Over a drink in Kings Cross, Larry Heath sat down with Jeff Martin of the legendary The Tea Party. Although a reunion was announced the week after our chat, no hint was given in this interview, as we discussed his latest project – Jeff Martin 777, which is a collaborative effort between Jeff, Jay Cortez and Malcolm Clark of The Sleepy Jackson. The trio had just returned from a tour of Canada.
Jeff Martin: We just came back from Canada, it was minus 30 in Edmonton in Calgary, and Mal and Jay, being Perth boys… they’ve never experienced Canadian winter, it was a shock to the System.
I’m told you can just walk across the lakes.
Oh sure, that’s no myth…
Well welcome back to the sunny skies of Australia!
It’s nice to be home.
You’re based in Perth now aren’t you
I got a place in Perth and I also have one in Byron Bay. Gotta see the sunrise and the sunset, you know!
Are you heading up to Bluesfest (in Byron)?
No – not this year. I’ll be playing Bluesfest next year though, and if I’m not doing it I stay away from it.
Certainly seems like you should be playing this year though… a pretty impressive lineup.
Sure! Mr. Dylan, B.B. King… not a big fan of Elvis Costello but apparently people are! Believe it or not, I just did my first ever feature interview with Australian Guitar Magazine, and so we had a lot of catching up to do. And we were talking about B.B. King, and how that was basically one of the first things I learnt… you know, “How Blue Can You Get?” and all that. I was 7 and playing the Blues.
So you’ve got a new album out! The Ground Cries Out with the 777… tell me how this project came about, and how Jay and Malcolm got involved.
Well, I met Jay at one of the first solo shows I ever played… at the Fly by Night in Perth, 2004 or something like that. And I remember, he came backstage, being all Jay Cortez like, saying “Hey man, we should make some music together” (said by Jeff in a deep, sensual accent). It was like Keith Richards had walked in the room, so cool! He ended up joining The Armada during its brief run.
Malcolm I’ve known since the mid 90s. I remember the first time I met him was at the Belvoir Ampitheatre, at a Tea Party show, and he was backstage drinking our rider. I thought – man, this kid’s cool. But then I found out quite quickly what an incredible drummer he was. We did a couple of charity shows together in the late 90s. And then when I met Jay it was funny they had this whole history together, with The Sleepy Jackson and The Exploders and all that.
So the Armada had run its course, and we ended up getting together and creating this nuclear fucking supercharged rock and roll experience. For me, it’s just a blast. For me, I gave up on the Les Paul and all that after The Tea Party, thinking I’d just do the acoustic thing. But no! Here I am, I’m back doing the rock and roll thing, and I couldn’t be happier for it.
The album is quite the eclectic taste of not only rock and roll, but the roots and even the blues too. The marketing of the album really places particular focus on this fact. Yet, I’ve always found you to be someone who creates varied and eclectic works – is that fair to say?
Yeah definitely. I think in the early days of The Tea Party, like The Edges of Twilight, that was certainly very eclectic – even Triptych was as well. Transmission was sort of dark and linear. But with this one (The Ground Cries Out), what I find enjoyable about it, for the first time in any of my music there is an element of joy in there. A little bit of tongue and cheek – with tracks like “Queen of Spades” and “Riverland Rambler” - and that’s the influence of Jay and Mal coming into my life. Nothing is taken too seriously – Jay saying “it’s only rock and roll, baby” and Malcolm just being a fucking loon.
He’s like John Bonham, Keith Moon and Animal from The Muppets all in one. They keep me on my toes, and in stitches as well. They’re just incredible guys to be around. And that comes through on the record. Even though there’s the sexy, dark, Middle Eastern inspiration in tracks like “The Cobra” and “The Ground Cries Out”, there’s this other element as well, a great balance. I may have done eclectic things in the past, but I’ve never achieved a record as balanced as this one.
Musically, how much did Jay and Malcolm influence that?
Two-thirds. It’s definitely a band. I know we’re using my name still, so there’s a lineage between the past and the future, but what’s hopeful is that by the 2nd or the 3rd record, we’ll just be known as 777 and drop the Jeff Martin.
And what’s the importance and relevance of 777 as a band name?
That has a lot to do with my esoteric studies and philosophy. Aleister Crowley, 777, that book that he authored, is a very important book in my life. That number seems to pop up a lot in my life too. So we needed to have a symbol to define this band, and with the numerological power behind that triple digit number, and the individual influences that are coming in from the three of us coming together, it just made sense.
We talk a bit about being eclectic, and there doesn’t seem to be a scene in Australia that can attribute itself to this more than Perth. The diversity is quite impressive – have you had an opportunity to experience much of the scene over there?
Oh absolutely. I go out when I can, and when I do, places like Amplifier and the Fly by Night – which is the best music venue in Australia. I mean the eclecticy that goes through the place… from one moment it’s John Butler doing a secret gig, and the next it’s Lulo Reinhardt (Django Reinhardt’s great grandnephew). It just goes all over the map. And that’s the great thing about the West Coast of any country. Like Venice Beach in California – it’s that same “anything goes” sort of vibe. When you’re dealing with the east, it’s more academic, and everything has to have its place. Perth is a very interesting place to live.
Can you point to some records that aspire you to remain original, and yes we’ll use the word eclectic again?
Yeah, like Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti by (Led) Zeppelin. For me, those are the albums where they’re stretching their wings the most. Great composition and I’ve always appreciated records like that. I’m a fan of a lot of the Dead Can Dance stuff, as well, that’s very eclectic. It’s a combination of those things. I just didn’t want to put any parameters on the band, persay. I mean as I’m the main songwriter, there’ll always be an overarching intention.
You’re doing quite a massive tour to celebrate the release of the album, certainly one of the biggest in recent memory…
In recent memory, for sure. I’m really looking forward to Australia seeing the new band. I’m just in my early 40s, but even in my solo acoustic concerts, you expect your audiences to get older – but they’re getting younger! People are continuously discovering The Tea Party, and those in their 20s are just wanting some solid rock and roll. And so I think a record like this is going to feed that appetite… and certainly the live shows that we’re going to do will feed that appetite too.
This is a musician’s musicians band, but also it’s very entertaining, so a rock and roll audience will love it as well.
You’re playing more intimate venues – as you have done in recent solo acoustic tours. How do these experiences compare to your Tea Party tours?
Well my favourite moments here in Australia with the Tea Party were at places like Selina’s (Coogee), or at the Prince (Bandroom in Melbourne), and even though that could have been 700 or 1000 people, that to me is still intimate. You can control the crowd psychology and make them feel like they’re a part of a very personal process.
If you can hear the heckler, you know you’re in an intimate space.
Well, I don’t get many hecklers. *laughs*
I don’t imagine! Have you had any interesting experiences along those lines?
Not really… none that I can remember. One thing I’ve been blessed with throughout my career is the incredible amount of respect that the crowd shows our music. They are people who are very serious about their music. So that being the case, you’re not really going to get the element. Plus, I can be very intimidating.
Well, I’m loving the record, and we can’t wait to see you out on the road. It really feels like you’ve been reinvigorated by the process of making this records.
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes…
The Ground Cries Out, which was recorded in Perth, is in stores now. You can read the review of the album via one of the related links below.
The band is also on tour around the country as we speak – it kicks off today! You can find out more about the tour HERE, at the official Jeff Martin 777 website.
And as for The Tea Party, well, they’ve been announced for a Canadian tour later this year, and they’ll no doubt be coming down under before you know it. Perhaps even a visit to Byron Bay Bluesfest is already on the cards? It certainly seems it…