Virtually unknown in the United States, the Tea Party is Canada’s preeminent progressive rock trio. Moreover, their use of exotic instruments, Middle Eastern, Indian, and African musical themes has earned them legions of international fans while expanding the nature of their art.
At the center of the Tea Party sound is Jeff Martin, whose voice and visage strongly recall Doors lead singer Jim Morrison. While Martin may ape much of Morrison’s street theater intensity—especially on the band’s early records—he brings abilities to the music that the late Lizard King simply didn’t have. As a guitarist, Martin’s fluid attack effortlessly alternates ethereal melody lines and menacing hard rock. This mastery extends to vintage American instruments such as a 1916 Gibson Harp guitar, the harmonium, and various foreign folk instruments necessitating the use of a bow or pick. The creative leader of the Tea Party, Martin and his collaborators, percussionist Jeff Burrows and bassist/keyboardist Stuart Chatwood, often search the world over for different instruments and cultural inspirations to keep their sound fresh. The results include four double platinum-selling CDs and a DVD video-compilation that sold platinum well in advance of its North American release.
Martin, Burrows, and Chatwood were raised in the Windsor suburb of LaSalle, Ontario, where they happily absorbed classic rock sounds from Detroit-area radio stations WWWW, WRIF, WABX, and WLLZ. Burrows and Martin met in the second grade, and both had fathers who played music professionally. Martin’s father played in various blues clubs across the river in Detroit, while Burrows’s dad played drums on various Motown sessions. Burrows learned the basics of drumming from his father, while Martin took lessons for three or four months, and then taught Chatwood, whom they would meet in high school, how to play bass. As Burrows recalled in an interview with Contemporary Musicians: “The first three songs we learned, which we still have on 8-track tape, were [the Beatles’] ‘Help,’ ‘Revolution,’ and ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.’”
In and out of several short-lived high school-era bands, Burrows, Chatwood, and Martin eventually came together to form groups that played at dances and little festivals around town. Whether making music under the name of Modern Music, the Jigsaw Affair, or the Stickman—the band’s name prior to becoming the Tea Party—the trio conjured original material rooted in the 1960s hard rock and psychedelic blues tradition. As their musical abilities improved, they challenged themselves with more modern influences. “It got a little monotonous for us after awhile living so close to Detroit and constantly listening to the 500 greatest rock songs of all time,” explained Burrows. “Everything from The Nuge [Ted Nugent] to .38 Special. That’s all we kept hearing, and it was like, ‘God man, let’s try something different.’ So we’d get into Echo & the Bunnymen, Joy Division, or the Cure and just try to mix it up with heavier rock ‘n’ roll drums.”
Although some may suspect the band’s name refers to an obscure 1960s British Invasion ditty, Burrows described its true origin in this way: “The quintessential Beat poets of their era, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs—three different people with three different opinions—whenever they would get together and talk poetry, smoke pot or do whatever, they called that a ‘tea party.’ Basically, it meant a meeting of the minds. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish here.”
The trio included World Beat rhythms into a spacey mix of Doors-meets-Led Zeppelin rock from the start. “We always wanted to be outside of what was going on and obviously we wanted to achieve a timeless quality,” explained Burrows. “If you look at it chronologically, when we first started grunge was huge, then it went into a ska thing, then it went into this post-punk thing, then surfer punk, then to the Blink 182 and Sum 41 punk package thing. We just basically kept doing what we’re doing and trying to write something with different types of qualities and influences in it ranging from blues to East Indian music.”
The band’s perpetual creative experimentation paid off when their 1991 self-financed debut disc The Tea Party
For the Record…
Members include Jeff Burrows (born on August 19, 1968, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada), percussion; Stuart Chatwood (born on October 22, 1969, in England), bass, keyboards, assorted electronics; Jeff Martin (born on October 2, 1969, in North York, Ontario, Canada), guitar, various stringed instruments, harmonium, vocals.
Group formed in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, c. 1990; released self-financed debut The Tea Party, 1991; signed with EMI Canada, released Splendor Solis, 1993; released “enhanced” CD Alhambra, 1996; released Tangents: The Tea Party Collection, 2000; released “enhanced” CD Angels and DVD video collection Illuminations, 2002.
Awards: MuchMusic Video Awards, Best Group and Best Video for “The River,” 1994; People’s Choice Awards, Best Video for “Fire in the Head,” 1995.
Addresses: Record company —EMI Canada, 3109 American Dr., Mississauga, Ontario, Canada L4V 1B2, website: http://www.emimusic.ca. Management —SRO Manágement, 189 Carlton St., Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Website — The Tea Party Official Website: http://www.teaparty.com.
quickly sold out its initial pressing of 3,500 copies in Ontario alone. As re-pressings began appearing on best-seller lists all across Canada, major labels began offering to sign them. Most backed away when Martin included a proviso that he be allowed to produce the Tea Party’s releases. However, recognizing the popularity of their first album, EMI gave Martin a chance to prove he could produce major label-styled product. Recording at a New England studio, Martin and crew emerged with six tracks that became the backbone of their first major label CD Splendor Solis. EMI has gladly given Martin and the Tea Party a free hand ever since.
Constantly on the hunt for fresh ideas, the Tea Party has used the opportunities of fame and fortune to augment their music. On tour they visit galleries, listen to special mixed tapes made by friends, or try to gain insight from indigenous cultures. According to Burrows, the trio has the most fun seeking out and purchasing exotic instruments from around the world. “Especially in the States and the port cities like New York and San Francisco—particularly the Ali Akbar School in San Francisco, you could go there and spend millions really. Once we got a little bit of money we went crazy.” When asked how long it took to master so many foreign instruments Burrows observed, “You don’t master them. That’s the beauty of it. It’s like going into a remote part of India and giving someone a guitar and a Fender amp[lifier] and seeing what they come up with in three months. We just approached it in a very Western sense and used our limited knowledge of our own instruments and applied it toward that.”
Martin, who learned the fingering and tuning for some of the more exotic instruments through various instruction books, is also a heavy reader with a strong thirst for divergent philosophy. For example, their 1995 album Edge of Twilight, which boasted no less than 31 exotic instruments, was partly inspired by Tom Cowan’s book about the Celtic spirit and shamanism Fire in ihe Head. Martin’s lyrics also occasionally allude to the works of Aleister Crowley, and the band’s audio and visual projects contain loads of mystical imagery and spiritual symbolism. As Burrows explained to Contemporary Musicians, “I guess that’s more soul-searching than anything is really-or just searching period. Never being satisfied with anything from love to organized religion or whatever. People actually being content with themselves and never bothering to continue the quest for something new or better—that’s one of the main lyrical themes that is constantly explored and shared mutually among the members. Because to be satisfied with one thing, or be content to not improve yourself intellectually or musically is a loss as far as we’re concerned.”
“Each album is its own entity and a different chapter unto itself. That’s the beauty of this band,” Burrows pointed out to Contemporary Musicians. “Many bands have to be stuck in the same genre or niche of rock, pop, or whatever it is they’re playing. For us, it seems that everyone expects us to do something different that keeps it fresh for us.” Indeed, the band’s successive releases seem to embrace different moods and influences. 1997’s Transmission displays elements of disparate genres such as electronic industrial and soul music. Reflecting on the extreme anger he used as a catalyst to create the album’s lyrics, Martin once admitted that “Going where Transmission went almost destroyed me.”
Their 1999 album TRIPtych, which tied together three separate themes, provided a surprise commercial breakthrough when its single “Heaven Coming Down,” became a number-one Canadian radio hit. “We just wrote a pretty song and it got a lot of airplay,” recalled Burrows. “It was a shock. It’s weird because we saw a big change in the audience and then we quickly saw it fade. It’s like [these new fans] were there for the one song and then they were gone.”
Interzone Mantras, their 2001 follow-up, may have been too heavy on tortured spirituality for the pop radio crowd, but it cemented the band’s progressive rock reputation. Bassist and keyboard player Chatwood’s creative use of sampling, synthesizer, and FX are particularly noteworthy and Martin’s guitar-work snarls with hard-rock menace. The project also gave Martin a chance to drop the Jim Morrison histrionics and explore his own passionate vocal range.
Tea Party members are big stars in Canada, Europe, and especially Australia, where they have toured constantly. They have been nominated for various Juno Awards—the Canadian Grammy Award equivalent—and enjoy their status as one of the few Canadian rock bands that hasn’t needed the United States to make it big. That said, the band has received criticism from competing groups that feel the Tea Party is too serious, bordering on pretentious. “A lot of bands will go on about that,” Burrows explained to Contemporary Musicians. ‘”Oh they take themselves so seriously, who do they think they are?’ Generally our response is, ‘Maybe you ought to look into the mirror or listen to your albums and consider taking yourself slightly more seriously.’”
Splendor Solis, EMI, 1993.
The Edges of Twilight, EMI, 1995.
Transmission, EMI, 1997.
TRIPtych, EMI, 1999.
Tangents: The Tea Party Collection, EMI, 2000.
Interzone Mantras, EMI, 2001.
Graff, Gary, and Daniel Durchholz, editors, MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
“The Tea Party,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (May 2, 2002).
“The Tea Party,” Canadian Music Encyclopedia, http://www.canoe.ca/jammusicpopenceclopages/home.html (May 2, 2002).
Rolling Stone, http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/bio.asp?oid=1371&cf=1371 (May 2, 2002).
Additional information was provided by EMI Publicity and an interview with Jeff Burrows on May 1, 2002.
"Tea Party." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/tea-party
"Tea Party." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved May 21, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/tea-party
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