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