Jeff Martin: The Erudite Rock Star

Jeff Martin performing on his current Canadian tour with 777. Photo courtesy Rocky View Weekly.

As guitarist, songwriter and producer for Canadian rock band The Tea Party, Jeff Martin hardly needs an introduction. As with Led Zeppelin, one of Martin’s primal influences, The Tea Party seemed to spring fully formed from the head of Zeus. The band’s seminal albums, Splendor Solis, The Edges of Twilight, Alhambra and Transmission have become classics in the progressive/hard rock canon. Triptych overall provided a mellower, more refined sound but after that the band seemed to lose itself in a power-rock wash of aimless sound. Sad as it was to lose The Tea Party, Martin’s decision to disband it in 2005 was right.

Although the Zeppelin comparisons with Martin’s work may seem threadbare by now, his current live show quotes openly from the Page/Plant catalogue. If anything, his early songwriting skills displayed even more self-assurance than Zeppelin’s first three albums, which relied heavily on blues covers or original blues numbers. It wasn’t until the flawless Led Zeppelin IV that the legendary band made their sound fully their own, indispensable as the first three records are. As will be seen in the following interview, Martin himself admits to having more in common with Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti. And no wonder—whether on Martin’s new album The Ground Cries Out or The Edges of Twilight, the songs strike out in many directions yet manage to create a seamlessly integrated sound.

The results are stunning. Martin is one of those rare rock musicians gifted with an almost classical understanding of how to build the dynamics of a song. From controlled fury or creeping melancholy to sweet melodic uplifts and back again to bone-crunching crescendos, his songs redefine the term majestic. And with The Ground Cries Out Martin is riding a new powerhouse in the band 777. His Aussie mates J Cortez and Malcolm Clark on bass and drums respectively are easily equal to the task—these are three very gifted men. Together they have equaled if not surpassed the glory days of The Tea Party—no small order.

On the new record Clark establishes himself firmly in virtuoso territory, embroidering Martin’s soaring, careening songs with inventive, original percussion lines. On the current Canadian tour this Aussie powerhouse kicks out the jams with a skill and power seldom seen since John ‘Bonzo’ Bonham himself. And then we have Mr. J Cortez—a lanky-framed Oz-man with a leonine mane whose bass lines are beautifully crisp yet never staccato. This is one bass player whose work isn’t buried in the mix, thankfully. On The Ground Cries Out Cortez earns his virtuoso credentials by adding keyboards, Cambodian tro, santoor, slide guitar, mandolin and dobro to the musical palette. And Martin’s ability to incorporate alluring Middle Eastern musical mantras has only become more subtle and sophisticated.

Jeff Martin is that rarest of birds in rock music—an erudite musician who reads widely. His songs are studded with references to literature, poetry and esoteric philosophy. A long-time student of occult and Hermetic philosophies, Martin aptly titled his new band 777. Although I can’t claim an in-depth knowledge of numerology, the number ‘7’ often represents the intuitive, mystical side of human nature and in Kabbalistic tradition relates to heavenly perfection. Tripling any number triples its power. With a powerhouse new band, a fine new album and a tour reconnecting with Martin’s Canadian roots, he has certainly tripled his power. The results for his fans are nothing short of sublime.

Joyce: I have seven questions for you. (Jeff chuckles) We have something in common—we both love Roy Harper.

Jeff Martin: Oh right, yes, yes.

Joyce: And when I saw you had Roy Harper on Alhambra and The Edges of Twilight, I was just so stoked, because for a long time I’d been telling people about Roy Harper and they’d say, ‘Who the hell is Roy Harper?’ So, if you don’t mind going back a bit, how did you get connected with Roy?

Martin: He was handled by the same agents that were handling us at the beginning of The Tea Party. And you know, I’d only heard stories—those mythological Zeppelin stories about Roy Harper—but that was when I was a teenager. I got to know his music, and then, you know to meet the man and become great friends and collaborators… He’s very much an inspiration to me; the man bleeds integrity. And that’s what I respect the most in music. Just a lovely, lovely man. We’ve done some pretty good work together. One of the favourite things I’ve done is, I kind of produced his record The Green Man, played a lot on that, so that was cool.

Joyce: You think you’ll work together again?

Martin: I don’t know. I mean, Roy’s kind of slowing down now, you know? He’s not well, so touring for him is not really an option anymore. I think he’s just gonna kind of start writing, write books and that. (My note: currently Roy has been making  a series of guest appearances with British songwriter Joanna Newsom but only does one or two complete concerts on his own each year in the UK.)

Joyce: Another question I had was about your interest in Middle Eastern mythology. I’ve had a longstanding interest in that subject, so when I saw you had these references to Inanna in your work I was really curious about what brought that on for you.

Martin: It was just an interest from a young age. I don’t know if you believe in transmigration of souls. But there’s gotta be something going on when a 12-year-old kid growing up in Windsor, Ontario hears Middle Eastern music because there’s an area of Detroit with an Arab community, and I remember it ALL, you know what I mean? And it’s kind of uncanny, the way I’m able to weave Middle Eastern melodies into rock music in such a way. I mean, I know it’s been done in the past, but I don’t think anyone’s taken it as far as I have, with The Tea Party or what I’m doing now with the band.

Joyce: I think Alhambra was where that really reached a peak of artistic accomplishment.

Martin: Yeah, that was a good one. But I just find I’ve gotten better at it in such a way that I’m not so blatant with it anymore. It’s just a part and parcel of it all, so those melodies are in The Ground Cries Out. You’ve heard the new record, have you?

Joyce: I’ve heard songs from it. I’m getting it tonight. I guess—again, not to go too much into the past there, but did you find that the ironic success of The Tea Party created a situation where you couldn’t really do what you wanted to do? Was there pressure from the record company?

Martin: Yeah. Jeff and Stuart really wanted to break the American market, and to a certain extent conform in order to do that. And that’s just not something I stand for. It was just a case of, we made these incredible musical statements and now we’re just going to dilute it, try to dumb it down. I had to walk away before that happened—keep the legacy intact.

Joyce: I totally respect you for that. Again, you’re in good company with people like Roy. His fights with EMI are legendary. And getting onto the new album—incidentally you were talking about transcendentalism or reincarnation. Are you consciously aware of the numerology significance too, is that why you chose 777?

Martin: Yes, I’ve been a student of occult philosophy probably since I was 18 years old, when I was seriously starting to understand it. It’s been a lifelong study, pursuit. A lot of the teachings or philosophies of Aleister Crowley have played a part in my life. And as you know, if you’re familiar with Crowley, people have misinterpreted the man so many times. I mean, these idiot heavy metal musicians—‘This is the beast,’ and all that stuff. And it’s just the furthest thing away, you know? So I’m more interested in the Western Kabbala ideas that he had. And I tend to live my life by a few of his maxims—‘Do what thou wilt.’

Joyce: So is that tied into your interest in Albert Camus—your first solo album being titled Exile and the Kingdom, which of course is based on one of his books—?

Martin: Well it’s all part and parcel. It’s a beautiful web, you know? ’Cause once you start studying stuff like Crowley or Blavatsky, you learn about the Theosophical Society, then you learn there’s a correlation to the Symbolist poets Baudelaire and Rimbaud, the world just keeps opening up and up and up, but everything’s connected—all of it—Albert Camus, The Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire, and all the rest of it.

Joyce: And also this idea that apparently with Camus, his idea of the philosophical man being someone who obviously gets that there’s a certain amount of futility to existence but at the same time makes the moral decision to BE moral despite that. Rather than going with the Nietzchean approach, which is to say, ‘To hell with that, if that’s how it is I’m just going to exploit, exploit.’ So is that sort of an idea that’s relevant to you?

Martin: Well yeah, it is relevant. Love is the law.

Joyce: I’m noticing the shift—from the songs that I have heard from the two solo albums—into more of an acoustic direction. I’ve been looking at some of your performances online and they were mostly acoustic.

Martin: That was just ’cause I didn’t have my boys with me. When you see the show tonight, it’s probably more powerful than what the Tea Party was. It’s a full-on rock ‘n’ roll experience. There’s a good helping of swampy blues Americana on this record but certainly the trademark is there with songs like The Ground Cries Out and The Cobra. It’s just a really well-balanced record. It can keep the listener interested from top to tail because it’s a musical journey that’s going lots of different places. The problem with a lot of rock music these days is it’s very linear, you know? I always appreciated—like my favourite Zeppelin record would be Physical Graffiti or Houses of the Holy, where it’s just all over the map but you can tell it’s the same band.

Joyce: I am picking up definitely more blues influences, songs like Riverboat Rambler and some of the other new ones. Especially—as it turns out—because I saw the ones online of just you playing. So is that conscious, or—?

Martin: It’s gotta be what comes. I think if you premeditate anything in rock ‘n’ roll people will be able to smell it a mile away. This record is just like three very rare good friends coming together and the musicianship is top notch, you know? And as far as rock ‘n’ roll is concerned there’s a lot of fun on this record. That was really important to me too, to feel that joy again. Mal and J have certainly brought that to the table.

Joyce: If you’re playing your music collection on the road, are there any blues guys that you come back to a lot?

Martin: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Definitely Blind Willie Johnson, Memphis Minnie, you know. Son House—definitely a lot of Son House. Leadbelly as well—12-string blues. Yeah, things like that.

Joyce: Which is kind of cool because for awhile there—I think in the ’90s especially—rock bands really got away from that influence. Understandably—I’m sure they felt they needed to stretch out. But there’s something fundamental about blues when it comes to rock music.

Martin: Absolutely. And also, there’s a song on this record called Santeria, which is voodoo, basically. It’s the Cuban version of it. You know, voodoo rhythms—’cause I’ve attended ceremonies—it’s not that far off from ‘Hey, Bo Diddley’, and then you’ve got rock ‘n’ roll. In order to make the music of the future you have to understand the past. You have to understand it and respect it.

Joyce: Are there any other influences or inspirations that are bubbling up in this current set of songs?

Martin: The band is still in its infancy as far as the live act is concerned, so we’re just setting up signposts right now in our show. And how we get to those various signposts each night throughout the show will change every night, and that’s what we want this band to be. Just let it fly, see where it goes.

Joyce: And in terms of literary influences, are they still cropping up on the new album?

Martin: A lot of the poetry of Rumi, the Sufi poet. I actually took the title The Ground Cries Out from one of his poems. And Sufism is the most beautiful aspect of Islam. Sufi poets were very metaphysical in a lot of ways and it lends itself pretty well to rock ‘n’ roll.

Joyce: And being in Canada again, how has that been?

Martin: Oh, it’s nice to come back. We’ve been treated like royalty. It’s just been really lovely—lots of love. I didn’t really know what to expect, you know, being away for such a long time. But it’s been wonderful—like tonight, we’re sold out, and all the shows. So it’s cool. And what it’s gonna allow us to do is come back more often. So I’m happy with that.

Joyce: Well I’m sure that’s at least seven questions by now so thanks, thanks very much.

This interview originally appeared on the Jeff Martin/777 website, http://www.jeffmartin777.com.

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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One Response to Jeff Martin: The Erudite Rock Star

  1. didine596472 says:

    I’m happy to read about Jeff Martin here

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