Wednesday, 2 May 2012

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

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