These are exciting times for The Tea Party. After a decade-long period of silence following an acrimonious breakup, the Canadian rock trio has put aside their differences to record Ocean at the End, their first album in ten years. We spoke to Stuart Chatwood, the band’s bassist and about world music, collaborating with Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, and the making of the new album.
In the last couple of years, the Tea Party has gone through something of a rebirth. How did you go from being broken up to getting back together to record a new album?
Well, every year that we were broken up, our agent would receive numerous calls from promoters asking if the band was back together yet. Everyone thought it would happen eventually. And after several years, we decided that enough water had gone under the bridge. We decided to get back together to see if things had changed and how the personalities matched up, because the music was always there, which was evident at the first rehearsal. We picked up the guitars and grabbed the drumsticks and it was just like we’d never left. It was pretty magical, that first song we played together.
We did some shows in Canada, but the true test was when we went to Australia. We did a proper tour with proper ticket prices. The tour was a huge success and we ended up shooting a DVD down there, and at that point it was obvious that people wanted to hear more music from The Tea Party. We heard it every night from people.
So we made plans to return to Australia to do a bit of writing and returned to Canada to do the recordings, and the result is Ocean at the End.
In other interviews, you’ve commented that you and the other members of the band have matured both personally and musically. What did you mean by that?
As we get older, we experience life, death, riches, poverty, and we can speak with conviction. And we can take things in context a little more and we realize the importance of friendships.
Music though, myself personally, I did a lot of video game soundtracks. One of the projects that I worked on, other than the music for the Prince of Persia games that I composed, was a project called Uncommon Folk, which is a collection of ambient versions of folk songs like “This Land is Your Land”, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. And we had some celebrity singers on top of it. We worked with Mavis Staples of the Staple Singers, Glenn Campbell, Rosanne Cash, Robin Zander from Cheap Trick, Jacob Dylan, Blind Boys of Alabama. So that was a great experience for me, being in the studio with those people. In some cases, like with Mavis Staples, it was just Mavis and me in the studio together, just recording things, just having that one on one connection.
My partner, Tim Sommer, who I worked on this with, was a great influence too. He was one of the original VH1 VJs, but he was also really into hardcore music in New York when it started, and he helped start the Beastie Boys. And so just hanging out with him for the past three or four years creating this Uncommon Folk project was a great experience as well.
Do you feel like the new Tea Party album is informed by all the projects that you and the other members of the band have been working on?
I’ve worked on a lot of other projects too, like producing other bands, and writing songs. And so this time I had a different frame of reference when it comes to songwriting. It was obvious that when we were firing ideas back and forth, that I had a lot more informative things to say, and I think Jeff Martin appreciated that. In the past, maybe more than his fair share landed up on his shoulders. Jeff produced the record, but Jeff Burrows and I got a co-production credit because we’re contributing more than ever.
What was it like going back into the studio after all these years? Was it easy to get back into the groove or did you have to put in work to rediscover the magic?
I think it was fun; it was easier than in the past. We’re better players now and we’re more relaxed. One of the big things is that we don’t give a damn about what people think of us. As you get older, you get up on stage now and there’s no stage fright. If you like me, or hate me, I don’t care. I’m going to play music for you. And that happens in the studio too. We would wonder, “ Oh, what are these people thinking,” and if the vibrato is right, but now it’s just like, “I’m going to perform the song the way I want toperform it,” and then go on from there. It’s just a different attitude. It’s a confidence that comes from wisdom. This might only be our ninth studio album, but I can’t even count the number of hours we’ve spent in the studio at this point of our careers.
What was the band trying to achieve on the new album? Were there any concepts or themes you were trying to explore?
I think we all had different goals. I think Jeff Martin maybe wanted to encapsulate our whole career in this record; because the album does touch on certain things. Like the song that he brought, “Submission”, that was probably the best example – something from our Transmission era. And then there was the song “Brazil”, which was exploring South American rhythms for the first time.
My goal was to get Jeff Martin to play guitar. When we were growing up together and shared an apartment in Toronto, he used to play guitar for six hours a day. Basically he’d put on Led Zeppelin I, play that, play Led Zeppelin II, III, IV, he’d go through the catalogue. Then he’d hit the bootlegs. He was just such an incredible guitarist back then, because he played so often. I was just trying to get him back in that frame of mind again, because he’s been a producer for so long. When he plays keyboard parts, it’s like, “Oh, that’s interesting. Want to play guitar now?” I mean, he’s such a well-rounded musician, he can play all the instruments, but he really excels on guitar.
Growing up, across from Detroit, Michigan too had an impact. Detroit is the music town of North America. If you take Motown, MC5, Bob Seger, Kid Rock, Eminem, there’s just so much music that came from Detroit. Jeff grew up with a different experience of blues music than most Canadians would. I can’t imagine another place in Canada that is more affected by the blues than Windsor. Because just across the river in Detroit is the Soup Kitchen and all these great blues clubs, and all these great Detroit bands would come over and play.
Jeff’s father was a huge blues fan, and he wouldn’t let Jeff listen to British hard rock. That what I was listening to – Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, all that kinda stuff. Jeff wasn’t allowed to have those records in his house up until a certain age. But that means he learnt his licks from the three Kings – B.B. King, Albert King and Freddie King.
That’s interesting – I wouldn’t have pegged Jeff for a blues purist. I would have thought that his background would have been more Zeppelin-style rock tradition.
Well, blues is where that tradition came from, though. You have a seventeen-year-old Jimmy Page going home from the record store with a new 45. He’d put it on and just learn every riff on it.
Actually, on one of the songs on the album, “The Cass Corridor”, is a tribute to Detroit lyrically. The reference for that is we went back to pre-Robert Johnson blues, just asking “What happened here before Robert Johnson laid ground for people after him?” There are some Chicago blues songs that we were a reference for “The Cass Corridor” – just a bunch of riffs from an album of dirty blues songs from the late ‘20s, early ‘30s. We were thinking, “Which one of these riffs is a reference to a more modern sound?” We changed notes around and grabbed the vibe of it. That’s where “The Cass Corridor” came from.