(Editor’s note: None of us went to the Columbia School of Journalism, so we feel compelled to keep you in the loop on how we modified the following interview; maybe this stuff is common practice in “newspapers” and the like, we’re not sure. We eliminated, to a large degree, vocal tics from both the interviewer and interviewee. Things like “you know” and “like” seemed to clog the reading and didn’t really add anything to the text. If this were a qualitative bit of research for somebody’s dissertation, we’d have left them in, but it’s not. We also eliminated a few clarifications of questions. Again, they didn’t add anything. Lastly, for clarity, we moved one section of the interview to another spot. It doesn’t affect the meaning at all and made everything much cleaner to read. If we broke any major ethical rules here, let us know and we’ll work to amend our practice.)
We had a chance to talk with Billy Martin, drummer extraordinaire from our favorite forward thinking, improvisational jazz trio, Medeski Martin and Wood about their upcoming box set, the role of the musician in the world and the nature of music and audience. Billy’s a sharp dude and his insight on these and other topics is a treat. My favorite bon mot: “We’re part of this musical subculture that is into all music. We’re into all genres. Really it’s folk music, you know, it’s for the folks. For everybody. The people’s music.” Right on.
Citizen Dick: The idea that a lot of bands record and then tour on that material and then repeat that whole thing, you’re trying to break out of that with Radiolarians, right?
Billy Martin: Yeah. I mean really what it is another way for us to keep things fresh, to keep things…to keep the music fresh and to create more material. When it starts getting played out, it’s not a good thing. So, it also is a perfect way to write a lot more music, keep us writing, keep us fresh and also it’s untraditional in the sense that we’re not, you know, recording a record and then touring on all the music and playing it out for a year. And it’s seasonal, too. It originally was kind of a seasonal idea.
CD: Do you find that the product, the record that you end up with, is it fundamentally different than what you would have gotten if you’d done it another way?
BM: Yeah. Sure it would have been different if we had done it another way. I mean every time we get in the studio or work on music it’s different depending on the approach we take. But it’s a subtle difference. I think that John and Chris and I, we have a certain chemistry that is just always there, subconscious, not perfect sometimes. At other times its just like everything is really coming out strong. So that part, the chemistry doesn’t change as much, it’s just how we go about working with the chemistry.
CD: “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” is a really strong track from the new record. Who’s playing that fuzzed out slide on that track?
BM: That’s Chris. That’s Chris on the bass playing the melody with the slide.
CD: It’s such a cool sound.
BM: Yeah I love that. I think he’s playing his Hofner, that old Paul McCartney bass. I love the sound of that thing. Chris has got a great slide bass sound; I love it. I always ask him to pull that out, use that.
CD: That’s one of the bummers for us. We get so much stuff digitally that I can never go through the liner notes. It drives me crazy.
BM: Yeah I know. That sucks. With the box set, you’re going to get all kinds of stuff that’s going to come on cards and you’re going to see all the credits and everything, in the old traditional way.
CD: That’s out before Christmas, right?
BM: Right around Thanksgiving actually. That’s traditional. I don’t think we’ve ever done anything traditional as far as release, but this one is our, “okay, this is your big Thanksgiving/Christmas present.”
CD: Will that be just on CD or will it be on vinyl as well?
BM: It’s everything. It’s going to be five CDs, one DVD, two vinyls. And the vinyl’s going to be 180 gram, audiophile stuff. The DVD is the first inside the band, making the music and touring thing we’ve done. It’s pretty cool. It’s kind of an experimental documentary. It’s ninety minutes and we did it ourselves, so it looks cool. It’s called Fly on the Bottle, which is really kind of like a fly on the wall, because there was actually a fly in a bottle that we found in our studio. It’s like you are with us, in a very intimate setting, in the studio recording Radiolarians, doing takes, rehearsing, traveling to Brazil, Argentina, Northern California. There are quite a few tunes where we start recording them and then all of the sudden it cuts into the 16 mm footage I shot of us and it kind of takes you into a whole other world, taking you into and out of these portals back in time, forward in time. It doesn’t make chronological sense necessarily, but it’s like you’re really experiencing the Radiolarians music as we record it, tour it and fantasize about it. What’s great is towards the end there’s really great footage of John playing these amazing solos that ended up on the record and I just happened to give the camera to a friend while we were doing the take. So you’ve got John playing these insane clavinet, organ solos, like the ultimate ones in some of these songs from Radiolarians III. It’s really up-close, watching his fingers and capturing the take. Pretty magical in that sense.
CD: It sounds like a unique thing, to be that close to the process.
BM: No one’s done it. We haven’t allowed anybody to do it, because it’s just another extra thing that we can’t think about. But since I had the camera it was easier. After a while, everybody was used to it. There’s some bonus music videos on it as well. I’m excited about it because I’m into film and music videos a lot now. Music video director for hire. (Laughs)
CD: Will the DVD be just part of the box set or will that be available separately as well?
BM: Only in the box set. Maybe someday it’ll be re-released or it ends up in the theaters in year or two as a different movie, but right now you can’t get it anywhere but in the box set.
CD: To shift a bit to the live stuff, you guys always do great covers, like the Hendrix stuff and “Buster Rides Again.” Do those kind of choices come organically from the jazz culture or is that something that you really trouble over in terms of what you’re going to play that isn’t yours?
BM: Being somewhat part of the jazz world, it’s what you do. You reinterpret music. It’s kind of like part of being a musician in that world. Which everybody does who is a real musician. You’re reinterpreting other people’s music, you’re checking it out. For jazz musicians it’s more common because there’s all these standards that are set up where you reinterpret those standards. But our way of doing things is to take some standards, which like “Buster Rides” is almost like a standard, but taking something else, like “Lively Up Yourself” or even “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” is actually an old gospel sort of folk tune and, what we do naturally is say, “this is such a cool thing, let’s try to reinterpret it our way.” We love to do that. But we don’t like to overdo it. But I think we should do that soon, do a record where we do all covers, but where it’s like obviously all interesting choices. Every once in a while we do it, because it naturally comes; someone brings a tune to the table and we re-do it.
CD: One of the cool things with that, given that your audience is (at least in my mind) kind of diverse, is that doing a song from the jazz canon might expose your audience to some stuff that they might not otherwise listen to. Do you ever see that as one of your roles, to broaden peoples’ musical perspectives?
BM: We don’t really focus on what our role is as far as that. I think that we’re responsible only in the sense that we want to make good music. We want to take people on a journey and maybe take a little credit for it. But, other than that, we do what we love to do and some people like it and that’s great. I don’t see it as our job to inspire young kids or to introduce certain things. We just go by what we love. But, we also like to educate people to, through things like Camp MMW and all that stuff. We bring that in; it’s just part of our language. But it’s not something that when we make a record, we say “Oh. Let’s introduce this to the kids.” It just happens that way. That’s a natural way of music and culture. We’re part of this musical subculture that is into all music. We’re into all genres. Really it’s folk music, you know, it’s for the folks. For everybody. The people’s music. We want to share all that with different parts of the musical community. I think that then people go, “Whoa, I didn’t know that song existed” or “Wow. I’ve never checked out Duke Ellington or King Sunny Ade.”
CD: A bunch of years ago I saw you at the now Cleveland Odeon (which unfortunately no longer exists) and I remember you throwing a tambourine on your snare during an extended solo. That’s always stuck with me as something that represents the band’s intrepid spirit. You guys go in directions that are interesting and new. You talked about this a little bit with the Radiolarians project, but how do you keep that up? How do you keep things fresh?
BM: Well, you have to be in the moment and when you’re sort of fed up with the same old shit, which for us is often, I just force myself to take a left turn. We’re very sensitive to doing the same thing over again; we’re not like these performers where we use the same tricks every time; we’ don’t like things to get old. Sometimes I fall on my face and sometimes it works. It’s taking risks and the spirit of being in the moment and ready to just sort of improvise and jump into a whole new situation and not know what’s going to happen. The audience picks up on that too. If it’s new to me, and I’m making the music (laughs). Some people will say ”Did you rehearse that?” And you’re like, “I never did that before.” Like throwing a tambourine down on a snare, that’s something I don’t even remember doing, but other things that I do with the tambourine I do, like it’s a little more of a pattern. But every once in a while, I’ll do that, I’ll throw something down and I’ll start hitting it on the drums; I like the whole pots and pans effect and I like using a snare upside down or that kind of idea.
CD: There’s a song Combustication, the title of which isn’t in my notes and that, of course, escapes me now, but it was cool to see the song live because you kind of run your finger along the inside edge of the tambourine making a sound made total sense to me when I went back to the record. It was nice to have that interplay of the live act with the recorded material. Do you think that either of them can exist without the other? For you, to what degree does the live stuff inform the recorded stuff and, maybe tougher, how does the audiences’ understanding shift when they see it live?
BM: Let me just backtrack to the tune. That tune was “Coconut Boogaloo” and the tambourine is a Brazilian tambourine called a pandero and it’s traditionally played a lot of different ways. One of the things is sort of running your finger across it and making it buzz like that. It’s part of the language. There are certain things about the composition, what makes it “Coconut Boogaloo” that are there, but it’s never in the same place. It happens. When one part comes in, you know that’s that part, when another part of the song comes in, you know that’s a different part of the song and then altogether it makes it the song, but the performance is always changing that. We’re rearranging it all the time. It’s like the through the performance, we breathe new life into it. Sometimes we’ll play half of the song and then leave it and go somewhere else and maybe never come back. Other times maybe we’ll play the song and it’ll be a really extended version. Or maybe we’ll play one section really long or maybe we’ll go through it really quickly. There’s so many variations of what makes it the song, how you identify it. It could be a bass line, it could be the drumbeat, you know. Obviously the melody everybody knows, but our melodies are very evasive sometimes. It’s not about the melody, it’s about the melody of the drums or the combination of the bass with the piano. Those things depend on the song. It’s our little hooky kind of thing that makes it recognizable as “Coconut Boogaloo.”
CD: A band called Megafaun was in town recently, have you heard them?
BM: No I haven’t, but I like the name.
CD: They do a kind of experimental folk thing, but have roots in the more academic, experimental music community. They cited you guys as an influence in that when they work in an improvisational mode, they’re reaching at some of the same things you guys are. Do you ever do purely improvisational sets? How does that turn out?
BM: First of all, those guys can go to hell now. (Laughs) I’m just kidding. I love that we’re inspiring people, especially when it comes to experimental music. That’s really, for me…my spirit is all about experimenting. If I could just experiment and improvise 24 hours a day, I would be happy. Occasionally, I lie to re-do a song and play it again, but it’s also hard work to improvise and come up with new music. We’ve had tours where we’ve done that, like on the west coast maybe five years ago. For the whole coast, the whole week and a half or whatever, we did every night, every set was completely improvised; there was nothing in there. And then when we played the encore, if they called us out again, we would do one song from our repertoire. Those sets, for me, where my favorite. I mean because I would say a majority of our music, for sure 90 percent of our music, comes out of improvising and it just happens that way, whether it’s recording improvisation and going “That’s it, we don’t need to re-do it, that’s it. It’s done.” And other times improvising and going, “Oh let’s shorten this section. I really like this part. Let’s make that work.” When you do it live, there’s a lot of pressure because you’re in front of an audience and you’ve always got to be on your toes and you want to be good. You have to be kind of audacious too. You just have to step out and be crazy enough to do something different. That’s the best for me. I love experimenting. That’s the root of being an artist.
CD: Maybe a hack one to close on? If you could play cards with any three other drummers ever, who would they be?
BM: Elvin Jones. It’s funny, they’re just coming right into my head. Danny Richmond who played with Mingus. And. Nana Vasconcelos, who’s actually a Brazilian percussionist who also plays drums sometimes.
CD: Those are good ones.
BM: You got to take all the pictures and put them together and you’re gonna laugh.
Big thanks to Billy Martin for taking the time to chat with us. We don’t have a release date or pre-order link on the boxset (or the price for that matter), but it is going to be a doozy. Billy alluded to the contents, but to clarify a touch, you’ll get two LPs of highlight material, all three CDs with bonus tracks, a remix CD, a live CD and that documentary on DVD. That is a lot of stuff. We’ll let you know more as soon as we know it. In the meantime, we’ve got a couple of killer live cuts and a track from Radiolarians III. (In “No Ke Ano Ahiahi,” you get the PA announcer asking everybody to leave the building quietly, which is nice.)