Acoustic Magic: An Interview with MMW’s Billy Martin

Interview by Kara Wilbeck

Photo courtesy of Billy Martin

This Thursday, April 18, Medeski Martin & Wood will be stopping at the Roseland Theater for a seated acoustic show. The acoustic tours are a special and rare thing for MMW, and will give the audience an entirely different experience than the electric shows. Since, we’re so excited for the show, Kara gave drummer Billy Martin a call to talk about the tour, MMW’s new acoustic live album, and some really cool side projects.


Portland Metronome: Can you tell me a little bit about the new Medeski Martin and Wood album, Free Magic?

Billy Martin: Free Magic is just a document of some of what we call our acoustic tour, which is really John [Medeski] playing acoustic pianos and other things that he likes to bring. Sometimes he’ll even play a flute or other instruments that make sound, or a melodica, which is something you blow into as you play the keys. But it’s acoustic on his end mostly, and then Chris [Wood] plays his usual upright and electric, I play drums and percussion. And the record is a compilation of about a week or two of touring years ago — I think it was ’07. It’s a compilation of all these special performances we did. It’s basically that. It’s what I call chamber music, meaning that we don’t use a lot of electronics, we’re playing the room like it’s a theater. Like classical or jazz, it’s more chamber-like. We rarely do an acoustic tour. We’ve only done a handful of them over the past 20-some-odd years. We’re going to do this acoustic tour on the West Coast, and that’s what it’s about.

PM: Since you recorded this album so long ago, why did you decide to release it recently?

BM: Two reasons. Really, it was time for us to think about releasing something that we owned and had recorded ourselves, and a live record sort of made sense. We felt like a live acoustic record is even more special because we don’t normally release a record like that. The second reason is because it gives us an opportunity to do an entire tour where we’re playing this instrumentation, this setup; to do this unique thing that we rarely do. They kind of go together.

PM: Are you going to be playing a lot of songs that you played either on the new album or during the tour on which you recorded the album?

BM: We’ll be doing some of them, but we always have new material that is combined with some of those things from the record. We have a large body of work, a repertoire of music, and we like to change it up every time we go out. I’m sure we’ll touch on some of this music that’s on the record, but I think it’ll be a 50/50 thing where you’ll know the tunes if you’re a fan, but there’ll be new things — maybe new arrangements of things that we’ve done, or maybe an arrangement of a song that was written by someone else. We do this tune that Elvis Presley did — I don’t think that’s on the record.

PM: What song is that?

BM: That’s called “Suspicious Minds”. Great song.

PM: Are there some songs that you only play when you’re acoustic?

BM: Yes. I can give you examples of music that really requires the piano as the main voice. And that could be something that might be a tune, like a John Coltrane tune called Syeeda’s Song Flute, and I think that’s the very first record where we did that. The very first record we made, “Notes From the Underground”, was all piano. And there were horns on there, too, but with a piano trio. That was originally how we started — piano, bass, drums — and no electric bass back then! But now that’s changed. Now we combine all those things. The thing is that we’re really flexible. You know, we can take a tune we normally play electric and arrange it for just the piano. But I think there’s some electric tunes that we couldn’t do; that John wouldn’t want to do because it really asks for an organ voice or a clavinet voice or something. But anything is possible.

PM: When you play songs acoustic that you normally do electrically, how do you hear the songs morphing? Do they sometimes take on a new life and turn into a totally different song?

BM: Yeah, [the music] does. It sometimes takes on a different character. You know, we have a knack for arranging together, making an old tune sound like something a little different, having fun taking one of our tunes or someone else’s and morphing the style or delivery of it. A lot of it has to do with just the instruments, the changing of the instrument you’re playing and taking a different approach. That’s really all arranging, and it really comes down to it being a language. We speak a language with words, so maybe if I use an analogy: We have one actor read a part and then we try another actor or change up the gender — then you’re going to get a different delivery. It’s like having the same piece of music, but instead of playing it on organ, playing it on piano. Different characters and almost different gender. The drum set… sometimes I’ll play something on just one percussion instrument, like the Brazilian pandeiro — it’s just a tambourine, but it can sound like a full set of rhythm played into a microphone. And I can play rhythms through the whole set, just through the tambourine, instead of playing on the drum set. So it just changes the character.

PM: How do audiences receive the acoustic tours versus the electric tours. Do you find that the demographic of people coming to the shows is different, and do you find that the energy level of the shows is different?

BM: Well yeah, it’s different all the time. That’s what we like. Even if we play electric all the time the energy changes, and the audience changes, and their reaction changes. It depends on the music that we choose to play, but [the acoustic shows] are more contemplative in a sense. Sometimes it’s more of a theater event. You sit there and we take you on a trip. But we still can groove and we can also take you on, like, a music soundtrack. We can do that with anything! When we play these acoustic sets, we can get into the performance and nuance of things. Sometimes if the moment’s right, and everything’s right, and everyone’s listening, you can hear a pin drop and there’s a lot of mystery. We have fun with that too. But we can also groove the hell out of an acoustic set, too. It’s just different vibrations, and people respond differently to it, of course.

PM: Is there any new MMW music on the horizon?

BM: There’s always new stuff. We haven’t played together in a while, and we always leave a good amount open for — especially this kind of special tour — we’ll develop music every day. We may go over a couple of new things or work on some new pieces at soundcheck before the show and play them for the first time, or play a different arrangement. Sometimes one of us will say, “Hey, let’s play this really simple melody.” And we’ll check it out, turn it into our own version, and play it that night. And if we like it, we play it the next night, and it develops, and I think there’s another reason why a lot of MMW fans like to come to the shows — because they get surprised, and there’s always something that we’re going to give them that will be something new. It’s also the improvisational, spontaneous, compositional aspect, the experimental part, where we’ll have a jam session live and we’ll create something during the show, and it’ll never happen again. And that’ll be it. One time. That night. If you’re there, you caught it. And I think that on Free Magic, we have some moments like that.

PM: So you do a lot of your songwriting directly in front of the audience?

BM: No, I would say some of it. It changes tour to tour, year to year. Sometimes we’ll have a body of work; we’ll get together for a couple of days and we’ll write a bunch of music. When we did the Radiolarians series — which was three different records, three different tours — we developed the music and we came back into the studio after those tours. After developing music on the road, we made these records. Now, I think it’s 50/50. Truthfully I would say most of the time we play material that we know, that you may know, 60-, 70-percent, and then the rest of the time is really experimenting, doing solos — we each get a 5- or 10-minute solo, playing little concertos… You just never know. But we like to improvise in front of an audience. We’re all about spontaneous composition, and sometimes we find a tune in front of an audience where we want to figure out what we did and play it again! It goes all the way back to the days of “Shack Man” — some of those tunes came out of jams. You never know.

PM: Can you tell me about your side projects? One of them, Wicked Knee, just released a new album.

BM: My band, Wicked Knee (well now it’s called Billy Martin’s Wicked Knee), it’s a band. It’s really a band. I wanted to call it Wicked Knee, but we recorded an EP a year or so just to, you know, have. Sell some of them, give some of them away, let people know we’re around… Now we have a full record called “Heels over Head.” Steven Bernstein plays trumpet— he helps me with some of the arrangements; he’s brought in some of his music. Steven Bernstein, from Sex Mob and Levon Helm’s band, Curtis Fowlkes, great trombone player, Marcus Rojas, great tuba player. We’re all New Yorkers; we’ve all played with each other for 30 years or more. It’s a real band, we have a lot of time being musicians. We’re experienced in a way that, you know, we have a lot of influences. So when we come together as a band — like Medeski Martin and Wood, Chris, John and I have our side projects, and we come back together and bring that into our music. So Wicked Knee is a brass band or pocket brass, because it’s drums and brass. There’s a New Orleans tradition of brass bands, but there are also other types of brass bands. European bands, marching bands, African bands that have drums and horns, so we just create our own thing. But we also play covers! We do a White Stripes tune, “The Hardest Button to Button,” we do an old New Orleans tune called “Sugarfoot Stomp,” I wrote a few pieces, Steven brought in something — there’s a lot of different stuff. Wicked Knee is a really special group. You’ll be seeing more of us in the future.

PM: You’re doing the duo with Wil Blades, too, right?

BM: Yeah, we’ll be out in May for a tour. And that’s a powerful little duo. It’s just a duo, but it packs a punch. You know, it’s very soulful. Wil is a soulful, bluesy player, and he can groove — he’s got a lot of rhythm. He was formerly a drummer in Chicago, so he’s got the rhythm thing. So together we can really shake up the room. That’s something I didn’t plan, something I didn’t dream of or think of because I played so much with John, even as a duo over the years. But when I met Wil and we played together, there was something about it. It was different and special. And so we’re developing that stuff. We’re going to probably, hopefully, record another record when I’m out there in May with him in San Francisco while we’re touring. So we’ll probably be developing music. We have a record called “Shimmy.” It’s been out for a couple years.

I could mention one other thing, because it’s a really cool project and I want people to know about it. I’m producing a record for the Master Musicians of Jajouka. They’re a Moroccan 1000, 2000-year-old band tradition. And they have a lot of history, just going back to the last century with the Rolling Stones. Brian Jones recorded them in 1960, or whenever it was, and they released it, and they played with the Rolling Stones. They have been in movies, soundtracks. This record is a benefit record that Howard Shore is going to release on his label. Howard Shore is the famous film composer that works for Martin Scorsese — he did “Hugo,” he did “Lord of the Rings” — he’s a film composer, but he has a label. So he’s getting behind this project, and they asked me to produce it. We have Medeski Martin & Wood, Flea, Marc Ribot, Lou Reed, Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth, Mickey Hart from the Grateful Dead, DJ Logic, and a few other folks. It’s going to be a great record. It’s going to be like a remix record of the Jajouka musicians. It’s going to benefit their village. They live in a remote place, and it’s going to help build a school for people to visit and learn their music.

PM: How did you get involved with the whole thing?

BM: They asked me to do it. I met Bachir, who’s the leader (it’s been passed down from father to son for thousands of years) — and Bachir is about my age, and he came to New York a couple years ago and played at Camp MMW. He came to our camp and did a master class, and then he played one gig with us at the Whitney Museum, and then I did something with him at a festival in Ohio. We became sort of close, and he liked how I operated, and I think he remembered. I had a DJ with us, and we did this trio thing. We had a good time and we talked a lot. He ended up asking, and I know his manager, and everybody seemed to think that I could put it together, because I’ve done my Illy B stuff, which is like breakbeat drumming, and remix records, and MMW stuff, and I’m in that sort of dance/hip hop world. So I was honored to get this offer. It’s really, really exciting, because everybody involved has been so generous with contributing. Right now, Lou Reed’s going to play some guitar on something, and Patti Smith might so something.

PM: Are these all people you’ve met before?

BM: No, I’ve [crossed paths] with Lou Reed. I’ve been backstage at festivals with him, but we never really hung out and talked. I know Lee Ranaldo a little bit, and I know Mickey Hart just a tiny bit. I know a lot of these people haven’t been together in the same room. I met Flea, like, 20 years ago, but Flea knows Bachir. He’s played with them.

Oh! I failed to mention the most important one — Ornette Coleman is contributing something too. Ornette has a history of playing with Bachir’s dad back in the 70s, and Ornette released a record called “Dancing in Your Head,” and he had some Jajouka musicians there. There’s also a famous movie called “Naked Lunch,” which was a William Burroughs book. David Cronenberg directed this movie, and Howard Shore did the music, and Ornette Coleman also played on the music. It’s an incredible record. So this alliance of all these great musicians and their respect for the Jajouka musicians… The Jajouka musicians are famous also because they’re close to Tangier, and that’s where William Burroughs lived and wrote, and Paul Bowles lived there at the beach. It’s sort of a legendary literary sort of scene there, and also an art scene. It’s a rich kind of history, and interesting to have this Moroccan music mixed in with the western world in this way. It’s really, really cool. This record’s going to be amazing — I just have to tell you — it sounds so good, and there are so many people on it contributing all these tracks. And they groove, and it’s really great.



Author: Kara

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