Since 1991, Medeski, Martin, and Wood have developed one of the most unique voices in American music. Utilizing the sounds of everything from free jazz to hip-hop, the trio has established an identity that has virtually no boundaries. All three players are virtuosos in their own right, but today we’re going to delve into the ever-expanding world of Billy Martin.
Billy Martin (a.k.a. "illyB"), certainly one of the most versatile and accomplished percussionists alive today, has extended his efforts to include his own label (Amulet Records), visual artwork, and more musical collaborations. With Amulet Records, Billy has set up an outlet for his more percussive & avant-garde oriented material as well as for other artists such as Bob Moses. Some releases include the following: illy B eats Volume 1: Groove, Bang, and Jive Around, Billy’s new break-beat record intended for DJ’s and musicians to collaborate; Percussion Duets, a collection of percussion duets by Billy Martin and G. Calvin Weston; Pitamaha, traditional Gamelan percussion recorded straight from Bali; and Love Everlasting, a soulful album with percussionist Bob Moses, guitarist Tisziji Munoz, John Medeski on piano, and many others. Amulet also emphasizes Billy’s visual artwork that includes all of the fabulous cover artwork he has produced for MMW along with a large amount of his other visual work. Today we catch up with Billy as he is making his way through a museum in Chicago.
William Turfcott: Can you tell us a bit about Amulet Records and what prompted you to create it?
Billy Martin: I started Amulet Records five years ago, and it was really just an outlet for my percussion music. As the slogan goes... "dedicated to the art of percussion." I mean it’s really an outlet for me and other people I want to collaborate with in more challenging musical situations. I knew that the duet record [Percussion Duets: Billy Martin & G. Calvin Weston] was something I wanted to release, and that’s what got the whole thing started.
WT: What do you think about electronic oriented music being played in an improvised setting?
BM: I think it's great! I think it's kind of a new form or style of creating music... You know, from a new generation. With DJ's and sampling and all that, the kids have a different way to make music, and it's kind of like a collage work or a collage artist.
WT: Definitely! It kind of strikes the whole postmodern notion about you. So I guess you're planning on collaborating with DJ's and other musicians on this new album [illy B eats Volume 1: Groove, Bang, Jive Around]?
BM: Oh yea... Definitely. It’s really pretty wide open.
WT: Have you received anything yet from anyone that has brought particular interest?
BM: I know John Scofield wants to do something, I'm going to have DJ Logic do something, and Steve Cannon as well. I'm going to have him read something from his book, from which I borrowed the title Groove, Bang, and Jive Around. He’s going to read something from the book and we'll probably put it together with a DJ, and construct a piece of music with his words. I'm waiting to get tapes and things in the mail from people who buy the record and check it out, and I'm still approaching other people to work with it.
WT: Do you plan on doing any performing or touring with the release of this album or it's collaborations?
BM: I think there is a good possibility, actually. There is something happening this summer already, which involves collaborating with DJ's and other musicians using this record. It's not one hundred percent confirmed, but in July in New York City at this gallery called Exit Art we are going to have a show every week in the gallery in this performance space. I'll have musicians interact with the DJ's, and also whoever the instrumentalist vocalist is. Basically it would be a duet with the DJ. I'll have a different DJ every week and I’ll also be there. It will probably be like four different guest artists including the DJ. Five different artists working together, and doing a live interaction. We may even use those tracks on the record.
WT: Very cool! I know that you do a bunch of work with your visual art. Are you planning on incorporating any of your work in the gallery's exhibit?
BM: Well, actually they are opening a new exhibit in June, and in July it will also be up. It's an exhibit of album artwork, so I'm not exactly sure whether they are going to use my art or not, but they have the record [illy B eats Volume 1] so maybe they'll use that one... I'm not sure, but it's going to be cool. I'm sure one weekend we'll get together and we'll have everybody and we'll release the record, which will probably be next spring or winter. I'll have an idea who wants to tour with it... maybe there will be different groups touring with it, or maybe we'll be all together... I'm not sure [laughs].
WT: Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to do the percussion duets with G. Calvin Weston?
BM: Yea... Calvin and I were playing in the John Lurie's Lounge Lizards together, and I came in as a percussionist, sort of at the last minute. John had formed a new band after he had released his own record called Voice of Chunk. Basically he had a whole new band and wanted to tour with it. I ended up coming in at the end of rehearsals because the other percussionist didn't work out. It was like an instant chemistry with me and Calvin... you know... it was a great chemistry, and it still is... you know? So we toured Europe, and played a lot in the East Village for years. Then John also formed a trio with he Calvin and I, and called it the “John Lurie National Orchestra.” We released a record called Men With Sticks, and so that was even more reaffirming the chemistry Calvin and I had. I wanted to do a session, you know? So for a couple of days in Brooklyn we went into this abandoned building, which one time Spike Lee used as a film studio, and it turned into some type of a stripper bar or something [laughs]. But it was like a sound stage, so I just had an eight track tape recorder and an engineer who recorded Calvin and I just improvising together and playing some of the stuff that I had thematically worked out. Then I had this recording, and I mixed it. I shopped it around for about two minutes, and realized that I should just put it out myself. I wanted to have full control over it, and I also wanted Calvin to get a fair deal. Calvin was struggling at the time with money and stuff, and you know he pretty much grew up in the ghetto in Philly, so it's just a way for me to give back to him a fair deal as opposed to what he’d get from most record deals. That’s kind of how I based the label. It's a 50/50 split of the profit for all of the artists involved with Amulet, and it really teaches the artist basically what it takes to make a record. We take the costs and expenses, and then we just split it with the artist, which is a really good deal.
WT: Yes! It seems that is the same thing that Butch Trucks is going for with Frogwings Records.
BM: Yea, it's definitely similar to that.
WT: What were the types of instruments that you used in that session. I know that you both had drum sets, but you've got quite exotic taste in percussion, so I'm sure there were some interesting instruments involved.
BM: We had two drum sets sort of caddy corner from each other, and then there was a table in the other corner that had balofones (like African xylophones), and other African instruments both with mallets and pieces of dowel. A set of four conga drums, bongos, and Calvin also has a great voice, so he had some vocal stuff going on. Basically it was two drum sets, a percussion table, talking drum as well, and African and Brazilian percussion.
WT: I had read a while back that you were starting work on a book called Riddem, which I haven't heard anything about it in a while. Are there any plans to release it in the near future?
BM: Yea, I'm still working on it. I've been so busy over the past year and a half. I moved from New York to New Jersey, got married, and have a kid who is eight months old. With MMW touring, and my record label, and my artwork, Riddem is something I want to get out. It has a lot to do with my teaching schedule. Like when I'm off the road and I'm teaching my private students, I start working on the book. I had talked with the people from Modern Drummer about maybe releasing it, but it's going to take a while because I still have some work to do on it. It really depends. It could be done within a year, but I'm definitely excited about it. It's just a matter of time.
WT: I can imagine. Jack of all trades at that point!
BM: Yea, I've got so many things going, and it's exciting, but it's very overwhelming too.
WT: You always look so relaxed when you're playing. The intensity never fails. You can create very intense motion, but it all flows very smoothly, and you always appear in complete control, and calm. Are there any things that you do either before or while you are playing to foster relaxation?
BM: Physically I think it's important to be relaxed... technically when you approach playing. I had really good teachers early with guys like Joe Morello. Joe was just all about lifting your arms up from your sides, and just placing the sticks on the head. Basically that was your technique. If you start to feel any pain when you play you stop, because any kind of pain or strain is not necessary. He talks about the physics of a bouncing ball, and how the stick is basically the same concept. You have to let the stick bounce and do the work for you. You can control it a little bit, but you don't have to do all the work. I think with that philosophy I've been able to work my technique in that way. I'm not always that relaxed... inside I'm working real hard. There's a lot going on and I'm really concentrating, and I'm trying to listen. Some nights it flows perfectly, the chemistry is perfect, and other nights there may be something that inhibits myself a little bit. It could be the sound of the room, or distractions of any kind, so it's really challenging. It's hard work, but there are those times when it's just totally effortless, and it feels like magic!
WT: I know that you mentioned Modern Drummer earlier, and I also saw that you are giving a performance class at the Modern Drummer Festival in NJ. Can you give us an idea of what you are planning on focusing on at the class?
BM: I think the most important thing when you play the drums and percussion that you're making music, that you're composing, and that you're expressing and communicating ideas. I think with Calvin and I, the way we play together is a good example of how you can be musical in your playing, and interaction. Drums and percussion can be melodic, and you know it's more on the avant-garde side of things, or artistic side of things, but I feel that is really important, and especially for that type of audience. I get a chance to talk about everyone having his or her own style. Everybody is an individual, and they should work on that. Whether they consider it a limitation or not, it's the most important thing people have to offer... if they are musicians or artists. I'm just going to try and get that across in the playing and talking a bit.
WT: It's definitely a breath of fresh air to hear someone pushing originality in that type of setting.
BM: Yea, I'm really glad they asked me to do it.
WT: It seems like there is a good cast at this festival as well. I think Stanton Moore is performing.
BM: Yea, Stanton will be there. I hope I get there in time to hear him!
WT: Most of the readers are familiar with your ability as a drum set player, but may not be as familiar with your dealings in percussion, and with your vast knowledge of world percussion people may not see the influences as easily. What players or specific genre of music can you say influenced your broad knowledge of percussion?
BM: There was a period in the 80's when I started studying Brazilian percussion, and that really had a big influence on what I was listening to. I was listening to Brazilian percussion and Afro-Cuban drumming and percussion. I was inspired by Afro-Cuban players like Mongo Santamaria. I really checked out a lot of field recordings of West African, and Central African music. Nonesuch Recordings, Smithsonian, and French labels that have all the field recordings, and indigenous African music, and most of the percussion. I would get the chants, the rituals…all that stuff. I really picked up a lot from that. Also King Sunny Ade. Then there are the funky drummers... from Max Roach, to Elvin Jones, and Roy Haynes, Billy Higgins, Danny Richmond, Eddie Blackwell, Zigaboo, Clyde Stubblefield... I mean really... there’s a lot.
WT: MMW has been one of the most successful groups at regenerating a new sound every time you go into the studio. What's next for the group?
BM: We might be releasing another live recording. That will be pretty challenging. We're going to be working in the studio this summer on a big record, which will probably be a pretty strong grooving record. So we're talking about that right now, and it's not definite, it never is until we finish everything and pick the tunes. It's pretty hard you know. We're moving in the direction of maybe releasing two records, one in the fall and one in the spring if things go our way. It's just a matter of time and stuff. We'd also like to do some more sound track recording. We are all individually doing stuff too. John just produced a record called The Word, which is with the North Mississippi AllStars, and Robert Randolph the pedal steel player. That’s coming out on Ropeadope Records. Chris is going to maybe do collaboration with me on illy B eats at the Exit Art gallery. He'll probably do a duet with a DJ. He's getting married in July so he's pretty busy right now with his personal life. I'm still planning on releasing a percussion record; you know something that's more compositional, and sort of my new compositions for percussion ensemble and solo percussion, which will have a wide range of instrumentation. That's going to be called Black Elk Beats. That will be my next release on the label after the compilation for illy B eats.
WT: Are you going to be collaborating with any other percussionists or musicians on that album, or will it all be you and your compositions?
BM: I may collaborate with other musicians. I'm not sure. It may be something with Cyro Baptista who is a brilliant percussionist that toured with us a little bit last fall. It may be totally solo, but I did record with an ensemble that I put together. It's going to premier an ensemble piece I wrote which is written for temple blocks and is based on the sound of insects and crickets.
WT: Well, it looks like our time is up! Thank you very much for the great insight! I'm sure that everyone has a better idea of what’s fueling your creative process now!
BM: No problem! Thank you very much. Hopefully I’ll see you this weekend at the festival!
At the Modern Drummer Festival, Billy spoke about the importance of everyone "telling his or her own story," and finding his or her own voice to express. This could not encompass Billy's approach any better, and it was very clear in the performance given by G. Calvin Weston and himself. Opening on drum sets, the duo began with a loose groove, while both players filled the space above the very delicately. Then Billy moved over to the percussion table set up between the drum sets to create some amazing counter point over G. Calvin Weston’s feel. The entire time, there was an extremely organic feel to the flow of the music. Their communication seems to build like “washes” of sound where one idea seamlessly leads to the next. It was very conversation-like.
After some great music Billy explained how he came to realize that percussion is quite limitless, and that if you open your ears to even everyday sounds like crickets, cars, or anything else that occurs in your environment, you are bound to find some type of percussion, and more importantly music. The duo wrapped up a question and answer session, and finished the performance with another brilliant improvisation.
I have a hard time believing that any DJ would not be absolutely drooling over the release of a Billy Martin break-beat record. Martin has formally bridged the gap that lies between hip-hip and jazz through inviting DJ's and other musicians to collaborate with him and his playing on illy B eats Volume I: Groove, Bang, and Jive Around. Postmodern music could be described as music that represents it's past mentors, and leaders, but presents itself in a manner by which it does not contour itself with the identity of it's past mentors and leaders. The music retains its originality, but with a nostalgic notion. Billy Martin has forged his way into the new millennium as one of the most profound postmodern artists to live. Combining elements of nearly everything American music had to offer in the 20th century with elements of everything that world music has had to offer since the beginning of sound, Billy Martin's new album illy B eats Volume I: Groove, Bang, and Jive Around, and all of his work on Amulet Records proves that he has upped the ante for artists from here on out.
William J. Turfcott
JamBase Mid-Atlantic Correspondent
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