Tea Leaf Green: A Happy Tragedy

Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Jay Blakesberg

new album
I’m standing here today
Without a dollar to my name
I’ve paid my dues
I’ve jumped my claim
I am a child of the wind

This verse is grim footing to begin an album with but one of Tea Leaf Green’s major charms is their lack of sentimentality. Oh, there’s an air of romance to these gypsy rockers – a good-hearted gang that seems wiser than their young years – but never so much that it gets in the way of shootin’ straight, just more muscle building behind their increasingly dexterous bobbing and weaving. Getting down to brass tacks, Radio Tragedy! (released June 7 on Thirty Tigers) refines everything about these 10 year and counting veterans, a work that neatly slingshots them out of the jam cul de sac and into the territory of Blitzen Trapper, Dr. Dog and other young peers doing what they can to keep rock vibrant and engaged.

Hooks and beautiful little touches snag the ear on every cut of the new album, and one can even see a tune like “Arise” slipping into the rotation at broader minded radio stations. Echoes of greats abound from the Bee Gees-meets-ELO dance groove of “It’s Easy To Be Your Lover” to the Mott The Hoople/David Bowie feel of “You’re My Star,” but always in a way where TLG takes possession of their influences and steers them into fresh spaces. A full sound combined with a keenly etched creative acumen marks this set, which really showcases what the quintet lineup of the band – Trevor Garrod (keys, vocals), Josh Clark (guitar, vocals), Scott Rager (drums), Reed Mathis (bass, vocals) and newest addition Cochrane McMillan (percussion) – is capable of. It’s the strongest lead singing yet from Clark, who really finds his footing in that realm in a big way here (and further props to Clark for the really gorgeous, worthy of close study comic book that accompanies the CD), Mathis makes his lead vocal debut on the floating jewel “My Oklahoma Home,” and Garrod remains one of the most unique, charismatic singers in pop-rock today. In simpler terms, it feels like the long arc the band has been on for the past decade has come to fruition on Radio Tragedy!, where the Tea Leaf Green has become a full-fledged studio band that understands the differences and virtues of what the studio can bring to the table versus what happens on stage, accentuating the positives in that divide and showcasing hitherto unheard parts of this group.

Tea Leaf Green by Jay Blakesberg
“We’re all big fans of lots of music that doesn’t involve improvising, or at least not improvising in the jam sense, like The Beatles and The Band. We all have a love of rock ‘n’ roll storytelling like that. Live, we love playing our instruments and the conversation that unfolds, and the dance floor loves it when the vibe we’re creating expresses itself,” says Mathis. “In the studio, there is no audience and it’s more about The Beatles than it is Phish.”

“There’s an old school contingent that wants us to be Phish…and their own little personal Phish. They wouldn’t want us to be as popular as Phish. They want to keep their pets where they are and we’re people, too,” chuckles Garrod. “There was a time when we were young and wore our influences on our sleeves. We can’t deny there was a lot of Phish in our early sound but it’s not who we ended up growing into…if we have finally grown up. The only reason we played 45 minute versions of ‘Sex In The 70s’ was because we didn’t have 45 minutes of material to spread around. Now we have other songs to play.”

In a way, it’s always been a bit strange that Tea Leaf Green garnered such a strong following in the jam scene given their emphasis on songwriting and working within well-thought out structures. It’s not that the boys can’t shred, but the underlying foundation often has more to do with composition and arrangement than free flights.

Trevor Garrod by Jay Blakesberg
“I’m proud that we can do both, and if we couldn’t do both I don’t think any of us would be satisfied as musicians. The combination is one of the things that tie us together,” says Mathis. “Both Josh and Trevor are confident enough songwriters to let all the musicians around them find their way to the song. They play it for us and the songs blossom as a collective. It seems like I end up doing a lot more overdubs on Trevor’s songs because there’s a lot of harmonic stuff that lends itself to my playing. Josh’s songs are a little more visceral and rhythmic. I love working with both of them, and I’m so glad to be in a band that’s a collective and doesn’t have one leader. You don’t see a lot of big success stories in the industry these days that aren’t centered around a big personality up front, your Jim James or Chris Robinson or Thom Yorke. It’s not really a problem, but that’s not the kind of group I like being part of. I like really democratic situations that are multifaceted. Not having a single front person and having different people lead different songs is tremendous.”

“In a lot of ways, [Radio Tragedy!] feels like our first true studio record,” says Garrod. “Every time in the past, we’d go into the studio after playing the songs forever live and play them essentially the same way as live. But this record, we didn’t even go in with the idea of making an album, precisely. We knew it would be an album in the end but we attacked it song by song. We came in everyday to work on a single song, and then move onto the next one. We always felt we rushed through each song just to get to the next one, and this time we promised each other that we wouldn’t move on to the next song until everyone was totally satisfied.”

Reed Mathis by Jay Blakesberg
“We definitely wanted to do it right,” says Mathis. “This is the third record since I’ve been in the band, and neither of the previous two albums was made under ideal conditions. We made compromises –as you always have to in the actual world – and did the best with what was on the table. This time, we decided not to make compromises and really do it right. A lot of the material we’d been saving for this record. The first record we made after I joined was done only a few weeks after I came into band and they had the songs and studio time in place before I joined. So, it was just weird timing. They had this material they’d been touring for a year or two, and suddenly it was this new ensemble. I purposefully didn’t exert myself too much because I was the new guy, and in the studio the main thing you want is for everyone to be comfortable. A lot of people like that record but it’s not the sound of a band stretching out. Then, we went back into the studio almost two years ago now and recorded so many dozens and dozens of songs, including some tunes that ended up on Radio Tragedy!. We looked at it and decided to wait on the new stuff and grouped it and the old stuff separately. That produced Looking West, which I’m super proud of, but it was done in about three days of tracking and then mixed six months later while on tour. Not an exactly ideal situation and it was all old material, but we did that on purpose because we didn’t want to dilute the new stuff.”

Producer Jeremy Black (The Botticellis, Apollo Sunshine) proves a wonderful x-factor on the new album, raising Tea Leaf Green’s studio game considerably and managing to bring out the best in them over an array of different moods and styles. For as cohesive as Radio Tragedy! comes across, if one examines the constituent parts it’s clear this band can funk and roll and swing with variety and always credibly.

“Jeremy’s really integral to the way this record ended up sounding. This is probably the most intimately we’ve worked with a producer,” says Garrod. “One of the jobs of a producer is to keep things on track, and we’ve had that before. But the other job of a producer is to be a creative source for ideas, to break up what a band usually does. He also had the power to suggest some synth parts that they might have rejected if I brought them up as just the keyboard player [laughs]. It really helps to have someone without the emotional weight of 10 years of touring behind them, which Cochrane also brings in.”

“Actually, something we’re struggling with is the newness of the band right now,” continues Garrod. “We’re newer than we’ve been in a long time [laughs]. We’ve changed a lot and grown, and it’s our struggle to reach out to people that might have listened to us five years ago who went, ‘It’s cool, whatever, just not my thing,’ and say, ‘No, it’s different. Listen again.’”

Cochrane McMillan & Scott Rager by Jay Blakesberg
“Jeremy has a great vibe, first and foremost, a great working vibe,” says Mathis. “He’s got a great work ethic but he always seems like he’s chillin when actually he’s kicking ass and working really hard the whole time. So, that was just perfect, where the sessions were really chill but a lot was getting done. We established a really good pace in the studio that we maintained all through making this record. It was an easy going pattern that got results quick. Plus, my relationship with Jeremy goes back before Tea Leaf Green. Jacob Fred and Apollo Sunshine used to play together back in the day. He and I have a really good rapport, and he wasn’t shy about saying, ‘I need some guitar or I need some vocals. Reed, get in there!’ He had a lot of confidence in me, which I really like. And he’s got great taste, which is the most important thing a producer can bring besides a vibe and good work ethic – an aesthetic.”

It doesn’t hurt the Black is a drummer himself, so the larger low end on display on Radio Tragedy! is never messy, a warm, rolling pulse with accents in all the right places.

“He knows drums for sure, and he made sense of Cochrane and Scotty both drumming in the studio,” offers Mathis, the monkey in the middle as the group’s bassist. “I love it so much! They’re such different drummers. Scotty and I have been playing together long enough now that it’s just seamless, groove-wise. He’s such a solid, competent musician that my thing just sits really easily on his thing. Cochrane is a little more like me as a musician; we come from a similar cloth. We both studied a lot of different styles of playing and music history, and we’re both pretty informed by jazz improvisation. And we’re younger men, so we have that in common, too [laughs]. So, Cochrane is an ally and foil as an improviser. Onstage, I can make the subtlest, small move and he’s right on it. He’s super in the moment, which is my default as well. So, between the two of them, I have this granite rock of groove and this moment-to-moment fellow spaz that is all about self-expression. It’s amazing for me to bounce off them onstage.”

Josh Clark by Jay Blakesberg
Radio Tragedy!, even just in its raw title, touches on the paucity of quality in today’s mainstream music industry, where the old avenues of reaching an audience, i.e. radio and television, are clogged with little but product devoid of artistry, the triumph of ad men and corporate types that talk about synergy and placement more than anything to do with feelings or beauty or truth. As such, Tea Leaf Green quietly highlights how a quality band like themselves aren’t often invited to the table to even discuss the mainstream, at least not yet.

“We didn’t do this consciously. These are just the songs that came out of our frustrations with life during this period. I never really want to claim total responsibility for what I say in a song. I say they’re confabulations of stuff, but pretty much everything on this record is true; every sentiment is a true sentiment we’ve had, though perhaps I’ll go a bit further than the truth in the last verse for the sake of drama,” says Garrod. “It’s been a frustrating ride in many ways, and in a lot of ways this feels like our last shot. There’s almost a tongue in cheek thing behind this record. We tried SO hard to make a record that people will like and listen to, but the tragedy is no one’s gonna care [laughs]. And in the grand scheme of things, no one is going to care. It’s kind of an existential crisis. We’re all going to die and our lives are going to be reduced to something written on a tombstone. But at least this time we tried really, really hard. People so often see what works and just keep ripping themselves off. In the end, no one will like that and you’ll like yourself less for doing that.”

Change is uncomfortable for all parties involved, and it’s likely that Tea Leaf Green will continue to experience growing pains, both within the band and with their audience. But, what’s undeniable is how they are maturing into a really great rock band that seem far from finished with delivering all they have in them. However, they’ve made a hell of a down payment on the future with Radio Tragedy!.

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