13 years in the making : Keeping it green with Tea Leaf

 

TLG6.jpgA piano man visiting the home of Professor Longhair, Trevor Garrod stands out in the crowd sprawled and spun on the sidewalk outside of Tipitina’s.

His blonde locks curling out from underneath a black cap, Garrod’s frayed dark suit might be best described as thrift-store chic, a look at home in the wind and chill of San Francisco. But just like the Californicated notions of racial utopias and recycling, his fashion strikes an odd chord in New Orleans, its denizens favoring pastel renderings of light linens during Jazz Fest – anything, really, as long as it keeps them cool.

Accessible, eager and oozing a boyish charm despite years on the road, the Tea Leaf Green co-founder and frontman’s eyes sparkle with excitement as he surveys the musical feast soon to be served.

“There’s Wilco – they’re pretty much the best band in the country,” he says. “And Cyndi Lauper? I love Cyndi Lauper! My sexual identity was formed listening to her.”

Speaking as Saturday night stumbles into Sunday morning on the first weekend of Jazz Fest 2011, Garrod will have the chance to enjoy Jazz Fest from the audience side of the rail during a mini-vacation in the week ahead. But first thing’s first: a tour-closing throw-down at the legendary Tipitina’s, a co-bill with fellow Bay Area boys, ALO.

IMR_0483.jpgThe show, in short summation, is a rager. “Honey Bee” and “All Washed Up,” new tunes off the as-of-then-unreleased album Radio Tragedy!, kick off the set, which hits its stride during the classic tune “Reservoir” and reaches a fevered pitch during “Incandescent Devil,” a number that finds Garrod jumping deftly from keyboard to harmonica.

Gutbucket guitarist Josh Clark, the grit to Garrod’s glide, takes over lead vocals a few songs later in “I’ve Got a Feeling.” Having simmered on the stove for a while, the packed crowd of hip-swirling chicks and head-bobbing dudes blows its collective top during this Beatles cover as, together now, Tipitina’s trips the light fantastic, propelled for the rest of the show by inspired jams that defy written description.

Rowdy yet reverent, composed but improvised, filthy though transcendent, this performance IS Tea Leaf Green. And for Clark, that’s a nice feeling.

“Like victory,” Clark says when asked a few weeks later to describe what it feels like to walk off stage after such a face-melting show. “There’s a little glory bask, for sure, because we’re there playing with our buddies and get to hang out for a few more hours.

“We get so much energy, so much adrenaline, from a crowd like that,” he continues, speaking by phone as he drives north from California to Oregon to visit his girl. “The feeling is amazing. It’s the whole reason for all the bullshit we go through.”

A former up-and-comer now struggling to straighten its veteran-status tie, Tea Leaf Green released Radio Tragedy! on June 7, its seventh studio album and one infused with a weary wisdom, a perspective gained from toil in an industry gone broke and life in a world gone mad. On June 17, the band played a record-release gig in New York City before venturing out on yet-another tour.

TLG7.jpg“We’ve endured every cliché in the book, minus heavy drugs,” Clark says of the 12-year-old Tea Leaf Green, which has plied its trade as a touring band for a solid decade now.

“Fortunately, our friendships are intact; we don’t have huge fights. But other than that, we’ve done it all – problems with record labels, debt, busted relationships.”

“This album is from that standpoint,” Clark adds. “Of finding yourself approaching your mid-30s and not having a plan B. If this fails, then I’m back at square one. When you realize that, you realize that who is doing it is doing it out of love.”

Original bassist Ben Chambers left Tea Leaf Green fours years ago; within one year of his split with the band, Chambers was married and expecting a child. Otherworldly bassist Reed Mathis, having just left Jacob Fried Jazz Odyssey, then joined TLG, an addition of incredible talent capable of both deep grooves and cerebral compositions. Yet, in a band that lives and dies by the improvisational sword, familiarity and chemistry often trump pure skill. As such, for many long-time Leafers, post-Ben C shows lack a certain something, no matter how jaw-dropping Mathis’ musicianship might be.

Other than the Chambers/Mathis move, the only other line-up change in TLG’s history came with the recent addition of percussionist Cochrane McMillan, who joined out of necessity following an ankle injury to Scott Rager, a founding member who now shares drumming duties.

IMR_0387_E.jpg“The hardest thing for this lifestyle is to have a real relationship with someone that’s not in the band,” Garrod, 34, says by phone a few weeks after Jazz Fest, having just finished eating oatmeal for lunch in Los Angeles, where he sought refuge and sunny skies after burning a bit upon re-entry into San Francisco following spring tour.

“A lot of musicians can have a family and stay out on the road, but you still have to sacrifice personal relationships to do it. You have to marry a saint that will let you be a self-centered bastard, I guess.”

A prolific poet with ample material for both Tea Leaf Green and his side projects, Garrod admits that he’s frustrated with the state of his career and that informs a lot of the writing found on Radio Tragedy!. “Writing’s kind of a catharsis, of course, getting things off your chest. But I fear that people take it too seriously, like they’re reading my diary. That’s not it – I’m not as interesting in writing about myself as I am writing what will work for the song.”

Yet, don’t mistake this devotion to songcraft as a lack of personal artistic expression on Garrod’s behalf.

“The light and the dark, the sum of existence, that is something I’m dealing with constantly. So sometimes I sit down and write a song to address a particular purpose. And sometimes I write a song just to have a good time. But I’m not going to score a soundtrack to someone else’s life, that’s for sure.”

***

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Former TLG bassist, Ben Chambers in 2006

If one were to record the soundtrack to Tea Leaf Green, it would be the music of the moment – the ethereal jam forged in the live format – that would suit their story best.

Garrod was still a college student when he randomly went to a warehouse party by himself. “I didn’t know anybody and I was surrounded by all these wanna-be hipsters. Josh Clark was the only person who would talk to me.”

Clark and Rager had gone to high school together in Los Angeles and moved to San Francisco to make music and go to school, where Rager met Chambers while taking a class together. At the warehouse party, Clark told Garrod that he played lead guitar, but was having a hard time getting something going in a San Fran scene they both found pretentious.

“We were both looking for make music that was fun and free,” Garrod recalls. “A jamband, essentially, though I didn’t have that term in mind.”

While the term “jamband” has moved in and out of favor in the ebb and flow of the music industry, there’s no doubt that TLG’s bread and butter is the psychedelic jam. “If we were just playing songs, I wouldn’t want to do it – that’s not what we’re best at,” Garrod said.

Truth be told, Radio Tragedy! is an awkward album, at times coming across as over-produced and shockingly artificial for a band with such an organic groove. While TLG’s eponymous works featured on Living in Between (Seeds discs 1, 2 and 3) is a delightful must-listen for any fan of the band, it still doesn’t do their considerable talents justice. Yet, this disconnect is hardly unique to Tea Leaf Green, as jam-scene stalwarts Phish and Widespread Panic rarely accurately convey their sound’s essence from the studio. In fact, one could trace this quirk back to when the Grateful Dead, the unequivocal granddaddies of them all, placed an awkward “China Cat Sunflower” on Aoxomoxoa in 1969.

6.jpg“What I love in Tea Leaf Green is being with that group of people and spontaneously jam,” Garrod says. “Get in that space where we’re interstellar travelers, existing, creating music. I think of songs as our scaffolding, and we try to put what I call a trap door in every song and go through it to go down the rabbit hole, a groupthink that says ‘Stay on A minor and let’s figure it out from there.”

Clearly, Garrod has found a kindred spirit in Clark, an Academy of Art in San Francisco graduate who confesses to be much more comfortable in expressing himself as a visual artist than as a guitarist, where he exists “as an alien traveler in the world of music.”

‘I got in a band to get chicks; I didn’t think this would be my career,” Clark says.

But in releasing Radio Tragedy!, Clark seized an opportunity “to visually express what the songs are all about” in illustrating an accompanying mini-comic book. Describing it as “one of the most fun projects I’ve ever worked on,” the illustrations, which Clark drew free-hand in Photoshop, are stunning; colorful and alluring, they evoke a pulp noir edge to Toulouse-Latrec’s surveys of Moulin Rouge. Clark finds common ground in both realms of expression he explored in Radio Tragedy!

“They inform each other,” he says of his music and visual art. “There are a lot of similarities between art and music. Especially live music and painting a model or a landscape – you’re out to capture just that moment.”

Living, working and creating in a world where moments are not fleeting, but recorded for posterity and shared with all, artists such as those in Tea Leaf Green that thrive in the moment face a unique – and hopefully not insurmountable — challenge.

“We titled the album Radio Tragedy! to address the state of things in the music biz,” Garrod says. “I’m not sure it would be possible for a band like us to start now. In the last gasp of that kind of musical community, I don’t know how much more people can make a living off music. These days, anyone can use software to make some great-sounding music, put it online and become famous.

“Music’s become background noise for us. Imagine a simple peasant, going to see Beethoven centuries ago – that would be the only time ever that they would get to hear that piece of music. No opportunity for a repeat of it. But we’re becoming almost a new species – there’s no need for memory, because we store every action of our lives, record every single thing that we do.”

***

13.jpgDuring their only day together at the New Orleans Fair Grounds during Jazz Fest, Clark and Garrod are having a damn good time.

Clark’s long, dark curls dance just above his pink scarf as he bounces about with his girl, the same one he would later visit in Oregon. The pair’s shared smiles are the mark of the ecstsacy that is the first throes of love. They hand out smiley-face stickers with light-reflector backgrounds of various colors.

Garrod has just left Cyndi Lauper’s set, and says that it might be “shallow” but he didn’t want to hear lesser-known tracks from her acclaimed blues album. “I wanted to hear ‘Time after Time,'” he says.

As the sun sets on another day in a rock and roll band, Garrod dances about the Fair Grounds wearing a monkey mask and a white headband with Asian markings. He kisses a wife, confesses a crush on her husband and responds to a lame reference to both his headband and the Karate Kid movies that evokes one of Mr. Miyagi’s secrets to success.

“But why would I want to catch flies in chopsticks?” Garrod asks.

Garrod then spies Clark, rushes over, tackles him and the two wrestle about in the dirt. Plan B, debt, busted relationships. Those concerns don’t dwell in this moment. This is now, where two friends live, laugh and love somewhere between the earth and the sky.

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