The Exile & The Kingdom

11 July 2012 | 8:30 am | Matt O'Neill

In 2005, Jeff Martin spontaneously disbanded The Tea Party – without even consulting his band-members. Ahead of their Australian reunion tour, Matt O’Neill speaks to the frontman about getting the band back together.

The Tea Party.

The Tea Party.

More The Tea Party More The Tea Party

It's difficult to overstate how different Jeff Martin sounds today. Three years ago, The Tea Party frontman was spruiking his debut album for new band The Armada. Then, he spoke slowly; in leaden, ponderous tones. His phrasing and demeanour betrayed a confidence and authority that would occasionally venture into outright delusion. He seemed single-minded; elemental. Antagonistic, almost. A furiously-weathered rock god.

Today, he sounds chipper. Animated. Bright and self-effacing, he effectively sprints across his sentences – his Canadian accent seemingly intermingled by the occasional by-product of his newfound home in Byron Bay. Even battling a head cold and preparing for one of the bigger tours of his life, Martin actually sounds ten years younger than his younger self. It is a genuinely startling difference.

“Well, it's possible you just caught me on a different day,” he laughs down the line. “But, except for a massive head cold, I am in really good spirits. I'm producing a record for a girl from Townsville called Kimberely Dawn Lysons and I'm very happy with the way that record has turned out – it kind of sounds like PJ Harvey if she played with The Tea Party, if you know what I mean.

“Anyway, that's been a great creative outlet for me. I'm looking forward to catching up with The Tea Party guys in Melbourne, I've got a beautiful family, a beautiful home and the sun is shining. You know, what could be wrong? Life is good, man. I'm in good spirits.”

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

It's tempting to ascribe his mood to the recent reunion of The Tea Party. Martin fronted the Canadian rockers for 15 years before spontaneously announcing their demise in 2005. Their recent reunion has seen the band embraced like prodigal sons – selling out multiple venues across both Canada and Australia. Martin never even thought a reconciliation was possible after the initial split.

“I'll tell you what, for the first six years of my time in the wilderness, I really didn't think we'd ever get back together. I didn't think we could get over what happened seven-and-a-half years ago,” he says of the break. “But, you know, there's the old adage that time heals all wounds. I think we all needed to put our individual issues and egos aside for the greater good. Once we were able to do that, I think we all realised how petty the argument was.”

It would certainly be justifiable cause for the frontman's invigorated outlook. The Tea Party's schism encompassed years of conflict, dating back even prior to their official split – from Martin's oft-referenced drug use (“I'm not afraid to admit that things in my life that were once recreational had become habitual”) to industry pressure to streamline the band's sound for American audiences.   

“It probably started with the passing of Steve Hoffman,” Martin reflects of the split's origins – referencing their manager's 2003 death from lung cancer. “He was the glue that kept all the parties together. He kept all the egos at bay; kept the record labels away from us, so to speak. Once that line of defence left this Earth, that's when things really started to disintegrate for us, I think.

“All the confidence that The Tea Party had that made it so special before, we didn't have that anymore,” the frontman reflects. “So, the record label swooped in with all of these ideas – 'Okay, guys, we need to break America, we need to get more commercial' – and I'm the guy who has to write these songs. Or, at least, bring the material to the band to shape into songs. And I don't write for the sake of markets. I write for the sake of passion.”

Still, one suspects The Tea Party's reformation is actually symptomatic of Jeff Martin's cheery disposition,  as opposed to vice versa. The frontman (a man who once refused to so much as confirm what country he lived in for an interview) is characteristically circumspect about his time away from the band – but he says enough. The reunion seems like the culmination of a much longer, more personal struggle for Jeff Martin.

“I wasn't in the best of head spaces at the end of The Tea Party,” the frontman admits. “It was time for me to sort a few things out for myself. I left the band, I moved to Ireland for a few years – just to get away from who I was – and it really did me a world of good. I found the passion for making music again. I stripped it all away – you know, the artifice of 'The Rock Star' – and I was just a musician again.”

You can hear it in how Martin discusses his non-Tea Party output. The frontman released three albums following the band's split – 2006's Exile And The Kingdom (as Jeff Martin), 2009's The Armada (with now-defunct band The Armada) and 2011's The Ground Cries Out (as Jeff Martin 777). Tellingly, he only speaks kindly of The Ground Cries Out. The other two records are essentially relegated to stepping stone status.

“I think of those records as a progression,” the frontman says. “I'm really proud of the 777 record. I think it's a great rock'n'roll record. In a lot of ways, I think that record led to The Tea Party getting back together. I don't think the guys would admit it – but I really think they heard that album and went, 'Oh, finally, he's back,' and then we all started the process of getting back together.   
“It was good, though. It brought everything back to me – the music, the production, everything. It all just came flooding back over that record,” he explains. “You know, when those things in my life went from recreational to habitual, it really did affect my artistic output. My passion for music. I had to recollect and get my psyche back together – just so I knew what my priorities were again.”

And, if nothing else, you can hear it in Martin's demeanour. The enthusiasm. The sheer vigour. The Tea Party's only plans for the future encompass a live album (to be recorded in Melbourne), a tour and, at some distant point, a new studio album (“I have no idea how, given they're in Canada and I'm in Australia, but we'll figure it out) – but still the frontman confidently asserts that the band have returned for the foreseeable future and beyond.

“Regrets? Sure, I've had a few,” Martin briefly sings – quoting Queen's We Are The Champions. “Of course I've got some regrets. I regret things that were said, the break-up of The Tea Party, I regret how I've hurt some people along the way – but that's life. You just try to make up for it as you go along. I do believe I've become a kinder, more compassionate person as I've gotten older. Hopefully that'll put some karma in the bank!”