Reed Mathis: ‘It All Sounds Like Gorgeous Music to Me’
Reed Mathis has just finished his sound check at Sullivan Hall where he will be joining Marco Benevento on the last night of his month long residency at the New York City club. As the jovial bassist walks towards the back of the venue, he stops to chat for a bit. When we get to talking about the recently completed Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey album, he excitedly asks me to give him a moment before disappearing back stage. A few minutes later Mathis returns: he has just burned a copy of the new album, Lil Tae Rides Again, on his laptop and is eager for me to give it a listen. In a nutshell, this is Reed Mathis. You don’t have to be around him very long before you get caught up in his insanely positive energy. Always smiling, as only someone who is truly enjoying his life can do, he manages to always raise the spirits of everyone around him.
Right now, Mathis is to the bass what Warren Haynes is to the guitar: he’s seemingly everywhere. Mathis is featured on Invisible Baby, Marco Benevento’s solo studio debut, he recently completed his first album with Tea Leaf Green and the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, the band that Mathis has called home for the past 15 years is about to release their first studio album of originals in approximately three years. If this isn’t enough, all three projects will be touring in one form or another over the next six months. On a rare off day for the Oklahoman native, I roused the ever-cheerful bassist from an early evening nap in Kansas City to discuss his various ongoing endeavors.
At the end of last year, Mathis found himself at the center of one of the more unexpected lineup changes in recent memory when he was announced as Tea Leaf Green’s new bassist, replacing Ben Chambers. The ripples reverberated through the fan bases of both TLG and the JFJO. A couple days before Chambers’ retirement from the road became public, Mathis received a call from Chris Sabec, Tea Leaf Green’s manager. Sabec, a familiar name in the Tulsa music scene due to his mid 90s stint managing Hanson surprised Mathis with the news about Chambers and even more so with an invitation to join the band. “I started calling all the guys immediately,” relates Mathis. His decision to sign on with Tea Leaf was made quite promptly. “I didn’t have to give any thought to it. I had to consider the scheduling aspects but personally and musically, the choice was obvious.”
If the thought of Mathis teaming up with the California-based rockers seemed slightly unforeseeable, it’s because there was little to foreshadow the pairing. “Before joining the band, I had played with [Tea Leaf] for a total of ten minutes,” says Mathis, realizing how the facts don’t quite seem to support the sureness of his decision. “I’ve seen them around the festivals for years and I’ve always had an attraction for them as they are real friendly guys. This summer at High Sierra, I was there playing guitar with Bobby Previte and the Coalition of the Willing and Josh [Clark] was like, Hey man, you’ve got that guitar there. How about you come sit in with us?’ So I played guitar with them and was really moved by the experience.” In the three months since debuting with the band in Santa Cruz, California, Mathis hasn’t once doubted his decision. “I’m loving it,” he proclaims. “I feel like I’m getting music lessons from these guys. They are so good with their dialect. I feel right at home.”
With only a few weeks to bring himself up to speed on Tea Leaf’s deep catalog of tunes, Mathis turned to archive.org. “I called Trevor [Garrod] and I was like, What do I do dude?’ He sent me a list of about 40-50 songs that he figured we should start with and I started listening to them on the archives and playing along.” His primary resource was Tea Leaf’s triad of shows from this past September at New York City’s Blender Theater where the band covered lots of ground, never repeating a song over the entire run. “From what I understand, I’m barely scratching the surface,” he says with a sense of amazement for the depth of the Tea Leaf catalog. “I’m trying to add a song a day but there are apparently hundreds and hundreds of tunes. It’s a lot to keep track of,” says Mathis, laughing that’s it not the only band’s repertoire he has to be proficient in. “I’ve got a lot of songs floating around up here.”
Mathis went about learning the gamut of Tea Leaf’s varied collection of songs in a somewhat methodical fashion, keeping an open mind as to what each song needed from him. “For the most part, I was just trying to learn the song. If the bass part was real hooky or in unison with someone else, I made sure to get it exact but Ben did a lot of stuff on the bass that I’m not real good at. If I tried to play the stuff like he played it, I’d probably look kind of silly cause I could never do it as well as him. He has a different set of chops than I do. I couldn’t point to any specific techniques or technical stuff,” says Mathis when asked about the differences between their approaches. “Ben’s a real unique player with a real personal style. You know it’s him right away and I know better than to try and copy that. There are a few tunes that are a bit of a stretch for me technically but that’s good, that’s good for me.”
On such song is “Franz Hanzerbeak,” the eminently funky instrumental that will always be intimately associated with Chambers. “That’s a tricky one for sure. I just hope I do it justice,” he says. “Especially with a band like this, where people relate so deeply with them and the song, you want them to get their money’s worth and you want them to get what they’re coming to see. I just didn’t want to get in the way.” The band hasn’t shied away from the song in Chambers’ absence. At their New Year’s Day Sullivan Hall gig, Mathis’ first full New York City with his new band, Tea Leaf opened with “Franz Hanzerbeak” and from the song’s first note, all eyes focused on Mathis. The increased attention didn’t faze Mathis one bit. “It’s not something I necessarily notice, almost to a fault. I definitely have my things that I’m self conscious about but I don’t think they’re triggered externally. I’m either going to do a good job or I’m not: thinking about it isn’t going to help much.”
Chambers departure from Tea Leaf Green didn’t entirely surprise Mathis. “We had a long talk about it over the summer when he was mulling it over,” relates Mathis. After learning that Chambers had made his decision, Mathis immediately got him on the phone to check in with his friend. “I knew him better than the other three guys before coming in. I asked him how it felt and he said it felt really good.” The resolve of Chambers’ decision impressed Mathis. “It’s such a huge leap of faith. I’ve been doing Jacob Fred for 15 years and there’s definitely been times when I’ve thought, I’ve been doing this for half my life. Good God is there anything else?’ I could relate because I’ve been there. There’s a lot of sacrifice that comes with this type of life, especially if you want to make a living at it. The other ones are hobbyists,” says Mathis breaking into a laugh.
“I would never ever begrudge a bro stepping off the train. It’s so heroic to do this, especially past your mid-20s. Everyone’s taken road trips in their mid 20s. It doesn’t matter if you play an instrument or not, you get in the car and check out the country. You start getting into your 30s: people start getting married, you want a car that works, you want to see your family, and it can be a drag. I give Ben full props. You have to have a lot of confidence to disassociate yourself from the type of fame culture our society conditions us too and the pretense of superhumanism that goes along with being a performer. It’s hogwash but it’s addictive. I think it takes a real man or woman to step away from that. I don’t have balls that big.”
Chambers did give Mathis some advice on his new job. “He said, Play whatever feels right. Don’t worry about playing anything specific,’” shares Mathis. “I asked him about some specific tunes for sure. When I was learning the tunes, I called him constantly. Dude, I can’t figure out this part of the song,’” he says with humility. “Mostly though, I just wanted to hear where he was at and know how he was doing.”
The announcement that Mathis would be joining Tea Leaf Green sent some Jacob Fred fans into a fit of pique. The dissension took the form of a vocal few looking down at Mathis’ decision to join TLG because they thought it would be beneath the jazz man they believe Reed Mathis to be. It rankled Mathis, provoking a lengthy written response from the seemingly unflappable bassist. “What got under my skin was the way people look down on other people’s music,” explains Mathis. “Growing up, I ran around with lots of musicians. There were lots of different kinds of players and they were all pretty cool: there were those that kept it real simple and were content with playing straight ahead music and then there were others who were just the opposite, constantly trying to learn the hardest shit. The drummers would get into crazy fusion and see how many time signatures they could play in and the guitarists would try to play as fast as they could. Then there were musicians who liked the drill of playing the instrument well but don’t worship it; they assess music aesthetically, not technically,” he explains. “They fall into the group that considers Bob Dylan one of the greatest guitarists of all time.”
Mathis falls in with those who have an aesthetic appreciation for music. “The guys who just pursued fancypants music, I’ve always hated that,” he says. “The older I got the more I started to see that the scene surrounding jazz music has got that disease like a cancer. It’s really ugly and it’s one of the reasons that jazz is a dying art form. Back in the day, if you wanted to meet some girls and get wild you went down to the jazz show, especially during my grandfather’s generation. Part of what’s wrong with it is that attitude. It’s a pet peeve of mine that somebody in the course of a day will listen to Deerhoof and Charlie Parker and The Shins, revering it because it’s perceived to be better’ or smarter,’” preaches Mathis. “It all sounds like gorgeous music to me. I don’t think it’s fancy and I hate that attitude because I think it boxes me as well as other musicians in and tries to place certain expectations on them.”
When Mathis gets going on the subject, he becomes passionate about the perceptions and misperceptions surrounding jazz music. “There’s so many people I talk to who will say, I’m not really a jazz guy.’ What the fuck is a jazz guy? I mean, am I a jazz guy,” he says, a little exasperated. “During one bass solo last night [with Tea Leaf], I would say that the person I resembled most was Cliff Burton from Metallica and after it’s done some guy yells, Yeah, make it jazzy.’ Now, if he didn’t know me from Adam, would that guy have yelled that right there? Nothing I was playing was descended from jazz music: I was playing a fuzz bass with a wah pedal like a poor man’s Jimi Hendrix and this guy yells make it jazzy.’ I don’t hear him yelling that at Trevor or Josh. What is it with that expectation and why am I so hung up on it?” he says, pausing for a moment to consider his own question. “I don’t know but I’m definitely hung up on it. I think the main reason may be that I love jazz music so much that I don’t want it on a damn pedestal. I want people to party to it. You can listen to the real shit and you don’t have to put on a beret, start smoking a pipe and wearing horn-rimmed glasses. It’s not a fashion statement. It’s just cool music.”
Thinking back on his bristly reaction to the criticism of the JFJO fans produces a small chuckle from Mathis, “I’m just sensitive. It was a small amount of flack.” It did show that Mathis has no tolerance for music snobbery. “It just pressed the wrong buttons,” he admits. “I like debate: I just couldn’t stay away; I couldn’t keep my hands of it. It’s one of my favorite subjects and I think it’s a conversation that should be had. Is music a hierarchical system? Should it be? Should some music be considered more advanced and by what criteria? How is Coltrane’s Giant Steps more advanced than The Times They Are A Changing? It’s not.” Mathis becomes more engaged as the rhetoric keeps coming. “Is complicated better? Does complicated equal better? If you can play a more complicated piece of music are you a better musician than someone who can’t or chooses not to? That’s the heart of the matter. Is complexity the goal? If it is, what does that say about our society that we want our art to be as complicated as possible or that the more complicated it is the more greatly we respect it and the people that make it.”
Shouldn’t the physical feat of doing something complicated be worthy of respect? “That’s not music though, that’s acrobatics,” Mathis quickly replies. Isn’t it human nature to be impressed with something, musical or not, that very few people can do? “I can dig that,” Mathis concedes. “It doesn’t make for a better musician, though. Most of the best musicians in Tulsa aren’t the ones that will play you under the table with their solos. Rather it’s the opposite: the ones that are reluctant to take a solo are the best players; they’re the ones you want on your team. That’s when the music gets awesome.”
“If you were going to sum up my feelings on the subject, you could do it in two words: Ringo Starr. Ringo’s my favorite drummer and as I grew up I was told this myth that he wasn’t a good drummer . . . as opposed to what? Dennis Chambers? Neal Peart? Mitch Mitchell? Keith Moon? People are usually like, “Oh Ringo, he was just lucky to be there, right place right time.’ I don’t know how that started. Ringo is one of the greatest drummers of all time but he’s not going to blow your mind with some fancy drum fill and the reason is nobody gives a shit. The way you can tell Ringo is a good drummer is that millions and millions of people got on the dance floor when he started playing. That’s the only way to tell if someone’s a good musician: are they connecting on the other end or, even if their not, are they connecting deeply with themselves. There’s probably some cat in Nepal playing a one string broom handle that’s having the deepest musical experience on the planet anyway.”
If the Jacob Fred audience was giving him a hard time, the Tea Leaf faithful welcomed Mathis with open arms, turning his debut with the band into a special occasion. “The very first show, they made a huge sign that said Welcome to the Garden Reed’ and everyone had these buttons on that said Tea Leaf Reed,’” recalls Mathis, the appreciation for the fans’ effort unmistakable in his voice. “It felt like a birthday party.”
Mathis’ two worlds will collide in April as the JFJO’s tour in support of their upcoming album, Lil Tae Rides Again (out April 8th on Hyena Records), will require him to be in two different time zones at the same time if he’s to also play with Tea Leaf Green. Jacob Fred’s new album is a slight departure from their more recent efforts and in that regards it’s the same. “The record’s different from the last few records but the same in that those were also different then what came before. If there’s one thing Brian [Haas] and I have done a lot of, it’s change,” explains Mathis. “Years ago, the band started as a funk octet with a lot of rapping. We were a reggae band with a DJ for a while with everyone singing in harmony. We did a world beat thing like Paul Simon. The next thing we know we’re playing Sun Ra style Jimi Hendrix free jazz as a trio, a couple years after that we’re playing acoustic jazz clubs doing all Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, a couple years later we find ourselves with a looping pedal on every instrument and making these trancy loops over dance beats.”
The sound and feel of the album wasn’t the only thing new for JFJO, the recording philosophy utilized by Mathis, Haas and their new drummer Josh Raymer also diverged from their normal game plan. “The one thing we did different was that we gave ourselves a year. Usually we make a record within a week. This time we decided to take all of 2007. We hardly played any shows; we stayed home and we made this weird record,” says Mathis of Lil Tae. “The main thing was that we didn’t give ourselves a deadline. We told the record label, Look, I know this is going to hurt, but were going to spend all year on this thing.’ We wanted it to be a process of discovery. We didn’t really know what was going to happen,” says Mathis of the recording process. “Up until the last week, I didn’t really know what the album was going to sound like.”
Mathis thrived on the uncertainty. “The fact that Lil Tae was so far from the concept we started with by the end . . . there’s no way to do that other than to take the time and grow with the project. We discarded so much stuff. We recorded enough music for ten albums and those forty minutes are what made the cut. Usually, we record just enough for the record. For this, we decided to just take our absolute best stuff, the ones that just sparked.” Longtime drummer Jason Smart, who recently parted ways with the band appears on the opening track “Autumnal” but the rest of the album has 22-year-old Josh Raymer manning the kit. Mathis couldn’t be more excited to play with the young drummer. “Josh Raymer is the SHIT,” he raves. After spending his teenage years moving around the country, Raymer first found the Jazz Odyssey in high school when he lived in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. “Not too long ago, he showed back up in Tulsa; he didn’t know why, he felt a call to return. Fortunately for us, he came right when Brian and I took six months of the road to hang out and be part of our local music scene again.” There was some sense of things coming full circle when Raymer joined the Odyssey. “Josh decided he was going to go ahead and bite the bullet and become a musician for a living at a Jacob Fred show back in 2002,” relates Mathis, “He had this profound experience while watching us play. Five years later, bam, he’s in the band.”
On April 4th, Jacob Fred will kick off their tour in support of Lil Tae in their hometown of Tulsa. The tour will conflict with some April Tea Leaf Green dates and for those shows ALO bassist Steve Adams will play with TLG. As you would expect, Mathis is anxious to hit the road once again with his old friends, a group that will include Pete Tomshany, the man who inspired Mathis to take up the bass in 6th grade. Mathis is really looking forward to playing with Tomshany, one of the men who greatly influenced his career. “He plays every instrument so he’ll be huge to have on stage. He’ll have some old analog synthesizers and keyboards, a guitar, a bunch of percussion with all of it miked up and run through effects.” He promises that the upcoming shows will be “a one time only Jacob Fred orchestra of electric gadgetry.’”
The origins of the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey go back to University of Tulsa where Brian Haas was studying classical piano and Mathis was still in high school. “There weren’t a lot of bass players in Tulsa at the time. At least none that were eating acid,” recalls Mathis. “Six or the eight founding members of the JFJO went to Tulsa and I guess they were complaining about the lack of bass players. One of my friends said, Hey, there’s this high school kid that lives down the street from me that plays pretty good. You guys should call him.’ Brian called me up in the middle of the night and asked if I wanted to jam. I said I couldn’t because my parents wouldn’t let me out that late.” Haas suggested Mathis sneak out and he was quickly out the back door and in Haas’ pick-up truck. “We went down to Pianos and played for hours.”
Fifteen years later, he and Haas are still playing together. “People should be writing books about Brian, he’s such a unique person. He’s just an amazing cat, so unbelievably brilliant and original.” Their impressive longevity together comes as no surprise to Mathis. “His recipe just aligns with mine: we were both raised playing classical music; both my parents are classical musicians; everyone in my family plays classical music and we both started playing classical music when we were 4. We have that in common . . . .as well as Jimi Hendrix. We both had huge awakenings around puberty with the music of Hendrix and connected with it in almost a religious way. Beethoven plus Jimi Hendrix and when we were teenagers we found John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and then we found each other. We traced the same upbringing in about 12 years and then hooked up. A lot of the musicians I played with were in it just for the girls, they weren’t trying to climb the highest mountain. Finding someone else who was trying to climb that highest mountain was exciting for me.”
As if the rigors of simultaneously maintaining the touring schedules of Tea Leaf Green and the JFJO weren’t demanding enough, Mathis has also signed on for small mini-tours over the next six months with Marco Benevento. At the end of January, Mathis, along with Andrew & Brad Barr of The Slip, joined Benevento for the CD release party that closed out the keyboardist’s month long residency at Sullivan Hall. “I feel so kindred with that cat,” says Mathis, who contributed bass to Benevento’s Invisible Baby. Where their live shows can go in some wild directions, the album wasn’t quite the improvisational free-for-all they’re capable of producing. “He sent me demos of the songs with him playing all the instruments that he recorded at his house and they had bass on them he plays a mean upright bass,” he adds. “Good songs always suggest the part. I almost never have to come up with something to play on the bass because I’m lucky enough to work with good songwriters and a good song already has a bass line. It’s sitting in front of your face. You just have to let it come out. You usually don’t have to make any decisions.”
His shows with Benevento usually take on lives of their own; the two play off of each other so well. However, they have a little more structure to them than you may imagine. “We’ll usually figure out what we’re going to play. We have probably 30 or 40 songs that we know we can whip out and a lot of them have sufficient framework for improvising so that we can stretch them out when we want to. Tea Leaf Green and the Steve Kimock Band are the only bands I’ve ever been in that have a firm set list. Jacob Fred has never used a set list, so that’s my comfort zone. How can you predict what the room is going to do?” The final night of Benevento’s residency had more of the hallmarks of a traditional concert with the band doing something that other combinations rarely did at the prior shows: play songs. “Marco and I have worked out a lot of music which I don’t think he and the other musicians that were part of the residency had the opportunity to do. We honed that stuff over several different gigs.”
The mention of Kimock, another musician that Mathis has spent considerable time with, leads to a discussion of the guitarist. “I consider Kimock a lifelong mate. I’m going to attach myself to Steve as long as I can. He’s one of my favorite people walking the planet.” Mathis was a Kimock fan long before he got the opportunity to play with him. “I saw a KVHW video back in 1996 and I thought it was the most perfect guitar playing,” he recalls. “I was reading the Zen Teachings of Huang Po at the time, a 9th Century book about a guy who comes down once a year from the mountain he lives on and people start writing down what he said. I remember listening to that guitar and thinking, That’s Huang Po. That’s Yoda. That’s the shaman right there.’ I always felt that way about him. Even after getting to know him. Usually that type of mystique evaporates after you get to know somebody but it just deepens with Steve. It’s like looking at a lake that doesn’t have a single ripple on it.”
The next few months are poised to be amongst the busiest of Mathis’ career. One thing’s for certain though: he’ll approach it with a laid-back attitude, a smile on his face and he’ll be enjoying every minute of it.