Billy Martin Goes Heels Over Head
Billy Martin is best known as one-third of jazz-fusion trio Medeski, Martin and Wood. Granted, “jazz-fusion” isn’t necessarily the perfect description of a group whose genre-bending sounds would be equally appropriate in the cafés of Europe and the campsites of the headiest music festivals. “Brass band” probably isn’t the best way to describe Martin’s latest project Wicked Knee either, but it’s a decent starting point. The group—which features Martin (drums), Curtis Fowlkes (trombone), Marcus Rojas (tuba) and Steven Bernstein (trumpet)—just released its debut album Heels Over Head, and the 11 tracks are a bit of a departure from much of Martin’s previous work. We spoke with him recently about Wicked Knee, the new album, MMW’s side-projects and more.
How did Wicked Knee come together and when did the project start to feel like a real band?
I knew it was a real band when we did this quick little session. I asked Steven [Bernstein] to put some brass together to add to this drum DVD. I did this educational DVD called Life on Drums and there was something I wanted to have, like a little thing with horns. It was not a big part of the DVD but rather one little track, and so the guys came over to my place and we just quickly worked on this tune that I wrote called “Muffaletta.” After we did that we hung out [and] it was like ‘this is the band,’ the band that I’ve been talking about. This is it, you know? So that was the inception. That was a couple of years ago. I’ve known all these guys for 20-25 years playing in various projects together, being in the same musical community— the downtown scene in New York.
I know you’ve worked with Steve Bernstein, the trumpet player for Wicked Knee, for a while. How has your relationship developed over the years?
Well, I first met Steven when I joined the Lounge Lizards, John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, which is kind of like a famous downtown [New York] band. That was back in ’89, I think. Then when I started Medeski, Martin & Wood, I asked him to be part of the horn section on one of our records called It’s a Jungle in Here. I played in some of the bands and projects that he has done; we’ve collaborated on so many things, cartoons, Nickelodeon, children’s shows. We’re actually pretty close.
So tell me about the process of recording the new album, Heels Over Head. What went into that?
Well, it’s the second record to date that we did. The first one was an EP we made the year before. The EP is called Wicked Knee and there are six tunes on there. I just wanted to make that record and get it out. Just to start the process of writing more music and do some touring together. So last year, exactly a year ago, I asked the guys to come upstate where a friend of mine, Danny Blume, has a recording studio in his house. We made a trip up there and I was hoping to record a full record in one day. [Laughs.] It didn’t quite go down that way—technical difficulties.
We ended up getting about half of the music for the record, so I waited about a month or two and then we went into a church in the Upper West Side. I can’t really say what church it is, but it’s one of these places that had a really good sound. We recorded on location at this church, and finished up the process of getting the takes that I needed and experimenting with some other ideas. So I wrote a few tunes on this record. There were a couple that I had written that didn’t quite turn out the way I wanted them to, and everyone else contributed some arrangement or tune that they wrote. It was a longer, slower process than I had anticipated. I thought that we would be able to do it in one day, but it ended up having to be two recording sessions, taking a lot of time on getting the right mixes and performances. Just taking my time with it. I was very happy with the result, though.
The album has a different kind of brass sound—part of it sounds like something that you could hear in a club down in New Orleans, but then it also sounds like it’s coming from more of a modern jazz type of place. How would you describe the album’s style?
I call it ragtime/funk with avant-garde interludes. There’s really no name for it. We’re New York based musicians; we love New Orleans’ tradition; we love all music. My concept with this band is trying to bring in more of that sort of twisted joint, you know? To try to bring in a different slant on it, so I guess you know in a way it’s sort of a New York, downtown slant on a ragtime/funk group.
Most of Heels Over Head is instrumental, but there’s one song in particular with vocals, “99 Percent.” It’s also quite political in that it deals with the Occupy Wall Street protests. What was the thinking behind that song?
Well, originally I wanted to do a version of “Poor Folks,” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. I’ve recorded and performed it. Then I thought maybe I’d just get Shelley [Hirsch] to sing “Poor Folks.” Then I realized I should just have her create something on her own and kind of guide her a little bit. Part of the spirit of this band is having good times during bad times, which is obviously a very common New Orleans thing too.
I thought I wanted to have Shelley sort of share a little bit of the woes of the time and put in a little of her personal experience. So I asked her to give me a journal of what she’s going through herself. Then I asked her to make some comments about the band members as they’re soloing. We did about three takes, then I pieced it together, and then it ended up sounding what it sounds like. Her story about being part of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. It turned out that way, so that’s basically the gist of what I wanted to get across— that we’re going through these hard times. It’s sort of blues and this is a contemporary take on it. Shelley is one of my favorites. She’s creative, she can do anything.