Tea Leaf Green: Living The Dream
2005 has been a momentous year for Tea Leaf Green.
They have clocked in close to 130 shows, traveled from coast to coast on several extended tours, shared the stage with Bob Weir, Trey Anastasio and Gov’t Mule, and just last month released their critically acclaimed fourth studio album, Taught to be Proud. Later this month, they will aptly close out the year with two highly anticipated hometown shows at The Independent in San Francisco on December 30th and 31st. After growing organically for eight years, working through more than a few rough spots, long cross country road trips, and scraping by to get from city to city, it is clear that Tea Leaf Green is finally getting the shot they deserve.
On the surface, Tea Leaf Green’s music is a blend of highly accessible rock & roll, catchy sing-along lyrics, shready guitar, and a solid rhythm section that gets the crowd moving. There are no gimmicks, fancy costumes, or special secret languages. It is, in a nutshell – a good time.
Upon deeper digging, however, we discover a world of stories, characters, and vivid lyrical imagery that has emerged from the band members’ own personal histories and their continued struggle to make ends meet as modern-day touring artists. Their storybook tale has been carved out of years of playing to half-empty clubs, long nights on the road, and a youthful quest for the rock & roll dream.
Guitarist Josh Clark is a gritty, scrappy, and emotionally passionate artist who has a unique music style of his own while also lending tribute to those who have come before him. Evoking influences of Hendrix, Allman, Anastasio, Skynyrd, and Zeppelin, Josh seeks to stretch songs well beyond their normal verse and to give fans something new and exciting to celebrate. It is not uncommon to see Clark battling with his instrument as he stares out over the audience, evoking imagery that the guitar is actually playing him while he struggles with his inner demons to reach a point of musical peak. His compatriots give him enough room for imaginative explorations that can take any simple solo into the realms of an anthemic burst, reaching to the starred ether before returning home and greeting a buzz-eyed, fist-pumping audience.
Josh tells us:
“I think at this point people kind of expect us to extend the songs. You gotta have the jam. I need to explode and have my head popped off of my shoulders and rolling on the floor before I’m satisfied and can walk off the stage.”
“Most of the times, we have places in the songs where we won’t practice, and those are the improv places where we can go off into the playgrounds of the songs” explains Josh. It’s best when you can sort of try to match the imagery of the lyrics and add something in these playgrounds that go along with that. It might just be my own fantasy and I might not be achieving this and it might only be in my own head, but it’s what I’m enjoying and what I like about it. That’s what I like about listening and playing music, the kind of music that creates an entire planet for me.”
“My fear sometimes is when I go up there and start playing and realize I’m getting away from what I feel is a theme for a song and start to go into my own stock footage. It becomes my own doldrums where I’m neither growing nor regressing, and I’m just floating through. It’s easy to rest on our go-to licks and style or think about a Jimmy Page lick on this one particular Zeppelin song and fall into these ruts and want to find a way out. Getting into the jam, you can kind of get into these grey areas. I want to be able to try and push that envelope, but I don’t necessarily want it to lead me back to where it started.”
“I really don’t want the trail to end, but if it is ending, I want it to end strong and to get to a certain place. It’s somewhere that you don’t get to every time you pick up the guitar – that’s where I get off, when I’ve made something new to me that I haven’t done before. You can’t really invent anything new now. It’s traditions and conventions and how you can pump out creativity and put your own spin on a timeless art form. Timeless in that it’s as old as mankind.”
If there is anything unique that may separate Tea Leaf Green from the jam pack, beyond their own skilled take on the extended improvisation, it is in their songs. Keyboardist and primary lyricist Trevor Garrod is the perfect complement for Josh Clark’s rock star styling. Trevor is a true poet, rootsy and real, writing timeless songs of love and lost love, the joys and hardships of traveling the open country, lessons of life, death, war, peace, and the space of things in between. Drawing influence from folk legends like Bob Dylan, Woodie Guthrie, and Neil Young, Trevor’s headstrong repertoire of material lacks any cheesy undertones or required rhyming structured prose. Growing up on a vineyard and horse farm in Northern California, Trevor confidently sings of more rustic ideals, like letting our hair grow long and staying up past the dawn. His lyrics powerfully proclaim Tea Leaf Green to be not just another typical rock band, but a group of musicians with a message to spread, evoking senses and emotions and giving the audience something real to hold onto beyond the peaks of musical glory.
When the discussion turns toward Trevor Josh smiles and reflects:
“Trevor has been a tremendous musical influence on me, maybe the most musically influential person in my life. Since we started this band, I’ve learned tons from him in regards to structure and staying focused and not just making compositions for the sake of composing things. His philosophy is largely about things being where they belong and making sense in that way. He’s a stickler for the rules, and I’m a stickler for breaking the rules. At the same time, I try to pull things in a different direction where they might not always be traditional or normal or right or proper just for the sake of ‘Why not?’ What’s fun about being creative is doing what you want to do regardless of how it’s supposed to be done.”
“Trevor primarily writes most of the lyrics and has painted this huge world of realism – he’s a realism painter. It’s about real life and earthbound things. Sometimes he’ll go out there, but songs like ‘Harvest Time’ and songs about relationships like ‘Don’t Let It Down’ and ‘Don’t Be Down,’ they’re all firmly planted on the ground. There are a lot of flights of whimsy like the ‘Garden Series’ we’ve been putting together. There are really a lot of different places you can go within our catalog of music, lyrically speaking.”
“A large part of pop lyrics and writing lyrics for pop music is you’re looking to identify and relate to the adolescent or pre-adolescent, and maybe with our music, which can be poppy here and there, but for the most part, we’re trying to relate to as many people as we can. To everyone. We’re not specifically thinking that this was going to please a thirteen year-old girl.”
“Every song has got a different message. Hopefully it’s positive in the end. Hopefully it’s not as much of a message but trying to get people to think a little bit and enjoy that aspect of moving your body and thinking at the same time. Feeling too. Moving, thinking and feeling.”
Moving and feeling in his own unique way, bassist Ben Chambers adds yet another character to the mix of Tea Leaf Green. As an outspoken advocate and funky stylist, Ben’s own personality and stage presence add both humor and panache to the Tea Leaf Green arsenal. Often taking on several nicknames such as “Franz,” “Milky Chambers,” “The Skillet,” “The Weed,” or “De Cron C,” Ben can often be seen bopping along in tune with many of the stage-front fans. Emerging from his cage for an occasional rap on herbal nutrition or to question the sobering decisions of his musical forefather, Snoop Dog, Ben has a way of keeping things smooth and fluid in Tea Leaf world.
In regards to the rhythm section, Josh says:
“I think that Ben’s bass playing has evolved by leaps and bounds. You can listen to all these bass players, then you can listen to Ben C for about three songs and know who’s playing that bass. I don’t know what it is about him; he has a very mysterious style – amazing style. He has a distinct voice on an instrument that is known for playing the support for the other instruments, which he does in a great way. He’s always been a great foundation, but he also has something to say too while he’s playing and reaching and trying new things and experimenting and he’s willing to go out there and constantly changing with different things going on. Ben C and Scotty have come a long way together.”
“Scotty (Rager) is the rock. He’s a rock drummer. He loves rock & roll straight up, and he loves straight up rock & roll. That’s been his primary driving force – to rock the shit out of those drums, which is also what’s most fun for me coincidentally, so it works out great. None of us are the flashiest of players, and I think at this point we know each other well enough and we’re comfortable with that. We don’t know if it’s necessarily good, but we know it sounds like us.”
Growing up in Los Angeles, Scott Rager initially cut his chops drumming on the Sunset Strip selling out the Whisky A Go Go and The Roxy with his brother Chris in a band called Salty Onion. Scotty and Josh had been lifelong friends since they were five years old living in the LA suburbs, and after Salty Onion broke up, Josh and Scotty started practicing together.
Josh smiles as he thinks back to his youth:
“We would set up all our gear in the attic of Scott’s dad’s carpet shop after business hours and practice with all our friends and have jam sessions all night long for our entire senior year in high school. It was inspired by the free-form jamming we were listening to at the time, and also Snoop Dogg. We’d just get up there and goof off for hours and hours and hours and be creative and silly and stupid, and we would record it all. It wasn’t for anyone else but ourselves and a time for us to have our space to hang out in during high school.”
Scott moved up to San Francisco in 1996 where he fortuitously met Ben while attending San Francisco State University, and the two began playing music together. After a little while, they brought up Josh from LA to get a new band together.
Josh explains the scenario:
“I gave Scotty one instruction before I got up there which was to not find another guitar player. I wanted to be in Scotty Rager’s band. When we got Ben on board, he had just learned how to play the bass after growing up playing piano, and the three of us would jam and had our feelers out for anyone who wanted to play along who might fit. It just happens to be that the first few months a lot of people came and went. We had a lot of different singers and players. The only people who stuck around were us. I guess we liked each other enough to want to hang out together all the time and play music.”
Josh, Scotty and Ben first performed live together at a warehouse party in the SOMA district of San Francisco with another guitarist named Russell Poll Slatton. It was at this show that keyboardist Trevor Garrod was introduced to the band.
“Trevor was at the first show. I was sitting on this chair in the front room and had a six-pack of Guinness, and I saw him and said ‘Hey’ and offered him a beer and asked him to have a seat with me. It’s weird, of all the friends I have, it’s never been that ‘Hey I’m Josh, come have a beer with me.’ It was weird in that sense. We got to talking, and I’m sure I was being egotistical about my guitar playing since I didn’t know anything about guitar playing and telling him that he’d witness a kick ass band since it was my band. It was our first gig and I was pumped, and he watched the gig and I guess he liked it because he came up to Ben afterwards and gave him his number and said, ‘Let’s play piano.’ So I guess I made a friend.”
After several months of practicing together, the newly formed quartet (minus Russell) performed to a modest group of friends and onlookers at San Francisco’s Club Cocodre in North Beach, and Tea Leaf Green was born.
Josh recounts the first show:
“The first gig for the four of us was at the Club Cocodrie in San Francisco. They would pile in seven bands in a night, and we had a 45-minute gig. I just changed my strings that day. I was totally nervous, downright scared and excited. In retrospect, this was a huge night. I might as well have been playing for 30,000 people, but it was really just maybe ten of our friends and a couple of old crusty North Beach people who are always in there lurking in the shadows. But I broke a huge sweat after 45 minutes, and my guitar was constantly going out of tune. I probably played terribly. I was out of breath, and my fingers were hurting. We practiced for a long time before we ever got a gig and got all of these new songs together. We had played our own songs, and I think ‘Precious Stone’ was one of the first songs we played at that gig.”
Within a few months, the new group was playing more often around town and drawing on their friends and family to help build up a local following.
“Before we really started playing regularly, one of Trevor’s great friends went to UC Davis and invited us to play in this basement that he lived in, the Turtle House. It was no bigger than a bedroom, but you could maybe stuff a hundred people in there. But when it was crammed, it felt like a thousand people.”
“For us, that was the first time that people ever gave a shit and danced and were crazy and ultra supportive. They formed a major early support group for us, and a lot of the kids at Davis would drive to our gigs in San Francisco. It gave us a sense that we might actually be good at what we’re doing. They were the first people to actually help our confidence. You need to see if it’s any good, and they were the first ones who said, ‘This is good. We like this. Please keep making this music,’ so we did. Most of them have since graduated, so we still see all the same faces but in different places around the country.”
Since their early gigs, the band has built a loyal and passionate fan base on a true grassroots level, the hard way. For about a year, they would perform a weekly Monday night residency at the San Francisco Mission club, the Elbo Room.
As Josh tells it:
“We were excited because it was one of these places that was a cool bar at the time. It was during the dot com thing, and the Elbo Room was packed every weekend as a hot spot. We managed to get this Monday night gig, and it was a really fun time in the band’s span so far for me because we had something to do every Monday. We had our comfortable place where we could do whatever we wanted to do. We’d do the door and basically just let people in for free. We’d rather have people there to have fun than worry about making the bucks. Sure enough, there was a crew of 10-15 people that would come every Monday. We’d play a set, and Ben would announce from the stage for people to meet us at the bar. One night he bought everybody in the bar a shot of tequila and invited them back to our house for a party. We formed this early bond with our first fans and friends who are still around today, and we still see them from time to time.”
“Those were great days, and we could do whatever the hell we wanted. We were really free-form without a net at that time, more so than ever. That’s when we discovered what works and what doesn’t as far as going too far with things. It’s great to go too far, but we’d train wreck all the time. There was also some really cool stuff. We’d go out there sometimes into a 20-minute version of songs and stretch it out to see what our capabilities were. We’ve constantly been learning our instruments together as a band. It’s always a learning experience. It never stops.”
“If it’s good, then hopefully everybody is really listening to everybody else and anticipating. You want to anticipate what can come next, in front of the wave you’re making, if you’re gonna catch it and keep on it. Sometimes I’ll be out there on stage and my mind will wander, and I won’t be out in front where I need to be and things aren’t as good as they could be when you’re focused. It’s all about focus, being in the zone, feeling good inside, feeling happy or sad, feeling comfortable with what you’re feeling. The audience having a blast is huge for us. After shows, you’ll ask ‘what did you think’ of the audience, and we’ll talk about whether they liked it or not. It’s important that the audience is enjoying themselves for us to enjoy ourselves to the fullest extent.”
Their initial years of constantly playing in the Bay Area primed Tea Leaf Green for another early milestone – the 2001 High Sierra Music Festival. A highlight of every year’s west coast festival season, High Sierra has been a breeding ground for bands to expose themselves to thousands of new fans over the course of a weekend. Tea Leaf Green’s performance at their inaugural High Sierra was no exception and served as a huge career-building show. Opening their set in front of just a handful of friends and onlookers, they were greeted by resounding applause from over a thousand new dancing fans at the end of their performance. Festival organizers must have taken notice as the band has appeared at every High Sierra since and dominated this past year’s appearances with an extended late night set, main stage performance, and several ‘stealth’ gigs.
Recounting the glory of High Sierra, Josh says:
“High Sierra was definitely the next step, and all the kids from Davis were there. It was our biggest emergence from the ultra underground. That was my first multiple-day music festival that I had ever been to. It was a great thing for the band and for people seeing the band and getting into it and making lots of friends and connections, but it was also kind of my music school where I’d see so much stuff that blew my mind that year. I saw that as an opportunity to try and rock as hard as I could and to get involved with the ‘scene’ as it is. It’s a beautiful creative community of artists and fans where the creative spirits aren’t just relegated to the bands. Everyone can be an artist. It was eye opening.”
“High Sierra has been very nurturing for a lot of bands, which they continue to support and bring back. Plus, they are always pumping in new music. It builds up a new way for your band to sort of be broken in without it being forced on you. You get this chance at a live venue to shine where everybody goes out there to play their best, and all the kids go out there to listen too because they know everybody is playing their guts out. There’s not a band going up to that festival that won’t try to play their absolute best regardless of their audience size. It’s just conducive to making the music you want to make with an audience that is just ready for us.”
The Bay Area isn’t always the most forgiving place for a band to live and is especially difficult on the touring artist. With very few major cities within striking distance, it often takes several cross-country jaunts for a band to build up a strong nationwide buzz, and this can certainly weigh on the individual band members as they cross this wide country. For Tea Leaf Green, they’ve had to endure years of criss-crossing the country, playing to empty bars, and relying on word-of-mouth to help spread their buzz.
Unfortunately, there is a moment in most artists’ careers where they must face the painful truth of coming to terms with their own definition of success. They have traveled the long hard road for many years, had their ups and down, seen the light and dark and more than one shade of grey. It is a turning point which too often can be a breaking point, and for Tea Leaf Green that point came about two years ago during a November tour as they were making an extended trek through the Southeast.
Josh thinks back to that fateful day:
“We had been on a really long tour, and things were getting pretty rocky. We had run ins with the law, run ins with everything basically, and then we got to New Orleans. This was our last show of the tour, and in my mind I said, ‘If nobody shows up to this show, I might never do this again.’ But 100 people showed up rocking, and they stayed and we played an extra set and kept playing and playing. It was a real uplifter. For me, it was an incredible show – a Rebirth.”
“It’s moments like those that keep you going. Totally like the sports cliché: bottom of the 9th, you’re ruined and totally depleted and broke, and your health is miserable from eating crap on the road, smoking cigs, drinking beers. The band’s self esteem will plummet, especially if you play a string of empty bars… eventually you hit a bottom place. But then you’ll hit a gig where people will show up and really appreciate it and dance and make you feel good for making them feel good.”
“Life on the road is hard, but it’s also an incredible adventure. It’s unlike anything else. You can just go out there with your buddies and say, ‘We are going to make something happen for ourselves that we’ve dreamed up completely. We are going to try to live the closest thing to the American Dream that I can imagine.’ It is the great American Dream Adventure. It can get a little mundane and patterned, but there are still all sorts of random things that happen all the time that wouldn’t happen at home, which is very alluring and draws you back out. A McDonalds in Alabama is good enough for an entire novel.”
Like so many artists before them, New Orleans has been a fertile ground for Tea Leaf Green and the site of more than one sun-rising legendary career performance. The first true glory bayou moment came as the band literally closed the 2003 New Orleans JazzFest with a 6 a.m. Sunday (start time!) performance at the Howlin’ Wolf, beginning with the original anthemic “Sex in the 70s” and closing with a fitting tribute of The Beatles’ “I’ve Got A Feeling.” This feeling continued for the last few years and seriously manifested earlier this year as the band played a blistering career-high show at the Blue Nile from midnight to 6 a.m.
One undeniable aspect of Tea Leaf Green’s recent growth spurt is the role of the Internet. The band maintains an extremely active and well-run website (www.tealeafgreen.com), which is anchored by “The Forum” – a community of several hundred that has grown to be a melting pot where fans can freely express their passions for the band, set-up group bus trips to nearby shows, and even arrange housing for out-of-town friends during extended weekends. The band also boasts an impressive 163 live shows available for download on Archive.org (check out – 1/20/05 and – 3/29/03) and has had several recent shows featured on the popular Nugs.network.
Beyond all other factors, it is likely the Tea Leaf Green fans that have played the most nurturing and progressive role in the artistic and word-of-mouth evolution of the band. Often seen passing out flyers for upcoming shows, the hard cores can also be seen egging the band on to explore new ways to spin a show in a different direction or to bust out a long forgotten tune. The band often responds in kind, granting secret requests or melding one song into another and back again.
Josh speaks openly about the relationship with the band’s fans:
“That’s what’s so great about our fans. They’re there, and you know that they’re there to embrace whatever it is that you can throw at them. You can sense that they’re waiting to see how the story unfolds. They don’t know because it unfolds differently every time. That may be the difference between a tour you go see where every stop the sets are banged out the same from start to finish. That’s a science all in its own, but you go to three Barry Manilow shows in a row, you’ve got it for the whole tour. That’s great, and I’ll wait for him to come back to town. I won’t go to the next show.”
“We’re more of a traveling improvisational circus in that you can come to more than one show. You’re gonna get a lot of the same songs, but they’re never the same because there is this exploring realm to try and make the song explode in certain ways or to bring it down. You can do it anyway you want, and it’s great to have an audience of people that is encouraging you to do that. It’s a musicians dream to have fans wanting you to change and to evolve constantly. It’s a blessing and a curse probably, but more of a blessing.”
“For me, I think that a Tea Leaf Green fan up until this point is a really, really enthusiastic hard-core music lover. These are the kind of people that listen to music everyday, are constantly listening, trading, partying. They love the concert experience more than the average person. Your average person might see a show once every few months. These are people whose entire lifestyle is centered around music. It’s fun to play to people like that. Otherwise we’d be playing for nobody. We’re not easily going to them like other heavily marketed bands are – these are people that are coming to us.”
by Dave Vann
This past summer, Tea Leaf Green had another major career milestone as they were selected to play the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, TN. Taking the stage early Saturday afternoon to a crowd which grew to over 10,000, it was to be a major turning point of exposure for a band that had struggled thus far to really break through the barriers. Whatever factors had to align for the band to get to this point in their career, it was clear from the start it was their moment for the taking. No amount of planning, managing, booking, or publicity can ever replace the experience of a band stepping up and nailing it when they’re put on the spot. Many of those who were witness to the set walked away with a new favorite band.
Josh relates the experience:
“That was definitely a milestone in our career. However it pans out, I’ll never forget it. Pure adrenaline. I was really taken aback by the sea of people. This thing that you’ve seen pictures of but you’ve never been in front of – it was fun and awesome and definitely a dreamlike state. It’s definitely been the most obvious example of the kind of year we’ve been fortunate enough to be having. We’ve had lots of opportunities come our way and doors opening for us this year, and we’re very grateful for it.”
It is both these new opportunities and Tea Leaf Green’s ability to deliver a remarkably exciting performance each night that have continued to propel them to the next level. While they may have gone through a few long rough spots over the years, it is clear that the stars are aligning for them to be turned on to more and more people everyday. Whatever the future holds for Tea Leaf Green, it is clear that 2005 was a huge burst of momentum for their career. They played more shows to more new fans than at any point in their lives and were given the opportunities about which most artists only dream. Charged with busloads of potential for the future, there is truly no telling where Tea Leaf Green may go from here.
As our talk that spanned several days came to a close Josh smiled as he spoke:
“I feel like if the story of the band is to be told, then what’s happened so far is the prequel. This is sort of the starting point. We’ve climbed our way to where many bands start once they get plugged into the band machine, but we’ve always been there and now these opportunities are the starting point and everything else has been preparation so that we can make the most of these opportunities. I don’t think we could have been able to get here had we not been fighting so hard and playing together as long as we have. If I ever get nervous about it or think it’s scary, I know that I’ve got these three other guys and the music we make together to fall back on. We’ve been falling back on each other for so long that we know we can barge through whatever obstacle are in front of us and take advantage of the opportunities that come our way as well.”
“Hopefully I can feel comfortable that we’re giving people something that’s an honest expression of fun and novel songs. What’s most important to me are songs that have a little bit more of a personal meaning, that they are relatable from the human experience that we’re all collectively experiencing. We’re not necessarily here to teach anybody anything; we’re here to share.”
JamBase | San Francisco
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