By: Tom Speed
They were on a roll. The success of their fourth album, Taught To Be Proud, was the culmination of years of hard work and determination for San Francisco's Tea Leaf Green. It was a watershed event. Their popularity and acclaim was on the rise. They won a "Jammy" award for the album's title track. They were being asked to play at every major festival in the country. Their legendary live shows were being captured on a multitude of official downloads and widely traded homemade recordings. They were professionally chronicled in a live DVD/CD combo release entitled, simply but boastfully, Rock 'n' Roll Band. Their burgeoning base of well-connected fans were committed to supporting the band every chance they could. They were on top of the world.
Riding on these successes, the jam-rock foursome prepared to go into the studio for what would be a highly anticipated follow-up to Taught To Be Proud. For many bands that thrive on the stage, the official live album acts as a demarcation point – an official summation of all of the progress to date. Rock 'n' Roll Band was that for Tea Leaf Green, buoyed by the success of Taught To Be Proud. But they didn't realize how much of a demarcation point it would really be, how this point in time would mark a new era of the band, because then came the bombshell. Ben Chambers, bassist and founding member, abruptly quit the group.
Lineup changes are a fact of life in rock. It happens all the time. People quit, get tired, get pissed, find God, marry Yoko, die. But when a band is a tight foursome like Tea Leaf Green, the specific concoctions that define a band's sound can be especially dependent on the ingredients - the specific style, character and talent of the individual members like carefully selected spices in a secret recipe. In a four-piece like Tea Leaf Green - guitar, bass, drums and keyboards - there's little room for error and the slightest "offness" is blatantly apparent. It's about chemistry, that very special balance that makes something more than the sum of its parts - the one intangible element required for real magic.
That chemistry would immediately change, and their general balance was threatened with the departure of one key ingredient, one leg of an otherwise sturdy table. With all of the momentum the band had harnessed at this point in time, such a drastic change could have been a derailing moment for many bands. But Tea Leaf Green didn't miss a beat. They quickly enlisted virtuoso bassist Reed Mathis (Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey) and hit the studio with famed musician and record producer David Lowery (Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven) to begin writing the next chapter of Tea Leaf Green. The resultant record, Raise Up The Tent (released July 22 on Surf Dog), finds Tea Leaf at their best. Chief songwriter Trevor Garrod's lyrics chronicle a rogue's gallery of characters whose road adventures seem to define them. Hobos, tramps, truck drivers, carnies, drunks and ne'er do-wells populate these tales. They face down darkness, but keep on moving.
|Mathis & Clark - TLG by Sam Friedman|
This oftentimes-dark life on the road is no doubt inspired by the life Tea Leaf Green has chosen for themselves. They're the ultimate road dogs, sometimes playing more than a hundred shows per year. Moving from town to town, "singing for my supper" as Garrod proclaims on Tent's closing track, "Keeping The Faith." Theirs is a traveling carnival - a metaphor indicated by the tent-pole themes found in the album's artwork and lyrical musings.
Some bands might have folded the tents. Tea Leaf raised it high. By maintaining their never-ending efforts to find the perfect balance of being both jam band shredders and serious songwriters, Tea Leaf Green have allowed their fans to keep the faith in their band by insisting that the show must go on.
Raise The Tent
"They are a real smart and capable band," says David Lowery. Though perhaps better known for his own bands, Lowery has spent the past couple decades quietly amassing quite a track record as a producer, most notably as long-time collaborator of the Counting Crows but also as a producer of Sparklehorse, Hackensaw Boys and many other such diverse acts.
|Trevor Garrod by Josh Miller|
Tea Leaf Green had never used an outside producer of this ilk before. The band members and their close family had produced each of their prior efforts, but when Lowery found out they were considering enlisting his services, it didn't take him long to get on board.
"I mostly heard them from listening to them on Pandora and LastFM and stuff like that," Lowery says. "I thought their song structure in a lot of ways resembled what we did with Cracker. Cracker is seen as more of an alternative band but we do have sort of longer song structures, and there's a musical counterpoint give and take that you don't have with a lot of alternative bands. And [Tea Leaf] have real good, recognizable melodies. With vocal melodies I think a lot of bands can get trapped in a range but that's not really a problem with them."
In addition to their songwriting skills, Lowery was equally impressed by their musicianship, and it was their concert prowess that sealed the deal for him. "I immediately started checking out the live shows when it was first being discussed and that's when I decided I really wanted to do it," he says.
Indeed, Tea Leaf Green may be first and foremost a live band, but that hasn't stopped them from trying to craft an alternate identity as a top-notch studio band, too. Though they are rightfully well known for their adroit improvisation, what sets them apart from much of their jam band brethren is their catalog of well-crafted songs. Even without their onstage achievements, they'd be a great band based on their songs alone. Much of the success of Taught To Be Proud can be attributed to searching for, and finding, that balance.
Continue reading for more on Tea Leaf Green...
Photo of Tea Leaf Green by Sam Friedman
I immediately started checking out the live shows when it was first being discussed and that's when I decided I really wanted to do it.
-David Lowery on producing Raise Up the Tent
In concert, they're known to push songs to their limits with guitarist Josh Clark's blistering improvisations that stretch the themes of their songs into beasts of their own. But on Raise Up The Tent their focus is on the songs proper, more than ever before. Most of the tracks on Tent, many of them familiar to fans from lengthy concert workouts, come in concisely under five minutes. And while at first glance that might seem like a move on the part of a producer who just so happens to have a handful of radio hits, it was the members of Tea Leaf Green who came to the recording studio armed with new, tighter arrangements of these road tested songs, and a dedication to a "get in, get out" mentality.
"They're good musicians and they know what they want," says Lowery. "They know something that a lot of bands don't know and that's that the live show and the album are two entirely different things."
|Tea Leaf Green by C. Taylor Crothers|
"I think you have a responsibility to do things in the studio that you can't do on the stage," concurs Garrod. "Otherwise you aren't fully utilizing [the studio]. Things you do on the stage don't necessarily work as well in the studio."
Some of the things they did in the studio, in addition to keeping the songs short, were to utilize the "fade-out" technique on many songs. It's a trick that seems intended to reconcile the Studio Tea Leaf and the Stage Tea Leaf.
"When I was preparing for [the album], I was thinking about songs and how to do it," says Garrod. "On Beatles songs, or any songs of that era, there was the repeat-until-fade and it would just kind of fade out. You imagine that, in the studio, they were jamming out the end of the song but for the recording they just faded it out because they couldn't have it be that long. That repeat-until-fade is a promise that when you do go see them live, that they will play that forever. Like 'Ticket To Ride,' at the end with the 'My baby don't care' [section] it starts really rocking out. It only rocks out for fifteen seconds but it makes you think, 'Man, if they did that live they could totally rock that out for ten minutes.' I love fade-outs. It seems like a clichéd device, and I've heard people complain that it's laziness on the part of the composer that couldn't think of an ending, but I just think it's a promise of what can happen. The song isn't finished. We wanted to go for something that you could see the potential for it to jam out in a live show and that's why you go to the live show - to hear how the songs become more than they are on the record."
TLG's live shows are well chronicled, and that's another reason the band feels comfortable letting the studio albums stand on their own. Another factor is the isolated environment of a recording studio, which doesn't provide the requisite fan feedback so essential to their brand of jam.
"We have so many live recordings," says Garrod. "You can easily go out and get one of our live shows. We had the one two years ago [Rock 'n' Roll Band], and there's plenty of jamming on that. [In the studio], we wanted to write songs and not have it be about jamming. We don't really know how to jam in a studio without people around. It's not something we've focused on being able to do. Why would you?"
|Trevor Garrod by Sam Friedman|
The end result of this enhanced focus on songcraft puts the emphasis on nuance. Garrod's sweet tenor belies the darkness and despair he plumbs on "Not Fit" and "Innocence." Although three guests appear on the album (Dan Lebowitz - pedal steel guitar, Aaron Redner - violin, and Sasha Butterfly Rose - vocal) the four members use a wider palette of sounds than ever before, too. Vocal distortion effects adorn "I've Got A Truck," and "Red Ribbons" employs whirling organ riffs and Clark's slide guitar is at the forefront on several songs. Reed Mathis plays cello on tracks when he isn't laying down decidedly funky basslines, as on the opener "Let Us Go." And the slow burn gospel of "Keeping The Faith" is all the more powerful because of the build-up's delicate restraint. These studio versions live in their own universe, one that is only slightly different from their counterparts in the stage world, but different all the same. The songs here seem to, as Garrod intended, hint at something more but also provide something more themselves.
The Dream Pick
"He was our dream pick," says Garrod of new bassist Reed Mathis. "We didn't audition at all. We'd been watching Reed play for years and were huge fans."
|Reed Mathis by Josh Miller|
The proficient and prolific Mathis is best known for his work in Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, a wildly experimental combo that built their name by infusing jazz chops with rock attitude. The much in-demand Mathis has also collaborated with keyboardist Marco Benevento and guitarist Steve Kimock, and was part of Bobby Previte's Coalition of the Willing for a spell. He's a musician's musician, adept at a multitude of styles, with a full plate of projects in the hopper. That's why TLG was somewhat surprised when they were able to land him.
"We weren't really expecting him to want to do it or be able to do it," says Garrod, "but we decided to call him up anyway. Ben quit so quickly and we had obligations to fulfill. He quit right before we were about to go in the studio, so we needed to fill the spot quickly. We didn't have time to do auditions, and why should you? Why wouldn't you just call up the best guy you know first? Reed said yes, so we just lucked out."
Mathis has been in the band since last December, except for a handful of shows where ALO's Steve Adams filled in for him due to other commitments. Since then, he has taken quickly to the band, and has already been instrumental in pushing them in new directions.
"He's added enthusiasm and another tier of musicianship," says Garrod. "He's humbling. He's almost like a teacher in some respects. We're all kind of learning from each other. He brings in a lot. We can learn from him and he's learning a lot from us, he says. It's kind of a renaissance."
Continue reading for more on Tea Leaf Green...
Photo of Tea Leaf Green by C. Taylor Crothers
He was our dream pick. We didn't audition at all. We'd been watching Reed play for years and were huge fans.
-Trevor Garrod on Reed Mathis replacing original bassist Ben Chambers
Mathis takes the spot of Ben Chambers, a founding member of Tea Leaf Green. Affectionately referred to by a variety of nicknames - Ben C., Franz Hanzerbeak, Dechron-c - Chambers often provided comic relief to the band's performances, and the fun and goofy rap of his "Planet of Green Love" was a concert staple. More importantly perhaps, he was an integral part of the close-knit brethren that forged the band.
"It's kind of sad and I miss him and I miss the fact that we were all in it together from the beginning and there was this kind of blood-pact between us," says Garrod. "Now that's gone. There is that loss of brotherhood. Reed is still kind of the outsider and will always be to a certain extent because he wasn't there from the beginning. He missed out on the first ten years."
|Ben Chambers by J. Miller|
In his statement on the band's website, Chambers cites life on the road as a key factor of his decision.
"After ten great years on the road as a touring musician, I have come to the realization that this life is not for me. As a result, I have decided to leave Tea Leaf Green to pursue some of my life's other passions."
Big life changes, marriage and impending fatherhood, have followed his departure. But the band took it in stride.
"I don't blame him," says Garrod. "I'm not confused at all. I understand where he was coming from. If it doesn't bring you joy to be out here [on the road], it'll only bring you misery. There's not a lot of in between."
High School Portraits
Another thing that sets Raise Up The Tent apart from its predecessors is that it marks the band's first release on San Diego-based Surf Dog Records, a move that was simply the result of "people in suits shaking hands," says Garrod. Though a look at the label's roster - Brian Setzer, Dave Stewart, Gibby Haynes - indicates an alignment of strange bedfellows, the label seems committed to the group, evidenced by the release of a three-disc box set entitled Seeds and a re-release of Taught To Be Proud that includes three bonus tracks - "Incandescent Devil," "Hanging From A Tree" and "Dragonfly." Both of them were released as a build up to Raise Up The Tent.
|Old Tea Leaf Green Press Shot|
This back catalog provides new initiates an easy primer for the band's entire studio output. The Seeds collection is comprised of each of Tea Leaf's first three self-produced albums (their self-titled debut, 2001's Midnight On The Reservoir and 2004's Living In Between). Re-releasing these albums, some of which were out of print, is "like showing people your high school senior portrait," says Garrod. But, in seeing what this band has become, it's useful to see how they got here and how far they've come. From the beginning, you can see the band attempting to strike the balance between their improvisational leanings and their simple song structures. Early lyrics dealt with sophomoric exaltations of mind-altering substances, and their tone and style blatantly betrayed some of their most obvious influences. The debut finds the band playing tentatively without much hint of their live exploratory prowess. Midnight contains what were to become concert staples in "Sex in the '70s" and "Panspermic De-Evolution." Living In Between was the first peek at the fully formed Tea Leaf, a well-balanced representation of both their songcraft and their instrumental skills.
The Vocal Minority
A key aspect of the band's ascendance has been a close connection with their fanbase. They've always embraced the live taping community and been closely involved with their fervent fans. Their website includes an active message board and they've offered many official live downloads via livedownloads.com. The fans have created their own communities and tributes, too. One such endeavor is the Annotated TLG Songbook, which collects fans' transcriptions of every lyric in the Tea Leaf catalog. In addition to lyrics, fans submit nuggets of information about references in the lyrics and analysis that sometimes borders on the academic. Though it's tempting to join in the discussion, Garrod acknowledges he tries to let those efforts exist in their own world.
|Tea Leaf Green by Kark|
"I kind of prefer to watch it from a distance and see what happens" says Garrod. "I have all of the lyrics on my computer and I've been tempted to give them the real ones because there are a lot of errors. But a lot of times people come up with stuff that's better! I just like the fact that it's a fan site, and I love the fact that someone else is doing it and I get to sit back and watch what other people create."
Another reason to stay out of the fray is an effort to not be too influenced by what Garrod calls the "vocal minority." However, he does cop to listening to fan feedback, "perhaps to our detriment."
"The big fans are always clamoring for the rare song that we never play or diversifying our setlist to a ridiculous degree. But most people are quiet and don't care - they want to hear us play 'Taught To Be Proud' every night," offers Garrod. "I've always been trying to reach the balance. You want to throw in a couple of songs for people that only listen to the record, then throw in a couple for people who listen to every show."
Balance. You can't raise a tent without it.
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