During the 1990’s rock trio The Tea Party was one of the most important bands in Canada. Comprised of three friends from Windsor, Ontario – singer/guitarist Jeff Martin, bassist Stuart Chatwood and drummer Jeff Burrows – The Tea Party formed in Toronto in the early 90’s and found national success with Save Me in 1993. Embraced by discontented and alienated Generation Xer’s who were looking toward Seattle’s grunge scene, The Tea Party combined hard rock with Middle Eastern instruments, creating their own unique sound. Through seven studio albums, twenty one cross country Canadian tours, and a string of alternative hits such as Sister Awake, Walking Wounded and The River, The Tea Party became a touchstone on the Canadian rock scene for an entire generation of music fans. However, in 2005 the band disbanded over “creative differences,” and the three members went onto other projects. Jeff Martin attempted a solo career, Jeff Burrows worked on various music projects while working as a Windsor based rock DJ and Stuart Chatwood composed music for the video game Prince of Persia.
But in 2011 The Tea Party reemerged for what was believed to be a brief reunion, and by the end of the summer it was announced that it was such a positive experience that the group planned to stay together. Now, ten years after the release of their “final” album, The Tea Party has released The Ocean at the End, their first album of new material since their reformation.
Having recently returned from Australia, where they maintain a massive following, and currently promoting the album with a Canadian wide tour, I was able to talk with Stuart Chatwood about the new album and The Tea Party’s return to the studio. Although much has changed since the 1990’s, The Tea Party has managed to evolve while keeping their unique sound which fans are drawn to. The result is a great album reminding listeners what well-crafted rock LP is supposed to sound like.
Sam Tweedle: I’ve spent the last few days listening to The Ocean at the End and just trying to absorb it as a whole. What was it like to go back into the studio with Jeff Martin and Jeff Burrows and put together new material after such a long hiatus?
Stuart Chatwood: Well, I think some of it was familiar because it’s the eighth or ninth studio record, and we’ve been in other studios with other artists as well. But some of it was unique because we’ve grown so much as individuals now, and as you mature you tend to not give a damn about what people think anymore. When you’re young and in the studio you [say] “Am I playing this vibrato right? Am I bending this note right?” Now it’s like “I know what I’m doing. I’m going to play my part. If we need to fix it later then we’ll address that.” It just changes the dynamic in the studio. Takes get done quicker. Ideas are committed to tape. When you do things quicker you get to try out new things because there’s time left. I also think it was good to work with the three band members again because we hadn’t recorded in that manner in quite a while. We started working with a few other co-producers towards the end in 2004. So it was nice to have Jeff Martin have the reins again.
Sam: Let’s talk about the evolution. Certainly we all evolve over ten years, but when you are listening to this album it clearly sounds like a Tea Party album and not some sort of updated thing. How are you able to evolve yet still maintain the same sound that your fan base comes to expect from you?
Stuart: I just think it’s in our system. It’s in our blood. We grew up in Windsor, across from Detroit, which is the greatest music city in my opinion. When we were kids we listened to four Detroit rock stations. Imagine there being four popular rock stations. Howard Stern was in Detroit back then on W4. We had WRIF 101, 98.7, WBAX – you’re just bombarded by five or six hundred songs. It was the pantheon of British hard rock that we grew up on. So that’s just in our system to begin with. Another contributing factor was that Jeff Martin was not allowed to listen to that music until a certain age. His Dad insisted that he listen to blues, and play blues, only.
Sam: No kidding?
Stuart: Yeah. He was not allowed to listen to Black Sabbath or Deep Purple records in the house. So before Jeff heard every single track by Led Zeppelin, he heard every single track by B.B. King, Freddie King and Albert King, so it gave him that context. Just to make that point more clear, there is probably no other city in Canada that has more of a blues influence than Windsor which is surrounded by America. So that is the benefit of being from Windsor I guess. So that’s in our system and, whether we like it or not, that’s going to come into our music. I think one of the goals on this album was to get Jeff Martin back on guitar because, with all his production and side projects, he was playing keyboards and working on vocals with people and he had forgotten what a great guitarist he is. When we were growing up together, and when we were living together in Toronto when the band formed, for six hours a day he would play guitar. He had a Marshall Stack in our apartment and he’d just crank that thing and put on Led Zeppelin I, play it until the end, then put on Led Zeppelin II, and continue the process. I would take over and play bass for a while. Our poor neighbors. But back then it was just so instantaneous. He’d here one riff, think about it for a second, and then his hands would be playing it. We had to get him back to that way of thinking. It happened on this record. The solo on [the song] The Ocean at the End is probably some of the best guitar that he’s ever recorded in his career.
Sam: That song is a real triumph. It’s like one of those classic rock songs that exceeds radio play timing.
Stuart: It’s our eight and a half minute epic song. We had Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull perform on that one. That was great.
Sam: How did you get Ian involved?
Stuart: In 1994 we toured England and he showed up at this little pub we were playing in Leicester, England. Our manger came up to us and said “Ian Anderson, the flute player from Jethro Tull, is at the back bar” and we said “Okay. Sound check is over!” We went back and had a couple of pints with him and he told us that it was great and that we were one of the young bands that caught his ear because we had captured the sound of his golden era and we tried to move things a little bit forward. So getting a compliment like that form his was incredible. So when we were trying to finish this record we had some mellotron flutes on that song, which is a keyboard instrument, and I wondered how we could humanize it more with some real flutes. So when you think of flutes and rock n’ roll there’s only one guy – Ian Anderson. Thankfully he enjoyed the music, and he’s playing our music on tour. I got an e-mail from someone last night who went and saw Jethro Tull and they play Sister Awake and a lot of our songs between sets.
Sam: Do you guys find that you gel as a unit better now than when you parted ways in 2005?
Stuart: Yes. The gelling may be more similar to when we first started the band. There were some outside extremist negative influences on the band towards the end. We were barely friends. Enough water has passed under the bridge now where we can put some things aside and be friends, and be there for each other musically.
Sam: A lot happens in a decade. How has the changes in the music scene over a decade effect you? Have you noticed a change?
Stuart: We’re in a transitory period right now for sure. How long was sheet music king? It wasn’t that long. How long was the 78 king? Not long. Recorded music is now coming to a close. Thankfully streaming music is picking up. I think systems like this that let people hear our music without paying for it is actually a good thing for us. Our biggest hurdle, especially in the States, is getting people to hear us. Any city where we got airplay in the States, like in Seattle, we were big. We played this place called The Moore Theater, where Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains were playing, because we were being heard on the radio and people liked it. So the internet has been a very beneficial thing for us. But also, when we started it was sort of more of a mono culture. Everyone got into the same things. Now culture is wide open. Everything is cool and everything is not cool. If you relate it to fashion, back in the day it was about what length is your pants or how wide is your cuffs. Now everything is in. People are wearing bell bottoms and the next person down the street will wear tight pants. There is no consensus, which is a good and a bad thing.
Sam: You talk about the difficulties of breaking in the States, but I know you have a huge following in Australia. Australia has a real love affair with The Tea Party. Why is that?
Stuart: Well it comes down to exposure. Australia was the first place we went to. We had, within our means, the ability to go back there a few times and it just solidified things. I almost feel that it could have happened in any country. If we had went to Spain first, and then went back to Spain three times on the first record, we’d be big in Spain and we’d be talking about that right now. With America it’s a little different, and the label we were on, which was EMI, went bankrupt so that first record sunk. We shipped the second one over for Christmas, or something, and they fired all their rock department. For Transmission we moved over to Atlantic and our album came out the exact same week with their other act, Stone Temple Pilots, and they are only going to promote one act so we got buried under their weight. People don’t know all these little behind the scene things. But Buffalo was the first cities we ever sold out. We had to add a show in San Antonio, and there’s all these little pockets of America where The Tea Party got played and was very popular. But it never turned into a national thing like it did in Australia.
Sam: The Tea Party just came back from Australia. You were there through October. What was the reaction from Australia to have The Tea Party together again?
Stuart: This was unique. A lot of people came out and wrote reviews of the shows. Honestly, we go the best press of the band’s career now. This goes for the record too. We’re getting great press. I don’t know if tastes have changed or if people don’t hate it as much. The critic for The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia’s biggest paper, came out to see us for the first time after begging him to come over fifteen tours. He came back stage and said “Oh, I’m sorry I didn’t come out earlier. You guys are incredible. So much power for a three piece.” He wrote a great story, and ended up doing five stories on us for that paper during the tour. So I guess he liked us. People are coming out of the woodwork all of a sudden. In Europe we get a review like “I’ve been a fan since 1994. I saw you at this little club. I’ve been following you ever since. I’m glad you put out a new record.” So it’s like an infectious disease. Once you get it, there’s no cure.
The Tea Party are touring Canada through November and December. For more information on their tour, The Ocean at the End and their other ongoing projects visit their web-site at http://www.teaparty.com/#tour-section.
POP CULTURE ADDICT NOTE: A thanks to Beth Cavanaugh of Indoor Recess for arranging our opportunity to talk with Stuart Chatwood and continuing to introcuing PCA to some of the best musicians in the world. Its always a pleasure to work with you and I look forward to covering more of your artists. Check out Indoor Recess’ content and services at http://www.indoorrecess.com/.