By Adam Hayes
Drummer jokes are a dime-a-dozen. In fact, if I had a penny for every drummer joke fired in my direction, I would be weathering this pandemic better than Jeff Bezos himself. And while there is often an element of truth to every jab at the intelligence and musicality of simply whacking stuff with sticks, every so often a percussionist comes along who confounds the collective expectations of what a drummer is.
Barrett Martin is a man who tackles the big questions of music, and life, with refreshing clarity. After an enlightening conversation with him where we covered topics as wide ranging as astronomy to the birth of human communication, I came away feeling that here was a man with more musical wisdom in his pinkie finger than most of us gather in our entire lives.
I first heard about Barrett a couple of years ago, when I depped in on drums for a UK Jazz Artist. I had recently returned home to London after working with a percussion troupe of West-African refugees in Palermo, and that short trip remains one of the most fulfilling musical experiences of my life. She told me about Barrett Martin - a drummer and percussionist who takes the idea of travelling and learning about other musical cultures to a whole other level. She gave me a copy of Barrett’s book The Singing Earth. The book was deep but light-hearted - and funny. It also highlighted an element of Barrett’s work that rings true in his latest album release, Scattered Diamonds: Many disparate ideas and elements coming together far more cohesively than they should. So, what led the young drummer to embrace this nomadic approach to music-making?
“The very first overseas trip I took was actually when I was a sophomore in college… and I went to London as an exchange student” Barrett told me from his home just outside Seattle, “… it was incredible, I got to see Anthony Hopkins do a stage play at The National… I saw Jeremy Irons doing A Winter’s Tale… and then I saw Andrés Segovia, the great classical guitar player, at Royal Albert Hall… and of course after that the travel bug bit me”
And by all accounts it bit hard; alongside extensive international touring schedules with Screaming Trees, Barrett made sure he found time to travel “just with me and a backpack”. Having relatives in Belize allowed him to explore the music of Central America, as well as his dad getting a job in Australia. As Barrett put it “I was familiar with generally where this music was coming from, but I wanted to experience it personally… I saw six continents, and I was always looking for the music – what’s going on here musically”.
Compared to most musicians, however, Barrett took this notion of finding out what was going on musically around the world just a bit more seriously, to the point where even the U.S government got involved; “It got more professional in 1999, I got invited to go to Cuba as a Music Ambassador, sponsored by the U.S State Department, and I worked with the best Cuban musicians in Cuba… and I even met Fidel Castro.” I’d say that ranks above your average drummer’s stories of life on the road.
And where most of us think of ‘World Music’ as Graceland or maybe Fela Kuti if we’re on a mad one, Barrett studied a Post-Graduate Ethnomusicology degree that took him to the Shipibo tribe in Peru; “Probably the most life-changing experience I had was when I was doing my master’s degree and I had to do field work, I went to the Peruvian Amazon and I worked with an indigenous tribe there called the Shipibo… They’re all shamans and it’s matriarchal so the women shamans pretty much run the society down there, and I recorded their healing songs… they have this incredible way of weaving the song-lines into their clothing, so they wear their music… In the Amazon the shamans have synaesthesia where they see the song patterns, and they hear a song from the rainforest and so they weave that pattern into their clothing… and the songs pertain to all of the spirits of the rainforest, just countless songs.”
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of researching the music of the Shipibo, at least from a drumming perspective, is that “ironically there’s no drumming at all, it’s just completely acapella singing. So my deepest field research was in singing these healing songs – it didn’t have anything to with drumming or percussion or any of that – but that was probably the best thing that could have happened to me because it gave me this completely different perspective of music that was built on singing as opposed to rhythm”. While it is tempting to simply recount all the travel stories from my chat with Barrett Martin, there is a lot more ground to cover - if you’ll excuse the pun. I strongly recommend you check out his book The Singing Earth which details his various voyages and is as fascinating as it is entertaining.
The book in fact begins with Barrett’s early life in Washington, and his part in Seattle’s Grunge scene. While it does feel weird to be writing about Grunge in a Jazz magazine (let alone in the same breath as Peruvian healing songs), one of the aspects of Barrett’s music that really stood out to me is how he refuses to be bound by genres. I haven’t met anyone else who embodies the spirit of the Duke Ellington quote “There are only two types of music, good music and the other kind” quite as much as Barrett Martin. Maybe this is down to the dichotomy of playing drums in several early 90’s Seattle bands (most notably Screaming Trees, although there were plenty of others) on the one hand and studying Ethnomusicology on the other. As Barrett writes in The Singing Earth “I have to acknowledge that my musical career would have had a much different trajectory if I hadn’t had the good fortune of growing up in the Pacific Northwest, moving to Seattle right as a verdant music scene was just starting to grow… Music up here in the PNW is a way of life. We live and breathe it, and it defines our character in the most unique ways”
Given that this article is in the fine publication is Jazz Quarterly, I won’t dwell for too long on the Grunge era. However, whilst listening to Barrett’s latest album Scattered Diamonds, one name that jumped out of the credits at me was Kim Thayil, legendary guitarist for Soundgarden, who plays guitar on Barrett’s track ‘The Firebird’. As an angry young man, Soundgarden were easily my favourite of the Seattle bands: thinking man’s rock. Barrett had met Kim backstage during Lollapalooza ’96, when Screaming trees opened for Soundgarden, and the two got talking. Barrett even auditioned for Soundgarden in 2012, and so the two musicians were clearly aware of each other’s work. However, Scattered Diamonds is if anything a jazz record so how come Barrett made the call to enlist Kim Thayil on that song?
“I invited Kim to come see my jazz group… and he came to the show and he was like ‘man this is awesome, I totally love it’, and I said ‘do you want to play on a song?’ and he said ‘absolutely’. He actually played on a few songs and I just put that one song on the Scattered Diamonds album. I already had the composition… you can’t really tell someone like Kim Thayil how to play but you just give some suggestions and they do their thing…”
As a very accomplished ‘side-man’, Barrett has worked with countless artists across the whole musical spectrum, from the aforementioned Grunge bands, through to blues legends (CeDell Davis, for example), to Brazilian music with Nando Reis (“I started laughing immediately because I saw the deep joy in Nando’s mannerisms, and in that nuclear moment my love for Brazilian music was sealed”) as well as tracking all manner of percussion across the board; I was surprised to find him playing vibraphone, steel drum and even Arabic dunbek on Queens Of The Stone Age’s Rated R album. As a result of a credits list as diverse as it is long, I was more than a little curious to find out what sort of album Scattered Diamonds would be.
I was met with a record that reminds me a lot of the conversation I had with Barrett. From the outside, there is such a disparate range of influences and contributors that it is almost daunting. How could you possibly make a cohesive record when the list of guest performers ranges from Peter Buck (of R.E.M) to Hindustani singer Mehnaz Hoosein? But, much like talking to Barrett himself, he expertly guides you through these seemingly unrelated points in a way that brings them together with a deep love and understanding of music. As he describes it, it was an effort to “show the palette of World Music through a jazz composition”. Composing such complex songs without getting too self-indulgent can’t have been easy. Interestingly, Barrett mentions “writing music like how Ernest Hemingway writes”- to me that represents a laser focus, and it’s because of that focus that such an ambitious album never loses track of being an entertaining and exciting collection of music. It is a deeply intelligent album, built on an unshakeable foundation of musical authenticity.
Authenticity is an extremely difficult quality to pin down in music, particularly when recording. In the case of Scattered Diamonds, I feel that one large contributing factor is in how beautifully it is recorded. Barrett tells me the album was not recorded to click, and in fact almost everything was tracked at the same time – as he put it “The bleed is the glue”. Check out the drum sound on ‘The City Slithers’ – Divine! But musical authenticity goes deeper than that, so I asked Barrett what a musician can do to try to capture it on tape: “It’s the spirit of the person playing their songs and playing their instrument and completely channelling their essence in the most authentic way they possibly can… and the listener feels that. They feel this is really the soul of that guy or that woman singing or playing and that’s it… The spirit recognises the spirit, you just get it”
Perhaps it also comes from a huge amount of respect for the master musicians that have come before. I loved reading about Barrett’s work with Ironing Board Sam, who always would dress up smart for recording sessions, even in his old age. In The Way of the Zen Cowboy Barrett writes “I regret not packing any nicer clothes for this trip, as I’ve always worn black T-shirts when I play drums, but I make a decision right then and there to dress better for every recording session I do in the future, even when I am sweating it out behind the kit”. As a drummer who also always only wears black T-shirts for recording sessions, I am going to learn from the greats here too, and try to pack a collared shirt, at least.
Talk eventually leads to what’s coming next, and Barrett sounds about as excited as a man can be with his musical future. There are two more solo albums in the can already, and an album with U.S Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, as well as composing music to go alongside intergalactic images coming from a telescope in New Mexico - The Spinal Tap line “We toured the world and elsewhere” finally makes sense.
There were so many Big Questions that I wanted to consider with Barrett Martin; he is truly a gentleman of the Earth and something of a musical shaman himself. Did his experience of music around the world revel (reveal?) anything about what music truly is? He wouldn’t go so far as to say it is all connected, but when the music has a rhythmic foundation there were some common threads: “Rhythm is mathematics, it’s fixed… Rhythm is a Universal language”. Maybe the truth is best summed up by a Ghanaian drum master that Barrett studied with:
“Remember that there’s this relationship between singing and drumming, because these are the first things we did as ancient humans… The voice is the spirit, and the drums are the Earth”
About Adam Hayes