Billy Martin on Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood: Not Just a Jam Band

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Billy Martin, John Medeski, John Scofield and Chris Wood.
Billy Martin, John Medeski, John Scofield and Chris Wood.

By Gianna Volpe

Truly groovy tunes are coming to the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center this Saturday as Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood take the stage at 8 p.m. to rock the socks off their audience with songs from their new album, “Juice,” released just two months ago.

Billy Martin – drummer of the genre-morphing quartet – took time out of his Thanksgiving weekend to talk with The Sag Harbor Express before the performance:

It seems that every album off “Juice” is ripe for salsa and other styles of dancing. Do people often take to the floor during your shows?

You can always expect that, even if it’s a sitting show, some people will get up and try to dance.

You’re often credited as being the most multi-genre minded one in the band. Where did you learn to appreciate such varying musical styles?

My father was a concert violinist, so he played a lot of classical music and orchestras and New York City ballet and opera. My mom was a Rockette and a dance teacher who taught tap ballet and jazz, so she had me tap dancing when I was very young, and then my older brothers were listening to The Rolling Stones, James Brown, the Allman Brothers, Stevie Wonder and all that music. I was growing up in the 60s and 70s and that music was all seeping in at the time, which was great…When we moved to Closter, New Jersey from New York City, the drums kind of appeared and I just set them up in the basement and started playing them along with our records. In ’74, my dad found me a drum teacher named Allen Herman, who turned out to be sort of a Broadway rock drummer, and he got me started.

How would you define your drumming style?

It’s like speaking a lot of different languages. There’s categories people use – jazz and rock and Brazilian and African and pop and stuff like that – but what I call myself is an experimental musician.

Is that what attracts you to the ‘Jam Band’ style?

‘Jam band’ to me, is just another word for a movement and so I like to use the word ‘experimental.’ Some jam bands aspire to get to that level of improvising and writing and composing and being able to jump around in different genres – and that’s something that we’ve always done in a very serious way.

When we play, we’re very focused and when it comes to playing the “Juice” music, its more tune-based and might even fall more into the ‘Jam band’ thing because I think a lot of jam bands actually have some sort of form; some sort of simple tune progression. I’m not sure because I don’t know what a jam band is, to be honest.

You wrote my favorite track on the album, “Louis the Shoplifter.” How did you do that as a drummer?

I just had this melody in my head – a very simple melody – and I figured I would just sort of sing it to the guys. Modeski had me play a little bit of the piano rhythm and we all just sussed it. A lot of it has to do with how the band grooves together and we have a certain chemistry with Scofield.

What was it like when you first began to play with John Scofield in 1997?

It was great. At first, we weren’t really sure what it was that Scofield wanted to do with us. He had been hearing a lot of our music and became kind of a fan of us and of course we were a fan of his – growing up in the 80s he played with Miles Davis and had really cool jazz rock records – so it was a really cool opportunity for us. He asked us to collaborate and write tunes with him and we said, “You know what – you write the tunes and we’ll interpret them and play them our way” and that was “A Go Go.”

You collaborated again in 2006, but how did you four ultimately become a band?

You know, you start playing live and start to feel a connection and you just know when it feels like a band because everybody gels together. It’s so effortless that you can just anticipate how everything’s going to go – it’s really quite natural. Our relationship and respect for each other – personally and on stage – just works.

Are you working on a new album at the moment?

In February Modeski, Martin and Wood is going to record something live in Boulder, Colorado with a chamber group called Alarm Will Sound. It’s a collaborative, very special sort of project.

Speaking of special projects – as someone who is not only a drummer but an artist who has created album art for the band and the music video for “Juicy Lucy” on the new album – are you working on any special projects right now?

I actually just finished a book called “Wandering” that’s on pre-order exclusively through my website billymartin.net. “Wandering” is a compilation of essays – 22 chapters – on the creative process. It has 30 improvised drawings and it comes with a record. I wanted to share my experiences with others as a drummer with the experiences I’ve had.

 

 

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