Jeff Martin: The Song Remains The Same

Jeff Martin, ex-Tea Party frontman turned Aussie citizen, found his home on the road Down Under with his new three-piece and shares a wealth of guitar knowledge with Australian Guitar’s fellow Led Zeppelin enthusiast Craig White.

The Tea Party formed in Canada in the early-‘90s, and over the course of that decade became one of the most successful bands in that country. Now Canada is a country crawling with inventive and exciting musical acts that barely rate a mention outside of its own borders, and the Tea Party may well have become yet another assured ensemble enjoying a successful domestic career while not even registering a blip on the international radar. Worse yet, they might have hopped the bus for south of the border, where their intriguing blend of hard rock and world music could easily have been lost as it flew right over the heads of American youth hungry for yet another Nirvana.

Instead, a prescient manager who had spent time Down Under suggested they make their first international foray an antipodean excursion, where the band found an appreciative audience of fellow Commonwealth citizens. I begin my conversation with former Tea Party frontman Jeff Martin by asking whether he feels the historical ties between the two countries and a certain similarity in national character caused the band to resonate with Aussie audiences, which it definitely did, as they eventually toured this country a dozen times.

“Well, we put the hard yards in. We did something that a lot of international bands won’t do. When we first came over to Australia, we just did Sydney and Melbourne, and we did a month here. So we did one show in Sydney and one show in Melbourne the first week, in front of 25 people; the next week it doubled; the next week it tripled; so by the time we left that month, we were playing in front of 800 people. Then Triple J got on board, and the rest is history.”

Jeff now lives in Australia. The Tea Party disbanded in 2004 (though they are reuniting for some festivals in the Canadian summer), and after a spell in Ireland, Jeff and his Australian wife settled in Perth, adding a son named Django to the mix. Jeff has pursued several musical avenues since the demise of the Tea Party, the most recent of which is 777, with former Sleepy Jackson members Jay Cortez and Malcolm Clark.

Martin has always been regarded as something of a gun guitarist, particularly as the Tea Party first came to prominence during a period when instrumental chops were not necessarily fashionable.

“I mean this with all humility, but I don’t know many guitarists in rock music who push it as far as I do with the tunings and the tonalities. I basically took a page out of Jimmy Page, and I ran with it.”

Alright then, the elephant in the room is now definitely out of the bag (if I might be allowed to mix my metaphors), so best that we discuss it. The Tea Party spiced their hard rock with Indian, Middle Eastern and North African elements in a manner that was dubbed “Moroccan Roll” by witty commentators, while less than appreciative scribes simply pointed at a perceived similarity to the manner in which Led Zeppelin incorporated folk and world music elements.

While Jeff accepts that not all were fans of his former band (“what the Tea Party did was we polarised; you either loved us or you didn’t like us at all, there was nothing really in between”) and that therefore there might be motivation for mockingly over-stating the influence, he does not go out of his way to avoid the comparisons, and our conversation is peppered with references to Page and Led Zeppelin.

Furthermore, throughout our discussion of gear there are mentions of particular pieces and modifications that any Page fan will instantly recognise. For example, there’s “a little Supro that I use all the time, for just really precise tones and all that”.

Like Jimmy Page’s?

“Mine’s a little older though. It’s not actually a Supro, it’s just Jensen Speaker Company.”

Similarly talk turns to Danelectros. Now, they sold a ton of these guitars back in the day and to suggest that simply using a Danelectro indicates Page fetishism would be going too far, however there is a particular bridge replacement that suggests Jimmy as the inspiration.

“There’s some work you can do to Danelectros, like to get them shielded properly, because they can be the greatest radio antennas in the world, but there’s a way of shielding the guitars inside. Then you put the Badass bridge on, and you get better tuning pegs and it stays in tune, because I use a lot of sort of drop C tuning on the Danelectro, so I’ve got to put heavier gauge strings on it, but when it’s tight and it’s locked in, it’s an amazing guitar.”

Now, for guitarists of a certain vintage, it would be odd not to be massively influenced by Jimmy Page, and I certainly count myself as one of them. After all, whose ears are the ones pricking up at the mention of Supro amplifiers and Danelectros with Badass bridges? So when Jeff mentions the Danelectro, I know before I ask which model it is, but I go ahead and ask anyway.

“I have got the double cutaway, two pick-up one.”

I knew it! While we are mining the Jimmy Page vein, there is also talk of double neck SGs, however when conversation turns to Les Pauls, I am surprised by Jeff’s stated preference.

“I’m a big fan, especially for recording, of the low impedance Gibsons; the Recording, the Professional and the Personal. I’ve always had a Recording model; it’s beautiful. When I acquired my Recording model, I sent it to Les Paul’s technician, who I met in Manhattan, when Les was playing at Fat Tuesdays. He rewired the guitar to the schematic, and then some, so all those tonal variations started coming out of the guitar. It was just beautiful. That was the first one I fell in love with. I fell in love with those guitars, so much so that I wanted to get the other two that complete the range, so I got the Personal and I got the Professional. I’ve got the holy trinity of low impedance Gibson guitars.”

I ask Jeff if the Recording model plays like a regular Les Paul.

“It feels like a Standard, the neck feels like a Standard, but the sound, and the way that you play it, is a very different approach. It’s a guitar meant for very precise parts, it’s not a guitar you are going to wash out with distortion or overdrive or whatever. It’s not that sort of guitar; it’s for more of the ethereal, ambient element that you can achieve in rock’n’roll music. I love that guitar. A lot of people, when they got these low impedance guitars in the ‘70s, and they tried to play them on stage, they tried to do the rock’n’roll thing. Well, they weren’t a rock’n’roll guitar, they were more of a jazz guitar. The ’71 Recording model should have been the guitar that came out in the ‘50s, the original Les Paul, but Gibson took a look at the schematic and said, ‘no way’.”

Now, Jimmy Page has a Recording model himself (as can be ascertained by consulting the exhaustive equipment list at www.led-zeppelin.org), however it is not a guitar with which he is readily identified, so I ask Jeff how it was that he discovered the low impedance Les Pauls.

“It was something that I just dove into, because I kept wanting to expand the tonality of my guitar playing, and what my options were. It was an old jazz guy in Montreal actually who turned me on to these guitars. He had one. It wasn’t wired properly, but he did have one. I played it and fell in love with it. This was ’95 or something. I went and found one immediately. It wasn’t hard to find, although there aren’t many of them around, but it didn’t cost me an arm and a leg, that’s for sure. I think I bought it for like eight hundred dollars or something like that.”

While there is no doubt that Martin rocks out when required, he is a multi-faceted player, as likely to be found laying down 12-string guitar or oud or some alternate tuning in the interest of creating texture and instrumental depth. It is a quality that has been consistent throughout his career, and one that he brings to 777 with as much enthusiasm and creativity as any project he has undertaken in the past.

“The thing that I wanted to do was a modern day version of Houses Of The Holy, and I think we achieved that with this record. That’s what always impressed me, that’s what I fell in love with, when you got to those records, when you got away from the blues-rock and you got to those records, like Houses Of The Holy or Physical Graffiti. There were so many style variations, but you could tell it was the same band, all the way through.”

“It’s the same with what we’ve achieved with 777. Malcolm’s drumming is very, very Malcolm Clark, yet there’s a lot of influences – John Bonham, Keith Moon, Animal from the Muppets. Jay Cortez is just a master multi-instrumentalist, and his bass playing is just so gorgeous and melodic. What it’s allowed me to do is, for the first time since the halcyon days of the Tea Party, I’ve got a rhythm section behind me that is so just anchored, and because of their relationship, and they’ve known each other for so many years, there’s a telekinesis going on between the two of them, where I don’t have to think about it.”

Being another three-piece, 777 is not ploughing an entirely different field from that which the Tea Party worked. While doubters once spoke of similarities to Led Zeppelin, contemporary naysayers have made the accusation that the new album sounds a lot like a Tea Party record.

“What people need to understand is that I wrote all the songs with the Tea Party, so what I did was very similar to what I’ve done with Mal and Jay. What I did with Jeff and Stuart (in the Tea Party) was I brought the songs to them and then the three of us composed them up together. So they offered their own individual personalities, Jeff’s drum style, Stuart’s bass styling and all that. Mal and Jay are very different musicians, but the music that I write lends itself to people like doing sort of almost the same thing. To a certain extent, the song remains the same.”

(Article originally featured in Issue #86 of Australian Guitar Magazine)

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