bay at the time and reformation tour was done and dusted and a few months later they flew over to Byron and we started just jamming like we did in 1991 – no gimmicks, no nothing. We didn’t have 65 guitars all lined up and all that. It was just one Les Paul, a cable, Marshall amp, a shitty little drum kit and all that – it was like, ‘let’s play and let’s be a rock band again. Let’s be a rock band, fuck off the keyboards!’

The album was recorded in 4 blocks, but spaced over 18 months, the singer and multi-instrumentalist explains of the recording sessions for The Ocean At The End, not that it was exactly planned like that.

“A year and half. We did four recording sessions. We did a couple days at 301 [studios] in Byron but 95 percent of the record was recorded at Revolution studios in Toronto and for me just as a producer/engineer it was just like I was in heaven. The big old Neve console that was just so well maintained and actual Fairchild compressors for Jeff Burrows big drum sound and in a room where you could fit two symphonies in. It was as big as this really, the recording room.

“Yeah, so we did it in four blocks. We’d go in for two weeks and then we’d pretty much walk away for two or three months. No, it wasn’t [planned that way], but the thing about the Tea Party is we don’t really plan, you know. Things just happen as they will. It’s always been that way and I just don’t question it anymore.”

The Tea Party 02

Recording in this stop-start fashion meant all three band members had time to live with the songs and that allowed some evolution of the tunes over those 18 months.

“Absolutely. Yes, they did,” Martin concurs. “Certainly when it came to my melodies and some of the words that I then attached to the music – I tend to always write the words at the final stage. I let my synaesthesia take over and when the three of us create these big soundscapes, then I start to see the colours coming through and then it’s like the colours relate or correlate to a certain emotion and that emotion will be a memory that I have from this incredibly crazy life that I’ve lived so far.”

Even allowing for the seven year break, The Tea Party has still been active for 18 years, yet this is only the bands eighth studio album. They’re obviously a band that takes its time to create music on such an epic scale.

“Well, we certainly don’t rush anything!” Martin says, amused. “Because we’re not in a hurry – we’re just not. [In] The Tea Party we always follow our own drummer, we’ve never followed anyone [else]. We’ve always done what we do on our own terms when we want to do it. Especially even in the 90’s – when we started that was still the time of the big record companies. We were signed EMI Records. But just the way we set it up, we were kind of in a way – well, certainly for Canada – we were like the Led Zeppelin of Canada: it’s like, ‘you don’t fucking touch us! We will make the record and we will give it to you and you will go and sell it.’

“And I was, and I still think I am, the youngest producer ever to produce a record for EMI Records… and I did not know what I was doing at all.” He laughs, before agreeing that he bluffed his way through pretty well, all things considered.

With The Tea Party reknowned for their mystical lyrics and past album titles such as The Edges Of Twilight, Splendor Solis, Triptych and The Interzone Mantras, it’s no surprise to find deeper meaning in the title The Ocean At The End.

“Where are we?” asks Martin, enigmatically. “We’re in Perth, right, Fremantle. The most isolated city in the western world, and two blocks that way, the ocean. It’s just for me, The Ocean At The End is actually a beginning because it’s almost like, esoterically, you feel like you can’t go any further but it’s that moment in life when you feel like you can’t go any further, but then the veil is lifted and then a new journey begins.”

Which leads us to the strikingly surreal album cover. Comprised of a butterfly shape compartmentalising the individual influences of the three band members and the group themselves, it references Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, all manner of lifeforms, religions, war and much more besides.

Tea Party - Ocean At The End cover

“That’s really Stuart’s vibe because he worked in tandem with the Italian artist, Alessandro Bavari, and Alessandro is just total surrealism, very Dali-esque, and he did the cover for The Interzone Mantras as well.

“The three of us in The Tea Party, we all have our roles that we must play, and we trust one another to play them out as best as we can. For instance, I’m the producer of the Tea Party, of the record – but in all fairness to Jeff and Stuart, they were the co-producers as well because the seven years that we were apart, what Jeff and Stuart accomplished on their own in their individual pursuits like Jeff with Crash Karma and Stuart with the Prince Of Persia stuff…

“When they came back to me and I came back to them,” Martin continues, “they were now my equals in the recording studio. Whereas that wouldn’t have been the case prior and it was just such a wonderful thing to have my two brothers as real sounding boards now.

“So with Stuart,” he takes a breath, getting back on track, “[he] is in charge of the art usually for the album covers and what not and of course he’ll ask my opinion on things and he’s very curious of my world and the cult philosophy and what not, and all the symbolism that comes with that and he takes what he wants from it. Then Jeff Burrows is just the heart of the band, the big lion – but he’s also the one that just makes sure that Stuart and I have money in our bank accounts!”

With all the water under the bridge, a reformation like this still carries with it a weight of expectation and Jeff Martin himself mentioned earlier that come of the bands work has “monumental” meaning to many of their fans. Isn’t it hard to ignore that when they go to play shows or write new music? Surely there’s a danger that in trying to be what they were, they might try too hard and spoil the delicate balance?

“Yeah, we just didn’t, though, man,” Martin enthuses. “It’s like the band drips with integrity and we certainly want to give our fans and ourselves everything that we possibly can and that’s just what we do. So if we do that there is no pressure!”

There’s no shortage of people out there who hold The Tea Party’s music like a totem, to get them through hard times and bad days. One friend of mine, upon hearing that I was going to be interviewing Jeff asked me to pass on a heartfelt thankyou for all the music, some of which she describes as ‘soothing music for our babies, and has been a [personal] saviour many times.’ Does having made music that means THAT much to people carry with it a heavy responsibility to the artists?

“I don’t feel weight and responsibility,” Martin replies softly, “but I feel very humbled. It’s countless now how many people will say that The Tea Party’s music or some of my solo stuff or whatever is like the soundtrack to their life or to big moments in their lives. Not a lot of bands get that, but that’s the effect that The Tea Party’s music has on people.

“It’s such a strange thing,” he continues, “because it’s not our intention to make music for commercial purposes – like, we don’t make singles and stuff like that, but we end up having them and sometimes some of them get through like Heaven Coming Down in Canada [was] number one for 13 weeks, and Temptation and Fire In The Head and all that. It’s just not our intention… but going back to the whole album concept, people know that if they’re getting a Tea Party record, [then] from beginning to end it’s a sonic journey and that, I promise will never stop.”

The Tea Party 03

It’s obvious that the old adage ‘older and wiser’ is applicable in this instance. Here’s a band who let their personal shit get too big to be bandmates, but they’re giving it another go all these years later, and it sounds like they’re all making a bit more of an effort to get along.
“Oh, yeah, definitely, and listen: what it came down to towards the end before we… now we all, the three of us, we [say we] didn’t break up, it was just a hiatus,” he laughs, “that’s the party line…

“So I guess what it was, going back to what you asked about, The Tea Party in a business sense were like the Led Zeppelin of Canada because we had management that, like Peter Grant for Led Zeppelin, kept everyone away so the band could just do what they want to do, and Jimmy Page [and the rest of the band] could just be left alone, right. Same with me, I was just left alone.

“The problem was that in 2002 our manager, Steve Hoffman, got a very most terrible form of cancer and had to fight for his life and he couldn’t fight for us anymore and so that firewall that I was so used to was not there anymore. Then everyone was coming at me and it was just something that I was not used to. I don’t deal with A&R people, it’s not my thing. So the pressure of all of that and me not being able to deal with it… shall we say my ‘rock and roll appetites’ which is all well and good, became things that I hid behind. Of course, you know, it started to certainly affect my abilities and it concerned my two best friends and all that stuff, it concerned me too.

“So I had to walk away just to figure it all out and come back stronger and find a new way of doing things and also find good people, like for instance, the people that I have here with my new record label that I formed 93 records and all that. It’s a family that really protects me, it’s great, so I can just be that artist and not have to deal with anything else.”

‘You sound almost reborn,’ I suggest.

“Yeah. I feel like a phoenix!” is the maestro’s reply, with all the sincerity in the world.

With Martin renewed, and all three members insisting The Tea Party is back for good now, Martin admits he’s found ways to avoid letting the old problems creep in and mess up their stability.

“It’s just a case of, there’s lessons learned. I certainly learned mine and so now I just know when to… I pick my moments [to party] because I certainly still love to have fun,” he says with as rockstar a twinkle in his eye as I’ve ever seen.

With the Australian tour to support The Ocean At The End starting in a week, Martin says fans can anticipate hearing some of the new album live.

“This is what we want to do and usually what we want to do we do, so when Jeff and Stuart arrive here in Perth [a week or two before the tour] we’re going to start rehearsing, and our plan is to basically to learn every single song off of The Ocean at the End, but that being said, probably at each concert we’ll only play four off the new record, but the four will change every night so I think there’ll be a lot of people flying from show to show!”

The Tea Party 2014 tour

Mentioning all the exotic stringed instruments on stands, or hanging decoratively, around the room compels Martin to lead me into another room with a recording desk and guitars everywhere. It’s a quite magnificent sight.

“These stay. So I have guitars that are just meant for live [shows] and these are my recording guitars. That’s some of the exotic instruments, the others are somewhere else.”

Martin takes me back to the main room and points out the almost one hundred year old Gibson Guitar Harp that he made famous in the early years of the band. A 1916 model, it’s as much a piece of rock n’ roll history as any of the axes hanging in the Hard Rock Cafes around the world.

“This one just stays [here] now. I was silly enough to bring it on the road a few times and management has a heart attack [when I do] because of the insurance, so now it’s just sort of my Dorian Gray portrait.”

Jeff Martin with vintage Gibson harp guitar

Martin goes on to say that taking such delicate instruments on the road can sometimes pose unusual problems if spare parts or repairs are needed.

“It’s not the most ideal situation, that’s for sure!” he laughs wryly. “I especially remember one tour we did for Alhambra [an EP The Tea Party released in 1996] so this would have been back in the mid ‘90s, and we tried to bring every [instrument] we could… but what we didn’t consider is that were touring in the dead of winter in Canada and these instruments – they don’t belong in winter. So everything cracked, strings were popping, all that stuff. I was calling San Francisco to get strings and stuff like that.

“So yeah, it’s not ideal,” he says with a sigh, “I know that fans would really love to see that again and we will have some elements of that in the new show, but I remember The Armada – my first band that I formed after The Tea Party – we were one of the headliners of WOMAD in Adelaide one year, right. After us – it was quite an honour – Ravi Shankar played, and so [first] The Armada, a loud rock band and everything… and then Ravi Shankar came on and you just couldn’t hear him. You couldn’t hear the sitar! It’s a beautiful thing to record and it’s a beautiful flavour to put into the music and I love the instrument, but I will never, ever play one live again. It’s just a nightmare.”

Gene Simmons of KISS recently stirred up a hornets nest by suggesting that ‘rock is dead’, an assertion that has plenty of rockers responding with ire and sometimes vitriol. Martin doesn’t waste a lot of words on his opinion of the subject matter, or the man.

“Gene Simmons is an idiot. There’s my assertion. I never have had, and I do not have, any time for KISS. It’s not my cup of tea, and he is such a good bass player [super sarcastically].”

Rock n’ roll is very much alive, as pretty much everyone apart from Simmons will agree, but there’s no denying that with CD sales a mere fraction of what they once were, the business of making music has changed dramatically. Martin feels that now more than ever making a record is about making art for art’s sake.

“Yes, it certainly is and it’s something that will never change with the Tea Party and because we’re very fortunate, as well, [in that] we actually do sell a lot [of copies] still because our fans want it. Even if it’s a CD, they want to be able to hold it. And now, especially, we will be pressing vinyl and if people are smart you listen to vinyl – you know what I mean. I love it! It’s all I listen to.”
THE TEA PARTY – AUSTRALIAN TOUR 2014 with The Superjesus

Thursday 9 October – Crown Theatre, Perth
Saturday 11 October – Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide
Sunday 12 October – Palais Theatre, Melbourne
Wednesday 15 October – The Enmore, Sydney
Friday 17 October – The ANU Bar, Canberra
Saturday 18 October – Waves, Wollongong
Monday 20 October – Panthers, Newcastle
Tuesday 21 October – Coolangatta Hotel, Gold Coast
Thursday 23 October – The Tivoli, Brisbane

Category: Interviews

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