Words: Brian Fischer-Giffin
Pix: Barry Wentzell
Forthcoming album: The Ground Cries Out
Jeff Martin is calling from a payphone at a service station halfway between Sydney and Newcastle. He's on his way to the Vault in Windsor after playing another sold out show on his current Australian tour. In the mid-90s, The Tea Party's effective mix of Zeppelinesque heavy rock and ethnic music and instruments combined with his rich baritone made Jeff Martin a favourite among Australian audiences, a status he continues to enjoy today. Jeff's current tour is with Terepai Richmond, the versatile jazz and hip-hop musician and former pro-surfer who was a founding member of Directions in Groove and has since worked with the Whitlams, Delta Goodrem, Missy Higgins and others. Despite their divergent musical backgrounds, the shows have been a roaring success.
"All the shows are selling out, so it's a fantastic vibe. Especially with my audience and what Terepai's bringing to the table, and his audience, it's what the tour's called: "Worlds Apart". But actually these worlds are colliding and everyone's getting along fantastically. So it's really cool."
The tour came about after the pair got together for an exclusive, adhoc show at Sydney's Coogee Diggers Club earlier this year. Despite both musicians' complete lack of preparation -- the two didn't even know each other -- they quickly realised that there was enough magic there for an extended season.
"It's amazing you know because Terepai and I, we got together for a couple of one-offs a few months ago -- without meeting each other and without rehearsing. It was just an idea that our mutual agents had. And we got along so well... the show was so ethereal that we decided to take it a bit further. So, you know, 19 shows... the audience is there, the vibe is high and it's just a great way to end off the year."
That such a meeting of musical minds could come to pass is perhaps not really that much of a surprise to those who have followed Martin and his music. There's been few musical boundaries he's allowed to be put before him over the last two decades.
"I'm always up for a challenge you know,"he says. "And certainly my music would probably dictate that, with all the Middle Eastern influences and Indian influences and all that stuff, and putting that mixture with rock n roll together it's like I've got to always push the envelope as an artist. I can't just rest on my laurels to a certain extent. I feel that this combination of what Terepai and I are doing is like another step. Whether it's a step above or a step to the side, whatever... it's certainly not a step backwards. It's movement, and that's what I need."
Australia was always the strongest and most ravenous market for Martin's music outside his native Canada. The Tea Party toured here often -- sometimes for months at a time -- at the height of their popularity and the albums The Edges of Twilight through to the compilation Tangents were top sellers. Martin was such a regular visitor that he eventually settled in Perth a few years ago. There's just something about he and Australia that seems to click.
"You have great taste in music!" he says, with a gale of hearty laughter.
But he's quick to stress that he believes the real reason lies in the honesty of his art and the chances Aussie audiences are willing to take. And for those who may still be mourning the loss of that band, Jeff presages something similar to make its debut in 2011.
"I think especially my audience here in Australia, they've always been adventurous as well, with everything I did with The Tea Party and what I've continued to do, they've always come along for the ride. And I think that as long as I continue to present music that is laced, dripping with integrity, I'm not going to lose my audience here. If anything it just keeps getting bigger. And especially with the new band that's about to come out next year, for people that love The Tea Party and heavy rock and all that stuff, when you hear this new band next year... it's all back baby! It's back, in a bigger and a better way!"
As mentioned, The Tea Party was huge in Australia, and five years on from the end of that group, Martin still plays those songs to the crowds that loved them as much as he does. In his mind, they're as much a part of him as anything he's done since, and there's simply no reason not to play them.
"The Tea Party was my music. I wrote all that stuff, so it's like, of course I'm gonna play it!"he says. "I'm extremely proud of it. Moments like "Sister Awake" and "Save Me" and "Requiem" and "Temptation"... these are songs that don't belong in the 90s. They're timeless. So I can play them anytime, anywhere. They're always relevant. Even with the new band when we tour next year in late April, early May here in Australia, it's going to be a big rock n roll show that's going to have big songs like "Temptation" and "The River" because they're a part of my history, part of my psyche. They're not old songs... they continue to evolve."
The Tea Party's amalgam of world music influences and classic heavy rock was made even more genuine by the addition of an array of traditional instrumentation that he, Jeff Burrows and Stuart Chatwood employed -- both in the studio and live -- which included hurdy-gurdy, harmonium, tambura, mandolins, bazoukis, ouds, sitars and more. Some of these will make a reappearance on his next tour.
"Oh I will be [using those] next year when I do the big rock n roll tour,"is his promise. "Because what Terepai and I are doing now is like an acoustic thing, but it's not... It's extremely powerful. I'm just using my acoustic guitars now. But certainly on the new record there's all of those instruments again. They'll be coming out of the closet."
The Tea Party's crossover appeal into the nether and darker realms of metal was never so apparent as when the band was invited to play on the main stage at the Wacken Open Air festival in 1994, the event that is these days considered to be the leading summer heavy metal festival in Europe if not the entire world. It must have been something of a culture clash for a band that was never considered to be heavy metal.
"Certainly a heavy rock band, but not a heavy metal band!"Martin says. "I still remember that [Wacken show] very well. The promoter who is still handing that festival, The Tea Party was his favourite band. Even though we were worlds apart from anything that was on that bill, he just really wanted the band to play. And we did! And even in front of a heavy metal audience... it was like, well, Led Zeppelin is not heavy metal. But Zeppelin is heavier than any heavy metal band. The Tea Party is the same deal. When we were playing and we were at our zenith... that was one heavy band."
Having borne witness to The Tea Party live on numerous occasions, I can assure any reader that this is no mere boast. At one particularly packed and sweaty night at the Metro in Sydney during the Edges of Twilight tour, the moshing and crowd-surfing that went on rivalled that of any metal show, and a good percentage of the audience were metalheads. From what he says about the things he has in store for the new year, scenes like that could well be revisited in the near future.
"Well both the Tea Party and this new band that I have with J. Cortez and Malcolm Clark, both from The Sleepy Jackson, both of those bands... they appeal to the musical mind," Martin says. "You could like heavy metal music, you can like Radiohead, but you're gonna like this stuff. It's the real deal. It's real music."
Those less familiar with Martin's previous legacy -- and even many who are -- might be more inclined these days to link the name "Tea Party" to the far less musical arm of the US Republican Party, the formidably right wing, Conservative-Libertarian movement with Sarah Palin as its populist figurehead. Martin certainly isn't proud of such an association.
"Jesus Christ! It's just like..." He pauses and lets out an exasperated sigh. "It's the scariest thing when that part of the American public has such an influence on the rest of the world. There's a very good chance that the Republicans are gonna get back in because of that movement. It's frightening. It's just frightening that ignorance and lack of intelligence is so predominant in that country."
Back to his music, and along with creating his own art, Jeff Martin has also recently been at work on the production side of things. Earlier this year he was in the studio with Melbourne progressive metal band The Eternal and prior to his current tour he was working the desk with the new project for Clint Boge of The Butterfly Effect.
"I did [that] last year... well, you know, the beginning of this year and it was a fantastic experience: great guys, great musicians, love the music,"he says of working with The Eternal on Under the Sun, on which he also sings. "And now I've just finished producing the new single for 1000 Needles in Red."
Producing is something that he enjoys when he is free to do it. For Jeff Martin, it's another way he can share his talent and knowledge with fans and peers.
"When I have the time, when the band is right and the music is right, I love getting into studio with these bands because there's a lot of wisdom in this mind, and I love to share it with bands that are like-minded."