Tea Leaf Green's Reed Mathis on how improv is a spiritual discipline and an emotional art
Reed Mathis talks about improvisation like it's a mystical religion. The current bassist for the San Francisco-based quintet Tea Leaf Green and former frontman of the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey sees a great deal of power in making music on the spot, and that passion will likely be front and center when the band plays a string of dates in Colorado starting tonight in Avon and running through Sunday in Breckenridge with a stop at the Bluebird Theater in Denver this Saturday in between.
While Tea Leaf Green is expecting to release a new full-length album later this year, Mathis insists that none of that music will figure into the local shows. Instead, he said, the concerts will be a mix of old and new, tracks pulled off the band's studio and live recordings, as well as fresh tunes that didn't make the cut for the new album. And, of course, there will be plenty of improv to boot. We caught up with Mathis to talk about his history before Tea Leaf Green, the future direction of the band and the appeal of making up music as he goes.
Westword: You're a late arrival, in a sense, having joined the band in 2007 after spending years fronting the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey ensemble. Can you talk a bit about your roots and your musical experiences before Tea Leaf Green?
Reed Mathis: I started playing music when I was about three. My mother and father are conductors, orchestral conductors and choral conductors, and their parents are, as well. I'm a fifth generation professional musician, but I'm the first not to be a classical musician. I was raised in that environment, and I listened to all kinds of music. When I was seventeen, I started Jacob Fred, and did that for fifteen years. And you know, we did a lot of weird shit all over the world [laughs].
Why do you think you veered away from the realm of classical music?
Because I'm an improviser. I was noticeably an improviser at the age of five. I was frequently reprimanded by private teachers and by orchestra conductors for improvising in the context classical music, and when I started trying to play rock and roll with my middle school friends, I was improvising when we were trying to play Led Zeppelin songs and stuff. They'd say, "That's not the bass line," and I was like, "I hope you know that the members of Led Zeppelin are improvising. If we're going to pay tribute to them, shouldn't we do that? Or should we just copy them?"
So I was always an improviser from the very earliest age, and that's unfortunately not a part of classical music anymore, and it's in danger of not being a part of rock and roll anymore, even though improvisation is where both classical music and rock and roll formed. So, you know, I'm kind of out on a limb. I'm one of the last in a species.
It seems like the bass wouldn't be the first pick as an instrument for someone with such a bent toward improv.
I wouldn't say that at all. I mean, all music is made on the spot.
What drew you originally to being a bassist? Maybe that's a better way to phrase the question.
My uncle had one, so he could give it to me. But my first instrument was piano and then cello ... I also saw a really cool guy playing bass when I was eleven, a high school guy. I've never really understood, to a fault, much to my detriment, all of the various role playing that various instruments are supposed to do.
You know, piano players do this, bass players do this, drummers do this. I just felt like your instrument is your voice, and you're having a conversation. You're singing a song together, and I never did crack the code of, "Here's what this instrument does; here's what this instrument does." I just thought it was, "We're all a team."
How did you get the bassist job in Tea Leaf Green in 2007?
Well, let's see: I spent a year playing guitar. I was at a festival, High Sierra Music Festival, playing guitar, and Josh Clark came over and took me by the arm and was like, "Hey man, I'd love for you to come over and sit in with my band." I came over and brought my Les Paul, and we had a rowdy jam.
I stayed up late into the night talking to their old bass player, Ben Chambers, and he kind of unburdened himself about his doubts, about the way he was living his life and where his heart wanted to go. Living on the road is a hard thing. I've been doing it for seventeen years myself. We bonded and had a real sweet heart-to-heart hang there.
I didn't hear from them for a while, and then three months later, I got a phone call. "Do you want to do some gigs? We need a bass player." So, I went in with no strings attached, no expectations, and I had a ball playing and hanging with the guys. We kind of did it on a no commitment basis for about a year, and then I decided to go all in.
Was part of the appeal a shared interest in improvisation?
Perhaps. I mean, that wasn't really the main appeal for me. For me, I joined Tea Leaf Green for two reasons: Number one, I was floored by their teamsmanship; their ability to work as a team was really inspiring. Also, they were really excellent at some musical things that I really had no experience with. Jacob Fred was my first band, so they were really good at some stuff that I'd never learned, and I wanted to further my musical education.
Not styles, really. It's really kind of impossible to talk about music when you really get down to it. They had a lot of knowledge and a skill set that I didn't have. It had been a while since I'd really been challenged, so I wanted a challenge.
You're already over the five-year mark as a member of the band. Do you think you've added a distinctive voice to the music on the three studio albums and additional live albums that have come out since you joined?
For the first two or three years that I was in the band, I basically just kind of kept my mouth shut, and tried not to interfere with what was happening. I wanted to really learn their dialect and observe their relationships. I just wanted to check that out and find out what they needed from a bass player and see if I could actually do it.
About two years ago, I started expressing myself a little bit more on my instrument. I felt like I was comfortable enough and they were comfortable enough with me for me to start opening my mouth, you know? That's been my personal progression with it. As far as the musical progression, that's almost an impossible thing to describe. It's gotten better, I can say that [laughs].
Going back to the theme of self-expression and opening your mouth more, have you been able to add more input on the more recent songs and albums?
On a lot of Radio Tragedy, there's my stamp, but not in terms of bass line, just in terms of overall sound and arrangement and pushing the band to take risks and try stuff they haven't done before. I feel like my personal taste in music is more evident than it was on earlier stuff, but not really in terms of bass playing. The new one, which we haven't put out, has a good amount of bass playing on it.
Speaking of the new album, what's the time frame for release?
The record's done. We spent 365 days on it, exactly. It's all mastered and everything. It's the greatest thing that we've ever made. Honestly, I don't know or even care if anyone else will really dig it because it works so well for me and what I want out of music. That's enough. It's really good and I'm really proud.
The release date is May 14. We're going to start a tour the following weekend in San Francisco. We've used a lot of discipline, and we have not performed any of this music yet. None of these songs have been performed. Come May 14, we're going to have a whole new hour and a half of music at our gigs, which I am very excited about.
So for the upcoming dates in Colorado, there aren't going to be any tunes from the new record?
[laughs] Nothing from the new record, but we actually have new songs that aren't off the new record that we are performing. The writing process doesn't ever really stop. The thirteen songs off the record won't be performed, but there will be new songs, for sure. We'll be dusting off old ones, some that I'd never heard. There will be songs from the early part of the band's career that I didn't learn when I joined. Once in a while, we pull out an old one that's new to me.
Plus, the way the band has been performing and improvising, all the songs are a little bit new every night. That trait has only been increasing. I can guarantee that when we're at the Bluebird and the other Colorado shows, even people that have seen us twenty times will be surprised and hopefully thrilled. I find it thrilling. The more surprising the music is, the more excited I get, and the more adrenaline bliss feel that you get from a virtual experience; you can really get that every night if you have the space to surrender to the music, the muse.
That goes back to the power of improv for you as a musician, right?
Improvisation is really more of a spiritual discipline and an emotional art than it is a musical technique. You know, it really has a lot more to do with who you are and how you feel about the planet than it does with your instrument or the song or whatever. It's an approach to being on the earth that just happens to find form in [music].
Okay. Speaking of coming to the Bluebird, do you find that Colorado's more attuned to Tea Leaf Green's brand of music?
Of course, of course. Colorado has always brought the love for all the bands ... It's been very consistent. But with Tea Leaf Green, it's exceptionally so. The people come out, they pack the rooms, they dance and freak out and fall in love and have their hearts broken and dance and sing and cry. They know the words. They love it when we take risks. They really feel it. We feel very welcomed in Colorado every time.
You're not the only newer member of the group. Cochrane McMillan joined a few years ago. Has there been any adjustments with another fresh player in the band?
Cochrane and I have a lot of overlap in our backgrounds. We kind of came up playing a lot of the same kind of stuff and having a lot of friends in common. I met Cochrane years before he started playing with Tea Leaf Green; we had so many musician friends in common, it was inevitable. I'd been a fan of his, musically and personally, for a long time. When he joined the band, for me, it was instant, a real piece of cake, like a ripe fruit that falls when you pick it.
Shifting to looking at your discography, there are a lot of live albums. How integral do you think the performance element is to this band?
The bulk of the music we make is in front of an audience. There's nothing like performing to heat up that music to the melting temperature. The attention of the audience and the realization that you can't take back anything that you're doing, that people that don't even know you are having a very personal glimpse into the most vulnerable part of who you are; that's an irreplaceable feeling.
That being said, making music without an audience is very rewarding for different reasons. I honestly wouldn't trade one or the other. I need both. I need studio, more meditative work and the performing. The performing is haunting; you're out there with the predators and the prey. All of those primal hormones of risk are coursing through you. That's a great way to be. Going into the studio and putting your lab coat on is also a very rewarding experience. They're completely different art forms. I think this band excels at both.
This forthcoming record, then, is the latter. It's going in with the labcoats and being calculated and deliberate, right?
No, not calculated and deliberate. It's just as much off-the-cuff in the studio as it is on the stage. I personally don't ever plan out what I'm going to play when the tape is rolling. You're just capturing an essence; it's not about planning. I've heard records that are about planning, and I've even been a part of some records that are about planning, and they're kind of boring to my ear.
I've studied the Beatles extensively, and those guys were improvising; there was no master plan to what they were doing. They just had really good luck and they were really talented. You can play something that sounds organized without planning it. You just have to have enough faith and surrender. The record that is coming out -- we've spent a lot of time on it, and part of that is because we were on tour that whole year, as well. I wouldn't say that it's deliberate. It's just as accidental as a live show.
Is there a title yet that you can reveal?
There is a title, but I can't reveal it. [laughs] That's pretty fun to say, and I don't even know why. I have a secret!
In addition to the Bluebird show, the band is playing some gigs in Colorado at smaller venues. Do you have a preference in terms of the venues you play?
Yeah, I mean, different rooms have different vibes and different sized rooms have different vibes. The feel of the Bluebird is just about my favorite. It's the perfect size, and it's old but not gross. It's not so fancy that you're walking on eggshells. That's one of my favorites. Honestly, some of my favorite gigs have been in totally unlikely places, like weird restaurants and ice skating rinks and places a band doesn't belong. That juxtaposition can make the music more exciting and weird.
Do you still have chances to play gigs like that?
Oh, man, crazy shit goes down. We'll play anywhere. When you put us in different sized rooms with different sounds and different people, a different sized audience ... We'll play one kind of music in front of 3,000 people, we might play the same exact setlist in front of 100 people, and it will sound like a different fucking band.
We're like goldfish. The context shapes the music just as much as our intention does. That's the other thing about improvising: Every psyche in the room is making that music. Everybody has a role in creating that music, and we're just the idiots holding the instruments.
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