A Deeper Shade of Tea Leaf Green
“When we first met, I was all about instrumental exploration,” says Clark. “As I get older, I’m definitely much more about the song. We have our share of goofy songs from the early days of the band—which I love, too—but it got to the point of, what am I singing about? Why am I up here? Why am I dying? Why are my relationships failing for this if I’m gonna just goof off? I think we’ve all been seeking more meaningful music to put out, and we discovered that we’re good songwriters.”
Good songs will always be in demand. And it’s not like the band has abandoned the jams. Live, and on records for that matter, they still go way out there, but songs are no longer built around improvisations; it’s the other way around now. In the past few years, Tea Leaf Green became less of a jamband led by Clark’s guitar and more of a rock band led by Garrod’s California soul vocals and hook-heavy compositions. “We’ve been able to combine the two [songwriting and jamming],” says Clark, “and I think that’s why we’re still here.”
Change is rarely easy, but it’s the only way to grow. For a band, there’s no bigger change than a new member. When Reed Mathis, one of the live music scene’s most talented, in-demand bass players left Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey to join Tea Leaf Green in November 2007 after original bassist Ben Chambers quit, the band’s DNA was altered dramatically.
Mathis started playing with the band immediately, while still making time to honor previous commitments with JFJO. In August 2009, he left his Tulsa, Okla. home of 23 years and moved in to the Tea Leaf Green house near San Francisco’s Ocean Beach where Garrod and Clark have lived for years; drummer Scott Rager lives just over the bridge in Oakland. It’s been a long road, but as Clark happily announces, “We’re a full band again. But it takes time to get somebody up to speed on 300 songs and also to get to know each other musically and personally. [For] a band like ours, with the amount of improv that we do, it’s all communication and instincts.”
Mathis entered the group excited about its potential, but sensitive to the delicate dynamics of a band. Having co-founded and been a driving force behind the wildly experimental Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey for 16 years, Mathis was already a master of improvisation, but his confidence as a bandleader was shaken. He no longer wanted to lead, he wanted to learn.
“I really came into it wanting to receive their message more than impose mine,” he says. “I knew how to impose mine. And really, in Jacob Fred, I started imposing it more toward the end. So it was kind of like a cool flip of the script. And a chance for me to say, ‘OK, I tried that and I saw the result, let’s try the other approach.’”
Regarding the first year, Mathis says, “I pretty much sat on my hands and tried not to make the steering wheel do anything it wasn’t already doing.” But as everyone became more comfortable, he gradually stepped up his creative presence. “So far so good,” he says.
The learning curve for Mathis was expected, but the time it’s taken the rest of the band to get on solid ground was a bit of a surprise, at least to Garrod. “It’s been kind of a journey for me, just learning how the sound of the band has changed,” he says. “It didn’t really register for me that if one quarter of the band changes, then the sound of the band changes. It’s taken me like two years to learn how to play again in this new context.”
The band was already pushing toward new, more mature musical horizons. The addition of Mathis galvanized the transition, adding new colors to the equation, creating deeper musical shades of Tea Leaf Green. “The music is getting heavier,” remarks Clark. “It’s getting darker.”
Garrod adds: “We’ve become less funky than we were; which I’m cool with. We definitely aren’t in the same place we were two or three years ago. I feel much more like an adult now. I always felt kind of like a kid before, but in the last couple years I really feel like I’ve finally grown up.”
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
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The Milk Carton Kids share the first song from their new album, The Ash & Clay.
Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
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