Noel Mengel for Herald Sun
AS A musician, Jeff Martin found what he was looking for when he formed The Tea Party in Windsor, Ontario.
Sitting in a Brisbane restaurant, he says it’s happened again, this time in Perth, Western Australia. He’s talking about Jeff Martin 777, his new band with bass player J. Cortez, once of The Sleepy Jackson, and drummer and recording engineer Malcolm Clark.
Martin calls Australia home these days and divides his time between the New South Wales north coast and Perth.
He’s excited about the new studio Clark runs in Perth and the sound it helped them capture on the new enterprise’s debut album, The Ground Cries Out. He’s excited, too, that after making music for 20 years his bandmates are teaching him new approaches.
“I’ve had the time to separate myself from the record and now I can go back and listen to it like a fan,” Martin says. “I love the space that’s there.
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“Guilty as charged: With The Tea Party, if there was space left in the songs, I would fill it. The cool thing that Malcolm and J have brought as bandmates is the confidence and understanding of letting it breathe. The record has a lineage to what I’ve done in the past, but it feels fresh because of that.”
Martin’s fans will find he’s still attracted to music from other cultures – see the Middle Eastern strings of the title tune and the suitably Asian-sounding instrumental The Mekong – and finding ways to weave that into his passion for big rock sounds.
“My stepfather was a massive blues fan. I picked up the guitar when I was seven and when all the other kids were listening to Ozzy Osbourne, I was learning How Blue Can You Get? by B.B. King. You can tell a rock musician who has never played a blue note in their life, there’s no soul, no sex,” Martin says.
Next step in his musical journey, aged 11, was hearing George Harrison play the sitar. That alerted him to a new world of sound, and to other cultures.
“Then I had an affinity for the power of rock ‘n’ roll, the schematic I heard in bands like Led Zeppelin and Cream. Put those things together and you get Jeff Martin,” he says.
Rock ‘n’ roll was his passport to the wider world.
“When I got my first producer’s royalty cheque, I went travelling and took it all in. The Tea Party did make a serious amount of money. The other boys invested in property and stocks. I spent it all travelling the world. I believed that if I was going to use these influences in my music then I had to live it and breathe it and bleed it.
“I can’t use those things as a gimmick. I have to know them inside out.”
So you can’t play the blues if you haven’t lived the blues?
“Your heart has to have been torn out of your chest and stomped on by the most beautiful woman in the world again and again to play the blues. I’ve had my share of hurt.
“A lot of people in rock music have explored the dark side and I certainly have. I’m not afraid to dance with the devil. Actually, I prefer a waltz.”
Martin’s attraction to exotic music is mirrored in his attraction to esoteric philosophies. Lately he’s been exploring Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. The Ground Cries Out takes its name from a poem by Sufi poet, Rumi.
“I have a hard time with religion because religion puts parameters on a person’s spirituality. But in Sufism there are no parameters; it’s all about tolerance,” he says.
No one breaks up a band as successful as The Tea Party without some soul searching, but the writing was on the wall when their long-time manager, Steve Hoffman, died from cancer in 2003.
“I was always the captain of that ship. When Steve passed away … I couldn’t hold on to being the captain of that ship anymore. Instead of seeing the legacy of the band start to dissipate I decided, let’s leave it intact and walk away.
“In 777 the three of us have become the best of friends. That’s the same dynamic from the best part of The Tea Party. What made that band special was the friendship we had at one time and I’ve got that again with these two guys.”
But Martin agrees that his personality is that of the seeker: “Oh yeah. I don’t want to find the answers. I want to keep asking the questions, that’s the beauty of it.”
HEAR The Ground Cries Out (MGM Distribution) out now.