Interview: Barrett Martin

I think what people appreciated was that it was more humorous, and a kind of a different way to look at the Screaming Trees, rather than, some of the other books that have been written.

Barrett Martin is best known as the longtime drummer with one of the best rock bands ever in the Screaming Trees and contributed so much to classic albums like Sweet Oblivion and Dust. His latest book, The Greatest Band That Ever Wasn’t, tells his story of being in the band and it is a fascinating and funny account of life in one of the best bands of the 90s. Gavin Brown caught up with Barrett to hear all about it, what it was like being in the Screaming Trees and his new live shows with Duke Garwood that are hitting the UK. His vast musical career outside of Screaming Trees is just as impressive and he also delved into working with everyone from Mad Season to R.E.M and beyond as well as life as an ethnomusicologist and his other work as an author in a truly captivating and interesting interview.

E&D: Your latest book, The Greatest Band That Ever Wasn’t, is out now. What has the response been to the book like so far?             

Barrett: Oh, really good. Everybody seems to really like the storytelling aspect of it. I mean, it’s my fourth book, I’m getting pretty good at it as far as the ability to convey the story in a short amount of time. I think what people appreciated was that it was more humorous, and a kind of a different way to look at the Screaming Trees, rather than, some of the other books that have been written, not just Mark’s but other people have written about the Screaming Trees and and I’m not sure they got it exactly right. So I tried to show a different side of it.

E&D: How was the experience of writing the book and going back over your time with the band?

Barrett: Well, it was really kind of powerful for me, because I actually started writing those stories back in about 2015, when I was writing my first book, and I just needed a couple stories about the Trees, but once I started that process, and a lot of stories emerged. I had a lot of stories started, not finished, and when Mark was writing his book, he would call me and ask me, did I remember this or what do I remember about that? I would tell him, Well, here’s what I thought, we laughed a lot, actually, at our mutual insanity! So he said, you gotta write the humorous side of this, that’s kind of how it got started, and after he passed, it was appropriate to wait a little while and then Van passed a year later, and I was like, man, I gotta get this thing done and get it out there. It did feel bittersweet, given the sad passing of Mark and Van. Something that people maybe didn’t know about the Screaming Trees is that we all stayed friends, after the band  broke up and I would talk with all three of those guys about different things. I wrote about it in the book, that there were opportunities for us to reunite and play big festivals, and we almost did, you know, but ultimately, we decided not to, but we had a good, comedic email friendship, I would call it.

E&D: Is the book something you’ve wanted to do for a while?

Barrett: I knew that I would eventually write a sort of Rock and Roll memoir but the Screaming Trees gave it a nice focus where I could talk just about that band. I also wrote a little bit about my first band, Skin Yard with Jack Endino in detail, and I wrote about Mad Season and a few others but it allowed me to focus on on one band that encapsulated 10 years of my life, which was basically all of the 1990s, so I knew it was coming. The thing is you just have to make yourself do it. You just have to sit there and you write every day until it’s done. That’s how you do it.

E&D: The book begins with the sentence “Rock & Roll is defiance expressed through music. And since songwriting is the main vehicle for achieving that expression, becoming a great songwriter is the ultimate practice for a rock musician.” What is the greatest song you have written or been a part of writing?

Barrett: Well, I wrote all the music for ‘Long Gone Day’, the Mad Season song, and over the last thirty years, that song is kind of a classic song from that time period. I wrote the music and then Mark and Layne Staley together wrote lyrics, so it’s a collaborative song, but I think I’m most proud of that song.  I’m really proud of because I co wrote a lot of the Screaming Trees songs. I am proud of how I had an influence on them in how to how to arrange and make a song a little more sophisticated than maybe how it started. I think that’s an important role to play. There are always people that are really good at lyrics and really good with the feel of a song, and then there are other people that come in, and they’re really good at manipulating the song to make it like, Oh, that’s a very interesting arrangement and has all these other components to it. That was always the role that I played in almost every band I was in.

E&D: You have released the books, The Singing Earth, The Way Of The Zen Cowboy and Stillpoint. Did you approach writing those, the same way you’d approach writing music?

Barrett: Oh, it’s an interesting part of the mind, the way it works. When you write music, you’re using your whole body and your mind. My wife is actually a neuropsychologist, so we talk about this all the time. Music is in the whole body and it’s in the whole brain, it’s not localised the way language is in the left hemisphere. So when you’re writing language, it’s a different part of the mind but they’re similar in the sense that when you write music, it’s in the practice of doing the music that you compose, if you just sit around and wait for inspiration, it’ll never come, so you have to sit there and write, I’m sitting here at a piano, like my laptop is on the piano and  you just sit here and you just work on a song. Same thing with writing, you just get up and you write every day, and you just do this practice. What I’ve noticed,  because it’s been seven years since I published my first book, I’ve written a book about every two years since then, and I’ve two more in the works right now. I realised that I’m really into writing, it’s a thing as much as I am in doing music so it’s sort of two components at the same time.

E&D: Can you tell us a bit about the books that you’re working on at the moment?

Barrett: Last summer, I was asked to be on on a sailboat race with three Green Berets, which are the American special forces, and one of them is an old friend of mine, Jason Everman, who was the first rhythm guitar player in Nirvana and he also played in Soundgarden, but then he quit music and became a very high level Green Beret. He asked me to be on this team with two of his buddies, and it was incredible. We fixed the boat up, and we thought the race was gonna take like a week, and it took us a month, because we sailed from Washington State to Alaska, that was the race. You can’t have an engine in your boat, you have to take the engine out, and you can only sail or row. I designed the rowing system, which was like a Viking boat, big 12 foot, so we could row the boat if we didn’t have wind. It was just an incredible experience because of all of the obstacles that we encountered. There would be no wind, and we could just be sitting there, and then it would be so stormy, that you couldn’t sail because It’ll just knock you, so it took us a month to get to Alaska and all the adventures we had along the way. That’s the next book I’m working on and I’m also writing a book about kind of everything I’ve learned about music, from my work with Shamans in the Peruvian Amazon and drum masters in Africa, to making rock and roll records and everything in between.

E&D: Are they going to be out in the next couple of years?

Barrett: Yeah, I think it will take me a couple of years. I noticed I have this cycle of about every couple of years, I put a book out so probably in a couple of years I’ll have another book.

E&D: Going back to the Screaming Trees, do you look back on your time with fondness and those hilarious times that you talk of in the book?

Barrett: You know, this is an interesting point about it, just the art of writing and perception. Mark Lanegan’s book about the Trees is pretty bleak. I actually really liked his book. In fact, we talked about it a lot after it came out and and his book made me laugh out loud a couple of times because as bleak as it is, there’s also some really funny things and I was there for like, 90% of what he talks about in his book so it’s true.I saw that stuff happen, but his perception was so different because he was in the throes of addiction, and that’s what he mostly writes about in his book. I was a terrible alcoholic in the beginning of the band, but I got sober about halfway through the 1990s. So, I saw it differently because I was sober and I was the drummer, and I’m kind of holding things together. I’m friends with all of them, but for me, when I look back on it, it’s the time of just a general collective insanity and a lot of hellraising. It’s what you do when you’re in your early 20s, but now that I’m in my late 50s, there’s no way I’d want to live like that again! But my perception of it was that, this is a pretty wild ride, you know?


E&D: What are your favourite memories of Mark and Van as well?

Barrett: I’ll speak about their talents,  Mark Lanegan’s greatest talent was he had incredible musical intuition and could recognise a great song at the inception point. As soon as you started working on the guitar changes and the melody, he’d be like, That’s great. Let’s work on that. Other times you’d have an idea, he’d be like, Nah, that’s he had this this term, he called it a bar band or Steakhouse, meaning like, that’s just like the kind of rock and roll you hear in a bar, and it’s not good, let’s not go down that way. It’s a fine line between the two because a riff played a certain way sounds like very bad bar band, but if you do it another way, it’s like, ooh, that’s sophisticated. That’s cool. Let’s work on that. He had this ability to recognise immediately. That’s classic. Let’s work on that. And Van, as a bass player had this ability, the bass is such an interesting instrument and I have this long relationship with bass players like Duff Mckagan as a bass player I’ve worked with on several projects, as the rhythm section, and bass players have this ability to merge the melodic part of a song with the rhythmic side, they’re like the glue that holds it together, people think it’s the drums, it isn’t. It’s the bass player is the glue between rhythm and melody and Van had this really great sense of melody, so he could write really catchy stuff that was both like on his bass and on his vocals. The songs that we had the minor hits with, Van wrote, because they have the ability to recognise that.

E&D: You’ve got several live dates coming up with Duke Garwood in the UK. Are you looking forward to that and can you tell us a bit about the live show and what it will consist of?

Barrett: Yeah, I’ve met Duke a couple of times. He’s an amazing talent, and of course, I’m aware of the work he did with Mark Lanegan, and he reminds me a lot of Mark and his sense of music and the way he read songs. We talked about doing a tour together for a long time, and the show is different than what people probably have seen. The first half of the show is me, I come out, and I talk about music around the world. Like, what is your idea of a song? People have different ideas of what songs are, so I start and I’m showing films from my new music series, which is called Singing Earth and I show films of my work in the Peruvian Amazon with the Shipibo Shamans and in Brazil, where I got to interview Gilberto Gil and these famous Brazilian musicians about what their idea of songwriting is. Then we go to the Alaskan Arctic, and we go to Bali, and we go to West Africa. It’s visual and just me telling some stories. Then Duke comes out and we start playing together as a duo. I’m going to play upright bass because I used to play upright bass with the Screaming Trees when we would do acoustic songs, and we’re going we’re going to do Duke Garwood songs but we’re also going to do some Mark Lanegan songs and some Screaming Trees songs and one Mad Season song. Basically, the whole show is to make people think about what is songwriting? I don’t know if we’ll do it again, but it’s gonna be really good. It’s four shows in England and one show in Iceland, so I think it’ll be pretty cool.

E&D: Can you tell us a bit about the Singing Earth series and where we could watch it?

Barrett: It was on Vevo but they wanted to shorten the films to 10 minutes and I was like, Man, I don’t think we can convey all of this information in 10 minutes, we couldn’t get our films under half an hour, it just wasn’t possible. So now, we’re talking to PBS and National Geographic, and we’ll see who’s going to pick it up. We have 7 episodes already so, it’s gonna be really cool. It’s me on location, working with local musicians and singers and we just talked about what is music in their environment.

E&D: Have the Barrett Mountain Group got any new material coming out and are you working on any new music?

Barrett: I am, this is my studio here. So we’ve been working on the next solo record, which is just under the banner of the Barrett Martin group because it’s whoever I want to be in the band. It has turned into a 24 song double album, Alain Johannes plays guitar and is mixing it. Matt Cameron, the drummer for Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, he and I played together on six or seven songs where we played two drum sets together, double drums. I think Duke Garwood is going to play on it. I sent him some some tracks to work on, and quite quite a few other guest musicians. Catching who was in an early version of Queens of the Stone Age, has that studio in Joshua Tree. He’s playing some guitar solos on it. So it’s a collective band with my closest friends and we all play together. The amazing jazz musicians Skerik, the great saxophone player plays on it. It’s gonna come out, I think, in November and we’re gonna tour next year. It’s a fun way to work.

E&D: Having listened to the Above album for the first time in a while recently, it struck me how versatile your drumming is, that album in particular goes from a laid back almost jazz style on ‘Long Gone Day’ to a more frenetic rock style on ‘November Hotel’. Do you always feel that you want to show the versatility in your playing, whether it’s drums, upright bass or whatever?

Barrett: Well, yeah, I mean, Mad Season was such a unique thing, because each of us brought in our song ideas, and the other guys in the band, were all receptive to it. Mike and I basically jammed out ‘November Hotel’ as an instrumental, it just happened spontaneously, the way we play together. But I wrote ‘Long Gone Day’. I went into the studio early that day, and I laid down the upright bass and the drums and the marimba, I kind of did the basic track, and I waited for the other guys to show up and I said, Hey, you may not like this. It’s very different than the other songs, but maybe, you know, just an idea. And Layne loved it immediately, and he said, let’s get Mark to come down and sing on it. With Mad Season, I think everybody was very embracing of everybody’s ideas, and that’s why that album is so powerful. I mean, it’s now 30 years, and it still sells like it did 30 years ago, people really liked that record. I think an important part of being in a band is that you have to allow ideas to emerge. If you over control it. It might work for a little while, but pretty soon, you’ll just be doing the same thing over and over and over again, and one of the things Mark Lanegan taught me directly, is you always have to be changing and evolving and doing something new each time. Take the best of what you’re good at, but put a new spin on it doing something. A lot of bands think, well, we have success with this formula. Let’s just do that formula and after a while, every song sounds the same.

E&D: How was the experience of playing recording with R.E.M.?

Barrett: Oh, I loved working with those guys. I worked on New Adventures In Hi-Fi just playing percussion. The songs had already been recorded, and I just went in and did hand percussion and vibes and stuff like that. Then I was with them for the entire recording of the album Up, from demos all the way to completion. I played on everything. I played on their first single ‘Daysleeper’ I played upright bass and Mike Mills was like, man, you’re a great bass player. I’m gonna play piano, you play the bass parts so I played upright bass and then, sometimes I play drums. I played a lot of vibraphone and marimba and hand percussion. It was great. They kind of just let me do what I do, and they just took what they liked and put it in their songs. I didn’t really get to tour with them that much, we just played a few shows, but it was great being in the studio and Peter Buck, the founding guitar player, he’s one of my oldest friends. We met in the early 90s and he and I went to Brazil to live and tour with this artists that I produced named Nando Haze. He’s a huge superstar in Brazil. Peter and I just did a quadruple album with him. Peter and I were adding up all the albums that we’ve done together, where we’ve been in a band together like Tuatara and R.E.M. or various others and what he and I’ve played on is 35 albums just between he and I. I’ve got a long connection with that group of people.

E&D: You’ve also played and guested with so many other bands. You’ve mentioned Skin Yard and Tuatara but also so many others like Queens Of The Stone Age. Walking Papers, Seaweed, Citadel, Therapy? and blues legend Cedell Davis to name a few. Do you look back on your career in music with pride and feel blessed that it’s still going on?

Barrett: Oh, every day. I mean, I think I’ve played on about 150 albums total, because I did do some session work in Los Angeles, where I just played on other people’s albums too. Sometimes I knew them and sometimes I didn’t  but I still enjoyed just collaborating with people. I’m proud of every one of those records. They’re all very different, but they’re the sound of a band, and they just asked me to come in and sometimes I played drums and sometimes I played vibraphone or I played upright bass or just percussion or something, but I’ve gotten to put my thumbprint on a lot of different bands albums. I love it and I’m still doing it, people send me tracks and I’ll do the overdubs here in my studio.I’ll send them the overdubs, and they use them however they want to use them.

E&D: Can you tell us a bit more about your career as an ethnomusicologist and how you got into that?

Barrett: Yeah, when the Screaming Trees broke up in the year 2000, I knew that I was gonna go back to school because I got into music school but I didn’t finish my bachelor degree and I wanted to do graduate studies as well. So I went back to school at the University of New Mexico which had a famous anthropology and ethnomusicology department, and I was living there at the time so it became very convenient to do that. I finished my undergrad and my master’s degree and my focus area was ethnomusicology, which is the study of music around the world as my fieldwork assignment in 2004. I was working in the Peruvian Amazon with the singing Shipibo Shamans, which is an acapella vocal group. I’ve done three albums for them now and I’ve also recorded an album for a tribe in the Alaskan Arctic. I’m getting to literally take my production and musical abilities to a different culture and help them realise their own album, and to help them make that album, it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever got to do. I don’t earn any money doing it. It’s completely something I just do for the joy of doing it. When the Shipibo in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest asked me to do the third album, I was there two years ago recording the vocals and they asked me to put a bunch of different musicians on it so Matt Cameron plays on it, and Kim Thayil from Soundgarden plays on it, and Peter Buck plays on it, and Dave Catching plays on it. I basically got all these guitar players and percussionists to add music to the shaman songs, and it’ll come out this summer. It’s beautiful to get to do that kind of stuff that’s separate from, okay, we have to make a record for this record label and go on tour. That’s fine and that’s mostly what I’ve done most of my life but I love getting to do this other kind of music. That’s why the show that I’m bringing to the UK next month is to make people think like, what do you really think songwriting is.

E&D: That’s been brilliant, thank you Barrett, so great talking to you about everything and hope the live shows go well.

Barrett: Thank you. Good questions. Thank you man.


Barrett Martin and Duke Garwood UK tour dates (get tickets here):

May 3rd London @ Bush Hall.

May 4th. Bristol @ Lantern Hall.

May 5th Nottingham @ Metronome.

May 7th Manchester @ Band On The Wall.

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