Interview: The Tea Party

The Tea PartyTriptych: a story in three parts.


Part One.


I first met the Tea Party in 1993 in Melbourne when the band were touring Australia’s East Coast. They were promoting the ‘Splendor Solis’ album and I had convinced their record company (EMI) to fly me over for the weekend so I could write a profiling piece on these three Canadians who dared to take on the best of rock music and make it their own, a bewitching distillation of the sixties and seventies school of hard rock and then flavour it with a filigree of Middle Eastern stringed instruments and detuned minor chord structures. Musically they seek to confound critics like me; drummer Jeff Burrows uses an array of acoustic percussion such as doumbek and djembe.


Discovering they had a love of Australian red wines we cemented a friendship over a very long lunch. That night I saw one of the great performances by a rampant three-piece band; in front of a mesmerised crowd Martin swaggers his way into the spotlight and invokes all the great bluesmen as they power through The Raven and Turn The Lamp Down Low. It is a watershed moment; we are at the crossroads and the ceremony is about to begin.


Later that year I saw the Tea Party (drummer Jeff Burrows, bassist Stuart Chatwood and guitarist/vocalist Jeff Martin) play their first Adelaide performance, a magical night in front of a full house at Cartoons (now Hindley St Music Hall). A year or so later they had sold out a night at the Tivoli Hotel – another insanely packed night – a sold out Thebarton Theatre and were then booked for an opening night concert in the park for the Adelaide Fringe Festival. It was another magic evening.


Part Two.


Fast forward ten years. By 2005 the band were in trouble. Jeff Martin was living in Australia, later to relocate to Ireland. The other two still lived in Canada and communications were strained and the spirit of creative input was being tested. There was a perception that with the albums ‘The Edges Of Twilight’, ‘Transmission’ and ‘Triptych’ the best might be behind them. When I met up with Jeff Martin he was dampening down speculation the Tea Party was over, but would talk about a solo career and his plans to record his own music. He was, in some ways, a victim of his own successes, and excesses.


“Yeaaaaaah.” He fills in what would otherwise have been an awkward pause. “Put it this way. There were some personal demons that I had to deal with, not only chemically but also emotionally.” He leads away from the question quickly, offering something of an apologia for his own at times sketchy behaviour. “I was getting frustrated with the industry we were in and the way things were being handled at the time.”


The end result: The Tea Party broke up in 2006 and Chatwood later posted on the bands website ‘As far as Jeff Burrows and myself were concerned, the band was taking an extended break.’ It was one way of explaining what their fans already knew. The old phrase ‘creative differences’ was invoked.


“I think I needed to get away for a while and find my passion for making music again,” says Martin, carefully choosing phrases which say so little and yet explain even less. Jeff Martin went off and recorded his solo album, formed a new band, broke up the band, and by 2011 it seemed perhaps The Tea Party had a future, with something to celebrate.


Jeff Burrows had moved on to other musical projects and was hosting a radio show, Stuart Chatwood had a lucrative line composing the soundtracks for Ubisoft’s ‘Prince Of Persia’ video games. But it takes a lot to destroy friendships that deep and the Tea Party announced they were back.


By 2014 there was a new Tea Party album, ‘The Ocean At The End’ and then a sedate four years or so after that the ‘Black River’ EP, which includes a bustling cover of Led Zeppelin’s Out On The Tiles… you don’t expect Jeff Martin to sound like Robert Plant but a careful listen reveals that deep in the mix of the chorus there’s a lively falsetto trying to reach the surface.


Somewhere in the last five years came a blast from a different direction, a full blown cover version of the Joy Division at their depressing best with Isolation. It was the perfect accompaniment to a world confronting a pandemic with its simple rhythmic intonation. Jeff Martin says Joy Division and Ian Curtis were one of his formative influences in the 1980s, and that even though people thought he was influenced by The Doors, he “never got into the music. There was too much of that circus organ shit going on. The darkness of Joy Division was something really attractive to me at the time. So, I love that recording… it sounds like if Joy Division was still recording today that’s probably what it would sound like.”


Tea Party RGB

Photography: Francesca Ludikar


Part Three.


The Tea Party are coming back to Australia. It is 2024 and they have announced an Australian Tour. Would I do an interview for old time’s sake? Well, why not?


The band may be back together but these days they live on different continents. Jeff Martin is at home up on the Blackall Range behind the Sunshine Coast, where he is about to be joined by the other two prior to the tour beginning.


Jeff Burrows in the meantime is home in Lasalle, Ontaria, getting set for the oncoming Canadian summer, but he of course will be away touring.


“The boys are flying over here and we have a few days of rehearsals, and maybe a day of recording as well,” says Martin, explaining that it’s all in a day’s work. “That’s about all it usually takes; I mean the length of time we’ve been doing this… when the three of us get back in a room it takes no time at all to find that magic again.”


He emphasises the bond between them and mentions he and Jeff Burrows first played music together when he was 10 and Burrows 11 years old.


“The way I look at it is we’ve been playing music together longer than The Beatles and Led Zeppelin were together,” Jeff Burrows chuckles. “It’s not Bad Company. The nice thing is we’re still in that position where we like to challenge ourselves and put ourselves in that situation where we can do so.”


He goes on to explain how the challenges came with – for example – reconstructing the songs of ‘Triptych’ for performances with a symphony orchestra, as they have on numerous occasions. “They’re our songs, yes, but they are songs which were transposed for orchestra over 20 years ago, and I think Stuart reminded me of that last time we were in Windsor together, playing with a symphony orchestra in our hometown.


The three of them have such a chemistry – musically – that it remains difficult to let anyone else in on the secret. “That’s one of the hardest things…” muses Jeff Martin, “what this band is known for, and what we kinda pride ourselves on is that there’s no one definitive way to perform one of our songs. It can take many, many courses, and playing with a symphony you have to be absolutely on point. Don’t screw up, no improvisation, and that is the most nerve-wracking thing for me because I’m always off with the pixies.”


He laughs at himself. “I think the challenge with this tour is that ‘Triptych’ – when was that, Jeff, 1998? I’m very proud of that record but wow! The guitar work on that album – some of those songs, man, and I’ve gotta remember all of those parts and all of those tunings. Some songs might have five parts in five different tunings…”


As he reminds me, he must distil that soundscape down to one guitar part which covers those bases and keeps the song faithful to its musical heritage and intent; the eternal quest for bands who perform live.


Along with 1997’s ‘Transmission’ album, ‘Triptych’ is notable for its foray into electronica, with songs driven by samples and loops, harder cutting edges used to drive the tempo, but the other half of the album is purely organic, characterised by their cover of The Messenger, a sizable hit for them in Canada.


Jeff Martin makes it clear that in his view their recorded music has a timelessness about it and says - as he has to me before - that the Tea Party were never a 90s grunge band and never identified as such. That is true, they always have had a lofty pretention about them which could only come post-1970s, I suspect, and in some ways as a band of the 1990s they were not always of their time.


“Well, I think that’s what makes the Tea Party’s music special and means that now it can be discovered by a younger generation and we couldn’t be happier,” says Burrows, noting “this past fall we’ve had possibly the most successful tour since 1999, to be honest, and one of the great things we’ve got to witness is you start seeing these familiar faces. We’ve started seeing that but it’s people we’ve never seen before, half mum and half dad, which I think is fantastic, because that happened with me through my college and university days and it’s happened with my boys as they were grown up. I like that. I like the fact they are as open-minded as they were.”


So what do we get with this tour: billed as the ‘Triptych Tour’, it now appears we’re getting more than that.


Martin is direct. “Yeah, well. I think Jeff would agree we’ve never been fans of when a band is celebrating a milestone and that’s all they do. I think if we were to do that there would be a violent reaction in the audience. If we were not to do some of those other songs [he mentions in passing Temptation and Sister Awake] well, we have to hit those signposts or people are gonna go away very disappointed.”


He mentions also the big hits from ‘Triptych’, Heaven Coming Down and the Daniel Lanois penned The Messenger and suggests they’d like to try some of the ‘deeper cuts’ from the album. The Halcyon Days is particularly noted.


Burrows adds “We’ve never been known as a band to just do the hits, we’ve always thrown in other bits, and as this is an anniversary tour, I’m really not worried about it. It’s just gonna make it more interesting for us and for the fans.”


Alex WheatonThe Tea Party


The Tea Party perform ‘TRIPtych 25’ at Norwood Concert Hall on Tuesday 18 June. Tickets through Ticketmaster.


When: 18 Jun

Where: Norwood Concert Hall