JOHN MARTYN CHARTS THE DEPTHS
OF AN EVER-FLOWING CREATIVE TIDE
A LARGE CONTINGENT OF the audience at tonight's secret gig in a north London student hall are clearly less than familiar with JOHN MARTYN - both the music and the man. While he is primarily concerned with keeping his band on form for a forthcoming sellout show at the 2000 seater Dominion Theatre,1 they are transfixed by the passionate jazz-tinged funk and soul of a musician who, at the age of 43, is clearly hitting a new creative peak. A few -having got wind of tonight's performance- know every note he has ever committed to tape, but for the majority present this is a powerful introduction to a powerful performer.
On the evidence of tonight's performance, as it swings from WEATHER REPORT influenced workouts to the deepest soul ballads, it is apparent that were he black and American, John Martyn would be a legend as great as HERBIE HANCOCK, SMOKEY ROBINSON and Tom WAITS rolled into one. The same accolade can be levelled at his new album, Cooltide; his 23rd and arguably his best. With an unexpected amount of radio exposure, Cooltide must be the first that a whole new audience has heard from a man who, for more than 20 years, has been a touchstone of excellence, for both fans and other musicians alike. It is with good reason that Martyn long ago earned himself the title of 'musician's musician', and little wonder that, in his time, he has worked with producers like CHRIS BLACKWELL, LEE 'SCRATCH' PERRY, ROBERT PALMER and PHIL COLLINS and that musicians like Collins, STEVE WINWOOD and ERIC CLAPTON have lent their instrumental support and covered his songs.
Martyn has always nurtured a volatile relationship with his own creativity, and a life-time propensity towards indulgence in a whole variety of toxic excesses - most famously in the company of upright-bass demon and Martyn cohort for some seven years, DANNY THOMSON. Musically, his highs have shone with an irrepressible brilliance, and his lows have been undeniably self-destructive.
"I tend to bugger off for a couple of hours
and then come back in for half an hour and say,
right, I like this, I like that, keep that bit,
shift that, sample that and I'll see you in half an hour"
It was 1973's Solid Air -his fourth album, dedicated to the memory of his great friend NICK DRAKE- that first brought him to the attention of a wider audience, both here and in the States. One of his biggest selling titles from the Island years, it saw him casting off his folk-rock roots and charting a new course through ambient jazz moods, under the vocal influence of blues singers like SKIP JAMES. With Inside Out, he pursued the experimental vein, indulging in free-form fusion styles and some blinding guitar work. 1976 he took off to Jamaica and involved himself with Lee Perry, playing on sessions for a MAX ROMEO album; influences that were to very much shape his own One World album, recorded with the label's founder Chris Blackwell.
"Working with Scratch actually was the most interesting thing. In all honesty he's the most creative producer, but completely round the fuckin' bend. In terms of getting the best out of musicians, he's fantastic. He's very cool."
The dark and painful Grace And Danger chronicled the break up of his first marriage, and involved Phil Collins who took up the production reins on the follow up Glorious Fool.
"Phil's an eminently sensitive musician, and just a great person to work with. His attitude is just beautiful, and really hard working. I kinda felt that I let him down on that album by just not doing enough preparatory work on it. He's faultless in the studio."
But it was 1984 and Sapphire, produced by Robert Palmer, that matched the heights attained with Solid Air.
"Someone else who was fairly cool as well, was Robert Palmer. It's that fearless approach - just try it and if it doesn't work just throw it away. I did Sapphire with Robert Palmer out in Nassau. That was a very long involved album to make."
"Working with Danny Thomson on the other hand was always fast; the whole of Sunday's Child was recorded in six days and it was all improvised, all of it. You wouldn't do that now because these days it takes too long to set up the gear; things have got somewhat over-complicated, I think."
When Island rejected The Apprentice album in 1988, Martyn was probably at his lowest point yet, admitting to living through an alcoholic haze. But two years later he had re-recorded the album for the independent Permanent Records, selling 35,000 copies and playing 11 sell-out shows at London's Shaw Theatre.
Cooltide follows The Apprentice on an even higher note, and marks an effortless excursion into the sophisticated jazz textures and forms that STING has attempted so studiously in recent years. It also sees a deepening in tone and expression of the voice - far more of the TOM WAITS gravel and a deal less of the CHRIS REA smoothness - the fruition of some of his best ever songwriting.
The album inaugurates a new musical collaboration, with the young classical and jazz trained keyboard player SPENCER COZENS. This is the latest in a series of long term partnerships that he has struck up with the likes of Danny Thomson, and in recent years keyboardist FOSTER PATERSON.
JOHN: "Spencer was recommended to me when Foster Paterson decided that he wanted to stay at home and be married. I've used Foster in the same kind of role for a good while but he just decided that he was fed up with life on the road, which is something I can sympathize with."
Foster did in fact return to the studio during the making of this album for a couple of days when Spencer was indisposed, sitting his final degree exams!
SPENCER: "I met up with John through ALAN THOMSON, the bass player, through playing in JULIA FORDHAM's band. I did a few gigs on The Apprentice tour which Foster couldn't do, and then when he bowed out I got the gig for the German tour last year, which involved an altogether different attitude. It was after that that John decided to work with me on the album."
"He's got a reputation for being difficult to work with and if he doesn't like you, you'll soon know it. But the thing that a lot of people can't handle is that you've got to be straight up with him as well. I think he likes the energy of younger players. He's a very energetic player himself and demands a lot of you, and you've got to have that same kind of energy to meet those demands. I don't think I got the job because of my qualifications!"
The kind of role in question was an intensive writing and arranging process, that earned Spencer his co-production credit and a good few weeks locked away in John's barn, in the isolated wilds of the Scottish countryside.
SPENCER: "The demos were just John and myself - guitar and keyboards - and a drum machine. A few of the songs like Hole In The Rain and Annie Says, were written already but Jack The Lad, Cooltide, Father Time and the others came out of John and me just jamming together, and he'd come up with lines and stuff that we'd pick off - it was a very interactive thing."
"I'd just set up a groove, come up with a chord sequence and things and we'd just jam, through the day. We did all this in John's shed up at his home. The drum machine was an R8, and I had my RD1000 keyboard, my T3 and my D50, running through a Tascam 20:2 mixer, with a REV50 and a Boss delay, going down onto cassette. I'd just keep throwing cassettes in when we got something that was happening. There's one cassette where you hear the first groove -I think it turned out to be Cooltide- then you hear the bassline appearing, then you hear John's vocals and lyric ideas happening, and then the chords come in and by the end of the tape you've got the song that's recognizable as the album track."
Glasgow's Ca Va Sound Workshops has become something of a regular venue in recent years:
JOHN: "I've been there for the last two albums. I'm kind of reticent with people and I need that kind of relationship where things and people are familiar; better the devil you know kind of thing. Also they get used to my own quirks, and they can handle them so much better when they know me."
Perhaps Cooltide's most surprising feature is that it is simply so fresh, not what you'd expect 23 albums down the line.
JOHN: "Personally I'm very pleased with it, I think it's the nicest thing that I've done since Grace And Danger. I don't often like my own work immediately after it's finished but I like this album. It was very quick and easy to make; it was recorded and mixed in 18 days. We just walked in and plonk."
"To a certain extent we knew what we were going to put down when we went into Ca Va, but there's still a lot of improvisation [that] goes on, I mean the lyrics on Jack The Lad, Father Time and Cooltide were improvised in the studio, which is actually something that I really like doing. The thing is that you have to get kind of wasted to do it. You have to have an awful lot of confidence in yourself to catch a mood and fly away."
"There was a fair deal of ground work that went down, but not as much as most people tend to do these days. We tend to SMPTE things, just so long as you stripe the tape. It makes editing and adding things at a later stage very easy. All the songs were done with live drums and were initially laid down with the whole band out in the live end."
"We were very lucky that making the album coincided with the Glasgow Jazz Festival, so there was all kinds of guys passing through, ANDY SHEPPARD (sax) being one. We just happened across the road to The Lorne -a bar across from the studios - and there was Andy Sheppard and JOE LOCKE (vibes). As I say, it was extraordinarily quick, Joe Locke put down all his stuff in four hours and I think Andy took about seven to do all his."CA VA
> Amek G2520 48:24 desk
> Mitsubishi X-880 digital 32-track,
2x MCI/ Sony analogue24-track
> Quested Q215S monitors
> Roland RSS Surround sound
> Control room by Eastlake Audio
> 64' x 32'x 24' live area
Although you would always describe Martyn as an organic kind of musician, he has never shied from using the very latest technology.
JOHN: "I don't actually have a modus operandum that I carry through from one album to the next, the idea is to use each one as a sort of learning curve, so you've got more information to go onto the next one with."
"I used to be very slick in the studio but with the advent of computers I've kinda fallen behind, so I use it but I don't understand it; but I work with people who do. Spencer's a real boffin when it comes to that kind of thing. He's only 28 but he's highly experienced and accomplished, he went to Berkeley and Julliard."
"There isn't actually a great deal of sequencing on the album, virtually everything is played live. There's actually more sequencing [that] goes on live, than we did in the studio."
"On some of the tracks I replaced the actual bass guitar with synth. Far be it from me to criticize, but it just wasn't what I wanted. I found that we got a better feel by using keyboard bass. Like on Hole In The Rain."
SPENCER: "Where we decided to use the keyboard bass we just played along to a click and I just sequenced it up on the T3, so I could go back, quantize it and edit anything that didn't quite work. Hole In The Rain was sequenced, Jack The Lad was done with a sequencer - that was quite funny because there's this pipe thing that needs a repeat on it which I had done on my little £ 90 Boss unit, and we tried to do it in the studio on this mega Klark Teknik delay and we just couldn't recreate it, so we had to get a cab to bring this little Boss unit up from Roberton all the way to Glasgow. The cab fair cost more than the unit."
"In the early stages John suggested that we do the new songs without a drummer, but with a serious drummer like JOHN HENDERSON I convinced him that that was really silly. I mean we did six of the tracks live in just a day and a half."
John Martyn is also well known for getting into some heavy processing and experimentation with his guitar sounds, from some heavy-duty use of the old Echoplex, through to a long term battle to wrench some musical versatility out of any number of different guitar synths.
JOHN: "I tried and tried and tried but I couldn't find one I was happy with. You know the best thing I ever had in that line was when my wife bought me a £ 99 Casio guitar, one of those plastic ones. And that was the best trigger I ever found. I spent literally tens of thousands of pounds, working with the Stepp and all kinds of shit. You could make them sound interesting - out of the Stepp I used [to] get the Mongolian Chinese Orchestra, bangwhack it through a couple of FB101s and stick a few octaves on here and there, and it did sound enormous, but they just don't trigger accurately enough, there's always two milliseconds between you and the reply. It's not reliable and you get glitches here, there and everywhere. The guitar synthesizer has not really been invented yet."
"What I was trying to achieve was just a variety of sounds, as a guitarist to get torn into the sounds that keyboard players and people have access to. I like having the natural guitar sound there but I love having an octave below and an octave above and a few pizzicatos and a whole load of nonsense in there that you can mix in with it all."
"On this album I just Dl'd my guitar -a '54 Les Paul- or just miked up the Fender Twin with nothing between me and the board, except for a fuzz pedal on Hole In The Rain."
What, no Echoplex?
"The thing with the Echoplexes is that they're very noisy, but they're lovely tools and I adore them. There's something neat about them, they're just so eminently controllable, so long as you memorize the settings, but I've got a digital SDE3000 these days. The thing about the digital machine is if you're using sequences, you just measure things properly, so we're both playing at exactly the same tempo and work things out mathematically. It's a bit more difficult with a machine like the Echoplex to get that kind of accuracy, although I do like its sort of organic decay."
What is clearly apparent is that John has pulled his playing right back on the album, leaving much more space for his voice and the other players.
"Yeah, I do enough playing live, I'm actually playing a lot more upfront live than before, but it's whatever's apposite to the tune. There's no point in putting a guitar solo in just because people think that you're a guitar player. It's very much more of a band thing now than in the past. It's very much a collaborative affair. A sort of democratic experiment."
"I intend to do an acoustic album which will feature me fleein' about the effects. And I'm also going to be doing a gig in Glasgow with just me and Andy Sheppard doing a set of standards, a couple of COLE PORTER numbers, a couple of MARVIN GAYE's songs, stuff like that, sometime in January - there's going to be an album with the two of us as well."
Although Martyn's own production style has evolved from working with a whole breadth of studio heavyweights, he is not the kind of producer who spends every minute in the control room overseeing every move.
JOHN: "I tend to get involved in terms of saying I like that, keep that, I don't really like that, don't put reverb all over that. There's so much stuff in the studio I find really dull, that I tend to bugger off for a couple of hours and then come back in for half an hour and say, right, I like this, I like that, keep that bit, shift that, sample that, stick a bit on the chorus and I'll see you in half an hour. Once people have kind of got the groundwork done I find that I only really need to be there for about an hour for the mixing of each track."
"We kept just about all of the improvised passages that went down - if you play properly, you play properly. A highly improvised song like Cooltide went down really quickly, with no messing about. Very little was left to do at the mix, all the relevant information was committed to tape."
SPENCER: "We started off working on two 24-track analogue machines and then about a week or so into the recording we moved over onto a 32-track digital Mitsubishi."
JOHN: "The strange thing was that we mastered onto DAT, but when we played back the DAT master, it just didn't sound right at all, so we dumped it onto analogue 2-track and when we played that back it was all there but far warmer, and that's what's on the album. It was all mastered on digital but then transferred over onto analogue. There's a lot of clarity that's just in the nature of the music, but when you listen to the DAT, it's just too clean, there's like sharp edges everywhere and milliseconds you can almost hear. It's a good system to use to get around that."
John and Spencer mastered the album using Roland's RSS Surround Sound system, but don't expect anything as tasteless as backing vocals swirling round the back of your head.
SPENCER: "On reverbs and stuff it's a nice effect. We did use it primarily for increased stereo separation, but very sparingly because to get the full effect you have to be in the right psycho-acoustic conditions; at the right point between the two speakers."
An album featuring artists of the calibre of Andy Sheppard, John Henderson, Alan Thomson and Joe Locke is not an easy act to follow live, but with JOHN GIBLIN on bass, JERRY CONWAY on drums, TERRY UNDERWOOD on sax and Spencer on keyboards quality control is tight. With such intuitive players, Martyn can leave large chunks of the set open for much brilliant improvisation: "They have to be naturals, otherwise I'm not bothering. I don't like scholastic musicians." Spencer, meanwhile, had to devise a means of incorporating the sequences into the songs without constraining the rest of the band.
SPENCER: "What I run on stage involves sampled percussion and keyboard parts that I don't need to handle. I use an S1000, triggered by an Alesis MMT-8 which is brilliant. That controls the S1000, the T3, the D50, all routed through the Tascam mixer."
"A lot of the stuff is regular patterns, but playing with John things have to be kept open for improvisation. Backing vocals are the funniest thing. On Cooltide we've got them where I just fire them in at the end, and they are really effective, and he just cues me in with them at the end. We Octavided his voice in the studio, which we mix in with his own voice and his straight vocal on the sampler; it gives a really big sound."
John Martyn's live set includes material from as far back as Solid Air, showcasing the full breadth and consistency of his writing and illustrating how well material he wrote 18 years ago sits alongside the songs he wrote only a few months ago. But then John Martyn has never let up. He is as timeless as the generations of musicians he has been touched by. Musicians like the great CHARLIE MINGUS, who as a much younger, more naive performer he once opened for at the Bijou Club in Philadelphia.
"Charlie was a bit sick when I met him but he was a lovely man. He befriended me because I was the only white boy in the place and I was very young and I was getting a really rough fuckin' time and he stood up for me. I just kept getting blanked, it was like playing to cardboard and I just lost the rag and smashed the guitar against the wall. He just said to me, 'Look at me, I've been playin' 50 years and I'm still wallpaper, who the fuck do you think you is?'"
Another outstanding influence was Weather Report.
"I loved Weather Report, JOE ZAWINUL is really my all time favourite. I loved him ever since he played with CANNONBALL ADDERLEY. That's still an influence, you know the odd progression, the odd semitone where it shouldn't be. That's what I really picked up from Joe Zawinul, mad semitones in the wrong place where it sounds really great."
A less obvious influence, but one perhaps apparent from the amount of slide playing on Cooltide, is country.
"I love WILLIE NELSON. I like early country music, HANK WILLIAMS, CHET ATKINS, there's something sweet and primitive about it. PEGGY LEE, I love her voice and she's still sweet at 50."
"I'm going to work with BONNIE RAITT. The last gig I went to was her show up in Glasgow and she says 'I hear that John Martyn is in the house,' and apparently she had just been on the radio saying how wonderful I was. She's a beautiful chic, no shit with her at all, and all of a sudden she's become fantastically successful."
Like the man says, "It's a cool cooltide,". A cool cooltide that never ebbs...
Interview by Keith Grant
1 Judging by the giglist this would probably be referring to the November 15 concert, which makes the London Subterania performance of October 27 a good candidate for the aforementioned secret gig. (Subterania's location is Acklam Road near Portobello Junction.)
International Musician ('Technology in music') was monthly published by Northern & Shell Plc, London. The original copy of the Christmas issue cost £ 1.50. The article featured some live pictures by Steve Catlin. The cover picture with John dressed up as Santa Claus was taken by Jeff Kaine.