Talking Jive about the Groove: Interview with Billy Martin of Medeski Martin and Wood
Originally published in the Portland State Vanguard Newspaper in April, 2001.
Billy Martin, percussionist for the jazz trio Medeski Martin and Wood talks about the band, his new label, creativity, DJ’s and Napster, before their sold out performance at the Schnitzer.
I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to interview Billy Martin before he performed this Saturday at the Schnitzer concert hall. Billy Martin is the percussion playing third of a hugely successful cutting edge, funky as hell jazz trio that goes by their family names: Medeski, Martin and Wood.
After hanging with some of the road crew for a while backstage at the Schnitz, the band got back from a Japanese/Chinese garden tour and shopping trip. I find Billy and we set off for the band dressing/green room to get the overdue talk underway.
I’m here because Mr. Martin wants to get the word out about his new label Amulet, which is dedicated to the art of percussion and more.
I’m also here to talk to part of the creative force behind a group that defies even the broad “jazz” categorization.
After paying dues around the New York jazz scene, Medeski Martin and Wood banded and have since put out seven full length albums, and toured the world, selling out most shows. The last time they came to Portland they sold out two nights at the Rosalind. They have a large following; Most of whom fall into the neo-hippy category. En Route to the bus to grab a copy of his record: Illy B eats: Groove Bang and Jive Around, Billy and I walked into about ten dreadlocked fans with cardboard signs pleading for tickets to the sold out show. I saw the wheels turning and eyes lighting up in one of them as he recognized Billy. We were almost to the bus by then. Later that night, College kids, average joes, and old jazz fans were all in attendance at the beautiful and packed Schnitz.
The crowd wasn’t disappointed. MMW opened with some free ambiance, morphed into some improvised grooves, let solos turn into songs from albums new and old, pulled off and ambient rainforest segment and even did a tasty acoustic piano trio piece. Billy played his vintage Rogers trap kit, bird whistles, rain sticks, an African Marimba and talking drum.
The audience loved every minute of it, dancing most of the time.
I decided to address this popularity right away as we settled in to the sofas of the green room.
Aaron Miles: You guys helped make jazz cool again to a whole new generation, how did you do it?
Billy Martin: I think that a lot of the younger generation wants to experience something fresh and exciting. The way we perform on stage, improvising, and the intensity with which we play with is what a lot of the younger generation wants, so I think they relate to that because …
Before Martin finished, John Medeski, Chris Wood and some tour crew came barging into the dressing room. They set off to find it 15 minutes ago, when I first found Billy. Medeski immediately asks: “How’d you guys find this fuckin place?” Everyone is then talking at once and grabbing beverages.
We decide to relocate.
We settle in to the Karl Denson tour managers office. Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe is the 7 piece acid jazz funk band that kept the crowd dancing past midnight after MMW finished their early set.
BM: As I was saying, I guess we are breathing new life into this style. It has a lot to do with that we are always on the edge, pushing the threshold you know? It’s a more intense experience than what you usually get in a lot of jazz music today. I mean, it’s either watered down smooth jazz shit, or something that’s been done already; like maybe some be-bop, or groups sounding like Bill Evans or something. For us, it’s like we have that rock edge and the hip hop edge and all these things we are using to communicate with, I don’t know, it seems to get people out to the shows!
It wasn’t something we conceptually said “this is how we are.” We’re gonna do what we’re gonna do and play in front of people. I always thought if we played this music in front of people they were going to like it. We have a special chemistry.
AM: As far as albums go, is their a reason you did the acoustic <I>Tonic<I> and an all acoustic tour then went back to the electric and more experimental sound with the <I>Dropper<I>?
BM: The reason we started doing piano trio stuff is because we had been playing a lot of big halls and we needed a break. We needed to balance out sonically what we do by playing a small intimate place with just an acoustic piano and the different level or area. Basically if you hear the <I>Tonic<I> stuff and you here the <I>Dropper<I>, these two latest records that are different, we’re still communicating in the same way in terms of the style in which we play, but the (differences are) instrumentation and the fact that the tonic was a live gig. We wanted the intimate setting, kind of a workshop thing. Someone was recording it and later on we realized we had some good stuff on tape, a good sounding room, and a live situation, so we decided to release it. It wasn’t planned that way. And so then we did a follow up tour which was great, its good to change things up like that, good for our music.
So now we are back to doing electronic stuff, a little more hard hitting and intense, but there is still acoustic sections within our sets sometimes. We break it down to the minimal instrumentation and do a mix of both.
AM: What’s the next step for MMW
BM: We’re just evolving. we’re touring right now and I’m sure we’ll get together and start thinking about another record that will probably be released early next year. We’re thinking about that but now we’re just out on the road playing and coming up with some new stuff, and of course always rearranging the old stuff every night, trying to play it in a different way, being in the moment.
We never know what it’s going to be, as soon as we book studio time we go in there and it starts coming together. We roll tape and play, listen to it and see if there is anything worth developing or keeping. That’s usually how we make a record, it kind defines itself as time goes on. We might do a bossa and boogaloo type record. Maybe an EP maybe a whole record, we don’t know.
AM: You guys worked with DJ Logic on <I> Combustication<I> and toured with him for a couple years. Any thoughts on how DJs are changing music today?
BM: Yeah, I think the DJ is now becoming a pop star. There was guitar gods and all that, now there’s DJ’s that have there own bands, composing there own music. I saw that coming and I think its great, I think it’s just another dimension another extension of creating music, I think it’s a great art form, it just depends on who’s creating it. I really think it’s a cool thing.
AM: Its good to hear that. I know that some musicians think that DJs are taking over their role as entertainer. People go out and pay to hear a DJ spin more as opposed to a band.
BM: Anyone who is threatened by a DJ is insecure about themselves. Unfortunately it’s a very competitive business, it’s not easy to make a living being a musician. If you choose to make one kind of music one way you could be limiting yourself, I just think if you are sincere, and you really are creative it doesn’t matter if you’re a DJ, drummer, violinist, keyboard player, or a singer; it all has to do with what you have to say, what you’re communicating to people, and whether or not they are open to hearing it. Whether they are or not doesn’t really matter. What matters is how you are developing and evolving. That’s what’s important. So on the commercial end of things , like people stealing other peoples jobs, that’s nothing new! People who worry about it are obviously insecure about it to begin with.
It’s fear just like when synthesizers and samplers came around. there’s still orchestras out there there’s still people using strings. We got John Medeski, he can play any keyboard in the world, we had a string trio play on our record, we had a violinist play, there’s nothing like it.
AM: Along the same lines, as far as musicians or artists developing their creativity, do you have any good advice on how to develop creativity and how to bring out the best of what’s inside someone?
BM: Yeah, I have students and the most important thing is to try and bring out the essence of who they are, in their playing. If you have that mindset of just getting to know yourself and being open and honest and accepting of who you are, I think what’s going to follow is going to be a real sincere thing. If you’re really creative in what you do and you have the ability to improvise in situations then you’re going to really develop your style and I think the only way to do that is to think music all the time. If you’re a musician to think of everything you do in a musical way, think compositionally . For drummers I always tell them “you’re making music you’re not just making a beat. When you sit down and practice, sit down and play like you’re performing in front of an audience solo. That solo from beginning to end is a piece of music. If you take it to that level you’re going to develop you’re style.
Everybody’s an individual, we’re all here to bear our fruit. We all have our own thing to give to the world, especially if you’re an artist you have even more, more of something special. That goes for me, it goes for everybody: people working in an office you know, everybody’s got their own thing. If they really know what they’re about and what they’re good at, they’ll do good.
AM: So your new label Amulet just released Illy B Eats
BM: Yep, Illy B Eats: Groove Bang and Jive around.
AM: It’s basically just beats right?
BM: Yeah, beats for DJs to use, a vinyl only limited edition. It’s not just for DJs but ultimately that’s what a breakbeat record is. DJs need material to use, to blend in, to compose with. I also think musicians can use this stuff if they need some drums. I think especially now those kinds of sources are really valued and I think it’s great. It’s my way to interact with people. If they need some drums, I would love to supply them , and vice versa. I’m inviting people to contribute, kind of work with me in writing some music for the follow up CD. It will be a double CD, one CD is just the breakbeats the other one will be special guests. I already have a couple people that are going to do it. Like Steve Cannon. That title: groove bang and jive around is from a book he wrote, and who I was inspired by, so he is going to read something from his book, a spoken word thing. DJ logic will do something, and I am going to ask some other people I’ve worked with. Maybe Iggy Pop, Marc Ribot, Jon Scofield. I’ll also put a little band together to do one or two. Construct the music by starting with the beats. But I’ll also take the beats, slow them down, you know, do what DJs do, make something else out of them.
AM: Is Amulet trying to focus on just percussion stuff.
BM: Primarily yeah it’s dedicated to the art of percussion. Being a drummer and percussionist I feel like it’s an outlet for me. Besides, playing with other bands, playing with MMW–my essence of who I am is really strong with the band–but I still want to compose with percussion. I want to write ensembles and I want to work with people and expose other people’s inventive ways of composing with percussion. That’s what this labels about. Percussion music is in it’s infancy, in this country, and in this culture. Compared to like West African or Indonesian or something like that.
The first thing I released on CD was a percussion duet record. Percussion duets I did with Calvin Weston, Calvin played with Ornette Coleman in the 70’sand we played in the lounge lizards together, John Luries lounge lizards. So that was when I met Calvin and we had a great chemistry. We even had a trio with Jon Lurie, The John Lurie national orchestra, there’s a record out of that: “men with sticks”
I also released some Gamelan music from Bali that David Baker recorded.
He went to Bali with his wife, and they recorded a bunch of different Gamelan groups, particularly a woman’s group which is very unusual and some bronze and bamboo duets. Just some different parts of the island, different types of Gamelan, It was beautifully recorded it was really great recording so I was happy to get that out. There is plenty of Balinese music going on but there’s a handful of recordings I think are really great. I really think this is right up there.
AM: Anything out now that you are listening to that’s inspiring?
The Karl Denson tour manager gets a plug in: “Karl Denson’s tiny universe.” Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe is the seven piece acid jazz funk band that kept the crowd dancing past midnight after MMW’s early set.
BM: I just got a Lee Scratch Perry record, he’s dub reggae type stuff, it’s really cool. In some ways that music is really avant garde. There’s a certain way he mixes stuff that’s so out there, its beautiful. It’s like Sun Ra meets reggae or something.
I’m listening to some music from Zaire that was recorded in 1952, that’s really amazing. For me that’s some of the most inspiring music. Over the years I’ve discovered field recordings from parts of Africa, particularly west and central Africa.
Also Charles Ives and some classical composers that I really like, orchestral stuff that’s really inspiring to me.
On the hip hop tip I haven’t heard anything that’s blown me away lately. Haven’t been as in touch with it. Although I love to play in that style, as far as where my drum beats come from. A lot of it’s inspired from African music too.
AM: I should probably ask the cliché Napster question.
BM: Laughs, what is it? ask it.
AM: How do you feel about Napster, Yeah or Ne.
AM: I think Napster’s cool, I’ve used it. I’m into sharing, people turning each other on to music. By checking music out myself I’ve ended up buying CDs. I’ve downloaded some stuff and been like no, I don’t listen to it or use it. When I find something I usually end up going to the store and buying the whole CD or finding more music by that artist. I feel like ultimately it’s a great way to share music and it’s just an issue for these people to figure out how to be able to keep alive and make a living.
I play live in front of people. That’s the majority of how I pay my bills and survive is by playing live. Some people are just songwriters and they get money from record sales or whatever, air play. Part of that income is how I make a living also. I don’t really feel that threatened by Napster, not yet. I can see why people are nervous about it though. I think it’s really an exciting time. The only thing … say someone in a far away third world country bootlegging something and making a lot of money doing it and not sharing it or being responsible. That’s a possibility. I guess with my music I don’t have to worry about that. The big labels have to worry. The Michael Jackson’s and the Britney Spears and all that, so much money, I’m not worried about that.
AM: Allright Billy Martin, Anything else?
AM: Feel free to talk about anything.
BM: I have this website for the label amulet.com and this gallery, illyb.com
its my art gallery.
You know, being a musician and a visual artist is really the same thing for me. I improvise on both. I create and communicate with both. In many ways, it’s similar as far as where it’s coming from.
BM: Thank you.
SOME PULL MATERIAL. Everybody’s an individual, we’re all here to bear our fruit. We all have our own thing to give to the world, especially if you’re an artist you have even more, more of something special. That goes for me, it goes for everybody: people working in an office you know, everybody’s got their own thing. If they really know what they’re about and what they’re good at, they’ll do good.