Billy Martin: Lets Go Everywhere
Medeski, Martin & Wood’s music has been alternately described as dark, spooky, cerebral, experimental, funky, fun and groovy, but rarely “kid friendly.” So many longtime fans were surprised to learn that the trio’s first studio album since 2004 would actually be a children’s album, featuring, oddly enough, a handful of vocal songs. And while, in certain ways, MMW’s decision to tackle a batch of children’s tunes is one of the band’s most experimental moves to date, in other ways, it is a natural progression for three men who have gradually grown from friends working the downtown New York club scene to family men and fathers.
As Billy Martin admits, MMW’s music has always been about “crossing boundaries,” regardless of size, stage or age. Below, the drummer discusses MMW’s new children’s project, playing one of Levon Helm’s storied rambles and his trio’s upcoming seasonal project (hint: MMW should have four more albums by this time next year).
First off, while Medeski, Martin & Wood’s music references a striking number of genres, in my mind, children’s music has never been one of them. What originally sparked the idea to record Let’s Go Everywhere?
Well, the idea was there for a while. We originally started talking about the idea when we started having kids. We had just finished our relationship with Blue Note and this couple who had started this label, Little Monster, wanted us to do a record for them. So, we just kind of jumped onboard and got a small budget together. They are acquaintances of ours, so we went into the studio about two years ago and finished it up about a year and a half ago.
What caused the lag time before the album’s release?
What happened is that their label got sold. They were part of one of these big conglomerates that kind of sold off all their little labels. So everything was up in the air for about a year and a half.
I know you have two sons. In fact, I even saw one of your boys play onstage with MMW once or twice. Do your bandmates have children as well?
Yeah. John is in a relationship with someone who has a daughter, so he is living with them. Chris has a daughter who is 5 and I have two boys who are who are 7 and 4. They are on the record, actually. My oldest son raps on “Pat A Cake” and his brother is just kind of in the background on some of the trackswhere the kids are screaming on “Where’s the Music.” Chris’ daughter is kind of playing on “All Around the Kitchen.” I also got a few other kids from the area to contribute. This girl Lindsay Dyer, who lives out here in New Jersey, has a really nice voice and she sang “We’re All Connected” and “Hickory Dickory Dock.”
Let’s Go Everywhere is, in many ways, based around the central theme of travel. How did this concept play into your writing and recording approach?
Well, you know, before we went into the studio, we started playing around with what the theme of the record was going to be. It was kind of a crazy time. We were all kind of doing our own thing and talking on the phone. I just thought that some kind of traveling theme would work. It could be literal or figurative or just an open/thematic idea. So that’s how Let’s Go Everywhere, the title, came to be. It also came out of my wife’s idea to do the Johnny Cash song “I’ve Been Everywhere.” We just kind of tied the two together. We tried out a lot of ideas like, “Let’s try that Johnny Cash cover and change the words.” It is just a simple blues song and has a simple groove. We tried to change the words and stick with that central theme.
The rest of the record also has the traveling theme. With Chris’ “The Train Song” and “On an Airplane,” he kind of came into the studio with those ideas and fleshed them out. I had some little, sketchy ideas that were developed in the studio on the spot, like “Cats Creeps.” Then we kind of played around with those ideas in the studio and made them our own. So, within a four-day period, we had almost all the album recorded—-or, at least, all the instrumental tracks and most of the vocal songs. Then we’d have the kids lay down their parts over, say, my afro-groove on “Hickory Dickory Dock.”
In addition to all the children who appear on Let’s Go Everywhere, the album also has more adult guests than a typical MMW album. Can you guide us through some of your collaborations?
We did a blues tune that is based on a jug band song that ended up being “Pirates Don’t Take Baths.” John has a friend, Tim Ingham, from when he grew up in Florida, who is a great writer and a great personality. We call him Big Time, which is where we got the name for the song on The Dropper. He sat down and wrote the lyrics to “I’ve Been Everywhere,” and he laid down the vocals on “Pirates Don’t Take Baths” over the soundtrack we have created. Then John went down there and recorded him singing that song. Then I had an old friend John Laurie, who I played with in the Lounge Lizards. When we were playing around with this thumb piano to create “Waking Up,” which is at the beginning of the record, it sounded so much like the Lounge Lizards that I called John and asked him if he wanted to contribute. He said, “Yeah, sounds cool.” So he wrote “The Squalb,” which is this furry creature you have in your pocket. It turned into a really fun thing, with all these people contributing. Chris’ brother Oliver also sang a duet with Chris.
I know he sings with the Wood Brothers, but does that mark the first time Chris sings on an MMW record.
Yeah, which is kind of cool.
Before this record, would you say your music was considered “kid friendly?”
It’s funny, I’ve never had anything but positive reactions from kids. You know, some of our music can be considered dark, but the kids love it—-especially anything that has a beat to it. So, I’ve had people tell me their kids or their nephews just love our music. It’s funny, but my kids walk around singing the parts. I think people underestimate children’s perception of things. I think kids relate to our music more than you’d think. Especially when it’s grooving and kids can dance around.
As a father of two, you must have heard a lot of children’s music. Do you have a favorite kid’s song or a least favorite kid’s song? Barney?
Well, definitely that [laughter]. But I think certain children’s records dumb things down. It is always like stooping down, as if the kids are stupid or dumb. I don’t think that’s true. I almost think you can create a world for them. There is this cartoon that I have done some music for. It is really cool in that the music that they write for these kids is so varied. Every episode they get into a whole different genre. I think that is smart for kids, to let them hear all these different types of genres.
That’s definitely true. My first exposure to music was through watching a lot of cartoons when I was young.
For me, Electric Company and Sesame Street were really prevalent when I was growing up. Electric Company had all these different types of music and some of it was really funky and Sesame Street had all these different guests.
Does MMW plan to tour behind this project? I know you did an early-evening show at Border’s in New York already.
It doesn’t look like it because of our schedule, but we will take opportunities as they come up. I’d love to do a tour playing matinee shows. But that is a whole new ballgame for us. Actually, we broke this stuff out two years ago and have been playing the instrumental tunes, like “Cat Creep,” “Where’s the Music,” and “Let’s Go,” in our regular shows for a while now. Those instrumental tunes kind of cross all boundaries.
The spring tour is going to be more about developing new material for the season. We have a seasonal theme this year. Each season we are going to rehearse some ideas, tour and develop the music, and then make a record. So, this spring, the tour will feature “spring music” and the summer will feature “summer music” and so forth. We are going to try to make all the music seasonally appropriate and release a few records this year.
How much time are you going to give yourself to create this seasonal music?
Well, we are going to spend about a week rehearing and writing the music before the tour, really try to develop the music on tour, and then go into the studio for 2-3 days and just nail it. It won’t be like our usual improvising in the studio. It is more like what we did with Shack-Man. But I guess on all of out records, we have a few songs that we develop before we record them.
In addition to four new albums with MMW, you also have a number of other projects scheduled for the next few months.
I have an art show coming up, but, musically, I am going to be playing with Marco Benevento and Calvin Weston at Sullivan Hall this Thursday [1/24]. Now, Calvin is a drummer that I have been playing with for 15 years, even before MMW, when I was in the Lounge Lizards. We have a duo and we went out this December. I think we are going to make a film of our performance. It is not about two drummers banging away, it is more about music. I am also working on some soundtrack music to my own experimental film that I have been working on for a while. So, for me, it is all the same. Being creative on an instrument, on canvas or on paper with words is all part of being artistic and progressing yourself.
Have you played with Marco before?
I have never played with Marco before, but I just heard one of his new tracks on WNYC. It was really nice. I haven’t been following the Duo or anything because I have so much going on.
Oddly enough, though they grew up together, Benevento and Joe Russo reconnected outside one of your Tonic shows.
That’s great to hear. It’s really cool to hear and it is amazing that people met at our shows. Phish used to come to our shows and dance in the back at the Cooler. I didn’t know who they were then, but that is so great. It brings people together.
Who would you say is the most unexpected celebrity MMW fan?
Well, over the years, I remember that Beck used to come to our shows when we played L.A. Kyle Gass from Tenacious D is a fan. Alicia Silverstone? But she is sort of a friend of our manager. I am not sure if she comes to our shows to be nice or if she is interested in our music [laughter].
One children’s gig you did play was a matinee at Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble in Woodstock. Did that gig come to fruition because Medeski lives in the area?
Well, John [Medeski] and our manager live up there and so does the couple who run Little Monster, so they made the connection. And, at the same time, Levon’s Rambles have been growing. So we know the people up there. It was almost more of a charity thing. The proceeds from the matinee go to a children’s charity and the evening thing kind of goes to Levon. I don’t know how, but he has very little money.
Were you able to stay for Levon’s set?
I wish I did, but I had to go before his set, because my family had been there all day and we had to drive an hour and a half home. Medeski sat in, I heard, but I didn’t hear any of his set. We played about an hour set and had a horn section featuring Steven Bernstein and Eric Lawrence for “Creole Love Call.” Levon was nice. He was like, “Hey man, you should record here” [laughter]. He was sweet and met my wife and kids. It was really an honor to meet him, he’s a legend. John’s friend from Florida came up and it was special to have a guest like that—-even if he didn’t perform. And playing with Chris and John that nightsomething about it felt really good. Something was magic in the air. When you play a kids show and then Levon’s Rambles, you can kind of relax.
How would you say having children has changed MMW’s band dynamic?
I think we were kind of kids growing up in the sense that we were like a family just trying to hold it together. As a band, as time goes on and you’re touring a lot, it is a challenge to keep fulfilling each other. You need space from each other to keep it together and that goes for any relationship. We’ve always been into that, but there are times when there is a lot of pressure. But, if you have kids and a family surrounding you, there is a personal grounding thing that really helps. We are growing with ourselves and are always trying to get through the stages of our lives together. It is hard work, but I think, since we’ve had kids, we are getting better and are focused more, in a sense, on appreciating what we have more. They are so creative and now it is like we have an extended family.
It must also put the band in perspective.
Yeah. There are times when we have to be more together, more responsible and deal with those responsibilities. But, at the same time, you take advantage of times when you are together, appreciate them, and really get into it, because you know you have to go home and deliver the baconand run our families.
_One of Mike Greenhaus’ first musical memories was hearing the 1980s rock song “The Touch” during Transformers: The Movie. Read more about his eerily normal childhood at www.greenhauseffect.com