THE TEA PARTY Transmissions and Psychopomp

In the 90s The Tea Party were a musical phenomena. This fresh new sound coming out of Canada melding eastern music and world instruments with heavy rock riffs was a breath of fresh air during the waning grunge era. Frontman Jeff Martin looked and sang like Jim Morrison but played guitar like Jimmy Page. After two successful albums came their biggest record, Transmission, a deviation from their established sound to a darker, industrial place. It has now been 20 years since Transmission and the band are celebrating with an anniversary Australian tour this Spring, playing Perth at The Astor Theatre on Friday, October 27. KAREN LOWE spoke to Jeff Martin to discuss the 20th anniversary tour, personal hygiene, triple j and learning to love more.

The Transmission album was a fairly radical departure from the sounds the three of you had forged on previous Tea Party albums. Was this a conscious decision to push the band in that direction?

I’d say it was more unconscious than it was conscious because, you have to understand; let’s go back a little bit in time. When The Tea Party came out with its first major label release, so that would have been Splendor Solis through EMI Records in 1993; even in Australia because Canada and Australia are pretty much on the same time line. Now here’s a little band, a little three-piece band from Windsor, Ontario came out of the starting blocks, now, 1993. Every other band, every other rock band was trying to smell like teen spirit.

So here comes these three kids from Windsor who basically want nothing to do with that, but mind you, our wings at that time, our little wings were very wet with our influences so the critics either loved us or they hated us but the criticism being that the band sounds like Led Zeppelin and certainly that singer; well that singer with that voice and the hair and the leather pants, well you know, that’s just Jim Morrison. So there we are. There’s the first record. But, here’s what happens. The first record, because it’s so different to everything else that was on the radar at that time, it found its own niche commercially. Especially in Canada, Australia and certain parts of America. It was commercially accepted and was quite a success.

So here’s what happens. EMI Records, they look at that success. It’s platinum in Australia, it’s platinum in Canada; we’re gonna give these boys a proper recording budget for the second record. Now, usually, well, 9 times out of 10, whether it be rock or whether it be rap or whatever, when an artist gets a big recording advance to make records they probably spend it on cars, expensive models, high class drugs, you know, things like that. Now that wasn’t our M.O. We were as surprised as anyone else – the success that that album had and when we got that money from EMI to do The Edges of Twilight, what did we do? Well, we basically invested in our own, ultimate world music instruments shop. We bought everything that we could possibly think of and then what we did is we put it on The Edges of Twilight.

So there and then, what happens with The Edges of Twilight was that now, The Tea Party had patented, more or less, its own sound because of that exotic instrumentation, the melodies, the rhythms but yes it was still a rock band. There was no other band, at that time, doing what we were doing. And so, what brings us to Transmission is that, because Edges of Twilight was so successful – even more so than the first record, we could have rested on our laurels and we could have done Edges of Twilight 2, 3, 4 right – we could have kept on going with the same thing. That’s not the mentality of the three musicians that make up The Tea Party – there’s got to be a challenge.

So with the creation of Transmission, what I was listening to at the time – much like everyone else in the rock world at the time was The Downward Spiral from Nine Inch Nails. It was a big record. I was also listening to some pretty obscure stuff from Germany like, electronic stuff and also Aphex Twin – stuff like that and I was curious. I pondered the question, can these elements, electronic music, be brought into something as organic as what The Tea Party is as a rock band. Is that chemical marriage possible? Lo and behold, Transmission, for better or for worse, became our most successful record.

The album is certainly some of the darkest and most aggressive song-writing the band have committed to tape. Are the three of you channelling the spirit of those times in recreating the album live?

When The Tea Party first got together for rehearsals back in January of this year to go over the songs that we’ve never actually played before from Transmission, you know as we had the Canadian tour coming up, for me – I can’t really speak for Jeff and Stuart because it’s a very personal journey for the three of us but what I can say from my own experience of revisiting the record, especially because I am the lyricist and for the main part, the main songwriter – it comes from skeletons that I bring to the band – it was very cathartic because obviously I’m not, I can’t possibly be the same man that I was then because you are talking about 1997 and talking about a 26 year old going on 27 who was so afraid and mind you, very hygienic.

Mind you, you’re probably wondering where I am going with this but it will all make sense at the end and it will be a funny joke. So I’m very hygienic, took a lot of showers and I was turning 27 years old and because of the way the media still wanted to portray me as Jim Morrison, McKernan, all that stuff. You know, when I turned 27 years old, I never took a bath? I took a lot of showers, but I never got into a bathtub.

You were afraid of joining the 27 Club…

Yeah, being that naïve back then, sometimes you believe your own press.

You guys started this tour earlier in the year. How have the shows been going? Have you enjoyed revisiting this album? 

It’s always the same with The Tea Party because the three of us find rehearsals absolutely boring. So we’d rather go on stage and figure it out in front of an audience. It’s not to say that, you know, I do believe that the three of us are consummate professionals, even the first three shows that we do of a tour, they are still good performances from the band, but it takes probably about three shows for the band to decide how to manipulate the moments of songs because a Tea Party concert is an emotional roller-coaster.

Essentially, the three of us almost become symbiotic, one mind. It’s very Machiavellian how we manipulate the emotions of the audience in the best possible way but sometimes it takes time to get it going. And this is the thing that I love is that we’ve already worked out everything on that Canadian tour. I think we did 35 shows and now, when we come to Australia in October, what Australia is going to get is the best of the best. One of the rock journalists here from Buffalo, New York, I think he described it as beautiful yet terrifying.

You guys have been around now for 27 years. How do you guys maintain your friendships while being in such close quarters? How do you deal with any conflicts?

It’s a blessing but it’s hard because obviously now, I make my home outside of Byron Bay and I have since 2008. Stuart, the bassist and keyboardist – he lives in Vancouver and Jeff Burrows, the drummer, lives right here in our home town of Windsor so the separation is, well, I’m sure there are but I can’t bring to mind right now, a band that is so far apart, geographically speaking but the beauty of The Tea Party is that it’s not a necessary thing. We’ve known each other since we were children and when we get back together… you always hear, and I think a lot of bands erroneously, to try to self-grandiose, ‘oh yeah man, we’re telepathic while we’re on stage’ and that kind of stuff, blah blah blah. Well the thing is, with The Tea Party, there’s no other way to describe it, to explain it.

I’ve known Jeff Burrows since I was 7 years old and he was 8. We had our first band together when I was 10 and he was 11. I met Stuart when I was 13 years old and Stuart came into the band so this type of relationship is intense and when we disagree, which we do do sometimes, we disagree like brothers; but brothers who love each other. It doesn’t take much time to come to a compromise and understanding now.

That’s what’s good about any great friendship…

Yes, exactly.

The industry has undergone many changes since you first started. What are the some of most negative changes that you have seen? And what some of the most positive changes?

The negative changes that I have seen, let’s talk about Australia. Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about the fact that there was a time where Triple J was the beacon, shall we say, the Lighthouse for rock music. Like credible, intelligent rock music from around the world and were responsible for breaking Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, The Tea Party… so many bands let alone all the great Australian bands that came forth in the 90s and all that.

It’s a very, very big disappointment what it has become now and that sentiment… I’m not the first, I’m not the loudest voice saying this. It’s a sentiment that’s been echoed and we live in hope that it might become, once again the sentinel of credible music but for the time being, it isn’t. Radio is radio and unfortunately, the people are just trying to keep their jobs. It’s not like when there was a time where they could be taste-makers. They are told what to do by corporate entities. You meet someone that works for a radio station, if you are a musician, an upcoming musician and you think, ‘this is fantastic! I might have a few drinks with this person and they are gonna get my song on the radio!’ Oh no. No he or she isn’t because he or she does not have the ability to do that. What needs to happen in Australia is the community stations need to rise up. Let’s create a new revolution.

So that’s the negative. The positive is the resurrection of vinyl again. So that’s a big positive and that’s what I certainly want to happen with the new music that The Tea Party will come out with late 2018 because obviously, you’ve got to play the game. Certain songs will be available on iTunes, Spotify or whatever the fuck it is – I don’t even know what it is any more but for people that are music connoisseurs and that is, that’s the type of person… you can’t even put an age on it because there are 18 year olds that are buying decks and collecting vinyl. Then it goes all the way up to the people in their 70s, that can still hear and it’s beautiful!

There are people of all ages that still want the physical in their hands and they understand the weight and the effort that goes into creating vinyl because there is a whole different mastering process and mixing and whatnot which I adore if you are a serious engineer but a lot of pop artists these day wouldn’t even know what that is and they probably don’t care.

I’m glad cassettes have gone though – they could be painful…

You and I both are too young to even contemplate this, but imagine, like 8 track tapes. It’s like, you get to the middle of a song and then it just… clicks over.

You have toured many places now and many different countries. What’s the one place that you haven’t toured that you would really love to get to one day?

South America.

Well hopefully, that will happen for you guys soon?

Me too. Like the band, we did a video for Walking Wounded in Cuba and I loved, loved the time that I spent in Cuba but I’m fascinated with the music that goes deeper into Brazil, Peru, Colombia – all that right, because the rhythms change. I’m a sponge for listening to all that so it would be an interesting journey.

Do you guys still enjoy touring? What do you miss most when you are on the road?

When we get on stage, the three of us couldn’t be happier but that’s only for like, two hours and a bit. The other stuff in between – the travelling, the hotels, the after hours – all that stuff; once you’ve done it, finished it, got the T-shirts…once you’ve done it, it just becomes a little bit nefarious so I guess, the long/short of it is we just love being on stage together but it’s just hard being away from our respective families.

Do you have any crazy tour stories that you can share with us?

None that I’d like you to print!

If you could have your time over again, is there anything that you would want to do differently?

Yeah, you know what? There is. I’d learn to love better.

I think that’s actually really good advice for everyone actually. We could all learn to love each other better…

Well there’s always hope.

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