Billy Martin’s New Amulet
Think of everything you know about Billy Martin with
MMW. He's been one third of the life force that has
driven the group into year after year of relentless
pursuit of truth in sound. His
pulse has been as infectious with formative
fourteen-year old minds as it has been with "All
Things Considered" breaks. His groove has helped shape
the current musical ethos of profoundly diverse
groups, from the stalwart jazz old guard to modern
break-beat DJ's. He's been in the driver's set of
MMW's rise from champions of the young improvisational
conscience to artists at the epicenter of America's
modern musical culture.
And now pause to take a breath, because that ain't the
half of it.
With his label Amulet Records, Billy has
opened a channel between the public and his current
voice, his voice of the past, and the voice of those
artists that have been his inspiration. The label's
most recent release, "illy B Eats, Vol. 1" is a truly
forward thinking endeavor. It's a mnge of modern
rhythms supplied by Billy on drum set and tweaked by
Wu-Tang and Jungle Brothers cohort Scotty Hard.
Intended as a break beat record for DJs, Billy's
visions for the album extend far beyond the wheels of
steel. With its release also comes a direct call from
Martin to the community of DJ's, instrumentalists and
composers to create with it as a flexible rhythmic
palette at their own disposal. His only hope is that
the album, in turn, becomes a catalyst for
further musical creation. This is a musical seed he is eager to
sow as early as this summer. He is working on plans to
do live sessions putting "illy B" to work, where Billy
and company will use the grooves already set in wax as the basis
for improvisation. That aside, "illy B" is an end by
itself, where any drop of the needle equals dark,
Amulet's birth was with the release of G. Calvin
Weston and Billy Martin's "Percussion Duets", a
re-release of a 1995 solo percussion collaboration
with his friend and like-minded pulse doctor. From the minds of these two
mid-Atlantic city dwellers comes a series of rhythmic
conversations, proficiently speaking the beats of
Ghana, Bali, New Orleans, and Cuba. Their time-tested
communication is apparent. Rhythmic phrases big and
small get fluidly exchanged as osstinati click
perfectly beneath. Martin knew how special the
sessions were and saw Amulet as a vehicle for releasing
Martin also deemed it essential to release several albums by
fellow-drummer Bob Moses. The 1973 epic "Bittersuite in the Ozone"
contains many of the elite figures of second-generation jazz (David
Liebman, Randy Brecker) in their creative youth,
combining with Moses' rhythms on his sprawling,
unearthly compositions. It is a collection of pieces
that float seamlessly between Moses' own notions of
improvisational freedom through linear form and
uniquely arranged horn harmonies that unfold like a
mystical sequel to Gil Evans' "Birth of Cool". Moses'
other Amulet release is his 1987 collaboration with
his spiritual ally Tisziji Mu "Love Everlasting".
Again here, Moses assembles a group of kindred musical spirits to realize
the beauty and truth within his malleable
compositions. All involved, including a young John
Medeski on piano, surrender to Moses' and Mu#39;
righteous musical aura. As with much of Moses' work,
it's an album unfettered by stylistic conventions of
its time and, in turn, largely indescribable.
So as I sit on the brink of an interview with Billy
Martin: student, teacher, improviser, composer,
drummer, visual artist, businessman for musical
goodwill. I can't help but feel that he's limited even
by these designations, and his work perhaps merits a
much broader title. Searching for this and other
burning truths, I hoped he would send a
few my way.
JC: So "illy B" has got about every urban drum sound
under the sun ringing throughout it. Were you and
Scotty scientific about getting such raw, lo-fi drum
tones or more hap-hazard?
BM: Well, we see as we go, but our style, our
aesthetic, already has that built in. We'd rather hear
a raw, kind of fucked up drum sound as opposed to a
perfectly pristine recording. We're both into urban,
street style stuff, but were also into using the
equipment in a different way to make it sound a little
different. It's just our personality and we don't have
to talk about it too much. I know where he's coming
from and we like to just do things on the fly and see
what happens. And then if I want to hear a little more
of something, this or that, he'll do it for me. Or
vice-versa, where he'll say can you give me more of
this or that, and I'll do it.
JC: There's lots of extra stuff on the album too,
besides the beats: subtle analog drones, sound effects
and the like. Was all that done after you had laid the
beats and, if so, did you and Scotty collaborate on
all that tweaking?
BM: Well, Scotty has a big hand in the overall sound
of things. Or I'll hear something. For instance,
Medeski has a couple of old, old drum machines from
before they were really even called drum machines. You
just have your cha-cha button, your tango button, and
then a sort of volume knob for tempo. So we don't know
what tempo it is but we kind of play with it. And then
we realize that there's some sort of strange buzzing,
droning sound coming from it. So we say, let's put
this on another track and maybe bring that out later
as a part of a piece. So things like that happen just
by trying different stuff, they weren't preconceived.
I laid the beat down and it was sometimes with one of
those quirky drum machines just to kind of keep the
time steady and sometimes not.
That's how it was basically started. I would play live with the machine
and he would find a tempo for me that I liked, or I
would hear something that he was playing around with
and tell him to keep it right there because I wanted
to play along with it. Another approach I always take
is not playing on the obvious "1" of that drum beat.
Sometimes it's hipper to play against it in a
polyrhythmic way. So that's how you get more worlds,
more dimensions out of things. And in the mix he might
have certainly put the drum machine through an amp
later on and distorted something, or put a super
amount of delay on something. He brought the pitches
out, adding more harmonic textures. And I love that
stuff because, for me, that's making the drumming even
more musical. You know, really bringing the tones out.
JC: "illy B" is a lot less static and more vibrant
than your average breakbeat record. While there's
tracks that are just cold, hard beats, some tracks go
as far as having you almost soloing behind a funk
pulse. Was that your intention, to give DJ's and
instrumentalists something they can be more expressive
BM: Yeah, definitely. I wanted to give form to some of
these beats. I wanted to create that song form in
which, whether or not you wanted it, you got a variety
of different beats within one track. The tempo may
stay the same but I'll change it up somewhere. But
then some are just a straightforward looped beat that
we liked, where we decided to loop it for two minutes
like a regular breakbeat record. I wanted variety and
I wanted it to suggest something a little more musical
as far as form goes. The main thing is just variety.
It brings more of a compositional aspect out in those
JC: There's recorded music and there's live music, but
"illy B" falls into that third category that bridges
the time disparity between the first two – recorded
music to be used for live manipulation. Is that what
attracted you to the project, the creation of a
timeless work that molds to the hand of the musician
that shapes it?
BM: That's a good point that you made. I wasn't a
hundred percent conscious of that, but I think
subconsciously I thought, yeah, people are going to
use this stuff later. My idea is, "Use me, do what you
want with me." I can't play with everybody physically,
but that aspect is a way of collaborating and being
able to share my beats with people, share my drumming.
JC: How did tracks come together on your percussion
duets album with G. Calvin Weston? Some beginnings
sound composed and some sound like they're from thin
BM: They're both. Nothing was composed entirely
through. I had some thematic material that I would go
over with Calvin for a couple of minutes and then we
would capture whatever it turned into. Calvin's such a
great improvisor and we have such a great chemistry,
just like MMW. There's a certain chemistry that we
have that allows us to bring out some motif that's in
there. That's why things sound like, "Oh, they started
with this riff, then went here, then came back." And
sometimes we didn't, because it was a combination of
that. Ultimately I just wanted to go in and play free
and see what happens and also try out some things that
I had sketched down on index cards. I would lay them
out and play the rhythms. And we did that as a two day
session in this abandoned building in Brooklyn and
brought the equipment in. It was just an eight track
machine with six mics and we just rolled tape.
JC: Do you feel they are few musicians you could go
and do something as free and verbose as that other
BM: No. There's no one like Calvin. There's no one
like the chemistry that he and I have. I've had the
opportunity to play with a lot of different drummers
and percussionists and I haven't found that chemistry
elsewhere. And I'm looking forward to that some day,
but right now, Calvin's the man. It's like a love
affair, like finding a true love, finding a
relationship that works. Whether it's a working
relationship or a romantic relationship, you work
together and you create things together. We're still
able to create things together and it feels really
good. And we're still going to play together, just like
we're a band. We had DJ Logic do a show with us and
that was really great. I want to try to do that again.
The chemistry between Calvin and I and DJ Logic was
another very powerful one.
JC: There's a lot of non-western rhythms on the album.
We're you trying to incorporate, let's say, a west
African rhythm verbatim, or adapting them to fit the
BM: Well, those are really strong influences on my
playing, so that stuff just comes out. It's just part
of my vocabulary. Sometimes I end up creating a piece
and I think, "This sounds just like a foreign rhythm I
used to listen to. Why does it sound so similar and
where's the original part?". So I try to keep a
balance of combining eastern and western stuff
together to really make it unique. Even if I tried to
do it exactly, like some master drummer from Ghana,
it's gonna be me and you're gonna hear it. But on
"Percussion Duets" you can really hear that influence
of west and central African drumming.
JC: You've been a real student of world music. Do you
find the more you delve into the depths of non-western
rhythms the more easily you experience the
transcendental meditation associated with them?
BM: Yeah, I think that goes with anything, any music.
If you're attracted to something and you immerse
yourself in it and you start to understand it, you get
lost in it. It becomes transcendental. It could be
Dixieland music for some people, it could be Broadway
for another, and it could be trance music from
Morocco. And yeah, I love it so much. I listened to
records of African drumming as a kid and always
imagined what it was like to live that life. Sometimes
I get lost in it that way and I feel like, "Wow, this
is really part of me."
JC: You really hear on "Percussion Duets" what a
rhythmic melting pot your brain is. Have you long
since stopped trying to classify your drumming style?
BM: Yeah, of course. I'm just trying to express
myself. And I'm trying to expand my vocabulary so I
can continue to try to express myself in a lot of
different ways. As far as classifying it, I think the
only thing it does is define who I am and what my
personality is like – what I'm trying to say. It just
happens, you know. For me to try and explain it in
words, forget about it! I'm not very good at that to
begin with. I communicate with my music and my
drumming. I'll leave that up to you to try and
interpret what I'm trying to say.
JC: There's a very unusual toy piano track on there
called "Amulet". Does that have anything to do with
the label's name?
BM: Yeah, that's John (Medeski) on that one. That's a
combination of toy piano and metal screeching. That's
where Amulet Records came from. My wife and I are very
into creating charms and objects that have power. A
lot of it's derived from African voodoo stuff, objects
that people use to bless things or speak to the
spirits. So at the time I was thinking that I would do
a bunch of these short pieces and they would be
amulets. They would be little sound talismans that do
things for people. I was thinking of releasing a whole
album of nothing but little snippets like that, and
I'm still thinking of doing it. So that was one of the
ideas, and it was the first one. To me there was
something magical happening, like you were witnessing
magic, like a soundtrack. That's how it ended up being
that way. And then later I was like, "Let's call it
Amulet records!" I like the word. (laughs)
JC: What kind of an effect did Cyro Baptista
(percussion wizard) have on you?
BM: I met Cyro when I was deeply into Brazilian
percussion music. In the early eighties I started
taking classes in Brazilian samba and percussion. I
was playing in different bands and I met Cyro. So I
knew him like, twenty years ago, and I did some gigs
with him now and then. And then I took a lesson from
him on the basics of playing the pandero, which is the
Brazilian tambourine, and he is a master of it. I
wanted to learn it so I had a lesson with him. And
every few years or so we would meet on a gig and play
together. And just recently I've been getting back in
touch with him. I moved to New Jersey and we happen to
live about a half-mile away from each other. We would
get together as friends and I thought it would be a
good time to have him on the road. For "The Dropper" I
used a lot of different Brazilian percussion and I
wanted to have that on the road. I wanted to bring
some of that percussion stuff for him to use his own
way, of course. So, yeah, I love Cyro. He's one of my
JC: With Amulet's Bob Moses releases, there's no
question this is supremely beautiful music. But with
Bob, there's a whole spiritual and philosophical side
to it as well. Did you feel equally compelled to not
only share with the public his music but his approach
and philosophies towards it as well?
BM: Yeah, I'm hoping the public gets turned on to any
aspect of Bob Moses. His music, his visual art and his
concepts all go hand in hand. He is a true visionary
and he's one of my mentors. We met at the same time
that I was doing all the Brazilian stuff and he would
use me as a percussionist to play parts and ideas that
he had. I ended up recording with him, and that's how
I learned, just by working with him. We're like
family, in some respects he's like my musical father
even though my father is a violinist and he's very
musical. Moses is a creative spirit on so many levels,
so deeply, that I was really influenced heavily by
just the way he is. And so, these records were sitting
around. He always sends me tapes of old records that
he did. He knew that I had a label so we talked about
it and finally got around to putting it out.
I'm trying to create a series and call it "Mozown",
because that was the name of his label. He put out
"Bittersuite in the Ozone" and called it "Mozown". So
I want to bring that back, and have that be the Mozown
division of Amulet records, so I can get behind the
projects of Bob's that I want to put out on Amulet,
those that we agree on. So those were the first two.
There's another record called "Love Animal" that I'm
just dying to put out. He sent me a record and he's
just trying to clear it with one of the musicians.
It's got Larry Coryell on it, Jim Pepper, Steve
Swallow and Keith Jarret. They're like teenagers when
they did this record in, like, 1968. And this is a
historic record. It's just around the time of jazz and
rock coming together. Coltrane was doing his more
avant-garde stuff and Miles was getting more electric,
and some of those guys ended up playing with him. It's
a really beautiful record because it goes in a lot of
different directions, and you can feel that energy of
where the music was going with those younger, talented
musicians. And some of it is funky. On some of it they
do funk tunes that are really kind of psychedelic rock
sounding, but still with a jazz feel to it. And some
of them are beautiful Coltrane-esque ballads, it's a
really nice mix of stuff. There's a blues, just a
straight, up blues that has vocals. It's a really
great record, I think people are gonna really dig it.
I'm really crossing my fingers that everything's gonna
work out and it will be our next release.
JC: That will be a real nice thing for the public.
BM: The jamband kids will love it. Forget about it!
JC: Is there one aspect of "Bittersuite" that you most
BM: I think of it as an orchestra. I think of it as a
symphonic kind of piece, how everybody played
together. To me, it's kind of the quintessential Bob
Moses conducting a big band orchestra, him picking the
right people to bring out his vision. And that's his
thing, that's what he's so good at. He did it with
"When Elephants Dream of Music" and he still does it
with his big band stuff. And I feel like that was one
of the first epoch things that he did.
JC: In "Love Everlasting" a younger John Medeski
really shines as a driving voice. What makes his
playing shine so brightly in those types of situations
where it's all about open musical communication?
BM: Well, he's playing piano. He has a certain energy
when he's playing piano. And he's also a sideman on a
project with Moses, and that's a very powerful
combination. He knows the freedom he has and he's just
able to take off with Moses' ideas. In that situation
it was a Coltrane tribute, and John's a huge Coltrane
fan. So he was able to bring that out, having listened
to that music.
JC: The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music
offers a drum and bass class next semester. How do you
feel about drum and bass's infiltration of the jazz
scene? Is it the swing beat of the next century?
BM: I think drum and bass might be the fusion of the
next century. It's just a form that's been
categorized, and all of a sudden it's like people
think that's the direction that jazz is going. Because
it's almost like a be-bop rhythm as for as how you can
flow with it. It's danceable and funky which is where
pop music is right now. And jazz music is always a
reflection of the time, and right now pop is very
funky. A lot of young musicians like to blow over that
kind of rhythm. So when it comes to teaching in a
jazz class, drum and bass is the perfect vehicle for
saying, "OK, where going to play some lines over this
and we're gonna improvise, and since all you young
people like to play funk, now you can do it fast!".
You can land the accents in a lot of different places.
To me drum and bass is like taking Clyde Stubblefield
or Zigaboo Modeliste and speeding him up and getting a
little freer with the playing. All these terms, it's
like someone put a word on it and now it's a specific
one thing. With the way I think of music, it's just
another way to express myself. I never use that term,
"drum and bass". And to be honest with you, I'm kind
of ignorant. I haven't checked out that whole scene.
JC: Well, in terms of labels, you say Amulet is for
percussive and avant-garde music. To me, it seems like
you guys are just releasing uncompromising art music.
BM: Yeah, it's true. I mean, I had to define it for
myself and when it comes down to having a business you
have to create a definition of where you're coming
from or else people don't know where to put it in the
record bins or what they should write about it.
I have to say though, a major reason I started the label is
to get people to hear what you can do with drumming
and percussion. I really feel like, in our culture, it
hasn't been explored nearly to it's potential. The
only music that I hear it deeply explored is in west
African music, Indonesian and Asian. They have whole
bands and orchestras that are just percussion. The
musicians in that town are all drummers. They're the
musicians, the wedding bands – it's all drums! Here
it's like, "Oh, you're just a drummer, you're just
part of a band."
So I just feel like drummers in our
culture need to think of themselves more as composers.
And I think in the modern music that came from Cage or
Varese or Zenakis and the European and American modern
composers, they were starting to explore their vision
of what we can do with percussion: that percussion is
not just rhythm, there's tones and sounds and noise
and everything's percussion. It's orchestral, and I
want to continue to carry that on. So part of it is
getting some traditional percussion, like the
Balinese, and also getting to my more street level
stuff, like the breakbeats and the street performers.
And of course the more orchestral kind of art, the
more avant-garde. And the improvisational type of
drumming. And then there's "the beyond" part of our
motto, anything that I think is challenging and
stimulating. Just contributing to the world some new
way of playing music, I want to get that out. So
that's how I'd kind of define it.
JC: At this stage of the game, with all these projects
and goals, how do you measure your musical growth?
BM: If I feel good doing what I'm doing, and I feel
like I accomplish things, I feel like I'm growing. If
I'm happy, and I can appreciate where I'm at, I feel
like I'm alive, and if I'm alive then I must be
growing. Musically I feel like if it can be
effortless, then great. But the bottom line is that
it's not. It's hard work, and sometimes you get into
these moments where it does feel effortless, but
there's a lot of preparation and planning and
discipline to get to that place where you feel like,
"Oh man, thing's are just happening, I'm just watching
it happen". And I feel like that's ultimately
everybody's goal. You want to just watch things
happen, but we have to prepare for it.
So basically, if I'm feeling good and fairly comfortable with things
then I feel like that's the ultimate. I can't help but
get up everyday and feel like I want to do something.
Now it's not always like that. There are times where
I'm depressed and I don't want to get out of bed. But
I'm at the point in my life now where things are
really going well. I decided to have my own label. I
decided to get married to my beautiful wife who is a
friend and a creative spirit. I have a son who is nine
months old, and they have a lot to do with.
JC: Jumping out of bed everyday?
BM: Yeah, jumping out of bed everyday. And also being
able to go out to my garden and plant some shit, work
in the backyard, get my hands dirty. And if I'm into
it, maybe go into the studio and play some music. Or
maybe fly somewhere or hop on the road for a minute
and play in front of people. It's all coming together.
And that's what I feel like, how better can life be
right now? I'm not rich, but I'm being creative. And I
feel good. And I'm independent. A lot of people end up
being dependant on things.
JC: Critics and journalists are left to come up with
titles for guys like you and Bob, people who study,
teach, produce, compose, improvise, paint, drum,
enlighten. What do you think of yourself as?
BM: Creative! If you could take a word that means a
person who is creative and who improvises. And I don't
mean in a sense of just being a musician. It's someone
who can take their day, or their moment they're in and
say, "We gotta work with this, how do we do it?", and
you're just creative with it. I just feel like that's
what we do. And because we're musicians, artists, we
can get away with it a lot more because we make a
living doing it. Some people are that way and they're
not artists, but they're still creative and they
improvise and go in the moment. They say, "It's broke?
Well give me that wire or that piece of hose and we'll
see if we can get it to work!" And they do!
JC: Everybody's an improvisor – a lawyer, a baker.
BM: Yeah, and that's what I try to get across when I
teach. I try to tell people it's not just about being
a musician, anybody can be creative in their everyday
life. And they are. I mean, just having a family is
being creative, or writing a letter,or finding a new
way to work in a situation. You're growing. We're like
nature, we're changing and evolving. We always have to
come up with new ways of doing things.