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Interview: Jeff Martin

Returning From The Ocean At The End Interview by Adam De Ville The Tea Party has been a driving force in blues and middle-eastern inspired rock through the 90’s, and well into the new millennium. Having returned from a hiatus which saw the band acrimoniously part ways for several long years, the Tea Party is now back with one of their strongest releases to date, The Ocean At The End. Urgent and rhythmic, the album has been almost universally praised for both its depth and complexity. Collide spoke to enigmatic frontman, Jeff Martin, just days before the band crossed the Pacific to perform some of their most critically acclaimed gigs to date. You’ve just completed your first tour of the new album. How do you feel it went? Well, judging by the embarrassingly over-the-top reviews we’ve received, it was quite a success. The band still surprises me... it seems it just keeps getting better. I’m very happy with the reaction we’ve received from audiences, and with how easily tracks like 'The L.O.C'., 'The Ocean At The End' and 'The Black Sea' fit into the set. It’s a very symbiotic thing, even with the classics.

Was it difficult putting the setlists together on this tour? Yeah, very difficult - but that’s a first world problem isn’t it? (laughs). Most bands should be so lucky; to have a catalogue like we do and be able to go back and choose. Of course, there are songs like ‘Sister Awake’ and ‘Temptation’ - if we didn’t play those we would have a riot on our hands. But yeah, with the Canadian tour, what I’m looking forward to most is getting back with the boys and rehearsing songs like ‘The 11th Hour’ and ‘Black Roses’, and putting those into the sets. Just changing it up night after night, you know.

That would be cool, any chance you might put 'Submission' in there?

It’s definitely got my vote - there would be a lot for Stuart to do though. He’d be doing the octopus thing again, like he does in 'Temptation'. What I’m thinking of and what I’m working on in my head right now is an amalgamation of 'Submission' and 'Temptation'.

How did the creation of The Ocean at the End vary from Seven Circles - was it a more enjoyable experience this time around? Definitely more enjoyable. There’s a new focus that has really come into my life. For a while there, I turned my back on by philosophical beliefs and my art suffered because of it. But now I’ll never turn my back on them again. I don’t think I’ve ever been this focused. How do you feel looking back on Seven Circles now? To be honest, I don’t listen to it. There are some good songs on there, but there are also a lot of negative memories. Can you tell me about working with Alessandro Bavari again for the artwork for this album? Was it similar to the process for The Interzone Mantras? Yes and no; the thing about this one was that, what he wanted was basically images and symbols that mean something to the three individuals in the band. Robert Burrati, my business manager and art curator, was a big help in getting the images and ideas to Allesandro so he could put it all together. It’s a very different piece of art for the The Tea Party compared to other albums.

Were there any songs that didn’t make the album that we might see released sometime? There are definitely a lot of riffs that, sooner or later, Jeff (Burrows) and I are going to take into the studio to do our Jimmy Page and John Bonham thing with. Some of the tracks on this album, ‘Submission’ in particular, venture much further into electronic territory than we’re accustomed to hearing The Tea Party go. Was that a conscious effort? Jeff and Stuart actually made a valiant effort to steer me away from using too many keyboards on this album. They eventually just said, “Dude, you’re one of the best guitar players around, start playing guitar again!” (laughs). It took a bit of encouragement but once I really started embracing the guitar again, especially with the title track, I was reminded why I do this.

Speaking of the title track, the solo in 'The Ocean At The End' is amazing - up there with ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and Funkadelic’s ‘Maggot Brain’. How do you approach a solo piece like that? See, the thing with guitar solos is that you can’t think about them too much. You have to prepare yourself: you know there’s a direction you want to go in, and you know where the finish line is, but it’s how you get there that’s important. That’s how the esoteric comes into play.

As a guitarist I’m not very technical. When it comes to solos, it’s pure emotion for me. I suppose it’s like playing very, very dark blues. I don’t overthink it and I leave the mistakes in, because mistakes are just nuances right? (laughs). It has to be human. The only part of my guitar playing that would be technical would be things like tuning. For that solo I focused on anger, disillusionment and sadness and I think those things come across. Back in the 90’s The Tea Party opened for Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, what was it like meeting them for the first time? It was just like staring at a mountain! I didn’t say much, it was mostly Jimmy doing all the talking. I just remember one of the biggest black men I’ve ever seen in my life coming up to me and saying “Mr Page wants to see you”, and I immediately thought “Oh fuck, here it comes - I’m gonna get in trouble for playing the violin bow before he went on stage!”.

But he just came bouncing out of his dressing room and said “Hey, you guys are great, you remind me so much of Zeppelin in our younger days!”. Then he starts asking me how I play the violin bow on the Les Paul because he could never get the high strings to work. It all seemed so surreal. He was a true gentleman and we really hit it off, like the sorcerer and the apprentice.

It’s coming up to the 20th anniversary of the release of The Edges of Twilight. How do you feel about playing tracks from the early albums all these years later? Well they certainly don’t lose any of their lustre, that’s for sure. I’m very proud of that. To be honest, I still find it hard to believe that 20 years have passed. I definitely don’t feel my age. I’m 45 but I still feel like I’m 28 years old, and often act like it (laughs).

Would you be interested in re-releasing any of the albums in expanded editions one day? Or is that process too difficult to navigate, with label involvement etc? Well, the only difficulty would be finding the material - because EMI has now amalgamated with Universal. The master tapes have to exist somewhere, but finding them is like following bread crumbs that lead to a dead end. It’s going to have to be approached sooner or later, but I’m not in a retrospective mood right now.

I need to keep pushing forward - pushing the envelope for The Tea Party, pushing myself as a solo artist too. There’s The Black Diamond Express with Sarah McLeod and Mick Skelton. And there’s my duties as the minstrel of the O.T.O. I’m composing the music for the Gnostic Mass at the moment. There’s just a lot on my plate right now, but hopefully in the future I might go back into the older Tea Party works.

I read somewhere recently that there are some songs in The Tea Party’s catalogue that are really technically challenging for you to perform live as a vocalist. Which ones are they? Songs like 'Alarum' and 'Gyroscope' are quite technical when it comes to my voice. I did some old tricks while recording the chorus of 'Alarum' - I slowed down the tape machine so my voice could get to where it needed to. It was before pitch shifters... doing the whole Zeppelin trick, slowing everything down. But obviously you can’t do that live.

Do you still keep in touch with Roy Harper? I haven’t spoken to Roy in a few years now - I’ve been thinking about reaching out though. I know he’s been going through some tough times. After I left Ireland we lost contact. It’s both of our faults, but I'm sure we’ll get back there. I wanted to clear up a long running rumour. Is it true you were meant to, or talked about, working on something with Trent Reznor back around 2000? Yes, there were definitely talks. It didn’t go anywhere at the time, but you never know what might happen in the future. The subject of home has been revisited a lot through The Tea Party’s lyrics and in your solo work over the years. How do you define home for yourself? Home is where love is. Love, and my harp guitar (laughs). I’m staring at my harp now. I’ve got my little boy sitting on the floor playing Lego in front of me, the love of my life on her computer doing her work and I’m in a hundred year old gallery with about a million dollars worth of art on the walls. I’m home right now. Any chance you’ll write an autobiography one day? Maybe. But like I said, I'm not feeling very retrospective right now. It would probably better to write that book once I was gone.

The Tea Party's new album The Ocean At The End is out now.

Jeff Martin sets out on his ‘Returning From The Ocean At The End’ solo tour of Australia this March.

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