Sunday, September 13, 2009

Jeff Martin (The Armada/The Tea Party) interview: part 1

The world music scene in the 1990s gained a decent sized fringe following thanks in part to Peter Gabriel's Real World label, but for your more mainstream artists, dabbling in the traditional music of the east and Africa to embellish a more familiar rock or dance sound became the must have accessory. On their 1993 album Splendor Solis, The Tea Party's music marked the return of prog-rock but with its dreary old skin shed and replaced with the vibrancy of middle eastern strings and strong soulful vocals. Few bands had managed to marry so gracefully these unusual elements. Their 1995 follow-up Edges of Twilight had Australia falling in love with them, and the feeling was mutual - singer/guitarist Jeff Martin settled in Perth six years ago. Last year he began planning his 12th Australian tour, the second fronting his new band The Armada. Over the phone from his WA home, Martin opens the latest chapter of his amazing musical history.

"Leaving The Tea Party was like a revelation," Martin begins. "I had become so caught up in the business of the band that creatively I was drying up. I decided to take some time off and I realised then, the problem was I felt I had no control over my band anymore. Our label wanted us to make a more commercial-sounding album, and I just wasn't interested in doing that." It was 2005 when Martin decided to walk away from his Tea Party band mates, and something in his voice tells me he still has a lot of passion for the band, and perhaps carries some resentment of how it ended in a quite unnatural way. "It left me feeling very emotionally scarred and like I had to rediscover my passion for music. It turned into big business and that killed it for me."

It's a too often recurring story with bands that their music becomes second to the whims of labels demands, but I wonder what became of the relationships between the three members of the Tea Party. "We just stopped communicating, and I didn't feel that they (Stuart Chatwood and Jeff Burrows) were doing anything to challenge the demands of what was expected from us by the label. Anyway I needed to regain control over my own life and music, so stepping away from the band was a really important part of that." Martin took his break in Cork, Ireland and ended up staying long-term. He befriended blues legend Roy Harper after the two met in a bar. Harper proved to be the stimulation Martin needed to work through his creative block. "Roy and I shared a love of Led Zeppelin, and Page and Plant are my reason to be, they are why I wanted to be in a band in the first place. Talking with him (Roy) helped me see my strengths again as an artist. He was also the only person I knew in Ireland, so living there I didn't have the distractions around me that had become part of everyday life in The Tea Party."

Growing up in Ontario, Canada, Jeff remembers the shocking boredom of his hometown. He was drawn to the traditional sounds of India and the Middle East - an exotic mental escape which he has successfully made part of his stock and trade. "As a kid, I remember thinking that just over that bridge (The Ambassador) is Detroit with its happening rock and blues scene, and I couldn't wait to see it for myself. I was always looking elsewhere for music to blow my mind, and so I gravitated to that (the Detroit scene) and this weird out-of-this-world Moroccan sound."

Jeff's new venture after his one solo album, Exile and the Kingdom (2006), is The Armada. Pairing up with Irish percussionist Wayne Sheehy, Martin began to pick up the pieces and embrace his renewed love of song making. "Wayne Sheehy is the be-all and end-all of this project. Simple as that. He's been a great muse for me and is no less than the greatest drummer I've ever heard." Singing Sheehy's praises, Martin gives me a telling insight into why their creative partnership is so special. "There's a new song on the album called Morocco which was written completely from a drum piece Wayne had worked out in just no time at all, and I just had to fill in my guitar parts and that was it, complete. I've never written this way before so it's really exciting". Completing the Armada line-up is Jay Cortez (former bassist from Sleepy Jackson), recruited after Wayne relocated to Perth to join Jeff and start rehearsals for the inevitable tour. I ask if he plans on expanding The Armada to involve extra players for the tour. "No, I love the dynamic of a trio. It's like three tangents in a framework with no spare parts running wild. (he laughs) I'm the captain of the ship and Wayne and Jay are my indispensable crew - and you know The Armada's coming through and people had better make way." Martin's tone has brightened up since speaking of the Armada; the project sees him returning confidently to the lyrical subject matter familiar to Tea Party fans. New song, Going Down Blues is apparently an account of a harrowing tarot card prophecy: "..White lady read for me those cards - The Devil knows you/he's your only friend/He's standing at the gates now/Waiting for the end..."

"I've always been interested in the esoteric side of life. (When I wrote that) I was thinking of the story of Robert Johnson at the cross-roads selling his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play the blues. Blues music, which I'm a big fan of, was really always the devil's music to me. I'm not going to get into the whole theology debate but from a creative standpoint, spirituality and music are closely matched." The song hints at a writer who has been to the dark depths and survived. On Chinese Whispers there's a nod towards traditional sea shanties: "…I've played chess with Davey Jones/He stripped me to my skin and bones/She said baby I'm walking on water towards the shore…" Perhaps his stay in the emerald isle had Jeff delving into books on maritime folklore? "Yeah, I mean it all just ties into the whole Armada thing. I wanted the imagery to match the music to some degree." The imagery is salty sea dogs and galleons firing on other galleons, it's all very rum, sodomy and the lash. I can't help finishing our discussion by asking what Australian customs (if any) has Jeff picked up since moving here. "Hmmm… Good question. The only thing I can think of is whenever I go out and get a little trashed I find myself craving vegemite on toast. (laughs) …Then a Berocca in the morning. Australia seems to be the only place you can get Berocca." Good hangover cures are our contribution to the world. Jeff's contribution to the world right now is The Armada. One of his best moves yet, and one for Tea Party fans to celebrate. Martin's references are not too distant from previous works and fans can look forward to hearing a few Tea Party songs in the Armada concert. The difference now is that Martin can relax and let his muse take him where it wants to without the creative restrictions and bad business that ultimately finished off The Tea Party. It's smooth sailing from here on, captain! 


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