Drummer Barrett Martin’s DIY Journey Continues to Evolve

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Barrett Martin’s recent creative endeavors include a book and a related album.

(Photo: Courtesy Barrett Martin)

Many musicians who thrived during the alternative-rock gold rush of the 1990s have, by now, hopped onto the nostalgia circuit to cash in on their past glories. Others, however, have sought out new lands and new interests. Henry Bogdan, former bassist for neo-metal quartet Helmet, has carved out a comfortable niche as a guitarist for traditional Hawaiian music ensembles and old-time jazz groups. And John Frusciante, ex-guitarist for Red Hot Chili Peppers, now tests the outer limits of electronic music as a solo artist.

Few, though, have ventured as far, physically and musically, as Barrett Martin. Best known in the rock world for his drumming on the last two studio albums by Screaming Trees and post-grunge supergroup Mad Season, the 52-year-old has spent the majority of his life traveling the world, seeking enlightenment and new musical terrain to cultivate. Those journeys have included government-sponsored jaunts to Cuba, explorations of the Peruvian rainforest and recordings with Brazilian singer Nando Reis and with tribes in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

Martin’s travels and studies have led to two professional titles on his resume: educator and author. For the past seven years, he’s taught music and theory classes at Antioch University Seattle. In addition to writing a blog for The Huffington Post, he has penned two books—The Singing Earth: Adventures from a World of Music (2017) and the recently released The Way of the Zen Cowboy: Fireside Stories from a Globetrotting Rhythmatist. (The latter book includes a free download of the Barrett Martin Group’s new album, Songs Of The Firebird.) Martin has filtered his ongoing interest in ethnomusicology, his own personal studies and his many stories from the field into smart, edifying prose meant to open up fellow curiosity-seekers to the possibilities of sound and culture.

“At the end of the day, it’s just one person telling a story to other people,” Martin said during a phone call from his home in Port Townsend, Washington, situated on the Olympic Peninsula just west of Seattle. “Music’s the same thing. I studied a lot of linguistics, because within music is a language. And what a lot of people don’t realize is that music itself is a language. We hear it in European classical music and we hear it in jazz. There’s a lot of very old, world instrumental music and it’s all a form of dialogue. It’s a form of communication.”

The most direct route into what Martin seeks to express is through any of the seven studio albums he’s written and recorded with his namesake ensemble. The free-flowing band is a perfect outlet for its leader’s growing interests, eschewing the heavy attack of former projects—such as the Screaming Trees and his early ’90s stint in the noise-rock band Skin Yard—and focusing instead on club-ready rhythms, jazz fusion and fearless world-beat jams. Sonically, things get particularly interesting when Martin and his cohort start blending those genres together, creating a vibe that works like small electrodes firing into joints and muscles. Listeners can’t help but move to them.

The Barrett Martin Group has honed that aesthetic on the ambitious Songs Of The Firebird, a double album with 20 tracks that were crafted to reflect some of the themes of The Way of the Zen Cowboy.

“At the same time as I was developing these songs,” Martin recalled, “I was also writing these stories. I realized that they’re coming from the same being, and they’re really two sides of the same coin: a body of music and a body of stories. [The music] sounded like a soundtrack to the stories, and the stories gave me inspiration to come up with the song titles. As I was completing the two, I would embed the song titles within the story as little secret clues.”

While the two releases complement each other well, the book and the album each can stand on their own as accomplished works of art. Firebird, especially, feels like a perfectly singular statement, driven by Martin’s fluid, splashy playing—augmented throughout by percussionists Lisette Garcia and Thione Diop—and a compositional style that flows between genres with ease. The versatile, 10-member ensemble can mesh the jerking beats of drum ’n’ bass with post-bop horn figures or generate a Steve Reich-like pattern played on marimba and kalimba to fuel a gentle samba.

Firebird also stands out because Martin recruited a few high-profile guests who happen to be his pals from the Northwest music scene. One memorable track, the psychedelicized post-rock tune “Requiem,” features an electric guitar line played by Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil and a steady acoustic strum from R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, with whom Martin has collaborated in the band Tuatara.

Also joining the festivities is jazz keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, who adds squelching solos to two Firebird tracks. (Horvitz and Buck also played on the Barrett Martin Group’s 2018 album, Transcendence.)

“Barrett fits in this tradition of artists who were well known in the rock scene and who have gone on to do great things and been really supportive figures,” said Horvitz, one of the founders of the jazz-centric Seattle music venue the Royal Room. “So many [musicians from] other cities with a scene like they had in the ’90s would have taken off to New York or L.A. [But] all the big bands from the Seattle scene have stayed true to Seattle and invested in it. I see this project as being part of that vibe.”

Nowadays, Martin is fully committed to a DIY approach. His albums and books are released through his imprints, Sunyata Records and Sunyata Books. For the Barrett Martin Group albums, he handles everything: paying for studio time and paying his musicians, as well as designing the packaging and filling orders for distribution. He does the same for his books, overseeing the design and printing, and then distributing the titles via companies like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, or even shipping out copies himself.

Martin’s need to control the means of production is, in part, a result of his uneasy experiences working with record labels as a member of Screaming Trees, Mad Season and Tuatara.

“The Trees toured all over the world and didn’t make any money,” Martin said. “Then Tuatara did our first record [1997’s Breaking The Ethers], and the president of Epic at the time loved it. That president got immediately fired and Tuatara got dropped in 1998. We were just abandoned. So, I thought, ‘All right, I’m going to start my own label.’”

In the years since that decision, Martin has endured some bumps in the road—like losing all of his physical product held by a distributor in the early ’00s. But today, his small machine runs smoothly with the help of a dedicated group of folks who handle the business activities that he doesn’t do himself, such as publicity and radio promotion.

“They’re all old-school professionals who have adapted to the new business models and refined their approach,” Martin said of his business collaborators. “We’re all these old veterans who keep going because we love music. I mean, some part of us must love the music business or we wouldn’t keep doing it.” DB




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