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Published: 2009/11/16
by Mike Greenhaus

Radiolarians In Review With John Medeski

Medeski Martin & Wood’s Radiolarians series started as a back-to-basics concept: write new songs, break them in live and then cut them to record. But well over a year later, the series has produced a documentary film, a number of music videos and countless bootlegs recordings which track the entire process. Though the three musicians originally pledged to retire their Radiolarians material after brining it into the studio, the group decided to bring the series to a close with a comprehensive box set featuring all three Radiolarians albums, outtakes, a variety of films and other behind-the-scenes commentary. Shortly before heading out on a fall tour with MMW, John Medeski sits down with Relix and Jambands.com to discuss Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set, his upcoming residency at The Stone and what’s next for three of the scene’s most adventurous musicians.

The Radiolarians project started out as three season-specific albums, but quickly blossomed into much more. Can you start by talking about both how the series deviated from its original inttent and also how some of the special features in the Radiolarians box set came about?

It started off as just a series of tours and recording and, as we were working on it, it kind of just progressed. The idea was to create new music before every tour—play the music, develop it a little on the road and come back and make the record. That’s what we did and we did it three times. While we were recording, Billy Martin got really into making films, so he started filming us both on the road and in the studio. Somewhere along the way we also decided that we should probably put out a box set because there were a few new tunes that didn’t make the record for whatever reason that we were doing live. Some didn’t fit an album’s theme and others we just didn’t think needed to be on the record. It was also just an opportunity to get out a bunch of material and finalize the whole project so we decided to do some remixes. We got a lot of our favorite DJs to participate like Spooky, Logic, Olive, Scotty Hard, Dan the Automator and Mister Rourke. It’s a great lineup, and we figured, “Hey we might as well have a live record of some of this stuff too,” because these songs have taken on different shapes each night. The box set really gave us some insight into the process of making the record, and the DVD kind reveals how we went about making the music and creating the records and the evolution of how it all works.

In retrospect how do you feel about the writing portion of this experiment? Was it more liberating or restrictive than you initially thought?

We have in the past worked this way—writing some material before a tour—but never have we said, “Ok, let’s have new material each tour, and we’re not going to play any of our older material.” A lot of times we’ll have a new song and work it over time, but to have a whole night of new music that was nothing we had ever done before. It made for a really fun and creative year for us. The vibe of the band is better than it’s been—not that it was bad—but it feels like it was when we first got together. The spirit of doing this— forcing ourselves to create all the time—is really what we do best. We need to be inspired that way, individually and as a group. The whole point of our show is not about playing certain tunes or playing certain grooves or doing anything—it’s about creating a certain energy, it’s about getting to a place. It is about having music get us to a place that we can also take the audience to. And it’s about improvisation and spontaneity and it’s about music in the moment—the cathartic experience you get from improvised music. Having all this material and doing it this way fed us and enabled us to really do that a lot and have that feeling all the time. Now we have all this music from all three tours, and we have all this music to play.

Originally you said that you’d retire these songs at the end of year. At this point do you plan to keep them in rotation?

Absolutely, it’s really fun. It creates a variety for us depending on the situation, we can pull out different material, depending on what we’re feeling, what the vibe of the place is, what the sound is like. Certain songs work better in more intimate places. It really depends on the setting. So it’s great to have all this stuff, it’s very inspiring. Financially, it’s not a good idea [laughs]. Nobody buys records anymore, and to make three records in a year, it definitely wasn’t a business decision, but it was a creative decision that I think it really paid off for us.

You actually have even more new records than that if you count the Zorn album you recorded and your recent children’s project.

Exactly, we thrive on that. We could do this all the time, but we never had the opportunity before. The standard format of making records, especially in the old paradigm, was to make a record, and then go tour on it. We just turned that upside down. We said, “You know what, let’s tour on new material and made a record.” The original, original concept was to never play the music again. We would do the tour and that would be it, and we’d never play the music again. But we decided to be flexible because we actually enjoy playing these songs. The original concept came from the idea that there are certain birds that every year come back with a new song, and they never repeat themselves in their lifetime. We thought we should be at least like the birds. If they can do it, we were thinking of every season having a new song or a new set of music. But the reality of it set in and three albums made more sense because of the idea of the trilogy. The project evolved on its own. We had this basic impulse and idea, and then the project had its own course and we just followed it. The box set is sort of the final part of that.

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