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Barrett Martin: Musical Artifacts and Seattle Punk


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Barrett Martin's primary instrument is the drums, but he has also been known to play upright bass, as well as many different types of ethnic percussion instruments that he has studied formally, often traveling to their countries of origin to seek out Griots and teachers. His musical credits include Seattle bands Skin Yard and Screaming Trees, supergroups Tuatara and Mad Season, and the PBS short documentary about his drumming and Zen painting, Zenga And The Art Of Percussion, which won a 2009 Emmy Award.

Martin's latest project is the band Walking Papers, which he formed with vocalist/guitarist Jeff Angell. The band's first official public performance was a rollicking outdoor benefit show for injured veterans that also featured Guns 'N Roses bassist Duff McKagan and Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready.

All About Jazz: How did you get your start playing music?

Barrett Martin: I've been playing drums since junior high, and all through high school and college, mostly big band and small combo jazz, and some orchestral work as well. And then, in 1987, I moved from Olympia, where I grew up, to Seattle. Sometime around 1988 I met Jack Endino, when he produced a session for my punk band, and we hit it off. He asked me to play drums on his solo album, which led to me playing in his main band, Skin Yard, which was one of the first Seattle grunge bands. My music career has gone on like that, like a fractal, just continuing to evolve over the years.

AAJ: Were the drums your first instrument?

BM: Yep, the drums always came first. I was naturally drawn to them. My dad had been a drummer in college too, but he never played professionally. I also started playing upright bass, and vibes/marimba when I started high school and that was because the drum spot in my high school jazz band was only open to juniors and seniors. So, for the first two years I played electric and upright bass in the jazz band, which I still play today. I also played mallet instruments in the orchestra in high school and college, so basically I got a well-rounded education in theory, percussion, and rhythm section work in general. I have been very fortunate in the bass players that I have played with over the years, and occasionally I am asked to play upright bass or vibes on other peoples' albums. I like the variety, it keeps me on my toes.

AAJ: Who were your early influences?

BM: My early influences were the jazz drummers on the big band records that my grandparents gave to me from their collection of 78s. So, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, and, later on, drummers like Art Blakey, Max Roach, and Elvin Jones. Of course [The Who's] Keith Moon and [{Led Zeppelin}}'s John Bonham were huge influences when rock and roll finally seized me, which was really more in college, believe it or not. [Rush's] Neil Peart, too; I learned all of his grooves and fills. I am of the school of thought that if you can play Neil Peart and John Bonham, you can play just about anything. I totally believe that Peart and Bonham are the Titans.

AAJ: How did you first get involved in the Seattle music scene?

BM: When I met Jack Endino.

AAJ: How did that lead to playing music on a national and international level?

BM: Well, Skin Yard was a pretty big band in Seattle at the time, and a respected indie band at the international level. So my first record with them, 1,000 Smiling Knuckles (Cruz, 1991), went to the top of the CMJ college charts in 1991. We toured the US, Canada, and Europe, that same year, so we essentially did a world tour. That was actually the band's fourth album, and it was their breakthrough album. It was also their breakup album because, almost immediately after that world tour, the band broke up, although we did record one more album, Inside The Eye (Cruz), which came out posthumously in 1993. I was asked to join Screaming Trees in late 1991, and we immediately went into the studio and recorded Sweet Oblivion (Epic, 1992), which turned out to be their breakthrough album as well.

I spent three years in Skin Yard, and the first three years of my decade-long tenure in Screaming Trees on the road. I essentially toured almost nonstop from 1991 to 1995, so almost five years straight. All of my belongings, including my fast-growing percussion collection, stayed in a large storage unit for almost half a decade until I finally bought a house. I just lived out of a suitcase and hotel rooms.

AAJ: What influenced you to study indigenous and folkloric music?

BM: I always kind of liked indigenous world music because of its musical primacy and its natural organic quality. I think as a child it started with my dad's collection of Latin Jazz and other exotic sounding albums that I was too young to remember. I remember him playing Hawaiian music, for example. Then my parents moved to Australia for several years and when I would go visit them I would hear Aboriginal music, and later when I went to New Zealand, I would hear Maori singing. I kept traveling on my own, to West Africa to study Wolof Griot drumming in Senegal, and Ewe drumming in Ghana. Another year I went to Cuba, and the year after that I did two extended tours of Brazil.

I eventually went back to graduate school and did my master's degree field work in the Peruvian Amazon working with the indigenous Shipibo people, which was an all-vocal culture with no drumming whatsoever. In graduate school I also worked with the Iraqi master musician Rahim Alhaj, and I learned some basic Arabic music theory, which deeply influenced the way I thought about music. Generally speaking, my growing interest in world music came from me visiting those places and experiencing the music first hand, in the field. I studied anthropology and ethnomusicology in graduate school at the academic level, but in reality, I just love to listen to a great Salsa band, or a singing Shipibo shaman, or a Fela Kuti record, or whatever musical mood strikes me on a given day.

AAJ: How would you say that your study of indigenous and folkloric music has influenced your own playing?

BM: Well, certainly all the different drumming systems I have studied have influenced the way I play the drum set. I've added a lot of rhythms and grooves that I would have otherwise never tried in the conventional Western way of playing. As a composer and songwriter, I think my exposure to world music, and jazz before that, has given me alternative ideas to the rock and pop structures. I mean, all the different scalar possibilities—Arabic maqams and Indian ragas, for example; African, Cuban, and Brazilian rhythmic sub-structures, and the way a melody can work over the top of a complex series of changes—all of that has influenced the way I think and write about music, forever. I mean, when you really think about it, all the greatest songwriters and composers eventually investigate world music because they see how infinite and wonderful it is, and they want to keep learning and growing. From Bartók and his Hungarian folk melodies to Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel, the greatest writers always get into world music eventually.

AAJ: Do you have any suggestions for people who are trying to succeed as musicians?

BM: I get asked this question all the time, and all I can say is this: if you know you are going to be a musician no matter what, then you stay on the musical path no matter what. Literally, no matter what happens to you, the good and the bad, all of these things forge your spirit and character into becoming a great musician. Your life is your music. You don't just do music for a period of time when it's easy, you do it through the thick and thin. Those are the musicians I admire the most, the ones who stuck it out. At an essential, mystical level, you are the music and the music shapes you over time. It's a lifelong pursuit, perhaps a many lifetimes pursuit. Being a musician is a sacred responsibility, so remember that. You are doing the highest art.

AAJ: Are you satisfied with where you are now as a player?

BM: Satisfied yes, but I'm always trying to learn new things and evolve my playing and composing. On any given night, in any given city in the world, I can go out and see a drummer better than me. It's not hard to do. I just go to the best jazz club and I'll see someone much better than me. On the other hand, each of us has a particular style and way of playing and I don't see a lot of drummers who play the way I do, very few actually. I just try to get better at the way I play drums, evolving my style of playing, improving my technique and taste. That's all anyone can do, whatever instrument they play.

Selected Discography

Walking Papers, Walking Papers (Sunyata Records, 2012)

Screaming Trees, Last Words: The Final Recordings (Sunyata Records, 2011)

Mad Season, Above (Columbia, 1994)

Screaming Trees, Sweet Oblivion (Epic, 1992)

Skin Yard, 1000 Smiling Knuckles (SST/Cruz, 1991)

Thin Men, A Round Hear (Ensign, 1989)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Jason Tang

Page 2: Stephanie Savoia


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