Reunion Party

4 July 2012 | 11:08 am | Paul Ransom

“Why go and see a band reproduce a record note for note. Pointless right?”

More The Tea Party More The Tea Party

It didn't take long for The Tea Party to remind everyone. When Jeff Martin, Stuart Chatwood and Jeff Burrows took to the Cherry Bar stage for a brief showcase gig late last month it was pretty clear that they were not only excited to be back together but in fine form; and not just because they were here in Australia.

Back in the mid-'90s they emerged from Windsor, Ontario with a prog/psych blend of bluesy rock, Middle Eastern spice and Indian rhythm that had critics reaching for superlatives and cynics lazily comparing them to The Doors. Their major label debut, Splendor Solis, and its triple j staple, Save Me, promptly converted Australians and began an ongoing love affair between the band and us. Having reunited last year after a seven-year hiatus, it was no surprise that The Tea Party made their way back to these shores as soon as practically possible. “You guys have such good taste,” jokes bassist Stuart Chatwood; although of course he's being serious.

However, when yours truly confessed to being guilty of erstwhile Doors jibes, the joke is soon on me. Frontman Jeff Martin leans forward and smiles, wagging his finger playfully. “The Tea Party's music is way more complicated than The Doors,” he argues, before theorising, “What it was was the voice, the fact that my mother gave me curly hair and twenty thousand dollars of plastic surgery. Ah yeah, and the leather pants.”

From the distance of nearly 20 years, such things have less clout, and anyway The Tea Party are a good deal more certain about themselves now. Their much publicised seven-year break-up and last year's cathartic reunion appear to have eliminated any last vestiges of self doubt. Recalling the Canadian shows that brought them back together, Martin says, “We had to make sure we could still be in the same room first but the rehearsals were magic and then, I think it was the second show in Montreal, we were like, 'This is one of the world's great rock bands and I'm playing in it.'” 

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That confidence reveals itself as a very sexy swagger on record and on stage. The Tea Party are unapologetic sonic sensualists. “The Tea Party must and always will come from a place of passion,” Martin declares. “I'm very highly strung and that has to play out in the music. Y'know, there's a sensuality that is omnipresent in our music. That's one of the things that make us stand out; it's that sexiness aligned with that darkness.”

For all of its complexity, its open tunings, jazzy timings and exotic instrumentation, their music is far from cerebral. It may be prog but it's not professorial. As Stuart Chatwood explains, “The emotion reigns over the cerebral, that's for sure. For good or for bad, we want it to be emotional. I mean, the cerebral comes with the complexity of the music but we don't want to concentrate on that.”

Jeff Martin confessess a slightly different spin on things. “I've got a slight case of synaesthesia and I do see music in colour, so it kinda comes out a bit kaleidoscopic. Then, when I take that music away what I've always done, sometimes to the detriment of my own health, is push myself. I find those dark places, that infinite background of emotion. It's like, when I sing about temptation it's because I've lived it.”

It could almost be regulation heart-on-sleeve stuff except that The Tea Party always make everything incredibly poetic. At times they can seem positively literary. “We always wanted to make timeless music that would stand up to a couple-of-hundred listens,” Chatwood elaborates, “whereas a lot of music today is, y'know, shock and awe. It's like a car crash. Basically it's spectacle and nothing else.”

It's at this point that Stuart Chatwood gets out the axe and gives it an unabashed grind. “Nowadays it's more important than to ever to do something unique because everything is so mass-produced and homogenous. Y'know we want our next record to be something that takes rock music to another place; otherwise it's not worth doing.”

With blade freshly sharpened, Chatwood reflects on the changes that have overtaken the record business since The Tea Party first signed to EMI two decades ago. He begins by offering a defence of the old label-based system. “Yes they made homogenised stuff but, y'know, they also acted as a filter. You had to be at a certain level to get a record out but nowadays there's so much noise pollution because anyone can make a record in their basement. Today it's the better marketer rather than the better musician who gets all the attention.”

On the topic of getting records out, keen readers will have duly noted an unambiguous commitment to making a new album. However, it's not likely to happen any time soon because, as Martin admits, there “isn't really” any new material yet. “There's some hurdles that we have to get over to make new music. We have to make a record for the band to continue; it's just how, when and where.”

With typical frankness, Chatwood smiles sardonically and quips, “I mean we didn't talk for seven years, so fill in the blanks, right?”

Whatever the personal and creative differences that drove the 2004 divorce, the 2012 rapprochement seems to be settled. There is an obvious pride and passion about this year's Tea Party. “For me, playing these songs again is very cathartic,” Martin admits, “and I'm a man that needs an exorcism once in a while.”

Picking up the thread, Chatwood explains, “We're breathing new life into them, whereas as before, well, I don't wanna say we were going through the motions but 1500 shows in a row… “

At their Cherry Bar showcase it is immediately evident that they still give the universal arse a fair old kick. The songs have that magical mix of solid structure and improvisational drama. They may well be 'Moroccan roll' but there's a jam-based organic flexibility to them that speaks of '50s jazz. “It's a balancing trick,” Chatwood states simply. “Y'know, there's three of us for a start; but even then it can become self-indulgent and if you're not taking the audience with you, I mean, it's interesting to us but if it's not interesting to them it's a one-sided affair. But also, why go and see a band reproduce a record note for note. Pointless right?”

Rather more poetically, Jeff Martin adds, “When Tea Party play live there are like signposts that we all have to arrive at the same time but between that we're off on our own tangents and, y'know, those jams often become the main riffs to new songs.”

However and whenever those new songs appear, audiences can rest assured that the band's multi-instrumental, multicultural rock palette will not be narrowed. The Tea Party do not turn back the boats. As Chatwood says it, “Once your eyes have been opened it's pretty hard to close them again; unless it's on purpose, like if we decided we wanted to do a Krautrock record.”