He was just about to release the Screaming Trees swan song Last Word on his own label, and here’s my interview in full.
PHOTO COURTESY OF JAMES REXROAD. Visit his web page.
Last Words: The Final Recordings was put to tape during 1998 and 1999 at Stone Gossard’s studio, and features guitar work from Peter Buck and Josh Homme. Last Word: The Final Recordings was put out on Martin’s label Sunyata, and released on iTunes August 2nd.
I got the chance to talk to Martin at Avast Studios in Seattle, where he was working on his new jazz album with the Barrett Martin Group, but had to wait for the piano tuner.
ØH: Tell me about the «new» album.
BM: It’s 24-track demos, they are pretty developed. We recorded them over a six month period in 1998 and 1999, when Sony dropped us. It’s actually a total of 12 songs, but only ten ended up on the album. One of the songs we sold to a film soundtrack, and the other one we decided not to put out. And there’s no band reunion. We’re all friends, but we don’t want to be seen as a novelty act. Also, Lanegan has a new record in January.
ØH: I saw you at the Roskilde festival in the summer of ’92, alongside Nirvana and Pearl Jam. You had just joined the Trees at that point?
BM: I joined the band in 1991, and we recorded Sweet Oblivion in the early winter of ’92. Then we went to Europe a month in June, which was the first European tour with the Trees.
ØH: 1992 must have been a crazy year for the Seattle bands?
BM: To be honest, I had been on the road with Jack Endino’s band Skin Yard in the fall of ’91, so we weren’t in Seattle when all this happened. That was the irony of the early 90’s: Seattle was suddenly a big scene, but by then everybody was out on tour, so we weren’t in Seattle.
ØH: When did you start playing with Skin Yard?
BM: First I started playing with Jack, his solo side project back in ’89. Then they asked me to join Skin Yard almost immediately, and we recorded the 1000 Smiling Knuckles record in ’90. And it came out in ’91, right at the same time of the Nirvana and Pearl Jam records.
ØH: Was there much interest in the Seattle scene in ’89?
BM: There was regional interest, and then Everett True wrote that story for Melody Maker. I would say that was when the beginning of the international attention.
ØH: As I remember this we cared about where music came from. There was good music coming out of Seattle, but also from Boston, which had bands like Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., and Throwing Muses.
BM: Boston was definitely influencing Seattle at that time. What was happening throughout the 80s, was that regional hotpockets that would pop out all over the US: You had SST Records in Long Beach, interesting music from Athens in Georgia and Boston, you had Dischord in Washington DC, and you had bands from Chicago and Minneapolis.
I just felt that especially Minneapolis was akin to the Seattle scene, similar cities, the same climate and bands like The Replacements, Soul Asylum, and Hüsker Dü. We had this ragged, do it yourself philosophy: make records, get in the van, and go on tour. People had been doing that for almost ten years by the time it happened in Seattle.
But after all I think that Seattle had a concentration of pretty progressive minded musicians, and people like producer Jack Endino and Sub Pop’s Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman. Everything just kinda happened.
ØH: How many people are we talking about?
BM: I have figured out that one before, and I would say that you really are talking about 20-30 musicians who were in the main bands. And then you had Jack producing, and Bruce and Jon picking what they would put out, which made it more focused, and gave it a spearpoint . After ’91 and ’92 the second, third and fourth generation bands were coming out.
But one of the things that doesn’t get talked about a lot, maybe because it’s usually music journalists writing about Seattle, is that there was a lot of stuff going on in all the arts in Seattle at that time. I was 23 years old when I joined the Trees, we were kids. So by 1992 every creative young person in the US, and a lot of people from Europe, Australia, and South America was moving to Seattle. We got playwriters, filmmakers, musicians, visual artists, and fashion designers, and all this had a gigantic effect on the micro-economy.
ØH: Many of the other people we have talked to compare Seattle around 1990 to San Francisco in the 60’s or New York in the late 70’s, and call it a counter cultural movement. You must have been surprised how quickly it got so big?
BM: What I remember from ’92 to ’94 was that we stayed on the road for two years. We only saw people in Seattle when we were home from tour, we met our friends backstage on festivals more than at home. And the few times I actually was home, I kept seeing more out of state licence plates on band vans everywhere.
ØH: What do you feel about the word «grunge»?
BM: Technically Mark Arm of Mudhoney is attributed to it, but Jack Endino says he started using it, and later a lot of musicians started using it in the media. I don’t think it is a dirty word, but I think it was tagged on some very different bands. The Screaming Trees were more of a psychedelic classic rock band that happened to be from the north west. My only issue with the word is that it is very genre specific. «The British invasion» is a broad enough definition, but grunge implies a certain sound.
ØH: Do you think the Trees toured too much?
BM: I think so. I think what we did we kinda burned ourselves out touring. When I joined the band, they had just signed with Sony. They didn’t tour on the SST records like they did with the Sony records. The touring wasn’t as extensive earlier. We spent early ’92 through ’94 touring, and then went on to start working on our next record in the winter of ’94. We only had some weeks off at Christmas, and living in a tour bus and hotels gets old after a couple of weeks. I learned early on that it was smart to walk around the city, maybe try to see a museum.
ØH: Was the recording of Dust troublesome after all this?
BM: Not the recording of Dust, that went really well, with George Drakoulias in Hollywood. That was pretty fun, and we were all getting along. However, we tried to do a record with Don Fleming right after we came home from tour in ’94. But by the time we were so burnt out that the sessions didn’t have the life.
We did some basic tracks, a demo really, in the winter of ’94, but we only worked for about three weeks. Those sessions didn’t have any energy, although a lot of the songs were pretty good, and we revisited them on Dust.
ØH: You played in Norway with Skin Yard in the fall of ’91, at almost the same time Nirvana was supposed to play Alaska in Oslo and Hulen in Bergen? Did you ever meet the band on that tour?
BM: Yes, Skin Yard played with Nirvana and Urge Overkill in Vienna. This was before internet and cell phones, and Nirvana had just released Nevermind. We had just flown to Europe, but Nirvana had been there awhile. We went backstage and said: «You guys have any idea of whats going on with your records in the States?». They had heard it was selling pretty well, but it was exploding. They sold hundreds of thousands copies a week, and it was all over the radio. They didn’t really know, and I think it took a while to sink in.
There’s a whole other story with Skin Yard and Nirvana: Skin Yard were playing San Fransico in early ’91. We were there a day early, and Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic was there as well. They were at this club called the Eyebeam, so we went down and met them there. They where there to watch Dave Grohl in the band Scream. Krist said were thinking of auditiong him for Nirvana, and he’s just wailing on the drums. Me and Jack said: «I think that’s your audition». That was the audition. Soon after that, Dave was in Nirvana.
ØH: Did the rise to fame go too fast for some of the bands. Too much money and too much drugs too fast?
BM: I don’t know if it went too fast, but I think some people don’t have the psychological tools to be prepared for the fame. There’s the over-exposure aspect, the backlash, but the truth of the matter was that this was some really good bands. They could play. There’s the joke about hype, and yes there was a lot of hype, but seeing these bands play in the late 80’s, it restored your belief in rock’n’roll.
ØH: Hype happens for a reason…
BM: Yeah, you can overhype stuff, but when you see a great rock band that can unleash its full force, it’s pretty awesome. For Screaming Trees, Hüsker Dü was an influence, and so was The Stooges, and the Who.
The Who is the greatest example, a mystical rock band that makes great records, and put on great shows that change your life. In a greater fantasy I would have love to be able to make records like The Who, and be a big loud bombastic rock band, but it didn’t happen with us. You never know in this business, you can only make the kind of records you wanna make, put it out, and maybe the world resonates with your music. Or maybe not.
PHOTO: JAMES REXROAD