Baby, He Was Born to Drum: An Interview With Drummer/Percussionist
“I just found this picture that IÃd forgotten about, of Christmas Day when IÃm 7 or 8, and IÃm holding up a snare drum. ItÃs the first drum I ever got from my Mom and Dad,” Barrett Martin says, waxing nostalgic over the gift that launched a career thatÃs spanned over 25 years. At age 35, Martin can look back on a dizzying, diverse drumming career that took off on the cusp of SeattleÃs grunge explosion, when he joined Screaming Trees just as NirvanaÃs debut, Nevermind, instigated a far-reaching pop music revolution.
In 1995, Martin recorded Above with his side project, Mad Season, in which Pearl Jam guitarist, Mike McCready and late Alice In Chains vocalist, Layne Staley, were also members. Since 1997, Barrett finds creative expression with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck in Tuatara, a band specializing in instrumental worldbeat, lounge-pop and free jazz. TuataraÃs third album, Cinemathique, was released this spring on MartinÃs own imprint, Fast Horse Recordings.
Closest to his heart, however, is Wayward Shamans, a group he formed in 1999 with Ex-Brave Combo percussionist, Joe Cripps (his partner in the label venture). It seems there isnÃt much territory Martin hasnÃt already covered or isnÃt on his way to conquering. Yet, with his proficiency in a broad range of percussive styles, Barrett still thinks of himself as a rock drummer.
In this interview, Barrett Martin spoke with Ink 19 from his home in Taos, New Mexico, touching on his own experience of the early Seattle scene, his relationship with Layne Staley, and how his world travels have influenced the course of his career.
What was the early late ’80s Seattle scene like for you?
The Seattle scene was just starting to happen about that time, but no one outside of Washington state would have known about it. Sub Pop had just started as a record label. I started auditioning for some bands and I had decided to play rock as opposed to jazz. Keep in mind that it was a real small scene at that time, comprised of maybe fifty people. At that time I met Jack Endino, the Sub Pop engineer, and he had this band, Skinyard. They had already made a couple of records, one of which had Matt Cameron as the drummer and another that featured Jason Finn, who became the drummer for The Presidents [of the United States of America]. I became their fourth drummer and we made two records, A Thousand Smiling Knuckles and Inside The Eye, on an imprint of SST Records. At that point, Skinyard had made five records and that was kind of the life of the band, so the band broke up amicably.
About two weeks later, I got a call from Van Conner of Screaming Trees. I had met Van before because he had played for Dinosaur Jr. when the Trees were on hiatus and weÃd done tours where weÃd crossed paths. I had seen the Screaming Trees play when I was in college and I was totally a fan of all their records. He called me and said, “Well, we need a drummer and weÃve heard that your band broke up. Do you want to come and audition?” I said, “Yeah, absolutely.” After one rehearsal they asked me to join the band. That was in the fall of 1991.
And 1991, of course, saw the release of both NirvanaÃs Nevermind and Pearl JamÃs Ten.
What happened was, NirvanaÃs Nevermind album came out in the fall. I was in Europe with Skinyard — weÃd done a European tour — and we played a couple of shows with Nirvana, actually. Nirvana had been in Europe, doing a kind of promotional tour, when their record came out, and they were totally unaware of what was going on in the United States. I mean, they knew it was selling, but since they werenÃt there, they didnÃt realize the impact of that record. We flew over there and we joined up with them. I remember Jack talking to Kurt backstage saying, “Do you have any idea whatÃs going on in the United States right now? Your record is totally destroying the entire music industry all by itself!” It was great because we were just playing these little club shows to a few hundred people. After that, the rest is history.
I joined the Screaming Trees that winter, the following February, so it was ten years ago now. In February of ë92, we went to New York and we made the Sweet Oblivion record. That record came out that summer, on Epic, and we toured for at least two years non-stop. The other thing that was really interesting about that time was that alternative music — which had of course already existed — was totally new territory because the labels didnÃt even know how to market the bands. I remember Mark Lanegan [Screaming Trees vocalist] telling me that the first record they did for Epic, Uncle Anesthesia, was marketed as a heavy metal record [laughs]. We went out and played every city and every venue that would take us.
I was extremely moved by the eulogy piece that you wrote for Allstar News after the death of Alice in Chains vocalist, Layne Staley. Would you like to talk about that at all?
IÃm not really the type of person to sit down and write an essay about somebody, but apparently none of the members [of Alice in Chains] had issued a statement and then they asked me to write something, so I said okay. For LayneÃs memory I think itÃs important that somebody put it in print that there was this other person [outside of his place in his band] that you just wouldnÃt know about. He was one of the sweetest people IÃve ever met, not just in the music business, but in my entire life. Just the fact that I got to tour with him and work with him — I mean, we were in different bands, [but] then we were in [Mad Season] together. He was just a really, really super sweet, sensitive guy and I donÃt think people would normally assume that, listening to an Alice in Chains record. The times that I was with him on tour he was incredibly happy and a really funny guy. He had a really sharp sense of humor, a real wit.
From listening to an Alice in Chains record, like Dirt, for example — I mean the least-downer of a song on that record is about Vietnam — he seems like maybe he was a tortured person.
I never saw him in what IÃd say was a “tortured” state of mind. When youÃre on tour, you know, there are highs and lows. A lot of it is just the drudgery of it, itÃs not fun and glamour, itÃs really hard work and you kind of do it because youÃre living for the high points — the great shows, the transcendental experiences. A lot of the time youÃre tired and hungry and burnt out. In LayneÃs case, he lived so extremely and was in the spotlight so quick… it was the same thing with Kurt [Cobain]. Any great rock & roll star, if they have that star power, itÃs kind of a blessing and a curse.
What was it like, being in Mad Season and recording the album Above?
Above was a really inspiring record to make. We did the whole thing in about two weeks, and we didnÃt have the pressures of being on a major label yet. Once our lawyers got involved, they said it had to be on a major label because of our existing contracts, so it made sense to go with Columbia. But it was inspiring because the musicians in that band, we all came from very different backgrounds. There was Baker Saunders — who we also lost a couple of years ago — and he had been from the Chicago blues scene. He had grown up in that [environment] and it was totally his roots. Mike McCready had always had a blues influence, but had gone more rock & roll. I was always influenced by the ’70s blues rock, and blues music in general. Then, Layne was coming from a totally different place. I don’t even know if I can describe his musical influences because they were just all over the place.
WhatÃs interesting about that record is that critically, every music critic just slammed it — they just hated it. I think it was more because they called it a supergroup, because it was all these musicians from all of these other bands. But the overwhelming response from the people that bought the record was that it was the kind of record that changed their life. I still get e-mails from people from all over the world who talk about how that record changed their life, whatever that means. ItÃs an individual experience. That was also the most commercially successful record IÃve ever done.
Should we back-pedal and touch a bit more on the grunge thing?
Well, the whole Seattle thing was about playing good music, being original, and just being a normal person. You just couldnÃt be a cool band if you acted like a rock star. I canÃt remember who said it, but the quote went something like, “The Seattle bands basically wear the same clothes on stage that they wear at their day jobs.” [Laughs] Like, you donÃt put on a costume, you just get up and do it. ItÃs a blue-collar ethic, and Seattle was always a blue-collar, working class town… until it became the software capital. Seattle kind of destroyed what we called the Sunset Strip mentality — that whole MTV thing that was going on was just waylaid by the Seattle movement.
The revolution that Nirvana started, it didnÃt last very long, but it burned very brightly for a few years. And then you started seeing — I think Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots was the first offender — what I like to call the sixth generation carbon copies of Eddie Vedder. First it was guys trying to emulate Eddie Vedder, then guys trying to copy those guys, and now weÃre up to guys copying Scott Stapp. At this point, no one can even remember what the original looked like. With hindsight, what are your thoughts on being part of the legacy of grunge?
I think grunge really was just a combination of the classic, the primary colors. You always have to go back to the primary colors. If you talk with anybody who knows anything about music, who is an authentic musician, they should be able to talk about the classics. Whether it was from their generation or not; you should be able to talk about classic rock from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and you should know a little bit about jazz and blues and go even further back to the early American songwriters. The whole Seattle thing was really based on principles that were classic principles; the classic rock, The Stooges and The MC5 and The Velvet Underground, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, The Who, Neil Young and Bob Dylan and all that stuff. IÃd say that every Seattle musician that was in a monumental band had all of those records and knew of all that. They really came from a more classic approach. I think where styles and form get diluted is from just what you said, when people start building upon last weekÃs hit. Anytime you start chasing a trend or you start trying to copy something thatÃs already been done, youÃre already behind the ball. YouÃre already diluting yourself because youÃre not doing something original, but only trying to copy whatÃs been done and not going back to the primary colors. The most original and exciting music is when [bands] draw from that, then put their own creative spin on it. I know that somewhere, right now, thereÃs some band rehearsing in a basement thatÃs gonna be the next Nirvana. And what will make them the next Nirvana is the fact that theyÃre not listening to “the current bands.” if they were, theyÃd be doomed, because weÃre not in a good musical cycle right now.
Oh gawd, is that ever an epic understatement. I canÃt even listen to the radio.
Yeah, itÃs terrible. ItÃs a general statement to make, but weÃre not in a very inspiring musical cycle right now. IÃve been in this business long enough to watch cycles happen, so I know that this is just part of a cycle and it will burn itself out. Then thereÃs going to be some band thatÃs going to kick open the door and itÃs just going to blow everybody away, because that band hasnÃt been listening to the current crap, but [rather, they are] going back to the origin, primary sources. I mean, Led Zeppelin probably was more influential on me than any rock band.
What was your objective for TuataraÃs Cinemathique, and how did you achieve that?
I kind of simplified my drumming on this record because we approached it a little differently. Justin [Harwood], Peter [Buck], Scott [McCaughey] and I went into the studio together and we each had songs. The four of us worked it out in the studio, when we cut the basic tracks. We did that at Studio Litho, which is Stone Gossard’s studio. Then we went to my home studio — because I was still living in Seattle at the time — and we did all of the over dubs there. We did all the horn parts, percussion, things like that. Then we went back and mixed it at Litho. I would say that, if anything, we went for more of an atmospheric, ambient quality. I mean, thereÃs still some Afro-Cuban grooves in there, but basically I just tried to keep the drum parts really simple and to just support the composition, knowing that [the songs] were more airy and that if I played too busily or too intricately it would step on the song a little bit. On this record, I think everything came together. The compositions are the best that weÃve done to-date, and on our performances — the individual parts, the solos — we used more diverse instrumentation, including clarinets and the sax and trumpet. We used more of the electrified keyboard approach, Fender Rhodes and organ. Everything had a little more of a shimmer to it.
“Love is a Calculated Risk”, from that record sounds like itÃd be at home on the latest Wayward ShamansÃ record, Alchemy, as well. To someone whoÃd never heard either album, how would say they compare with or differ from each other?
The Tuatara record, Cinemathique is obviously all instrumental, and I would say based more on the individual compositional inspiration of whoever participated in the song. What I mean to say is, that band, and each record we make, is defined by the compositions that we individually bring in — because thereÃs about five different composers. The Wayward Shamans album, as our debut, was really based on the field recordings that I had started in West Africa and then continued in Cuba with Joe [Cripps] and then in Brazil, with Joe as well. I had taken all of these field recordings that IÃd been doing for years…
And those are recordings of indigenous drummers?
Well, the field recordings that I use, itÃs not me recording other people, itÃs me recording myself playing with either the drum group or the drum master of the group that I was playing with. In the case of [those I did in Senegal] that was the Sabar group that I was playing with, which had members of Les Ballet Senegal. I think there was probably seven or eight drummers in the room when I was making those recordings. When I was in Ghana, it was me and the drum master that I studied with, Seth Amoaku. That was me and him, literally, sitting outside under a tree [laughs]. The ones I did in Belize were recorded in a thatched roof hut on the beach. The ones in Brazil were done inside the apartment that I had rented, [and those] were with the Candomble drummers.
Does it just make your head spin to think back on all youÃve done in your career?
I was all calm until I started talking about it [laughs]. The most profound thing I realized about the whole experience is that it all comes down to the drum and the voice. Those are the two poles of all music. ItÃs the rhythm in the foundation and itÃs the voice in the spirit: north and south. Everything else, guitars, keyboards, whatever you want to throw in, thatÃs all just filler. It all comes down to the what the voice says and the way the spirit expresses it, and the way the rhythm supports it and creates the foundation. Actually, you can even take that little theorem and look at any great rock band or jazz band and just look at, did they have a great singer and a great drummer? Or did they have a great lead horn player and a great drummer? It always comes down to that melodic or vocal expression and the rhythmic foundation of the music.
I never thought of it that way, but I think youÃre absolutely right.
I mean, think of it; think of any great band or any particular song that really inspired you. It was usually the feel of the groove or the pulse — the rhythmic pulse — and what that voice was saying. Everything else, it adds a lot of nice color and dimension to it, but if you donÃt have those other two qualities, you just donÃt have anything.
ThatÃs why, for example, Soundgarden was such a great band; because of Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron.
I know! Matt is, hands-down, the best rock drummer in the United States. I donÃt think anybody even comes close to him. I mean, he just is, and heÃs a great guy on top of it. And Chris is just about the ultimate combination lead singer/rock star that you could imagine. ItÃs just all there… and heÃs another great guy too. TheyÃre all cool guys actually.
IÃve gotten conflicting responses from different drummers about whether or not drummers make good producers. WhatÃs your take on it?
I think a drummer makes a better producer if heÃs a multi-instrumentalist, and not just a drummer. I think this is true for anyone who is going to be a producer. I think you do need to know a good cross-section of instruments and just basically how to play them and the sound that you get out of them. A lot of production just has to do with not interfering with the band or the recording session itself, but just being able to capture everything thatÃs happening and get it on tape, or into the hard drive, depending on how youÃre doing it. A lot of that has to do with knowing what sounds good and how to mic it properly and how not to put your imprint on it, but just capture whatÃs there. IÃll tell you one of the things that drives me nuts is when a drummer starts bitching about his drum part without listening to the rest of the song. I was always trained to listen to the song — the composition — first. The drums are the supporting part of that.
I went to a lecture that Hal Blaine gave a few years ago in Seattle, and it was just great, because thatÃs all he talked about. He didnÃt really get into drumming, he didnÃt talk about technique or styles, he just talked about the art of the recording session. And you know, this guy obviously is the most recorded drummer in history, and he was talking about how important it is to just play and support the song and do it as efficiently as possible. HeÃs like the Green Beret of drummers: Go in and do it as efficiently and perfectly as possible without drawing any attention to yourself. I just think thatÃs absolutely how a drummer — or any musician — should be. You know, play your part, do your thing and keep in mind the bigger picture of whatÃs going on, that youÃre one part of this greater entity… the band or whatever it is. So, from a production stand point I think itÃs way more important to keep those things in mind. I mean, youÃve got to get a good drum sound, thatÃs pretty important, that should come as a second nature if youÃre already a drummer. Dave Grohl is that way, heÃs a great drummer because he just powers it, and he does drum fills but theyÃre just right on the money and thereÃs nothing extra. ItÃs just what you need right when you need it. ThatÃs the best style, I think.