Yes, No and Maybe: Celebrating 20 years of Medeski, Martin & Wood’s musical adventures
Martin managed the band early on because he had some experience running a band, knew how to make press kits and silk screen t-shirts. As demands on the band grew, CBGB’s CB Gallery booker Liz Penta came on as the band’s tour manager before becoming its full-time manager.
Liz Penta: (band manager): I was looking to get some tour management experience. In the classic MMW way, they couldn’t pay me but I really wanted the experience. Within a few months they asked me to manage them. I had no experience, but neither did they so we grew this thing together.
Martin: Liz wanted to leave CB’s at the time we were doing that four-month tour. She wanted to go out and learn some of the parts of the business. Then we get out on the road and she and John fall in love with each other. That was a big turning point in the dynamics of the band. Liz was really taking over the business like the mother figure; then she was having an affair with one of the boys. I always thought it was an incestuous thing. Because we all loved each other, we all believed that it could work out. But I being the “no” guy, I thought it was it was wrong and getting in the way. That was the true test, to go through the relationship and the break up. If we could get through this, we could get through anything.
*When not touring, the band would retreat to the Big Island of Hawaii to a humble abode they called “The Shack.” They rented it from their friend Carl Green who came up with the many of the band’s song titles as well as the album titles including End of the World Party (Just in Case) and Last Chance to Dance Trance (Perhaps). *
Wood: It was like Lord of the Flies. We were on this island together living in a shack and we had to survive. Luckily, we had a great chemistry—we were good at taking roles so we could just get things done. I was more of the organizer who would keep things in order and I was the guy that always started the fire in the morning. Billy was good at fixing things and was also good with the recording technology and a visual artist. John was creative but on a daily basis he was the master chef. The stuff we ate in Hawaii were some of the best meals of our lives.
Liz Penta: (band manager): The Big Island is definitely more rough and tumble. They were on the Puna side of the island, which is jungle. It is not easy living. This isn’t sit on the beach and drink cocktails. No electricity, no running water. They had a rain attachment but sometimes you go through droughts. No refrigerator. We used a cooler and got ice every other day and hoped we could keep food fresh.
It was under these rather Spartan conditions that the band decided to record its fourth album, Shack-man, in 1996.
Martin: Medeski was really nervous about it because the label had given us a $30,000 advance. He felt really obligated to make them happy. To me it seemed obvious: you find a really great location where you feel comfortable, that has good sound, and then record there.
Medeski: The sound of the shack was incredible, like nowhere else. We wanted to figure out a way how to capture it. We got solar powered batteries and we brought out [engineer/producer] David Baker. It was epic. We borrowed an organ from a dentist in Hilo. We talked to him a little bit, I played it and we asked him. We drove off with a B3 and Leslie cabinet in the back of a pick-up truck. He didn’t know who we were or where we were going, but we brought it back after we used it on the record.
Martin: Ants were taking over David’s DAT machine; we could only record for four hours at a time. Then we realized that the solar panels weren’t charging the batteries fast enough so a friend brought over a WWII generator to charge them. It took about four hours to charge. So we would do two sessions a day and that’s how it went for a week or more. I felt terrible that John was losing his mind, finally melting down on “Strance of the Spirit Red Gator.” I remember a part where he was almost crying, but I felt confident that it would turn out okay.
Medeski: I remember this night where we were doing this improvisation on “Strance of the Spirit Red Gator” and I was literally losing my mind. I was feeling that this was the worst thing I’d ever done, I’m a piece of crap. We’re never gonna get a record done. As it turns out, in the end, it was one of my favorite things that we’ve ever recorded. The music was flowing but I just wasn’t trusting of it.
The band returned to New York City and set up a series of Monday night jam sessions—“Shack Parties”—at the Knitting Factory’s TriBeca location which saw various guests sitting in each week.
DJ Logic: (turntablist/DJ): The first time I played with them was during the Shack Parties they did at the Knitting Factory. They wanted to create a whole vibe for the night, so they invited different DJs to play before them and during the set break. I didn’t really know what to expect, so I brought a bunch of different records I thought their crowd would like. I don’t think there was initially a plan for me to play with them—just DJ during the breaks. I was set up on the floor while they were on the stage. At some point, they started an improv groove which reminded me of the breakbeat sample stuff I was playing and they had me join in.
One thing that really stuck with me from that night was their crowd. They were there late on a Monday night allowing the band to experiment and take risks and gave the band so much energy to feed off of. Some of the people I met in that room remain some of my best friends.
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