"Jeff and I were drinking tea and watching some television, because Stuart was just slammed with [recreating] all these ancient sounds..."
"Hello Jeff Martin from the other side of the city," is how Canada-based drummer Jeff Burrows greets his bandmate from The Tea Party after a beep announces the singer-songwriter/guitarist has joined our conference call. "I live here," Burrows goes on to explain. "Jeff's an Aussie now so he's in a hotel [laughs]."
In 2015, The Tea Party kicked off a tour to celebrate 20 years since the release of their breakout third album The Edges Of Twilight, playing the album in full. And now, two years down the track, it's time to celebrate 20 years since The Tea Party's fourth album Transmission dropped. Martin explains that preparing for the latter album-in-full shows presented "some unknowns" for The Tea Party. "Most of the songs off of The Edges Of Twilight we had, in different incarnations, approached before in our career," he elaborates, "but, with Transmission, there was certainly, I'd say, at least four - if not five - songs... that we actually never even attempted live.
"The thing about The Tea Party is: we're not a band that really enjoys rehearsing, because obviously, with what we do live, we rely on the musicianship and we capitalise on, I guess, the unknown energy that comes with just having to deal with it on the spot, right? But with Transmission, and with the songs that we had not performed to date live, it was something that - in the situation of going to rehearsals it was actually, well, certainly beneficial. But it was also a new experience for us, because what The Tea Party has always done is we've always reinterpreted - or had to distil - the soundscapes that we've created on record, we've always done that. But with Transmission it's a bit more difficult. And what we found was that, even though we went through the process of rehearsals, it took us I'd say - and I think Jeff would agree - it took us maybe three shows to finally get our wings or, like, you know, to find out how those certain songs worked - or did not work - given the arrangements that we had chosen to do."
When asked which particular Transmission songs The Tea Party had never performed live before rehearsing for this tour, Martin offers, "I'd say that Gyroscope was certainly one of them... Alarum was another one - just to be able to bring the intensity forth from what was created on the record and to bring it to the stage; that was certainly challenging." Martin also singles out Emerald ("one of the two ballads on the record") as one that The Tea Party had "never really tackled live", before enthusing, "Once we got our heads around the dynamic... it became one of the highlights of the show."
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"When it came to the live presentation of this," Burrows chimes in, "like Jeff mentioned earlier, we're not huge, huge fans of rehearsing... normally we just like to get our stuff together and then we make it happen and we do it really well. But Stuart [Chatwood, bass/keys] has always been the one who takes care of any and all of the programming and stuff to create the sounds, and so on, live. So the first, I think, two entire days - Jeff's gear was set up and my gear was set up, and Stuart was locked in around his keyboard set-up and computers," he laughs. "And Jeff and I were drinking tea and watching some television, because Stuart was just slammed with [recreating] all these ancient sounds that hadn't been recreated since the album when Jeff and me were creating those specific noises and sounds and states."
"What you need to understand, too, is, like, when Jeff and I talk about Stuart programming and stuff, right? The Tea Party - we don't play to backing tracks or anything like that, you know. What Stuart is actually doing with four limbs - haha, he's being the octopus that he is and essentially we're just trying to distil what we've created on the records. And so even though Transmission incorporated a lot of electronic influences, in the mix of the sounds and the songs - to experience The Tea Party playing Transmission: it's still an organic entity, yeah."
On what sort of memories sprang to mind while The Tea Party were rehearsing the Transmission material, Burrows shares, "Before we got to rehearsals, I was rehearsing on my own and I had only one son at that time and, you know, my wife and I - we were a very young couple and so on. And I just remember flying up and visiting Jeff - I think it was every other weekend for three days at a time, usually." Of this time, the drummer mainly recalls, "The fun we had doing it, even though it was such a dark record. It came out exactly the way I think Jeff had it in his head from the get-go. I don't think I really caught on until about halfway through the writing process that, you know, 'This is what he's doing. Ok, I get it'. And it's incredible to see how well that album actually did, because it was quite an artistic presentation. I mean, it was received quite well critically, but I'm a little bit surprised at how well it was received publically."
"To add onto JB's comments," Martin interjects, "we could've very well - like, with the success of The Edges Of Twilight - rested on our laurels, because we created, for ourselves, almost like a patent, you know? Of a sound with the Middle Eastern and all the exotic instruments and everything like that. So, you know, had we chosen to rest on our laurels we could've done 'The Edges Of Twilight 2', '...3', '...4', right? But that's not the three minds that make up The Tea Party. We collectively decided just to go somewhere else knowing that, yes, The Edges Of Twilight is the essence of what The Tea Party was to become, but there was no reason why we couldn't deviate from that and always, like, scoop in when we need to grab those influences and then take it to another place."
"Furthering what Jeff was talking about - like, we could've done '...Edges... 2', '...3' etcetera etcetera - I think what this did is solidify the fact that our fanbase, and people who had come to know us and enjoy our music, were able to expect the unexpected and there's not a lotta bands in that position, because, you know: if you're AC/DC, you do AC/DC really, really well; if you're The Rolling Stones, you do The Rolling Stones really well and you really don't derive too much from that. Whereas the way Jeff had it set up, you know, we were blessed with the fact that we could go out and, 'Well, let's try this,' 'cause no one would give a damn; they'd know that they were gonna get something sexy and rock'n'roll, but it could be tinged with whatever."
"We had a very unique situation," Martin allows, "and we were in a very unique position here in Canada with our record label at the time: EMI. I'm pretty sure and certain that we were the only band signed to a major label - like a rock band - that was given, you know, carte blanche, like, license to kill, hahaha, like 007, you know. Like, we proved a point with The Edges Of Twilight and then EMI just kept on believing in us; for the next few records they just understood that where it was going to go was what it was going to be, you know?"
"But the beautiful thing about this band and the musicianship involved," Martin points out, "is that the muscle memory is quite strong. So it doesn't take us long to find our feet, that's for sure."
Burrows describes Transmission as "almost like an organic, electronic rock record, if you can use those words together [laughs]. 'Cause any of the electronics used - it was done, you know, by creating them and playing them as opposed to programming them and so it kept that rock swagger."
Temptation, Transmission's lead single and opener, is a thrilling, sinister vortex of swirling, descending instrumentation that underscores Martin's effortless, swaggering vocal that pretty much encapsulates the allure of the song's title. Were the pair aware that they were onto something special while this song was taking shape? "What I can remember from the process of writing Transmission, but specifically Temptation, was that I think I was more excited about the sonics of the song," Martin muses. "The melodies were being created even before I wrote the lyrics - because most of the tracks on Transmission were written as soundscapes before lyrics and vocals were even, like, considered, right? So I was more or less, you know, obsessed with that. I remember Stuart - 'cause Stuart only lived maybe a block and a half down the road from me where I lived in Montreal - and I remember him coming over to the house and telling me that, you know, 'Martin, if you concentrate on this one, right? This is going to be a hit!' Alright? And that's not the way my mind works. I'm not a pop songwriter; I'm not writing for hits, I'm writing for impact, you know?... I guess that's what makes The Tea Party special - different in a scenic way - is that we don't concentrate on that, we just concentrate on the integrity of the overall conclusion of the creation of a particular piece of music."
When told that this scribe aches for the menacing castanets that jump out of the mix and box you around the ears throughout Transmission's title track, Burrows chuckles, "Really? Really? The Tea Party menacing? They're mean castanets." So how did this percussion instrument find its way onto the track? "Well, like everything else, there's always sorta like... an abundant amount of strange instruments... a lot of percussive instruments hangin' around - just, like, in Jeff's corner there's a multitude of string instruments hanging around - and, you know, when that sort of Spanish kinda groove happens then, you know; it's not the first time we've used castanets. As a matter of fact we used castanets back in high school on a song, I even remember. So, you know, menacing castanets - it's a good thing."
"We've also used, like, steel drums," Martin contributes, "but Jane's Addiction used steel drums before we did."
Burrows remembers The Tea Party focused on creating albums rather than individual songs around the time that Transmission was created, but believes their focus may have shifted in recent times "because [they] live so far apart from each other". "When we do have writing sessions, they are a little bit incoherent insofar as their cohesiveness," he continues, "so I don't think it's like that now. But it was definitely like that back then: it was a whole picture, it was a whole movie, it was a soundtrack. You know, you can't change the way people's purchasing tastes evolve and so on, and essentially what it's done is: it's gone back to the way it was way back when in the era of the 45, which, you know, many bands will complain about - I know we have at one point or another.
"But I don't think we've gotten to the point where we necessarily embrace the change, but we've come to terms with the fact that, you know what? People want things more instantly now; they need instant gratification. And, you know, we're not here to do anything that we would feel would jeopardise our credibility, but we're not gonna take that much time to do that work when we could be concentrating on doing more touring or writing something even better that perhaps, you know; it could be a single, but it's gonna be an eight-minute single. So it definitely was the theme for us before, and then even in the '90s. I knew of bands and their songs, you know, 'Oh, this one's two years old and this one's four years old and we just slapped 'em on a record' - that never happened with us, it was always cohesive. But it can't be like that anymore and luckily for us we have fans that would understand all of that, and we have the opportunity and the ability to tour really well so it doesn't really bother us."