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Barrett Martin: Musical Artifacts and Seattle Punk

Jack Gold-Molina By

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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?

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