Interview with Jeff Martin (The Tea Party/The Armada)

By: Ben Hosking
Jeff Martin[Click here to listen to the audio version of this interview]

Jeff Martin (JM) spent 15 years fronting iconic Canadian rock group The Tea Party before leaving the country to escape the band’s ‘acrimonious’ split. While holed up in Ireland he embarked upon a successful solo career and met percussionist Wayne Sheehy – a chance meeting that later spawned The Armada, with multi-instrumentalist Jay Cortez.

Now an Australian resident, Jeff embarks upon a fresh tour of Australia in May, where he plans to road test some of his new material that will be recorded later this year. Ben Hosking from (LMM) caught up with the enigmatic musical gypsy to chat about his upcoming live Armada CD/DVD set, the tour, potential Tea Party reunions and his friendship with Jimmy Page.

LMM: You’re going into the studio after this tour and you’ve got a new live set coming out later this year. So what’s this tour in aid of?
JM: This tour basically is to try out some of the new material before I hit the studio. Because, first of all it’s something that I’ve never done. Even in the past with the Tea Party, we never played new material until it was committed to record. But I’m feeling very, very strongly about the material that’s forthcoming and there’s no better litmus test that the audience that I have here in this country. So, I’m going to put this new material against the stalwarts of the past. You know, the ‘Sisters Awake’ and ‘The Bazaar’ and all those. I want to see if they compare and in my heart of hearts, I believe they do.

LMM: You mentioned that you’ll be playing some of the Tea Party material as a two-piece on this tour.
JM: Yes, it’ll basically be two thirds of The Armada: myself and Jay Cortez. It’ll be quite a different show and it’s going to be very multi-instrumental, because you know is a jack of all trades when it comes to the instruments. For two guys on a stage, it’s going to be quite a big sound. It’ll be a very beautiful show.

LMM: What kind of instruments will you be bringing on the road?
JM: As far as Mr. Cortez is concerned, there’ll be a mandolin, a harmonium, lap steel… he’ll be playing bass as well. Then we have the pedal boards as well that do all the fancy, sci-fi effects trips, you know. It’s going to be a lot of sound – it’s like a two-man Pink Floyd.

LMM: With the whole reunion concept being so popular over the last several years, has there been a temptation to reform The Tea Party?

JM: Um, have I been tempted? Yeah, I’ve been tempted. But the problem right now is our schedules and things like that. Like, the drummer from the Tea Party, Jeff Burrows has a brand new band called Crash Karma and he’s gotta commit to that. He’s probably got a good year ahead of him for that. I’m very committed to the work that I’m doing with The Armada and other things. So, I mean, I can’t say for sure if it’ll ever happen, but I know that the three of us are interested in doing it again. But who can say?

LMM: So you’re still in contact with the guys?
JM: No, actually we haven’t spoken for five years. We’ve spoken through other people. It’s one of those things. I mean, the split of The Tea Party was very acrimonious, to say the least. So there’s still a lot of water that needs to pass under the bridge. But five or six years down the road… we’re all grown ups, so who knows. Maybe it can happen. We’ll see.

LMM: The Tea Party was around for about 15 years. What was your background before that?
JM: Basically, we all just came out of high school and started playing together. We were in different bands through high school. For instance, Jeff Burrows and I had our first band together when I was 10 years old and he was 11. So it goes back that far.

It’s just always been about music for me. I had a scholarship to the University of Windsor for performance classical guitar, but I think I lasted about a month. I said, ‘You know, screw this. I want to be a rock star’. (Laughs)

LMM: What was the scene like in your home town?
JM: Windsor was a very blue collar town on the border of Detroit. We (The Tea Party) were actually one of the first bands in Windsor that started doing original material. It was mixed in with some covers and things like that, but it garnered seeing; especially in that small little city. It became quite big quite soon and then it just spread out from there.

Once we started playing Toronto – which is basically the music capital of Canada – it didn’t take long for The Tea Party to get the attention of the record companies in Canada. So it’s kind of like, overnight for us. It happened very quickly.

LMM: Your lyrical content has always been pretty dark. What influences do you bring as a songwriter?
JM: I’m very influenced by a lot of the French symbolist poets, such as Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine… writers like that. Yeah, I agree that some of it’s dark, but there’s a lot of beauty in it as well. I hope, anyways.

As far as my personality is concerned, there’s definitely a dark side to my psychological make up that makes me thankful that I have music as an outlet. If I didn’t, maybe I’d be a dangerous person to be around.

LMM: You’ve cited Led Zeppelin as a major influence in the past.
JM: The whole thing about Zeppelin was that when I was around 17 years old, that’s when I really started getting into them. And the thing was that what I used from Zeppelin was to use that blueprint. You know, the power of that band was something that I wanted the Tea Party to be able to express. But the one thing that fascinated me most about Zeppelin was when they would experiment the Eastern modes, like in ‘Kashmir’ or ‘Dancing Days’. It was that side of Zeppelin that I wanted to grab and take further.

I think that’s what The Tea Party accomplished with their records like ‘The Edges of Twilight’.

LMM: I’ve read that you’re lucky enough to call Jimmy Page a friend. Has there ever been talk of collaboration?
JM: There have been moments in the past, but the man is very busy and he’s the keeper of the flame as far as the Zeppelin legacy is concerned. I just have all the respect in the world for him and he knows perfectly well that if he ever needed anything from me, it’s just a ‘phone call away.

LMM: You haven’t been tempted to try and fly him over here for one of your own records?
JM: (Laughs) See, the thing about Jimmy now is that he’s a big family man. So he’s a busy boy.

LMM: Your son is named after one of the greatest jazz guitarists, Django Reinhardt. Are we going to be treated to something more jazz influenced from you in the future?
JM: Ahhh you know, I might. Maybe in about 10 year’s time I might start moonlighting; playing some gypsy jazz guitar. I don’t know.

For my son, you know, the spirits that are vested in that boy… Django in Romany Gypsy language means ‘I awake’ and that boy is certainly awake. He’s a very, very big soul.

LMM: You recently became an Australian resident? What drew you to Australia as a place to live?
JM: First of all my wife is a Perth girl. I met her about 15 years ago. Also, with my son being born here five years ago was a… you know, the gypsy lifestyle that I led up until about last year needed to come to an end for my family’s sake. With Django going to school and whatnot, I wanted him to be around his family, which he has a lot of here in Perth. And even though my life is still comprised mostly of touring around the world, at least I know that there’s a strong family unit here for him, which is very important.

LMM: You’ve often said that Australia has been a good supporter of your music.
JM: Yeah, it’s massive. The love affair started right from the beginning of the Tea Party and it hasn’t ceased to grow exponentially. It’s been a wonderful experience and I have all the respect in the world for the Australian audience that I have here.

LMM: Can you tell us about the new live CD/DVD set that you have coming out later this year?
JM: Yeah. Well, we captured a pretty magical night in Sydney on the last Armada tour and that tour was very challenging. Because with all the instruments and all the influences that came with it, rearranging all the music of the past, present and possibly the future was quite an endeavour. It was pretty amazing that on that particular night we managed to pull it off without a hitch. So yeah, it’s a fantastic testament of a time and a great musical statement and I think it’s going to be a wonderful thing for all of the fans.

LMM: Your recent career has been well documented through live performance recordings. Is there something about live albums that you prefer?
JM: It’s those moments, those magical moments of passion from a performance that are sometimes hard to capture in a studio recording. But in front of an audience, the symbiosis that happens – that synchronicity – is something that I love and I want to capture as much as I can.

LMM: You’re doing a lot of producing work with other bands now.
JM: Yeah, I just produced a band from Melbourne called The Eternal, which I’m very proud of. They’re a great hard rock trio. Imagine Transmission-era Tea Party with the rhythm section of Zeppelin and all the electronics of Nine Inch Nails and that’s kind of what The Eternal sounds like. It’s a great record.

Tomorrow Scott Stapp from Creed is flying into Perth and I’m going to be some writing with him for his solo record.

LMM: How much of your time is taken up with producing bands these days?
JM: It’s getting to be a good third of my year, which is a great thing and something that I really enjoy. With all the experience that I’ve had with producing all those Tea Party records and all the studios I’ve worked in around the world, I can really bring something to the table for musicians. Not only as a producer, but I’m also an engineer. So, there’s a sound that, if people are wanting to hire my services, they’re getting a sound as well. I think it’s a sound that a lot of rock bands try to get, but can’t quite get there. There are a few secrets that I know, especially from Mr. Page. So there you go (laughs).

LMM: Have you begun writing material for the new album?
JM: Absolutely. I’ve got six great songs – by my standards – for the next record. But whether it’s going to be a Jeff Martin solo record or an Armada record remains to be seen. But what I’m doing for the first time on this tour that I’ve never done in the past – even in the Tea Party days – is play material before it was committed to record first.

What I want to try this time is to see if these new songs stand up to the old stalwarts of the past. In my heart of hearts I believe that they will.

LMM: Are there any hints as to the direction they’re taking, musically?
JM: They’re an evolution of the sound heard in tracks like ‘Sister Awake’ and ‘The Bazaar’ – very world music driven. Especially from my recent travels to places like Turkey and Greece; I’ve come back with a lot of ideas. Things are moving forward.

Jeff Martin (The Tea Party/The Armada) – “The Ground Cries Out” Australian National Tour April/May 2010

Listen to the Audio interview:
Interview: Jeff Martin Talks With LifeMusicMedia’s Ben Hosking by LifeMusicMedia