It’s been almost thirty years since The Tea Party began their beguiling journey into the world of rock music. Emerging from Toronto in the early 90s, they broke from the collective musical wisdom of the day with a sound rooted in classic rock foundations and blended with the exotic influences of western Asia and a lyrical bent steeped in the esoteric. Their dark and evocative sound won them audiences from across the rock sphere, from the swelling alternative crowds to lovers of classic rock. Songs like “The River” and “Save Me” from their first internationally-released album Splendor Solis gained them a foothold in Australia that became cult-like after their 1995 album Edges of Twilight and its towering single, “Fire in the Head”, that came in at #66 on that year’s Hottest 100 Countdown. Tours here became longer each time they returned, until Australia very much became the band’s second home.
“This is our 29th year as band, and we’ve been to Australian 19 times,” says bassist Stuart Chatwood during a break on their current world tour. “This will be our 19th tour there. It really is our second home. For Jeff Martin, he lives at Byron Bay now, so it’s his first home!”
Since reforming in 2011 after a six-year break, The Tea Party has released a live set – recorded in Melbourne – and their eighth studio album The Ocean at the End, while continuing to return to Australia regularly. The band are now ensconced in their widest-ranging tour in many years following the late 2018 release of the stand-alone single “Black River” which has become their biggest Canadian hit in two decades.
“It’s been fun,” drummer and percussionist Jeff Burrows says. “Sometimes it’s flown by and sometimes when you’ve got three or four shows in a row it feels like a long tour, but then you catch your breath the day after and it’s fine. It’s been very cool. Radio has been over-the-top for us here, taking us to the Top Three for the first time in 15 years, which is just really strange for us but it’s really helped with the tour.”
A band that has always relied on touring to make their way, Burrows is pleased for the publicity the single is giving them in a world where radio airplay is so hard to come by.
“Having a single behind you that on-air personalities can talk about and say, ‘Oh by the way, they’ll be in town next week’, it just… I hate to talk about the business side of things but it makes the business end way easier, because you’re doing less interviews – not that I don’t mind doing interviews! – and the promoters are purchasing less ads… the word gets out so much easier. It’s hard for bands if you’re not even getting, say, Classic Rock radio station airplay, so it’s made things a whole lot easier on this tour in that sense.”
First appearing when the excesses of 70s and 80s rock had been made apparently redundant by the rise of grunge, The Tea Party’s style seemed at odds with the music being played at the time. Standing out from the rest of the 90s music scene, however, is probably exactly what drew people to them.
“Fortunately we didn’t fall into any of the trappings of the day depending upon which way popular music was swaying at the time,” Burrows says. “I suppose you could say Transmission took a little bit of what was going on currently, at that time, but we made it our own. So the way we approached the recording and the writing all the time was pretty genuine. We didn’t try to suck the radio programmer off. We were always, just let’s get shit done that we thought was great, the way we wanted to do it. We didn’t care about radio play.”
“We tried to play concerts that were focused on music, not gimmickry and tricks,” Chatwood suggests. “We wanted to design a band that we would want to come and see live. If you make things more specific and you’re more true and you’re more genuine, you’ll find your audience or your tribe eventually.”
Find their tribe they certainly did. Over twenty years later and The Tea Party still command a very loyal and disparate audience, and this tour will offer their fans the chance to see them in more intimate surroundings for the first time since the 1990s.
“It’s something different, if you really want to get out and see the band do what we can do up close and personal,” Burrows explains. “There’s a couple of shows on this current Canada run that are in much smaller towns and in significantly smaller venues than the average show, and it’s always fun because you’re scrambling to try to fit the gear onto the stage and hear them negotiating with Jeff to play through one amp instead of four! Put yourself in that position – it’s a different experience every time, and that’s wonderful.”
In recent years the Internet has spread the reach of the band’s music further than ever before. While Spotify remains problematic when it comes to the fair distribution of royalties to artists, with the barrier of traditional distribution methods lifted, it is allowing those artists to reach a far wider audience, and allowing audiences to discover artists they may have never encountered previously. Rather than complain, The Tea Party can only see benefits in apps like Spotify
“I think the fact that we never really made a lot of money from sales, it doesn’t really bother us that much,” Burrows declares. “If I was Lars in Metallica, maybe it would, but we’ve never really made a lot of money from album sales so it hasn’t affected anything!”
“Spotify’s helped us track some of that down,” Chatwood says with regard to the spread of their music worldwide. “We can see where a lot of the airplay’s coming from. I think our sixth biggest city is Istanbul, Turkey. It’s bigger than a lot of Canadian cities, bigger than a lot of Australian cities, and we’re just blown away by that. The band has never played there. We shot a video there, for ‘The Bazaar’ in 1995, but we’re hopefully looking forward to, for the 30th anniversary of the band, to get back to Europe and do six or seven shows there and maybe one day do a show in Istanbul.”
Western Asian sounds and Indian instrumentation has always played a role in The Tea Party’s music, so it’s not too far a stretch to suggest that Istanbul has a special place in the band’s heart. It was there they found one of the instruments they would go on to use on the follow-up to The Edges of Twilight.
“The saz is featured in our music, so we went into a music store in Istanbul and asked for the best saz,” Stuart Chatwood recalls. “He went into the back and said, ‘The best saz. Nothing better. Canadian wood!’” He laughs at the impossible irony. “That got used on ‘Temptation’ on the next record.”
The Tea Party’s interest in exotic, non-traditional instruments was sparked early, following Burrows’ use of a tabla on Splendor Solis. Inspired by Indian folk trios who, as Chatwood explains, feature “a harmonium player, a tanpura player and a sitar player or a sarod player”, the band decided to buy them all. The harmonium still features heavily in the band’s live performances, although at first it was difficult to make it work.
“We just wanted to explore that pathway,” he says. “The first [harmonium] we bought was from this great music store called The Music Inn. It has a chain across the front door and it’s a dollar to enter, because it’s really just a store of oddities. They had an old harmonium there from 1950 or something like that, and they brought it out and it sounded great. When we brought it home we realised it wasn’t tuned to concert pitch, so we all had to tune to the harmonium, which is a bit of a pain. Later, getting tired of tuning to the harmonium, we visited the Ali Akbar School of Music in San Francisco and we got a great harmonium from there that can be tuned and is concert scale so that’s the one I’ve been using for 24 years.”
It would have been easy for The Tea Party to make some concessions to current musical trends with their latest track, but ‘Black River’ is a roaring, dark heavy rock song closer in spirit to 2004’s ‘The Writing’s on the Wall’ or ‘Gyroscope’ from Transmission, and those who know them would expect no less. They may not be out to change the world or make it big anymore, as Jeff Burrows puts it, but they are still about staying true to themselves and the music they most enjoy creating.
“We’re looking for music that is close to its origins and not affected too much by the sound of the day,” says Chatwood. “Recording techniques have changed and some of our songs are shorter, otherwise we’d never get played on radio! But we kind of finished our exploration of genres after Transmission. We’ve done blues rock, we’ve done world music, we did a little bit of electronic. I guess we haven’t done our machine music album, or a record of silence…” He pauses for a moment with a wry chuckle. “A British folk record we could probably do. Then we could be touring celebrating our 50th anniversary sounding like John Renbourne or Bert Jansch!”