Tea Leaf Green: Rock and Roll Band (Part One)
On Halloween Tea Leaf Green will release its debut DVD and accompanying live album. The date seems apt since director Justin Kreutzmann has described Rock ‘n’ Roll Band as a cross between Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Amusement Park and the Grateful Dead Movie. In the weeks to come we will present a feature story that explores the genesis and development of Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in a bit more detail. This month however, we offer a conversation with TLG keyboardist/vocalist Trevor Garrod that looks back at the year thus far, with a bit on the Jammys, CGBG’s and 19th century abolitionist zealot John Brown.
DB- I’d like to head back to April and start out with the Jammys. Typically the bands that win awards are notified a few days out so that they can make travel arrangements. Is it true that you didn’t learn that you had won Song of the Year [for “Taught To Be Proud”] until shortly before you came on stage?
TG- Our manager knew a week beforehand but he kept it a secret. I really didn’t think that we’d win. I thought we were coming out to go to the party and maybe schmooze a little bit. Our manger’s assistant did say something suspicious to me a couple of days before. He was like, “I think you guys will win, I’m pretty sure you will.” I thought he seemed pretty confident but I still didn’t quite put it together. I don’t like to get my hopes up about things like that anyways, so I’ll hold onto the fact that we won’t be winning. That way I don’t feel like an idiot because I thought we were going to win.
I kind of figured it out 5 or 10 minutes before the award was given when they said, “You have to go back stage right now, so I’m like, “What’s this all about? I think we might have won.” It was gradual. Things seemed kind of suspicious and then it was like, “Okay, we won.”
DB- The backstage hang tends to be quite an event onto itself. Do any of those moments stand out for you?
TG- It was a lot of fun. I have a number of friends I’ve made over the years traveling around, so I got to hang out with them and chat. I also found myself sitting next to Richie Havens giving an interview with Sirius radio. I thought was pretty cool, chatting it up with Richie Havens. But it’s a great party.
DB- A few nights later you performed at CBGB’s. Can you talk a bit about your thoughts heading into that show and how you think it came off?
TG- First off, it was packed full of our best fans, so the energy was incredible. I love playing in New York City. As I’ve heard somebody say, it chews you up and spits you out. But it’s kind of fun being chewed up.
When I was in junior high I was a Ramones fan but I wasn’t fully tapped into the mythology and history and stuff. So when they told me we were playing at CBGB’s I didn’t realize how cool it was at the time. But subsequently I looked at the old pictures of the Ramones playing on the stage and it looked exactly the same. It’s been the same for 30 years I guess. But I thought it was a blast.
DB- So it was doubly fitting that you covered “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” and “Teenage Lobotomy”
TG- There were some people who suggested we play Television or the Talking Heads. And you know, I’m not a Talking Heads fan, which is a realization I’ve come to. For some reason whenever the Talking Heads comes on my iPod I skip it. And you know, Tea Leaf Green, we are not the most sophisticated of players, so the Ramones is more our style. We like more of a simplistic rock and roll approach (laughs).
DB- You also offered up another nod to the New York downtown scene with the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man.” That is a favorite of mine.
TG- Yeah I like that song too. When we do covers, we usually do them once but every now and then we’ll find a cover that we can really sink out teeth into and we’ll keep it in the rotation for a long time.
DB- How are covers brought into the band? Is there anyone who tends to the lead the charge there?
TG- Whoever has an idea. We’re pretty egalitarian about how we make all our decisions. So if you happen to be in the band and you have a good idea for a cover you just have to bring it up and say, “Let’s play this.” And if everybody says, “Yeah, that’s a good idea” there you go. Or if everybody says, “I don’t think so,” it can stay in subcommittee.
DB- Is there a particular cover that stands out as something that seemed fine idea at the time but perhaps didn’t quite play out that way?
TG- I think it might be the best but it might also be the worstone time we played “Country Roads” by John Denver. We also used to play a mean cover of “If I Had a Hammer,” which I still think is awesome, my mother used to sing it to me when I was growing up. But I don’t know if it’s all that popular with everybody else. They’re like, “I’m not playing If I Had a Hammer,’ I’m sorry.”
DB- I’d like to jump to Taught To Be Proud. It seems to me that the vocals are more upfront than on your prior releases. What are you thoughts there?
TG- I don’t know. This was the first time we had a professional mixing person do it. Plus it helps that I think my voice finally stopped changing a few years ago (laughs). Mixing engineers they all have their own philosophy about how up front the vocals should be. I guess if they sound good enough they should be up front but to tell you the truth we weren’t even there when they were mixing it down, so we didn’t even get to say, “Can you turn up the vocals?” (laughs)
DB- Speaking of your vocals, I’ve heard them compared to Paul Simon on a few occasions. To me it’s not that your voice necessarily sounds like his but I do find your intonations reminiscent, as if you’ve digested quite a bit of his music over the years. Is that the case?
TG- I’ve never gone out and said I want to sing like Paul Simon but I’ve definitely spent my time listening to him. I think about doing what anybody needs to do to be a good singer: you make yourself as free as possible and find your own natural voice. And if it comes out sounding out like Paul Simonwe’ll, we’re all primates. But I did listen to a lot of it growing up, Simon and Garfunkle and Paul Simon later on. I think the first time I kissed a girl was at a Paul Simon concert.
DB- On which tour?
TG- Rhythm of the Saints
DB- As someone who always been fascinated by the story of John Brown, I was immediately drawn to that song (“John Brown”) on the disc. Not many folks these days are writing about mid-nineteenth century political figures, how did that come about?
TG- I was reading an epic poem called “John Brown’s Body” [Stephen Vincent Benet]. It’s just something I randomly picked up at the library and there was this one section called the “Hymn of John Brown.” I just liked the contradiction of someone doing God’s will but at the same time creating a massacre. I like that contradiction and I feel like it’s a political question that is still topical today: to solve the world’s problems, how far are you going to go? What is appropriate in order to do what’s right?
I enjoy things that have no right or wrong answer. That’s part of the process, the struggle: thinking about things don’t have a right or a wrong answer, that have layers.
DB- What about “Pretty Jane.” Those lyrics are rather old as well. What led you to them?
TG- I had this big old box of sheet music from the turn of the century that was handed down to me from my great, great aunt. I was going through this and I found “Pretty Jane.” I liked the lyrics but I didn’t like the melody, so I tied it on to this simple chord progression. I’ve always liked the idea of it. My grandma’s name is Jane too so I always thought it was secretly dedicated to my grandmother.
I remember I wrote a melody to a John Donne poem once but I don’t want to pull that out. People would be like, “Oh god.” (laughs) Next, I’ll be writing madrigals. (laughs)
DB- Taught To Be Proud opens with “The Garden (Part III).” How is this song related to Parts I and II?. Were they all composed at same time or is there a thematic link?
TG- They were not written at the same time. They’re kind of connected a little bit in some kind of weird overview story that we’ve been putting together for a while but we haven’t finished it. There’s a hound dog involved with this garden and, well, I don’t want to say it’s our fairy realm that we’re making up but kind of…
There’s a collection of songs that we all relate in the whole thing. “Can You Guess It?” is part of the group and “Precious Stone” is in the song cycle. “Garden (Part III)” was written later and it has elements of it but it’s also about some other more personal things that I’m extrapolating into a bigger song. Eventually I do want to finish the whole thing. One day we’ll get it all finished and we’ll have an illustrated song book and an animated feature (laughs).
DB- Where are you in terms of you next studio effort?
TG- We probably have 3 or 4 records of music that has not been put onto a studio album. We have a lot of new songs that we’re working on. We can’t hold it back, as soon as we get a song, we start playing it live. One day I’d like to be able to put out an album of music nobody’s heard before but we play too many shows and we’re too impatient to wait on a song. We want to play all the new ones right away. We have enough material, it’s just a matter of getting it all together.
There’s more to recording an album than having the songs. That’s the easy part. I’d like to go and record an album every six months but that’s still a little bit down the road. It’s not in the cards right now
DB- One final question. Tea Leaf Green has done some work with HeadCount this summer. How would characterize the relationship between culture and politics? How outspoken are you on political affairs?
TG- In an interview someone asked me about the current administration and I called them a bunch of fascists, criminals and thieves. My father read this, called me up and said, “You have to be careful about what you say.” But I wasn’t saying that for fear of vengeance against me just to prove my point that they are fascists. Are we in a state where I should be fearful of saying soothing like that? I’m not fearful. But I prefer to work more in parables and asking questions rather than giving answers.