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Jeff Martin: Out of the black and into the blues

Submitted by on February 7, 2013 – 12:05 pmNo Comment

He remains today as much a mystery as he was during his time as the esoteric frontman for 90s Can rockers The Tea Party. But life has changed for Jeff Martin. Now the head of a new outfit, 777, Windsor-born Martin now calls Australia home, and his music has admittedly taken on a new light. On The Ground Cries Out, his second solo disc, Martin explores old rock, blues and, he says, for the first time has fun making an album.

Is there a reason you opted to include only lyrics to the title track in the liner notes of The Ground Cries Out?

The Ground Cries Out is actually a poem by the Sufi poet Rumi. As far as my esoteric studies, Sufism is a way of life, a philosophy, that really resonates with me. Sufism is an aspect of Islam, but it’s so universal; it’s very tolerant of all cultures and all religions. In the past with the music that I’ve made, a lot of it has been very dark, but for the most part this record was joyous and uplifting. I felt that, philosophically, it made sense to have that one piece of poetry included in the artwork.

You recently told told Alan Cross, “I don’t think I’ve ever done fun.” Was it refreshing making a personally uplifting album?

It was a blast making it! The thing is, when you’re making music, you have to come from the place you’re at. And the situation is: I’m living in Australia, I’m playing music with two of my best mates, and I live in paradise. It’s very hard to walk around with a sullen expression on your face when everything is pretty good.

Do you credit Malcom (Clark) and Jay (Cortez) for opening the studio blinds to let the sun shine in on a few tracks, so to speak?

Absolutely. Songs like “Riverland Rambler” and “Santeria” – I’ve never done anything like that. It was just a case of having a few drinks, cigarettes and then, ‘OK, let’s jam some stuff.’ All of a sudden these incredible blues-rock numbers come out of it. It’s like Exile on Main St. all over again.

In an otherwise positive album spin by CHARTattack, the reviewer wrote that songs like “Riverland Rambler” pulled the listener in “many conflicting directions.” In fact, you seem to have incorporated all your styles – from hard rock and (especially) blues to pop and world – on the new disc. Was that your intention?

The intention was just to come from a place of honesty. I don’t want to distil it down too much, because obviously there must have been a process involved, but what it really comes down to is just three best mates getting together in a recording studio, and basically the music that’s on this record is what came out of it naturally. There was nothing pre-meditated.

Is it true Robert Plant once told you not to touch the blues?

Yes, it is true. But the only reason being: I think I gave him a run for his money.

I love the mythology of the blues… getting down at the crossroads and selling your soul to the devil.” What did you mean by that?

I’ve always had a special place in my heart for mister Louis Cypher. The romantic image of the devil, of him being the angel – the only one that has compassion for humanity, and wanting to explore the passion and the decadence – when it comes down to it, that’s rock and roll. I’ve got all the time in the world for that.

In that interview with Cross, he told you he felt on the new album you were “not fighting the arrangement , but, at the same time, you’re not overwhelming the arrangement.” Do you agree? Are you happy with that assessment?

I agree and I’m very happy with that assessment, especially [from] someone like Alan, whose opinion I do very much respect. What you hope to do as an artist is evolve. And as proud as I am about all those musical statements I made with The Tea Party, I am guilty of sometimes over-producing things. Back in those days, if there was a space to be filled, I filled it – with production, with guitars, with whatever. And, with this record, what Jay [bass], Malcolm [drums] and I decided to do, was let it breathe.

Can you tell me about the role opium and a spike fiddle played in the making of “The Mekong?”

The man [Cortez] is a bit of a rock and roll mystic. Some people will go to Europe for a vacation; Mr. Cortez’s idea of a vacation is going somewhere people aren’t supposed to go: Vietnam, Laos, Burma… In that part of the world, there’s something going on in that man’s soul that he understands music from that part of the world. So when he finds a Vietnamese spike fiddle, the melodies come out of him like they’ve been there for a thousand years.

What’s the basis for your philosophical theory that connects South Asian instruments to the trans-migration of souls?

How do you explain it when you’ve got an 11-year-old kid from Windsor, Ontario, and the first time that he hears a sitar on a Beatles record, everything comes flooding back to him to the point where he’s begging his father for his allowance so he can go over the bridge to Detroit and go the ma and pa record store and buy anything that has a sitar, or looks exotic on the vinyl cover… and then bring it home and understand the melodies, those rhythms. For me, there’s a lot of weight to the proof that something like that must exist, because there’s no other way to explain my affinity for the music from that part of the world, my understanding of it and my ability to weave it into rock music.

I’ve always believed art breeds art and music, music. In what ways did Stephen Bennett and composer Arvo Pärt inspire “1916” and “She’s Leaving,” respectively?

Stephen Bennett is one of the foremost harp guitar players in the world, so he was very instrumental in me picking my harp guitar and actually composing on it. And Arvo Pärt’s composition, “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten,” was the backbone to “She’s Leaving.”

Was “She’s Leaving” a particularly painful song to pen?

Yeah, it was. But the lyrics say enough. I don’t really like to… my private life gets exposed enough through the music without having to speak about it.

How did you react when Daniel Langlois said he wouldn’t sing “The Messenger” because you had done a better version?

I think I blushed. He’s an amazing man, an amazing artist and I consider him a very good friend. He continues to be a beacon of light in the world of music and I’ll always have all the time in the world for anything that man puts his ears or his hands on.

You’ve described Langlois’ style of production as “ethereal.” What’s an apt adjective to define your style?

Sensual.

On The Science of a Rock Concert, which on aired years ago on the Discovery Channel, you said, “the one thing that this band has always done… we’ve exploited technology, but in an organic sense.” Have you stayed that course in your personal career?

I’m a lot more attracted to the organic side of things than I am technology. I think that technology, to a certain extent, is becoming a bit of a crutch for a lot of musicians. There’s a way of using it [technology] in a way where it doesn’t affect the organic flow, as far as the creative process is concerned, but a lot of musicians these days are using it as a very, very necessary tool.

For a man who takes music very seriously, does it disappoint you to see an industry littered with bands whose members are limited? As one example, many young players can’t read sheet music…

… that’s a matter of opinion – as far as being schooled in music. I found that from my days with classical music, it helped me achieve things like string scores and skills that I’m glad that I have. But if you’re playing rock music, you don’t really need to read anything, you just need to feel it.

What are the pros and cons of being a “control freak?”

I used to be [a control freak]. [But] when you’re comfortable and there’s a trust there, you can let go of the reins. And I’m certainly comfortable and I trust Malcolm and Jay with all my heart when we’re creating music together and playing on stage. So that aspect of my personality has been put away for some time now.

You have to live it to sing it.” What toll has that personal axiom taken on your personal life over the years?

It’s taken me to some very dark places, that’s for certain. I was, and can be, a person who will experiment with things to alter the mind to get out of the day-to-day mindset to free the soul and the pathway. If you’re going to write a song like “Temptation,” you’ve got to go to those dark places in order to come back and be able to go on stage night after night and sing it with absolute honesty and conviction.

How has life Down Under been treating you?

My little boy lives in Perth and I have a house on the east coast near Byron Bay.; I divide my time between the two coasts. I get to see the sun rise on one and the sun set on the other, so it’s a pretty good life.

Jimmy Page once called The Tea Party the modern day Zepellin. Is it a tough role filling the contemporary shoes of men like Plant and Page?

Is it a tough role? No. No one can fill those shoes. There’s different shoes to fill – make your own shoes. But definitely the closest relative The Tea Party’s music would have, or the music that I continue to make with 777, would be Led Zepellin.

In various interviews you’ve made it clear you left The Tea Party for a multiple reasons, perhaps chief among them your former band’s will to write commercially for the American market. Other than the obvious, why was that, in particular, such a contentious issue for you?

I went along with Bob Rock producing some of the songs and I was continually on that record [Seven Circles] letting go of a situation that I worked so hard for the band to achieve. Ultimately what it came down to, was I felt the record was getting more and more distilled [and] dumbed down, and that was totally going against what The Tea Party was about and should have continued to be about.

I know the band’s breakup was acrimonious. Is the window still open for a potential reunion in future?

Absolutely.

Interview by Remi L. Roy; photos by Alexander Vlad

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