Tea Leaf Green takes the time to ‘do it right’
VAIL CO, Colorado
“Radio Tragedy!” is not the kind of album you’d expect from a band like Tea Leaf Green. “Radio Tragedy!” the seventh studio album by the San Francisco-based Tea Leaf Green, released in 2011, is textured, harmonious and crafted, with wide variations from song to song. It has moments of being very close to pop music; the chorus to “Easy to Be Your Lover” has singer-keyboardist Trevor Garrod moving into a falsetto highly reminiscent of the Bee Gees. “You’re My Star” recalls the meticulous sound collages the Beatles created in their later years. The title “Radio Tragedy!” refers to the idea that loads of the best music being made these days has barely any presence on the airwaves.
Tea Leaf Green doesn’t seem like that kind of band. Referring to them as a jam band wouldn’t stir much argument: Shaggy in appearance, they tour frequently, change up their setlists night to night, and go off into instrumental tangents onstage, usually led by guitarist Josh Clark. In 2006, they earned a Jammy Award – though it was for Song of the Year, for the tune “Taught to Be Proud,” and not for, say, 20-minute Instrumental Excursion of the Year, which is probably a more coveted honor among the Jammy crowd.
Despite the overriding theme of “Radio Tragedy!” about the sad state of commercial radio, Tea Leaf Green doesn’t seem like a group that would care much about radio play, or expect to get much of it.
But if “Radio Tragedy!” was a surprise, the next album from the band could be a shock. “In the Wake” has been in the works for more than a year. The band has not performed any of the songs live, preferring to let them take complete shape in the studio. For each song, the individual songwriter – usually Clark or Garrod – would guide the recording of basic tracks, then the other musicians would add their parts separately.
“It’s much more layered and nuanced than any record we’ve done before,” Clark said while driving from San Francisco to Sacramento. “‘Radio Tragedy!’ there are a couple tracks built up the way this record was, but only a few.”
Earlier on in their recording history, Tea Leaf Green would use the method often employed by bands that are more focused on, and more accustomed to, performing live than making albums. They would all assemble in the studio together, rehearse a song till they had it down – usually after having given the tune time to gel in front of an audience – then aim for a perfect take while the microphones were on.
“You’re just doing that over and over again till you get the perfect one. A lot of good records were made like that. But it becomes, you only have one perfect way to make the song happen,” Clark said. Building the song track by track is more of an experiment. “You add and take away, add and take away. You keep manipulating it. You’re not married to how the song sounds, because there is no one way the song sounds, till everyone says there is, till everyone is happy with their tracks.”
The methodology behind “In the Wake” allows the members of Tea Leaf Green – drummers Cochrane McMillan and Scott Rager and bassist Reed Mathis, along with Clark and Garrod – to practice another element crucial to the band: democracy.
“I don’t think it would be possible to make a record this way without trust in all the other members,” Clark said. “We’re all going to squabble over bits. But this band has always been very much a collective, leaderless. We’re looking at something that’s beyond any of us, any individual.”
Tea Leaf Green’s current tour makes a stop at Agave in Avon Thursday night, but fans aren’t going to hear the new material. The music for “In the Wake” is finished, but the band is anticipating a release date in May, and they are presenting the music the way it was done back when concert tours were a marketing tool, not a way of life and a way to make a living. The songs won’t be performed live till the album is released.
“We’re champing at the bit to play it,” Clark said. “But the plan was to withhold it, so we could truly tour behind a record.”
Josh Clark and Scott Rager began playing music together in during their junior high years in Arcadia, a town in Los Angeles county. Rager, a drummer, was jamming with a guitarist friend who lived two doors down. Clark, who had flailed at clarinet lessons in fourth grade, didn’t want to be bored and left out, watching his buddies play, so he picked up a guitar. This time it took in a big way. Clark spent his high school years drawing pictures of guitars during class, then running home to practice.
During their senior year of high school, they took over the office above Rager’s father’s carpet and flooring store and turned it into a clubhouse/rehearsal space. Recording, though, seems to have been far from their minds. “We spent an entire year improvising, creating things on the spot,” Clark said. “That’s what we were into.”
Rager moved north to attend San Francisco State University and began meeting other musicians, including a bassist, Ben Chambers. In 1997, with the beginnings of a band in place, Clark went to San Francisco, where he also studied illustration at the Academy of Art University. Soon after, Garrod, another SFSU student, rounded out a quartet.
For its first several years, Tea Leaf Green focused on learning to play, individually and together, and performing locally and outside of California. Getting a recording contract and making albums was something to be mostly avoided.
“The recording business was terrifying. We had all seen the VH1 ‘Behind the Music’ stories,” Clark said. “We wanted no part of that. We were learning to play our instruments, learning to play as a band live.”
Tea Leaf Green released a few early albums, including an eponymous 1999 debut, “Midnight on the Reservoir” (2001) and “Living In Between” (2003). The experience of recording and releasing albums was hardly encouraging; they cobbled together money to rent studio time, then nervously watched the clock as they tried to get their songs down.
“We had zero money, nobody investing in us for years and years,” the 35-year-old Clark said. “So we’d get in the studio and it was terrifying. In the studio, with your headphones and a raw guitar sound, that was a lonely experience. Live was a different thing – there’s an audience to give you instant feedback.”
In the mid-’00s came indications that Tea Leaf Green was finding some comfort in the studio. There was the Jammy Award for best song, and for 2008’s “Raise Up the Tent,” they brought in a producer, David Lowery, co-founder of Camper van Beethoven and Cracker. “Looking West,” from 2010, was intended as an experiment, to see how they could embrace studio techniques.
“We got super experimental,” Clark said. “We learned where we got too experimental, where to tone it down.”
There has been some shuffling of Tea Leaf Green’s membership: Reed Mathis, of the avant-jazz combo Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, replaced Chambers on bass late in 2007. And in 2011, Rager suffered a foot injury just as a CD release party was approaching. For the gig, they brought in a second drummer, Cochrane McMillan, who became a permanent member of the band.
But in the recording realm, the bigger change might have been logistical. McMillan had a recording studio in Oakland, Coyote Hearing. So when the band went in to record “Radio Tragedy!” there were relatively few time and financial constraints and they fully embraced the studio as a different setting than the stage.
“It’s a little playground for us to go into. So comfortable,” Clark said. “You don’t feel the clock is ticking, like you’re hemorrhaging money. You can just go in and work on the art.
“‘Radio Tragedy!’ – we hit our stride with that. Sonically it’s the biggest thing we’ve done. You put it on and it comes out loud. ‘Radio Tragedy’ was definitely a bridge. Each record, or at least the last three, were always one step to the next, all related. Now we’ve been blessed with more time to do it right, not just, ‘Do it!'”
Clark says the songwriting has also taken a step forward. “There’s more depth when you’ve been through life, the road, romances, heartbreaks,” he said. “At 20, it’s more out of our imagination. Ten years later, there’s more to draw on, more realism.”
For “In the Wake,” Tea Leaf Green stayed on comfortable ground. They recorded it at Coyote Hearing, and worked again with Jeremy Black, who produced “Radio Tragedy!” But the familiar setting doesn’t mean they can go back to old ways of recording. Instead, it gives them a place where they can evolve.
“Businessmen, they’ll tell you if you have something successful, keep doing that,” Clark said. “But that’s counterintuitive to the artist’s mind. You constantly want to explore. In my timeline, it’s all been a continuing experiment.”