Thursday, 31 May 2012

A River Nowhere


Out of a clear, blue sky, I find myself in a situation.  It’s a situation that seems insurmountable.  I can’t possibly go on, but I have no choice; there is no option but to continue, to push ahead, to overcome and ignore everything my body is telling me, to do the complete opposite in order to survive – ironic, considering my body is telling me to stop in order to survive.

In all my years, I’ve not found myself in a physical predicament of this magnitude, not that I can recall anyway.  My legs are burning.  My stomach has liquefied.  My lungs, incapacitated somewhat due to my smoking habit, are closing up.  I’ve never had sweat actually sting my eyes before, but right now, it’s happening.  Blood flows from several deep cuts to my hands, dirt covers the knees of my waterproof pants.  Underneath them, a wetsuit keeps in the mounting heat.  But I must go on, I can’t stay here, I have no option but to keep going.


The Cabin
The previous evening, a Friday, three of us had arrived at the cabin, a simple wooden structure, sans electricity, deep in the wooded hills high up behind Coffs Harbour.  It was grey and cold, darkness setting in early as we stoked up the fire, unloaded the four-wheel-drive, strolled briefly down the back to check out the stream running through the property.  As darkness properly descended, we drank beer and sampled the whiskies we’d each brought, ox-tail stew bubbling quietly on one of the portable gas burners on the bench.

Later on, two more arrived and the five of us sat in semi-darkness, a couple of us laconically strumming guitars, a few brews, some fine food.  Talk was on the task at hand though, not too serious a task four of us thought, but one, the Fly Fisherman, the one who had been here before and who had been stalking The Trout since he was a young man, he knew better, although perhaps he thought it’d be fine.  For how hard can a fishing weekend possibly be?  How much effort can one possibly expend whilst casting and reeling, wading and snagging, the eternal hunt for the perfect trout, the one that’ll fit that pan to perfection, it loves the dill and the butter and the lemon.  Come on you little bastard, take the bait, suck it up, you’re dinner.  Oh, the humanity.


We set off at around nine in the morning.  It’s late May, so the water will be cold, hence the wetsuits, waterproof pants etc.  We carry small backpacks with dry clothes, water, lunch, a towel.  I add a hipflask, which I know will be important later in the day.  We drive 20 minutes down the road, park, get out, check the gear – five guys (ages ranging from 31 to 45), five rods (three fly setups, two spinners), at least five fish needed.  How hard can it be to catch a trout?  It is, in actual fact, the last weekend of the trout fishing season, so perhaps the rivers won’t be as teeming with fish as they had been months earlier.  But the Fly Fisherman knows a spot, seldom fished, ideal for himself and his four novices.  Let the games begin.

We walk out of the carpark towards the bush, and once on the path, you can see, way down below and along, a waterfall, one which certainly isn’t a minnow, one which certainly isn’t close.  That’s where we’ll end up.

The Waterfall

The sun is out, warming our faces, expectation is high and spirits are light, we step sprightly and laughter abounds, each of us mentally hauling out trout after trout, glorious rainbow colours flashing in the sunlight, our almost maniacal laughter booming off the cliff faces as we delight in our many catches – this will be the day, we five men will clean this river out, and tonight, we will eat like kings, taking home with us tomorrow, to our wives, tales of fishing before unheard, the bounty from which will be the proof that we are, indeed, men.  Wild men.

The Fly Fisherman takes an unexpected turn off the path, and so begins our descent – into the gorge, yes.  But also into a world of pain and anguish, physical pain and aguish, the likes of which I’ve never, as I mentioned, seen or felt before.  A descent into hell, of this I am sure, although at the time, I had absolutely no idea.


Am I being too dramatic?  Am I making this out to be something it really isn’t?  To be honest, in the cold, hard light of day, a week or so after our return, sitting at my desk in warm, dry clothes with a cup of coffee close by, it seems as if I am being a little histrionic.  At the time however, I and my three fellow fly fishing novices – dads all, myself excluded, desk and cafĂ© workers and owners whose weekly exercise regime doesn’t extend far beyond beach walking and surfing – as we were thrust into the aforementioned situation (and this was only the beginning), began to have doubts.

Doubts that this would be the relaxing fishing weekend we’d envisaged a month or so beforehand, downing schooners at the Bruns pub.  Doubts that we’d be able to make it to the bottom of this ravine, this almost vertical gorge, let alone spend five hours fishing, and then, horror of horrors, climb back out.  Doubts that we’d ever be the same again, to be honest.  Oh lordy, the fishing had best be good, I thought to myself as we struggled downward, razor grass our only handholds on an 80 degree slope, soft earth and hidden rocks and logs beneath our rapidly tiring feet.  The fishing had best be good.


We made it to the bottom some 20 minutes after we began, legs wobbling, panting, wanting to vomit with the exertion of it all.  I thought back to that Thursday night at the pub, a month or so ago, when three of us were entertaining the thought of doing this.  Wide, slow-running, shallow rivers were on our minds.  Rivers in the middle of a field somewhere, a short walk from wherever we’d parked the car.  Fly rods whipping back and forth, lures landing in the exact spot we were aiming for.  Quiet, calm, relaxing.  Then back to the cabin for music and whiskey.  

We were as far from that idea as we were from the cabin.  All I could think of was the ascent come days end.  Still, there was work to be done and so we rested and recovered and washed blood off our hands and started to set up the gear, test the water, see what was what.

The River

The river itself, a relatively narrow, quick flowing affair, was the balm to sooth our savage breast to be sure – mossy rocks, small pools, little waterfalls, the bush towering above us on both sides, as picturesque a scene as you could hope for.  Our spirits rose, and we began to fish.


On his second cast of the day, the Fly Fisherman strikes.  One decent-sized rainbow trout, an impressive looking thing which is quickly stored away.  We are, almost instantly, invincible.  We can catch anything.  Anytime.  Anywhere.  The Fly Fisherman lands another, slightly larger, specimen a short while later.  Things were looking good and we could all, no doubt, already taste it, The Dinner, it would be impressive and we would stomp on the terra and own it all by days end, surely.

The god of fishing though, is a selfish, abrasive old man.  He rarely smiles and when he does, it’s at the misfortune of hapless fishermen who think they’re In The Know, but really they know nothing.  He cackles away on his old chair, his face almost completely obscured by a wild mass of whiskers, his hands covered in warts, his face (what you see of it) as gnarled and twisted as the cane he carries in his left hand.  He’s a bastard and a bounder, a nasty old man.

The Pretender

I didn’t even see a fish in that river.  Neither did the other three.


So we sat under the waterfall, having fished our way up the river over the course of the day, finishing under this thundering beast, gently soaking in its spray.  I pulled out the hipflask and order was, for a short time, restored.  The only trout we had were the two the Fly Fisherman had caught.  The sun was rapidly sinking.  It was getting cold.  We all sat for a few minutes, no one saying anything, but everyone, to a man, thinking the same thing.  Now, after the epic onslaught of The Descent, after a day spent clambering over boulders and through ice-cold water, it was time to climb back out.  This is when I found myself in a situation, out of a clear, blue sky.  We had no option, other than to carry onward.  And upward.


Three metres from the top, the path and carpark visible through the trees, I stopped.  The last few steps were up a sharp, nasty little incline, a final fuck you from an exercise we certainly weren’t expecting.  I couldn’t do it.  Physically.  I eventually used a fallen tree, a few metres away, to pull myself up.  On to the path, over to the car.  Stripping off wetsuits and pants, dry towels and jeans, dry, warm boots, another hit from the flask.  We all laughed.  I made a joke about how, in hindsight, that was fun.  Everything was funny – you could have made a joke about dead puppies, and it still would have gotten a laugh because we were all so overjoyed with the fact we’d made it out of the gorge.  The waterfall had fallen back in the distance as we’d slowly, ever so slowly, made our way out of there.  With no fish to boot.  We were beaten men, but we had to put on a brave face.

The Relief

We returned to our hidden fortress, we re-stoked the fire and rustled up some snacks and beer began to slowly flow, switching to whiskey.  We cooked the two trout, broke up the juicy flesh and ate it on dry crackers.  Potatoes in foil sat in the fire, the harsh spice of the homemade Mexican beans bubbling on the gas burner, their accompaniment.  We ate like kings, but the fish course was barely an appetiser.  Oh, the humanity.  We all retired early.  A lot earlier than the previous evening.  Slow guitar playing, cuts on fret fingers.  Slow whiskey.  Slow food.  Slow to get up off the chair and into your bunk where blessed relief wasn’t far off.


The next morning we fished, somewhat half-heartedly I must say, in a small stream not far from the cabin.  No climbing.  The laughter had returned –  though we were tired, there was still the jubilation that we’d overcome yesterday’s gargantuan obstacle. 

Writing this now, thinking back to The Climb, I’m definitely sure I’m being overly dramatic.  The Fly Fisherman seemed barely phased by the whole thing.  Two of the novices did a meritous job, the other having the excuse of age, but me?  The youngest by a good seven years, and yet struggling the most.  Good god, am I a weakling, someone who just doesn’t have the strength to climb a hill?  Surely not.  But I assure you – this ‘hill’ was close to an 80 degree angle – have pity on me.  Speaking to my sister on the phone a couple of days later, she (jokingly) likened it to childbirth, by the sound of how I was describing it.  I cautiously offer up that yes, it was like childbirth.  Possibly.

What it was, was something we weren’t expecting, but to be honest, the thinking is that this is a good thing.  How often does one get so bodily hurled from their comfort zone?  We thought we were in for a relaxing weekend of fishing, but we were tested, physically and mentally.  Plus, we caught not a fish amongst the four of us.  Oh that humanity.  No tales nor bounty would we bring home to our wives, no fish would we eat for weeks on end.  Not a one.  No fish.  Nothing.  We are, I think, cursed.  But we’re also united, in that despite the fact we caught nothing, we survived this madness and lived to tell the tale.  I will fly fish again, of that I have no doubt.  Next time though, I will make sure we fish in a river somewhere, as opposed to a river nowhere.  Of that I have no doubt.

Samuel J. Fell

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Tea For Three

Published in the June issue of Rhythms Magazine - excerpt below.

After a seven year hiatus, The Tea Party, fronted by the enigmatic Jeff Martin, come storming back, adversity be damned.

“Every instrument I’ve ever played on a Tea Party record is in this room,” he says, sweeping his arm wide, indicating the myriad instruments – some common, most exotic – that litter the tiny bungalow-cum-studio.  “That’s the sitar I used on ‘Sister Awake’.  That’s the hurdy gurdy we used at the start of ‘The Badger’.”

Later on, he walks outside with his current production client, instructing me to have a look at the big, hardcover book that’s sitting on the couch.  An Encyclopaedic Outline Of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic & Rosicrucian Philosophy, by Manly P. Hall.  It’s not a book, it’s a veritable tome, it weighs three times more that the bottle of wine I brought over, four hours ago.  I sit and begin to flick.  He comes back in, sees me reading.  “I’ve read that twice,” he says breezily before sitting back down at the mixing desk.

The smell of Turkish and Moroccan cooking fills the air when I arrive, he’s put together a number of bowls of dips and olives and bread and caramelised sausage.  “Get yourself a plate,” he says, “and then we’ll talk.”  He’s drinking vodka and soda, heavy on the ice and limes.  I’m drinking red wine.  There’s a half full bottle of Jameson in the studio, but he has to move that out of the way to demonstrate the harmonium when I ask him what it is.  He plays the opening notes to a song which sounds familiar, but I can’t quite place it.  Cigarette smoke hangs thick in the air filling the void between our heads and the ceiling.  He pats me on the back and smiles a lot.

At one point he gets angry.  Almost.  I’m the only journalist he allows into his home, but it’s certainly not for me to insinuate that the death of their long-time manager, Steve Hoffman, back in 2003, was the catalyst for the demise of The Tea Party, one of the most successful underground bands of the ‘90s, still revered today, about to make a long-awaited, hoped for, dreamed of reunion.  He calms down though.

At another point, he’s almost in tears.  He talks about the break-up with passion and a sense of ‘it’s been done, it can’t be undone, it shouldn’t have been done’, but it was and the band parted ways in 2005.  Until now, of course.  He talks of meeting up with drummer, Jeff Burrows, for the first time in seven years, earlier last year, saying there were no apologies, there would have been too many to mention.  He’s hoping the band can just start again, fresh, a new beginning.  He likes new beginnings.

It’s almost midnight, my head is full of red wine and tobacco and he hands me the headphones and hits play on the track he’s loaded into his ProTools setup.  It’s him, just a base track, a few guitar layers.  As the intro finishes and the skeleton of a song moves into what will be the first verse, standing behind me, he lifts up the right earphone and sings it into my ear.  It’s eerie and ethereal and acoustic, but you can hear Burrows and bassist Stuart Chatwood bringing their rhythmic power to it.  It’ll be a new Tea Party song, and only the two of us have heard it.

When I speak to Burrows over the phone a couple of days later, he says, early on in our interview, that if the band isn’t writing, then he’ll not tour again after their upcoming Australian run.  Martin has obviously already started writing, and given the amount of time they’ll have when here in July, there is no doubt that the three of them will write together once more.

“You sit on the couch, I’ll pace,” he says after I’ve made a plate, and we do, as we’ve always done.  He’s restless and excited, he’s in his element, he postulates and talks of “the myth of the band” and he concocts elaborate explanations to my questions.  I bring him down to earth once or twice, he smiles, and acknowledges that he’s perhaps stepped off the path somewhat.  He is so eager to be a rock star again.  So eager.

Burrows tells me that he’s hopeful, that there’s promise here.  “The nerves have dissipated,” he adds.  “Once we hit the stage together, [it was just as it once was].”

The band has already played a couple of short tours through their native Canada, and the blocks are carefully being put back where they belong.  Slowly, surely, so very carefully.  There are butterflies – almost visible ones.  There are nerves.  There is an abundance of caution.  Burrows mentions, a couple of times, that whilst the friendships are still there, it’s something that needs to be worked on.  He says he’s a “sensitive individual”, and that this will be hard.  He doesn’t say as much, but I suspect Martin feels the same.

Samuel J. Fell

Record Review - Darth Vegas

Published in the June issue of Rhythms Magazine.

Darth Vegas
Brainwashing For Dirty Minds
Romeo Records / Newmarket Music

Every now and then something lands on your desk which, when you put it on, sends you down the rabbit hole, seemingly with no way out – buy the ticket, take the ride is an apt sentiment on how to handle these oddball situations, and never has it been more apt than when listening to Sydney-based Darth Vegas’ second effort, Brainwashing For Dirty Minds.

To be honest, this record could be just as easily reviewed in a surf mag, a metal mag or a movie mag as it could be in Rhythms, such is the myriad styles and sounds found within.  Creeping and crawling, it melds genres with reckless abandon – just when you get used to a bit of surf twang, they throw a death metal riff in there – seemingly with no rhyme nor reason, and yet it fits together eerily well.

I’m not saying I like Brainwashing For Dirty Minds, I’m not saying I don’t like it – it’s a musical journey, for wont of a better phrase, but it is a journey, one that leaves you somewhat worn out by album’s end, a little lost, wandering around like you just woke up from an epic sleepwalk and you’ve found yourself in K-Mart in your pyjamas.  With blood dripping down your neck and a bottle of absinthe in your back pocket.  It’s psychedelic b-movie soundtracks mixed with horror and surf – I’ll leave the rest up to you.

Samuel J. Fell

Record Review - The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent & Depraved

Published in the June issue of Rhythms Magazine.

Various Artists
The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved
429 Records / Universal

What we have right here is a bold, ambitious gamble, one which could well have veered off the tracks and come to a brutal, fiery end, trapped within its own grandiose notions of reinterpretation, trampled and burned up by its own visions of what it could possibly have been.

Fortunately for all involved though, the gamble has paid off, and so The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved is a thoroughly entertaining and well executed look at one of the most famous pieces of journalism ever written, set to a score which does nothing but highlight the searing dialogue, adding to it another dimension that even its legendary author couldn’t have captured with just words.

The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved is of course the article, written by the late Hunter S. Thompson, which birthed Gonzo journalism, the piece focusing on the depravity and the lewdness of the Derby crowd as opposed to the race itself, Thompson’s search for that epitomising character which summed up the whole debauched affair, only to realise, come the end, that it was him and artist Ralph Steadman, drunken and rollicking, all along.

Basically, the record is a reading of the entire article in all its longwinded glory.  Thompson is played by Tim Robbins, Dr John makes an appearance as Jimbo, Ralph Steadman plays himself, all making a great impression.  Behind them though, led by the great Bill Frisell, is a solid cast of musicians scoring the action, their music breaking up and becoming fractured as Thompson and Steadman descend further into the drink-ravaged state they carry through most of the story, and conversely solidifying as, for example, Thompson careers down the highway in his monstrous American car, really painting a vivid picture.

The music swells and pulls, always playing second fiddle to the dialogue, but never letting you forget it’s there, making you feel more than when you first read this iconic piece of writing, and that is no mean feat.  They finish, just a lone piano, with ‘My Sweet Kentucky Home’, as Thompson bodily hurls Steadman from his car at the airport and the article winds up.  A gamble indeed, but with a hell of a result.

Samuel J. Fell

Monday, 28 May 2012

Record Review - Saint Jude

Published in the Metro section of the Sydney Morning Herald, Friday June 8th.

Saint Jude
Cobra Snake Necktie Records / Love & Theft Records

Birthed from the swirling, country-tinged rock ‘n’ roll sounds of their parents’ record collections, Melbourne quintet Saint Jude’s eponymous debut is a veritable treasure trove of the used and the second hand.  Little Feat, The Faces, The Band, it’s all there in abundance – jangling guitars, country twang, a bit of rock ‘n’ roll swagger, it’s as warm as your favourite jacket, comfortable too.

In amongst the familiar however is a distinct Australian flavour, a grittiness which when combined with some of the best four-part harmonies you’ll hear, marks this one as more than just an imitator.  Lashings of keys and horns add an extra element too, acoustic guitars mixing with electric, the mood swinging effortlessly from carefree to melancholy in what is a more than solid maiden release.

Samuel J. Fell

Friday, 18 May 2012

Record Review - The Toot Toot Toots

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 15th 2012.

The Toot Toot Toots
Spooky Records

Billed as a “spaghetti western rock opera”, Melbourne quintet The Toot Toot Toots’ debut record is, as is evident after only a cursory listen, in a league of its own.  The whiskey-soaked vocals of Giuliano Ferla are so grotesque, you can’t help but acutely feel the pain, the glory, the bloodshed and vengeance of central character Eli Rayne as the record chronicles his (mis)adventures in the fictitious gold rush township of Gomorrah Fields.

Behind Ferla a thundering beat reigns supreme, mariachi horns and barbed-wire guitars run amok, it’s a veritable rumble of a record.  The fact the band have attempted something so adventurous as a concept record to release first up shows they’re not ones to sit idly by, preferring instead to produce some of the best doom country you’ll hear all year.

Samuel J. Fell

Thursday, 3 May 2012

The Finer Details

Published in the May 2012 issue of Rhythms.  Excerpt below...

Kim Churchill

Kim Churchill sits, on the edge of his chair, out the back of the Artist’s Enclosure, away back behind the Mojo Stage – one of few quiet spots to be found during the five day marathon that is Byron Bay’s Bluesfest.  He’s got an old Mount Franklin water bottle on the table in front of him, filled with an unidentified orange liquid, and he’s got a smile on his face – he’s just finished his third set for the weekend, and there will be a few weeks of respite before a national tour begins, ostensibly to promote his latest release, Detail Of Distance.

The orange liquid in the water bottle isn’t alcohol, it’s most likely some sort of juice, as Churchill has almost completely lost his voice.  Two days prior, I’d interviewed him on stage as part of the Rhythms Q&A Sessions, and it was pretty thin then – and he still had two sets to play.  “It was great, but it set a new bar for how screwed up your vocals can be and still do the gig,” he croaks with a laugh when I ask how his set that morning had gone.

“It kinda worked though, because three or four songs in, I said to the crowd, ‘My voice is fucked, you know it, I know it’, and so then it was just like, ‘It’s my last set at Bluesfest, and I don’t give a crap and I’m gonna do what I can anyway’, so [the set] had this vibe of, you know, when it’s raining and everybody decides to just dance around in the rain anyway? It had that kind of vibe to it.”

To be honest, this is a vibe you’ll find at most Kim Churchill shows.  I’d caught one of his sets earlier in the weekend and the pure joy that radiates off the stage is enough to make anyone dance with reckless abandon – even a crusty journo like yours truly.  It’s something Churchill has always brought, ever since he first stepped up onto a stage, and it’s something he carries to this day, with no sign of it becoming lost.  A KC show is a joyous event – for him, yes, and because of that, for his audience.

Something else that struck me when watching him play over the Bluesfest weekend, and something which immediately became apparent on listening to his new record, his second official long-player, the aforementioned Detail Of Distance, was how much this young man has evolved as an artist and musician.  His instrumentation is more complex, his arrangements are fuller, his lyrics are deeper.  This is a man who isn’t just making music for music’s sake, this is a journey, and as he says to me at some point during the interview, “once you stop looking to continue this journey, then it’s over, the art is over.”

Kim Churchill, whilst still at school, studied classical guitar, for around ten years.  When he first came to attention then, when I first interviewed him around four years ago, it boggled my mind that this guitar technique and style wasn’t being utilised more in his music.  Sure, he was good, but as was pointed out at the time – ad nauseum, as far as Churchill would have been concerned – it was basically like seeing a new Xavier Rudd emerge upon the scene.  This though, is a comparison that is no longer applicable – Kim Churchill is, as mentioned, evolving, and evolving hard.

“Yeah, it took a while to get rid of that comparison, and I have a different view on it now,” he says philosophically.  “Honestly, I got quite frustrated with it for a while, but what I had to realise was that, for me, it was a general state of maturing to the point of being able to understand it; every artist that wants to be a performer, has to go through a process of sounding very much their inspirations and their influences – it’s an imperative part of the process of finding your own sound.”

Samuel J. Fell

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

More Manx

Published in the May issue of Rhythms Magazine.  Excerpt below...

Harry Manx

The Introduction:
The rain stops just as I get out of the car, brilliant sunshine breaking through, illuminating the scene, rolling hills all dripping wet.  Harry Manx himself opens the door, barefoot, clad mostly in black, a beanie on his head and a smile on his face, we shake hands.  He introduces me to the three people hanging out in the kitchen, one of whom is local artist Yeshe, who I’ve met before and who is touring with Manx later this month, they’ve toured together a lot in Canada before as well.  We all shake hands.

Someone offers to put on the kettle and soon there are cups lined up on the bench, various teabags (green, ordinary, camomile, mint) being added, sugar and hot water.  Harry and I chat as we stir, did I find the place OK?  Where did that storm just spring from?  How nice is it in the sun?  I say goodbye to Yeshe, and Harry leads me out the back to what seems to be one of many small decks – this house is gargantuan – and we sit, get comfortable, I find my notebook and Dictaphone, leaning back on the couch I’m sitting on.

Harry is on some sort of rocking chair, he sits right on the front edge of it, his cup cradled in his hands.  The birds have come out after the rain, they fill the trees with their posturing, the air with their call.  “I actually know someone who moved away from here because of the birds, they were too loud,” smiles Harry as we watch them all.  I laugh and say that’s ridiculous.  It’s warm in the sun, everything is glistening, I pick up my pen and we begin to talk.


The Indian Influence:
“I’ve always had a fascination with India, my father used to go there a lot when I was a kid, he was a sailor,” Manx says thoughtfully, his voice almost drowned out by birdsong.  “I first went there in ’79, I hitchhiked all through Europe and went through Turkey, got caught in a revolution in Iran, into Pakistan, and I didn’t actually know I was going there on a musical journey at first.  I was attracted to the whole culture, the spiritual aspect, it was one of those places where I felt at home right away.

“So I knocked around that first year, played a little sitar, and I decided to go back in ’86 and I took an apartment there and kept that apartment until ’98, so I was around there for, like, 12 years.  I studied, starting with the sitar, but I had a feeling that wasn’t quite it.  I didn’t want to be playing sitar in an Indian restaurant somewhere, I just didn’t see myself doing that.

“But I loved the music and I just studied it for my own joy, that’s what it was for a long time.  You don’t really get into the Indian sounds until you’ve been there for a while, and then you see how they fit into the whole greater picture of India, you know?  This music, it really is the soundtrack for the life there, because the music has great depth, like the African stuff, you can hear the history of that.  And they found that certain arrangements of notes can create a certain mood, have a certain vibe… I was pulled in to those sounds.”

“And in a lot of ways, those ragas sound bluesy, so deep, especially the late night ragas,” he says with a fond smile, no doubt taking himself back to some of those late nights, around a fire perhaps, lost deep within an ancient groove, the music becoming a part of the situation itself.  “They’re so deep and dark and you wanna move into it, you know?  I kept thinking, when I was studying, ‘Man, this is just really heavy blues’, that’s what this is, Indian style.  A light went off in my head.”

Samuel J. Fell

The Return Of The Tea Party

Published in the June 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.
This is the full version of the story.

The Tea Party

Tucked away in a secluded spot on the north New South Wales coast, lives Jeff Martin, frontman for iconic Canadian rock band The Tea Party.  He’s lived there for about three years but for Martin, it’s only a base, for no matter where he’s lived, there’s barely been a time in the past seven years where he hasn’t been out on the road with some project or other.  It’s just what he does.

Of course, since 2005, none of those projects have been The Tea Party.  That purveyor of east-meets-west, of Moroccan Roll, of scorched-earth roots/rock imploded amidst much acrimony – “Acrimony with a capital A,” as Martin dryly puts it – not long after the release of their 2004 album, Seven Circles.  It was, by all accounts, a harrowing time, a time which saw the band torn apart by drug use, creative differences and general disarray. 

It was a far cry from how the band were initially, back in 1990 when they formed, and indeed, throughout the ‘90s as they went about their business, blazing trails, releasing that slew of grandiose records, proving you didn’t have to follow a formula or paint by numbers – they wrote their own formula, made up their own numbers.

“If you go right back to the inception, it’s hard to say what we wanted,” muses Martin, vodka soda in hand, ignoring the spread he’d put out prior to Rolling Stone’s arrival.  “But as the band matured, exponentially, it became clear that the three of us (Martin, drummer Jeff Burrows and bassist Stuart Chatwood) had an incredible chemistry and a collective talent to do something that was outside of the norm.”

“At that time, there wasn’t anything like that going on, this was before the advent of the grunge scene and we were… on something completely different from it,” echoes Burrows, over the phone from Canada a couple of days later.  “We didn’t fit any mould, and that was gratifying.”

The band released their eponymous debut independently in 1991, pilfering a number of tracks from it for inclusion on their label debut, Splendor Solis, two years later, and so began their rise.  The Edges Of Twilight, Transmission and Triptych followed to great acclaim, this mythical three-headed beast stomping on the terra with impunity – they were rock stars.

“It was heady times,” concurs Martin.  “If you think about it, it was a time when record companies still had money, there were still budgets that could be plundered, and it took a lot of money to tour and record a band like The Tea Party.  So it was wonderful, heady times, over the top… but that caught up with itself.”

That it did – the band’s long-time manager and “buffer” between them and ‘the industry’, Steve Hoffman, died in 2003, their last two records were riddled with creative difference, the train derailed, its members thrown in different directions, a behemoth felled.

 “Basically, I was so far gone with what was recreational [but that] had become habitual, I was using that to mask the feelings I felt for the whole situation of where the Tea Party was at,” Martin says, slowly, choosing his words carefully.  “I couldn’t care less.  I didn’t care less.  Jeff and Stuart basically saw me self-destructing, but they didn’t know why.”

“It came down to, from where I stood, my general concern over Jeff’s health and his welfare… I didn’t want to see anyone die on my watch,” confides Burrows.  “And what was so frustrating was… when he hit the stage, he would still be so dead on, slightly sloppier on occasion, but still so damn good, but on the flipside I’ve got our manager calling and asking what’s happening with Jeff, I’ve got lawyers and agents calling me, and I got tired of it.

“You’re killing yourself, and they’re all asking me what’s going on, I’m not your fucking babysitter, deal with this.  But he wasn’t ready to, I understand that… so I literally picked up my bag and told Stuart, ‘See ya, I’m done’.”

When asked to describe how he feels about the band’s last two records, The Interzone Mantras and Seven Circles (widely regarded as a step away from the ingenuity and bare-boned originality of their previous efforts), Martin is sage, but you know his heart wasn’t in either of them.  It was during The Interzone Mantras sessions that Martin’s drug use went from, as he says, recreational to habitual, and the rest unravelled from there.

This happened seven years ago.  Until last March, Martin and Burrows, friends since elementary school, hadn’t spoken – the pain ran deep, the band was no more, The Tea Party was effectively dead and buried. 

Burrows continued on in music, most notably with Crash Karma, and has hosted a radio show in Windsor, Canada, for years now.  He’s also heavily involved in charity work.  Chatwood has since forged an extremely successful career composing soundtracks for video games, and Martin?  Martin never stopped, the man is a rock star at heart, it’s doubtful, despite the pain that would no doubt have plagued him post-Tea Party break-up, that he could ever stop playing music.

So he struck out solo, releasing the sublime Exile And The Kingdom in 2006; he played with tabla player Ritesh Das; he played with a tabla ensemble; he played with percussionist Wayne Sheehy; they roped in bassist Gareth Forsyth and formed The Armada; and then in 2010, Martin formed 777 with J. Cortez and Malcolm Clark.  777 released just the one album, The Ground Cries Out, which should perhaps have been titled Jeff Martin Cries Out – for The Tea Party.

“Absolutely,” he says simply when asked if that record was an extremely loud cry from him for the band to reform.  “Absolutely.”

 It was the band’s long-time Canadian agent then who, having had requests for the band to reform during the entire seven year ‘hiatus’, finally got Martin, Burrows and Chatwood together on a conference call last March.  From there, a fresh seed was planted, they talked a bit, they emailed a bit. Martin and Burrows met up for the first time in almost a decade.  “No, [there were no apologies],” Martin says of that meeting.  “If we had to get into that, there are too may to mention.  I’m hoping we all just start afresh.”

“The way I feel about it now, is hope and promise,” muses Burrows.  “The nerves have dissipated.  Once we hit the stage together, everything disappeared and the water flowed under the bridge.” 

The band has already played a couple of short tours through their native Canada, and the blocks are carefully being put back where they belong.  Slowly, surely, so very carefully.  There are butterflies – almost visible ones.  There are nerves.  There is an abundance of caution.  “The friendships are still there, it’s just something that needs to be worked on, and that’s the hard part for me because I’m a pretty sensitive individual, I’m very emotional,” Burrows says candidly.  He doesn’t say as much, but it’s a fair bet Martin feels the same.

“If we’re not writing, I’m not gonna tour after this Australian tour,” Burrows then says, going on to say he doesn’t want to be ‘that’ band who just play their old material.  He need not worry, as Martin has already begun.  There is little doubt, given how much time they’ll have together when on tour in Australia in July, that the three of them will write together once more.  What’s already there, what Martin played Rolling Stone in his small home studio, whilst only the bare bones of songs, is immense.  With Burrows and Chatwood behind it, it will be gargantuan.

“For us, it’s not about the money, that’s not necessary or important,” Martin says in closing.  “It’s about can we get beyond the personal issues, get back into a rehearsal room, and can we make this band sound like it did?”  As he said earlier in the interview when asked if they can lock back in, right after Triptych – “I can do anything I want.”  Believe it.

Samuel J. Fell