You might not be familiar with the name Tuatara, but the members of this free-wheeling, inventive collective are some of the most storied musicians from the fecund Seattle music community. Currently playing in the excellent Walking Papers, Barrett Martin's CV includes stints in Screaming Trees and Mad Season, guitarists Mike McCready and Peter Buck are best known for their work with Pearl Jam and REM respectively, while bassist Justin Harwood played with The Chills and Luna and saxophonist Skerik is a Seattle institution.
The band’s new album, Underworld, is an ambitious, epic, 20 track double album, themed around a fateful trip into the realm of demons, demi-gods, lost souls and wandering spirits. TeamRock spoke with Barrett Martin to get the low-down on the album (which you can hear in full below) and the band’s own fascinating journey.
Q. It’s been six years since the last Tuatara record: aside from the obvious logistic difficulties involved in rounding up a group of musicians with numerous commitments, to what would you attribute this lengthy gap in the band’s CV?
Well, since I’m the ringleader and producer of the band, the delay was largely my doing. I went back to graduate school to work on my PhD and just getting my masters degree (in anthropology/linguistics) took 3 years and aged me by 20! (still working on the PhD). Then I accepted a teaching position at Antioch University as an adjunct professor in Liberal Arts, and that was another 3 years of teaching. During that time I started the Walking Papers, I produced our debut album and released it on my label, and then we began an 18 month world tour (I am currently in Barcelona as I write this). I was always writing music during my time in graduate school and when I was teaching, and many of those ideas became the foundation for this new Tuatara album. So when Walking Papers played in Australia last March, I swung through Auckland, New Zealand on my way home and I got Justin Harwood (Tuatara’s original bassist) to record some basic tracks. I also had Manny Oquendo do some electronic sequences in New York, and those become the basis for a few of the more electronic oriented songs. Getting Skerik, Peter, and Mike back in the studio was fairly easy, because they’re all still living in Seattle and those guys love the studio environment. The way we did it was, I recorded the basic tracks as a kind of working template for everyone to follow, and then each guy added their specific talents to the songs. This particular method seems to work well for this band’s chemistry, and after listening to our entire catalog recently, I honestly think that Underworld is probably the best album we ever recorded. It reminds me of the excitement and originality we had when we recorded our debut album, Breaking The Ethers, back in 1996.
Q. All the musicians involved have other commitments, so is it actually possible these days to get everyone into a studio together, or are Tuatara ‘sessions’ now conducted over email and ISDN lines?
No, we recorded pretty much everything in studios around the US (and New Zealand). We started basic tracks in New York, Santa Fe, and Seattle, and then did additional overdubs in Auckland and Portland. One song, Descension, I recorded in Los Angeles with Cedric LeMoyne on bass (he now manages the awesome band War Paint). But most of the songs were recorded with the core members. The truth is, we’ve developed a system that works for us, and we just play and have a good time and we don’t over think it. That’s the best way to create a great album - everyone has a good time, we let the songs be what they want to be, and my job as the producer is to defer to the musical instincts of the band, while directing the flow of the music. They know what their best ideas are, and its my job to get the best performance out of everybody and then sculpt the songs into finished compositions.
Q. How did the Underworld album evolve? Does the initial impetus behind recording come from you personally?
I usually write the majority of the basic tracks, and often the principle melodies. But then its all fleshed out by the other musicians adding their magic. On this album, Skerik wrote and performed all the horn melodies by himself, just like our debut album, the exception being a couple songs where the vibraphone (me) is the principle melodic instrument. Underworld is a 20 song double album, so we had plenty of creative space to play with and the freedom to go in alot of different directions. But we kept the songs fairly short, about 3-4 minutes in length, and that brevity makes you focus on the song, the arrangement, and the form. It keeps you from devolving into a “jam band” that has no musical focus. Tuatara is definitely not a jam band, it is a composer’s band, with an experimental twist. I tend to think of us as a band that tells musical stories, without necessarily needing lyrics (although we worked with some great singer-songwriters on the 2007 East Of The Sun/West Of The Moon album).
Q. The new record includes contributions from Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready: how did he come to be involved?
Well, Mike and I had been collaborating again, as we finished up the Mad Season box set. We had recorded some new Mad Season songs with Duff McKagan playing bass and 2 of the new songs have Jaz Coleman (of Killing Joke) writing the lyrics and singing. And during that same period of time Tuatara was in the studio, so I just asked Mike to play on a few of the songs which he happily obliged. He played some amazing guitar solos, and for the record, Mike also played two guitar solos on the first Tuatara album back in 1996. That album was recorded in the same studio that Mad Season recorded (Avast Studios, Seattle), so it was kind of cool to be working on Mad Season songs again, and then right into a new Tuatara album, just like we did 18 years ago.
Q. In the early to mid ‘90s, as the ‘grunge’ sound exploded worldwide, much was made of the community/family vibe of the Seattle rock scene: are the bonds just as strong two decades on?
Of course, those bonds are very strong. In fact, last year Walking Papers opened for Alice In Chains on several shows in the US, Europe, and Australia, which was exactly 20 years after the Screaming Trees opened for AIC on our 1993 Sweet Oblivion/Dirt world tour. And last month, Walking Paper played with Soundgarden at a festival in Austria, and when we saw each other backstage, Kim Thayil and I both said, “Its like the 90s all over again.” Of course none of us want to relive the grunge era, that’s old news and I think we all want to progress musically and move forward with new music. But it is cool to see our friends still playing for people around the world, 25 years later. I often run into Seattle musicians in my travels and its really a mystery to me how so many great musicians and bands came out of Seattle. And they continue to emerge and conquer the world, Macklemore being the most recent Seattle success story. On any given tour, I’ll look at the venue calendar of the place I’m playing, and almost every time I’ll see a Seattle band somewhere on the calendar. Its still one of the biggest music generating places in the world, and hopefully will be for some time.
Q. You have worked with some extraordinary musicians on some classic albums over the years: if you had to nominate one collaboration in particular as a high point in creative/artistic terms, which would you choose?
The decade between 1994 and 2004 was a very powerful period of time for me both musically and spiritually. That decade really shaped me and changed me as a musician and as a spiritual being. I can’t narrow it down to any one album or person, but there are 7 albums that really stand out in my mind:
1994 Mad Season Above: The songs were written and recorded in about a month and it happened so fast and so magically that I still can’t really explain the process. It was as if the music just flowed out of us, with real inspiration, almost as if the album already existed and we just channeled it. That album was my first real commercial success, and I was also a co-producer so it kind of started my production career as well. I just remember it as being a magical experience, that’s the only phrase that can describe it.
1996 Screaming Trees Dust: I was very involved with the writing and production for this album, and I think its the best Screaming Trees album for several reasons - the quality of the songwriting, the production, and it really captured the band’s highest musical abilities. Alot of the unorthodox instruments and exotic sounds were because of my dveloping interest in world music, and we used those instruments to enhance the songs (African drums, sitar, tabla, harmonium, gongs). The album really blended a classic rock approach with some beautiful sonic textures.
1997 Tuatara Breaking The Ethers: This was the first major label deal that I got on my own, and the first major label album that I fully produced. And it was an all-instrumental album, which was highly unusual for a major label to support. That was the first album where I had a real budget to work with, but we still worked fast and efficiently and the music just flowed, it was rather effortless as I remember. For me, its was very special to make a debut album that people (even the critics) really liked, and it didn’t even have a singer!
1998 REM UP: Peter Buck brought me in on this album to play percussion and vibraphone/marimba in compliment to Bill Berry’s drumming, who was still in the band when we recorded the demos in 1997. Then Bill quit on the eve of the actual recording sessions and I became the defacto drummer on a few songs like Lotus and Suspicion. I also played on several other songs that didn’t make the cut for this largely drum machine driven album. Ironically, on the vast majority of Up I played upright bass, vibraphone, marimba, and various percussion devices, and it was such a complex production that the band started referring to it as their Pet Sounds. I learned a huge amount about production just from being in the studio and watching the band and producer for two months. It changed how I thought of “rock production.”
1999 Queens Of The Stone Age Rated R: I was getting ready to go study in Brazil when Josh Homme called me to come down to Sound City in Los Angeles and he said, “bring a truckload of percussion.” So I literally loaded my Ford F150 truck with a bunch of stuff, and I ended up playing on several of the songs, using vibraphone, marimba, steel drums, hand drums, shakers, and a few other bits and bobs. It was a very fun session and I was there when Rob Halford from Judas Priest came over from the studio next door to sing the chorus on Feel Good Hit Of The Summer. Awesome memories, and I love how Josh has evolved over the years into making some of the most original albums in modern rock.
2002 CeDell Davis When Lightning Struck The Pine: This was the first Delta Blues album that I ever played on, and CeDell was one of the last living authentic Delta Blues singers. He was still playing slide guitar at the time, and he had previously played with Robert Nighthawk, who was of course Robert Johnson’s right hand man. So here I was playing with a man who was a direct living link to musical history, literally the man at the Crossroads. I played drums, Peter Buck played guitar, and a few other local musicians joined the sessions which were recorded in Denton, Texas. I released the album on my label and Peter Buck and I rented a tour bus and took CeDell on a full US tour. I learned so much from CeDell, just listening to him tell stories on those long bus rides about playing the Blues in the deep, dangerous South. In fact, I am making another album with CeDell in Mississippi this August (he’s now 89 years old and still playing gigs!). Jimbo Mathis is producing the album and playing slide guitar, I’m on drums, CeDell is singing.
2004 Shipibo Shamans Woven Songs Of The Amazon: This was the album I recorded in the Peruvian Amazon, as credit towards my master’s degree in anthropology. The Shipibo are an indigenous group that live in the upper reaches of the Amazon headwaters, in a remote part of the Ucayali River Basin. I lived with them in their village for about a month and I recorded their shamanic, curing songs called “icaros.” These shamans “see” their curing songs as fractal patterns in their mind’s eye, and they weave these patterns into their clothing and paint them on their bodies. They literally wear their music as a form of spiritual strength and protection. We also did several ayahauasca ceremonies, the extremely powerful hallucinogen that is made from a vine that wraps itself around the trees in the rainforest (I assisted the shaman in brewing it). It was a deeply profound experience to do these ceremonies, and to record their amazing songs. The CD I made generates money for their village and it documents the voices of some of the shaman-healers who have since passed away. The experience made me realize that music can be a healing modality, and not just a form of artistic expression, or at its lowest level, a form of entertainment. In the Amazon, music is life itself.
Q. Is there life before the studio walls for Tuatara with Underworld? Is there scope - or indeed the desire - to take this music on the road, and to the people?
I’d like to take Tuatara on the road and play this music live with some exciting visuals ot silent films playing behind us. Maybe some short films or documentaries to go with the music (have you ever watched an insect documentary, fascinating). I probably can’t get Peter or Mike to go on the road for an extended period of time, but maybe for special events. Skerik and I have talked about putting together a touring version of the band and seeing how it goes. In the last few years I’ve started producing more than touring, and I’m really enjoying that. I’m 47 now, so I’m still young enough to tour and play at the top of the game, but I’m old enough to know that my rock and roll shelf life will eventually expire. So I’m enjoying working with young bands that have talent and fresh ideas, who are open to my perspective on the rock form. We usually find some common ground - a mixture of next generation ideas with that of an old veteran. You can help people miss alot of potholes by sharing your own experiences and wisdom with them - if they’ll listen. Sometimes they don’t. Mostly I find that I help them understand what is timelessly cool and relevant about rock and the blues - and what isn’t. And then I help them find their sound, capture it on tape.
Q. Instrumental albums often get labelled - if only by lazy music writers! - as ‘the soundtrack to an imaginary film’: if Underworld was developed into a big screen production, what visuals would complement the music?
That’s a very good question, one that I’ve thought about recently. I think if you read the song titles on Underworld, you’ll see that they fit the musical themes quite well. I keep a kind of journal with clever or funny song titles that I use on my albums. And because I’m not a poet or a lyricist (I like the long form essay), I focus on finding just the right title for a song. It really sets the mood for the song, and indeed, the entire album. So Underworld - The Movie, would essentially be a hero’s journey into the dark side of humanity, with a healthy dose of humor. Sort of a bastardization of the classic Greek myth of Odysseus, where instead of sailing around the Mediterranean looking for adventure, he decides to go down into Dante’s Inferno to rescue Persephone from Hades. On the way down he battles with shamans and witch doctors (Dueling Shamans), which leads him to an encounter with a pimp (The Spider Pimp), which starts an affair with a beautiful hooker (Even Demons Fall In Love), who then bewitches him - and then things really start to get interesting. He ends up meeting the Devil himself (At The Crossroads) and has a most stimulating, philosophical conversation with him, which leads him to a reassessment of his own ambitions. So instead of rescuing Persephone and returning to the world of men, he develops a taste for exotic psychedelics (Lost In Shinjuku) and eventually decides to stay in Hades for all of eternity, exploring the (Realm Of Shades) and welcoming all visitors and newcomers. Just like in Dante’s Inferno, the most interesting people are hanging out down there.
UNDERWORLD WILL BE RELEASED ON BARRETT MARTIN’S SUNYATA RECORDS LABEL ON AUGUST 4.