Tea Leaf Green: Big Top Balancing Act

 
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

 
Photo of Tea Leaf Green by Sam Friedman

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.

Tea Leaf Green by C. Taylor Crothers
"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."

"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 clich├ęd 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.

Trevor Garrod by Sam Friedman
"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?"

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

Reed Mathis by Josh Miller
"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."

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...


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